The Battle of La Fère-Champenoise, 1814

  By Temujin
Who could believe it? A small force composed only of cavalry and a few batteries of horse artillery, under Crown Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg and Grand Prince Constantine of Russia, were able to defeat a much larger army under French Marshals Mortier and Marmont.  But it really happened. 

In this battle, 12,700 French infantry, with 84 guns and 4000 cavalry, under Marshals Mortier and Marmont, and General Count de Belliard (who had replaced the wounded Grouchy) faced 12,000 Württemberg, Russian and Austrian cavalry (without any infantry support) with 48 cannon under Crown Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg, , General-Lieutenant Pahlen and Field Marshal-Lieutenant Nostitz.

The Württembergers had only recently changed sides. In 1813 they were still supporting Napoleon. Fere-Champenoise lies southeast of Etoges, 70 miles east of Paris. On March 23rd, Marmont's VI Corps and Mortier's Young Guard were nine miles west of Sommesous when Mortier received orders from Napoleon to join forces with Marmont and march east as fast as possible. On March 25th, the French came into contact with the Allies between Soude-St.Croix and Soude-Notre-Dame on the road from Troyes to Chalons. A force of cavalry patrolling ahead under Prince Adam of Württemberg came upon a French avantgarde which they captured. The captives confirmed the presence of both French Marshals.

Prince Adam of Württemberg ordered forward two cannon to fire off a few shots, after which the French deployed a battle line.

Between 8:00 and 9:00 AM Crown Prince Wilhelm arrived on the scene with the rest of the cavalry and ordered an immediate charge. Count Piotr of Pahlen, with Cossacks, Russian Hussars and the Kretov Cuirassiers were on the right, the Crown Prince on the left. After a short resistance the French withdrew from Sommesous while the Allied cavalry was able to penetrate the French rearguard and kill many of them.

The French formed a new defensive line. Mortier's guard was placed slightly ahead left of Sommesous, with Marmont's Corps to the right. Crown Prince Wilhelm brought forward his artillery to bring the enemy line under fire. A heated artillery duel developed while Mortier retreated to form a common line with Marmont's units between Vassimont and Montpreux. Then the Nostitz’s Cuirassiers arrived on the field. Count Pahlen's division looked for a passage through the swampy ground that protected the French right wing. Prince Adam's brigade prepared for a frontal charge. In the first wave Nostitz’s Division advanced in divisional columns (a front of two squadrons), with the Württembergers on the wings.

It was noon. First the Archduke Ferdinand’s Hussars and Prince Adam’s Chasseurs attacked. Two squadrons of the latter skirmished behind the battle line with French Hussars and Chasseurs and threw them back after a struggle. The French cavalry fell back and tried to regroup to counterattack. But they were thrown back several times and left the battlefield.

General Belliard’s "Spanish Dragoons" (the 5th, 6th, 21st, 25th and 26th dragoons with the 23rd Chasseurs) replaced the retired horsemen. General von Jett intercepted them with the remaining two squadrons of the Württemberg Chasseurs. In hand to hand fighting the Spanish Dragoons were routed.

In the meantime Nostitz attacked the enemy battery in the center. Delfour’s brigade had been mauled by grapeshot, becoming disordered and had to withdraw. Hit then by Bordesoulle’s Cuirassiers they had to leave the scene of battle. 

Liechtenstein's Cuirassiers were now surrounded by enemy cavalry and in a very dangerous position. The situation in the center forced Prince Adam’s regiment to withdraw. Crown Prince Wilhelm placed himself at the head of the Archduke Ferdinand’s Hussars to make a counterattack. The Chasseurs joined them. They succeeded in closing the gap and rescued Liechtenstein’s Cuirassiers from their dangerous position. Now the regiments had to be rallied. This took quite some time. While the Allies regrouped, Mortier and Marmont took up a new line between Conantry and Clamage, with the infantry in squares, the cavalry behind them.

At this point Crown Prince Wilhelm received news that Grand Prince Constantine, with the Russian guards, were on their way via Poivre to attack the French on their right wing. Count Pahlen joined forces with Crown Prince Wilhelm and Nostitz. The Allied cavalry now charged the French squares. Prince Adam’s Chasseurs charged a square formed by 1,000 Tirailleurs of the Young Guard. The charge was thrown back. A second charge couldn't break the guardsmen either. On the third charge they were able to break into the square and capture two guns, but the square held its line. 

Finally the fourth charge, in which the Archduke Ferdinand’s Hussars under General von Jett participated, succeeded. Shortly before this last charge a strong rain fell that disordered the French. The Tirailleurs were scattered, many of them slain. The French started to withdraw through Conantry. In the meantime the Archduke Ferdinand’s Hussars and the Russian Guard-Cuirassiers broke another square (that of the Garde Voltigeurs). Conantry was completely blocked by abandoned wagons and gear of all kind. The cavalry had to struggle through the chaos and cross the river wherever they could. Due to the marshy terrain, the Württemberg artillery couldn't follow. By 2:00 PM the French were in general retreat to the west, from near Fère-Champenoise to the heights of Broussy-le-Grande and St. Loup.

After regrouping their regiments and passing the defile at Conantry, Count Pahlen and Prince Adam wanted to attack the retreating French. Pahlen and Prince Adam would be on their left and Grand Prince Constantine on their right wing. The Allies had now concentrated some 10,000 cavalrymen. Around this time Marmont heard the roar of cannon far behind the lines. Assuming this was the arrival of units that Napoleon had sent to their aid, he changed his direction of march and now headed eastwards. In fact it was a skirmish where the French, under Amey and Pacthod, were utterly defeated by the Silesian army.

Marmont's advancing cavalry surprised some Russian guns. The joy over their easy victory was short – premier-lieutenant von Reinhard with Prince Adam Chasseurs, supported by an Austrian Cuirassier regiment, immediately charged and saved the guns and their crews. The French cavalry withdrew.

Darkness put a halt to further actions. The exhausted Allies were not able to pursuit the French further. At Fère-Champenoise the French lost 5,000 men and wounded. Together with losses from Amey’s and Pacthod’s units, total losses came to 10,000 prisoners, 80 cannons and 250 baggage wagons. The Allies lost some 2,000 men. The Marmont and Mortier’s corps were so severely hit that they were not able to fight further. Fère-Champenoise was the last major battle before the fall of Paris on March 30, 1814. Prince Adam’s Jäger (Chasseurs) were promoted to Leib-(Lifeguard) Carabiniers thereafter.

Participating units:

Marshal Mortier with 8 battalions of the Young Guard with Tirailleurs and Voltigeurs. Overall some 3,878 men.
VI Corps - Marshall Marmont with two divisions of infantry and a light cavalry division. Overall appx. 11,330 men
Cavalry-corps Belliard of four divisions and two brigades. Overall some 4,000 cavalry.

The Allies:

IV Corps - Crown Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg. Overall 8 squadrons
Grand Prince Constantine - Guard (Russian). Overall 54 squadrons
VI Corps General-lieutenant Pahlen (Russian). Overall 24 squadrons and 5 pulks Cossacks
Field Marshall-Lieutenant Count Nostitz’s Cuirassiers, Hussars, Chevaux-legers. Overall 28 squadrons


Digby Smith, CHARGE: Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic Wars, London, 2003 (translated from a German work)