N & E
Napoleon & Empire

Battle of Montereau

Date and place

  • February 18th, 1814 near Montereau, Seine-et-Marne, France.

Involved forces

  • French army (25,000 men) under Emperor Napoleon the First. 
  • Austrian and Wurttemberg armies (18,000 men) under Field Marshal Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg and King Friedrich I. Wilhelm Karl von Württemberg. 

Casualties and losses

  • French army: about 2,000 dead and injured. 
  • Allied army: approximately 3,000 dead and 3,000 prisoners. 

The general situation

After the repeated defeats suffered by the Army of Silesia on the river Marne between February 10 and 14, 1814, Napoleon was no longer worried about it. He therefore neglected to complete its destruction and gave in to the urgent calls from Paris to move to the Seine, where Generalissimo Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg had resumed his advance towards the capital.

On the 15th, the Emperor left Montmirail with Marshal Michel Ney and part of the guard, leaving Auguste Viesse de Marmont and 10,000 men to watch over Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher from Etoges Castle of Etoges. Thirty-six hours later, despite a detour via Meaux Meaux to avoid any bad encounters, the entire detachment was at Guignes.

Its junction with the corps of Nicolas Charles Oudinot, Etienne Macdonald and Claude-Victor Perrin, known as Victor, obtained through a series of movements as swift as they were ingenious, prescribed to his marshals, ensured that Napoleon had a mass of over 30,000 combatants at his disposal, in the face of an enemy that was once again dispersed.

Schwartzenberg, as ever, had not yet dared to throw all his forces on the right bank of the river Seine. Only the corps of Prince Wilhelm Friedrich Karl von Württemberg Wilhelm Friedrich Karl von Württemberg, Carl Philipp von Wrede Karl Philipp von Wrede and Peter von Sayn-Wittgenstein-Ludwigsburg have crossed the river. The first one is at Montereau, the second one at Donnemarie, the third one at Provins.

On the 16th, on his own initiative, Wittgenstein advanced as far as Nangis and even sent his vanguard to Mormant Mormant [48.60739, 2.89021], under the command of General Pyotr Alexeyevich Pahlen Piotr Alexeïevitch Pahlen.

On the morning of the 17th, having received orders during the night from Schwartzenberg disapproving of his initiative, Wittgenstein left Nangis for Nogent and ordered Pahlen to retreat as well, evacuating Mormant along the road leading southeast to Nangis.

Along the road from Mormant to Nangis
Along the road between Mormant and Nangis

Preliminaries: battles of Mormant and Villeneuve-le-Comte on February 17

But Napoleon had already set off on his march, and came upon the vanguard preparing to retreat. He thought he had a sizeable corps in front of him, perhaps Wrede and Wittgenstein combined, and proposed battle by deploying his troops.

At this sight, Pahlen, who had thought for a moment of resisting, realized the disproportion of his forces - he had only 4,000 infantrymen and 2,000 horses - and tried to evade.

His withdrawal was initially relatively orderly, but as he approached Environs de Grandpuits Granpuis [Grandpuits] Grandpuits, hoping to reach Nangis, where he hoped to find support, sustained fire suddenly decimated his squares: General Antoine Drouot Antoine Drouot had just brought 36 cannons of the Guard within range.

After a final French charge had dispersed the Russian cavalry, Pahlen's infantry was driven in and laid down their arms, with the exception of one square which was caught while trying, unsuccessfully, to escape through the Ancoeur marsh, between the farm of the same name [48.57627, 2.97797] and that of Les Pleux Les Pleux farm [48.56989, 2.96481].

The Ancoeur farm, south of Grandpuits
The Ancoeur farm, between Mormant and Nangis, south of Grandpuits

The rest of the fugitives were pursued with such fervor that the Austrians, who were evacuating Nangis after refusing to help Pahlen, were met behind the town and hustled back. They rushed towards Valjouan Valjouan, while Pahlen reached Provins with his remaining cavalry.

The Allies lost almost 4,000 men in this engagement, including some 3,000 prisoners, as well as about ten cannons.

Napoleon, however, was not satisfied with this success over a small, adventurous corps. He launched each of his marshals against one of the towns held by the allies on this side of the river Seine: Oudinot to Provins, Macdonald to Donnemarie, Victor to Montereau.

While the first two met with little opposition, as Wrede was preparing to cross the Seine again at Bray and Wittgenstein had already left Provins to take up a position at Sourdun on the road to Nogent, the same could not be said of the Duke of Bellune (Marshal Victor).

At three o'clock in the afternoon, in front of Villeneuve-le-Comte [now Villeneuve-les-Bordes Villeneuve-les-Bordes, not to be confused with the commune of Villeneuve-le-Comte further north in the same département, a little to the west of Coulommiers], he came up against a division left there by Wrede to cover his retreat. A new battle ensued. The village was captured and the allies forced to retreat.

After this encounter, Victor halted his march on Montereau, contenting himself with sending a cavalry division and a few sappers, much to Napoleon's anger. A report received at the same time as the announcement of his lieutenant's halt at Salins Salins convinced the Emperor that two hours of additional effort would have sufficed for the Duke of Bellune to force passage that very evening. The marshal was rebuked and ordered to take the town at dawn the following day.

Allied preparations

On hearing the news of the battle at Mormant, Schwarzenberg, still unaware of Napoleon's arrival in the theater of operations, took no special measures. He simply recalled Wrede and Wittgenstein to the left bank of the Seine and ordered them to defend the river crossing at Bray and Nogent.

The Prince of Württemberg, for his part, received the order to defend the Montereau bridge with the utmost energy.

General view of Montereau from Surville
General view of Montereau from the Surville neighborhood. Photo by Michèle Grau-Ghelardi

To comply, he lined up most of his troops on the Surville plateau Surville, viewed from Montereau, which commanded the passage. His forces amounted to 15,000 infantrymen and almost 3,000 cavalrymen, which he placed on the northern flank of the plateau, between Villaron [now Les Ormeaux], on the road to Paris, to the west, and Courbeton, on the road to Nangis and Provins, to the east, passing by the Saint-Martin priory St Martin priory [48.39588, 2.96519].

Strong batteries protected both the front and the flanks. Several detachments were left in reserve, near Motteux and on the road to Sens, beyond the Seine.

Beginning of the battle

On February 18, General Pierre-Claude Pajol Pierre-Claude Pajol, entrusted by Napoleon with the task of assisting Victor in attacking the enemy's left, set off at dawn. Leaving Le Châtelet-en-Brie, 20 kilometers northwest of Montereau, he crossed the Valence woods, despite the Allied infantry posted there, and arrived at the foot of the Surville plateau via the road from Paris.

There, with a strong cavalry contingent blocking his path, he had to wait for the Michel-Marie Pacthod Michel-Marie Pacthod division to begin hostilities. When the latter arrived, Pajol had his artillery fired and the battle began.

For two hours, Pajol's troops, sent there as a back-up force, were the only ones to sustain the fight. Marshal Victor, who had already been reprimanded the day before for his lack of combativeness, did it again today, delaying his arrival until nine o'clock, in formal contradiction with the orders he had received. His belated efforts were also clumsy and disorganized. The division he first sent to attack from Forges Forges took the village of Villaron, but was crushed by Württemberg's artillery and had to evacuate half an hour later.

A second attack, led by General Guillaume Philibert Duhesme Guillaume Philibert Duhesme on the Surville hillside, also failed, and the battle continued until one o'clock in the afternoon, mainly due to the superiority of the defenders' artillery.

Pajol still held out, but losses were already heavy.

Interventions by Gérard and Napoleon

General Maurice Étienne Gérard Maurice Étienne Gérard's corps arrived on the road to Nangis. Napoleon, furious at Victor's successive mistakes and the havoc they were wreaking on both his troops and his plans, immediately stripped the Duke of Bellune of his command and entrusted it to the newcomer.

Gérard began by counter-attacking the enemy artillery with the forty cannons he had brought with him from the Paris reserve, causing great damage to the opposing batteries and infantry.

Meanwhile, around 2 or 3 p.m., arriving from Orvilliers Orvilliers, Napoleon himself appeared on the battlefield, accompanied by his guard. His first decision was to renew Duhesme's attack, supported by a few troops of the old guard. Villaron was retaken.

But the Prince of Wurttemberg, since the arrival of Napoleon and his guard, had already begun his withdrawal, as his position, perfect for defense, could, once forced, turn into a formidable trap. The allied units therefore began to re-cross the Seine, covering each other's positions.

Pajol, however, noticing this movement, swooped down on the enemy left and tumbled it, routing all the troops in front of him. The same quickly happened on the other wing, and the allies, retreating in two columns that met on the banks of the Seine, soon found themselves cornered on the river, where their numbers soon saturated the bridges over it The bridge over the Seine River in Montereau [48.38890, 2.95975] and over the Yonne [48.38768, 2.95904].

The bridge over the river Yonne in Montereau
The bridge over the Yonne River in Montereau

The confusion of the Allies was brought to a head when two new French batteries, emerging from the Nangis road, began strafing their obligatory crossing point.

The stampede was such that the reserves called up by Wurtemberg were unable to fight their way through the fugitives. The French took advantage of the situation to seize the bridges before the enemy had time to blow them up. In town, the attackers were helped by the inhabitants, exasperated by the mistreatment they had suffered in the previous days, who took advantage of the circumstances to exact their revenge.

Württemberg's reserves, in turn, were tumbled into the stream of fugitives. The Prince fled up the Seine with some of the survivors; the other ones followed the course of the Yonne.

Results

The battle cost the Allies three thousand dead and as many prisoners. On the French side, two thousand men were killed.

But while the city and its bridges were taken, the delays caused by Victor had undermined the Emperor's plan. There was no time to wedge themselves between the two halves of the enemy army.

No longer in a hurry, Napoleon lingered in Montereau until February 20, sleeping in the Castle of Surville [seriously damaged during World War II, it was demolished in 1950].

Picture - "Battle of Montereau, February 18th, 1814 - General Gerard in action". Painted by Jean-Charles Langlois, a.k.a. "The Colonel".

Napoleonic Battles - Picture of the battle of Montereau -

Legend has it that, during the battle, Napoleon himself showed young, inexperienced artillerymen how to aim their cannon. And that he cheerfully replied to those who were worried about the risks he was taking: Come on, my friends, don't be afraid! The cannonball that will kill me is still a long way from melting.

A plaque Commemorative slab in Surville commemorates this episode on the very spot [48.39115, 2.96066] where it occurred: on the Surville heights, overlooking the town of Montereau and the confluence.

Since 2007, a statue of General Henri Gatien Bertrand Statue of General Bertrand, by Véronique Ziegler, has perpetuated the memory of the Grand Maréchal du Palais on the climb up to Surville.

As for the Emperor, an equestrian statue Equestrian statue of Emperor Napoléon Equestrian statue of Emperor Napoleon I by Charles Pierre Victor Pajol (the son of the Empire general) pays tribute to him near the confluence of the Yonne and Seine rivers, in the center of Montereau.

Map of the Campaign in northeast France in 1814  Display the map of the Campaign in northeast France in 1814

Photos Credits

 Photo of Lionel A. Bouchon Photos by Lionel A. Bouchon.
 Photo of Marie-Albe Grau Photos by Marie-Albe Grau.
 Photo of Floriane Grau Photos by Floriane Grau.
 Photo of Michèle Grau-Ghelardi Photos by Michèle Grau-Ghelardi.
 Photo of Didier Grau Photos by Didier Grau.
 Photo of various authors Photos made by people outside the Napoleon & Empire association.