Monday, May 18, 2015

The Russian army – Paris - 1814

Russian army enters Paris.

The barrier of Clichy: The artist depicts the defense of Paris on the 30th of March 1814. In the centre, Marshal Moncey gives his orders to goldsmith Claude Odiot, colonel of the National Guard, for whom the painting was made.

The Russian army approached Paris through a rich countryside amidst fine spring weather and with the smell of victory in the air. Vladimir Löwenstern ate peacock for the first time to celebrate. Peter Pahlen contemplated all the beautiful young ladies he would meet in the French capital. Ivan Radozhitsky recalled his men telling each other that when they got to Paris the emperor would give them each a ruble, a pound of meat and a tumbler of vodka. As his battery marched down the highway the cry rang out, ‘stand to the right, stand to the left’, as happened when a general or the emperor himself was passing through a marching column. Down the middle of the highway charged Vaska, a goat which the soldiers had adopted as a mascot, to hoots of ‘make way, make way, Vaska is off to Paris’.

In the early evening of 29 March, the emperor’s staff, including Aleksandr Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, ascended a slight rise towards the village of Clichy. Many years later he recalled that the sun had just set, and a cool breeze refreshed the air after the heat of the day; there was not a cloud in the sky. All at once, on the right hand, we got a momentary glimpse of Montmartre, and the tall spires of the capital. ‘Paris! Paris!’ was the general cry. We pointed out and strained our eyes to grasp the huge but indistinct mass rising above the horizon. Forgotten in a moment were the fatigues of the campaign, wounds, fallen friends and brothers: overwhelmed with joy, we stood on the hill from which Paris was barely visible in the distance. Since that day, more than twenty years have passed…but the remembrance of that memorable scene is still so vivid, that it comes over us with all the freshness of a recent event, making the heart swell with that triumphant exaltation which then filled every breast.

In the longest campaign in European history, in less than two years the Russian army had marched from Vilna to Moscow and then all the way back across Europe to Paris. With the enemy capital in sight at last, speed was now essential. Paris must be taken before Napoleon arrived to galvanize and reinforce its defence. The Bavarians and Sacken’s Army Corps had been left at Meaux to guard the allied rear in case Napoleon attempted to march on Paris by the most direct route. But that night orders went out to all other corps for a full-scale assault on Paris on the very next day, 30 March. On the allied right, the Army of Silesia was to attack the capital from the north, heading for Montmartre and La Chapelle. On the left the Württemberg corps was to advance from the east along the north bank of the Seine, past the chateau of Vincennes. General Gyulai’s Austrians would support the Württembergers. Peter Wittgenstein had returned to Russia, handing over command of his Army Corps to Nikolai Raevsky. He would lead the attack in the centre towards Romainville and Pantin. In all, the attacking force added up to 100,000 men. Behind Raevsky, to be used if necessary, stood the Grand Duke Constantine’s Reserve Army Corps, made up of the Guards and Grenadiers.

The position held by the French was very strong. The heights of Montmartre to the north and of Romainville in the centre were major obstacles for an attacking army, around which the capital’s defence could be anchored. As one would expect on the outskirts of one of Europe’s greatest cities, the whole area was also a maze of stone buildings and walls. Napoleon, however, had done nothing to strengthen the city’s natural defences. Moreover, there were only 38,000 men to hold a long defence line, and of these many thousands were National Guardsmen with minimal training and unreliable muskets. Under the overall authority of Napoleon’s brother Joseph, Marshal Mortier was responsible for defending the northern sector against the Army of Silesia and Marshal Marmont the eastern sector against the allied main army. All three men knew that unless the defenders were willing to fight in the streets of Paris and bury themselves under the city’s rubble, their chances of success were slight. If the whole allied assault force had attacked simultaneously early in the morning of 30 March, the city would probably have fallen by lunchtime.

In fact, allied plans went awry. It was clear even on the evening of 30 March that the Württembergers and Austrians were still so far in the rear that they could not launch their attack until early the following afternoon. Meanwhile the aide-de-camp carrying Schwarzenberg’s orders to Blücher got lost in the dark, which meant that most of the Army of Silesia would only be ready to attack at eleven o’clock, six hours later than planned. As a result, the initial allied assault was only made by the 16,000 men of Raevsky’s Army Corps in the allied centre. Fortunately for the Russians they found the key village of Romainville undefended and were able to seize it before Marmont had time to send troops to occupy it. They also took the village of Pantin early in the morning. But it was all they could do to hold these strongholds against French counter-attacks in the morning of 30 March.

All attempts to break forward out of the villages came to nothing. The Prussian Guards infantry, not in action since the spring of 1813, stormed forward out of Pantin with great courage but was stopped in its tracks with heavy casualties. Amidst the buildings, walls and gardens all formation was lost and the battle dissolved into confused skirmishing and fire-fights. Barclay de Tolly moved up the two Russian Grenadier divisions in Raevsky’s support and came up to the front line himself to coordinate operations. Very sensibly, he got most of the regiments back into battalion columns ready for a new push, but ordered Raevsky not to mount a major new attack until the Württembergers were in position on his left and the Army of Silesia was absorbing Mortier’s full attention on his right.

Shortly before three o’clock in the afternoon all the allied corps were in line and ready to attack. The Crown Prince of Württemberg pushed forward past the chateau of Vincennes against slight opposition, threatening to unhinge the whole French right flank by the Seine. The advance of Yorck’s Army Corps from the north into their rear forced the French troops fighting near the village of Pantin to retreat. In the centre Raevsky’s men and the Grenadier divisions attacked in overwhelming force and took all the key French positions within ninety minutes. Russian artillery batteries were brought forward and now ringed Paris to the east from close range. On the far right of the allied line, Langeron’s Army Corps stormed up the heights of Montmartre. In fact by the time the Russians took these heights Marshal Marmont was already seeking to capitulate, though there was no way that either the Russians or the French at Montmartre could yet know this.

The allies had suffered 8,000 casualties, three-quarters of them Russian, but Paris was theirs. A great wave of rejoicing went through the Russian ranks. The Guards began polishing their equipment and getting out their best uniforms in preparation for the greatest parade of their lives down the streets of Paris. On the heights of Montmartre the infantry bands blasted out regimental marches. The officer whom Langeron sent into Paris to arrange a truce with the nearest French troops came back hours later and in a state of bliss, having drunk too many toasts to victory. His commanding general forgave him. Langeron’s regiments from the former Army of the Danube had marched a long way and fought many battles for this moment.

The really difficult battle was just about to begin, however, and it would be political rather than military. Unless their generals blundered on a grand scale, sheer weight of numbers and the superior quality of their troops were likely to bring the allies victory and the capitulation of Paris on 30 March. The French capital was of political rather than military importance, however. Much would depend on whether the allies could turn the fall of Paris to their political advantage. Of course, the allied leaders in general and Alexander in particular were acutely aware of this. Schwarzenberg issued a proclamation stressing that the allies fought Napoleon, not France, and sought peace and prosperity for all. As his army approached Paris, Alexander issued orders to his generals and pleas to his allies to preserve the strictest discipline and treat the civilian population well, stressing the great importance of cultivating French opinion. The man whom Alexander sent into Paris to arrange the capitulation was Colonel Mikhail Orlov, the same young intelligence officer who had accompanied Aleksandr Balashev to Napoleon’s headquarters in Vilna in June 1812. Orlov’s first words to Marshal Marmont were, ‘His Majesty desires to preserve Paris for France and for the sake of the whole world.’ Allied troops were to be quartered in Parisian barracks, not in private homes, and the National Guard was to be retained to preserve calm and normality on the streets. For the next few days Alexander was a perfect embodiment of charm, tact and flattery as regards the Parisians. This was a role at which he excelled.

On the next day, Sunday, 31 March 1814, the allied armies entered Paris. The sun shone and Paris revelled in a crisp spring morning. Alexander emerged from his headquarters at eight o’clock, wearing the undress general’s uniform of the Chevaliers Gardes. Mounting his grey ‘Mars’, a gift from Caulaincourt when the latter was ambassador in Petersburg, he rode off with his suite to join Frederick William and Schwarzenberg. Greeted by salutes and thunderous cheers from their troops, the allied leaders rode through Montmartre and into the centre of the city. Their escort was provided by the Cossack Life Guard in their scarlet tunics and dark-blue baggy trousers, the same troops who had guarded Alexander throughout the campaigns of the last two years. On the Champs-Elysées the monarchs and Schwarzenberg stopped and reviewed their regiments as they marched past. The parade included the Prussian Guards, a division of Austrian Grenadiers and even a regiment of Guards from Baden. By universal consent, however, the Russian Guards were the finest-looking troops in Europe and it was they who stole the show.

Both for the Guards and, above all, for Alexander this was a supreme moment of pride and personal fulfilment, but it did also have a political aspect. For the Parisian crowds, to see thousand upon thousand of these superb troops in their splendid uniforms marching in perfect formation as if in peacetime was a reminder of allied power and the hollowness of Napoleon’s claims that the invaders were on the edge of exhaustion. But if the allies handed out a political lesson they also received one. Thus far the allied monarchs had encountered few signs of popular enthusiasm for the Bourbons in the areas they had conquered. It was far from predictable that things would be different in Paris where so many beneficiaries of the Revolution and Napoleon lived. In fact, however, especially as they entered central Paris the monarchs were greeted by huge crowds shouting support for the allied cause and the monarchy, and bearing the white cockade and the white flag of the Bourbons. Two days later Alexander was to admit to a royalist politician that public support for a restoration was ‘much greater than I could have imagined’. After the parade the monarchs and Schwarzenberg rode to Talleyrand’s mansion on the nearby rue Saint-Florentin, where Alexander was to stay for his crucial first few days in Paris. On watch around the Hôtel de Talleyrand that night were the men of the First (Emperor’s Own) Company of the First Battalion of the Preobrazhenskys. This was the battalion that had mounted guard at Tilsit seven years before.

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