Fere Champenoise – withdrawing from contact
by Paddy Griffith
Paddy discusses the two combats of Fere Champenoise which occured in the the 1814 campaign in France. In both cases the heavily outnumbered French infantry, threatened by Allied cavalry and artillery, were forced to retreat under fire.
The First Combat – Marmont withdraws
In his book ”1814” (pp 366-85) Henry Houssaye says there were TWO combats there. The first started at Sommesous on 25 March as Marmont withdrew in the face of superior Austro-Russian cavalry backed by a massive army.
At first the enemy was held at bay by massed artillery; but when he was reinforced the French started to withdraw. The enemy charged and the French cavalry skedaddled; but the infantry marched on in a ”chequerboard” of squares. That was fine until a hailstorm blew up and prevented musketry.
Don Cossacks. The wind was coming from behind the enemy, but it (and the hail) lashed the French in the face. The enemy increased his attacks and surrounded the squares. When they reached the ravine of Connantray the French had to form columns to cross it, and some units fell into confusion as a result, and numerous guns were abandoned. More than a brigade was lost; but the main body succeeded in reaching the far side and formed up in battle order.
Then a relatively small force of cossacks then appeared on the flank and the French cavalry again ran away. But this time the panic spread to the infantry, who ran away (some allegedly ran ”25 leagues” in 24 hours!). However as they passed through Fere Champenoise the fresh 9th Regiment de Marche of heavy cavalry (cuirassiers) arrived and pushed through the rabble: they calmly formed up facing the enemy (“500 vs 7,000”). The Cossacks attacked and the French chased them off by a counter-charge. This won enough time for the French to assemble some of their fugitives into a proper line.
Some of their other cuirassiers were encouraged by the sound of distant gunfire (They thought it was the arrival of the Emperor with reinforcements; but in reality it was the defeat of Pacthod – see below) to make another counter-attack; but they were repulsed by grapeshot. The French retreat continued.
The Second Combat – the defeat of Pacthod
The Battle of Frere-Chanpenoise. Meanwhile the National Guard Divisions of Pacthod and Amey (total 4,300 ill-trained men and 16 guns) had been escorting a convoy of 180 vehicles. On the morning of the 25th they were having breakfast at Vatry when the ”bad guys” (5,500 cavalry + a light battery) turned up. The French formed 6 squares with the transport in rear, and staunchly repulsed several charges. Then at noon they started to retire on Fere Champenoise – but the enemy continued to attack, causing considerable disorganisation & casualties (including horse artillery firing from 300 metres).
After a league and a half of successful movement Pacthod found his convoy of vehicles was too much of a liability to his tactical movements, and he abandoned it at Clamanges (but he kept the horses, to double up his artillery teams). The retreat continued – and so did the enemy”s cavalry charges, averaging one every 15 minutes. At 4 pm the enemy managed to get cavalry & guns AHEAD of the retiring squares, and a fresh force also arrived on their flank. Pacthod was surrounded! Gen.Delort formed his square into a column of attack to break out – and succeeded. But he had to repeat the process a kilometre further down the road. Eventually, after many hours of staunch resistance, Pacthod”s force of inexperienced & 2nd rate infantry heroically succeded in coming near Fere Champenoise itself, where they expected to find Marmont and Mortier.
Alas! It was in fact full of no less than the Prussian and Russian Guards, with their respective sovereigns at their heads: Bad luck, chaps! There was a confused moment in which Russian overshots hit their own cavalry, and French cannon balls nearly hit the Czar; but Pacthod realised he had to cut and run, seeking shelter, he rushed for the protection of the marshes of St-Gond, which he hoped would hamper the enemy cavalry.
The Marshes of St-Gond were topographical feature that would also play an important part in the 1914 campaign. In modern times they have been largely drained.
By now the French had consolidated into 4 squares and were down to 3,000 men, while the enemy continued to be reinforced (now up to 20,000 cavalry!). Yet they managed a further 6 Km for the loss of only one of their 4 squares. When the Czar sent an envoy to negotiate their surrender, he was shot. This was true heroism – or suicidal folly – on the part of the French (Houssaye says they were ”drunk with gunpowder”). Gosh, it”s exciting stuff… But the end was inevitable. Surrounded by cavalry & artillery, and running out of ammunition, there was nothing a square could do except surrender or be broken & sabred. Pacthod himself (WIA) did manage to negotiate a temporary ceasefire, and the Czar was mightily impressed by his feat of arms. But in the end only 500 French soldiers managed to escape, as individuals. 1,500 were made POW, mostly WIA, and the rest were dead.
In tactical terms, the lesson of the two combats of Fere Champenoise is that squares can keep on retreating almost indefinitely in front of cavalry, but with two caveats:
a. They are very vulnerable to cannon fire, and
b. at all costs they must not panic.
In my time I have met many wargamers who are prepared to say that ”squares are unbreakable”. Fere Champenoise seems to show that although they are ”mostly unbreakable”, they can in fact eventually be broken.