The battle of Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814) was Napoleon's last major battle during the campaign of 1814 and saw him misjudge his opponents, march into a dangerous trap and then manage to extricate much of his army.
During February Napoleon won a series of victories over the two main Allied armies that put them both off balance. First he hit Blucher's Army of Silesia in the Six Days Campaign on the Marne (Champaubert, Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Vauchamps), then he turned south to defeat Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia on the Seine (battle of Montereau). In March the Emperor's blows were less effective. He was unable to trap Blucher south of the Marne or the Aisne, managed a narrow victory at Craonne (7 March 1814), but then suffered a defeat at Laon (9-10 March 1814) and was lucky to escape with his army largely intact.
This setback was followed by his last significant success, the night-time victory at Rheims (13 March 1814). This battle meant that Napoleon was once again in a gap between Blucher and Schwarzenberg, and the Allied commanders reacted nervously. Napoleon decided to head south and try and get behind Schwarzenberg, who had advanced some way to the west
At this point Schwarzenberg's army was very badly stretched out, with elements scattered across eighty miles of France. Napoleon decided to leave Marmont and Mortier to watch Blucher and led Ney's corps, Delafrance's division, Friant's division of the Old Guard and Sebastiani's cavalry, along the road through Arcis towards Troyes, in the hope that he could get behind Schwarzenberg, who he believed to be some way to the west.
On 17 March Napoleon began to move south from Rheims towards Epernay, with Ney moving in parallel from Chalons-sur-Marne. On 18 March Napoleon's column reached La Fere Champenoise, south of Epernay and north of the lower reaches of the Aube. Ney's column reached Sommesous, not far to the east.
On 19 March Napoleon ordered part of his column to move towards Plancy on the lower Aube (west of Arcis), while Ney was ordered towards Arcis itself. He believed that Schwarzenberg was now retreating to Troyes, and so all he would have to face on the Aube would be a rearguard.
On the Allied side also Schwarzenberg misjudged the situation. At first he was unsure where Napoleon was heading for. When the French first appeared between the Marne and the Aube Schwarzenberg decided to concentrate his forces at Arcis, but this plan had to be abandoned. On 19 March he decided to concentrate at Vendeuvre, between the Aube and Seine, but on 20 March, when he was informed that the French only had cavalry south of the Aube, he decided that Napoleon must be planning to cross the lower Aube between Mery and Plancy, and then head for his base at Troyes. If this was the case, then the French would be moving across Schwarzenberg's front, and thus weren't posing a threat to his lines of communication. This allowed him to risk battle.
By the end of 19 March the French were established on the lower Aube. They had been able to repair the bridge at Plancy, and had troops on both sides of the river there. The Imperial Guard infantry was on both banks around Mery and the cavalry was at Plancy. Napoleon himself spent the night at Plancy. Ney had a quiet day, and ended the day close to Arcis, but on the north bank of the Aube. The only failure on the French side was Marshal Macdonald, who was much further west than Napoleon realised.
Early on 20 March Schwarzenberg ordered his forces to advance towards the Aube. Wrede's Bavarians were to attack at Arcis as a diversion, while the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg, Gyulai and Raevsky advanced towards Plancy.
At the start of the day Napoleon repeated his orders for an advance on Arcis. Ney's infantry arrived from the north, while Sebastiani and the Guard cavalry approached from the north. Both forces were in Arcis by 10am, and the damaged bridge was repaired. The locals informed Ney that the main Allied army was close by, and this news was sent to Napoleon, but he rejected it. Instead he continued with the concentration around Arcis. Sebastiani posted two of his cavalry divisions (Colbert and Exelmans) on the road that ran south from Arcis towards Troyes, while Ney pushed his leading infantry division (Janssens) east along the road towards Lesmont.
These isolated French units were now in the path of two Allied corps – Wrede's Bavarians were approaching from the east, and Giulay's Austrians from the south, along the road from Troyes. A large part of the Allied reserve was also on the road to Arcis.
The battle began when Kaisarov's cavalry found Colbert's force on the road south of Arcis and attacked. The French, who lacked infantry support, were soon forced back, and Exelmans was caught up in the retreat. The two French cavalry divisions were soon retreating in some chaos towards the river bridge on the north side of Arcis, but they were in real danger of being cut off on the south bank. If this had happened, then Ney and Janssens would also have been in real trouble, but just in time Ney's second division, Friant's Old Guard division, arrived on the north bank. Napoleon took personal command at the bridge and managed to restore the situation. This fighting is most famous for an incident when a howitzer shell buried itself near some shaky troops, and was about to explode. Napoleon rode his horse over the shell, which then detonating, killing the horse. Napoleon got onto another horse and continued on his way, having restored the morale of the troops.
Further to the east Ney was under attack in the village of Grand-Torcy, after Wrede ordered one of his brigades to attack along the river and try and capture the bridge. The French were able to hold on at this point, although the village was lost to the Bavarians at one point and had to be recaptured.
Towards the end of the day French reinforcements arrived from Plancy – 4,500 Young Guard Infantry and 2,000 cavalry under the command of Lefebvre-Desnoettes. Sebastiani decided to use the fresh cavalry in one final attack, and was able to defeat Kaisarov's cavalry before being forced to turn back by the arrival of Allied reinforcements.
By the end of the first day of the battle the French appeared to have won a minor victory. They had turned back every attempt to capture the bridge at Arcis, and had secured a bridgehead on the south side of the Aube. However they were in more danger than they realised. Napolen still didn't believe that he was facing Schwarzenberg's main army, but by the morning of 21 March the Allies had over 80,000 men at Arcis, facing only 30,000 French troops.
The French received some reinforcements overnight, with the arrival of the rear elements of the Guard, two more cavalry units and one division from Oudinot's VII Corps. Napoleon expected to spent the next day pursuing a retreating Schwarzenberg.
On the Allied side the concentration around Arcis was completed. Wrede remained on the right, close to the Aube east of Arcis. Raevsky was to form the Allied centre, starting near Mesgnil-la-Comtesse, south-east of Arcis. The Crown Prince of Wurttemberg and Guilay were to form the left, with their left flank resting on the Barbuisse stream, a minor watercourse that ran north-west and flowed into the Aube several miles to the west of Arcis. The Allies were thus arranged in a curve facing Arcis from the east and south. Schwarzenberg decided to attack in three strong columns, all converging on Arcis. However he didn't hurry.
The French were thus first to attack on 21 March. Early in the day Napoleon sent a reconnaissance force east along the road from Grand-Torcy. At this point Wrede was pulling back, ready to take part in the grand offensive, and so all the French found were retreating Bavarians. This helped convince Napoleon that he was correct, and he ordered Sebastiani to launch a cavalry attack south from Arcus, supported by Ney's infantry.
At this stage the main Allied army was hidden from view in Arcis by a line of higher ground. Sebastiani and Ney advanced to the top of this ridge, and only then discovered Schwarzenberg's entire army, in line of battle, ready to face their attack. Napoleon finally realised that he was badly outnumbered, and at about 1pm ordered the retreat to begin. The French managed to get a pontoon bridge across the Aube, and by 1.30pm were in full retreat.
Ney and Sebastiani's brief attack had won the French the time they needed to retreat. Schwarzenberg was convinced that this must have been the first part of a larger French attack, and delayed his own assault until 3pm. The plan now was for Wrede to cross the river and attack the retreating French troops, while Wurttemberg and Giulay attacked towards Arcis in three columns. Marshal Oudinot's rearguard managed to hold up the Allied attack for an impressive three hours, before finally at 6pm the last troops escaped and the bridge was blown.
Over two days the French lost around 4,200 men and three guns, while the Allies lost around 2,000 men. Napoleon had been very lucky to avoid a more serious defeat. If Schwarzenberg had attacked on the morning of 21 March, before the French retreat had begun, then he could have won a crushing victory. Instead he allowed Napoleon to escape.
For once the Allies didn't pay for their failure at Arcis. Napoleon decided to continue with his movement into the Allied rear areas. He moved north-east to Vitry and then east towards St. Dizier, in the hope that this would pull the Allies away from Paris. Unluckily for the French, the Allies captured a letter containing his plans, and decided to ignore Napoleon's army. Instead Schwarzenberg headed north, towards a junction with Blucher. On the way he defeated Marmont and Mortier at La-Fere-Champenoise (25 March), joined up with Blucher, and attacked Paris. Although the defender stopped the first Allied attack on Paris (battle of Montmartre, 30 March 1814), it was clear that the city couldn't be held, and early on 31 March Paris was surrendered to the Allies. Napoleon was unable to play any part in the defence of the city, and in the aftermath of its fall was forced to abdicate for the first time.