The End of the Grande Armee in Russia - Ludwig Baer
On December 5, 1812, Napoleon called all his marshals and generals together and gave them the order to reach Wilna. There they expected food, uniforms, and all other necessary supplies. They received further orders to keep the town until the next year for a new invasion of Russia. At about 2200 hours Napoleon mounted his coach and drove away escorted by a small cavalry unit. That night the temperature went down to minus 37.5 degrees centigrade. When the remaining soldiers reached Wilna, they had a small chance to find food, because on December 10, the first Cossacks reached Wilna and so the French Army had to flee again. On December 13 the remainder of the Grande Armee reached the River Njemen where they had started half a year ago. More than 600,000 marched into Russia, 400,000 of which were soldiers. Almost 400,000 died, were killed in action, killed by the Cossacks, or froze to death and 100,000 became prisoner in Russia, leaving only 100,000 to return home. Napoleon himself reached Paris on December 18 during the night.
The disaster of the Grande Armee showed that Napoleon and his army were no longer invincible, and some states in Europe contemplated new plans to beat Napoleon. When Napoleon decided to leave the army, he received in November 1812 news from Paris that General Claude de Malet had attempted a coup d'etat. He put Marshal Joachim Murat in charge of the army. Murat deserted to save his kingdom of Naples giving the command to Napoleon's former stepson Eugene de Beauharnais. The Malet coup attempted to remove Napoleon from power while he was in Russia. It was planned by the Republican General Claude de Malet because of his opposition to Napoleon. In 1812, Malet was allowed to leave his arrest for a sanitarium. During his time at the sanitarium, Malet met with members of the former Royal House of Bourbon, who were interested in replacing the First Empire with the old monarchy. Despite these connections Malet was a strong republican rather than a royalist. The absence of Napoleon in Paris gave Malet an ideal opportunity to strike. With several others he prepared detailed plans for a seizure of power, which was planned for late October. Malet and his co-conspirators were thinking about a provisional government to be installed after the coup.
At 4:00 in the morning on October 23, 1812, Malet escaped from his captivity dressed in the uniform of a general. He informed Colonel Gabriel Soulier, commander of the 10th Cohort of the French National Guard, that Napoleon had died while in Russia. Several prepared documents convincing Soulier of the truth and the colonel obeyed Malet when he ordered him to assemble the cohort. Soulier did not question Malet, even when the latter announced his intention to arrest high-ranking people, and the cohort followed its commander's orders marching to the prison of La Force. Here Malet ordered the release of two imprisoned republicans generals, Lahrie and Guidal. The Guard obeyed him, and the two freed generals joined the coup. Several Ministers and Generals were arrested. In the meantime Malet went to the military headquarters where he met the senior officer on duty, Colonel Jean Doucet. Doucet was suspicious, because the letters presented to him indicated Napoleon's death in Russia. Doucet had knowledge of other letters written by Napoleon that had been sent after the date of Napoleon's death. The colonel also recognized Malet as a sanitarium inmate, and when he was alone with him in his office, he overpowered him and placed him under arrest. Thereafter the colonel ordered the 10th Cohort to return to its barracks. Further on he released all officials imprisoned by the conspirators, and informed the Minister of War of these developments.
The forces involved in the coup were the 10th Cohort of the French National Guard and the Gendarmerie of Paris, the latter of which was punished for their participation in the coup thereafter and formed the 134th Line Infantry Regiment. The coup failed, and the leading conspirators were executed. When Napoleon reached Paris, everything was normal and he could continue in his normal business.
In the following weeks, the Grande Armee was getting smaller, and on December 14, 1812, it left Russian territory. Commander of the Prussian corps was General Yorck von Wartenburg and his French "chief" was Marshal MacDonald, commanding General of French X Corps. The Prussian corps had a strength of approximately 20,000 men that by the end had lost some 5,000 men (some sources say closer to 1.200 men).
When it was getting clear that the Grande Armee had been defeated, the Prussian troops became the rearguard and retreated before the corps of the Russian General Diebitsch. Yorck found himself in an isolated position. As a Prussian/French soldier, his duty was to break through, but as a Prussian patriot he was thinking more of his country. He had to judge whether the moment was favorable for the liberation; and so he followed the pressure of his junior staff-officers. Yorck had no illusions as to the safety of his own head. On December 30, 1812, without the permission of his king, he signed the "Convention of Tauroggen" with the Russian General Diebitsch, an armistice, which declared the Prussian corps to be "neutral." The Prussian people received this news with enthusiasm. The Prussian king was not happy, but did not dare to lift off the mask and therefore an order was sent to suspend Yorck from his command. But since the order had to pass through the Russian front lines, Diebitsch refused to let the bearer pass through, and the general was finally absolved when the Treaty of Kalisch was signed putting Prussia on the side of the Allies. Yorck's act was nothing less than the turning point of Prussian history and the nucleus for the Prussian uprising against Napoleon in 1813. York made a speech to the East-Prussian Assembly asking for a new "Landwehr" because the regular Prussian Army would be to weak for a new war against Napoleon.
The corps on the right wing was the Austrian Corps with a strength of 34,000 men under the command of Feldmarschall Karl Fürst Schwarzenberg, who got the command on request of Napoleon because during his time as Austrian Ambassador in Paris, Schwarzenberg had negotiations with Napoleon concerning the marriage of Erzherzogin Marie-Louise von Österreich with Napoleon in 1809/1810. Therefore Napoleon held Schwarzenberg in great esteem and Schwarzenberg was standing under the direct command of Napoleon, but actually the Austrian Corps belonged to the VII Corps of the Grande Armee under the command of the French General Renyier. At the beginning the VII Corps consisted only of Saxon troops and Austrians later on because of heavy losses the VII Corps was enlarged by the 32 divisions of the Grande Armee. The Austrian Corps suffered heavy losses and on January 5, 1813, when the war ended only 20,000 men were still alive, the rest vanished in Russia. From the Prussian Corps no major battles are known, but the Austrian Corps participated in at least one battle, the battle of Wolkowysk on November 15/16, 1812, which ended successfully for the VII Corps, including the Austrians.
The part of the Austrians and Prussian Corps were well understood to be political rather than morally hostile, because the Austrian Emperor and the Prussian King had good relations with the Russian Tsar and therefore did not want to fight against him. Meanwhile, Napoleon assembled in France a new army and pushed the newly raised troops to Prussia and Saxonia, where it arrived on May 2, 1813, to the first battle between the "New" French army and a combined Prussian and Russian force near Lützen. After a day of heavy fighting, the combined allied forces retreated. Details on this and the Sixth Coalition, consisting of Russia, Prussia, Sweden and England was formed in 1813 and the German territories became the centerpiece of the new campaign, but this will be the next chapter.