The Battle of Lützen 2 May 1813

By April 1813 Napoleon had rebuilt his army, but was at war with Prussia and Russia. His field forces in Germany consisted of the 121,000 strong Army of the River Main, 58,000 men in the Army of the Elbe, 20,000 troops in the detached I Corps, command by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, and 14,000 cavalry under General Horace Sebastiani. On 25 April they were faced by only 110,000 Russians and Prussians.[1]

However, the French were weak in cavalry. The shortage of light cavalry meant that Napoleon lacked intelligence about the enemy’s strength, positions and manoeuvres. Advancing French columns were harassed by enemy light cavalry because there were not enough French horsemen to protect them.

Napoleon’s initial plan was to advance on Berlin. His northern flank would be protected by the fortresses of Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Hamburg and the southern one by the Army of the Elbe and I Corps.

He would turn the flank of the enemy army and relieve the besieged fortresses of Danzig, Thorn and Modlin on the Vistula. This would release 50,000 more troops for his field army, threaten the Russian line of communication and intimidate the German princes into supporting France.

David Chandler notes that Napoleon did not implement this plan for a number of reasons: it would require 300,000 men; he was doubtful of the quality of the troops that he did have; his German allies, Bavaria and Saxony, were reluctant; and he did not have enough troops to protect his communications against an enemy advance in the Dresden area.[2]

The Allies concentrated on the Leipzig-Dresden area of Saxony. This covered their communications back to Russia and to Austria, but left Prussia exposed. They had too few troops to protect both, so concentrated on the more important area.

Some Prussians wanted to attack, but Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander was cautious. Dominic Lieven comments that even the ‘ever-aggressive [Gebhard von] Blücher’ remembered that in 1805 the Austro-Russians had attacked before the Prussians were ready and had been defeated at Austerlitz.[3]

Kutuzov died on 28 April. He was replaced by Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, described by Lieven as being ‘[i]n many ways the most suitable candidate.’[4] He had won more victories than any other Russian general in 1812, spoke German and French and was popular with the Prussians. However, he was junior to two of the Russian corps commanders, Alexander Tormasov and Mikhail Miloradovich.

Consequently Wittgenstein was appointed to command only Blücher’s Prussians and Ferdinand Wintzingerode’s Russian corps. Tormasov and Miloradovich received their orders from Tsar Alexander, ‘sometimes without [Wittgenstein's] knowledge’ according to F. Loraine Petre.[5]

Napoleon ordered his troops to cross the River Saale on 1 May. They encountered opposition, notably at Weissenfels, where Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessiéres was killed, but the crossing was completed. Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps occupied Lützen in order to protect the southern flank of an advance on Leipzig.

At 4 am on 2 May Napoleon told Ney to send out strong patrols towards Zwenkau and Pegau, and to occupy Lützen and the villages of Kaja, Rahna, Gross Görschen and Klein Görschen, which lay along a ridge. Ney did not send out the patrols, which would have found the enemy army, and kept three divisions at Lützen.Wittgenstein, learning that there was only a weak French force at Kaja, decided to attack it. His troops were supposed to start moving at 1 am and be in position by 7 am. Their columns became mixed up in the dark, and were not in position until 11 am.

The Allies could see only 2,000 French troops, so Wittgenstein ordered the Blücher’s Prussian cavalry to charge them at 11:45 am. However, they were shocked to find themselves faced by two divisions. The French were also surprised, because they had not sent out patrols.

Blücher  waited until artillery could be brought up, allowing the French time to deploy.  General Jean-Baptiste Girard’s division occupied and held the village of Starsiedl, but General Joseph Souham’s division was forced to withdraw from Gross Görschen.

Napoleon and the main French army were marching on Leipzig. Ney had been with Napoleon, but hurried back to his command on hearing the gunfire. He ordered a counter-attack , which led to a desperate action around the villages and along the ridge.

Napoleon quickly devised a plan to envelop the enemy. Ney’s III Corps should hold, with Marshal Auguste Marmont’s VI Corps coming up to support its right flank. Further to the French right, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand’s IV Corps would threaten the Allied left flank. Marshal Jacques MacDonald’s XI Corps would attack the Allied right. The Imperial Guard would reinforce the centre.

Napoleon reached the battlefield at 2:30 pm. He rode amongst his troops, encouraging them, boosting their morale and leading them back into the attack. Chandler quotes Marmont as saying that ‘[t]his was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.’[6]

Despite appeals from his commanders, Napoleon refused to commit the Guard too soon. The Allies were hampered by a wound to Blücher and the slow arrival of Russian reserves. The Tsar held back his Guards, apparently thinking that the battle was going well and wanting to personally lead them in the decisive attack.

The French flanking  forces were in position by 5:30 pm. At 6:00 pm the attack was launched by XI Corps on the French left, the Imperial Guard and VI Corps in the centre and IV Corps on the right. The assault, with heavy artillery support, threw the Allies back.

The French won the battle, but Chandler notes that Napoleon needed two more hours to make his victory complete. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the enemy in order to turn a victory into a rout.[7]

Petre and Lieven both argue that the delay in the initial Allied attack in the end disadvantaged the French. An earlier start to the battle would have meant that Napoleon and his main body of troops were closer to the action when it began. They would have arrived earlier and would have had more time to complete their victory. Better reconnaissance by Ney would also have allowed Napoleon to move earlier.[8]

The battle showed that Napoleon and his command system could still react far more quickly and flexibility to battlefield developments than his enemies. He had won a victory, but lack of time and cavalry meant that it was not a decisive one, and the French suffered heavy casualties.

Chandler estimates that there were 115,000 French and 97,000 Allied troops in the vicinity, altthough not all of them engaged in combat. He reckons that 20,000 French and 18,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.[9] Charles Esdaile argues that the French casualties were high because the inexperience of their troops meant that they had to use ‘clumsy and unsophisticated’ tactics.[10]

The Allies retired towards Dresden. An action took place at Colditz on 5 May between French troops under Prince Eugène and the Russian rearguard, commanded by Miloradovich. The Allies did not stop in Dresden and failed to destroy its bridges. Napoleon reached it on 8 May. Two days later the King of Saxony declared for Napoleon.

The Allied retreat ended on 13 Mat at Bautzen, a strong defensive position. They were reinforced by another 13,000 Russian troops under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 874-75.

[2] Ibid., p. 875.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 311.

[4] Ibid., p. 313.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 58.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 884.

[7] Ibid., pp. 886-87.

[8] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, p. 315; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 85.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1120.

[10] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 501.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Battle of Lützen 2 May 1813

  1. I never heard this story before, our school systems sure do skim over things in history texts.

  2. Very interesting , thanks for writing these insights. Expensive victory.

  3. Pingback: The Battle of Bautzen 20-21 May 1813. | War and Security

  4. Pingback: The Truce of Pläswitz 4 June 1813 | War and Security

  5. Pingback: The Battle of Vitoria, 21 June 1813. | War and Security

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