Napoleon defeated the Russo-Prussian army at Lützen on 2 May and Bautzen on 20-21 May 1813, but neither battle was decisive. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the defeated enemy and turn a victory into a rout, and mistakes by his subordinates, notably Marshal Michel Ney, allowed the Allies to escape a trap at Bautzen.
On 22 May the pursuing French engaged the Allies at Reichenbach. General Géraud Duroc, who had been Napoleon’s Grand Marshal of the Palace since he became Emperor, was killed. Napoleon, upset at the loss of Duroc and others close to him, ordered the combat to be broken off.
The French, harassed by Cossacks and losing more men to straggling and sickness, were unable to win a decisive victory. The high commands of both sides were arguing amongst themselves. Ney offered his resignation, which was rejected.
The Allied commander, Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, unhappy that Tsar Alexander had passed orders over his head, also offered his resignation, which Alexander accepted on 29 May. The new commander was Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly; he promptly upset the Prussians by proposing to withdraw into Poland.
The Tsar came up with a compromise. The Allies would withdraw to Schweidnitz, which was inside Prussia and allowed them to maintain contact with Austria, which they hoped would join them. However, it meant that they risked being outflanked and trapped against the Austrian border. Schweidnitz had once been strongly fortified, but its defences had not been repaired after being destroyed in 1807.
Napoleon then made what he later described as ‘one of the worst decisions of his life’ when he accepted an Austrian proposal for an armistice. It was signed at Pläswitz on 4 June and would last until 20 July. Peace negotiations would take place during this period.
Napoleon said that he accepted the armistice in order to build up his cavalry and to prepare for a possible Austrian intervention into the war. Additionally his troops were tired and many of them were sick, and he needed to set up fortified supply depots to secure his supplies against enemy action. However, the Allied army was in worse shape. As Dominic Lieven says:
‘In all probability had [Napoleon] continued the spring 1813 campaign for just a few more weeks he could have secured a very favourable peace…Barclay could not believe his luck.’
David Chandler, whilst noting that the French army was in poor shape , agrees that the Allies were in a worse situation. Napoleon had reached Breslau (now Wroclaw) on 1 June. It was to the north east of Schweidnitz, where the Allies had decided to give battle, so the Emperor was close to a decisive victory when he accepted the armistice. The Allies were even worse off than he realised, and benefitted more than the French did from the armistice.
On 15 June Britain paid Prussia £666,666 and Russia £1,333,334 and offered Austria £500,000 if it would enter the war. On 7 July Sweden agreed to join the Allies. Twelve days later Austria said that it would do the same if Napoleon rejected the proposed terms.
Charles Esdaile notes that Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, wanted to maintain a balance of power in Europe between Russian and France as he believed that a decisive victory for either would be disastrous for Austria.
Metternich wanted to arrange a meeting between Napoleon and Alexander, but had to settle for separate meeting with each. Austria, Prussia and Russia, but not Britain, set out their terms in the Reichenbach Convention on 27 June. They wanted the Duchy of Warsaw and the Confederation of the Rhine to be dissolved, Austria to regain her Illyrian provinces and Prussia to be restored to her 1805 borders,
Metternich put these to Napoleon at Dresden on 30 June, but the Emperor angrily rejected them. F. Loraine Petre contends that neither side expected the negotiations to lead to peace; their ideas of what would be constitute acceptable terms were too far apart. Chandler agrees, suggesting that the terms relayed by Austria ‘smacked of a peace dictated to a vanquished foe’, not a proposal for peace with an enemy that had won two recent victories.
Esdaile takes issue with those who consider the terms offered to Napoleon to be ‘intolerable’, arguing that ‘they were by no means so bad.’ He would have retained control over Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Italy and Naples. Esdaile contends that the big loser from a peace agreement along these lines would have been Britain, which would have achieved none of its war aims.
Esdaile points out that Austria, Prussia, Russia and even Britain were willing to let Napoleon keep his throne. Only Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the Crown Prince and Regent of Sweden, wanted to remove the Emperor. His motivation was personal, as he thought that he might replace Napoleon on the French throne. Napoleon fought on because he preferred risking all on a military victory to compromise.
Bernadotte had previously been one of Napoleon’s Marshals, before being adopted as heir to the elderly and heirless King Karl XIII of Sweden in 1810. In 1813 he was properly named Crown Prince Karl Johan, but most histories of the Napoleonic Wars call him Bernadotte.
Certainly, Napoleon rejected terms that would have left him as head of a very powerful state; fighting on left him in exile on Elba less than a year later. However, there was little chance of a man who had come to power because of military successes and had won two recent battles accepting such terms.
The Allies requested that the armistice be extended to 16 August, supposedly to allow negotiations to continue, but actually to permit Austria to complete its mobilisation. Napoleon agreed because the French also needed time to be ready to restart hostilities. Talks continued at Prague, but both sides were just playing for time.
 D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 327.
 D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966).
 C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 504.
 F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 160.
 Chandler, Campaigns, p. 160.
 Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 507-8.
 Ibid., p. 510.