Tag Archives: Prussia

The Battle of Dennewitz 6 September 1813

At the start of the Autumn 1813 German campaign Napoleon appointed Marshal Nicolas Oudinot to command the Army of Berlin, which was ordered to capture Berlin. Its advance initially went well, but it was defeated by Prussian troops under General Friederich von Bülow at Gross Beeren on 23 August 1813.

Napoleon, following his victory over Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Dresden on 26-27 August, intended to take part of his army 60 miles north to Luckau. There he would  join up with Oudinot and attack Berlin.

The rest of the main army would remain at Dresden under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat to cover against the Army of Bohemia, which was regrouping. In the east Napoleon believed that Marshal Jacques MacDonald would be able to rally his Army of Bober after its defeat at the Katzbach by Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia on 26 August.

Oudinot, however, ordered a retreat to Wittenberg on the Elbe rather than Luckau. This exposed the communications of both MacDonald’s army and the main French force.

Napoleon, angry at Oudinot’s performance, replaced him as commander of the Army of Berlin with Marshal Michel Ney on 2 September, but left him in charge of XII Corps. This meant that Ney had an unhappy subordinate in a key position. The army also included General Jean Reynier’s VII Corps, General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps and General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi’s III Cavalry Corps.

Ney’s orders were to attack Berlin, with support from Napoleon at Luckau. However, MacDonald’s army was in a worse state than Napoleon had realised, so he moved to Bautzen on 3 September to confront Blücher. The Army of Silesia withdrew, in accordance with the Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan of avoiding combat with Napoleon himself, but attempting to attack detached French corps.

Napoleon now returned to Dresden, having heard reports that Schwarzenberg was advancing on the city. Michael Leggiere argues that Ney’s orders to his army imply that he did not receive a message sent by Napoleon on 4 or 5 September informing him that his advance on Berlin would not now be supported by troops commanded by Napoleon.[1]

Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and commander of  the Coalition Army of North Germany, intended that the advance guard of General Friedrich von Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian Corps would engage the French at Zahna. It would then fall back on the rest of the corps at Dennewitz  and Jüterborg. The rest of the Army of North Germany would then attack Ney’s left and rear.

On 5 September Oudinot’s corps forced Tauentzien’s advance guard to retreat. The next day Bertrand’s corps encountered Tauentzien’s at Dennewitz. Reynier’s corps was late leaving its overnight camp and then took the wrong road. This also delayed Oudinot.

There was a gap between Tauentzien’s right flank and Bülow’s corps. By 11 am Bertrand’s attack on Tauentzien was going well, but the French were unwilling to take risks on their left because of the threat from Bülow. He had started marching towards the guns at 10:30, and his troops reached the battlefield at 12:30. Tauentzien was beaten by then, but his troops had held the French up for long enough for Bülow to arrive.

Reynier did not reach the battlefield until 2 pm, with Oudinot arriving an hour later. The Prussian troops were by then under pressure, with Swedish and Russian reinforcements two or three miles away. F. Lorraine Petre comments that a French attack on their left at this stage could have won them the battle, but ‘Ney seized this moment to ruin his own chances of success.’[2]

Ney could not see what was happening on the left because of thick dust swirling in the air, amd decided that the decisive area was on the right, which he could see. He ordered Oudinot to move his corps from the left to the right in support of the remnants of Bertrand’s corps.

Reynier asked Oudinot to leave at least one division on the left, but Oudinot  insisted on obeying the letter of his orders, although he could see that they were mistaken. Petre, Dominic Lieven and David Chandler all criticise him for this, arguing that he did so because he was still upset at having Ney put above him.[3]

Bertrand was forced back by 5 pm, long before Oudinot was in position. Ney ordered a retreat on Dahme at 6 pm, but many French units did not receive  the orders, and his army scattered. Only a few French troops reached Dahme, and Ney ordered them to continue to retreat to Torgau.

Two Prussian corps totalling 45,000 men had defeated three French corps, killing or wounding 8,000 out of 58,000 enemy troops and captured 13,500 men, 53 guns and 412 supply wagons. Prussian losses were 10,500 killed and wounded including losses at Zahna and in the pursuit.[4]

See this website for a detailed description of the battle, including maps and orders of battle.

Bernadotte’s total army was bigger than Ney’s, but its Swedish and Russian components did not reach the battlefield until the battle was almost won. However, the Russian cavalry contributed significantly to the pursuit, in which most of the prisoners were taken.

Napoleon had won the biggest battle of the campaign so far, at Dresden, but his dilatory handling of the pursuit meant that he did not turn a victory into a rout. His subordinates had lost four other battles: Gross Beeren, the Katzbach, Kulm and Dennewitz. Dominic Lieven points out that the French had so far lost 100,000 men and over 200 guns and the Coalition, which was receiving more recruits, 85,000 men and 50 guns.[5] The campaign was only three weeks old, and the balance had swung against Napoleon.


[1] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 193.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 274.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 914-15; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 424; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 274-75.

[4] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 209; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 271, 276.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 425.

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The Battles of Dresden and Kulm 26-30 August 1813

The Coalition opposing Napoleon based their strategy for the Autumn 1813 campaign in Central Europe on the Trachenberg Plan, which stated that their armies should retreat if faced by the main French army under his personal command. They should attempt to defeat detached French corps and to cut Napoleon’s lines of supply.

Napoleon, however, was not worried about being cut off from France provided that he retained control of Dresden. He had established a large supply base there during the period between the signing of the Truce of Pläswitz on 4 June 1813 and the recommencement of hostilities on 16 August.

At the start of the Autumn campaign Napoleon moved eastwards with the intention of defeating Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia, which was advancing towards Saxony. On August 21 Blücher learnt that he faced Napoleon, so retreated in accordance with the Trachenberg Plan.

Napoleon continued to advance for another day, but then received a message from Marshal Laurent St Cyr warning him that Dresden was threatened by Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. Napoleon saw an opportunity to defeat the Army of Bohemia, the largest of the three Coalition armies in Central Europe: the other was Bernadotte’s Army of Northern Germany.

Napoleon therefore turned the bulk of his army back towards Dresden, taking the Imperial Guard (Marshal Adolphe Édouard Mortier), I (General Dominique Vandamme), II (Marshal Claude Victor) and VI Corps (Marshal Auguste Marmont) and the 1 Cavalry Corps. The Army of Bober under Marshal Jacques MacDonald was left to guard his eastern flank.

Napoleon planned to attack Schwarzenberg’s communications on 26 August and inflict a decisive defeat on the Army of Bohemia, which was spread out and vulnerable. This meant that his troops would have to march 120 kilometres between 22-26 August. This was beyond the capabilities of the Austrian Army, so Schwarzenberg did not consider the possibility that he might find himself facing Napoleon at Dresden.

Late on 25 August, however, Napoleon was informed by General Gaspard Gourgaud, who he had sent to inspect the defences of Dresden, that it would fall within a day unless St Cyr’s XIV Corps was reinforced. Napoleon called off the attack early the next day and ordered most of his army to march to Dresden. Vandamme’s corps was to attack the Army of Bohemia’s rear.

This was a decisive mistake by Napoleon. He sent more troops to Dresden than were needed to hold it, and fewer with Vandamme than were required to carry out his plan of destroying the Army of Bohemia by attacking its rear.

David Chandler says that ‘[t]he decision to switch practically the whole army to Dresden cost Napoleon the campaign.’[1]

Dominic Lieven, commenting on Napoleon’s original plan, argues that:

‘Had Napoleon carried out this plan it is very possible that he could have ended the campaign within a fortnight with a victory on the scale of Austerlitz or Jena.’[2]

St Cyr had established a line of improvised outposts on the outskirts of Dresden, based on the cover provided by walled gardens, houses and barricades. Five earthen artillery redoubts were constructed behind this line, but three of them could not support each other, and another had a restricted field of fire. Further back were the fortifications of the Altsadt, or old town, which had been partly rebuilt after the French captured the city earlier in the year.

Battle of Dresden 26-27 August 1813

Battle of Dresden 26-27 August 1813

The Army of Bohemia attacked Dresden on the morning of 26 August. Fighting died down by noon, by when the French had been pushed back to the redoubts.

By 11am the Coalition commanders, including the Russian, Austrian and Prussian monarchs, had taken up a position on the Räcknitz Heights, from where they could see French reinforcements arriving. Shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ were heard by the Coalition troops, revealing that Napoleon was present.

The main attack by the Coalition was planned for 4pm. Tsar Alexander I of Russia wanted to call it off in accordance with the Coalition strategy of avoiding battle with Napoleon himself. Emperor Francis I of Austria declined to offer an opinion, but King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia wanted to fight on, since the Coalition had a numerical advantage of 158,000 to 70,000.[3]

Schwarzenberg was ordered to postpone the main assault until the monarchs could agree, but the new orders were transmitted slowly, and the attack went ahead. Napoleon left St Cyr in charge of the defence, which held, and formed three counter-attacking forces under Marshal Joachim Murat, Marshal Michel Ney and Mortier.

Napoleon launched his counter-attack at 5:30pm. By dark the French had retaken almost all of the line of outposts that they had held at the start of the day.

Napoleon was reinforced by Marmont and Victor’s corps overnight, taking his force to 120,000. The Army of Bohemia’s strength also increased, but only to 170,000 as potential reinforcements did not arrive.

Vandamme had crossed the Elbe with 40,000 men, forcing the 12,500 men of Eugen of Württemberg back. They were reinforced by 26,000 troops under General Alexander Ostermann-Tolstoy, preventing Vandamme from threatening the Army of Bohemia’s flank.

The Coalition plan for 27 August was to put 120,000 troops in the centre, with only 25,000 on each flank. The left flank was to be reinforced by 21,000 more men under General Johann von Klenau, but they failed to reach Dresden in time to take part in the battle

Napoleon, however, intended to hold the centre with 50,000 troops under Marmont and St Cyr, and to carry out a double envelopment, with 35,000 men on each flank. Murat commanded on the right and Ney and Mortier on the left.

Both French flank attacks went well: on their right the French took 13,000 prisoners from the Coalition’s left flank force. The French were hard pressed in the centre where they were considerably outnumbered. However, the Coalition cancelled an attack intended to create a gap between the French centre and left flank because the rain had created mud that made it impossible to bring up artillery.

Faced with defeat on both flanks and a threat from Vandamme to their rear, the Coalition commanders decided to withdraw overnight. Their morale cannot have been helped by a cannonball that nearly hit the Tsar. They had suffered 38,000 casualties and inflicted only 10,000.

An aggressive French pursuit could have turned a major victory into a rout that would have ended the campaign. If Vandamme could had beaten the Army of Bohemia to Teplitz it would have been trapped.

However, Napoleon was not well, and he had now received news of French defeats at Gross Beeren on 23 August and the Katzbach on 26 August. Marmont had told his Emperor at the start of the campaign that it was a mistake to divide his forces, saying that:

‘I greatly fear lest on the day which Your Majesty gains a great victory, and believes you have won a decisive battle, you may learn you have lost two.’[4]

The prediction had taken less than a fortnight to come true.

Napoleon left the pursuit to his subordinates, which meant that it was not well co-ordinated. Vandamme became isolated, and on 29 August was forced by Ostermann, who now commanded 44,000 troops, to fall back to Kulm. The next day the Coalition enveloped Vandamme by chance, when 12,000 retreating troops under General Friedrich von Kleist stumbled into the rear of I Corps. The majority of its troops managed to escape, but 13,000, including Vandamme, were captured.

Battle of Kulm, 29 August 1813

Battle of Kulm, 29 August 1813

Battle of Kulm, 30 August 1813

Battle of Kulm, 30 August 1813

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Napoleon won a great victory at Dresden, but the changes to his original plan, a tardy pursuit and defeats elsewhere meant that it was not a war winning victory. The Coalition plan of avoiding battle with Napoleon, but seeking it with his subordinates was working: Napoleon had won the only battle in the campaign so far at which he been present, but the Coalition had won the other three.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 906.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 395.

[3] Troop numbers are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 906-12.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 903; M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 136; and F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 178.

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The Battle of Katzbach 26 August 1813

Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia, comprising Prussian and Russian troops, began to advance towards Saxony on 13 August 1813, three days before the armistice between France and the Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden expired. Blücher justified his move into the neutral zone established by the Truce of Pläswitz on the grounds that the French had committed several minor breaches of the armistice

The Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan stated that its armies should avoid battle with the main French body, commanded by Napoleon, but should seek battle with isolated enemy corps. By August 21 Blücher realised that he was advancing on Napoleon, so withdrew.

Napoleon had created the Army of the Bober, commanded by Marshal Jacques MacDonald to guard his left flank. MacDonald’s orders were to push Blücher back to Jauer, and then pin his army in Silesia.

On 26 August MacDonald, believing that Blücher was still retreating, crossed the River Katzbach in pursuit. Blücher, however, realising that he was not facing the main French army, had decided to take the offensive in accordance with both his natural desire to attack and the stipulations of the Trachenberg Plan. The two armies both thought that the other was on the defensive, so both were surprised when they encountered each other advancing.

MacDonald’s army, consisting of III, V and XI Corps and II Cavalry Corps, was widely spread, and poor roads slowed down its advance. MacDonald detached 12,000 men from V and XI Corps to cover his right flank, which was not threatened, and ordered his largest force, III Corps, to cross the Katzbach at Liegnitz and attack the enemy’s right flank at Jauer. The rest of his army was supposed to pin the Coalition forces in place.[1]

General Joseph Souham, who had taken over III Corps from Marshal Michel Ney because Napoleon did not want to have two Marshals with the same army, claimed that the Liegnitz crossing was impassable because of heavy rain, although General Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s Russian corps managed to cross there two days later.

Souham decided to move back towards the rest of MacDonald’s army, but found itself in a traffic jam. Only one of its four divisions managed to cross the river in time to play a role in the battle, and it had to leave its artillery behind.

Once the French had crossed the Katzbach they had to climb about 75m up a steep and heavily wooded slope to a featureless plateau. Dominic Lieven notes that they had to use a path that is still difficult by car in muddy or icy conditions.[2]

On the plateau the French encountered the 55,000 Coalition troops of Count Johann Ludwig Yorck’s Prussian Corps and Sacken’s Russians, who were also advancing. Only about 27,000 out of 67,000 French troops available made it to the plateau by 2pm, when the fighting began.

The heavy rain obscured visibility. Blücher sent Karl von Müffling, his quartermaster-general, forward on a reconnaissance mission. Müffling later wrote that:

‘I was mounted on a mouse-coloured horse, and had on a grey cloak, so that in the pouring rain I was not visible at 100 paces.’[3]

The rain meant that muskets could not be fired and had to be used as clubs, so the fighting was mainly hand to hand. The French were forced to retreat, with many being drowned as they tried to cross the Katzbach, which had risen because of the rain.

Further south French troops under General Jacques-Alexander-Bernard Lauriston attacked Coalition forces under Count Alexandre de Langeron, a French emigré in Russian service. Langeron had fewer infantry  but more cavalry, and was in a strong defensive position. However, he initially gave ground, until he was sent reinforcements at 4pm. He then counter-attacked and recaptured most of the ground lost.

F. Lorraine Petre says that the Coalition captured at least 12-14,000 prisoners and 36 guns. Their own casualties were not recorded, but were heavy.[4] Wikipedia gives casualties of 15,000 French and 4,000 Coalition troops. Lieven notes that the French defeat at the Katzbach was turned into ‘catastrophe’ by the pursuit.[5]  It lasted until the first week in September, by when MacDonald’s army was back in Saxony and had lost 35,000 men.[6]

Langeron, who had been dilatory in the battle, performed well in the pursuit. Blücher gave great credit to Sacken for the victory at the Katzbach. He was promoted by the Tsar and cheered by Yorck’s Prussian troops.


[1] Troops strengths are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 252-53.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 379.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 381.

[4] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 256.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 385.

[6] Ibid., p. 388.

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The Battle of Gross Beeren 23 August 1813

The truce signed by France with Prussia and Russia at Pläswitz on 4 June 1813 expired on 16 August 1813. Both sides had spent most of the intervening period planning and preparing for war, with Austria and Sweden joining the Coalition against France.

Napoleon’s initial plan was to capture Berlin, which he believed would demoralise the Prussians and force the Russians to withdraw to the east and away from the Austrians. It would encourage his German allies to remain loyal, reduce the odds against him and relieve besieged French garrisons on the Oder and Vistula.

Napoleon wanted to punish both his former ally Prussia and his former subordinate Bernadotte for turning on him. Bernadotte, now the Crown Prince of Sweden, commanded the Army of North Germany of 110,000 North Germans, Prussians, Russians and Swedes

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was ordered to advance on Berlin from Saxony with 67,000 men and 216 guns. A further 37,500 men and 94 guns under Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout would march from Hamburg to Berlin. The two forces would be linked by 9,000 troops under General Jean Baptiste Girard at Magdeburg and General Jan Dombrowski’s 5,000 Poles and Wittenberg.

Oudinot had concentrated his army at Baruth by 18 August. His advance started well, and he won an minor engagement at Trebbin on 21 August. There was now a gap between two of Bernadotte’s corps, Friedrich von Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian Corps and Friedrich von Bülow’s 3rd Prussian Corps, and the road to Berlin appeared to be open.

Michael Leggiere notes that Bernadotte feared that he was facing Napoleon himself and lacked confidence in his troops, many of whom were inexperienced, had been retreating and wanted to abandon Berlin.[1] Bülow refused to give up his country’s capital.

After a discussion on the morning of 22 August Bernadotte agreed to remain south of Berlin until he was certain that he faced Napoleon, and redeployed his army accordingly. The Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan was to avoid battle with Napoleon, but to try to defeat detached French corps.

Oudinot’s army was moving along three roads: his own 12th Corps to the west, General Jean-Louis-Ebénézer Reynier’s 7th Corps and General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi’s 3rd Cavalry Corps in the centre and General http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Henri_Gratien,_Comte_Bertrand4th Corps in the east. They could not easily reinforce each other because of the swamps and forests that separated the three, but the roads along which the 12th and 7th Corps were travelling met at Gross Beeren.

On 22 August Oudinot’s troops forced their way across the Nuthe Canal. There were four crossing points, so Oudinot pinned Thyrow, the strongest, with one of his divisions and sent the rest of the corps against Wilmersdorf. Wietstock was attacked by Reynier’s corps and Jühnsdorff by Bertrand’s corps. The plan, according to Leggiere, ‘worked brilliantly’, and the French took all four crossings.[2]

However, Tauentzien followed Bülow’s advice to retreat from Jühnsdorff to Blankenfelde. Leggiere argues that, although this meant the loss of a crossing over the canal, it ‘proved to be a far more decisive position’ the next day.[3]

Early on August 23 Bertrand advanced on Blankenfelde. After an initial combat between skirmishers Bertrand’s artillery forced Tauentzien’s raw Landwehr troops to withdraw. Bertrand also fell back, as he believed that the advance of Reynier on his left would force the Prussians to withdraw, thus allowing the French to win by manoeuvre rather than a frontal assault. Tauntzien did not follow up because of the inexperience of his troops, and both corps were back at their start points by 2pm.

Early on 23 August Bernadotte had ordered Bülow to move his corps further west to Ruhlsdorf. This recreated a gap between Bülow and Tauentzien’s corps that the French could break through and advance to Berlin.

By 10am Bülow could hear the sounds of battle to his east, so sent a messenger to Bernadotte asking permission to close the gap. Bernadotte eventually agreed, but then ordered one of Bülow’s brigades, the 3rd, to hold its position because of reports that the French were advancing on Ruhlsdorf. Reports from Blankenfelde convinced Bernadotte that the threat was to his left flank, and he released the 3rd Brigade to join Bülow.

Reynier reached Gross Beeren around 3pm and took it easily, before ordering his two Saxon and one French divisions, comprising 27,000 men, to camp for the night. Bülow, who had 38,000 troops, decided to attack.[4]

The battle began with an artillery duel that lasted from 5pm to 6pm. It started with 62 Prussian and Russian guns against 44 French and Saxons ones, rising to 80 and 69 respectively as reinforcements arrived. Both sides had therefore suffered significant casualties before Bülow launched his attack against General Sahr’s Saxon division on Reynier’s right. Rain made it impossible for the Saxons to fire their muskets at the advancing French.

The Saxons, heavily outnumbered, were forced to retreat. Reynier ordered General Pierre-François-Joseph Durutte’s French division to counter-attack, but it retreated when it encountering the fleeing Saxons. General Lecoq’s Saxon division was also unable to retake the lost ground, and Reynier used it to cover the retreat of his corps, which by 10pm was back where it started the day.

The French and Saxons lost 3,000 men and 13 guns and the Prussians 1,000 men. F. Lorraine Petre says that the ‘fight was of no real importance to either side.’[5] Leggiere, however, argues that it showed that the reforms of the Prussian Army that had taken place over the previous five years had been successful and that it ‘silenced critics who still questioned the combat-efficiency of the Prussia troops, especially the Landwehr.’[6] He also notes that there was not ‘the slightest hint of pan-German nationalism’ in the attitude of the Saxons.[7]

Bülow’s suggestion that Tauentzien retreat to Blankenfelde probably prevented Bertrand from enveloping Bülow’s corps, which would probably have led to Bernadotte retreating and the French capturing Berlin. The loss of both Prussia’s capital and its new army’s first battle would have had dire consequences for Prussian morale.

Oudinot retreated his army back to Wittenberg, whilst Davout retired to Hamburg. The Coalition might have routed Oudinot’s army if Bernadotte had pursued it, but he did not. Bernadotte, concerned about the threat from Oudinot to his own corps, had dismissed an appeal by Bülow for support on his right flank with the words that ‘the enemy is before me, each must defend his own front.’[8]

Napoleon blamed Oudinot for the failure to take Berlin and replaced him with Marshal Michel Ney. Napoleon’s orders to Ney said that Oudinot ‘never attacked the enemy, and he has been so clever as to let one of his corps attack separately.’[9] However, Napoleon must take his share of the blame for giving an independent army command to a man who was, as Petre says, ‘at most qualified for the subordinate command of an army corps.’[10]


[1] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 153.

[2] Ibid., p. 157.

[3] Ibid., p. 156.

[4] Strengths and casualties are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 261-63.

[5] Ibid., p. 262.

[6] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 173.

[7] Ibid., p. 174.

[8] Quoted in Ibid., p. 166.

[9] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 264.

[10] Ibid.

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The End of the Truce of Pläswitz, 16 August 1813

Napoleon signed a truce with Prussia and Russia at Pläswitz on 4 June 1813. Negotiations failed to produce peace terms acceptable to both sides, and by the end of June it was clear that hostilities would resume once the armistice expired on 16 August. By then Austria and Sweden had joined the Sixth Coalition against France.

Both sides spent the brief period of peace preparing for war. The Coalition decided at Trachenberg to divide their forces into three armies, which would be positioned in an arc round Napoleon’s centre of operations in Saxony. Each would attempt to attack detached French corps, but would retreat if approached by Napoleon’s main army. The other two armies would then threaten the French flanks and lines of communication. The objective was to divide and wear the French down without fighting a major battle.

The three armies were the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, with 230,000 Austrians, Prussians and Russians; the 95,000 Prussians and Russians of the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia; and the Army of North Germany of 110,000 North Germans, Prussians, Russians and Swedes under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden. A fourth, the Army of Poland, with 60,000 men under the Russian General Count Levin August Bennigsen was being formed. [1]

Each army contained a mixture of nationalities in order to stop Napoleon knocking one country out of the war by concentrating on it and to be sure that all acted in the interests of the Coalition.

Smaller forces took the Coalition field army to a total of 512,000 soldiers, and there were another 143,000 troops in reserve and conducting sieges and 112,000 garrisoning fortresses. It was opposed by a French field army of about 450,000, with 77,000 more in garrisons.[2]

It is not clear who was responsible for this plan. Michael Leggiere attributes it to Count Josef Radetzky von Radetz, Schwarzenberg’s chief of the staff, but notes that several other claimed the credit.[3]

Dominic Lieven claims that it was mainly the work of General Karl von Toll, a close adviser to the Tsar Alexander I of Russia, although he had discussed it at length with Radetzky and Schwarzenberg.[4]

F. Loraine Petre says that the original version was the work of Toll, Bernadotte and Colonel Karl von dem Knesebeck, a close adviser to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, with some input from others. It required only the Army of Silesia to automatically avoid a major battle. This was necessary because of its small size and Blücher’s impetuosity. Toll wanted to take the offensive against Napoleon.

Petre states that Radetzky modified it by making it require all of the armies to refuse a major battle. This, Petre argues, shows that the Austrians were still trying to conduct an 18th century war of manoeuvre rather than trying to win a decisive victory.[5]

Schwarzenberg was the Coalition commander-in-chief, but Lieven notes that his powers were limited. He lacked confidence in his military skills, especially in comparison to Napoleon. Alexander and Friedrich Wilhelm were at his headquarters, meaning that Russian and Prussian generals, including Blücher, could go over his head and appeal to their monarch. Bernadotte, effectively a head of state because of the Swedish king’s poor health, paid little heed to Schwarzenberg.

Despite this, Lieven argues that Schwarzenberg was the best choice for the job. The C-in-C had to be Austrian, because of geography and the size of its contribution to the Coalition army. Lieven compares him to General Dwight Eisenhower in World War II in that both had the diplomatic skills to smooth over disputes between their egotistical subordinates.[6]

Napoleon’s initial plan was to capture Berlin, which he believed would demoralise the Prussians and force the Russians to withdraw to the east and away from the Austrians. It would encourage his German allies to remain loyal, reduce the odds against him and relieve besieged French garrisons on the Oder and Vistula.

Napoleon wanted to punish both his former ally Prussia and his former subordinate Bernadotte for turning on him. Marshal Frederic-Auguste Marmont said that:

‘Passion prompted him to act quickly against Prussia. He desired the first cannon shots to be fired against Berlin, and that a startling and terrible vengeance should immediately follow the renewal of hostilities.’[7]

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was ordered to advance on Berlin from Saxony with 67,000 men and 216 guns. A further 37,500 men and 94 guns under Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout would march from Hamburg to Berlin. The two forces would be linked by 9,000 troops under General Jean Baptiste Girard at Magdeburg and General Jan Dombrowski’s 5,000 Poles and Wittenberg.

Napoleon ordered Oudinot to capture Berlin by 22 August. Oudinot was not an obvious choice for the job, and tried to refuse the command on the grounds of ill health, but the Emperor declined his request. Leggiere suggests that Napoleon chose him over better generals on the grounds of loyalty.[8] David Chandler contends that Marshal Nicolas Soult was first choice, but had to be sent to Spain after the disastrous French defeat at Vitoria.[9]

Napoleon originally intended to keep his other 300,000 men around Dresden, but he later decided to form 100,000 into the Army of the Bober under Marshal Jacques MacDonald. It was to operate in Silesia in order to prevent Blücher threatening Oudinot’s flank or Napoleon’s lines of communication.[10]

Dresden was Napoleon’s centre of operations and main supply base. He stated that:

‘What is important to me is to avoid being cut off from Dresden and the Elbe. I will care little if I am cut off from France.’[11]

David Chandler argues that the French had better officers and artillery. Both sides had multi-national forces, but Napoleon’s infantry, unlike that of his enemy, had homogeneous training and equipment. The main French disadvantage was the poor quality of their cavalry, which had not recovered from the huge horse casualties of the Russian Campaign of 1812.[12]

When Napoleon his marshals of his plan Marmont objected to the division of forces into two separate groups. He told the Emperor that:

‘I greatly fear lest on the day which Your Majesty gains a great victory, and believes you have won a decisive battle, you may learn you have lost two.’[13]

Leggiere notes that Marmont would soon be proved to be correct.[14]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 900-1.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 170.

[3] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 126.

[4] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 369.

[5] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 181-84.

[6] Lieven, Russia, pp. 367-69.

[7] Quoted in Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 135.

[8] Ibid., pp. 135-36.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 902.

[10] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 189.

[11] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 902.

[12] Ibid., p. 901.

[13] Quoted in Ibid., p. 903; Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 136; and Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 178.

[14] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 137.

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The Truce of Pläswitz 4 June 1813

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.[1] 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.’[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Esdaile takes issue with those who consider the terms offered to Napoleon to be ‘intolerable’, arguing that ‘they were by no means so bad.’[7] 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.[8]

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.


[1] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 327.

[2] Ibid.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966).

[4] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 504.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 160.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 160.

[7] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 507-8.

[8] Ibid., p. 510.

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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.

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The Start of Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign

Napoleon had to rebuild his army following the failure of his 1812 campaign in Russia. The 1813 class of conscripts had already been called up, meaning that 137,000 men were nearing the end of their training at the start of 1813.[1]

More men were found from the National Guard, a home defence militia, the navy and Italy. Troops were also transferred from Spain to the German front. Others were found by calling up the 1814 class of conscripts early, along with men who had managed to evade the draft for health or other reasons in earlier years.

The new army was large and would fight bravely, but many of the infantry were either young and inexperienced or else old. It was harder to replace the horses than the men lost in Russia. The lack of cavalry would prove to be a major problem for Napoleon in 1813.

The French Empire managed to replace the cannons lost in Russia, but they needed horses to pull them, as did supply wagons, creating logistical difficulties.

Napoleon also had problems with the quality of his generals. According to David Chandler, the mid-ranking officers were still good, but the marshals were tired and past their best, whilst the junior ones were inexperienced.[2]

Whilst rebuilding his army, Napoleon left Marshal Joachim Murat in command in Germany. The Emperor had hoped that Murat would be able to hold the Russians along the River Vistula, but he was forced to retreat to Posen (now Poznan). He then handed over command to Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène, and returned to his kingdom of Naples.

Eugène had too few troops to fight, and the frozen rivers were no help to the defender. Despite orders from Napoleon to hold, he was forced to withdraw his forces, apart from some isolated garrisons, behind the River Elbe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to Dominic Lieven, effectively his own foreign minister. He was with his army, whilst the official foreign minister, Nikolai Rumiantsev, was in St Petersburg. Alexander’s aim was to force France behind its natural frontiers. Rumiantsev thought that the Tsar was too focused on Napoleon, paid too little attention to the Ottoman Empire and Persia and was too keen to satisfy the Austrians and British. [3]

Prussia had been forced to contribute a corps to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but on 30 December 1812 its commander, General Ludwig Yorck, signed the Convention of Tauroggen with Russia, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Friedrich Wilhelm, according to Lieven, ‘detested Napoleon and…liked and admired Alexander…[but] was a great pessimist.[4] He hesitated until the Russian had reached Prussia, but on 28 February 1813 Russia and Prussia signed the Treaty of Kalisz. Five days later the Russian entered Berlin.

The main sticking point in the negotiations was Poland. Friedrich Wilhelm did not want to lose any of the territory that Prussia had gained from the 18th century partitions of Poland. Alexander, however, thought that the only way to deal with Polish nationalism without weakening Russian security was to have a Polish kingdom whose monarch was the Russian Tsar. The agreement was that Prussia would be restored to its 1806 size, receiving northern German territory and population to compensate it for any losses in Poland.

The treaty required both parties to attempt to bring Austria into their alliance. The Austrians, however, were cautious for now.

On 16 March Prussia declared war on France. Napoleon had limited the size of its army to 42,000 after defeating it in 1806, but allowed it to recruit more in late 1812. The Prussians had also secretly created a reserve by forcing a proportion of their soldiers to retire each year. They were therefore able to field 80,000 well trained troops, backed by the Landwehr, a conscript militia and volunteer units.

Charles Esdaile argues that only a ‘very small number’ joined because of German nationalism, but Prussia did have 270,000 troops by the summer.[5]

Defensive manoeuvring continued until early April. By then Eugène had withdrawn from the Elbe because the Prussians were massing near Dresden, and had deployed his troops in a strong defensive position with his right flank on the River Saale.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 866.

[2] Ibid., p. 868.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 285-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 293.

[5] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 494.

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Why Napoleon Invaded Russia in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the military aspects of the actual invasion.

Russia and France were allied in 1807 by the Treaties of Tilsit, which also involved Prussia. Tsar Alexander I of Russia agreed to comply with the Continental System, Napoleon’s attempt to wage economic war on Britain. Alexander supported Napoleon when he went to war with Austria in 1809, sending an army to threaten Austria’s eastern frontier. His foreign minister, Nikolay Rumiantsev, thought that the alliance was in Russia’s interests.

Charles Esdaile argues that Napoleon damaged Franco-Russian relations by making too many demands of his ally. He wanted Russia to send troops to the West, and away from Serbia and the Danube, where Russia was fighting the latest in a long series of wars with the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon ignored Russia’s interests and left Alexander feeling that he was regarded as the junior partner in the Alliance.[1]

The Poles under Marshal Joseph Poniatowski, unlike the Russians, gave great support to Napoleon in 1809. Poland had been first weakened and then destroyed after its territories were partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1772, 1793 and 1796. The Treaty of Tilsit between France and Prussia in 1807 had established the Grand Duchy of Warsaw as a French satellite; it consisted of most of the former parts of Poland annexed by Prussia. In 1809 it was expanded by the addition of territory taken over by Austria.

Alexander, wanting to retain the lands that Russia had acquired when Poland was partitioned, saw the growth of the Duchy of Warsaw as a threat. It was not called Poland but used Polish symbols and the Polish language. He tried to negotiate a treaty under which Austria, France and Russia guaranteed the Duchy’s current borders and agreed that it could not call itself a kingdom. Napoleon refused to sign on the grounds that this meant that the actions of another state could force France into a war. Esdaile points out that, whilst this was true, Napoleon’s real motivation was to allow himself freedom of action in Eastern Europe.[2]

Many Russian were also concerned by King Charles XIII of Sweden’s adoption of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s marshals, as his son and heir in May 1810. The Russo-Swedish War of 1808-9 resulted in Sweden losing Finland to Russia. King Gustavus IV, who was considered to be insane, was deposed and replaced by Charles, who was childless and in poor health. Sweden still controlled over half the Baltic coast, including Pomerania, and many Russians feared that Napoleon was trying to encircle Russia.

In fact, although Bernadotte had served with Napoleon for many years and he and Joseph Bonaparte were married to sisters, he was not close to the Emperor. Bernadotte was jealous of Napoleon’s success, whilst the Emperor had been angered by Bernadotte’s failure to move his corps to the action at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt and by his attempt to claim credit for the victory at Wagram. According to Zamoyski, Napoleon once said that he would have had Bernadotte shot three times had they not been related by marriage.[3]

A further source of dispute was Napoleon’s desire for an heir. He and the Empress Josephine had failed to have children. Since she had a son and a daughter by her previous marriage, it appeared that this was the fault of the Emperor until he had a son by Maria Walewska, his mistress. Determined to produce a legitimate heir, he decided to divorce the 46-year-old Josephine and marry a younger and royal woman.

Napoleon’s first choice was Alexander’s teenage sister, Grand Duchess Anna. Their mother, the Dowager Empress, opposed the intended marriage, as did many leading nobles, who did not want to strengthen ties with France. Alexander was not keen and in February 1810 asked for a two-year postponement because Anna was too young. Napoleon immediately turned his attentions to the Archduchess Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Emperor France I, marrying her on 1 April 1812.

Napoleon managed to offend both the Russians by his quick change of target, and the Austrians by the speed and lack of courtesy with which he pursued Marie-Louise. According to both Esdaile and Zamoyski, he was not playing a double game; Anna was his first choice, but he wanted to marry a young princess and father an heir as soon as possible. There were some complaints in France about Napoleon breaking his ties to the Revolution by marrying an Austrian archduchess, but this had little political impact.[4]

One strong reason for Russian anger with France was the impact of the Continental System. Russia had little industry and had to import many manufactured goods. Alexander wanted to expand Russian trade, but exports fell by 40 per cent in 1806-12, customs revenue from 9 million roubles in 1805 to under 3 million in 1808, the paper currency halved in value in 1808-11 and prices of coffee and sugar rose by as much as five times in 1802-11.[5]

Alexander did not leave the Continental System, but he ceased to enforce it. In December 1810 he opened Russian ports to US ships and made tariffs on imports by land, such as French goods, much higher than those on goods, mostly British, coming by sea.

Also in December 1810, Napoleon annexed the free ports of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck in order to give him greater control over imports into Europe. The next month he took over the Duchy of Oldenburg. Its ruler, Grand Duke Peter, was Alexander’s uncle, and Peter’s heir was married to one of Alexander’s sisters, Grand Duchess Catherine.

By 1811, Alexander was preparing for war with France. He offered to restore the Kingdom of Poland, but the Poles did not want a war that would take place mainly on their territory, and many of them preferred Napoleon to Alexander. Attempts to sign military alliances with Austria, Prussia and Sweden failed. Alexander decided that Russia would not start a war with France.

It was Napoleon who decided to go to war. The best explanation for the reason why is that given by Charles Esdaile:

‘One is left, then, with one explanation, and one explanation alone: frustrated by the long war in Spain and Portugal, and the failure of the Continental Blockade to bring the British to heel, Napoleon was simply bent on flexing his military muscle and winning fresh glory’[6]


[1] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 401-4.

[2] Ibid., pp. 406-7.

[3] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 66.

[4] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 408-10; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 56-57.

[5] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 414.

[6] Ibid., p. 458.

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