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The Battle of Nations: Leipzig (2) The Battle 16-19 October 1813.

On 14 October 1813 Napoleon abandoned his attempt to destroy the three Coalition armies that he faced in Germany in detail, and moved his army to Leipzig. On 16 October he was attacked by the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg from the south and the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia from the north. The Army of North Germany under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and formerly one of Napoleon’s Marshals, had moved more slowly, but would be at Leipzig by 18 October.

Napoleon was outnumbered on 16 October but not hugely, except in artillery. According to F. Lorraine Petre the Coalition had 205,000 men, including 3,500 Cossacks and 40,000 other cavalry, and 916 guns at Leipzig on 16 October. The French had 191,000 men, including 30,000 cavalry, and 690 guns. These odds were not enough to counter-balance Napoleon’s superiority to the opposing commanders. However the Coalition would have 321,000 men, including 8,500 Cossacks and 60,000 other cavalry, and 1,382 guns by 18 October. The French army would then have risen only to 205,000 men, including 30,000 cavalry, and 700 guns.[1] David Chandler thinks that both sides had more guns on 18 October than Petre says: 900 French and 1,500 Coalition.[2]

If Napoleon was to win he had to do so quickly. The French were in a strong position, although the Emperor did not intend to sit on the defensive. They had the advantage of operating on interior lines, making it easier for them to move troops around the battlefield. They had increased this advantage by destroying a large number of bridges. Napoleon was looking north for future operations and his possible line of retreat. There was a shortage of bridges if his army had to retreat west, which was the shortest route back to France.

Napoleon, unaware of the locations of Blücher and Bernadotte’s armies, did not expect much action in the north, which was to be held by III, IV, VI and VII Corps under Marshal Michel Ney.

The main French attack would come in the south. The 37,000 men of II, V and VII Corps, would pin the Army of Bohemia. The 23,000 men of Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s XI Corps and General Horace-François-Bastien Sebastiani’s II Cavalry Corps would envelop the enemy right. The decisive blow would be made by the Imperial Guard, including its cavalry, IX Corps and I Cavalry Corps, a total of 62,000 men, supported by either IV or VI Corps moving south.

The Coalition intended that Blücher’s 54,000 men should attack in the north west and General Ignac Gyulai’s 19,000 in the west. Their main attack, however, would be in the south with 77,500 Austro-Russians under Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein. The 24,000 men of the Russian and Prussian Guards would be held in reserve.[3]

At 7 am Napoleon ordered Marshal Auguste Marmont to move his VI Corps south. Marmont obeyed, although he could see Blücher ‘s campfires, so knew that the Coalition were likely to attack in the north. However, Blücher ‘s troops then began to advance, and Ney cancelled Marmont’s movement, ordering him to take up position at Möckern instead. Ney told General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps to move south in place of VI Corps, but Gyulai then launched his attack against Lindenau, and Ney sent IV Corps to reinforce against this assault. He sent only two divisions of General Joseph Souham’s III Corps south.

The main Coalition attack in the south started around 8:30 am, but was hampered by poor co-ordination, mist and rain. The poor weather also held up the French enveloping move. A frontal battle therefore took place around Wachau. By 11 am the Coalition attack was running out of steam. Reinforcements were brought up, but they encountered XI Corps moving forward.

In the north Blücher moved cautiously because he knew that Bernadotte would not arrive that day. The fighting in the north and west was going well for the French, but it meant that neither IV nor VI Corps could move south. The two divisions that Ney did send south did not arrive in time to take part in the attack.

The French began counter-attacking in the south at mid-day, and were able to force the Coalition troops back. However, the absence of reinforcements from the north prevented the planned envelopment of the Coalition right from coming to fruition. Nevertheless, Napoleon launched his main attack at 2 pm.

This initially went well. At 2:30 pm a major cavalry action began. The French I Cavalry Corps, commanded by General Jean-Pierre Doumerc because General Marie-Victor-Nicolas Latour-Maubourg had been wounded, broke two Coalition battalions, captured 26 guns and nearly got to Tsar Alexander’s command post. A counter-attack by Alexander’s escort squadron and Russian cuirassiers pushed the tired French cavalry back at 3:30pm. This could have been a decisive breakthrough, but Doumerc and Marshal Joachim Murat failed to send reinforcements. The Army of Bohemia had been forced to retreat, but was still intact.

Napoleon would have sent reinforcements to exploit the success of I Cavalry Corps if he had been on that sector, but he had ridden north to Möckern just 2:30 pm after hearing heavy firing.

The battle round Möckern was fierce. Around 2 pm Blücher sent Count Johann Ludwig Yorck’s corps against Marmont’s VI Corps and Count Alexandre de Langeron’s corps against General Jan Dombrowski’s Polish division on Marmont’s right. The Poles were forced back by weight of numbers. Langeron’s advance was held up, however, when he mistook an advancing French division for a corps and fell back.

Ney recalled the two divisions of III corps that he had sent south. He then changed his mind, and ordered to turn round again. They spent most of the day marching between Möckern and Wachau without playing much role in either battle. Ney would make a similar mistake in the 1815 campaign.

A desperate battle took place between Yorck and Marmont’s corps at Möckern. The leading Prussian division was routed around 5 pm, and Marmont ordered General Karl von Normann’s Württemberg cavalry, which would change sides two days later, to charge. Normann refused, so Marmont advanced his infantry, but they were attacked by Yorck’s cavalry. VI Corps was thrown out of Möckern. Marmont rallied his men, and darkness ended the action before Blücher could commit his reserves.

The French won narrow victories at Lindenau and Wachau on 16 October, but were beaten at Möckern. The Coalition lost 30,000 dead, wounded and prisoners and the French 25,000.[4] The French might have won a decisive victory at Wachau if either the two divisions that Ney marched around the battlefield or the 30,000 man garrison of Dresden had been present, or if I Cavalry Corps’ success had been reinforced.

However, the number of Coalition reinforcements heading for Leipzig meant that the French chance of victory had now gone. Napoleon could have extracted the bulk of his army if he had retreated on 17 October, but he chose to stay and fight. He tried to win time by offering Emperor Francis I of Austria an armistice, but this only convinced the Coalition that Napoleon realised that he was close to defeat.

The 17 October was a quiet day, although there was some fighting between Blücher and Marmont’s troops. Napoleon did not attack, and the Coalition decided to wait a day for their reinforcements.

The Coalition intended to launch six attacks on the French. These were commanded by Blücher  and Bernadotte in the north, Count Levin August Bennigsen, Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly and Prince Friedrich Hesse-Homburg in the south and Gyulai in the west

Napoleon ordered the shortening of his line and made preparations to retreat. He ordered, too late, the construction of more bridges at Lindenau. The French held a gap between Blücher and Gyulai, allowing them a line of retreat.

The attacks began slowly. Hesse-Homburg’s attack was repulsed by Prince Józef Poniatowski’s Poles and Gyulai’s by Bertrand’s IV Corps. In the east MacDonald and Sebastiani linked up with General Jean-Louis-Ebenezer Reynier’s newly arrived VII Corps to complete the shortening of the line.

In the afternoon Barclay and Hesse-Homburg’s attacks were repulsed, but Bennigsen, eventually supported by the late arriving Bernadotte, forced MacDonald, Sebastiani and Reynier back. Napoleon committed the Old and Young Guards in a successful counter attack. However, at 4:30 pm two Saxon brigades and an artillery battery of Reynier’s VII Corps deserted to the Coalition, opening a gap in the French line.

Bennigsen and Bernadotte then renewed their attacks. By sunset the French were holding in the south, but had been forced back to the suburbs of Leipzig in the north and east. They were running out of ammunition, and clearly were unable to hold, so Napoleon ordered preparations for a retreat.

III, VII and IX Corps acted as a rearguard under the command of Marshal Nicolas-Charles Oudinot whilst the rest of the army began to retreat across the River Elster at Lindenau. The Coalition did not realise what was happening until 7 am, nearly five hours after the retreat had begun. The French received a further respite when Napoleon persuaded King Friedrich August I of Saxony to ask Alexander to spare Leipzig, resulting in a 30 minute ceasefire at 10 am.

Oudinot had 30,000 men to hold a front line of 6,500 yards.[5] They were forced back into the inner city by 11:30 am, but continued to resist, and it appeared as if the retreat would be a great success.

However, Napoleon had put the ‘unreliable’ General Dulauloy in charge of demolishing the only bridge over the Elster at Lindenau once the French army had crossed it.[6] Dulauloy delegated this to Colonel Montfort, who left a corporal in charge of the demolition charges. The corporal panicked when he saw some Russian skirmishers approach the bridge, and blew it whilst it was full of French soldiers, horses and wagons, with thousands of others still to cross.

Poniatowski, who had just been promoted to Marshal, drowned when he tried to cross the Elster. Those who could not cross fought on until surrendering in the late afternoon.

The Coalition lost about 54,000 me killed and wounded over the four days of battle. French losses were 38,000 killed and wounded, 5,000 Germans deserted and 30,000 captured. Six of Napoleon’s generals were killed, including Poniatowski, 12 wounded, including Marmont, MacDonald and Ney, and 36 captured, including Reynier. The King of Saxony was also captured. The French also lost 325 cannons, many supply wagons and much of their stores, including 40,000 muskets.[7]

Napoleon’s only chance of winning was on the first day because of the many Coalition reinforcements that were on their way. He might have done had he not left 30,000 men at Dresden, or if Ney had not marched two divisions round the battlefield.

The Emperor should have withdrawn on 17 October, but he still would have extracted more men, guns and supplies on 19 October without the negligence of the officers put in charge of demolishing the bridge. However, enough Frenchmen escaped for the war to continue. This might not have been the case if Bernadotte had arrived earlier.

This battle ended Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. Saxony was occupied by the Coalition, although Dresden held out until 11 November. Many of the members of the pro-French Confederation of the Rhine followed the lead of Bavaria, the largest member, and joined the Coalition.

[1] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 328-29.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 932.

[3] Ibid., pp. 924-25.

[4] Ibid., p. 932.

[5] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 273.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 935.

[7] Ibid., p. 936; Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, pp. 275-76.


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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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