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.’
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.’
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
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.
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.’
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, 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.
 D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 906.
 D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 395.
 Troop numbers are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 906-12.
 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.