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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 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 Siege of Burgos and Wellington’s Retreat, 1812.

This post leads on from previous ones on the Battles of Salamanca and Garcia Hernandez.

Wellington was faced with a dilemma after his army liberated Madrid. Politically he could not fall back to Salamanca, but he faced the risk of being counter-attacked by a larger French forces from more than one direction.

The French had withdrawn their garrisons to Burgos and Valencia. According to Charles Esdaile they could field at least 100,000 men against the 60,000 of Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, which might be increased to 70,000 by the addition of Spanish regulars. The guerrillas were good at harassing the enemy, but they could not resist a French counter-offensive.[1]

In late August General Bertrand Clausel advanced on Valladolid, north of Madrid, intending to relieve the isolated French garrisons of Astorga, Toro and Zamora. Wellington, seeing a chance to defeat part of the French army before it concentrated against him, moved north with 21,000 men.

Wellington had taken what Esdaile describes as ‘a serious risk’[2] by moving with such a small force, but it was politically impossible for him to take more troops from Madrid. He hoped to receive support from General Fransisco Castaños’s Spanish 6th Army, which had just taken Astorgas.

In the event, the Spanish, who were short of supplies and artillery, moved slowly, and Clausel was able to retreat, taking the garrisons of Toro and Zamora with him.

Esdaile argues that Wellington should then have gone back to Madrid. He faced two French armies, and have could looked for an opportunity to win a major victory by concentrating against one of them.[3] Instead, he decided to advance on Burgos.

Click here for a link to map of Burgos in 1812.

The city was being pillaged by guerrillas, but a well supplied French garrison of veterans occupied a strong position in Burgos Castle. Esdaile compares General Jean-Louis Dubreton, its commander, to General Armand Phillipon, who had successfully defended Badajoz in 1811 and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers before being forced to surrender the city in April 1812.[4]

Burgos had nine heavy guns, 11 field guns and six howitzers. The garrison of 2,000 men had no permanent shelter. Frederick Myatt argues that the fortress could resist guerrillas or an army without siege guns but not an army well equipped with a siege train and engineers. [5]

However, Wellington had only three 18 pounder guns, five 24 pounder howitzers, five engineer officers, eight Royal Military Artificers, 10 assistant engineers and 81 tradesmen. His army was short of tools, although it found some French ones in the town.

Burgos was invested by the British 1st and 6th Divisions and two Portuguese brigades on 19 September. The 5th and 7th Divisions were positioned to the north-east to guard against a French attempt to lift the siege.

Wellington’s shortage of artillery meant that he had to concentrate on digging and mining, with his guns being used mainly to support assaults. An outer works, the Hornwork, was captured on the first evening of the siege, but at the cost of heavy casualties; 421 Allied compared with 198 French dead, wounded and captured according to Jac Weller.[6] Seven French field guns were taken as well as 60 prisoners.[7]

An attack on the castle’s outer wall on 22 September failed, and Wellington then concentrated on mining. The miners had to operate under fire from the castle, with little support from their own guns, and it often rained.

By 29 September the miners believed that they had reached the scarp wall and a mine was detonated that evening. The subsequent attack failed after troops became lost and failed to find the breach. In the morning it was revealed that it was not a good one, and that the French were working at shoring up their defences. The mine had been detonated too far forward, as the foundations that the miners had met were ancient ones rather than the those of the wall.

The failure damaged Allied morale; Myatt points out that the French had:

‘the reasonable hope that relief would arrive. The British…[were] feeling (perhaps rightly) that they were attempting a hopeless task with quite inadequate support’[8]

The British worked on a second mine. They also set up a battery 60 yards from the outer wall, which was ready by 1 October. The French moved their guns to deal with this new threat and destroyed the battery the same day. The damaged guns were withdrawn and a new position prepared that night. The French artillery destroyed it before the guns could be moved into it.

It was intended to detonate the second mine on 3 October, but problems with the rocky ground meant that it was not ready until the next day. British guns made a breach 60 feet wide in the wall, which was extended to 100 feet when the mine detonated. The British attack succeeded in taking the breach with relatively light casualties.

Preparations now began for an assault on the second wall, but these were hampered by French sorties and poor weather. The attack was planned for 17 October, but Wellington delayed it for a day as he thought that the breach made in the second wall was inadequate. A third mine was detonated  underneath the church of San Roman.

The French beat off the attack on 18 October. Wellington had, according to Jac Weller, 24,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops and 10,000 Spaniards around Burgos. He was now faced with 53,000 French soldiers commanded by General Joseph Souham, who had replaced Clausel. Another French army was advancing on Madrid from Valencia.

Wellington therefore called off the siege and withdrew on the night of 21 October. The French suffered 623 dead, wounded and captured during the siege, but inflicted 2,059 casualties on the besiegers.[9]

Wellington’s rearguard fought an action against French cavalry at Venta del Pozo on 23 October. He initially hoped to make a stand along the River Carrión forty miles to the north-east of Valladolid and to join up with General Sir Rowland Hill’s corps from Madrid.

A series of engagements took place between 25 and 29 October, known collectively as the Battle of Tordesillas. The French captured the bridge over the Carrión at Palencia on 25 October and the bridge over the Duero at Tordesillas on 29 October. Wellington was therefore forced to retreat and ordered Hill to do the same

Hill had been preparing to fight a battle against the advancing French, commanded by Marshal Nicholas Soult. Instead, his rearguard fought an action against the French at Aranjuez on 30 October and he abandoned Madrid the next day. Wellington and Hill combined near Salamanca on 8 November and took up a strong defensive position. The French arrived six days later.

Soult moved to the west to threaten Wellington’s communications with Ciudad Rodrigo. Marshal Auguste Marmont had tried a similar manoeuvre in June and had been defeated after being caught on the march. Soult avoided this by staying further away from Wellington.

This left Wellington with the options of attacking a force that outnumbered him 95,000 to 70,000 or retreating. He chose to retire to Ciudad Rodrigo; it started to rain heavily just after the withdrawal began.

Esdaile says that ‘the French pursuit was none too vigorous.’[10] However, the Allies still lost 6,000 killed, wounded and missing. They included Sir Edward Paget, Wellington’s newly arrived second-in-command, who was captured on 17 November. Discipline and morale broke down as the troops retreated in bad weather, echoing the retreat to Coruña in 1809.

Wellington had lost much of the ground that he had won earlier in the year. However, the Allies still held the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, known as the keys to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold these, so Wellington had a better starting point for his 1813 offensive than he had possessed in 1812.

[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 409.

[2] Ibid., p. 410.

[3] Ibid., p. 411.

[4] Ibid.

[5] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), p. 134.

[6] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 236.

[7] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 136-37.

[8] Ibid., p. 142.

[9] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 237-38.

[10] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 418.

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