Tag Archives: St Cyr

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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Battle of Smolensk, 17 August 1812.

This post follows on from this one on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia up to Battle of Vitebsk on 28 July 1812.

The Russian commander, General Michael Barclay de Tolly, was reluctant to attack. The further that the French advanced into Russia, the better the odds became for the Russians. The French were being harassed by Cossacks and had to leave troops to guard their lines of supply, whilst the Russian were able to bring up more troops.

However, most Russians could not understand why they were surrendering so much territory without a fight, especially after Barclay was joined by General Peter Bagration’s Second Army on 4 August. According to David Chandler, Barclay commanded 125,000 men and Napoleon had about 185,000 in the immediate area.[1]

Barclay was under pressure both from both Tsar Alexander and from his subordinates to attack. On 6 August his generals persuaded him to concentrate against Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry and Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. The next day, Barclay received false reports that there was a French force at Poriechie to his north. He re-aligned his army to the north to face the supposed French threat.

General Matviei Platov, commanding the Don Cossacks. did not receive the order to move north. He encountered and defeated General Horace Sebastiani’s cavalry division at the Battle of Inkovo, taking 200 prisoners, but had to retreat when the French counter-attacked.

Barclay ordered a cautious advance on 13 August, but Bagration, angered by Barclay’s continual changes of orders, declined to co-operate. He had put himself under Barclay’s command when they united on 4 August, but he was not officially subordinate to Bagration.

Napoleon had halted his advance on Smolensk and prepared to receive a Russian attack when he learnt of Inkovo. By 10 August it was apparent that this was not going to happen and he resumed preparations for an attempt to envelop the Russians at Smolensk. Chandler says that:

Almost all commentators agree that this operational plan constitutes one of Napoleon’s masterpieces…This was a manoeuvre of strategic envelopment worthy of the one that preceded his great triumph of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, and if it had succeeded the fruits of victory would have been no less impressive.[2]

The French manoeuvres started on 11 August. Barclay put a rearguard of 8,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry under General Neveroski on the south bank of the Dnieper to guard the approaches to Smolensk. It held up the French cavalry, which might otherwise have reached Smolensk on 14 August. Instead, Napoleon paused for a day to re-group.

Napoleon had now lost the element of surprise and the Russians were able to withdraw to Smolensk. Barclay ordered General Raevski to occupy it with 20,000 men and 72 guns. It had a medieval wall and some more modern defences, but these were in a poor state of repair.

The French reached Smolensk on 16 August. Some fighting took place, but they did not attempt to storm the city until the next day. The Russians held on, suffering 12-14,000 casualties, but inflicting 10,000. Chandler says that it is unclear why Napoleon attacked rather than masking the city and moving to threaten the Smolensk to Moscow road.[3]

Barclay feared such a manoeuvre and evacuated Smolensk on the night of 17-18 August after destroying all his stores. Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, and General Bennigsen objected to this and accused Barclay of cowardice.

The French were slow to move, and their pursuit did not get properly underway until 19 August. General Junot was ordered to take his corps over the Dnieper at Prudichevo in order to cut off the Russian retreat, but took all day to find a crossing, and then did not attack. Ney and Murat were held up by the Russian rearguard under Eugen and Tutchkov at Valutino, and the main Russian

Napoleon did have some good news on 18 August; a victory at Polotsk secured his northern flank. Marshal Charles Oudinot, the French commander, was wounded, but General Laurent St Cyr took over and defeated the Russians. St Cyr was promoted to Marshal.

However, Napoleon was having to advance even further into Russia in an attempt to bring the Russians to battle.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 782.

[2] Ibid., pp. 783-84.

[3] Ibid., p. 786.

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