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.
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.’
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.
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.
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. The campaign was only three weeks old, and the balance had swung against Napoleon.
 M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 193.
 F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 274.
 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.
 Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 209; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 271, 276.
 Lieven, Russia, p. 425.