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  • James Houser

October 18, 1813 - The Battle of the Nations at Leipzig

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 18, 1813. For almost twenty years, the continent of Europe has been terrified of Napoleon Bonaparte, the military genius that brought all the nations to heel. Today, though, is the true end of the Emperor’s domination of Europe. Austria, Prussia, Russia and even a small British force have combined to finally put an end to his dominion at the German city of Leipzig. It is the largest battle to this point in European history – the Battle of the Nations.


In December of 1812, it looked like Napoleon was already done for. His disastrous retreat from Russia had left him with only a fraction of his Grande Armee; while many numbers are bandied around, the fact that the Emperor had lost the vast majority of his 500,000-man force was bad enough. The Russians had followed him out, and were already gearing up to invade the territory of French-dominated Europe. There was even a rumor that back in Paris, word of the Emperor’s defeat – and even a rumor that he was dead – had sparked a nascent coup. It looked like Napoleon’s house of cards was about to come crashing down around him by New Year’s Day 1813.


But Europe had underestimated Napoleon before, and they underestimated him again. The Emperor galloped back to Paris at top speed, leaving his army under the command of several generals to fend off the Russian advance while he salvaged what he could of the situation. Within a few months, Napoleon had smothered any thought of a coup and restored order in France. Pulling men and material from every garrison and supply depot, he scraped together a new army and set it marching east to head off his enemies. The organizational miracles Napoleon pulled off in winter 1813 were near-miraculous, to be sure, but there were some things he could not fix. In place of his veterans of Austerlitz and Jena – now dead in the wastes of Russia – he had teenage recruits and rear-echelon men, stiffened by a hard core of veterans. He was also drastically short of cavalry horses, thanks again to Russia, and his cavalry would be badly handicapped throughout 1813.


Napoleon needed all the help he could get. Ever since he had overrun Prussia in 1806 and forced a humiliating peace onto that German state, Prussia had been a coerced ally of the Emperor, forced to lend troops and money to his European system. When Napoleon’s army was shattered in Russia, the Prussian auxiliary corps – the troops that he had forced to invade Russia with him – suddenly turned on the French and sided with the Russians. King Frederick William III of Prussia was infuriated at the Prussian commander for jumping the gun, but the general’s decision forced his hand. Sensing that the opportunity to avenge the defeat of 1806 was here, Frederick William officially declared war on France and sided with Russia. It was this Prussian-Russian coalition that Napoleon would face as he marched east with his new, fresh, young army.


Napoleon had dominated central Europe for almost a decade, but he was fully aware that the German states and the great powers had resented his heavy-handed approach and were looking for an opportunity to break free. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability might cause any of his “allies” to break free and join his enemies. Prussia’s defection was possibly the first of many. Napoleon therefore needed to play a delicate balancing act. There were three great powers to worry about on the European continent – Austria, Prussia, and Russia. On their own, they were manageable; in pairs, Napoleon was still confident that he could handle them. All three together, though, could easily spell his doom. Only with his enemies divided could Napoleon preserve the French Empire and his hegemony over Europe.


The other nations of Europe hated Napoleon, and wanted him gone…but. BUT, there was the question of what Europe would look like without him. The erstwhile allies against Napoleon all eyed each other with suspicion, looking past the immediate danger of Napoleon towards the postwar settlement. Their fear of the long-term future almost strangled any short-term cooperation in the face of the very real threat knocking on their doors RIGHT NOW. So in spring of 1813, Prussia and Russia decided that they could take Napoleon without Austria’s help. Austria remained on the fence, not actively helping Napoleon but not joining the ranks of his enemies either. Napoleon was married to the Austrian Emperor’s daughter, and Foreign Minister Karl von Metternich saw a lot of value in keeping Napoleon around as an Austrian ally and counterweight to possible enemies. So it was that Prussia and Russia decided to go after Napoleon together – without Austrian help.


This would prove to be a mistake. The Allies were so caught up with Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, and the destruction of his veteran army, that they forgot one salient fact: the Emperor was most dangerous with his back to a wall. In May 1813, Napoleon fought two battles with the combined Prussian-Russian armies at Lutzen and Bautzen in eastern Germany. He was outnumbered, outgunned, and victorious at both battles – but with heavy losses. Prussia and Russia came away with the knowledge that the old lion might be wounded, but he was still extremely dangerous. Napoleon came away with the sobering thought that his old army was gone, and his enemies had gotten smarter. “These animals have learned something,” he mused as the Allies retreated from Bautzen; victories weren’t going to come as easily as they once had. His lack of cavalry especially hurt the Emperor’s war effort, since he couldn’t pursue and destroy his foe as he had at 1806 following the Jena-Auerstadt campaign.


I may have just tossed Lutzen and Bautzen off cavalierly, but these were huge, bloody battles, larger than any American Civil War battle and with frighteningly high casualties. Napoleonic warfare by 1813 was a high-stakes, high-risk encounter, with large amounts of artillery, enormous infantry formations and sweeping columns of cavalry flooding the landscape. This was premodern warfare at its apex, with hundreds of thousands of men shooting and blasting and stabbing their way through green fields and forest and towns in gleaming breastplates and bright uniforms with banners and plumes and swords. The year 1813 would see some of the most dense, complex, difficult fighting of the whole century as the great powers of Europe tangled together in a small area of eastern Germany.


After Lutzen and Bautzen, Napoleon’s army was exhausted and in need of refitting, so when the Allies offered him a ceasefire in June he eagerly accepted. This was a mistake, since Russia and Prussia planned to spend the breathing spell bringing Sweden and Austria into the war. Sweden, now basically ruled by Napoleon’s old marshal and its current Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, eagerly piled in, but Austria took some more convincing. Napoleon was trying to take the chance to persuade Austria NOT to join the coalition, and to this end agreed to meet with Metternich on June 26, 1813 in a conference at Dresden.


Napoleon faced a stark choice. Despite his victories at Lutzen and Bautzen, he was in an increasingly precarious position. If Austria entered the war, he stood a good chance of being totally defeated; already, the other nations of Europe were coming into line against him. Metternich offered Napoleon a proposal: he should withdraw all French forces from Germany, Poland, and former Austrian territories. France could keep her conquests in Italy, Belgium and the Rhineland. Metternich wanted to preserve a strong France as a counterbalance to Prussia and especially Russia, but Napoleon refused to give up any of his hard-won conquests. He still believed that he could pull out a victory. This was a mistake, obviously. Napoleon was a military genius and commanded the greatest military power in Europe, but he had allowed this to go to his head. He could not fight every European great power. After a disastrous interview where Napoleon screamed at Metternich, stomped on his own hat, and stormed out of the room, Metternich left convinced that Napoleon had to go. Days later, Austria joined the coalition.


With all the European great powers now aligned against him, Napoleon faced a truly daunting challenge when the ceasefire was broken in August 1813. The allies – Austria, Prussia, Russia, Sweden – all met at Trachtenberg Castle in Silesia where they formulated a plan for the final campaign to defeat Napoleon. Bernadotte took the lead in planning, since he had served under Napoleon and knew his methods the best. The Allies would NOT seek open battle with Napoleon himself. Instead, they would engage and defeat his subordinate generals whenever possible, but retreat whenever the Emperor himself approached. Fighting Napoleon in battle on anything like equal terms was a bad idea; instead, they would slowly squeeze him to death from three sides until they could unite their forces and finally crush him.


The next two months of campaign would be intricately complex and detailed, far beyond a Facebook post to describe. Napoleon’s army of 250,000 men was positioned in Saxony, near the city of Dresden; he had enemy armies to his north, east, and south. His strategy was to keep his enemies divided so he could defeat them one by one, hopefully forcing them all to the peace table once again. Bernadotte led the Swedish-Prussian armies (120,000) to the north, which guarded Berlin; Marshal Gebhardt von Blucher led the Prussian-Russian armies (95,000) to the east, in the direction of Poland; and Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg led the Austrian-Russian army (225,000) to the south.


I should mention here that I’m describing hundreds of thousands of men moving across eastern Germany like it’s easy. It’s honestly something beyond description. There were almost as many men on the Allied side in this campaign than in the entire United States Army today. These are enormous, snakelike columns of men and horses and cannons and wagons crashing across the earth like human earthquakes. The amount of resources, effort and human and animal power it took to transport gigantic armies of this size is frankly staggering. The 1813 campaign was HUGE, massive in a way that would not be seen again until World War I – and to be honest, by then they had railroads and telegraphs to transport supplies and send messages. It took extraordinary effort and will to put these huge clods of men and materiel into motion across the roads of Germany. This, here, was a clash of titans.


The campaign followed a repetitive pattern. Napoleon would lunge for one of the three armies around him. That army would pull back, while the other two would close in, sometimes contacting and attacking one of his small subordinate forces that stood in their way. In this manner, the Allies were able to slowly draw the noose tighter around the Emperor. On August 23, Bernadotte’s Prussian-Swedish force (the northern army) intercepted a French army under Napoleon’s infantry wizard Marshal Oudinot, which was moving north to capture Berlin. Bernadotte smashed this army at Grossbeeren, and then a couple of weeks later again at Dennewitz on September 6. Meanwhile, Blucher drew the French army facing him into a trap at the Katzbach on August 26, where 200,000 men fell into a confused fight in the pouring rain. The battle degenerated into hand-to-hand combat before Blucher’s Prussians and Russians overcame the French, suffering heavy casualties.


But neither of them was facing Napoleon. The same day that Blucher was defeating the French at the Katzbach, Napoleon was winning one of his greatest battlefield victories. He surprised Schwarzenberg’s Austro-Russian army when it tried to attack Dresden on August 26. Despite being outnumbered two to three, and making skillful use of terrain and weather, Napoleon turned the allied flank and sent the whole army into panicked retreat – but he was unable to win the great victory he wanted. Thanks to his subordinates’ defeats, too, the enemy armies were closing in behind him. His generals’ losses had cost him men and munitions he could not afford to lose. Even worse, more and more of Napoleon’s puppet states in Europe heard about his losses, and rebellions started to spark up in French-occupied Germany and Italy. His German troops were deserting to the Allies, especially to the Prussians. King Frederick William of Prussia had proclaimed the conflict to be Germany’s “War of Liberation,” the name it has been remembered by ever since in Germany. 1813 was to be the patriotic year for German nationalists.


With the Allies’ northern and eastern armies closing in on him, Napoleon decided to reunify all his forces at the city of Leipzig in the center of his position. He had gotten the news that Wellington’s British, Spanish and Portuguese army had just crossed into France from the south, and that Bavaria had broken away from his alliance and declared war. There was a real chance that, defending eastern Germany, Napoleon would lose his entire empire. This could have been his opportunity to pull back, save his army, and defend the borders of France. He could have even accepted the deal Metternich put out. Even a worse deal would let him retain power, keep many of France’s conquests, and end the war. But Napoleon, full of hubris and high on his own genius, could not consider the possibility that he could be defeated.


So he decided to make his stand at Leipzig, with his back to the Elster River. It was here that the Allies began to close in on him in the second week of October. 325,000 Allied troops were converging on the city, where Napoleon could muster a little over 200,000. He drew his men up in two ranks rather than the traditional three to try and convince the Allies that he had more troops than he really did. The enemy’s armies were closing in from all sides. The Emperor, knowing the enemy was on the way, spent most of October 15 laying his defenses, encouraging his soldiers, distributing awards and ribbons and rallying his troops. He even awarded unit citations to some regiments, a ceremony that had once been accompanied by band music, but “musicians had become scarce, since the greater part of them had been buried in the snows of Russia.”


On October 16, the Allied onslaught on Leipzig began. Austrians, Prussians, Swedes and Russians closed in from all sides for the final assault on Napoleon’s dominance of Europe. Among the half-million men who fought in the epic “Battle of the Nations,” there were French, Germans (on both sides), Russians, Swedes, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Serbs, Hungarians, Egyptians, Turks and Spaniards. Even the British made an appearance; a battery of William Congreve’s famous rocket artillery had arrived with the Swedish forces to help in the fight. Over 2200 cannon seemed to crack the earth open throughout the vast battlefield, where the combined forces of three empires and two kingdoms came together in a shattering din of shots, shouts, booms, gallops and screams.


There were very few fancy maneuvers in the Battle of Leipzig, and attempting to explain the many tactical twists and turns of the fight would be impossible. The massed artillery swept the battlefield, and caused the most damage on both sides. The village of Wachau between the two frontlines was the center of most of the fighting, and it changed hands three times throughout October 16. The Austrian and French infantry battled desperately for its cottages, stores and barns. The battlefield around the village, a broken complex of streams, marshes, and woods, was perfect for defensive warfare. Napoleon tried to break the Allied line with massed artillery and roll it up with his left, and even ordered a cavalry charge late in the day; the 10,000 horsemen of Marshal Murat penetrated the first line, but were driven back by a Russian counterstroke.


In the north, Napoleon barely held off Blucher’s approaching Prussians with a minimal force. Around the village of Mockern, there was no mercy, and both Prussians and French refused to take prisoners. The French held Mockern for most of October 16, but late that day a stray cannonball found a French ammunition wagon. The resulting explosion panicked the French infantry (can you blame them?) and wounded Marshal Marmont, and by nightfall the Prussians held Mockern.

On October 17, little fighting took place, since both sides were trying to catch their breath after the cataclysm of the previous day. The last few French soldiers coming into the fight straggled in, but on the Allied side Bernadotte’s Swedes and Prussians finally arrived from the north, thus filling out the Allied force at its peak of 325,000. With Bernadotte’s reinforcements, the Allies planned to finally smash Napoleon.


So, here’s a lesson: how do you defeat a military genius that has defeated you many times over? Simple: gain overwhelming numbers, hold him in place so he can’t maneuver or get away, and just hammer him to death with everything you have. It worked for Grant when he fought Lee, it worked for Montgomery when he fought Rommel, it worked for the Entente in World War I against the Germans, and now it worked for the Allies against Napoleon on October 18, 1813.


Napoleon opened the battle of October 18 by trying to sue for an armistice, but oh man was it too late for that. The coalition launched a massive assault from all three sides, nearly encircling Napoleon’s army. After nine hours of fighting, only the determined French resistance prevented an outright breakthrough, but they were slowly forced in towards Leipzig. Napoleon realized he would have to try planning a retreat across the narrow pontoon leading to the west. When his German units began to defect to the allies en masse, he knew there was no time to lose and ordered his final retreat.


The retreat from Leizpig went through the night and into the early hours of October 19. Even when taking into account that the battle was already lost, the retreat was a French disaster, as hundreds of thousands of men tried to escape down a single road and across a single stone bridge. Napoleon ordered a rear guard of 30,000 to hold off the enemy as the army escaped, but the retreating troops and wagons and guns bottlenecked on the bridge and panic ensued. The premature destruction of the bridge caused even more panic, and many men drowned trying to swim the Elster; the rear guard was completely annihilated.


The great Battle of Leipzig was the largest battle ever fought on the European continent until World War I. It was also exquisitely bloody, with the Allies losing 54,000 and the French losing 38,000 killed and wounded, though the French lost a further 35,000 captured. The battle utterly ruined Napoleon’s second incarnation of the Grande Armee, and by the time he reached the French border he only had 60,000 men left – and there were no replacements waiting. Leipzig was also Napoleon’s last real chance for a good peace; by December 1813, the Allies were invading France, and they were not in the mood to negotiate. Napoleon’s (first) downfall was imminent.


For the final campaign of 1814 and the abdication of Napoleon, see my post for that in April.


Leipzig, the Battle of the Nations, had decided the fate of nations. The world would not see this apex of warfare again until 1914.


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