Napoleon 1813: Battle of the Nations

published on June 30, 2020

October 1813 Napoleon Bonaparte faced his
greatest crisis since becoming Emperor of

the French, nine years before

His long war in Spain had ended in defeat,
and an Anglo-Spanish Portuguese army had now

crossed the Pyrenees to invade France itself

In Germany, the Kingdom of Bavaria had switched
sides, and joined the Sixth Coalition against


While in Saxony, Napoleon faced four armies
converging on him from all directions

What’s more, these were not the same bunglers
he’d crushed in 1805 and ‘6, at Austerlitz

and Jena

Prussia, Austria and Russia had all learned
from their mistakes; they were now better

organised, trained and led, and more wary
of Napoleon…

The largest Coalition force was the Army of
Bohemia, commanded by Austrian Field Marshal

the Prince of Schwarzenberg

His was a huge mixed Austrian-Russian-Prussian
army of 194,000 men and 790 guns

To the north, Blücher’s Army of Silesia,
and the Army of the North, under Napoleon’s

ex-Marshal Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of
Sweden Together, 130,000 men and 536 guns

To the southeast, General Bennigsen’s Army
of Poland, besieging Dresden Another 34,000

men and 135 guns

In total, the Coalition had fielded 360,000
men and 1500 guns, with Russia supplying the

bulk of the troops

One unique addition to Bernadotte’s Army
of the North was a single troop of British

rocket artillery – an experimental weapon-system
based on the Congreve rocket, a type seen

here in 1830 Although wildly inaccurate,
their high explosive warhead could be devastating

at close range

Napoleon’s forces around Leipzig were outnumbered
almost two-to-one

But with 200,000 men and 700 guns, the Grande
Armée was still a force to be reckoned with,

with many experienced troops and commanders,
even though it increasingly relied on young

conscripts to make up numbers

There were another 140,000 men that Napoleon
could not call on… General Rapp’s Tenth

Corps besieged in Danzig, Marshal StCyr’s
First Corps besieged in Dresden, Marshal Davout’s

Thirteenth Corps holding Hamburg, as well
as several smaller besieged garrisons across

Germany and Poland

Napoleon was currently about 20 miles north
of Leipzig with the bulk of his army

Marshal Murat was 40 miles to the south with
90,000 men, covering Schwarzenberg

Napoleon now decided to rapidly join Murat,
and with their temporary superiority in numbers,

defeat Schwarzenberg, before Bernadotte and
Blücher could intervene

Murat had orders to conduct a fighting withdrawal
northwards, but at Liebertwolkwitz, he was

drawn into major combat with the enemy’s
advance guard

Around 12,000 horsemen fought what some have
described as the largest cavalry battle in

Europe’s history Murat, in the thick of
it as usual, was very nearly captured by Prussian


The battle ended in a minor Coalition victory,
with around 2,000 casualties on each side

The next day Napoleon arrived to take command

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By 16th October, Napoleon had concentrated
most of his forces south of Leipzig

Field Marshal Schwarzenberg meanwhile, against
Russian advice, had deployed his army on either

side of the Pleisse River, which would hinder
his movements throughout the battle

Napoleon had entrusted the northern sector
to Marshal Ney, with orders to keep an eye

out for Blücher and Bernadotte But Napoleon
didn’t expect them for at least another

day, and so Ney had orders to transfer most
of his troops south for the attack on Schwarzenberg

Schwarzenberg, however, knew that Blücher
and Bernadotte were closer than Napoleon suspected,

and that Bennigsen was also marching up from

This was the moment the Coalition had been
waiting for – all their armies converging

on Napoleon with overwhelming superiority
in numbers

However the Coalition’s Headquarters were
nothing like Napoleon’s, were one man’s

will decided all

Schwarzenberg had to attempt to co-ordinate
the actions of three large armies, from three

separate states

And although he was Commander-in-Chief, his
plans still needed to be approved by Emperor

Alexander, the Supreme Commander… whilst
he also managed relations with the King of

Prussia and the Emperor of Austria, all of
whom were present at his headquarters

The plan finally agreed was for General Wittgenstein’s
corps-group to lead an attack in four main

columns – with two Austrian flanking attacks
west of the Pleisse

At 8am, a bombardment began along the line,
as Russian, Austrian and Prussian infantry

regiments advanced across cold, muddy fields

Wachau soon fell to Russian infantry, but
French artillery fire made it impossible for

them to advance further Victor’s Second
Corps then counter-attacked, retaking the

village at bayonet-point

Wachau would change hands twice more that

These bloody contests for small Saxon villages
would come to typify the fighting around Leipzig

At Markkleeberg, Kleist’s Prussian Second
Corps drove out the Polish defenders after

bitter fighting

While on the left bank of the Pleisse, Merveldt’s
Austrian Second Corps struggled across broken

ground to attack well-defended villages Their
assault on Connewitz stalled, but with heavy

losses, the Austrians got a toe-hold in Dölitz

On the right flank, around 10am Klenau’s
Fourth Corps occupied the high ground of the

Kolmberg, and fought its way into Liebertwolkwitz

Napoleon, observing from Gallow’s Hill,
ordered up Augereau’s Ninth Corps and the

Young Guard in support

Macdonald’s Eleventh Corps was now also
arriving in position on his left His troops

retook the Kolmberg, and counterattacked Liebertwolkwitz,
driving out the Austrians, and pursuing them

over the fields beyond

The advance was only halted when Russian Cossacks
were sighted on their open left flank – a

warning that Bennigsen’s army was not far

The Coalition offensive was going nowhere,
with most of its modest gains lost to French


But there was one sector where the Coalition
had more success that morning:

General Gyulai’s Austrian Third Corps, with
orders to threaten Napoleon’s line of retreat,

advanced over marshy ground towards Lindenau
Ney had to divert Bertrand’s Fourth Corps

to reinforce the village, and ensure the road
to France was kept open

Napoleon was waiting for Ney’s reinforcements
before launching his attack on Schwarzenberg

But now Fourth Corps was tied down at Lindenau…
and there was more bad news from Ney:

Blücher’s Army of Silesia was approaching
from the northwest Marmont’s Sixth Corps

had had to turn about, to keep the Prussians
at bay

Heavy fighting broke out around Möckern,
the village itself held by elite French marines…

while Dąbrowski’s Polish division clung
onto Wiederitzsch, under attack from an entire

Russian corps

This was a nasty surprise for Napoleon, who’d
thought Blücher was still a day’s march


But the old Prussian general, hearing cannon-fire
to the south, had urged his men on, and into

the attack

Blücher intended to draw as many French troops
onto himself as possible, to assist Schwarzenberg’s

Army of Bohemia

His actions, and the bloody fight for Möckern,
may just have saved the Coalition from defeat…

Napoleon was outnumbered across the whole
battlefield, but in the south, he still had

a numerical advantage… not as large as he’d
hoped, nor likely to last long

Schwarzenberg and Alexander were already moving
up reserves – though Schwarzenberg now found

that his were on the wrong side of the Pleisse
River – costing precious hours

It was now or never for Napoleon

At 2pm he ordered the attack to begin

A grand battery of 180 guns blasted the enemy

Then Victor’s Second Corps, Lauriston’s
Fifth Corps and the Young Guard began their


In support, Murat gathered two entire cavalry
corps – 10,000 horsemen – and led them

in one of the great mass cavalry charges of
the Napoleonic Wars

Cuirassiers of the 1st Heavy Cavalry Division
broke through to the main enemy battery Some

even nearly reached the three Coalition monarchs

But the ground was marshy and broken by fences
and ditches The French horses were soon exhausted,

and the squadrons disordered

Austrian cuirassiers and Russian Guard cavalry
were coming up from the south

When these fresh Allied cavalry reserves charged
the French, a great melee ensued… but the

French were eventually driven back to their
start line

Maison’s division of the Fifth Corps was
involved in a desperate struggle for Gülden-Gossa

The fighting swept back and forth through
the village, the streets filling with dead

and wounded from both sides

But as Russian and Prussian Guard regiments
arrived to reinforce the village, the French

were forced to fall back

Around 4pm, the Austrian Reserve Corps finally
arrived, and renewed the assault on Markkleeberg

– one of the morning’s objectives, which
was finally secured

By 5pm it was clear that Napoleon didn’t
have enough reserves to force a decisive outcome

in the south

To the north, Möckern was being stubbornly
held by French marines, with lethal close-range

artillery support

But despite terrible losses, Yorck’s Prussian
corps continued to attack

Marshal Marmont himself was wounded twice,
but remained in command

Finally a brilliant charge by Prussian hussars
triggered a French rout Möckern fell, as

Marmont’s corps streamed back towards Leipzig

As dusk fell around 6pm, fighting died out
across the battlefield

The first day of the battle had cost the French
an estimated 25,000 casualties; the Coalition,

at least 30,000

Napoleon had come close, but failed to land
a decisive blow

The chance for victory was slipping from his

17th October 1813

“VIII Corps have lost a third of their men
and many officers All ammunition stocks have

been used up… The slightest delay in ammunition
resupply could cause us heavy losses as we

have not enough to maintain combat for one
hour” Poniatiowski’s report, end of Sat

16th Oct

Sunday 17th October brought a lull, with both
armies exhausted by the previous day’s fighting

Napoleon needed to rest his troops and resupply
them with ammunition, which was running dangerously


He also sent a message to his father-in-law,
Emperor Francis I, suggesting an armistice

and finally offering concessions But the
allies were no longer interested They knew

time was on their side

The only major combat that day occurred in
the north, where Blücher continued to attack

Russian infantry stormed Eutritzsch… and

Russian hussars charged and routed part of
Arrighi’s Third Cavalry Corps

That day Napoleon received 14,000 reinforcements
when Reynier’s French-Saxon Seventh Corps

arrived from the northeast

But the same day, the Coalition received more
than 100,000 reinforcements, as their armies

continued to converge on Leipzig

Colloredo’s Austrian First Corps… Bennigsen’s
Army of Poland… and Bernadotte’s Army

of the North – though the latter was widely
criticised for his leisurely march to the


The next day Napoleon would face odds of nearly
two to one – it was time for the emperor

to begin planning his retreat

On Monday morning, the sun shone across 40
square miles of battlefield, on which nearly

half a million troops and 2,000 cannon were
assembled: soldiers from France, Germany,

Russia, Austria, Poland, Italy, Sweden, the
Netherlands, and even Britain

This was truly ‘the Battle of the Nations’

In preparation for his withdrawal, Napoleon
pulled back his forces into a tighter, defensive


and ordered Bertrand’s Fourth Corps to march
west to secure the army’s line of retreat

Two divisions of the Young Guard, under Marshal
Mortier, took their place at Lindenau

Schwarzenberg, meanwhile, planned to close
the net on Napoleon, with six converging attacks

Fighting in the south began around 8am

The Austrians took Dölitz, but Marshal Oudinot
led a counterattack at the head of a Young

Guard division, and drove them out again

Schwarzenberg was so alarmed by this reverse,
that he sent orders to recall Gyulai’s Third


General Barclay’s troops initially faced
little opposition, as they took Wachau and

Liebertwolkwitz, scenes of such bitter fighting
two days before, but now scarcely defended

Barclay then paused, waiting for Bennigsen
to get into position on his right, before

continuing his attack

Bennigsen’s troops had more ground to cover,
but towards noon, they’d driven back Macdonald’s

infantry and taken their objectives

They would now wait for Bernadotte’s army
to link up on their right But the Army of

the North was again making slow progress,
for which many, again, blamed its commander,

who seemed exceedingly cautious about facing
his old master in battle

Blücher, in contrast, did not hesitate to
launch Russian infantry against Leipzig’s

northern defences, though their attack failed
with heavy losses

By 2pm, Napoleon was hard-pressed on all fronts,
but holding his own

His attention was now focused on Probstheida,
key to his southern front, under attack from

Kleist’s Prussian Second Corps

French troops had turned the village into
a fortress, and inflicted terrible losses

on the advancing Prussians

Probstheida was soon engulfed in smoke and
fire, as fighting raged on all sides Some

Prussian regiments lost half their men attacking
the village, while three French generals were

killed as they organised its defence Napoleon
even sent in Friant’s division of the Guard

to reinforce the position

To the north, Bernadotte’s army was finally
joining the battle in earnest

Marmont had assembled 137 guns around Schönefeld,
which poured fire into the Russian ranks

In response, Bernadotte massed 200 guns of
his own

The fields were soon strewn with the dead
and wounded, as the sheer weight of fire made

it impossible for either side to advance

Around 3pm, von Bulow’s Prussian corps,
supported by Austrian jaegers and its small

British rocket detachment, attacked Paunsdorf

Reynier’s Seventh Corps could not withstand
the onslaught

An hour later, around 3,000 Saxon soldiers
rushed over to the enemy and surrendered

The Saxons were deeply disillusioned with
their French allies Their main wish now was

for a quick end to a war that had ravaged
their homeland for many months

The hole in the line created by the Saxons’
defection was soon plugged by Guard cavalry

But the Coalition juggernaut could not be

Towards dusk, under relentless Russian pressure,
Marmont abandoned the burning ruins of Schönefeld,

while the Prussians took Sellerhausen

In the south, Probstheida still held, but
the situation was grim for Napoleon

The third day’s fighting cost both sides
another 25,000 casualties

Napoleon’s army was exhausted, outnumbered,
virtually encircled… and critically low

on ammunition

Finally, the Emperor gave the order to retreat

Overnight, under cover of darkness and early
morning fog, the French army withdrew behind

Leipzig’s walls… and at 4am began its
retreat west, crossing the single bridge over

the Elster River, that led back to France

There’d been time and materials to build
extra bridges, but in what would prove a serious

oversight, no one had given the necessary

Furthermore, there was no clear plan for Leipzig’s
defence, which was left to a jumble of under-strength

units, mostly Poles and Germans

Napoleon left Leipzig around 10am

Behind him, there were scenes of mounting
chaos and confusion, the city’s streets

jammed with troops, guns and wagons

The 20,000 wounded troops in the city had
little hope of escape

30 minutes later shells began to rain on the
city, as the Coalition launched an all-out

assault from north, east and south

The rearguard held the city’s gates for
as long as they could But they were soon

overwhelmed by the enemy, and savage street
fighting broke out across the city

A barge, packed with gunpowder, had been moored
beneath the Elster bridge, so that it could

be quickly destroyed after the rearguard crossed

Around 2pm, a corporal lit the fuse when he
saw Russian soldiers on the far bank… even

though the bridge was still packed with troops,
wagons and horses

The bridge was destroyed in a gigantic explosion,
that trapped 30,000 men and 30 generals on

the wrong side of the river

Panic broke out among those who suddenly found
themselves cut off

Most became prisoners, but some tried to swim
for it… including the Polish Prince Poniatowski,

made a Marshal by Napoleon just three days

Weak from his wounds, he rode his horse into
the river, but as it tried to climb the steep

far bank, it rolled over him, and he was drowned

Marshal Macdonald had also been cut off by
the blast, and resolved to escape, or die


He found a place where engineers had cut down
two trees as a makeshift bridge, and made

his attempt:

“… and there I was, one foot on either
trunk, and the abyss below me A high wind

was blowing I was wearing a large cloak and
fearing that someone would grab at it, I got

rid of it

I was already three-quarters of the way across,
when some men decided to follow me; their

unsteady feet caused the trunks to shake…
and I fell into the water

Fortunately I could touch the bottom, but
the bank was steep, the soil loose and slippery…

Some of the enemy’s skirmishers came up
They fired at me point-blank, and missed me,

and some of our men who happened to be nearby
drove them off, and helped me out

I was wet from head to foot, breathless and
sweating heavily from my efforts Marshal

Marmont, who had got across early in the day,
gave me a horse; I wanted dry clothes more,

but they were not to be had”

The loss of the bridge turned what was already
a heavy defeat for Napoleon… into a disastrous


Later that day the three Allied monarchs met
in the centre of Leipzig to celebrate their

great victory

It had come at enormous cost

Exact numbers are impossible to establish,
but in four days’ fighting, the Coalition

armies suffered at least 52,000 casualties

Napoleon, who could less afford such losses,
came off worse: 47,000 killed and wounded,

35,000 taken prisoner, 325 guns lost

More men were killed and wounded at Leipzig
than in any European battle before the First

World War

Sir George Jackson, the British ambassador
to Austria, rode over the battlefield with

Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister,
two days later:

“A more revolting and sickening spectacle
I never beheld,” he wrote “Scarcely could

we move forward a step without passing over
the dead body of some poor fellow, gashed

with wounds and clotted with blood… another,
perhaps, without an arm or a leg… here and

there a headless trunk, or a head only, which
caused our horses to stumble or start aside…

It made one’s blood run cold to glance upon
the upturned faces of the dead… We got over

this ‘field of glory’ as quickly as we

Napoleon had suffered a calamitous defeat
He had lost the battle for Germany – his

domination of Europe appeared at an end

With 80,000 survivors, he began a fighting
retreat to the French border

There was now no chance of rescue for the
100,000 men trapped in garrisons across Germany

and Poland, though some would hold out for
another five months

Marshal Murat took his leave of the Emperor,
assuring him of his loyalty… but secretly

planning to cut a deal with the Allies to
save his throne in Naples It was the last

time the two men saw each other

Eleven days after the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon’s
former allies, the Bavarians, tried to block

his escape at Hanau, with 40,000 men

The Bavarian commander, von Wrede, had served
with Napoleon in many campaigns But on seeing

his deployment for battle, Napoleon remarked,
“I made him a count, but I couldn’t make

him a general”

The French Emperor then ordered the Imperial
Guard to lead an attack, that forced the enemy

to fall back in disarray

The French army reached the safety of Mainz
three days later

Napoleon himself pushed on to Paris, to contain
the political damage from his defeat

Behind him, his Empire was being dismantled
On 4th November the Coalition announced the

dissolution of the Confederation of the Rhine
– several of its former members now joining

the war against France

In the Illyrian Provinces, local revolts,
Austrian invasion and British naval support

brought an end to French rule

In North Italy, Eugène was retreating steadily
before the advance of von Hiller’s Austrian


While in Hamburg, Marshal Davout, with 34,000
troops, would soon be cut off, and under siege

Napoleon’s situation was desperate

But in the next campaign… fought for France
itself… Napoleon would prove that he was

still the master of war

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