Napoleon 1813: The Road to Leipzig

published on June 30, 2020

1812 had been a disastrous year for Napoleon

His invasion of Russia had led to the almost
total destruction of an army of half a million


Now Poland and Germany were wide open to Russian

Some advised Emperor Alexander that this was
the time to make a favourable peace with Napoleon

– Russia’s own armies had been mauled,
and western Russia devastated

But Alexander was determined to see Napoleon
defeated for good – to free Europe from

his clutches, and avenge Moscow’s destruction…
by taking Paris

Napoleon’s allies were deserting him: Prussian
troops had already agreed a truce with the


Schwarzenberg’s corps marched back to Austria,
which assumed a policy of watchful neutrality

Napoleon had left Marshal Murat in charge
of the remnants of the army But he left for

the Kingdom of Naples, hoping to cut a deal
with the Allies that would let him keep his


He was replaced by Napoleon’s stepson Eugène,
who’d proved himself a brave and able soldier

in Russia, but was unused to independent command,
and now faced odds of four-to-one

As Russian forces advanced through Poland,
he continued to retreat west, leaving garrisons

to hold strategic fortresses, most of which
were soon besieged

On 7th February Russian troops entered Warsaw
unopposed: Napoleon’s Polish client state,

the Duchy of Warsaw, effectively ceased to

Three weeks later, Russian troops entered
Berlin… while Sweden joined the Allies

Sweden was ruled by Napoleon’s former marshal
Bernadotte, now officially known as Crown

Prince Karl Johan

Many would accuse him of betraying Napoleon,
but he’d always been clear that once he

became Sweden’s Crown Prince, he’d pursue
Swedish interests – which is what he now

claimed to do

In exchange for Norway, to be taken from France’s
ally Denmark, and one million pounds from

Britain, Bernadotte agreed to join what was
now the Sixth Coalition against France since

the Revolution, with an army of 30,000 troops

Ten days later King Frederick William of Prussia
declared war on France

It followed weeks of indecision – the king
was widely seen as a weak character, and terrified

of Napoleon

But with guarantees of Russian military support,
the return of lost territory, and enormous

financial and material aid from Britain, he
agreed to field an army of 80,000 men

On 17th March he issued a proclamation to
the people of Prussia and Germany, ‘An Mein

Volk’, ‘To My People’… summoning them
to fight for Prussia and Germany’s honour,

in what would soon be known as the ‘German
War of Liberation’

The Prussian army had been greatly reformed
since its humiliating defeat to Napoleon in


A military commission, headed by General von
Scharnhorst, had sacked nearly 200 old generals

and abolished flogging; expanded recruitment
and introduced exams for officers; and overhauled

training, tactics and drill

When Napoleon met the new Prussian army in
battle two month later, he remarked, ‘These

animals have learned something!’

Small consolation, they’d learned most of
it from him

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As his enemies massed in Germany, Napoleon
was in Paris working tirelessly to build a

new army with which to face them

137,000 new conscripts joined the army, and
laws passed to call up 100,000 more, while

40,000 veterans from the army in Spain, 16,000
marines, and 80,000 men of the National Guard

– a home defence force – were transferred
to Germany

The new conscripts were nicknamed ‘Marie
Louises’, after Napoleon’s young wife,

who’d passed the new conscription laws in
his absence

They were young and raw: two-thirds were teenagers
And there was a severe lack of experienced

officers and NCOs … in short, the countless,
irreplaceable veterans now lying beneath Russian


There was also a critical shortage of cavalry
– a crisis mocked by British satirists

It would take Napoleon longer to replace the
many thousands of horses and trained horsemen

who’d perished in Russia

When Napoleon left Paris for Germany in mid-April,
the French situation was precarious:

Eugène had been forced back behind the River
Elbe, to the fortified city of Magdeburg

Dresden, the capital of Saxony, had fallen
to the Prussians

The Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin became the
first German state to defect from Napoleon’s

Confederation of the Rhine

Russian Cossacks raided as far as Hamburg,
inspiring local revolts against French occupying


Meanwhile Austria stood on the sidelines – so
far declining to back either side

Napoleon’s miraculous feat of organisation
meant he now had more than 200,000 troops

in Germany

And the Emperor’s personal magnetism was
undimmed: the morale of his army was high

The Russians, on the other hand, lost their
iconic commander, Field Marshal Kutuzov, to

pneumonia, on 28th April His role was taken
over by General Wittgenstein

Russian troops were exhausted and far from
home, their army weakened by the need to contain

French garrisons across Poland and Germany

Prussia and Sweden had yet to fully mobilise
their strength, and Allied forces barely mustered

100,000 men

They were now heavily outnumbered by Napoleon,
and the French Emperor decided to strike quickly

He ordered Marshal Davout to Hamburg with
35,000 men, to secure his northern flank

He would march against the Russian and Prussian
forces converging on Leipzig, to force a decisive


Victory would make Austria think twice about
joining the Allies, allow him to rescue the

90,000 men trapped in garrisons across Germany
and Poland, and re-establish his dominance

over Europe

As Napoleon advanced on Leipzig, the Allies
faced a predicament: to risk battle against

Napoleon’s larger army, or give up Germany
without a fight, a potentially devastating

blow to Allied morale, and any chance of winning
Austria over to their cause

Allied Headquarters made the bold decision
to attack: they knew most of Napoleon’s

army was made up of raw conscripts; that their
own troops were better trained, and had a

great superiority in cavalry and artillery

The Allies agreed that as Napoleon crossed
the Saale River, they would hit his right

flank, before he could concentrate the full
mass of his forces

The two armies were on a collision course
But Napoleon’s shortage of cavalry meant

he lacked information about Allied movements

On 1st May Marshal Bessières, commanding
the cavalry in Murat’s absence, was carrying

our reconnaissance himself… when he was
hit by a cannonball, and killed instantly

Bessières was the second of Napoleon’s
marshals to be killed-in-action, and like

Lannes, an old comrade and trusted friend

The Allies were able able to surprise Napoleon,
falling on Marshal Ney’s Third Corps, near


Ney’s troops had to cling on in the face
of a Russian and Prussian onslaught, while

Napoleon rapidly redirected his other corps
to fall on the enemy’s flanks

At one stage Napoleon had to personally help
rally routing troops, as they broke in the

face of determined Prussian assaults

But on the whole his young conscripts fought
with courage, and despite hours of savage

fighting, Wittgenstein could not exploit his
early advantage As French reinforcements

arrived, the battle turned against him

Towards dusk the Allies were forced to break
off the engagement, though they’d inflicted

around 22,000 casualties, losing just half
as many men General von Scharnhorst, mortally

wounded, was among them

Crucially, Napoleon’s lack of cavalry meant
he was unable to pursue the enemy, who retreated

in good order

Expecting the Prussians to fall back on Berlin,
Napoleon sent Marshal Ney in pursuit, while

he continued east

But the Allied army stayed together, withdrawing
to a defensive position at Bautzen, deliberately

close to the Austrian border – hoping to
entice Schwarzenberg to intervene, and daring

Napoleon to violate Austrian neutrality
Neither happened

Instead, Napoleon ordered Ney to swing south,
to fall on the Allies’ northern flank, while

he launched a frontal assault to pin them
in place

The battle lasted two days, as French infantry
struggled forward against the Prussian and

Russian lines

But a misunderstanding over Ney’s orders
caused a delay, that allowed the Allies to

narrowly escape Napoleon’s trap

Once more, the Allies fought with great determination,
and inflicted many more losses than they suffered

There were more casualties during the pursuit
– including, the next day, General Duroc,

Grand Marshal of the Palace, responsible for
Napoleon’s personal arrangements, and his

closest surviving friend

Riding with Napoleon’s staff, a freak cannon
shot ricocheted off a tree and disembowelled


His slow, painful death deeply upset Napoleon

The Emperor continued his pursuit to Breslau,
once again hindered by his lack of experienced

cavalry… while Oudinot was sent north to
take Berlin… but was held at Luckau by von

Bülow’s Prussian corps

On 2nd June, with both sides strained to breaking
point, neutral Austria proposed a ceasefire…

which, to the surprise of many, Napoleon accepted

The Armistice of Pläswitz would last more
than two months – a period of intense diplomacy,

and military mobilisation, by both sides

Napoleon wanted time to rebuild his cavalry
– a shortage of which had allowed the Allies

to escape twice But he also wanted to keep
Austria on side, which he feared might join

the Allies with 200,000 troops – even though
Emperor Francis I was now his father-in-law,

since Napoleon’s marriage to his daughter,
Marie Louise, in 1810

Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich,
who’d become one of 19th century Europe’s

most influential statesmen, now took centre

Metternich wanted peace, and to see Austria
restored as a great European power – which

meant Napoleon contained, but not crushed,
which would hand too much power to Russia

In June he travelled to Dresden, to ask Napoleon
to make concessions, while promising the Allies

that if he did not, Austria would join them

But Napoleon dismissed Metternich’s terms
out of hand: he would not return the Illyrian

Provinces to Austria, agree to the re-partition
of Poland, or the break-up of the Confederation

of the Rhine All were out of the question

Napoleon famously threw his hat to the ground
in fury

“Peace and war lie in Your Majesty’s hands,”
Metternich is said to have warned him, “Today

you can still make peace Tomorrow it may
be too late”

But Napoleon preferred war to what he called
‘a humiliating peace’

On 12th August 1813, Austria joined the Sixth
Coalition, and declared war on France

The Allies now had a numerical advantage of
three-to-two, and a new strategy: the Trachenberg


Recognising Napoleon’s genius, the Allies
would avoid battle with the Emperor, and instead

target his marshals, threaten his flanks,
and wear down French forces… until it was

time to close in for the kill

Over the next few months, the coalition would
also receive massive material support from

Britain, including

8 million pounds in silver and gold coin
200 cannon with transport

120,000 firearms
18 million rounds of ammunition

23,000 barrels of gunpowder
30,000 swords and sabres

150,000 uniforms
175,000 pairs of boots

15 million pounds of beef, biscuit and flour
and 28,000 gallons of rum and brandy

The total value of British aid to the Coalition
in 1813 was 113 million pounds, today worth

around half a billion dollars

Napoleon, meanwhile, had turned Dresden into
a major supply depot, and strengthened his

cavalry arm, though it remained a pale shadow
of its glorious past

Murat returned to lead it – his secret approach
to the Allies having been rebuffed

But when news arrived of King Joseph’s disastrous
defeat to Wellington’s Anglo-Spanish-Portuguese

army… at the Battle of Vitoria… Napoleon
had to send Marshal Soult, one of his best

commanders, to salvage the situation

On 15th August Napoleon left Dresden, and
advanced against what he considered the most

urgent threat:

the joint Prussian-Russian Army of Silesia,
commanded by General Gebhard von Blücher

– soon to win the nickname ‘Marschall
Vorwärts’ – Marshal Forwards, for his

aggressive leadership

But Blücher followed the new plan, and retreated
when he learned of Napoleon’s advance

Napoleon then received news from Marshal StCyr,
holding Dresden with 20,000 men, that Schwarzenberg’s

gigantic Army of Bohemia was approaching,
and the city and its supplies were in danger

Napoleon left Marshal Macdonald to keep an
eye on Blücher, and raced back to Dresden,

sending Vandamme’s First Corps to threaten
Schwarzenberg’s communications

By the time the Allied assault began, enough
reinforcements had arrived to fight off the


The next day Napoleon, despite being heavily
outnumbered, ordered a counterattack

Struggling through mud and heavy rain, Marshal
Murat’s advance, supported by Victor’s

Second Corps, broke the Allied left flank
and took 13,000 prisoners

The Allies had suffered a disastrous defeat,
because they’d ignored their own rule – don’t

take on Napoleon in battle

But news soon arrived that turned the situation
on its head

Marshal Oudinot had resumed his advance on
Berlin with 66,000 men, but in three days

of heavy combat around Grossbeeren, he was
defeated by Bernadotte’s Army of the North

Some of the most savage fighting was between
Napoleon’s Saxon allies and von Bülow’s

Prussians – two German states that, for
now, remained on opposing sides

Three days later at the Katzbach River, Blücher
inflicted a crushing defeat on Marshal Macdonald,

driving some French troops into the river

Macdonald lost 30,000 men, 3 eagles and 100
guns, for Blücher’s 22,000 casualties

Three days after Napoleon’s victory at Dresden,
as Vandamme’s corps pursued the Allies,

it became trapped in wooded valleys around
Kulm, and was overrun

General Vandamme himself was dragged from
his horse by Cossacks, as he and 10,000 of

his men were made prisoner

Napoleon sent Ney to take over from Oudinot,
who engaged Bulow’s Prussian corps at Dennewitz

The Prussians, fighting to save Berlin, held
their own… until Russian and Swedish reinforcements

arrived, to turn the battle decisively in
the Allies’ favour

Ney’s retreat became a rout, with the loss
of another 22,000 men

Napoleon’s brilliant victory at Dresden
had been completely overturned in just ten


The Allied plan was working Napoleon became
increasingly frustrated, as Allied armies

withdrew wherever he advanced, and advanced
wherever he was not

His teenage conscripts were exhausted by constant
marching, and famished, as Saxony had been

stripped bare of supplies Thousands fell
sick, thousands more deserted

Russian and Prussian light troops were now
operating behind Napoleon’s army, harassing

his communications with France

Many of Napoleon’s marshals advised him
to pull back to the River Rhine – but Napoleon

wasn’t giving up Germany without a fight

By October 1813, Napoleon faced a third of
a million Allied troops in Germany, converging

on him from three directions

900 miles away, Field Marshal Wellington was
crossing the Bidasoa River into France – the

first enemy army on French soil in nearly
twenty years

While the Kingdom of Bavaria, a French ally
since the days of Austerlitz, had secretly

agreed to switch sides, and would declare
war on France on 14th October

Napoleon planned to defend the line of the
River Elbe

But the arrival of General Bennigsen’s Reserve
Russian Army freed up Blücher – who suddenly

marched to join forces with Bernadotte…
and forced his way across the Elbe at Wartenburg

Napoleon went north with 150,000 men, seeking
the decisive battle that would change his


But once more, Blücher narrowly escaped him

Then came news from Murat, who’d been left
with 67,000 men to cover Schwarzenberg: the

enemy had bypassed Dresden, and was heading
for Leipzig

If the city fell, Napoleon would be cut off
from France

Once more he was advised to fall back to the

But instead Napoleon ordered all his forces
to concentrate at Leipzig

He would risk everything in one great battle,
to decide the fate of his Empire… and the

fate of Europe

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