Leipzig, Battle of

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The Battle of Leipzig (16–19 October 1813), also known as the Battle of the Nations, was the largest military engagement fought until the twentieth century. It marked the end of the Napoleonic Empire. Strategically, it was more important than Waterloo. This four-day battle was fought on a front twelve to twenty-five miles long. Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) engaged 191,500 troops and seven hundred guns against the combined armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden: 394,000 men and almost fifteen hundred guns. Leipzig surpassed the numeric size of the other great battles of the nineteenth century (Koniggratz [1866] 206,000 versus 220,984; Gravelotte-St. Privat [1870] 112,800 versus 188,332). Leipzig destroyed the Napoleonic Empire beyond the Rhine, paved the way for an invasion of France, and created the conditions for a unified front of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia with the war aim of reducing France to the frontiers of 1792.

Napoleon I had been at war with Great Britain since 1803 and dominated continental Europe by 1807. In 1810 Russia broke with Napoleon, ceasing to participate in the Continental System that had been designed to bring Britain to her knees by economic means. The invasion of Russia followed in 1812 with Prussia and Austria as unwilling French allies. Napoleon's armies were destroyed during that campaign. During the retreat from Russia, Prussia changed sides, making common cause with Russia and Britain. Sweden, although a minor power, entered the coalition against Napoleon as well. Austria became neutral.

By March 1813 the Russians and Prussians drove what was left of the French west of the Salle River in central Germany. During the winter of 1813 everyone raised new armies. With an army of conscripts, Napoleon drove the Allies (Russians and Prussians), back behind the Elbe, winning two inconclusive battles in April and May. Both sides were exhausted and Napoleon accepted an armistice mediated by Austria in June 1813. Both sides used the time to build up their forces; Austria mobilized its army planning to enter the war on the Allied side.

With Austria in the Allied camp, France would be fighting all of the other Great Powers simultaneously for the first time. Napoleon held a central position based on Saxony and its capital, Dresden. There would be three Allied operational fronts: northern, southern, and eastern. The Allies operated on exterior lines. Allied strategy was hammered out in July, known as the Trachenberg Plan or the Trachenberg-Reichenbach Plan. Its main components consisted of the deployment of armies on the three operational fronts. Sweden's Crown Prince Bernadotte commanded the Army of the North and protected Berlin. The Army of Bohemia under Karl Schwarzenberg (1771–1820) (who also served as titular supreme allied commander) threatened Saxony from the south. Blücher's (Gebhard van Blücher Leberecht, 1742–1819) Army of Silesia formed the eastern front linking the other two fronts. A fourth Allied army was building up in Poland under General Rudolf von Bennigsen (1824–1902), and would later reinforce central Germany. The Plan called for each army to attack the French flanking forces, while defending against or retreating from the main French effort, which would undoubtedly be commanded by Napoleon in person. This was to have the advantage of wearing down the French by attrition. The Plan also called for a concentric advance against Napoleon's lines of operation with the idea of an eventual concentration of overwhelming force against his main force and a decisive battle.

Napoleon planned to use interior lines to reinforce the three threatened sectors, concentrating and defeating each in succession. He especially wanted to concentrate toward Berlin. For the plan to work the army threatened by Napoleon's main force would have to stand and fight, while his flanking forces had to hold the enemy armies at bay until it became their turn. The Allied plan effectively contrasted with Napoleon's, by avoiding the main effort, engaging and defeating the French flanking forces.

In the past Napoleon had been able to rely on weaker or even equal detached forces to deal with enemy armies because of a qualitative superiority in French troops and their commanders. By 1813 this qualitative edge had vanished. The losses sustained by Napoleon's army in Russia had been so over-whelming that although the numbers of troops could be replaced, their qualities in performance and leadership could not. The majority of Allied troops were similarly poorly trained. On both sides, the time between recruitment and employment in the front ranks in 1813 was about six months. The Allies, to varying degrees, adopted French tactical methods. The Allied armies also adopted the army corps system pioneered by the French. This structure improved tactical command and control, as well as the integrity and cohesion of large formations. It eased the integration of corps of different states into the Allied armies.

Austria declared war on France on 12 August, ending the armistice. Napoleon deployed three armies against his enemies. The Army of Berlin, under Nicolas Oudinot (1767–1847), faced Bernadotte, while the Army of the Bober, under Étienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald (1765–1840), faced Blücher. Napoleon, with the main army, faced Schwarzenberg, but planned to maneuver among the three fronts.

A series of battles in August and September followed. Generally, the Allies followed the dictates of the Trachenberg Plan, falling back when faced by Napoleon. The flanking French forces were defeated in battles at Gross Beeren (23 August), the Katzbach (26 August), Dennewitz (16 September), and Kulm (30 August), while Napoleon indecisively defeated Schwarzenberg at Dresden (26–27 August).

The result of six weeks of fighting and maneuvering did not bring any decision, but Napoleon's forces were being ground down. Napoleon, with 260,000 troops and 784 guns, realized that contraction of the front was the only recourse, and began withdrawing his forces on 24 September.

Bennigsen's Army of Poland reinforced Schwarzenberg, and Blücher moved north, reinforcing Bernadotte. According to the Trachenberg Plan, Schwarzenberg moved his army west toward Leipzig to threaten Napoleon's communications to the Rhine. Blücher, with Bernadotte in tow, forced the Elbe River and moved west and south, threatening Napoleon from that direction.

Napoleon planned to fall back, still hoping to defeat the separate armies. The Emperor left two corps to hold Dresden to keep Saxony as an ally, a mistake considering that all troops would be needed for the forthcoming battle. The Emperor decided to concentrate at Leipzig, which was being threatened by Schwarzenberg. Part of Bennigsen's army moved to blockade Dresden.

As the French fell back toward Leipzig, Marshal Joachim Murat (1767–1815), with part of the army, faced south to delay Schwarzenberg and cover the approaches to Leipzig. In Napoleon's mind, only the Army of Bohemia was in range. In truth, all of the enemy armies were closing on Leipzig. Murat fought a battle with Schwarzenberg's advance forces on October 14 at Liebertwolkwitz, setting the southern front for the following battle of Leipzig.

Leipzig sits at the confluence of four rivers (Elster, Pleisse, Luppe, and Parthe), and a series of major roads dividing the battle area into four sectors. Most of the city is east of the Elster, Parthe, and Pleisse. The terrain between the Elster and Pliesse constricts deployment, and the rivers are almost impossible to ford. Located west of Leipzig are marshes, the banks of the Luppe and Elster, and the village of Lindenau. The terrain east of the Pleisse and Elster is open and it supported the deployment of large forces. About four miles south of Leipzig and east of the Pleisse is a line of hills and villages running west to east including the hamlets of Wachau and Liebertwolkwitz. This area formed the southern front line. The battle fought here was known as Wachau. On the east bank of the Elster, three to four miles north of Leipzig, are the villages of Möckern and Lindenthal, forming the northern front of the battle.

The French used the converging roads to concentrate in the Leipzig area. The Allies did the same, but it would take them longer to arrive. By the morning of 16 October, Napoleon had 177,500 troops with an additional eighteen thousand (Jean Louis-Ebenezer Reynier's VII Corps) en route. The French were deployed in two wings and a Reserve. The southern wing (which had been Murat's command and fought on two days earlier) consisted of three corps, the northern wing of three corps under Michel Ney (1769–1815) (including the garrison of Leipzig, which held bridgehead at Lindenau), and a central reserve of three cavalry corps, IX Corps, and the Imperial Guard Corps. The Reserve supported the southern front, while an additional cavalry corps and the XI Corps under Macdonald were approaching Leipzig from the northeast and were ten miles from the southern front.

Schwarzenberg had wanted to move his entire army west of the Pleisse and Elster in the misguided belief that those rivers were fordable; they were not. The Russian commanders objected to the tsar, who intervened directly, ordering that all the Russian and Prussian forces would attack from the south and east of those rivers. Although Schwarzenberg protested, the tsar was right. Had all of the Army of Bohemia been west of those rivers, they would have been isolated, leaving Napoleon free to move against Blücher and Bernadotte. A compromise was made: three Austrian corps would advance on Leipzig west of the Pleisse and Elster. Barclay, with 77,500 troops, would advance from the south and east of the Pleisse. Supporting Barclay were the Allied reserves of 24,000 men. His forces extended six miles, and he hoped to turn the French left. Blücher, followed by Bernadotte, would attack from the north in support. Pressure from all three fronts would prevent Napoleon from making a decisive concentration against the different armies.

The powerful Allied cavalry prevented the French from effective reconnaissance. Napoleon was unaware of the location of the armies of Blücher and Bernadotte. On the night of 15 October, seeing the enemy campfires around the Pleisse, he mistakenly believed that somehow the armies of Blücher and Bernadotte had joined Schwarzenberg and were to the west and south.

Napoleon's plan was to concentrate his forces and destroy Mikhail Barclay de Tolly's (1761–1818) wing first. The Emperor would attack with his southern wing, fixing the enemy in place; Macdonald's corps was to envelop the Allied right. Once that was under-way, the powerful Reserve would attack and shatter the Allied line. The southern front was to be reinforced by the three corps of the northern wing under Ney. Auguste Marmont's (1774–1852) corps was ordered to fall back toward Leipzig, from his covering position in the north. Napoleon would bring 120,000 men against the Barclay. Barclay and the Reserves had 101,000—not enough to ensure a decisive victory.

The Army of Bohemia attacked first, coming into action on the southern front while the corps of Ignatius Gyulai von Maros-Nemeth and Maximillian Count Meerveldt, distantly supported by Austrian reserves, attacked from the western banks of the Pleisse and Elster. Gyulai hit the French bridgehead at Lindenau.

Pursuant to his orders, Marmont began to move south, but sighted Blücher's advance guard at ten in the morning. The French marshal took up a position at Möckern to defend against Blücher. Marmont had 24,000 troops facing Blücher's 54,000.

Gyulai's attack at Lindenau caused Ney to divert Henri Bertrand's (1775–1846) corps there. The French general smashed Gyulai's troops and opened up a line of retreat due west. Pressure from the north and west prevented Souham's corps from intervening effectively in the south. Meerveldt's attack managed to secure a small bridgehead over the Pleisse.

By 11:00 a.m., Barclay's attack was contained and Napoleon went on the offensive. Macdonald had reinforced the left flank of the front. The main attack began at 2:00 p.m.

The battle on the southern front (Wachau) swayed to and fro. By the end of the day the French held their former positions but the Army of Bohemia was not defeated.

In the north, Blücher attacked Marmont at Möckern. The French marshal held his position through most of the day, until borne back by superior numbers.

If Napoleon had any chance of winning this battle it was on the first day. However, the pressure provided by Blücher and Gyulai ensured that the bulk of the French northern wing never reached the critical battlefield at Wachau. The forces under Barclay, supported by the Reserves and Meerveldt, effectively tied up the French. Napoleon's numerical superiority at Wachau was slight, and the qualitative difference, which usually ensured French victories in earlier years, was gone.

During the night of 16–17 October, the numerical balance as well shifted irrevocably in favor of the Allies. The French were reinforced by an extra 18,000 men. Allied reinforcements were far greater. Bennigsen's Army of Poland came up from Dresden, reinforcing Barclay with an additional 70,000 troops, while Bernadotte was moving to the flank of Blücher with an additional 85,000 men.

Napoleon made a major mistake by not withdrawing on 17 October. He had an open line of retreat via Lindenau. Meanwhile the Allies planned a concentric attack of 300,000 men and fifteen hundred guns on 18 October. The French closed up in a defensive bridgehead early on 18 October while the army began a retreat via Lindenau. The Allied attacks on 18 October were contained, while Gyulai was driven back again, ensuring that the line of retreat remained open. A rear guard of 30,000 was to keep the enemy at bay while the rest of the army escaped. Everything went well, and the rear guard kept the enemy from pressing too closely while the army crossed the Elster. At 1:00 p.m. on 19 October, a French corporal, incredibly left in charge of blowing up the Elster Bridge, panicked and blew up it up ahead of schedule, leaving 30,000 French troops trapped on the enemy's side of the river.

The casualties of this four-day battle are estimated at 54,000 killed and wounded for the Allies, while the French sustained 38,000 casualties, plus the loss of the 30,000 soldiers trapped in Leipzig. Four thousand Saxon troops defected during the battle, for a total of 72,000.

The battle was a strategic disaster that cost Napoleon his empire. Compelled to retreat behind the Rhine, the remaining French garrisons in Germany and Poland totaling 100,000 were isolated without any prospect of relief and eventually capitulated. All of Napoleon's German allies defected or, in the case of Saxony, treated as a defeated state by the allies. The 1813 campaign cost Napoleon 400,000 troops. His prestige was damaged, and the defeat contributed to war-weariness within France. Napoleon was now clearly on the defensive, and the campaign that followed in France would lead to his abdication.

See alsoContinental System; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Napoleonic Empire.


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