Blücher had gone to the castle and estates in Silesia given to him by the Prussian King, and Breslau, the capital of that province, had become a centre of anti-French activity. Early in January 1813, chafing at Prussia’s inactivity, he wrote to Scharnhorst, now the head of the commission set up to reform the Prussian Army; ‘I am itching in every finger to grasp the sword. If His Majesty the King, if all the other German Princes, if the German nation as a whole do not now rise and off from German territory the entire rascally French brood together with Napoleon and his following then it seems to me that no German is any longer worthy of the name.’
He besought his monarch to lead Prussia against the French. Frederick William III paid him no attention; he merely relieved General Yorck of his command for negotiating without consent the Convention of Tauroggen. Then Hardenberg, the King’s chief minister, took a hand. He told his monarch that his secret police had reported a French plot to kidnap or kill the Royal family. The plot probably existed only in Hardenberg’s fertile imagination, but it was enough. Greatly alarmed, Frederick William left Berlin hurriedly for Breslau. There, surrounded by the enemies of France, he eventually he succumbed to their entreaties. On 13 March he officially declared war on France. Protesting that it was a waste of time since no one would respond, he issued a proclamation calling every able-bodied man between the ages 18 and 24 to the colours. To his amazement his loyal subjects flocked in their thousands to enlist.
The French seemed meanwhile to have lost their nerve. The garrison in Hamburg, faced by a few Cossacks, withdrew. The French garrison in Berlin, spat on and reviled by the people, also departed, although there was no direct military threat. It looked as if the French would be howled out of Germany. Then, from the west came the long columns of French troops and, more important, Napoleon himself. Many of his men were raw recruits, his cavalry lacked chargers, and his marshals wanted nothing more than to retire to their estates in peace. But Napoleon himself was in the field and suddenly everything was changed.
The Allies-Russia and Prussia-planned to hold the line of the river Elbe and try to persuade Saxony to join them. Scharnhorst and the fierier of the Prussians wished to continue the advance to the Rhine, summoning all Germans to throw off the French shackles as they advanced. But Kutuzov, still at that stage Commander-in-Chief of the Russians, had only been persuaded with difficulty to come as far as the Elbe. He adamantly refused to cross the river and maintained that if the Germans wished to liberate themselves they were welcome to do so, but it was no concern of the Russians. The Tsar disagrees strongly with this point of view, but he had to be cautious about opposing the aged ‘saviour of Russia.’
The Allies planned to hold the river with three armies. One, under Yorck and Wittgenstein, was to take up a position west of Berlin; Blücher, with his newly formed Army of Silesia, composed of Russians as well as Prussians, was to hold Dresden while Kutuzov had his army between the two, ready to aid either. The latter also exercised a general suzerainty over all three.
The Russian concentration was slow and dilatory. Kutuzov with his central army had only reached Kalisz when Blücher was hammering on the gates of Dresden. Kutuzov fell ill on the line of march and died on 28 April. The Tsar nominated Wittgenstein as Commander-on-Chief with authority over Blücher, but as to the other two Russian corps commanders, Tormassov and Barclay de Tolly, were senior to Wittgenstein, they received their orders direct from the Tsar. The Tsar, however, was not to act without consulting with Scharnhorst or General Toll; as a system of command it was clumsy in the extreme.
Meanwhile Prince Eugène with his regiment of gaunt spectres from the old Grande Armée gave back whenever he was pressed, sheltering his men behind the walls of fortresses commanding the main routes along which the allies were likely to advance. Reinforcements were arriving from the old garrisons in German and from France, and his army began to increase in size and efficiency. The Allies, using only second-line troops, proceeded to blockade the fortresses without wasting time trying to reduce them. They screened their front with a host of Cossacks and tried to guess what Napoleon intended to do next.
The Emperor, after his appalling loss of horses in Russia, was very short of cavalry and advanced forward blindly. Breslau seemed the centre of disaffection, and so, while never fettering himself with a rigid plan, he proposed in general terms to advance Breslau by Leipzig and Dresden. He hoped to force the Allies to give battle. When he had won the victory that he regarded as inevitable, he expected the Prussians would retreat northwest to guard their homeland while the Russians withdrew to the east across the Vistula and Neman. He could then turn north on Berlin. Davout was separately organizing an army of five divisions with which to retake Hamburg. From there he would descend on Berlin from the south-east. The Prussian Army would be crushed between the hammer of Napoleon and the anvil of Davout.
Wittgenstein, unaware of the true strength of the French but knowing that Napoleon was steadily accumulating superior numbers, resolved to strike first before the French were fully assembled. He ordered General Kleist with his corps to cover Leipzig while he concentrated his army the area of Pegau. His orders for the move verbose and his staff arrangements bad; however he had undeniably secured the greatest of all tactical advantages, surprise.
Napoleon was aware that there were some enemy to the south of him but he had no idea how strong they were. He planned to continue his advance and seize Leipzig on 2 May. He issued his orders. Lauriston (V Corps) from Prince Eugène’s army was to seize Leipzig itself with the assistance of Latour-Mauborg’s cavary corps. MacDonald from the same army was to descend with his XI Corps on Markranstädt, about seven miles west of the city on the main road. Reynier (VII Corps) would close up to Marseburg on the Elster, about 15 miles father west. Bertrand with his IV Corps was to come up from the south and position his leading troops in Tachau, on the western edge of the low feature south of Gross Gӧrschen. Oudinot was at Naumberg and unlikely to arrive in time for a battle. The Imperial Guard were to be held in reserve behind Ney. Ney’s III Corps held the area about Lützen, guarding the route forward.
Included in Ney’s area were, to the west the empty village of Starsiedel; at the edge of the low plateau south of Gross Gӧrschen was Rahna; in the centre of his position, where Ney had his headquarters, was Kaja, and Gross Gӧrschen and Klein Gӧrschen were a little wat to the east. The small village of Eisdorf lay about one and a half miles north-east of Klein Gӧrschen, nearer to Leipzig. The country was flat and open with only slight gradients and would make excellent going for the cavalry-in which the Allies were so markedly superior. Only the houses and enclosures of the villages offered any security to Ney’s infantrymen. The guns, in which the Allied superiority was equally marked, had splendid fields of fire.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: NAPOLEON: The Last Campaigns 1813-15
BY: James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins