Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Lützen, 2 May 1813

Ney’s function was to guard the army’s right flank, and he anticipated no trouble on 2 May. At 4 a.m. that morning Napoleon had dictated a letter to Berthier, his Chief-of-Staff, in which he gave orders for Ney to concentrate his five divisions and to send two strong reconnaissance forces to the south and toward Pegau. It is clear that Ney did not do so. Indeed, he let his men disperse to do some discreet foraging. Some of his soldiers were digging potatoes in Starsiedel, and Ney himself was with Napoleon near Markranstädt, possibly querying his morning orders, when suddenly they heard the sound of gun fire to the south. It was about 11:30 A.M. and upon Ney’s Corps was to fall the full weight of the Allied Attack.

Earlier, to the north, the first fighting of the day had occurred when Lauriston (V Corps), heading for Leipzig with General Maison’s division in the lead, had attacked General Kleist’s bridgehead at Lindenau. The bridge over the Elster between Lindenau and Leipzig caught fire, but some light infantry found a ford and dashed across. There were still two Prussian guns in the highway firing on the French infantry, but a Battalion of the 153rd of the Line rushed upon them and pursued the enemy into the city. Lauriston supported them with the rest of the regiment and with the 152st. Kleist thereupon withdrew to Paunsdorf, a village situated three miles east of Leipzig.

The second phase of the battle-that on Ney’s front-began when Blü rode up to Wittgenstein on the plateau about one and a quarter miles from Gross Gӧrschen on the road to Pegau. The Prussian commander saluted  and asked permission to attack. ‘With gods help,’ replied Wittgenstein, and Blücher launched his men northwards towards Kaja and Gross Gӧrschen, with Klix’s brigade leading. Leiutenant-Colonel (later General) Karl von Müffling, who had reconnoitered the villages round Kaja, had reported that there were only about 2,000 French troops in the area. It came, therefore, as a rude surprise to the Allies when they discovered that they were opposed by a whole division. Even so, had they pushed on with the bayonet they might have carried the villages at the first rush. In the event, Wittgenstein halted the attack 800 yards shot of Gross Gӧrschen.

The Allies opened a terrible cannonade of 45 guns, which is said to have lasted 40 minutes, in which time they could easily have got off 4,000 rounds. Souham, commanding the 8th Division of Ney’s corps, replied as best he could with his 12 6-pounders and four howitzers, but his batteries were enfiladed and three of his guns were hit. The French gunners were compelled to withdraw. Deprived of artillery support the French fell back behind Gross Gӧrschen, which was taken by Klix’s Prussians. Souham’s division was now in position between that village and Kaja, along with Lamour’s brigade. Here they sustained a frontal attack by the Prussians, while two Russian columns sought to turn the flanks of their position. Supported only by the remains of their divisional artillery, the two brigades held out for more than an hour, but were eventually obliged to retire behind Kaja. Help was to arrive, but it would be long in coming. The Allied attack had no part in Napoleon’s calculations, and for a considerable time the Emperor remained unconvinced of its seriousness.

Thus, having reviewed MacDonald’s XI Corps near Markranstädt soon after 11:00 A.M., Napoleon had then watched from afar Laurison’s attack on Lindenau. MacDonald in his RECOLLECTIONS describes the sequence of events. ‘The Emperor, believing that all the enemy’s forces were collected at Leipzig, sent thither General Lauriston (V Corps), who commanded the left. He came up to me, and gave me orders to support him if necessary; but at that moment he received intelligence that the allies, who had debouched from Pegau, were advancing towards us. The Emperor would not believe it, because he was firmly convinced that their main force was at Leipzig. Marshal Ney, who was with him, confirmed him in that idea, and declared he had noticed nothing unusual on the Elster.’  Napoleon could see power smoke and distant columns, but he was convinced that the allies could not mount a serious attack until the next day, and said to Ney ‘Go. You will see it is no more than a reconnaissance.’  However, as the firing increased in violence Napoleon ordered Ney to hasten back to his corps and soon afterwards followed him.

Ney galloped off, flat out, to Starsiedel. It was 10 miles, but even if he stopped briefly to give orders to his divisions in Lützen he was probably there by about 1 P.M. General van Dedem, a brigade commander, saw him examine the enemy and then, closing a telescope with a snap, heard him say to one of his ADC’s, ‘Go and tell the Emperor that it is really is a battle, and a battle such as he has never seen before.’ In due course the emperor gave out his orders and placed himself behind Girard’s division of the III Corps on the plateau which dominates Kaja and Starsiedel.

The Emperor’s plan, rapidly formulated, was that III Corps, with the Guard in reserve, should hold Kaja and the surrounding villages, whilst the corps on the flanks should close in and crush the Allies in a hastily improvised double envelopment. MacDonald and Lauriston were ordered to come up on the left of Ney. The Emperor went himself to the head of the Guard in rear of centre of the army, supporting Ney’s right. Marmont (VI Corps) with his three divisions was to come up on Ney’s right, and Bertrand (IV Corps) was ordered to debouch on the rear of the Allied army from the south-west.

Excellent though these dispositions were, they needed some time to develop. It was vital that Ney’s corps in the centre hold its ground. Ney lost no time in launching a counter-attack. At the very outset his horse was killed by a cannon-ball, and he himself was hit in the leg by a musket ball. These misfortunes did not prevent his exercising command. Girard’s division moved off to support Souham’s retreating infantry, whose flanks were now threatened by the Prussians reserve cavalry. Saluted with grapeshot, these last elected not to charge at this juncture. Girard, leading his division forward, was soon dismounted and wounded twice. Covered with blood, he seized the eagle of the regiment and led its grenadiers towards the Prussian batteries crying, ‘It is here that every brave Frenchman must conquer or die!’ A third bullet pierced his thigh. ‘Take command’ he said to General van Dedem, ‘I can do no more.’

Grape spewed on all sides; Prussian cavalry charged several times, but could make no impression. The French divisional artillery ran out of ammunition and van Dedem had to send the guns to the rear. An engineer, Colonel Simon Bernard, one of the Emperor’s ADC’s, galloped up amidst a terrible fire and reconnoitered gun positions for the artillery of the Guard, which did marvels. Bernard also brought van Dedem orders to hold on at all costs. By this time the infantry had run out of cartridges; resorting to the bayonet, they advanced against the Prussian guns. Meanwhile Brenier’s division had come up, debouching to the left of the village of Kaja, but was repulsed. By now Ricard’s division was also in action, but it too was checked, and the survivors of Girard’s men were carried backwards by the withdrawal of the other two divisions. The Prussians had reinforced their attack by sending in Ziethen’s brigade (equivalent to a French division) and at about the 2 P.M. the end of the second phase of the battle found Ney’s III Corps just hanging on to Kaja, with the Allies in possession of Gross Gӧrschen, Klein Gӧrschen and Rahna. In murderous fighting some of these villages had changed hands several times. By then not only had Ney and Girard been wounded, but in the 8th Division Souham, his Chief-of-Staff, de Contamie, and both brigadiers had been hit. On the Allied side Scharnhorst, the Prussian Chief-of-Staff, had been wounded (he died 28 June).

Ney’s cavalry brigade, weak in numbers thought it was, distinguished itself. At the beginning of the action several squadrons of Cossacks came slipping in between Kaja and the 10th Division, now commanded by van Dedem, and fell upon the park of the corps artillery and baggage to the right rear of the village. They had already carried off three guns and some caissons when a squadron of the 10th Hussars charged and routed them, recovering the Cossacks’ trophies. During the rest of the day Ney’s cavalry brigade was to make several more successful charges.

The situation in the French centre was still far from encouraging when Marmont’s VI Corps some 20,000 strong, came up into the line on the right of Ney. At this juncture the Prussian infantry had taken Klein Gӧrschen for the second time, and Rahna. Several brilliant charges by the Prussian cavalry had contributed to this success, and the Prussians Guards had followed up by hurling the French back beyond Kaja, which the latter had set afire. It was in this desperate fighting that, at about 4 P.M. Blücher had his horse shot under him, and was wounded in the side by a bullet. He sent orders to Yorck to take over, and rode to the rear to find a surgeon.

Napoleon supported Ney with Bonet’s division of VI Corps and with part of the Young Guard, who had followed Marmont along the Weissenfels-Lützen road. Numbers of conscripts of the II Corps, unnerved by the fearful cannonade, had taken to their heels. Major Chalapowski of the 1st Regiment of Light Horse (Old Guard) later recalled that his unit was ‘halted between the road and the village of Kaja, and deployed on a line facing the village in a field where remnants of Ney’s green troops were still in flight. The Emperor ordered us to bar their passage between our squadrons….’ This done, Napoleon road amongst his shattered infantry, exhorting them to rally. ‘This,’ wrote Marmont (ignoring, evidently, Toulon and Lodi), ‘was probably the day, of his whole career, on which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle. He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of III Corps back to the charge.’ Certainly Napoleons personal leadership had not lost its magic. The cry ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ was heard on every side. The Saxon Odeleben wrote that ‘hardly a wounded man passed before Bonaparte without saluting him with the accustomed VIVAT.’

Some time was still to pass before the two corps of MacDonald (12,000 Strong) and Bertrand (some 20,000) were in position to make themselves felt. Bertrand, indeed, alarmed by the approach of Miloradovich from Zeitz, in the south halted from about 1 P.M. until after 3 P.M. and took some time prodding to make him resume his advance.

Much, therefore, depended on Marmont’s VI Corps, which was now in the line in and around Starsiedel. Captain Barrès of the 47th Regiment of the Line related. ‘At last we moved forward; our division was on the extreme. In close column we went along the road and moved straight on the village, to the right of Starsiedel.’ On their left they passed the monument to King Gustavus Adolphus, who had fallen in 1632. ‘In front of Starsiedel we were saluted by the whole artillery of the enemy army and horribly cut up. Threatened by the cavalry we formed square and….received incessant charges which we always successfully repulsed.’

Meanwhile MacDonald’s XI Corps was beginning to make an impact. According to him, his men went forward at the double. It was high time. Ney’s III Corps had lost much ground, and some Allied cavalry had got around their left flank. Seeing the approach of XI Corps, the Allies turned to retire, but not before MacDonald had time to get 30 guns into position, and they had to gallop back through his grape.

During this phase of fighting Marmont’s corps on the right took a heavy battering. In Barrès’s words, ‘At last, after three and a half to four hours of stubborn fighting, having lost half our officers and men and had our guns dismounted and ammunition caissons blown up, we retired in good order….as on parade.’ They fell back behind Starsiedel, Major Fabre conducting the movement with admirable coolness and presence of mind. Barrès, himself was hit twice, found that his company had suffered 44 casualties. By then it must have been nearly 6 o’clock, and Winzingerodes’s Allied corps had come up in to line on Blücher left.

MacDonald continued to press in upon the Allied right and ‘forced them into apposition covered by a little artificial canal used for floating wood.’ They crossed a little valley, not without loss, and, crowning the height, saw the whole plain outstretched before them, ‘but without cavalry it would have been unsafe to venture there.’

The Allies for their part were short of infantry, and if they managed to hold Marmont, and Bertrand when at last he came up unto the line, it was by murderous cannonades, interspersed with brave and energetic cavalry charges, which cost the French thousands of causalities. Prince Wilhelm of Prussia executed several charges against the French infantry squares posted near Starsiedel. The Prussian cavalry are credited with breaking two squares and taking several guns.

It was approaching 6 P.M. when Count Wittgenstein threw in his last reserves. Outnumbered though he was, he ordered Eugen of Württenberg with his Russian infantry to advance against the French left. But it was all the Russians could do to hold their more numberous opponents at bay. MacDonlad’s approach was fiercely greeted. ‘Suddenly,’ he wrote, ‘the fire ceased all along the front of the enemy, and was directed towards us; the enemy sent forward their cavalry reserves, composed of the Guards of the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia. Thrice they attempted to break our squares, but in vain; each time they were driven back with loss; and the third time in such confusion as must have given great advantage to our cavalry had we possessed any.’ General Latour-Maubourg, with a few squadrons, was on MacDonald’s left, but Prince Eugène remained mindful of Napoleon’s orders to husband his cavalry and did not wish to hazard them, despite MacDonald’s entreaties; so a good opportunity slipped away. Prince Eugène eventually got as far as Eisdorf, but not before 9 P.M., when the fighting had died down.

In the French centre, meanwhile, climax of the battle was reached between 6:30 and 7:30. An hour or so earlier the corps of MacDonald and Bertrand, pressing in on the flanks of the Allies, had compelled them to redouble their efforts against the French centre. The village of Kaja had been carried once again and several battalions had fled in disorder. Once more it was the emperor himself who had rallied them.

Napoleon now decided that the moment of crisis had arrived. He ordered Mortier to take 16 battalions of the Young Guard and storm Kaja. At the same time he ordered his ADC, General Baron Antoine Drouot, to build up a battery of 80 pieces in order to support the French centre. Deployed behind Drouot’s guns would be the six battalions of the Old Guard drawn up like four redoubts, and all of the cavalry, some 3,000 sabres. Drouot and two other artillery generals, Desvaux and Dulauloy, went off at the gallop, and soon their guns were thundering forth cannon-balls at a rate of amounting to 160 rounds a minute.

The Emperor then led forward his Young Guard. They did not show much élan at first, and van Dedem heard him say, ‘Know that our fate is decided; if we are destined to die, perish we must. EN AVANT!’  At about 6:30 P.M. the columns of the Young Guard, 10,000 strong, carried Kaja and pushed on, drums beating the charge, towards Gross Gӧrschen. Joseph Dufraisne of the 1st Fusilier-Grenadiers (Young Guard) tells us that cannon-balls and shells fell like hail on their column. He was horrified when one dismounted Mortier, took off two legs in the first company and his lieutenant’s arm-the wound proved mortal-before killing a comrade at his side. Still the casualties of the Young Guard (1,069) were few indeed compared with those of Ney’s III Corps (more than 17,000).

Mortier’s success was followed up with a general advance by the French. The movement of the Young Guard on Gross Gӧrschen had disengaged Ney’s left and he ordered General Ricard to attack the little wood beyond Kaja where the enemy was still showing a bold front. The tried troops set off at some speed, but after a few hundred paces were held up by musketry and artillery fire. Five successive attacks were made in vain. Then Ricard collected all the officers in one platoon, and placing them at the head of his disordered troops, made them swear upon their swords that they would get to the wood or perish. They rushed forward with cries of ‘VIVE l’EMPEREUR!’ The allies were routed and pursued for two miles. By this time it was night and Ricard’s exhausted regiments bivouacked in squares.

The advance of the Young Guard, brilliant though it was, left Gross Gӧrschen in the hands of the Prussians. As darkness fell the battlefield was lit by burning villages. The cannonading continued, albeit spasmodically; the musketry gradually died down. The Allied sovereigns, who had watched the fighting from a small hill bear Werben, eventually quit the field about 9 P.M. But as late as 10 P.M. the Allied army was still in position with its right situated at Gross Gӧrschen and it’s left near Muschwitz.

Both armies were in considerable confusion. The debris of Ney’s 8th and 10th Divisions spent the night in front of the village of Kaja, its 39th regiment taking up a position before Klein Gӧrschen. In Lützen Captain Coignet had formed a wagon lagger with his horses inside and a garrison of the Gendarmerie d’Élite (Old Guard). The Emperor at this time was composing his Bulletin da la Grande Armée, in which he tells us that this ‘brilliant day….like a thunderclap, has pulverized the chimerical hopes and all the calculations of the destruction and dismemberment of the Empire. The shadowy dreams nursed at the Court of St. James throughout the winter find themselves undone in an instant as with the Gordian Knot by the sword of Alexander.’ To a staff officer he remarked, ‘I am once more master of Europe.’

Although it looked well enough in the Bulletin, Lützen was far from being the decisive victory which Napoleon had sought. The Allies, though greatly outnumbered, had attacked him with astonishing vigour, had badly mauled III Corps and given VI Corps a severe fight. Threatened by skillful if slow pincher movement, they had extricated themselves and departed in generally good order, having inflicted a great many more causalities than they suffered themselves. The reborn Prussian Army had done particularly well. “These animals have learned something,’ was Napoleon’s own comment, while Count Nesselrode, the Russian statesman, wrote, ‘The Prussian troops have covered themselves with glory; they have become once more the Prussians of Frederick.’

The allies loses may have amounted to 15,000 men, the majority being Prussian. Blücher and Yorck had 8,400 casualties, and Prince Eugen of Württemberg had 1,600. The French losses were in the region of 25,000, the great majority being in III Corps, which according to the parade states had 17,633 fewer men on 5 May than on 25 April.

The Battle of Lützen left Napoleon Leipzig and battalions of corpses. The Emperor had reason to be satisfied with Marmont, MacDonald and Mortier. To an ADC of Lauriston he said on 3 May, ‘What were you doing yesterday, when we were fighting here? You were warming your bottoms in the sun.’ This was a hardly fair. With orders to take Leipzig, Lauruston had done so by 3 P.M. and redeployed to intervene at Lützen if necessary. Bertrand’s over caution has already been mentioned. Prince Eugène had prevented Latour-Maubourg’s 1st Cavalry Corps from charging the Allied right, but as Napoleon had given him strict written orders to husband the cavalry, he cannot be blamed for this.

In reviewing the conduct of the various marshals, it is particularly difficult to account for the way Ney handled his corps. There can be no question that on the morning of the 2nd he received orders in writing to concentrate his corps. But he did no such thing. Had Wittgenstein seen 48,000 foot drawn up around Kaja at noon, would he even have launched his attack? It seems highly improbable. Ney was certainly the bravest of the brave, but to disregard the Emperors orders completely was a thing so extraordinary that it demands some explanation. The clues are perhaps to be found in Ney’s character and his relations with the Emperor. He was one of those men whose courage and energy were apparent only when he was in action. Otherwise he was inclined to be guided by his entourage. He was also retiring and communitive. He got on well with MacDonald, but none of the other marshals. He was on bad terms with Napoleon’s Chief-of-Staff, Berthier, which must have led to confusion. Moreover, deep down, he detested the Emperor. That, at any rate, is the picture General van Dedem paints of his chief, and though it may be to somber, he knew the Marshal well. One suspects that Ney went off on the morning of the battle to find the Emperor and question his orders. He thought that there was not going to be any action that day, and he did not wish to harass his tired troops. Scattered about the countryside, they would find more potatoes than if they were concentrated at Kaja. Ney was no great disciplinarian and was unlikely to discharge his men from a little marauding.

On the other hand, it was Ney’s refusal to concentrate his forces that had encouraged Blücher to attack with such vigor. This in turn had caused Napoleon to devise his neat pincher movement. The latter had not quite come off, but the account of it looked very well in the Bulletin. The Emperor had good cause to be pleased with the Prince of Moskva: he had done the thing, but for all the wrong reasons.

To a commander-in-chief and a private solider a battle may appear in a somewhat different light. Napoleon announced Lützen as a victory. Francois-Joseph Dresse of Herve, near Liège, thanked god that he had managed to survive when his battalion in Ricard’s division of II Corps had suffered heavy losses. He does not scruple to describe Lützen as a defeat.

The people of Lützen were generous. Captain Coignet saw some 60 young girls and boys go out from the town and carry in the French wounded. Barron Larrey, whose flying ambulances arrived from Merseburg at midday, wrote, ‘Dead and dying covered the battlefield. We gathered up the enemy wounded as well as our own. After the battle, the inhabitants of Lützen gave welcomed aid to our casualties. They brought linen, lint, and food on to the field and provided means of transport. They then received these men into their town and spared no effort in caring for them.’ In the next 48 hours Larrey performed or supervised 365 operations.

Napoleon wrote of Lützen. ‘This is like the battles in Egypt. Good infantry supported by artillery must suffice.’ Faced by superior Allied cavalry, the French infantry was compelled to keep forming square. In square, however it offered marvelous targets for the numerous Allied guns. For once it was the French who were outnumbered in artillery. Tormassov and Miloradovich arrived too late to take part in the battle. But their eventual presence, as well as a lack of cavalry, prevented Naopleon from taking full advantage of his slender victory.

FRENCH (Napoleon) 133,000

ARMY OF THE ELBE (Prince Eugène) TOTAL=30,000

Lauriston (V Corps=10,00); Latour-Maubourg (I Cavalry Corps=8,000); MacDonald (XI Corps=12,000)

ARMY OF THE MAIN (Napoleon) TOTAL= 103,000

Ney (III Corps=48,000); Guard=15,000; Marmont (VI Corps=20,000); Bertrand (IV Corps=20,000)

ALLIES (Wittgemstein) 86,000

Kleist =6,000; Wittgenstein =24,000; Blücher =25,000; Yorck =8,000; Winzingerode =14,000; Miloradovich =9,000


SOURCE: NAPOLEON: The Last Campaigns 1813-15
BY: James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins


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