Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Bautzen 20-21 May 1813

Not until two days after the Battle of Lützen did Napoleon discover that the Allies had fallen back on Dresden. Although he had not obtained the decisive success that he had been hoping for, he planned his next moves with confidence. Davout was presently gathering a army with which to retake Hamburg, and Vandamme’s corps was near Magdeburg. He Emperor disbanded the Army of the Elbe and dispatched Prince Eugène back to Italy to reorganize the army there in case the Austrians declared war. He then formed a new army under Marshal Ney that comprised Ney’s own corps and those of Lauriston, Reynier and Victor, and Sébastiani’s cavalry, in all a force of 84,000 men.

Ney marched some 60 miles north to cross the Elbe at Torgau. At that time the town was occupied by General Thielmann with his Saxon Army. Thielmann personally sympathized with Blücher and protested that Saxony was neutral. Napoleon pressed the Saxon King to admit his men. The King personally admired Napoleon and ordered Thielmann to stop obstructing Ney. Thielmann disgusted with such conduct, disappeared to join the Prussians. His troops, who disliked their predatory northern neighbors more than they did the French, happily joined the latter. On 10 May Ney started to cross the river.

Meanwhile Napoleon skillfully forced a crossing by Dresden. With Ney at Torgau, a prolonged resistance by the Allies would have been useless. Napoleon paused while he organized a vast administrative base in Dresden. The city was situated dangerously far to the east if things went wrong, but the Emperor refused to consider any such eventuality. He now heavily outnumbered the Allied Army, but he was handicapped by his lack of cavalry and the difficulty of obtaining information in a hostile country. The Allies had retreated, but where? He wrote on 13 May to Ney in Torgau: ‘I still do not see clearly that the Prussians have done; it is enough that the Russians are retreating on Breslau….Have they [the Prussians] gone towards Berlin as seems natural?’ He ordered Ney to march on Berlin, but on 15 May Miloradovich fought a rearguard action with MacDonald, who forced a passage over the Spree. To MacDonald, who could see the enemy camps beyond Bautzen, it was evident that the allies were not going back without a fight.

Napoleon joyously prepared this time to crush them. He cancelled the orders to advance on Berlin. Ney turned about, but his four corps were somewhat scattered. Wittgenstein, considering that Lauriston’s Corps was dangerously exposed, sent Yorck and Barclay de Tolly to break him. They had a sharp brush with the French near Hoyerswarda, about 20 miles north of Bautzen, but found Ney close at hand and withdrew before they could suffer serious damage. By this move, however, Wittgenstein had hazarded a substantial part of his army on an ill-timed diversion; the Allies faith in their Commander-in-Chief, never high, sank lower.

The Allies outnumbered as they were, had nevertheless decided to fortify a defensive position by the little town of Bautzen in the hope that Napoleon would shatter himself to pieces against it. If they continued to retreat, they considered they would lead color to Napoleon’s extravagant claims of victory at Lützen, undermining further the moral of their men and discourage the other German states from joining them. For the underlying battle was for the allegiance of Germany as a whole. If the various states turned against Napoleon, the French were doomed – but those states were scarcely likely to link their fortunes with an army that seemed anxious only to run away.

The position they selected, with its left only six miles from the Austrian border and astride the main road to Breslau, suffered from two defects. It was rather too long for the troops available, and  it was intersected by the narrow valley of the Blӧserwasser, which flowed into the Spree. The Allied defensive position was organized in two paralled lines. The first, along the heights between the Spree and the Blӧserwasser, was held from north to south by the corps of Tchaplitz, Kleist, Wüttemberg and Saint-Priest. The second line was much stronger. To the south it was behind the Blӧserwasser, but on the right it was north-west of that river. From north to south the second line was held by Barclay de Tolly, Yorck, Blücher, and Gortchakov. The Russian Guard was in reserve behind Baschutz. The Allied sovereigns had their HQ at Nechern. Wittgenstein was still nominally the Commander-in-Chief, but in practice the Tsar Alexander had assumed the direction of the affairs.

Napoleon with his army of 115,000 men intended to fix the allies attention on their left flank in the south and on their centre. He then planned that Ney with his army of 84,000 should attack well to the east of their right flank, after which the two combined armies would drive the enemy up against the hills on the Austrian border and annihilate them. The Allies numbered roughly 100,000. If Napoleon could induce them to hold their position long enough, he could win that devastating victory which he needed to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

About noon 20 May the French began their attack on the line of the river Spree. Whilst Oudinot (XII Corps) moved on SIngwitz, Marmont (VI Corps) and MacDonald (XI Corps) advanced respectively north and south of Bautzen. Reiset’s cavalry brigade linked MacDonald with Oudinot in the south. At about 1 P.M. Oudinot crossed the Spree by the bridge and a ford at Singwitz, driving the Russians back until he was halted by their cavalry. His right hand division under Lorencez, meeting but feeble opposition, pushed forward in the direction of Mehlteuer. Meanwhile MacDonald not only secured the bridge to the south pf Bautzen, he had two more constructed there.

Marmont, having massed 60 guns on the heights above Bautzen, got Compans’s division across the Spree and by about 3 P.M. won a foothold in the north-western outskirts of Bautzen. Captain Barrès (47th of the line) wrote that the attack began about 10 A.M.; that they had the town of Bautzen opposite of them, and that they crossed by bridges thrown across the trestles. Before they crossed the river Compans ask Barrès for a sergeant, a corporal, and 14 men, and led them himself to the foot of the walls of the town. He showed them a breach, and told them to climb over and open the gate which he pointed out. The sergeant, leading the way up to the breach, was killed, but the corporal took over and pulled his men up. They fired a volley and, for the loss  of two or three men, got the gate open.

The Russians in the town of Bautzen, threated MacDonald on the one flank and Marmont on the other, withdrew. To the south Miloradovich retired before Oudinot lest he should be cut off, and the advancing French reached, roughly speaking, the line Binnewitz-Nadelwitz-Basankwitz-Pleifowitz before fighting died down. The French fought well, and the advance of Lorencez in particular had convinced the Tsar that Napoleon’s aim was to interpose between the Allies and the Austrians. In fact his object was the precise opposite. Alexander’s reserves were already weak, but he now sent part of them to reinforce the troops facing Oudinot. The Tsar at this stage of the battle was playing in to Napoleon’s hands.

During the day Ney had advanced against some opposition and bivouacked in the area of Särchen in the north. His army of four corps consisted at this stage of only his own III Corps and Lauriston’s V Corps. At about 4 P.M. on 20 May, orders signed by Berthier were sent to Ney. Although they were carried by one of Napoleon’s own staff officers, they did not reach him until 4 A.M. on the 21st. They ordered him to drive the enemy from Drehsa, about three miles to the south-east, and then march on Weissenberg and surround the Allied right.

At about 7 A.M. on the 21st Napoleon was on the heights to the east of Bautzen when one of Ney’s staff rode up. The Emperor explained the situation further, and sent him back with a pencil note. The intention of the Emperor is that you hold follow constantly the movement of the enemy. His Majesty has shown your staff officer the positions of the enemy, which are defined by the redoubts which he has constructed and occupies. The Intention of the Emperor is that you should be on the Blӧserwasser about six miles south-east of Särchen. You will be on the extreme right of the enemy. As soon as the Emperor sees you engaged at Preititz we shall attack vigorously at all points. Have General Lauriston (V Corps) march on your left so as to br in apposition to turn the enemy if your movement decides him to abandon his position.

Oudinot (XII Corps) advanced at daybreak and took Rieschen. Still convinced that Napoleon meant to cut him off from Bohemia, the Tsar drew on  his reserves until Miloradovich had 20,000 men to oppose Oudinot’s 15,000. By 11 A.M. Oudinot, back on the heights east of Binnewitz, was asking for reinforcements. Cahracteristically Napoleon did not even trouble to reply. MacDonald (XI Corps) moved forward to the heights near Baschutz to the north of Oudinto and onpend aheavy bombardment. Marmont (VI Corps) contented himself with holding the heights of Burk, with infantry in Nadelwitz, Nieder Kaina, and Basankwitz. The Guard in squares crowned the battlefield to the north-east of Bautzen. Soult with Bertrand (IV Corps) made much slower progress than he expected, but by 2 P.M. had Bertrand’s 21,000 men and 30 guns on the plateau east of the Spree near Doberschutz.

Ney moved off early, between 4 and 5 A.M., and droves Barclay de Tolly back until about 10 A.M. His men were soon on the heights of Gleina, and Lauriston was on his left. It was now that Napoleon’s message reached Ney. Jomini, the clever Swiss theoretician who was now his Chief-of-Staff, urged the Marshal to advance at once on Preititz. Perhaps this was not very tactful, but Ney pointed out that the Emperor intended for him to be there at 11 P.M. He would stand fast for an hour.  He took the decision even though he had four divisions up, and with their 23,000 men he could no doubt have wolfed Preititz in a mouthful.

In 1823, long after the Marshal was in his grave, Jomini wrote, ‘When nay saw the fine heights of Klein Bautzen (Kreckwitz) he was carried away by the idea that they were the key to the position.’ He thought he ought to wait until Reynier (VII Corps) came up, and then strom the heights. At 11 P.M. he sent Souham’s division which drove two battalions of Barclay de Tolly’s corps from Preititz. As F. Petre observes in his book on Napoleon’s German campaigns, ‘ Had he had his whole corps there, and been on the move towards Hochkirch, as Jomini urged him, Blücher could hardly have held on to the Kreckwitz heights, and the pressure in front of Soult begin removed, that marshal also would have got forward.’ Ney’s preoccupation with the heights of Kreckwitz was the fact fatal for Napoleon’s plan.

In the second phase of the battle, Oudinot and MacDonald succeeded in inducing the Allies to concentrate their left, and much of their reserve, against them. When at about noon Oudinot pleading for reinforcements, Napoleon said to his galloper, “Tell your marshal the the battle will be won by 3 P.M., form now till then he must hold on as best he may.’

The Tsar and the King of Prussia sat their horses on the heights near Klein Jenkwitz, south of the main road to Hochkirch, from where at a range of two miles they could make out the Emperor on his grey. Not that Napoleon spent all his time in the saddle; from 9 until 11 A.M. he slept on the ground in the mist of his Huard, shells bursting around him. And while one Emperor slept, the other obliged him by accepting the idea that it was his left that was menaced. ‘I will wager my head’ said the more percipient Wittgenstein, ‘that this is only a demonstration; Napoleons idea is to out flank our right and drives us on Bohemia.’

At 11 A.M. Souham’s guns of III Corps woke Napoleon, who ordered Marmont forward, and sent Barrois’ division (Young Guard) to complete the line between him and Bertrand in the north. Behind Basankwitz the rest of the Guard drew up, supported by Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry and 80 guns. At about 2:30 P.M. Franquermont’s Württemberg division (IV Corps) made a gallant attack on Kreckwitz. Morand’s division advanced simultaneously, and by 3 P.M. Blüchers hard pressed troops were back on the line Doberschutz-Kreckwitz.

Before the French reached Preititz, Barclay de Tolly had asked Blücher for reinforcements; these were promptly sent, and when Souham emerged from Preititz he was attacked with vigour and driven out. Ney sent three divisions to retake Preititz, and about 2 P.M. Kleist saw them approaching, while Lauriston menaced his right. The French stormed the village, which changed hands twice before the Prussians, their line of retreat threatened, fell back on the heights to the south-west. Enemy cannonades from the heights of Kreckwitz, though well west of his true objective. Convinced Ney that he must storm them, despite his Chief-of-Staff’s urgings that he should direct his 32,000 men south-east towards the green church spire of Hochkirch. By about 3 P.M. Blücher, threatened with encirclement, was warned that he must withdraw within a quarter of an hour or the trap would be closed. The Prussians leap-frogged back with great skill. As they withdrew, the French surged on to the Kreckwitz heights, and Ney found to his disgust that his change of direction had only succeeded in bringing him face to face with Bertrand. The two corps (III and IV) became horribly intermingled and it took an hour to disentangle them. Ney had the mortification of seeing Blücher’s troops depart through the gap he had left them.

Now the Tsar realized that it was the Allies right, not their left, that was threatened, At 4 P.M. orders were given for a retreat. It was well executed, under the cover of skillful rearguard actions and a providential rainstorm. The allies had lost 10, 850 men of whom 2,790 were from Blücher’s corps. Few prisoners were taken; the only trophies were a few disabled cannon.

The young French troops lost double these numbers, probable about 20,000 casualties; these included 3,700 missing, of whom 800 were taken prisoner. The others, stragglers and marauders, may have rejoined their eagles later.  After the battle Napoleon, as was his wont, rode over the battlefield amongst the heaps of slain: ‘What!’ he exclaimed, ‘after such a slaughter, no trophies? These people will leave me no claws!

Ney has been blamed for the failure to inflict a decisive defeat on the Allies at Bautzen. He undoubtedly allowed himself to be fatally distracted by the struggle on the heights of Kreckwitz, and struck too far west to envelope the Allied right flank as Napoleon had planned; but Blücher was no fool, and was not likely to watch placidly while he was enveloped. Napoleon’s scheme for a great combined attack had demanded too much. Staffs were rudimentary and communications bad. Napoleon himself was responsible for developing large armies beyond the control of a commander mounted on his horse. Large bodies could not be moved or deployed as though they were single regiments or even divisions. Napoleon himself does not appear to have lost confidence in Ney. He appreciated his difficulties, compounded as they were by the fine fighting performance of the Allied troops.

It was, however, on the heights of Kreckwitz that Napoleon’s last chance of saving his German empire vanished. At the time the Allies, retiring disconsolately amid the customary storm of mutual recrimination, had little reason to believe it. Significantly, though, the Prussians did not depart to the north, nor the Russians beyond the Vistula. Their alliance remained outwardly firm, and Napoleon’s next move in the face of their opposition was to conclude an armistice.

FRENCH (Napoleon) 199,300

NEY/Commanding/ Victor (I Corps=13,000); Ney (III Corps=30,000); Lauriston (V Corps=27,000); Reynier (VII Corps=9,500) Cavalry =4,800 [TOTAL = 84,300]

Napoleon/Commanding/ Bertrand (IV Corps =25,000); Marmont (VI Corps=22,000); Guard =19,000; Latour-Maubourg (I Cavalry Corps =8,000); MacDonald (XI Corps=17,000); Oudinot (XII Corps=24,000) [TOTAL=115,000}

ALLIES (Wittgenstein) 100,000

Varclay de tolly /Tchaplitz (13,000); Tchaplitz (13,000); Blücher (22,000); Kleinst (5,000); Württemberg (4,000); Yorck (5,000); Russian Guard (19,000); St. Priest (Unknown); Miloradovich (14,000); Gortchakov (13,000)


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


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