Napoleonic Wars: Armistice of Poischitz; 4 June 1813

Napoleons agreement to the Armistice of Poischitz had been hailed as one of his greatest mistakes, and in deed from that time onwards his fortunes began to turn for the worst. He probably had no choice. He had marched and fought his army into the ground, and the Cossacks and Prussian Freikorps were constantly raiding his lines of communication which stretched ever further from France. When the Armistice was concluded on 4 June 1813, the Russian General Woronzoff was actually on the point of seizing Leipzig. “This Armistice will interrupt the course of my victories,’ the emperor wrote on 2 June to General Clarke, his Minister of War. ‘Two considerations have made up my mind; my shortage of cavalry, which prevents me from striking great blows, and the hostile attitude of Austria.’

While the war progressed the diplomatists had been hard at work. Austria had offered her services as an intermediary and Napoleon had tried to treat directly with Tsar Alexander. It had been an exercise in futility. As one side secured a military advantage so it raised its bid, only to have it declined by the other, which hoped that the next round of fighting would be to its own advantage. Napoleon could not bring himself to accept terms, and could no longer impose them. Equally, though, the Allies had suffered rough treatment on the battlefield, and they too needed a respite.

Napoleon’s desire for an armistice must also be taken as proof of his dissatisfaction with his inconclusive victories at Lützen and Bautzen. But it may be doubted whether the Russo-Prussian alliance would have survived another defeat. A third victory might well have enabled the Emperor to relieve the beleaguered fortresses on the Oder, whose garrisons would have given a welcomed stiffening to his conscript army. On the other hand his cavalry was still feeble, his raw troops were unready for another blood-bath, and ammunition and supplies were running low. It is extremely doubtful whether he could have won a third victory at that time.

The diplomatic scene was dominated by the subtle Prince Metternich of Austria, whose suavity concealed a will of steel. He was faced by problems appalling in their complexity. As the spokesman for a multi-national Empire he deeply distrusted nationalism and the ideals of the French revolution. Napoleon was a bulwark against both. Metternich also with good reason feared the ambitions of Prussia and Russia and had no desire to see an increase in their strength, which he foresaw might well endanger the security of Austria. He was, however, conscious of the rising tide of nationalism that had begun to sweep across Germany and he detested it. He wished to retain Napoleon but he was not prepared for France to meddle any longer in German affairs. He was convinced that Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine must cease to exist. But Napoleon was not prepared to dissolve it.

On 23 June 1813, the two men met in the Marcolini Palace in Dresden. Napoleon wore sword and hat. The sword he threatened to draw, the hat he threw at Metternich the better to establish a point. Before the Austria went in to the nine-hour conference, Berthier buttonholed him and whispered, ‘Europe needs peace.’ These words uttered by Napoleon’s Chief-of-Staff, showed clearly enough how weary the French had grown of war. At the conference Napoleon tried to threaten and browbeat the Austrian. To Metternich the issues were clear enough. Napoleon could keep the Netherlands and what could hold of Italy and Spain, but the Confederation of the Rhine had to be dissolved. Napoleon would not give up his foothold in Germany. The wrangle went on interminably. Napoleon at one point confessed, ‘Your Sovereigns born to the throne may be beaten twenty times and return…. My reign will end when I am no longer strong.’ It was a theme to which he kept returning. With both Royalist and Republicans seeking to unseat him, he could not be tainted by failure. He nevertheless believed there were no issues that could not ultimately be settled on the battlefield, and growled to Metternich that he had beaten the Prussians at Lützen, and the Russians at Bautzen, and soon he would be renewing the argument in Vienna!

The two sides were irreconcilably opposed, and so they were to remain. Napoleon could not believe that his dream of becoming the conquering ruler of a united Europe had vanished; he could not understand how the growth of German nationalism had overtaken him. As the exhausted Austrian finally left the meeting, to the anxious enquiries of bystanders he replied, ‘C’est un homme perdu’ (He is lost)

Next the emperor Francis I of Austria pledged himself to go to war if Napoleon did not disband his Confederation of the Rhine and withdraw from Germany. Now Austria had declared against Napoleon the waverers began to follow suit. Bernadotte, the ex-Marshal of the Empire who was now Crown Prince of Sweden, joined the hunt. The old Republican General Moreau, appeared form the United States of America. As both sides prepared for renewal of the conflict the Allies discussed how best Napoleon might be fought. Moreau told them frankly that they would never beat Napoleon on the field of battle. They prepared a deadly plan. Commanders facing Napoleon should refuse action and withdraw, seeking to exhaust his men by useless marches. Where he did not himself command, his marshals should at once be engaged. Eventually, when Napoleon had been sufficiently worn down and the Allies had a sufficient superiority in numbers. Napoleon himself should be fought. Blücher expostulated angrily against such craven tactics but had to comply. The plan was quick to bear fruit.

Both sides now exerted the utmost effort to concentrate their forces for 10 August, when hostilities would clearly begin again. Russian reinforcements came wandering westward from the steppes. French battalions plodded towards the Elbe, their veteran cadres teaching them the rudiments of drill and weapons training as they went. In June Britain had agreed to subsidize Russia and Prussia to the extent of more than ₤1.5 million. British munitions poured into Stralsund and Colberg, enabling the Prussian Landwehr to exchange their pikes for muskets and to take their place in the line of battle. Before the conference dispersed, the Allies heard good news from Spain. Wellington’s great triumph at Vitoria (21 June) had driven the French headlong from the Peninsula. Now France herself was threatened with invasion. The Tsar ordered that a Te Deum should be sung, something that had never previously been done for a victory won by other than Russian troops.

The preparations were in motion for the next slaughter at Dresden.


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