Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Dresden; Prelude August 1813

On 12 August Austria declared war. By this time Napoleon had nearly as many men in Germany as he had on the Neman in 1812 when he invaded Russia.

In the Fortresses to the East 50,000 with various commanders; on the Elbe 25,000 with various commanders; in Hamburg 40,000 (including 12,000 Danes) commanded by Davout; on the Rhine 25,000 Bavarians under Wede; at Mainz/Würzburg 15,000 with the cavalry corps under Milhaud, the infantry corps under Augereau; the Grande Armée of 400,000 under Napoleon, for a total of 555,000 men.

With over 12,000 guns Napoleon was very well provided with artillery. His cavalry, some 380 squadrons , now amounted to 70,000 horsemen–thought how many of the troopers were expert in wielding their sabers, or in riding their horses, was another matter. The Guard had swollen to strength of 60,000 men.

The Grande Armée was organized into 16 corps, five being cavalry. This great host was by no means all French,. It included Poles, Germans, Italians, Dutchmen, Belgians, and Swiss, and while some notably the Poles, were devoted to the Emperor, some were decidedly lukewarm. As early as 22 August two Westphalian hussar regiments, comprising the light cavalry brigade of Victor’s II Corps, went over to the Allies, whose field armies had grown to redoubtable size.

The Allies also put a mighty host in the field. It consisted of three armies as follows:

Army of Bohemia (Schwarzenberg) 249,000

Austrians (125,000) Schwarzenberg; Prussians II Corps (37,000) Kleist; Prussian Guard (7,000) Unknown; Russians (80,000) Barclay de Tolly

Army of the North (Bernadotte, Crown Prince of Sweden) 125,000

Prussians (72,000) Tauentzien / Bülow; Russians (30,000) Winzingerode; Swedes (23,000) Bernadotte

Army of Silesia (Blücher) 108,000

Prussians (38,000) Yorck; Russians (70,000) Sacken / Lengeron

The three allied field armies amounted to more than 408,000 men, as opposed to Napoleon’s Grande Armée of about 400,000. More than a quarter of Winzingerode’s 30,000 were Cossacks, unfit for the line of battle, and most of Tauentzien’s men, being Landwehr or reserves, could hardly be classed as first line troops. But in addition they had a miscellaneous force under Wallmoden opposing Davout’s garrison at Hamburg, while other detachments, mainly Landwehr, blocked the French garrisons on the Elbe and to the East. These troops numbered not less than 100,000 bring the Allied total to nearly 600,000.

When the armistice ended, Napoleon had most of his army deployed to the east of the Elbe, between Dresden and Liegnitz, able to strike at any one of the three converging Allied armies. From Dresden north to Hamburg the fortresses and passages of the Elbe were in his hands. He decided to strike first at Bernadotte, hoping to loosen the Allies position in North Germany, and perhaps to relieve Kurstin and Stettin.

The battle scared Oudinot took an army of 85,000 to the north. He had some initial success, but on 23 August Bernadotte’s Army of the North turned on him at Grossbeeren about 12 miles south of Berlin, and drove him back in confusion. By 2 September he was back at Wittenberg on the Elbe, about 40 miles south-west of Berlin, with his men badly shaken.

Meanwhile Blücher, advancing against Ney, had found the latter reinforced by Napoleon himself; in accordance with the new plan of operations, Blücher beat a hasty retreat eastwards, and despite a vigorous pursuit succeeded in evading the Emperor. Schwarzenberg, seeing Napoleon away in the east, struck northwards. On 23 August Napoleon left MacDonald with four corps to contain Blücher and moved by forced marches from Gӧrlitz to the relief of Dresden. He ordered MacDonald to drive Blücher beyond the river Jauer and then take up a position on the River Bober and so prevent the Army of Silesia from interfering with his operations. MacDonald, however, pressed on to the Katzbach, a tributary of the River Oder about 40 to 50 miles west of Breslau. It was a stream of no great importance but its banks were steep. MacDonald was deceived by Blücher’s flight into thinking that the Army of Sileasia was tired and demoralized after its long retreat. He then crossed the Katzbach, although he had only 50,000 troops to oppose Blücher’s 80,000. The Prussian, aware that Napoleon was no longer with the French army, at once turned on his pursuer. MacDonald, taken by surprise at this sudden reversal, was driven back into the river and only extricated himself with the loss of half his force, 100 guns and 18,000 prisoners. He fell back rapidly towards Dresden with his shattered remnants.

In the meantime, on 19 August Schwarzenberg had begun his advance. On the 22nd the Allies crossed the watershed of the mountains of Bohemia, making for Chemnitz, and then decided to turn north-east against Dresden, whose garrison was only 5,000 strong. Napoleon got wind of this move very quickly, for news of it reached him at Gӧrlitz on the evening of the 23rd August.

The Allied advance guard appeared before Dresden on the afternoon of 25 August and Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, with 15,000 men, fell back before them. The Marshal had four divisions, one of these being at Kӧnigstein, with which to oppose 80,000 Allies. The fortifications at Dresden were not of the best and were also rather too extensive for the troops available. Had the Allies stormed at once they could scarcely had failed to carry the city, but they delayed. This had been blamed on the methodical approach of the Austrians it seems, however, Schwarzenberg wished to attack but allowed the Tsar to overrule him. The opportunity for a sift victory was soon gone, for by evening the bivouac fires of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard could be seen against the eastern sky.

The actors were in place and the stage set for the morning’s slug fest.


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


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