Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Dresden 26-27 August 1813

At 6 A.M. on 26 August the allies made a general assault which carried the outlying villages and the Gross-Garten, but before they could penetrate the suburbs Napoleon’s troops were pouring across the Elbe bridges. Now the Allies put in another general attack. At every point they met with a rrude reception. Mortier drove Wittgenstein back at Striesen, while his right-hand division drove Pirch and Ziethen out of Gross-Garten. Colloredo’s Austrians got in to a French battery, but the Old Guard threw them out with the bayonet. To the west, between the Weisseritz and the Elbe, Murat, with Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry and Victor’s II Corps, drove back Gyulai and Bianchi.

Even now the Allies did not retire. This time it was not the Tsar, but the King of Prussia whose counsel prevailed. In view of their numbers, he argued it would be too much of a confession of weakness to withdraw. At the same time, though, the Allies were handicapped by the nature of the ground and the skillful dispositions of the French. Lord Cathcart, who was accompanying them—he subsequently died at the Battle of Inkerman in 1854—described the initial situation thus: “The concave arc on which the Allied army was formed was nearly six English miles from right to left; and the convex arc on which Napoleon stood was less than three. The allied line, except at the two extremities, had the advantage of an eminence; but Napoleon’s forces stood with their backs to the defenses of Dresden, sheltered by regular redoubts, and the loop-holed houses of the suburbs were near at hand. This was the attitude in which a much smaller force would have been secure from attack so long as it chose to stand on the defensive; which its concentration placed it in a favourable attitude for assuming the offensive against any weak part of the extended lines of the Allies.” He might have added that the river Weisseritz, running through difficult country, would result in the Allied left remaining isolated for a dangerous period of time in the event of a sudden, unexpected attack. Napoleon contemplated such a move.

On the following day (27 August) the French attacked all along the line. Mortier and Nansouty got around Wittgenstein right flank, but then Nansouty, outnumbered three-to-one by the Russian Reserve Cavalry, was checked. Starting from the Gross-Garten, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr drove back Kleist towards Leubnitz. The Old guard and Marmont (VI Corps) held the Austrians in play, Victor (II Corps) stormed the heights to his front, and Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry, supported by a single brigade of Vandamme’s I Corps, swept around the Austrian left at Burgstädtel.

Around noon the fighting died down, but during the afternoon the French made a decisive stroke west of the Weisseritz. Victor took Ober Gorbtiz, cutting off part of Lichtenstein’s division and compelling Weissenwolff’s to withdraw. French divisions now appeared behind the Austrians’ flank. Murat sent his cavalry, 10 Austrian battalions were cut off and taken prisoner, and the rest of the Austrian left wing departed in flagrant rout, Murat’s sabers reaping a bloody harvest.

It was fortunate indeed for the Allies that napoleon, his soldiers tired out by forced marches and hard fighting, did not press them that afternoon. He was waiting for Vandamme’s corps, which was approaching from the direction of Pirna, to develop an attack against the allies left flank and rear. During the night the Allies withdrew, toiling back in foul weather across the Erzgebirge. Many Poles in the Austrian service deserted, and some of the Prussian Landwehr battalions more or less disintegrated. Still, thanks partly to a chapter of accidents and partly to the gallant resistance of Prince Eugen of Württemberg, Vandamme failed to reach Tӧplitz before the Allies. Prince Eugen, instead of falling back, then attacked Vandamme. Under cover of this move he slipped Ostermann’s division of the Russian Guard across the French front so that it was between Vandamme and Tӧplitz. Prince Eugen’s corps suffered heavily, but he stood at bay the next day (29 August), contesting the last pass across the mountains. Ostermann himself lost an arm but eventually he was reinforced. Vandamme came on again on the 30th, but Wüttemberg was able to keep the French Centre in check, while three Austrian divisions assailed Vandamme’s left. At this stage Kleist, anxious to retire south beyond the mountains of the Erzebirge, arrive in Vandamme’s rear. Vandamme, confident he would soon link with the pursuit from Dresden, held his ground and turned upon Kleist furiously. But blocked mountain roads delayed the French pursuers and Vandamme’s position was soon desperate. General Mouton, seeing retreat down the highroad to Klum to be impossible, escaped by making his division take to the hills, but much of Napoleon’s I Corps, including its out spoken and stout-hearted commander, was compelled to surrender. Vandamme lost 10,000 killed and wounded 7,000 prisoners and 82 guns, but not his spirit. Ill-received by the Tsar, who called him a brigand, he had the temerity to remark, ‘Nobody has ever reproached me with having assassinated my father,’ a pointed reference to the death of the despotic Tsar Paul I in 1801.

The last ten days of August 18113 do not show Napoleon at his best. He had lost more men than the Allies. Against hi single success at Dresden they could show three clear victories against his lieutenants: the Allied plan was working. If ever Napoleon needed a decisive success it was when at Dresden the Allies challenged his hold on Germany. Had those operations ended in disaster for the Army of Bohemia, the allegiance of the Confederation of the Rhine to the French Empire must have been cemented?

Before the battle ended the French had 120,000 men in and around Dresden. The allies brought nearly 220,000. The French had 10,000 casualties, to which must be added those lost at Kulm. Allied casualties in these operations were in the region of 40,00. The French victory was agreat achievement, but was nullified by the catastrophe at Kulm. Coignet, the loyal old grenadier who was now the Emperors baggage-master, was shocked by the criticisms he heard among the staff officers. He wrote: ‘This was a memorable victory; but our generals had had enough of it….They cursed the Emperor: ‘He is a—-,’ They said, ‘who will have us all killed.’ I was dumb with astonishment. I said to myself, ‘We are lost’”


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


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