Napoleonic Wars: After Dresden; Sept.-Oct. 1813

After the battle of Dresden the months of September and early October became a time of skirmishing and positioning. Vowing to not fight Napoleon directly, his marshals were fair game. It was also a time of new Treaties designed to sow discord in the Emperors allies, producing defections and new allegiances.

Napoleon’s great victory at Dresden was largely valueless by Vandamme’s almost inconceivable catastrophe at Klum. The earlier defeats of his marshals—MacDonald at Katzbach and Oudinot at Grossbeeren—had shown the effectiveness of the new allied strategy. Now, as his enemies massed against him, almost every day brought the news of some defection: a lesser man might have accepted defeat; a politically wiser one might have gone to the council chamber to extract what he could from the shambles. Napoleon himself seemed momentarily uncertain, almost unnerved by the extent of his disasters. Such never lasted long with the Emperor. He would not admit that his vision of dictating peace on the Vistula or at Vienna was now only an empty dream. One great victory and all would be retrieved. It was not his destiny to fail.

He must strike at the increasing number of his foes, but at whom? He remained near Dresden and thrust viciously at Schwarzenberg in Bohemia to the south of the great mountain range of the Erzgebirge. Schwarzenberg, safely ensconced behind the mountain passes, shielded by vile roads and even viler weather, thwarted his great opponent while Blücher advanced inexorably in the east. Napoleon might have turned on Blücher but the Prussian would have only run away to Breslau in the east, while Schwarzenberg and Bernadotte joined hands across his communication lines with France. He might have left an army of observation in the south to watch the mountain passes and gone north, but Bernadotte would have refused action and no doubt given ground while Blücher and Schwarzenberg and fresh armies from Russia advanced on his great administrative base at Dresden. He might do nothing and wait for the Allies to blunder, but he was used to creating opportunities, not waiting for them to occur.

He decided that he himself would remain centrally at Dresden where he could deal either with Blücher or Schwarzenberg as might prove either necessary. He sent Ney to the north with instructions to take over from Oudinot and then, despite having only 58,000 men as compared with Bernadotte’s 125,000, push on for Berlin. Perhaps Ney would drive back the renegade Bernadotte, link with Davout, at present inactive at Hamburg, and trample on Prussia, and then rejoin Napoleon for a great offensive in the south.

Ney went to Wittenberg, took command of the Army of Berlin (3 September 1813) and advanced northwards. He was held up by Tauentzien at Zahna (5 September 1813) but, reinforced by Bertrand (IV Corps), pushed the Prussians back to Jüterbog. On the following day he suffered disaster at the hands of Bülow and Tauentzien at the Battle of Dennewitz. He had under him Bertran’s, Reynier’s and Oudinot’s corps. Bertrand cooperated loyally, Reynier simply disregarded his orders, and Oudinot showed plainly enough that he resented being superseded. Ney lost 10,000 killed and wounded and 13,000 prisoners—mainly Germans—and 83 guns. He wrote to Berthier, ‘I can’t go on repeating it is almost impossible to make General Reynier to obey,’ He withdrew on Torgau and was in fact lucky to break clear.

During the rest of September, neither side succeeded in mounting an operation that had any real significance. Schwarzenberg was frustrated from striking a blow towards Leipzig and Napoleon’s communications with France, and Blücher pushed MacDonald back toward Dresden. Napoleon’s young and hungry infantry, lacking the stamina for frequent forced marches, were insufficiently mobile for him to take full advantage of his central position.

The autumn weeks slipped by and still the Emperor had not been able to achieve the decisive victory that he needed. Clinging to the line of the Elbe, he showed a bold front, but his communications were uncertain, and with the Austrians in Bohemia out flanking the line of the Elbe, his strategic situation was becoming unsound. To retreat to the Saale was to abandon Saxony. The probable effect of such a move on his other German allies who lay between his army and the Rhine, was all too predictable.

The principle event of the month was diplomatic; The Treaty of Tӧplitz, signed on 9 September 1813. It was another triumph for the skilled diplomatist Prince Metternich. Under the terms of the Treaty it was agreed that Austria and Prussia should be given back the dominions lost in 1805 and 1806: the House of Brunswick-Lüneberg was to be restored to its former territories, and the Allies, cooperating in friendly fashion were to decide the fate of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine was to be dissolved, but the independence of its member states was guaranteed. Bavaria and Württemberg now knew that the fall of Napoleon need not necessarily spell their destruction. The first fruit of the Treaty was the defection of Bavaria from the French cause. By the Treaty of Ried (8 October 1813) Bavaria joined the Allies. The immediate military result was that Prince Reuss’s Austrian corps, which had been watching the Bavarian General Wrede, was able to cease doing so; instead they joined up, posing a new threat to the French lines of communications. The Bavarians still serving with the Grande Armée now took the homeward road.

Napoleon’s strategic position was rapidly deteriorating. He at last accepted that he would have to abandon, temporarily, the east bank of the Elbe. He concentrated the greater part of the Grande Armée at Dresden, a position in which he was still dangerously far to the east. To the north Wallmoden (whose army included the 2nd Battalion of the 73rd Foot, the only British battalion to fight in Germany is 1813) defeated part of Davout’s command at Gohrde (19 September 1813): this kept the French from Magdeburg, gave the Allies a foothold on the west of the Elbe, and encouraged the Hanoverians and the Brunswickers to take up arms with the other Allies. At the end of October, Davout fell back to Hamburg. Every passing day saw recruits replenish the ranks of the Austrians and Prussians. From Russia the Army of the Reserve, 60,000 men under Bennigsen, was approaching. No such reinforcements could be expected by the French. Augereau (IX) and Milhaud’s cavalry moved up, harasses by the Hetman Platov and Maurice Lichtenstein’s division, but they numbered only some 20,000.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

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

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