Napoleonic Wars: After Leipzig; Retreat

More important, were the consequences of Leipzig. Napoleon had now to go back to France to consolidate his position. Meanwhile all Western Germany rose against him. In a surge of patriotic enthusiasm Berg, Westphalia and other principalities followed the example of Bavaria. By the Treaty of Fulda (2 November) Metternich guaranteed Württemberg’s sovereignty in return for a contingent of 12,000 men. Baden, Hesse-Darmstädt and Nassau lost no time in concluding similar conventions. The dispossessed rulers of Brunswick, Hanover, Electoral House of Hesse and Oldenburg returned to their thrones.

The somewhat inchoate military machine of the allies was attempting meanwhile to exploit its strategic advantage. Klenau and bennigsen were detailed to mop up the French garrisons along the Elbe at Dresden, Torgau, Wittenberg and Magdeburg. Kleist and Winzingerode were directed to take Erfurt. Bernadotte moved north to support Wallmoden against Davout, whose communications with the Emperor were now severed. Early in November Dresden and Torgau surrendered. Before the end of the year Danzig, Stettin and Wittenberg were in Allied hands. In January 1814 Napoleon’s Danish allies, pursued into Holstein by Wallmoden, concluded the Treaty of Kiel.

On 23 October Napoleon reached Erfurt where he endeavoured to restore some order to what remained of his Grand Armée. Two days later he resumed his retreat. Schwarzenberg and Blücher were following up slowly, but if they were to intercept him he first must be delayed by Wrede’s Bavarians and Prince Reuss’s Austrians; advancing from Anspach by Würzburg, the Bavarians and Austrian contingent rached Hanau by 28 October, blocking the main road back to France. Wrede, commanding 40,000 men, held the line of the River Kinzig, with Hanau at his back. The situation looked black for the French, but the resilience of the remnants of the Grande Armée was amazing. Drouot massed a great battery, and Nansouty and Sébastiani led all the available cavalry in amassive charge t beat back the Allied left. Wrede retired across the river. On the 31st Napoleon sent the corps of Bertrand and Marmont, which had fought with truly Gallic fervour and gave time for Oudinot (Young Guard) to get around Wrede’s flank. On 2 November the wreck of the Grande Armée was struggling back across the Rhine at Mainz.

A properly coordinated army under a single chief might well have exploited the victory at Leipzig to more advantage than did the Allies of 1813. While there was no hurry to reduce the French garrisons in Germany, there was good reason to intercept Napoleon east of the Rhine, at least so far as Blücher and the Tsar were concerned (the Austrians at this stage were by no means certain that they wished to unseat Napoleon).

Leipzig, the Battle of Nations, was the biggest battle of the Napoleonic wars, bigger than Borodino and bigger than Waterloo. Its very vastness had posed the Allies the same sort of problems over control and passage of orders which had earlier vexed Napoleon. That they triumphed was due in no small part to the efforts of the brave, modest and tactful Schwarzenberg. On the eve of the battle he wrote to his wife, “When I look out my window and see the countless watch-fires outstretched before me, and when I consider that I face the greatest military commander of our age, and one of the greatest of all time, a veritable emperor of battles, then my dear Nani, I must admit that I feel my shoulders too weak and will collapse under the gigantic task which weighs upon them. But when I gaze up at the stars, I recall that He who controls them has also marked out my course.” Schwarzenberg, whom we may call the Eisenhower of the coalition forces, proved equal to the task of making them run smoothly. At a banquet a year or two after the battle Blücher proposed a toast to ‘the Commander-in-Chief who had three monarchs at his headquarters and still managed to beat the enemy.’

Napoleon, with a courage perhaps never surpassed, refused to capitulate and the Allies swept on towards the Rhine. In the approaching campaign to save France–and himself—he was to touch new heights as a general. He still had not been defeated in the field; this was not to happen to him until that fatal day at Waterloo. In Russia, in his own view, he had been conquered by the weather, at Leipzig by the treachery of the Saxons and the stupidity of an engineer officer. Such rationalizations might strain credulity, but they allowed him to continue to believe in his star.

As he withdrew to France, commanding marshals and generals whose one desire was to enjoy their wealth and estates in peace, the personal ascendancy that enabled him to continue the struggle became all the more remarkable. He opened peace negotiations that were to continue for much of the rest of the struggle, but he never seriously contemplated abandoning his conquests while he had cannon and muskets that would be fired at his command. Although the new Allied peace proposals were astonishingly liberal, taking into account his reduced military capacity, he rejected them. He also thought it discreet to throw doubt on the sincerity of the Allies, for he feared their offers of peace might lessen the French will to resist. For Napoleon the truth was always what it suited him to have others believe.

He expected that his garrisons in Germany and along the main approaches to France would cause his enemies to dissipate their forces with lengthy and unnecessary sieges. But by his own example he had trained the Allies too well in the virtues of concentration and speed. They now blockaded the French held fortresses with second-line troops and continued the war through the depths of winter. In January 1814, as the Allied invasion of France proceeded without a check, Napoleon had once again to take the field, while he might greet this turn of events by boldly raising his glass to toast the advance to the Vistula that he yearned for, his marshals were lukewarm. He however, was not to be subdued without a struggle worthy of a genius.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

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

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