Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Nations; Leipzig Oct.16-18 1813

On the morning of the 16th Marmont (VI Corps) was about to move from between Breitenfeld and Mӧckern to Liebertwolkwitz in order to support the Emperor’s grand attack on the Army of Bohemia. He found, however, that Blücher was already pressing in on him. He was compelled to about and face him, with his right flank at Widderwitz and his left at Mӧckern.

Meanwhile Schwarzenberg was advancing along both banks of the Elster and Pleisse. On his left Gyulai pushed down the line of the Markranstädt—Lindenau road with the object of joining Blücher and cutting the French line of retreat through Lützen to Erfurt and Mainz. On Gyulai’s right Meerveldt and Lichtenstein were to cross the Pleisse at Connewitz in order to turn the French right.

The Main front of the Army of Bohemia ran from the Pleisse on the left to the Kolmberg, an isolated hill on the French left. The corps of Kleist, Prince Eugen of Württemberg, Gortchakov and Klenau was in the first line, with the Prussian and Russian Guard in reserve. The army numbered more than 120,000 men.

The Allies made some progress but Poniatowski, Victor and Lauriston hung obstinately to the villages of Connewitz, Wachau and Liebertwolkwitz. By noon the Emperor had prepared his counter stroke. MacDonald, coming upon the French left, released Augereau who moved into line between Poniatowski and Victor. The Young Guard came up to support Lauriston. Drouot, the general of artillery, massed a formidable battery east of Wachau, and Murat concentrated the cavalry for one of his great charges, to be directed against the Allied centre.

The counter-attack began well. MacDonald supported by Mortier, stromed the Swedish redout at Kolmberg with the bayonet, and compelled Klenau to fall back. Augereau drove Kleist out of Grostewitz. The Young Guard stormed Auenhayn. It was only with difficulty that Gortchakov held Lauriston’s attacks on the Galenberg, a low feature just west of the village of Lieberwolkwitz.

It was about 3 o’clock when Murat led forward his 12,000 cavalry. He charged through the gap between te corps of Gortchakov and Württembeerg, rode over some Russian cavalry, and captured the Allied batteries near Güldengossa. In this crisis Schwarzenberg used his reserves to good purpose. Austrian troops moved up taking the pressure of Kleist and regaining some of the ground taken by Augereau. The cavalry of the Prussian and Russian Guards counter-charged the French cavalry who, their horses blown, and their leader Latour-Maubourg, severely wounded, fell back. A Russian grenadier division came up to support Württemberg, and drive Victorout of Auenhayn. Klenau, who had succeeded in rallying his men, was able to prevent MacDonlad coming around his flank. Evening found the French back on their start lines. It was not only Schwarzenberg’s skillful use of his reserves that had saved the army of Bohemia. Blücher’s Army of Silesia had robbed the French on the souther front of the support they needed and expected from the north of the city.

Napoleon, as we have seen, had not anticipated and attack by Blücher on the 16th. He had intended that Marmont should support MacDonald during the counter-attack. But Mormont had not been able to do so; instead he had to cling desperately to Mӧckern and Widderitz in the north. Ney, commanding in that sector, had sent Bertrand off towards Lieberwokwitz instead of Marmont, but he too failed to arrive. Gyulai’s corps had begun to press on the Lindenau suburb, threatening to cut the French line of retreat, and Bertrand had to be diverted there. Next Souham (III Corps) was sent to support MacDonald, but before he could join him he was summoned to the rescue of Marmont.
Marmont’s corps, outnumbered by three to one, fought nobly against Yorck, Sacken and Langeron. Lindenthall fell, Mӧckern and Widderitz changed hands several times. A division of III Corps, commanded by Delmas, came up and sustained Marmont’s right. When night fell the French were holding Mӧckern, but the corps had loss 8,000 men, and in the dark Marmont fell back across the Parthe, abandoning 53 guns. To the south-west of the city, Merveldt and Lichtenstein failed to cross the Pleisse and the former was captured. Bertrand drove Gyulai out of Lindenau, and so kept open Napoleons line of retreat.

The days fighting had cost the French more than 25,000 men and the Allies perhaps 37,000. A dozen generals were among the French casualties. They included two of the cavalry corps commanders, Latour-Maubourg, who lost a leg, and Pajol (V Corps) who was severaly injured when his horse fell.

The 17th was a quiet day. Both sides spent the time reorganizing, but the allies also brought up reinforcements. Colloerdo’s Austrians marched in during the evening. Bennigsen was drawing near and the Crown Prince of Sweden had reached Halle—though he was not displaying any excess of zeal.

The battle on the 16th had been indecisive, except to indicate that it was time for the French to go. The Allies now outnumbered them by three to one. The implications of a retreat were, however fearful; Dresden, Hamburg, the garrisons on the Vistula, the Oder, and in Germany would be left to their fate. If the Emperor retreated, could he stop before the Rhine? Hoping against hope for a miracle, the Emperor decided to fight on. He pulled in his forces so that they formed an irregular semicircle round the south and east of the city, with the Guard and the Cavalry in reserve, and Lauriston in support of Victor and MacDonald. To the north Marmont faced Blücher. To the west Bertrand covered Lindenau suburb, his outposts facing Gyulai on the Lützen—Weissenfels road. To face the huge Allied concentration in this way, with the city and River Elster at his back, was an act of desperation.

Schwarzenberg kept his men under his hand. Instead of reinforcing Gyulai, and thereby cutting Napoleon’s line of retreat, he called back one of his divisions. It seems he suspected that the French might attempt a breakout not to the west but towards the Elbe, through the gap which the cautious Bernadotte was supposed to be closing with the Army of the North.

The battle began at 7 A.M. on the 18th. The Army of Bohemia put in a general assault along its whole front, made some progress against stout resistance and then was brought to a virtual standstill. Hesse-Homburg took Dӧsen while, for the French, Pinatowski’s Poles hung on to Connewitz. At Probstheida Victor repulsed Kliest and Wittgenstein. MacDonald held General Klenau until Bennigsen reinforced him and took Holzhausen. Reynier’s Saxon Division held on to Mӧlkau and Paunsdorf.

In the north the Army of Silesia, less Langeron’s corps, which Blücher had sent to help Bernadotte, drove Marmont’s outposts from Gohlis and Pfaffendorf, but made little further progress. Blücher did succeed in getting into Reudnitz, but reinforcements sent in by Napoleon drove him out again. Thus the Army of Silesia, as well as the Army of Bohemia was held.

It fell to the Army of the North to strike that decisive blow. It was at about noon that Bernadotte’s advance guard reached Taucha, and soon the joined Langeron, who had crossed the Parthe at Mockau. Langeron advanced against Ney’s left flank at Schӧnefeld, and Winzigerode pushed on towards Paunsdorf in order to close the breach between Blücher and Schwarzenberg by linking with Benningsen. The latter now resumed his attack. Budna’s Austrians, moving forward, were pleasantly surprised to see their opponents throwing down their arms—the Saxons of Reynier’s corps were changing sides, and their example was swiftly followed by a Württemberg cavalry brigade of 1,500 sabers. Reynier’s remaining division gave way and Budna took possession of Paunsdorf in the east.

Nay strove to restore the situation, and regained Paunsdorf for a time, but the Army of the North was too strong for him. Still, he managed to withdraw what remained of Reynier’s corps. Nansouty brought up the Guard cavalry to Ney’s support, but Bülow from the east pushed the French back on Reudnitz, and Langeron, after several attempts, captured Schӧnefeld. Everywhere the French were being driven back into Leipzig. It was fortunate for them that Mortier with two divisons of the Young Guard had meanwhile got the better of Gyulai and opened the road westward.

Before noon that day Napoleon realized that the odds against him were too great and that he must go back. Fighting with the magnificent courage and determination the French still held Leipzig when night fell, Napoleon issued his orders for the retreat verbally; no trace of written orders has remained. At about 2 o’clock on the morning of the 19th the retreat began, but after three days of fighting it was understandably hurried and ill-organized. All the roads converged on the one causeway across the marshes where the Rivers Elster and Pleisse flowed together in a maze of waterways. As the columns clashed, each exaggerating the peril from the enemy behind, the confusion became indescribable. The art of traffic control over defiles at that time was little understood. Then the bridge over the Elster was blown prematurely, isolating the rear guard under MacDonald, Poniatowski and Reynier in the eastern suburbs on the far side of the break. For the rearguard the mishap was fatal. They fought desperately to escape but without avail.

It is easy to censure the bridge commander, but in retreat closely followed up by the enemy he is placed in an impossible situation. Either he blows the bridge too soon, as at Leipzig, or he leaves it too late, and the bridge is captured intact. The bridge over the Elster was not the first or the last to be blown up at the wrong time.

Poniatowski, already wounded, was drowned in the Elster; Lauriston and Reynier fell into the hands of the Allies, and MacDonald managed to escape by swimming. His men were not so lucky. They called to him, “Monsieur le Maréchal, save your men! Save your children!” They threw themselves into the water rather than be taken, and many were swept away. MacDonald later said, “I could do nothing for them.” Overcome by rage, indignation, fury, I wept’ Soaking wet, he walked three leagues to Markranstädt where he caught up with the Emperor and his staff. ‘He was seated at a table, a map spread before him, and his head on his hand. With tears I related what had happened…I ended by saying that the losses of the army in men an materiel were immense, and not a moment should be lost in collecting the remains, and making for the Rhine.’ Napoleon did not relish home truths at the best of times. ‘Go and get some rest,’ he said. It was cold comfort to a man who had recently lost his corps.

Marmont also had a rough time crossing the bridge. Two officers of the 88th of the Line carved him a path across. He recounted, ‘My chief-of-staff and his deputy were hit at my side; four aides-de-camp were killed, wounded or captured; seven staff officers were either killed or wounded. As for myself, I had a bullet wound in the hand, a contusion on my left arm, a bullet through my hat and another in my clothes, and four horses killed or wounded under me. Of the three servants, who accompanied me, two were wounded and had their horses killed.’

The French generals, disillusioned though they were, had paid with their persons. Ney was wounded sufficiently severely to be authorized to return to France, which he did on 23 October. Thirteen generals of division were among the casualties on the 18th, and 25 generals of brigade were hit on 18 October and eleven on the 19th. The loss of so many senior officers added to the confusion in the retreating army, which suffered 50,000 men taken prisoner, 20,000 of them wounded, and the capture of 250 guns. The Allied losses were severe. They have been estimated as: Austrian, 15,000, Prussian, 16,000, and Russians, 22,000, making a total of 53,000 men.

French 164,000 (Napoleon) October 16

Marmont (VI Corps) 20,000—Souham (III Corps, partial) 7,000—Bertrand (IV Corps) 10,000—Leipzig garrison 7,000—Mortier (Guard) 22,000—MacDonald (XI Corps) 20,000—Sébastiani (II Cavalry) 3,000—Poniatowski (VIII Corps) 7,000—Murat (Cavalry) 13,000—-Oudinot (Guard) 20,000—Augereau (IX Corps) 8,000—-Lauriston (V Corps) 12,000—Victor (II Corps) 15,000

Allies 184,000 (Schwarsenberg) October 16

Army of Silesia (59,000) Blücher

Yorck; Sacken; Langeron

Army of Bohemia (125,000) Schwarzenberg

Gyulai 19,000—Meerveldt/Lichtenstein 12,000—Kleist 8,000—Württemberg 11,000—Gortchakov 9,000—Klenau 33,000—Pahlen 5,000—Guards 28,000


French (22,000) Reynier 14,000—Souham (extra) 8,000

Allied Troops brought figures up to about 300,000 Army of the North (65,000) Remainders of the Armies of Silesia and Bohemia


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


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