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Battle of Leipzig

Battle of Leipzig
Battle of Leipzig
Part of the War of the Sixth Coalition
Battle of Leipzig 11.jpg
Date 16–19 October 1813
Location Leipzig, Saxony
Result Decisive Coalition victory
Belligerents
France First French Empire
Coat of arms of the Duchy of Warsaw Duchy of Warsaw
Kingdom of Italy (Napoleonic) Kingdom of Italy
Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Kingdom of Naples
Saxony Kingdom of Saxony(16-17 October)[1]
Russia Russian Empire
Austria Austrian Empire
Kingdom of Prussia Kingdom of Prussia
Sweden Sweden
Saxony Kingdom of Saxony
(18-19 October)[1]
Commanders and leaders
France Napoleon I
France Michel Ney
France Auguste de Marmont
France Jacques MacDonald

France Claude Victor-Perrin
Coat of arms of the Duchy of Warsaw Józef Poniatowski 
Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Joachim Murat
Saxony Frederick Augustus

Russian Empire Alexander I
Russian Empire Barclay De Tolly
Russian Empire Count Benningsen
Russian Empire Matvei Platov
Austria Prince of Schwarzenberg
Sweden Crown Prince Charles John
Kingdom of Prussia Gebhard von Blücher
Strength
195,000[2]
700 guns [3]
430,000[2]
1,500 guns [3]
Casualties and losses
38,000 dead or wounded
20,000 captured
54,000 dead or wounded[2]
Napoleon and Poniatowski at Leipzig, painted by January Suchodolski
Richard Caton Woodville - Charge of Polish uhlans at Leipzig 1912

The Battle of Leipzig or Battle of the Nations, on 16–19 October 1813, was fought by the coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden against the French army of Napoleon. Napoleon's army also contained Polish and Italian troops as well as Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine. The battle involved over 600,000 soldiers, making it the largest battle in Europe prior to World War I.

Defeated, Napoleon was compelled to return to France while the Allies hurried to keep their momentum, invading France early the next year. Napoleon was forced to abdicate, and was exiled to Elba that spring.

Contents

Prelude

Following Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia and his defeats in the Peninsular War, the anti-French forces had cautiously regrouped as the Sixth Coalition, comprising Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Britain, Spain, Portugal and certain smaller German states. In total, the Coalition could put into the field well over a million troops—indeed by the time of Leipzig, total Allied armies east of the Rhine probably exceeded a million. By contrast Napoleon's forces had shrunk to just a few hundred thousand.

Napoleon sought to re-establish his hold in Germany, winning two hard-fought victories, at Lützen on 2 May and Bautzen on 20–21 May, over Russo-Prussian forces. The victories led to a brief armistice. He then won a major victory at Dresden on August 27. Following this, the Coalition forces, under the chief command of Russian General Barclay De Tolly and individual command of Gebhard von Blücher, Crown Prince Carl Johan of Sweden and Karl von Schwarzenberg, and Count Benningsen of Russia followed the strategy outlined in the Trachenberg Plan to avoid clashes with Napoleon but to seek confrontations with his marshals, which led to victories at Großbeeren, Kulm, Katzbach and at Dennewitz.

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was defeated at the Battle of Großbeeren and thus failed to capture Berlin with his army of 60,000. This forced Napoleon to withdraw westwards because of the threat to the north, crossing the Elbe in late September and organizing his forces around Leipzig to protect his supply lines and meet the Allies. Napoleon deployed his army around the city, but concentrated his force from Taucha through Stötteritz, where he placed his command. The Prussians advanced from Wartenburg, the Austrians and Russians from Dresden and the Swedish force from the north.

16 October

In total, the French had around 190,000 soldiers and the Allies almost 330,000 with both sides having significant artillery—in total there were over 2,500 pieces of ordnance on the field. The battle began on 16 October with an attack by 78,000 Allied troops from the south and 54,000 from the north, with Napoleon using the bulk of his army in the south. The allied offensives achieved little and were soon forced back, but Napoleon's outnumbered forces were unable to break the allied lines, resulting in a hard fought stalemate.

Austrian II Corps captures Dölitz

The Austrian II Corps (Gen. von Merveldt) advanced towards Connewitz via Gautzsch and attempted to attack the position, only to find that the avenue of advance was well covered and did not permit the Austrians to deploy their artillery in support of the attack. Repulsed, the Austrians then moved to attack nearby Dölitz, down a road crossed by two bridges and leading to a manor house and a mill. Two companies of the 24th regiment threw out the small Polish garrison and took the position. A prompt counterattack ejected the Austrians and the battle seesawed, until the Austrians brought up a strong artillery battery and blew the Poles out of the position. The Poles left bodies everywhere in their furious defense and set fire to both the manor and the mill on the way out.[4]

Battle of Markkleeberg

General Kleist, moving along the Pleisse River, attacked Marshals Poniatowski and Augereau in the village of Markkleeberg. The Austrians repaired a bridge and took a school building and manor. The French counterattacked, throwing the Austrians out of the school and back over the river. French attacks on the manor only resulted in mounting casualties for the French and Poles. The Russian 14th Division began a series of flanking attacks that forced the Poles out of Markkleeberg. Marshal Poniatowski stopped the retreat and the advancing Russians. Catching four battalions of the Prussian 12th Brigade in the open, Poniatowski directed attacks by artillery and cavalry until they were relieved by Russian hussars. Marshal Poniatowski retook Markkleeberg, but was thrown out by two Prussian battalions. Austrian grenadiers then formed in front of Markkleeberg and drove the Poles and French out of the area with a flank attack.[4]

Attack on Wachau

The Russian II Infantry Corps attacked Wachau with support from the Prussian 9th Brigade. The Russians advanced, unaware that French forces were waiting. The French took them by surprise in the flank, mauling them. The Prussians entered Wachau, engaging in street to street fighting. French artillery blasted the Prussians out of Wachau and the French recovered the village.[5][6]

October 16 actions

Battle of Liebertwolkwitz

Liebertwolkwitz was a large village in a commanding position, defended by Marshal MacDonald and General Lauriston with about 18,000 men. Johann von Klenau's Austrian IV Corps attacked with 24,500 backed up by Pirth's 10th Brigade (4,550) and Ziethen's 11th Brigade (5,365). The Austrians attacked first, driving the French out of Liebertwolkwitz after hard fighting, only to be driven out in turn by a French counterattack. At this point, Napoleon directed General Drouot to form a grand battery on Gallows hill. This was done with 100 guns that blasted the exposed Russian II corps, forcing the Prussian battalions supporting it to take cover. Russian General Württemberg was notable for his extreme bravery, directing his troops under fire. The hole had been now opened as Napoleon wished and at this point, Marshal Murat was unleashed with 10,000 French, Italian, and Saxon cavalry. However, Murat's choice of massive columns for the attack formation was unfortunate for the French force, as smaller mobile formations of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian cavalry were able to successfully harass Murat's Division, driving them back to their own artillery, where they were saved by the French Guard Dragoons. The young Guard Division was sent in to drive out the allies and give Napoleon his breakthrough. They recaptured both Liebertwolkwitz and Wachau, but the Allies countered with Russian Guard and Austrian grenadiers backed by Russian cuirassiers. The units lived up to their elite reputation, forming squares that blasted French cavalrymen from their horses and overran the French artillery batteries. On the southern front, although Napoleon gained ground, he could not break the Allied lines.[4]

Northern attack

The northern front opened with the attack by General Langeron's Russian Corps on the villages of Groß-Wiederitzsch and Klein-Wiederitzsch in the center of the French northern lines. This position was defended by General Dabrowski's Polish division of four infantry battalions and two cavalry battalions. At first sign of the attack, the Polish division attacked. The battle wavered back and forth with attacks and counterattacks. General Langeron rallied his forces and finally took both villages with heavy casualties.

Battle of Möckern

French infantry defend a barricade against a Prussian assault. The overwhelming result of the battle forced Napoleon to abandon his control over Germany.

The Northern front was dominated by the battle of Möckern. This was a 4 phase battle and saw hard fighting from both sides. A manor, palace, walled gardens, and low walls dominated the village. Each position was turned into a fortress with the walls being loopholed for covered fire by the French. The ground to the west of the position was too wooded and swampy for emplacement of artillery. A dike ran east along the river Elster being 4 meters high. Marshal Auguste Marmont brought up infantry columns behind the positions in reserve and for quick counter-attack against any fallen position. Blücher commanded Langeron's (Russian) and Yorck's (Prussian) corps against Marmont's VI Corps. When the battle hung in the balance, Marmont ordered a cavalry charge, but his commander refused to attack. Later, an attack by Prussian hussars caused serious loss to the French defenders. The battle lasted well into the night. Artillery caused the majority of the 9,000 Allied and 7,000 French casualties, and the French lost another 2,000 prisoners.[7]

17 October

There were only two actions on 17 October: an attack by the Russian General Sacken on General Dabrowski's Polish Division at the village of Gohlis. In the end, the numbers and determination of the Russians prevailed and the Poles retired to Pfaffendorf. Blücher, who was made a field marshal the day before, ordered General Lanskoi's 2nd Hussar Division (Russian) to attack General Arrighi's III Cavalry corps. As they had the day before the Sixth Coalition's cavalry proved to be superior, driving the French away with great loss.

The French received only 14,000 troops as reinforcements. On the other hand, the coalition was strengthened by the arrival of 145,000, including those commanded by Russian General von Bennigsen and Prince Charles John of Sweden (formerly French Marshal Bernadotte).

18 October

Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions

On 18 October, the Allies launched a huge assault from all sides. In over nine hours of fighting, in which both sides suffered heavy casualties, the French troops prevented a breakthrough but were slowly forced back towards Leipzig. The Sixth Coalition had Field Marshal Blücher (Prussian) and Prince Charles John of Sweden to the north, the Generals Barclay De Tolly, Bennigsen (both Russian) and Prince von Hessen-Homburg (Austrian) to the south, and Ignaz Gyulai (Austrian) to the west.

The Prussian 9th brigade occupied the abandoned village of Wachau while the Austrians, with General Bianchi's Hungarians, threw the French out of Lößnig. The Austrians proceeded to give a demonstration of combined arms cooperation as Austrian cavalry attacked French infantry to give Austrian infantry time to arrive and deploy in the attack on Dölitz. The Young Guard Division threw them out. At this point, three Austrian grenadier battalions began to contest for the village with artillery support.[8]

In the meantime, at the behest of his Swedish officers, who felt embarrassed that they had not participated in the battle, the Prince gave the order for his light infantry to participate in the final assault on Leipzig itself. The Swedish jägers performed very well, losing only about 121 men in the attack.

Retreat of Napoleon on 19 October 1813, showing the explosion of the bridge

During the fighting, 5,400 Saxons of Jean Reynier's VII Corps defected to the Allies. Napoleon saw that the battle was a lost cause and on the night of 18–19 October, he began to withdraw the majority of his army across the river Elster. The allies did not learn of the evacuation until 7 a.m, and were then held up by Oudinot's ferocious street-to-street rearguard action in Leipzig. The retreat went smoothly until early afternoon when the general tasked with destroying the only bridge over the Elster delegated the task to a Colonel Montfort. The colonel in turn passed this responsibility on to a corporal, who, unaware of the carefully planned time schedule, ignited the fuses at 1 p.m, when the bridge was still crowded with French troops, and Oudinot's rearguard was still in Leipzig. The explosion and subsequent panic and rout resulted in the deaths of thousands of French troops, and the capture of many thousands more. During that unfortunate event, Poniatowski, the Polish leader, drowned while crossing the river.[9]

Results

Völkerschlachtdenkmal: Memorial to the Battle of the Nations, Leipzig

Casualties on both sides were astoundingly high; estimates range from 80,000 to 110,000 total killed or wounded. Napoleon lost about 38,000 killed and wounded. The Allies captured 15,000 able-bodied Frenchmen, 21,000 wounded or sick, 325 cannon and 28 eagles, standards or colours, and had received the men of the deserting Saxony divisions. Among the dead was Marshal Józef Antoni Poniatowski, a nephew to the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski. The Pole, who had received his marshal's baton just the previous day, was commanding the rear guard during the French retreat and drowned as he attempted to cross the river. Corps commanders Lauriston and Reynier were captured. Fifteen French generals were killed and 51 wounded.

Out of a total force of 362,000, the Allies suffered approximately 54,000 casualties. Schwarzenberg's Bohemian Army lost 34,000, Blücher's Silesian Army lost 12,000, while Bernadotte's Army of North and Bennigsen's Army of Poland lost about 4,000 each.

The battle ended the First French Empire's presence east of the Rhine and brought the German states over to the Coalition. The Coalition pressed its advantage and invaded France in early 1814. Napoleon was forced from the throne of France and exiled to the island of Elba.

In addition to the 91 m high Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the course of the battle in the city of Leipzig is marked by numerous monuments and the 50 Apel Stones that mark important lines of the French and allied troops.

See also

Notes

References

  • Chandler, David G., The Campaigns of Napoleon, The MacMillan Company (published 1966) ;
  • Smith, Digby (1998), The Napoleonic Wars Data Book, Greenhill 

External links

Coordinates: 51°15′00″N 12°38′24″E / 51.25°N 12.64°E / 51.25; 12.64


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