Battle of the Katzbach, 26 August 1813

The battle of the Katzbach (26 August 1813) was a victory for a Prussian-Russian army under Marshal Blücher over a French army commanded by Marshal Macdonald that largely cancelled out Napoleon's victory over the Austrians at Dresden, fought at the same time.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher
von Wahlstatt

After the spring campaign in Germany (War of Liberation), Napoleon agreed an armistice with the Prussians and Russians. This ended in mid August 1813, by which time Austria had also joined the war against Napoleon. Napoleon was now faced with three main Allied armies - the Army of the North around Berlin, the Army of Bohemia to the south and Blücher's Army of Silesia in the east. Blücher was the first Allied commander to cross the Armistice line, and had the smaller of the two southern armies, so Napoleon decided to try and defeat him first. Blücher responded by retreating east, following the Allied 'Trachenberg Plan', which stated that no individual army was to risk a clash with Napoleon in person. On 21 August Napoleon attempted to catch Blücher (combat of the Bobr or Lowenberg), but the Prussian retreated.

On 22 August Napoleon received a message from St. Cyr, informing him that Schwarzenberg was about to attack Dresden. Napoleon decided to return to Saxony with Vandamme, the Guard, Marmont and Victor. Macdonald was left in command of the Army of the Bobr, which included Ney's III Corps, Lauriston's V Corps, Gérard's XI Corps and Sébastiani's cavalry corps. In total he had around 100,000 men, although only 70,000 took part in the battle of the Katzbach.

Macdonald was ordered to push Blücher back to Jauer, to the east of the Katzbach, and then pull back to the west bank of the Bobr River, where he was to take up a defensive position. III Corps was to be posted at Bunzlau (Boleslawiec) in the north, XI Corps at Löwenberg (Lwówek Slaski) in the centre and V Corps at Hirschberg (Jelenia Göra) on the right. Fortified posts were to be built every mile and a quarter on the west bank of the Bobr to stop the Cossacks crossing.

Portrait of Marshal Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840
Portrait of
Marshal Jacques Macdonald,
Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

On 23 August, as he moved west Napoleon realised that he had a chance to inflict a serious defeat on Schwarzenberg, and he summoned Ney to join him, but without his troops (a second purpose was to make sure there was only one Marshal with Macdonald's army). III Corps was to be left with Macdonald, and given to Souham. At first Ney either ignored or misunderstood this order, and set off west with his III Corps and Sebastiani's cavalry, almost half of Macdonald's army.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Autumn Campaign

This mix up was soon corrected, and the troops returned to Macdonald, with Souham in charge of III Corps, but it did delay Macdonald's advance.

On 24 August Macdonald's army was spread out. III Corps, now under Souham, was at Rothkirch, west of the Katzbach, with two battalions in Liegnitz (Legnica). V Corps was at Wolfsberg and Röchlitz, on the right bank of the river, beyond Goldberg (Zlotoryja, ten miles to the south west of Liegnitz). XI Corps was behind Goldberg, on the left bank of the river.

On the same day Blücher, who was to the south-east of the French position, sent out three reconnaissance forces. Sacken was to investigate Liegnitz, Yorck the area between Liegnitz and Goldberg and Langeron the area between Goldberg and Schönau (south of Goldberg).

The Battlefield

The River Katzbach was a tributary of the Oder, and flowed generally north-west then north-east through Silesia, passing through Leignitz (Legnica). The battle was fought to the south of the Katzbach, in the area between Leignitz and Goldberg.

Since 1813 most of the place names involved in the battle have changed. The Katzbach runs from west to east along the northern edge of the battlefield, and is now the Kaczawa. A second river, the 'raging' Neisse (Wütende Neisse in German), runs from south to north across the battlefield, flowing into the Katzbach. A series of villages line the Neisse, including (from north to south) Nieder Crayn, Neider Weinberg, Weinberg (modern Winnica), Schlaupt (modern Slup) and Bromberg.

To the south-west of Schlaupt is Hennersdorf (modern Chroslice, west of the Neisse).

To the east of the Neisse is Eichholz, with the Taubenberg hill to the west.

On the northern flank of the battlefield was Kroitisch (modern Krotoszyce), where there was a bridge that crossed the Katzbach (west of the Neisse).

The Plans

The battle was an encounter battle, fought between Macdonald's columns as they crossed the Katzbach from the north to south banks, and Blücher's forces, already on the south bank. Fighting took place on both sides of the Niesse.

On 25 August Blücher decided to risk an attack on Macdonald, who he believed was in a defensive position on the left bank of the Katzbach. His orders of the 25th were for Sacken to advance towards Malitsch (east of the Neisse), Langeron to go to Hermannsdorf (near Hennersdorf, west of the Neisse) and Yorck to attack the left flank of any French troops that opposed Langeron.

On 26 August both commanders issued orders for an offensive. Blücher now believed that Macdonald had III Corps at Liegnitz and V Corps and XI Corps at Goldberg. He altered his orders so that Sacken was to advance on Liegnitz to pin down III Corps, while Yorck attacked its right flank (coming from the south-west). Langeron was to form a rearguard, to stop the two French corps at Goldberg from interfering. The battle began before these orders had been implements, so the plans of 25 August, for an advance up the Neisse were still in place.

On the French side Macdonald believed Blücher was still around Jauer (south of Liegnitz, east of Goldberg). He ordered an advance toward Jauer, and planned for a battle around that place on 27 August.

III Corps was to cross the Katzbach between Liegnitz and Kroitzsch, and advance to the road that ran south from Liegnitz to Jauer. XI Corps was to cross the Katzbach at Kroitzsch, placing it on the left bank of the Neisse. It was then to cross to the right bank and advance towards Jauer on the right flank of III Corps. This would put two thirds of his army (around 67,000 men) on the east bank of the Neisse, heading south towards Jauer).

Two divisions from V Corps were to move from Goldberg to Seichau (south of the Katzbach, west of the Neisse), and advance south towards Jauer along the left bank of the Neisse. This force of 22,000 men would thus be separated from his main force by the Neisse.

Finally 12,000 men of Puthod's division (V Corps) was to move south to Schönau to protect against any surprise attack by St. Priest's Russians, whose location was unknown.

The Battle

The battle fell into two largely separate halves. On the west bank of the Neisse Lauriston's V Corps attacked Langeron to the north of Hermannsdorf. On this flank both sides were fairly organised and a regular battle developed.

On the east bank of the Neisse XI Corps clashed with Yorck and Osten-Sacken in a rather more chaotic encounter battle. Here the French had to cross two rivers and then advance up the slopes of a plateau east of the Neisse before they could enter combat.

The West Bank

At about 12.30pm Lauriston's V Corps, which had crossed the Katzbach, and was on the west bank of the Neisse, ran into Langeron's forces. Langeron was deployed on a line between the Neisse and the Mönschbach. Behind his left was the village of Buschhäuser, and the Plinsengrund stream ran north-west from that village, across Langeron's front and into the Neisse.

Lauriston began by sending his right wing up the valley towards Buschhäser, before crossing the Plinsengrund in five columns. Langeron's advanced forces withdrew to his main position, which ran between Buschhäuser and the Neisse at Schlaupe and included the heights above Hennersdorf. Langeron was unnerved by the unexpected attack. He reported that he was outnumbered, and suggested a retreat back towards Jauer.

Lauriston was ready to attack the main Russian line by 2pm. Hennersdorf and the Weinberg hill to its south fell to the French, and Langeron was also pushed back on his flanks (forcing Yorck to detach two battalions to Schlaupe to keep the link between the two halves of the army open).

Soon after 4pm Langeron regained some of his nerve, aided by the arrival of Yorck's reserve brigade on his right. The Allies counterattacked, and pushed the French back on the flanks. Lauriston's men held on in Hennersdorf until about midnight

The East Bank

XI Corps and Sebastiani's cavalry both had to use the same number of limited roads and bridges to get across the Katzbach and the Neisse. As a result the two forces became rather badly entangled. However the Prussians hadn't blocked the Neisse crossings, and the French were soon advancing in two columns, one on the left heading for Janowitz and the other on the right for Nieder Weinberg on the Neisse and the up the Kuhberg hill. The infantry only began to reach the top of the plateau at about 1.30pm.

The fighting on the east bank of the river began rather earlier than that, when Yorck's vanguard came into action. It then withdrew after Sebastiani's horse artillery entered the battle.

By around 2pm the French had no more than 27,000 men on the plateau, on a line that ran from Ober Weinberg on the Neisse east/ north-east to Janowitz and then east to Klein Tinz.

The Allies had 55,000 men on the plateau. Yorck's main body was between Bellwitzhof (close to the Neisse) and Triebelwitz (to the east across the plateau), to the south of the French position. Sacken was on his right, moving towards Eichholz.

At about 2pm Macdonald meet Souham, who was marching towards Kroitisch and its bridge over the Katzbach. Souham's troops didn't play much of a role in the battle, and Macdonald doesn't feature much in accounts of the fighting either. Napoleon later commented that he was never able to handle large numbers of troops, which does make you wonder why he had been left in charge of 100,000 men. Souham's progress was slowed by the terrible weather on the day, but he still moved rather more slowly than could be justified.

At about the same time Blücher decided to try and push the French back towards the swollen rivers. Yorck was ordered to attack towards Neider Krain on the Neisse, a position that would cut off the French troops on the east bank of the Neisse, as the bridges over the Katzbach in that area had been destroyed.

Heavy rain meant that the muskets were hard to use, so the fight came down to butts and bayonets. Yorck also had to send two of his battalions to defend Schlaupe, where Lauriston's advance threatened to cut the Allied army in half.

Exelman's cavalry and Brayer's infantry crossed the Neisse at Neider Weinberg and deployed. Yorck sent in his reserve cavalry under Colonel von Wahlen-Jürgass, and they took one artillery battery before Brayer repelled the attack. Exelmans counterattacked up the hills east of the river. Yorck's second line counter charged, while his cavalry outflanked Exelmans. Exelmans was forced to retreat back into the Neisse valley.

Russian troops under Osten-Sacken then advanced west through Eichholtz, and unlimbered their artillery on Taubenberg Hill (south of the village). Blücher then ordered a general advance, and sent in his reserve cavalry. This forced Brayer into an orderly retreat, although he had to abandon his guns and wagons. His troops withdrew across the Neisse at Neider Crayn, and then moved north and crossed the Katzbach at Kroitisch.

Souham's divisions arrived late in the afternoon. He committed his troops around Klein Schweinitz, to the east of the main battlefield, where they clashed with Sacken's troops, advancing in pursuit of some of the retreating French. Souham then withdrew once news arrived of defeats elsewhere.

The Aftermath

The French suffered around 10,000 casualties in the battle, and about the same numbers deserted. The Allies took 30 cannon, 100 wagons and 1,000 prisoners on the day, and many more prisoners during Macdonald's retreat.

Macdonald's main army crossed the Bobr at Bunzlau around 27 August. Puthod's division, which had been sent to guard the right flank, was less fortunate, and had to surrender after being attacked by overwhelming forces at Plagwitz (29 August), just to the east of the Bobr.

The defeat on the Katzbach was one of a series of setbacks suffered by Napoleon's subordinates at about the same time. The first came at Grossbeeren (23 August 1813), where Oudinot's advance on Berlin ended in defeat. The third came at Kulm (29-30 August 1813), where Vandamme's column was defeated during the pursuit of the defeated Austrians retreating from Dresden. As a result of these three defeats, Napoleon was unable to gain any benefit from his great victory at Dresden (26-27 August 1813), and instead had to concentrate on restoring the situation on other fronts. Macdonald would continue to cause problems over the next few weeks, as he repeatedly proved unable to stand up to Blücher when Napoleon wasn't present, upsetting several of Napoleon's attempted offensives.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 May 2017), Battle of the Katzbach, 26 August 1813 ,

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