Battle of Lützen, 2 May 1813

The battle of Lützen (2 May 1813) was Napoleon's first victory during the Spring campaign of 1813 (War of Liberation), but he was unable to take full advantage of his victory, and the Prussians and Russians were able to escape east with their armies largely intact.

At the start of the War of Liberation the Allies had advanced west in two main columns. In the north the Russian General Wittgenstein advanced from Berlin towards Madgeburg on the Elbe, and won the first Allied victory of the war at Möckern (5 April), where he defeated Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's deputy in Germany. Wittgenstein then moved south to join the second main Allied army, under the Prussian Marshal Blücher, crossing the Elbe at Rosslau (north of Leipzig) on 10 April. Blücher had advanced from Silesia into Saxony, occupied Dresden without a fight on 27 March, and then moved cautiously west towards Leipzig and the Saale River.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher
von Wahlstatt

Napoleon's initial plan for 1813 had been for an advance into northern Germany, with the aim of lifting the siege of Danzig, getting behind the Russians, and potentially knocking the Prussians out of the war. As the Allies moved further forward in Saxony, he changed his plans. His new plan was to concentrate the Army of the Main at Erfurt. It would then combine with Prince Eugène's Army of the Elbe to the west of the Saale. He would advance through Leipzig towards Dresden with 150,000 men. He would kept his right wing further back (largely made up of the Corps of Observation of Italy under General Bertrand, which was coming up from the Tyrol), in the hope that the Allies would advance towards them, putting Napoleon's main force on Allied right flank. If all went he would be able to reach Dresden before the Allies, trapping them on the west bank of the Elbe.

By 12 April Napoleon had 60,000 men from the Army of the Elbe behind the Wipper River, a left tributary of the Saale, with its left flank on the Saale (north-west of Halle of the Saale). The main part of the Army of the Main, around 105,000 men from III Corps, VI Corps and the Guard were heading for Erfurt, to the west/south-west of Leipzig. The 40,000 strong Corps of Italy was heading for Bamberg, to the south of Erfurt. Napoleon himself left St. Cloud on 15 April, and reached Mainz on 17 April. He spent a week there organising the army, then moved to Erfurt, where he arrived on 25 April. Amongst the changes he made was the splitting of the Corps of Italy into IV Corps (Bertrand) and XII Corps (Oudinot).

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

By the time of the battle the French army was still split into two forces. Napoleon commanded the 140,000 strong Army of the Main, which was made up of III Corps (Ney), VI Corps (Marmont), IV Corps (Bertrand), XII Corps (Oudinot), Guard infantry (Dumoustier) and Guard cavalry. Eugène's Army of the Elbe was 62,000 strong, and was split into XI Corps (Macdonald), V Corps (Lauriston), a Guard Division (Roguet), Durutte's Division, Victor's Division and Latour-Maubourg's 1st Cavalry Corps. Not all of these troops were present at Lützen.

On the Allied side Blücher reached Altenburg, south of Leipzig, east/south-east of Naumburg and Weissenfels, on 14 April. He was joined a few days later by Miloradovitch. The Russian Guard, accompanied by the Tsar and the King of Prussia, reached Dresden on 24 April. The Tsar was faced with the problem of finding a replacement for Kutuzov, who was on his death bed (dying at Bunzlau on 28 April). He decided to appoint Wittgenstein, who had a good reputation. Blücher was willing to serve under Wittgenstein, but Miloradovitch and the Russian Guard Commander Tormassov were both senior to Wittgenstein, and refused to serve under him. On 27 April Wittgenstein was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Allied army, but with direct control only over Blucher and Wintzingerode. Miloradovitch and Tormassov remained under the direct command of the Tsar, and he was often willing to issue those orders without consulting Wittgenstein.

Until 25 April Alexander and his advisors didn't expect Napoleon to move until June, and expected their armies to be able to pause at Leipzig and Altenburg. Miloradovitch was to move to Zwickau (south of Altenburg), Tormassov with the Guard to Chemnitz (to the east of Altenburg and Zwickau). On that day Toll, one of Alexander's advisors, visited Altenburg, where he realised that the French were nearer than believed. He was able to convince Alexander's chief of staff to order the Guard to advance, with orders to reach Frohberg and Kohren (just to the north-east of Altenburg) on 30 April.

Freidrich Wilhelm Graf Bülow von Dennewitz
Freidrich Wilhelm
Graf Bülow
von Dennewitz

By 26 April the Allies had Bülow between Köthen and Rosslau (south of the Elbe north at Leipzig), Yorck a little further south at Zorbig, east of the lower Salle and Berg at Landsberg, just east of Halle on the Saale. Wintzingerode was between Leipzig and Borna to the south, the Prussian were around Altenburg and Russian cavalry was further west, at Weissenfels and Merseburg, south of Halle on the Saale. On the same day Blücher ordered reconnaissance in force towards Dornburg, Camburg and Naumburg, further south along the Saale. On 27 April Berg was moved into Leipzig. Yorck moved south to Schkeuditz (just north-west of Leipzig). Wittgenstein moved to Lindenau, on the western approaches to Leipzig.

On 26 April Wittgenstein issued an order for the next few days. His army was to concentrate at Leipzig, and if Napoleon crossed the Saale at Weissenfels, attack the French at Lützen. The aim would be to defeat the French in detail as their formation was disrupted by the river crossing. The hope was that the Russian veterans would outclass the more numerous but less experienced French.  

Overall the French significantly outnumbered the Allies in the Lützen area. Napoleon had 144,000 troops heading for Leipzig, while the Allies had 88,500 troops regulars and 5,000 Cossacks, but on the day both sides were able to commit a similar number of men to the fighting. Napoleon managed to commit 78,000 men, just under half of his available forces. The Allies used 34,000 Prussians and 36,000 Russians, a total of 70,000, so although they were slightly outnumbered on the day, they did get a much high proportion of their available forces into the fighting. 

First Clashes

On 29 April there were two minor clashes, both on the Saale. Yorck was forced out of Merseburg. Lanskoi's cavalry were defeated by Souham's division of Ney's III Corps at Weissenfels.

Wittgenstein now decided to concentrate south of Leipzig. By the end of 30 April Berg was at Zwenkau (south of Leipzig, east of Lützen), Yorck was to the west of Zwenkau, Kleist was at Lindenau, west of Leipzig, Blücher was at Borna (south-east of Zwenkau), Tormassov was at Frohberg and Kohren (south-east of Blücher) and Miloradovitch at Penig, a little further to the south-east.

By the end of 30 April the French were spread out along the Saale. The Army of the Elbe (V and XI Corps) was concentrated around Merseburg, almost due west of Leipzig, on the west bank of the Saale. The Army of the Main was more spread out. VI Corps was around Naumburg, around ten miles to the south-west of Merseburg. III Corps was across the Saale, east of Weissenfels. Napoleon and the Old Guard were at Weissenfels. IV Corps was at Camburg (8 miles to the south-west of Naumburg) and XII Corps was between Saalfeld and Coburg, somewhat further to the south-west.

As a result the French approached Leipzig from slightly different directions, with Napoleon's corps coming from the south-west via Naumburg and Lützen, and Eugène's coming from the west/ north-west.

On 1 May Napoleon ordered his forces to advance on Leipzig. In the centre Ney's III Corps and Marmont's VI Corps were to advance through Weissenfels on the Saale towards Lützen to cover the main advance, which would take place to their left (north-west). The Army of the Elbe (V and XI Corps) were to move from Merseburg to Schladebach, about half way to Leipzig. Bertrand and Oudinot, who had been sent towards Beyreuth in an attempt to distract the Allies, were to move up to Naumburg, south-west of Weissenfels. This advance triggered some heavy fighting east of Weissenfels (action of Poserna, 1 May 1813), in which Marshal Bessières, the commander of the Imperial Guard was killed, but the Allies were soon forced to retreat, and by the end of the day Ney's III Corps had reached Lützen.

At the end of 1 May the French were quite spread out. On their left XI Corps was at Quesitz and Markranstädt, V Corps was near Günthersdorf. In the centre the Infantry of the Guard was at Weissenfels. Ney's III Corps was around Lützen, with Souham in four villages to the south east. These formed a rough square, with Kaja in the north-west nearest to Lützen, Klein Gorschen in the north east, Gross Gorschen in the south-east, closest to the Allied positions and Rahna to the south west. Girard was at Starsiedel, west of Souham, Brennier, Ricard and Marchand were around Lützen. VI Corps was at Rippach, east of Weissenfels, south-west of Lützen. IV Corps was around Stössen, and XII Corps was stretched out from Kahla to Saalfeld, so both were approaching the battlefield from the south-west.

On the Allied side Blücher moved north to Rötha, Tormassov replaced him at Borna, Miloradovitch moved up to Altenburg, and Wintzingerode moved to the west of Zwenkau, placing him to the east of Ney's position around Lützen.

The Battle

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

On 2 May Napoleon ordered Ney to occupy Lützen and four villages a little further to the south east. He was to concentrate his divisions at Kaja. His job was to cover Lauriston and Macdonald as they moved to Leipzig, and to give Marmont and the Army of the Main time to reach Lützen. Napoleon was aware that the Allies were in the area, but it is possible that he didn't expect there to be a major battle on the 2nd. If they did attack, Ney's task was to hold them off until the Army of the Elbe could move into place to hit the Allied left flank.  Ney was also ordered to send out strong reconnaissance forces towards Zwenkau and Pegau, to the south-east of his position, but he ignored this order. Ney's corps consisted of the divisions of Souham, Montmorand, Girard, Ricard and Marchand, and Kellermann's cavalry. Three of the infantry divisions remained at Lützen, and only two were posted in the villages- Souham in the four villages, Girard in Starsiedel. Ney's failure to send out the reconnaissance force meant that Napoleon was unaware that the Allies were moving to attack, and by 10am he was convinced that there would be no battle that day. His focus then shifted to the general advance on Leipzig.

The Allies did send out scouts, and they reported that the main French army was moving from Weissenfels towards Leipzig. They found the two divisions in the villages, believed them to be the French flank guard and underestimated their strength. They also found Bertrand, south of Teuchern, south east of Weissenfels, although exaggerated how far he had moved. As a result the Allies believed that a major attack was developing from the south-west towards their left.

Neither side really knew where their opponents were at the start of 2 May. As a result the Allies managed to commit 34,000 Prussians and 36,000 Russians to the battle, 70,000 of the 88,000 available to them, while Napoleon managed to commit 78,000 of the 140,000 men he had approaching Leipzig.

The Allied commanders acted on the assumption that the French army was spread out in a long line along the road from Weissenfels to Leipzig. Wittgenstein decided to attack the apparently isolated French forces in the four villages south-east of Lützen. Kleist's Prussian corps was to hold Leipzig. Miloradovitch's Russian corps was to advance to Zeitz (south-east of Weissenfels, south of Lützen, and some way south of the battlefield) to protect the Allied left. The rest of the army was to attack the four villages, and then cut the road to Leipzig. If all went well, Napoleon's army would be split in two, with each corps unable to support the others and the forces trapped to the north of Lützen vulnerable to defeat.

The main Allied army was deployed in three lines. Blücher's corps made up the first line, with Zieten's and Klüx's brigades in front and Roeder's brigade in reserve. Blücher's men would bear the brunt of most of the early fighting. Blücher's orders were to be at Storkwitz and Karsdorf by 5am and around Werben, to the south-east of the four villages by 6m., with his right around Werben and his left to the west of the village.

The second line was made up of Yorck's Prussians on the left and Berg's Russians on the right, following Blücher's two columns. Berg would be committed fairly early in the battle, but Yorck wasn't committed until around 4pm.

The third line was to be made up of the Russian infantry, Wintzingerode's corps, with his infantry commanded by Prince Eugen of Württemberg, a German officer in the Russian service. Part of this force was left at Zwenkau to watch the River Elster, while the rest was to support Blücher's right. This force didn't reach the battlefield until around 4pm, preventing Wittgenstein from committing Yorck earlier in the battle.

Elsewhere Kleist, who began the day at Leipzig, was ordered to retreat if he was attacked by stronger forces, but otherwise to attack once he heard the sound of fighting elsewhere.

Blucher's orders were to send his left to cross the Grünabach, a minor stream, which flows north-west across the countryside some way to the south-west of the four villages, and occupy some heights across the stream with artillery and cavalry (between the Grünebach and the Rippach). He was to keep his right on the Flossgraben (a stream that ran generally north, passing to the east of the four villages then turning west to pass just north of them, before turning north again to head to Lützen), and advance with his left, moving in the area between the Rippach and the Flossgraben. The area of the four villages, where most of the fighting took place, was thus on the right of Blücher's line of advance. The gap between the two streams was about two and a half miles, so Blücher's corps was rather too widely spread out.

At this stage in the war Allied staff work wasn't always terribly impressive. The plan was for the move towards the villages to start at 1am and for the troops to be in place by 7am. This would have allowed an early attack, before the French had many reinforcements in the area. Instead the leading troops weren't in place until 11am.

The Fighting

The first fighting of the day actually took place at Lindenau, at the western end of a causeway that crossed two rivers to reach of Leipzig. At about 10am Lauriston's corps attacked Kleist, who took up a position at the western end of the causeway. Lauriston used his artillery to drive off the superior Prussian cavalry. He then sent Maison's division to outflank the Prussian right, going via Leutzsch, to the north of Lindenau. Once Kleist realised that he was outnumbered he withdrew across the causeway. The French harassed him, crossing the Elster using a ford, and there was a rearguard action in Leipzig itself, but Kleist was able to escape intact, and withdrew to Paunsdorf, three miles further east. Lauriston would have pursued Kleist, but was ordered to halt after fighting broke out at Lützen.

Before committing to the attack Wittgenstein send a number of officers to the top of a ridge near Gross Gorschen, led by Müffling. All they could see were 2,000 recruits in a camp near the villages, and as a result Blücher ordered his cavalry to attack (11.45am). As they advanced they discovered two full divisions (under Girard and Souham), and Blücher paused the attack. He then called up his artillery, and an artillery bombardment began at about noon. This gave Souham time to occupy Gross Gorschen, and for Girard to form up further west, at Starsiedl.

Napoleon also heard the sound of gunfire at about noon, while he was following Lauriston's V Corps on the road to Leipzig. He ordered Marmont (VI Corps) to move up to Starsiedel, a village about a mile to the west of the four villages, and join Ney's right flank. Bertrand (IV Corps) was to advance to Söhesten, about a mile to the south of Starsiedel, from where he could threaten the Allied left. Macdonald (XI Corps) and I Cavalry Corps were to halt and prepare for an attack on the Allied right. Lauriston (V Corps) was to send one division to push Kleist out of Leipzig (the city was evacuated by 1pm), and move the rest of his division to Markranstadt, west of the city, from where he could also intervene in the battle if required. The Guard was to move to Lützen to form a reserve. Napoleon hoped that Ney would be able to pin the Allies in place long enough for the rest of his army to get in place for outflanking attacks that would hopefully win him a decisive victory.

After a bombardment that lasted about 40 minutes Klüx's brigade, on Blücher's left, was sent to attack the four villages. Souham was forced back and the allies captured Gross Gorschen. This triggered a series of attacks and counterattacks around the villages. Ney had been away from his corps with Napoleon when the fighting started, but soon returned to his troops.

To the west Girard at Starsiedel was attacked by the Prussian Reserve Cavalry, but fought them off with the help of Compans and Bonet from Marmont's corps. Souham retook Gross Gorschen.

Zieten was committed to the battle at about 1pm, and captured Klein Gorschen. Klüx recaptured Gross Gorschen, and other Prussian troops took Rahna. Ney used Souham, Girard and Brennier to retake Klein Gorschen and Rahma, but failed to recapture Grossgörschen. At about the same time as the French counterattack Berg's Russians attacked Starsiedel, but the French success to his right forced Berg to halt to the south-west of Rahna. Blücher commited his last reserves, Roeder's (or Röder) brigade, to reinforce the attack. The French were forced out of Klein Gorschen and the Prussians advanced to Kaja, the north-western village. By 2pm Ney's line was in danger of collapse.

Napoleon reached the battlefield at about 2.30pm, with his plans in real danger of collapsing. The flank attacks weren't ready, and Ney's corps was close to collapse. Bertrand's advance towards the Allied left stopped when he detected Miloradovitch around Zeitz and decided to ask for orders. He didn't renew his advance towards the battle until 3pm. Marmont was also held up, this time by Berg on the Allied left, and a large force of allied cavalry. Marmont halted his advance, and concentrated on defending Starsiedel.

Napoleon restored the situation with some inspiring personal leadership, riding to the points of danger. At about 3pm he launched Ricard in a counterattack that retook Kaja and reached the northern edge of Gross Gorschen. The Guard also reached the front, although at this stage Napoleon refused to commit them to the battle.

The Allied high command performed less well. The Tsar refused to commit the Russian Guard in the belief that the battle was going well. Blücher was wounded, leaving Yorck in command of the Prussian forces. Wittgenstein was unwilling to commit Yorck before the Russian reserves arrived, especially with Marmont's corps close to the battlefield.

By 4pm the Russian reserves were finally in place. Wittgenstein finally committed Yorck to the fight. Hünerbein's brigade attacked Klein Gorschen and Horn attacked Rahna. Both villages fell to the Allies for the third time. Napoleon committed Lanusse's brigade from the Young Guard, and they cleared the Allies out of Kaja. Ney's troops then took part in an hour and a half of close combat. At first the French retook Klein Gorschen and Rahna, but by 5.30pm the Prussians had retaken Klein Görchen and Rahna.

By about 5.30 the French flanking forces begin to reach their positions. Morand's division from Bertrand's corps reached Kölzen, just to the west of Starsiedel. Macdonald's corps advanced towards Eisdorf, just to the east of the four villages. This coincided with an Allied attack on their right. Eugène of Württemberg's 2nd (Russian) Corps was sent to Klein Görschen, with St. Priest's brigade on his right, at Eisdorf. The plan was to attack Ney's left, but instead St. Priest ran into Macdonald's advancing troops, while Eugène clashed with Marchand's division. Eugène was able to stop Marchand from retaking Klein Görschen, but Charpentier's division from Macdonald's corps managed to drive St. Priest out of Eisdorf, while Fressinet's division arrived at Kitzen, a little further to the east. The Allies formed a defensive line that ran from Gross Görchen east to Hohenlohe (now the southern part of Kitzen). St. Priest and the Russian grenadiers held this line, with the Russian Guard infantry in reserve. Macdonald wasn't strong enough to risk an attack on this line.

Napoleon's grand attack began at around 6.00pm. In the centre the Young Guard supported by Ney's III Corps retook Kaja. Drouot then posted 70-80 guns between Kaja and Starsiedel and moved them forward to almost point blank range, in one of the more outstanding uses of artillery of the entire Napoleonic wars.

The French attacked along the entire line. On their left Macdonald and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry captured Eisdorf and Kitzen, and held them against counterattacks. The main attack came in the centre, where four columns of the Young Guard under Marshal Mortier attacked, with the Old Guard, the Guard Cavalry and III Corps in support. One column attacked Klein Görschen, two attacked Gross Görschen and one attacked Rahna. On the right Marmont and Bertand joined the attack. The allies were forced out of most of the four villages, although part of Klüx's and Zieten's brigades attempted to hold Gross Gorschen after dark. Elsewhere the Allied line began to collapse, and they were forced to retreat.

The Allies reformed south of the villages, with Blücher's corps south-west of Gross Görschen, Yorck and the Russians on their right. Berg's corps, on the Allied left, conducting a fighting retreat along the road that ran south-east to Pegau, pressed by Marmont.

The Allies had been defeated, but they were saved from more serious defeat by Napoleon's lack of cavalry. Marmont did attempt to pursuit with his infantry, but he was nearly killed or captured when nine Prussian cavalry squadrons attacked and badly mauled Bonnet's infantry while Marmont was with them. This cavalry charge then passed on, and came close to Napoleon, who was forced to shelter in an infantry square.

Casualty figures are uncertain on both sides. On the French side they range from 20,000-22,000, with 12,000-15,000 in Ney's corps. Two generals were killed, nine serious wounded and thirty regimental commanders either wounded or killed.

On the Allied side losses were probably lower, between 11,500 and 20,000, with the Prussians suffering most of the casualties, including 53 officers killed and 244 wounded. Von Cämmerer gave Allied losses of 8,400 for Yorck and Blücher and 6,000 for Eugène of Würtemburg and French losses of 22,000, with 15,000 in Ney's corps. Lanrezac gave lower figures for the French, 18,000 losses including 12,000 from Ney's corps, but admits to another 17,000 loses to desertion and straggling over the next few days.

Amongst the wounded was the key Prussian military reformer Gerhard von Scharnhorst. At first his wound didn't seem too serious, and he was sent to Austria to try and win their support. His wound became infected, and he died while in Austria. 

General Ermolov, the commander of artillery in the Russian Army, was accused of insubordination during the battle, and was transferred to command of the 2nd Guard Division, which he led at Bautzen and Kulm.

On the day after the battle the Allied commanders realised that they would have to retreat, and decided to pull back to Dresden and Meissen to cross to the east bank of the Elbe. Napoleon split his army into two for the pursuit, giving Ney command of the left wing, which would operate to the north of Napoleon's main force. Both sides then moved towards Dresden, where Napoleon expected to have to fight to cross the Elbe. Prince Eugène was involved in a minor clash at Colditz (5 May 1813), but otherwise the pursuit was largely without incident. The Allies failed to defend Dresden, and instead withdrew to Bautzen, where on 20-21 May 1813 they suffered a more serious defeat, and were only just able to escape to retreat further east.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 March 2017), Battle of Lützen, 2 May 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_lutzen_1813.html

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