War of Liberation, 1813 (Germany)

The Viceroy's Campaign
The Spring Campaign
Armistice of Pleischwitz
The Autumn Campaign


The War of Liberation of 1813 was Napoleon's last campaign in Germany, and although he won three major battles it ended with the final defeat of his armies in Germany at the massive battle of Leipzig.

Napoleon's invasion of Russian in 1812 famously ended with the almost total destruction of the Grand Army, but at the end of the year his position in the rest of Europe looked to be intact. Prussia and Austria were still allied with him (although that soon changed). He had the active support of many in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and most of the rest of Germany was allied with him as the Confederation of the Rhine. 

Napoleon's position in eastern Europe quickly unraveled. On 5 December 1812 he left the survivors of the Grande Armée to return to Paris, leaving Marshal Murat in command with orders to hold the Vistula. On the next day the weather turned even colder, and thousands of survivors of the retreat died. On 9 December the survivors reached Vilnius. Murat left Ney in charge there and continued to retreat west. On 10 December Ney left Vilnius with a rearguard of 2,000 men. This was soon reduced to 500 men and then to none. On 13 December Ney reached the borders of the Russian Empire and joined the survivors at Kovno. On 14 December Ney fought his way across the Niemen, with around 700 men, and was said to have fired the last shot back into Russia.  

Murat reached Gumbinnen, sixty miles to the west of Kovno, with around 15,000 men. There he called a council of war at which he called for a retreat to Königsberg, and began to publicly turn against Napoleon. The northern flank of the retreating army was now vulnerable, as Marshal Macdonald had been forced to retreat from Riga to Tilsit, not far to the east of Königsberg.

On 19 December the stragglers and the survivors of the Guard reached Königsberg, but the retreat still wasn’t over. On 1 January 1813 news reached the army of the Convention of Tauroggen, in which General Yorck agreed to make his Prussian corps in Macdonald's army neutral. Murat realised that he would have to retreat across the Vistula before he was trapped in East Prussia.

Murat south-west, heading towards Posen, between the Vistula and the Oder. General Rapp, with a garrison of around 30,000 men (made up of the survivors of Macdonald's corps and Heudelet's division de marche were left in Danzig, where they would be besieged for the rest of the war). The rest of his army reached Posen on 16 January.

By now Murat had lost any remaining enthusiasm for his task, and at Posen he decided to abandon his post and head for home. Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's step-son, was left in charge.

Eugène had a difficult task. Napoleon wanted him to stand as far east as possible, but his army had almost collapsed. He had around 12,000 men from the Guard, I, II, III, IV and VI (Bavarian Corps), but most of these men were in poor shape after the retreat, and would eventually be left in garrisons. He was able to call on two fresh battalions of the Young Guard, who had reached Stettin, and a number of detachments de marche (recruits heading for the front), and this gave him around 12,000 men at Posen.

By this point Napoleon had already reached Paris. He passed through Dresden on 14 December, where the King of Saxony was still an ally (although he became neutral soon afterwards), and he reached Paris at midnight on 18 December.

The Viceroy's Campaign

During the first phase of the War of Liberation the surviving French troops were thus commanded by Prince Eugène de Beauharnais. His original tasks were to hold Warsaw and Berlin, and to relieve the besieged garrison of Danzig. As so often happened in Spain, Prince Eugène would have to cope both with his enemies and with outdated and overoptimistic instructions from Napoleon in France.

Eugène's only advantage was that his opponents weren't yet ready for a full out attack. The Russians were fairly widely spread out. Wittgenstein, on the Russian right, crossed the Vistula on 13 January, but was then forced to divert the larger part of his 30,000 men to watch Danzig. To the south was Admiral Chichagov, heading for Thorn with 20,000 men. Kutuzov, the Russian commander-in-chief, was heading for Plock with 30,000 men. Miloradovich was advancing on Warsaw, opposed by an Austrian contingent under Prince Schwarzenberg, along with Reynier and Prince Poniatowski. However the Austrians were about to withdraw from the war, and Schwarzenberg was preparing to move into Galicia. Chichagov reached Thorn on 28 January. On 8 February he was at Bromberg, Kutuzov was at Plock and Miloradovich was at Warsaw.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher
von Wahlstatt

The Prussians were still officially neutral, but it was increasingly obvious that this was just pretence. Yorck's corps, having become neutral, was recovering around Königsberg. Bülow was raising a new corps in Pomerania, and Blücher in Silesia, officially in response to a call from Napoleon for fresh troops, but really to use against him.

As the Russians advanced west, Eugène had to abandon Posen. His outposts east of Posen were driven in on 10-11 February, and 12 February he began to move. He retreated west to Frankfurt-on-Oder, arriving on 18 February, where he was joined by 30,000 men under St. Cyr, a valuable addition to his army. This was made up of the 18,000 men of Grenier's division, which reached Berlin on 25 January, having come from Italy, and Lagrange's Division. These troops were organised into three divisions and became XI Corps. Elsewhere Reynier's VII Corps suffered a defeat at Kalisch (18 February 1813) and had to retreat to Glogau.

Napoleon insisted that he try and hold the line of the Oder, but news soon arrived that the Russians were across the Oder and were heading for Berlin - Cossacks had almost reached the city. Prince Eugène had to retreat west, leaving garrisons in Stettin (the survivors of I Corps), Küstrin (II Corps) and Glogau (IV Corps) on the Oder and Spandau on the Spree near Berlin (III Corps). If the hope was that these garrisons would force the Allies to leave larger forces behind to besiege them, it backfired. Instead the Allies used limited forces to blockade these isolated French forces, and it would be the French who sorely missed these more experienced troops.

Napoleon was predictably furious about the retreat from the Oder, which led inevitably to the evacuation of Berlin on 4 March. One of his constant aims in the campaigns to follow would be to retake the Prussian capital, but this only led to a series of defeats suffered by his subordinates.

On 22 February Eugène reached Köpenick, south-east of Berlin. Six days later, on 28 February, King Frederick William III signed the secret Convention of Kalisch, in which he agreed to join the war against Napoleon. The King refused to make this news public until Berlin had been abandoned by the French, so the Russians were denied allies for another month.

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

On 1 March the northern Allied army (Wittgenstein) crossed the Oder, triggering another French retreat. Eugène reached Wittenberg on the Elbe on 6 March. He kept a bridgehead on the east bank at Magdeburg, and prepared to defend the line of the river. On 10 March Eugène was spread along the Elbe. Lauriston's V Corps (35,000 men) was on the left around Magdeburg. In the centre were two divisions of XI Corps, under Grenier, based around Wittenberg. On the right was Davout, with 17,000 men made up of part of Reynier's VII Corps, the 31st Division and one brigade from the 1st Division. The French held much of the Elbe at this date, although the Saxon general Thielmann refused to admit either side to Torgau.

This plan was almost immediately undermined by Carra St.Cyr, who on 12 March evacuated Hamburg, on the lower Elbe, on the grounds that it would be impossible to hold the line of the river. On 17 March Prussia officially declared war on France, adding around 80,000 troops to the Allied forces.  

Eugène's initial plan was to use Davout's I Corps to defend Dresden, but he then received orders from Napoleon to use Davout to hold the lower Elbe down to Hamburg. Davout also had orders to retake Hamburg. Davout left Dresden on 17 March, on his way down river to Hamburg.

Napoleon's plan was for Eugène to concentrate his army around Magdeburg. Victor was to hold bridgeheads over the Elbe at Dessau, Wittenberg and Torgau. Reynier was to defend the upper Elbe to the Austrian border (including Dresden). The aim was to keep the Allies as far east as possible, while the new French armies formed up at Mainz on the Rhine, from where they could advance east to Saxony. If Eugène was forced to retreat, he was to move to the lower Rhine, to draw the Allies away from the new French army at Mainz. That would allow Napoleon to attack the left flank of the Allies if they pursued Eugène.

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

While the French were rebuilding, the Russians and Prussians were advancing west in three columns. In the north General Peter Graf zu Wittgenstein commanded a mixed force, which included the Prussian corps of Yorck and Bülow, a Swedish force sent by the former Marshal Bernadotte, by now the Crown Prince of Sweden) and a Russian force. This force moved west from Marienwerder on the Vistala, crossed the Oder between Küstrin and Stettein, passed through Berlin, and headed towards Magdeburg. A Russian free corps operating on the Allied right took advantage of Carra St. Cyr's earlier decision, and occupied Berlin. On this flank there were also 28,000 Swedish troops under Bernadotte and 9,000 Anglo-German troops, all starting in Swedish Pomerania.

The central column was led by Field Marshal Kutuzov, the Russian hero of 1812. Kutuzov was now seriously ill, and it is also possible that he wasn't terribly keen on continuing the campaign now the French had been expelled from Russia. As a result his main column advanced slowly into Silesia, passing Kalisch and Glogau.

Kutuzov's advance guard of 13,000 men was commanded by General Wintzingerode. This force advanced into Saxony, where it was reinforced by 25,000 Prussians under Marshal Blücher. With Blücher in charge this force formed a third Allied column. On the French side General Reynier fell ill and was replaced by General Durutte. He abandoned Dresden and retreated west to the Saale, although as he only had 3,000 men this was entirely justifiable. On 27 March Blücher occupied Dresden without a fight, but after King Frederick Augustus of Saxony refused to change sides, Blücher continued on west, ending up at Leipzig.

As would often happen during the campaign the Allied commanders disagreed on what to do next. The Prussians were generally the most aggressive in the discussions, and they wanted to advance west across the Elbe. Kutuzov was more cautious, and wanted to concentrate his forces before Napoleon's new army arrived. He ordered Wittgenstein to move south to join Blucher on the Elbe, and then advance towards Leipzig.

Wittgenstein didn't entirely follow these orders. Instead he intended to move south to try and cross the Elbe at Rosslau, from where he could pin down Eugène's forces around Magdeburg and prevent a French attack on Berlin. He would move south to join Blücher once the southern army had moved far enough to the west.

At the same time Eugène was operating east of the Elbe, and the two armies clashed at the battle of Möckern, east of Magdeburg (5 April 1813). The French suffered heavier casualties in this battle, and Eugène had to retreat. Wittgenstein was then free to move south to join with Blücher.

The Allies suffered an expected blow on 28 April, when Marshal Kutuzov died in Silesia. Command of the Allied army passed to Wittgenstein, with Blücher as the senior Prussian commander. Tsar Alexander was also present with the army, and had a tendency to interfere.

The Spring Campaign

While Prince Eugène was attempting to defend Germany, Napoleon focused on the creation of a new army. Napoleon's official aim was to raise 656,000 new troops by the middle of 1813. The Class of 1813 had already been summoned to the colours in the autumn of 1812, giving Napoleon 137,000 almost trained conscripts. On 11 January 1813 a Senatorial decree conscripted 80,000 men from the National Guard, who formed twenty two new regiments. In February the Class of 1814 was called up. Another 100,000 men were demanded from the Classes of 1808, 1809 and 1810. 3,000 officers and NCOs from the gendarmerie were conscripted in an attempt to restore the cavalry. The navy provided 12,000 gunners and enough sailors to form 23 infantry battalions. Four regiments of the Imperial Guard and a number of experienced NCOs were summoned from Spain to provide an experienced backbone for the new army. 25,000 men were demanded from the French municipalities. Italy was required to provide 30,000 men. Napoleon was able to create yet another large army, and although its quality wasn't as high as in earlier years his troops often performed very well in Germany. One area where even Napoleon was unable to work a miracle was the replacement of the thousands of horses lost in Russia. During the campaign of 1813 he never had enough cavalry, and the artillery and supply trains never had enough horses.

All of this effort produced a potential field army of around 350,000 men by the spring, from a theoretical total of over 560,000. Not all of these troops were available for the German campaign, but Napoleon did manage to deploy around 200,000 men.

The vast majority of the fighting in 1813 took place in Saxony, then a part of Napoleon's Confederation of the Rhine. Saxony was bordered by Austria to the south (neutral in the spring campaign, part of the anti-French coalition in the autumn campaign), and Prussia to the north and east. A series of rivers, generally running from south to north, crossed the campaign area, and sometimes played major part in events. The western edge of the campaign area was marked by the River Saale, which ran north into the Elbe. Napoleon's first major battle of the campaign was fought at Lützen, not far to the east of the Saale, and the decisive battle was fought at nearby Leipzig.

For much of the campaign the key river was the Elbe, which ran north-west across Saxony, coming from Bohemia. The Elbe passed through the Saxon capital of Dresden, site of Napoleon's most significant victory of the campaign and continued to flow north-west to Wartenberg, where it turned west, forming a northern border to Napoleon's own campaigns. The various attempts to attack Berlin took place in the area to the north of the Elbe.

Further east was the River Spree, which flows north towards Berlin, and saw the battle of Bautzen, towards the end of the spring campaign. Next came the Bobr (or Bober), a tributary of the Oder. Finally, at the eastern edge of the area was the Katzbach, which also flowed north into the Oder, and was the site of the battle of the Katzbach, one of the many key defeats suffered by Napoleon's subordinates during the campaign.

The campaign area was bordered to the south by the Bohemian mountains. In early wars Napoleon had been willing to cross these mountains (in particular before Jena and Auerstadt), but in 1813 he was never able to risk taking the war against the Austrians into Bohemia, as this would have left his bases in Saxony exposed to Prussian and Russian attacks.

In late April Napoleon finally moved into Germany with his new army. His Army of the River Main was around 121,000 strong. At first it included Ney's III Corps (45,000), Marmont's VI Corps (25,000), Bertrand's IV Corps (36,000), 15,000 men from the Guard and three weak cavalry corps. Bertrand's corps was soon split in two, and part used to form a new XII Corps, for Oudinot.

At the same time Prince Eugène's Army of the Elbe was 58,000 strong, and was made up of X Corps, XI Corps, parts of VII and II Corps, Roguet's division from the Guard and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry. This gave Napoleon 179,000 men under his direct command. Further to the north was Davout's I Corps (20,000) and Sebastiani's cavalry (14,000).

At this stage of the campaign Napoleon thus outnumbered the Allies. Although in theory there were 80,000 Prussians, 100,000 Russians and 24,000 Swedes in the field, only around 110,000 of them were close on the Elbe/ Saale front by 25 April.

Napoleon began the campaign with a grand plan (outlined in a letter to Eugène of 11 March). He would advance to Dresden to secure Saxony, then turn north and take Berlin. He would operate between the Oder and the Elbe, turning the isolated garrisons on the Oder into bases of operation. If things went well he planned to be at Danzig twenty days after crossing the Elbe. This would rescue the 150,000 French troops trapped on the Vistula (a rather exaggerated figure), and also badly disrupt any Prussian mobilization. This campaign would have taken place in Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw, rather than in Saxony.  

Events in Saxony prevented Napoleon from trying out this plan in the spring of 1813, when his army still had a hard core of experienced troops, and his opponents were limited to Prussia and Russia. Napoleon was also concerned that his inexperienced troops wouldn't be able to cope with the long distances involved.

By 13 April Napoleon knew that the Allies were across the Elbe and were heading for the Saale. Blücher was reported to have been at Altenburg, south of Leipzig, Cossacks were seen at Jena and patrols at Saalfeld, both on the Saale. Wittgenstein, with the northern Allied army, crossed the Elbe at Rosslau on 10 April, and moved south towards Blücher. On 19 April the Allies believed that Napoleon was on the move, and decided to concentrate.


Napoleon decided to adopt a new plan. The Armies of the Main and the Elbe were to concentrate west of the Saale. He would then take 150,000 men through Leipzig and on to Dresden to capture the Elbe bridges and cut the Allied supply lines. Oudinot and Bertrand were to advance on Bayreuth, to the south, in the hope that the Allies might be lured in that direction. If all went well then the Allies would either have to fight a battle on Napoleon's terms, or retreat rapidly behind the Elbe. In either case some of the damage done to Napoleon's reputation in 1812 would be repaired, and his German allies would be less likely to switch sides. Napoleon left St. Cloud on 15 April. He arrived at Mainz on 17 April, where he spent a week organising the army. He then moved to Erfurt, W/SW of Leipzig, arriving on 25 April.

By the end of April Eugène's Army of the Elbe was at Merseburg, almost due west of Leipzig on the west bank of the Saale, while the Army of the Main was approaching Naumburg, about ten miles further south-west up the Elbe.

On the Allied sides the commanders were divided on what to do. Many of the generals believed that Napoleon was on the move from as early as mid-March, but the Tsar and his advisors didn't expect him to move before June. Wittgenstein and Blücher moved slowly west towards the Saale, where they decided to risk an attack on Napoleon's army if it crossed the Saale. The plan was to attack an isolated part of Napoleon's army, and hope that the Russian veterans would outclass the more numerous French recruits.

By this point it was clear that Kutuzov was close to death, and the Allies needed a new commander in chief. In mid-late April Tsar Alexander and King Frederick William III of Prussia moved up to the front, bringing with them Miloradovich's corps, and the Russian Guard (Tormassov). These would be valuable reinforcements, but they would also cause a problem in the Allied command structure. The Tsar decided to appoint Wittgenstein to replace Kutuzov. This was fine with the Prussians, but Miloradovich and Tormassov both complained that they were senior to him. The Tsar gave in to their pressure, and set up a command system in which Wittgenstein got direct command over Blücher and Wintzingerode, while Miloradovich and Tormassov took their orders directly from the Tsar.

On 1 May Napoleon began his move. Most of his army was to march into Leipzig, at the start of the move on Dresden. Ney's III Corps and Marmont's VI Corps were to advance through Weissenfels to Lützen, to protect the right flank of the French advance. Further to the south-west Bertrand and Oudinot were to move up to Naumburg. Ney's troops ran into the Russians while trying to cross the Rippach, a stream that flowed west into the Saale, but were able to fight their way across (action of Poserna, 1 May 1813). Marshal Bessières, the commander of the Imperial Guard, was killed in this action. By the end of the day Ney was in place at Lützen.

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

On 2 May Ney was ordered to occupy four villages to the south-east of Lützen. These formed a square, with Kaja in the north-west, Klein Gorschen in the north-east, Gross Gorschen in the south-east and Rahna in the south west. Ney's task was to cover Marmont and the Army of the Elbe as they advanced on Lützen, and to cover Lauriston and Macdonald's move to Leipzig. Napoleon was aware that the Allies were reported to be south of Leipzig, and Ney had orders to hold the villages if the Allies attacked. He was also ordered to send out reconnaissance groups to try and find the allies, but he failed to follow this order. 

The battle of Lützen began when the Allies detected part of Ney's III Corps, posted in a group of villages to the south-east of Lützen. Wittgenstein decided to push this small French force aside and then advance north to cut the road to Leipzig, potentially trapping part of Napoleon's army around the city. The Allied attack stalled when Blucher realised that Ney actually had two divisions in the villages, but a fierce battle soon developed. Once Napoleon realised what was going on he realised that he had a chance to inflict a heavy defeat on the Allies, and issued plans for a double envelopment. He then moved to the front, where his presence helped inspire Ney's struggling men. They were able to hold on until the outflanking forces were in place, although at heavy cost (III Corps lost 12,000 men during the battle, more than half of the total French losses). Napoleon's forces were in place by around 5.30pm, and the grand attack began at 6.00pm. The Allied line began to crumble, but they were saved from a crushing defeat by a combination of darkness and the French weakness in cavalry. Napoleon had won his first victory of the campaign, but it had been an incomplete and costly one. Both sides probably lost around 20,000 men, and Napoleon was forced to admit that his opponents were improving.


In the aftermath of the battle the Allies began to retreat east towards Dresden. At first Napoleon couldn't be sure where the Allies were heading. On 3 May he ordered Ney to rest for a day and reorganise his corps, and then move north to Wittenberg on the Elbe, then being besieged by the Allies. By 4 May it was clear that most of the Allied army was heading east for Dresden, but two Prussian corps (Bülow and Kleist) were still unaccounted for. Ney, Victor, Reynier, part of I Corps and Sébastiani's cavalry were to head for Wittenberg, and north-east to Torgau on the Elbe, cross the river, force the Saxon army to join VII Corps and then threaten Berlin. Most of the rest of the French army was to head for Dresden, and Lauriston's V Corps was to connect the two forces. If the Allies attempted to defend the Elbe at Dresden, then Ney would attack their rear and force them to retreat.

On the Allied side there were more arguments about what to do next. On 10 May Wittgenstein believed that Napoleon was probably heading for Berlin, and decided to take up a position from where he could attack Napoleon's right flank. By 12 May it was clear that Napoleon was actually heading east, towards the Allied army, and the decision was made to move east and make a fresh stand at Bautzen. Bülow's corps, which hadn't been involved at Lützen, was to protect Berlin. At Bautzen the main army was joined by Barclay de Tolly and 13,000 reinforcements, making up for more than half of the losses suffered at Lützen.

The lack of cavalry meant that the French weren't able to mount a proper pursuit after Lützen, although Eugène did catch up with the Russians at Colditz (5 May), where he defeated Miloradovich. On 7-8 May the Allies passed through Dresden, but they failed to properly the Elbe bridges. The main span of the stone bridge had been destroyed by Davout on 20 March, repaired by the Russians, and was now blown again. The Allies also set fire to their pontoon bridges, but this work was done poorly, and the French were able to reuse many of the pontoon boats.

Napoleon reached the suburbs of Dresden by 8 May, and on 9 May they had two footholds on the east bank, crossing at Briesnitz, below Dresden. On 10 May the King of Saxony finally bowed to Napoleon's pressure and placed his army under French command. The Saxon commander at Torgau, General Thielmann, switched sides in protest at this decision, a sign of how fragile support for Napoleon had become in Germany.

By 11 May the French had 70,000 men over the Elbe at Dresden under Napoleon and 45,000 men over the Elbe at Torgau under Ney. The two French armies were reorganised into one Army of the Elbe. Napoleon commanded the main force- IV, VI, XI, XII Corps, the Guard and the 1st Cavalry Corps, a total of 110,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. Ney had 79,500 infantry and 4,800 cavalry in II, III, V and VII Corps, 2nd Cavalry Corps and one division of light cavalry. A number of rearguard actions followed, as the Allies pulled back to Bautzen, on the River Spree, including actions at Weissig and Königsbrück on 11 May and Schmeidefeld on 12 May.

Napoleon was fairly sure that the Allies would concentrate at Bautzen, but he wasn't entirely sure. On 12 May Ney was ordered to concentrate at Luckau, ready for a drive on Berlin. VI, XI and IV Corps were sent east to try and find the Allies. At the same time Caulaincourt was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Tsar to suggest an immediate armistice and the summoning of a general peace conference at Prague. This was probably a ruse to draw attention away from Metternich's offer of mediation but at best it might have led to peace talks that didn't involve the Austrians.

The Allies took up a strong defensive position on the east bank of the River Spree around Bautzen. Both sides hoped to force their opponents to retreat towards the Austrian border, where they would either have to fight in a bad position or surrender (assuming Austria didn't intervene in some way). Napoleon had the best chance of achieving a decisive victory at Bautzen. He faced an Allied force of 66,000 Russians and 31,000 Prussians, a total of 97,000 men. Napoleon had 115,000 men at the start of the battle, and expected support from Ney with another 84,000 men. The plan was for Napoleon's force to pin the Allies in place on the Spree. Ney would then dive deep into their rear and prevent them from escaping east towards Prussian Silesia.

The battle of Bautzen (20-21 May 1813) was almost the decisive victory that Napoleon needed. On 20 May his force conducted a successful attack along the main Allied line, crossing the River Spree and capturing the Allied front line. When the battle resumed on 21 May Ney was almost in place, and a determined advance into the enemy rear could easily have produced that victory. Instead Ney became bogged down in a series of attacks on the fortified village of Preititz. This was in the enemy rear, but not far enough into their rear to threaten their line of retreat. When Napoleon sent in the Guard, forcing Blücher to retreat on the Allied right, this triggered a general Russian retreat, but the road east was open, and the Allied army escaped.

Both sides suffered heavy losses at Bautzen, somewhere between 20,000-30,000 men each. Napoleon's closest friend Duroc was killed at Reichenbach during the pursuit. On the Allied side Wittgenstein was blamed for the defeat and resigned, although the Tsar was at least equally to blame. Wittgenstein was replaced by Barclay de Tolly (ironically Barclay had suffered the same fate early in the Russian campaign of 1812).

In the aftermath of the battle the Allies disagreed about what to do next. The Russian commanders wanted to pull back into Poland, and reorganise their army. The Prussians didn't want to abandon all Prussian territory, and Blücher and Gneisenau were even willing to risk another battle. The Tsar decided to retreat to Schweidnitz in Silesia (now Swidnica in Poland, south-west of Wroclaw). This compromise meant that the Allies were still potentially in touch with Austria, but it also left their right flank dangerously exposed. Their route took them east to Leignitz (Legnica), then south/ south-east to Schweidnitz.

On 26 May, as the Allies were preparing to move south-east to Swidnica, he ordered Ney to move on Hainau (modern Chojnow), west of Legnica (German Liegnitz). Most of the rest of the French army was to advance to his right. The French suffered a minor defeat at Hainau, where Maison's division was hit by a cavalry attack, and lost 1,000 men.On 27 May Napoleon's headquarters were at Leignitz, while the Allies began their move south-east to Schweidnitz, reaching Striegau (modern Strzegom) by the end of 28 May. This placed them two thirds of the way to Swidnica. On the same day the French lifted the siege of Glogau, one of the few occasions during the 1813 campaign where the garrison of an isolated fortress were rescued. On 29 May the Allies reached Schweidnitz. The French were spread out to their north, with some corps facing south towards the Allies and others heading east.

On 1 June the French took Breslau, on the Katzbach, putting him on the right-rear of the Allied position at Schweidnitz. The Tsar and the King of Prussia had already decided to fight, so if Napoleon had persisted he may have finally had the decisive battle he required. However the French army was beginning to run out of steam. Their lack of cavalry meant that they couldn't protect their supply lines or rear areas against the bands of Cossacks. Around 100,000 of the new recruits had either been lost to sickness or deserted. Napoleon believed that he needed time to improve his army, and on 2 June the two sides agreed to a 36 hour suspension of armistice. On 4 June this was extended into a full armistice (Armistice of Pleischwitz), which eventually lasted for seven weeks.

Napoleon also sent Oudinot north in an attempt to take Berlin, while he followed the retreating Allies with his main force.

Oudinot's campaign didn't achieve much. He fought off Bülow at Hoyerswerda (28 May 1813) but was defeated at Luckau (6 June 1813). This second battle took place after the armistice that ended the spring campaign had been agreed, but before the news could reach Oudinot.

Armistice of Pleischwitz

During the armistice both sides prepared for the resumption of the conflict, and both fought for Austrian support. A key figure in this period was the Austrian diplomat Metternich, who had probably already decided to turn Austria against France, despite Napoleon's marriage to Princess Marie Louise.

Napoleon and Metternich met for nine hours at the Mercolini Palace in Dresden on 26 June. The meeting didn't go well. Napoleon was at his most arrogant, while Metternich presented unacceptable demands – the restoration of all lands taken from Prussia and Russia, the end of the Confederation of the Rhine and the return of all Austrian lands in Italy. Napoleon would have been left with his throne, and the Rhine as the frontier of France. Unsurprisingly he turned down these terms.

On the following day Austria, Prussia and Russia signed the Treaty of Reichenbach, in which Austria agreed to join the war if the French didn’ accept their terms. These were similar to Metternich's, although the claim on Italy was up for negotiation.

After news arrived of Wellington's victory at Vittoria in Spain Napoleon returned to the negotiations, sending Caulaincourt to Prague. At the Congress of Prague (15 July-10 August 1813) the Austrians suggested that they would be willing to surrender Italy, if Napoleon gave up the Confederation of the Rhine, but once again Napoleon refused to give way.

On 10 August the Allies officially informed the French that the Armistice would end on 17 August. Two days later, on 12 August, Austria officially declared war on France. For the first time Napoleon faced an alliance of all four major powers – Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia (at least one had been missing from each of the previous coalitions against him).

The pause in the hostilities had greatly weakened Napoleon's position. At the start of it he had only faced two opponents – Prussia and Russia – and outnumbered them in the crucial theatre. When the fighting resumed he faced around 800,000 men (200,000 Russians, 120,000 Austrians, 40,000 Swedes, 160,000 Prussians, and a British rocket battery…). Napoleon had around 680,000 men, but of these only 400,000 infantry and 40,000 cavalry were available for his field armies, with the rest tied up in garrisons across Europe.

The Autumn Campaign

At the start of the Autumn campaign both sides had problems. The Allies had a large army, with more veteran troops than the French, but with a very divided command. Napoleon had a smaller army, with a large number of raw recruits, but he did have a unified command system. Ironically this would soon prove to be a problem, as his marshals showed that they weren't really capable of independent command.

The Allies began the year with three active field armies. In the north was the Army of the North, under the former marshal Bernadotte, now the Crown Prince of Sweden. This contained a mix of Russian, Prussian and Swedish troops, was 110,000 strong, and would play a part in the defence of Berlin and the final battle of Leipzig.

In the centre was the Army of Silesia, under Marshal Blücher. This force of 95,000 men began the campaign in the area to the south of Breslau, roughly where the Allied army had ended the spring campaign.

To the south was the largest allied army, the Army of Bohemia under Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg. The largest contingent in this 250,000 strong force was Austrian, but there were also Russian and Prussian troops. Schwarzenberg was a fairly indifferent general (although he did play a major part in the Allied victory in France in 1814) and he was burdened with the presence of all three Allied monarchs - Tsar Alexander, King Frederick William III of Prussia and the Emperor Francis of Austria - with the army.

A fourth army, the Army of Prussia (or Poland), was forming under General Bennigsen. This would reach 60,000 men and entered the campaign towards its climax.

On the French side Napoleon had 240,000-250,000 men east of Dresden (I, II, III, V, VI, XI and XIV Corps, the Guard and four cavalry corps - 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th). At times a large part of this force would be given to Marshal Ney.

In the final set of orders before the war restarted 78,000 men - III Corps (Ney), V Corps (Lauriston) and 2nd Cavalry Corps (Sebastiani) were placed on the Katzbach in Silesia.

Next were the 52,000 men of VI Corps (Marmont) and XI Corps (Macdonald), based on the Bobr (or Bober).

100,000 men, made up of the Guard, II Corps (Victor) and 1st Cavalry Corps (Latour-Maubourg) were further west, at Görlitz, where they formed the French centre.

To their south were 8,000 men from VIII Corps (Poniatowski), posted at Zittau to watch the Austrians.

In what was now Napoleon's rear were 37,000 men at Bautzen (Vandamme's I Corps and Kellermann's 4th Cavalry Corps) and another 35,000 men at Dresden (St. Cyr's XIV Corps, L'Heritier's 5th Cavalry Corps) and some garrison troops.

Napoleon would wait for the Allies to make their move and then try and take advantage of any mistakes. If the Austrians attacked up the Elbe towards Dresden his western forces were to hold them up while Napoleon moved the central force west. If they attacked via Zittau, Poniatowski would detect them and they would be stopped by the central force. If Blücher advanced west, the armies on the Katzbach and the Bobr should be able to stop him.

To the north Oudinot had somewhere between 66,000 and 120,000 men (IV, VII, XII Corps, Arrighi' 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps, and the task of taking Berlin. He started the campaign at Luckau.

Davout had 35,000 men on the lower Elbe (XIII Corps), based at Hamburg. His initial task was to advance east to support the attacks on Berlin, but as these attacks failed, he concentrated instead on the defence of Hamburg.

At the start of the campaign Napoleon misjudged his enemies. He believed that Blücher's Army of Silesia was the main Allied army, at least in part because the Tsar and the King of Prussia had been with it until early August. He also underestimated the size of the Army of Bohemia, assuming that the Austrians would have to leave sizable forces to watch his Army of Italy and the forces posted on the Danube (Augereau on the River Inn, and Wrede's Bavarian army). As a result he based his plans on the assumption that the Army of Bohemia would be around 100,000 strong, less that half of its real strength.

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

Napoleon took the rare step of asking for comments on his plans - Marmont responded 'I greatly fear lest on the day on which Your Majesty gains a great victory, and believes you have won a decisive battle, you may learn you have lost two'. This would soon prove to be true - on the same day as Napoleon one his great victory at Dresden, Macdonald was being defeated on the Katzbach, while Oudinot had just failed in his attempt to take Berlin. Napoleon could also be criticized for failing to pick his best commanders for the key commands, and in particular for wasting Davout's talents.

Napoleon's biggest problem was that the Allies had finally adopted a plan that had a good chance of defeating him (known as the Trachenberg Plan). Each of their armies would advance, but if they came up against Napoleon in person that army would retreat towards reinforcements, while the other armies would advance. They would take on Napoleon's subordinates, and defeat him where he wasn't. Eventually this would wear down Napoleon's army to the point where the Allies would be willing to combine their armies against him. Napoleon thus found that every time he tried to catch Blücher, who appeared to be in the most vulnerable position, he would simply retreat east into Silesia. Napoleon couldn't afford to chase him, as this would expose his Saxon supply bases to attack from the south. His one big victory of the campaign, at Dresden, came when Schwarzenberg's army broke from the plan and risked an attack even after Napoleon had arrived on the battlefield.

Key to the Allied plan was the lack of a second French leader capable of commanding an independent army. Davout or Marmont might have been capable of it, but Oudinot, Ney and Macdonald, who were given the task, repeatedly failed.


On 14 August Blücher crossed the armistice line, prematurely ending the armistice. Napoleon decided to try and deal with Blücher first. Oudinot was ordered to move north from Luckau to threaten Berlin, while smaller forces watched the mountain passes from Bohemia.

On 17 August the commanders of the Army of Bohemia decided to begin a three pronged advance towards Leipzig. This would allow them to threaten Napoleon's lines of communications as he advanced east. On the same day Napoleon reached Bautzen, on the Spree, where he learnt that 40,000 Russians under Wittgenstein were moving west, probably to join Blücher. He decided to concentrate on defeating Blücher before these reinforcements could arrive. Vandamme was ordered to move to Bautzen to cover the move east, while Marshal St. Cyr was given the task of defending Dresden against Schwarzenberg.

Over the next few days the overall pattern of the entire campaign would be set. As Napoleon moved east, his opponents withdrew. His subordinates wouldn't be up to their tasks - Oudinot would be defeated close to Berlin and St. Cyr would soon be faced with an overwhelming threat at Dresden. On this occasion Napoleon also under-performed, changing his mind several times.

On 18 August Napoleon reached Görlitz, east of Bautzen. He changed his plan and decided to move south to Zittau to hit Wittgenstein in his flank as the Russians moved west on their way to join Schwarzenberg. Ney, Marmont and Lauriston were left to watch Blücher.

On 19 August Napoleon reached Zittau, where he learnt that Blücher was moving to attack Ney, Marmont and Lauriston, while the Austrians were moving west toward the Elbe, not north towards Zittau. Once again Napoleon changed his mind and moved against Blücher. On 21 August Napoleon's army crossed the River Bobr (combat of the Bobr or Lowenberg, 21 August 1813), but Blücher simply retreated. Napoleon's brief diversion to the south did trigger a chance of plan in the Army of Bohemia, which was now heading for Dresden instead of Leipzig. 

On 22 August a message from St. Cyr caught up with Napoleon at Lowenberg, informing him that the full Army of Bohemia was heading for the city and requesting urgent aid. Napoleon decided to head back to Dresden and its essential supply depots, taking Vandamme and the Guard with him, with Marmont and Victor to follow. Macdonald was left on the Bobr front to face Blücher. He had orders to push Blücher back to Jauer then fall back to a strong defensive position behind the Bobr. 22 August also saw St. Cyr pushed out of his outposts at Hellendorf, close to the border of Bohemia.

On 23 August Wittgenstein's leading troops reached the southern outskirts of Dresden, but the Allies missed a chance to take the city while it was weakly defended, and instead paused. On the same day Oudinot suffered a defeat at Grossbeeren (notable as the first victory for a Prussian army since the disasters of 1806), and was forced to retreat south-west towards the Elbe. This left Napoleon's lines of communication north of the Elbe vulnerable to attack.

The Allies delayed their attack on Dresden far too long. On 25 August St. Cyr was even able to counterattack, and the allied advance guard was driven back. The Allied commanders decided to delay their attack until 26 August in order to give themselves time to sort out their columns. This gave Napoleon time to intervene. He had originally planned to cross the Elbe to the south-east of Dresden and advance into the enemy's rear, but on 25 August he received reports that suggested that Dresden would fall on the following day. He thus altered his plans, and sent most of his army along the north bank of the Elbe towards Dresden. Vandamme was left with one corps to carry out the attack into the rear.

The battle of Dresden (26-27 August 1813) was Napoleon's most significant victory of 1813, but it was marred by defeats elsewhere, and by a failure to take full advantage of the situation. The battle began with the Allies on the offensive, but they were unable to make any real progress against the French defensive line. This gave Napoleon time to feed the first of his reinforcements into the battle, and the day ended with a successful French counterattack. Further to the south Vandamme attacked at Prina, and made some progress, but the Allies sent reinforcements, and he was unable to advance fast enough.

On the same day Macdonald suffered a heavy defeat on the Katzbach. Once the fighting was over at Dresden, this would force Napoleon to rush east to restore the situation on that front.

The second day of the battle saw the French attack both flanks of the Allied line south of Dresden, and ended as a major victory. The Allies lost 38,000 men, the French only 10,000. During the afternoon the Allies decided to retreat back into Bohemia, at least in part because they were running short of vital supplies. Napoleon didn't realise that the Allies were retreating until the following morning, when the French were able to occupy their former positions without a fight.

The victory wasn't as significant as it could have been, as Vandamme had been unable to block the roads into Bohemia, allowing the Allies to make a clean escape.  

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

Even so, at the start of 28 August Vandamme had cut the road to Peterswalde (now Petrovice), the best route back into Bohemia, and Murat had taken the Freiberg road, which ran south-west from Dresden. This still left a wide gap open, but the French had possession of the best roads.

In the aftermath of the battle Napoleon concentrated on restoring the situation to the north and east. He sent four columns to pursuit the defeated Allies, under Marmont, St Cyr, Murat and Vandamme. The first three were relatively successful, but Vandamme's pursuit ended in disaster. Napoleon misjudged the Allies line of retreat, believing that they were moving towards the south-west and not the south, and so Vandamme was left unsupported.

Vandamme got involved in a hard fight with Ostermann (retreating from Pirna) in the mountains. He was then attacked in the rear by Kleist (retreating from Dresden), who had accidentally ended up using the same road (battle of Kulm (29-30 August 1813)). Vandamme and 13,000 of his men were captured in the battle, and most of the benefit that Napoleon had gained at Dresden was lost.

Indecisive Campaigning

After the dramas of August, September was somewhat quieter. On 2 September Napoleon decided to make his main effort towards Berlin. Ney was to be give 80,000 men for this attack. Macdonald was to hold the line of the Bobr, Davout was to advance east from Hamburg. Murat, St. Cyr and Marmont were to hold the line of the Bohemian mountains. In the first version of the plan Napoleon was to take direct command of the advance on Berlin, but events elsewhere meant he had to abandon that plan.

The biggest problem for Napoleon in this period was the dreadful state of Macdonald's army. On 3 September Napoleon learnt that Macdonald was retreating west at high speed. As well as the losses at the Katzbach, Puthod's division had been forced to surrender at Palgwitz (29 August).

Napoleon withdrew 25,000 men from Ney's force, and on 3 September left Dresden to lead Marmont, the Guard and some cavalry east to Bautzen to rally Macdonald. St. Cyr, Victor and Souham (with what was left of Vandamme's I Corps) were left to defend Dresden. 

Napoleon's arrival rejuvenated Macdonald's army. He led them east from Bautzen to Hochkirch (4 September), but Blücher quickly realised why his opponents had regained their morale and retreated. Napoleon followed as far at Görlitz, but this time he realised that the Prussian retreat was deliberate, and not due to low morale or a sign that they were close to defeat. He was furious, but couldn't risk getting drawn into Silesia. Once again he had to leave Macdonald in charge against Blücher, while he returned to Bautzen (arriving early on 6 September) to try and resume the march on Berlin.

Ney made even less progress than Oudinot. Soon after beginning his advance he fell into a trap at Dennewitz (6 September 1813), and suffered a defeat at Bernadotte's hands. The French lost 10,000 men, the Allies only 7,000. After his defeat Ney retreated south towards Torgau on the Elbe. By the time he reached Torgau he had lost 22,000 men in a campaign that only lasted two days.

Napoleon then learnt that Schwarzenberg had resumed his offensive, and was heading north along the right bank of the Elbe with 60,000 men, while Barclay de Tolly was heading towards Pirna and Dresden from Bohemia. This was potentially a very dangerous move - the Allied army was divided in two by the Elbe, and Napoleon controlled most of the crossing points over the river, but Schwarzenberg probably believed that Napoleon was planning to advance into Bohemia from his position further east, so an advance up the left bank of the Elbe would have left Prague vulnerable to capture.

On 8 September Napoleon decided to try and catch Barclay. He left Dresden and advanced towards Kulm, in the hope that he could get to Teplitz and cut off Barclay's line of retreat. Once again he was foiled by the Allied plan - Schwarzenberg ordered a full scale retreat, and by the time Napoleon caught up with Barclay he was in a strong defensive position at Kulm (Combat of Geiersberg, 10 September 1813). Napoleon lacked his cavalry, and so decided not to risk an attack, instead returning to Dresden.

As soon as Napoleon withdrew, Schwarzenberg resumed his advance (combat of Nollendorf (14 September). Napoleon counterattacked (combat of Berggiesshübel, 15 September, Peterswalde, 16 September and Dolnitz, 17 September), and ended up briefly fighting on the Bohemia side of the mountains that formed the border between Saxony and Bohemia. He then decided that he wasn't strong enough to risk a campaign in Bohemia, and moved back to Pirna. He then received news that Bernadotte, with 80,000 men, was approaching Rosslau on the Elbe, to the north-west of Ney's position at Torgau. Bernadotte has sent Bülow to besiege Wittenberg, and on about 15 September began to build three bridges over the Elbe, the first below the Black Elster (opposite Wartenburg), the other two below Wittenberg, and Rosslau and Acken. Napoleon returned to Dresden, and planned to join Ney, but once again Macdonald was retreating.

Napoleon had to head east once again, this time with the Guard. He rallied Macdonald just east of Bautzen on 22 September (combat of Bischofswerda), but a message from Ney then arrived, with the news that Swedish troops had been sighted at Wartenburg, half way between Roslau and Torgau. Ney was at Wartenburg on 24 September, at which point Bernadotte removed the Black Elster bridge and withdrew.


At this point Napoleon decided that he wasn't really achieving anything east of the Elbe. He still had 260,000 men and 784 guns, but his army was being worn down without achieving anything. He decided to pull back to the west bank of the Elbe, in the hope that he would get a chance to attack one of the Allied armies in isolation.

The retreat began on 24 September. On the same day Bernadotte reached the westerly flowing stretch of the Elbe that marked the northern edge of the main campaign area and established bridgeheads at Rosslau, Wittenberg and Wartenburg. VII Corps was able to contain the Rosslau bridgehead, while further to the east Bertrand stopped an attempt to cross the River Elster.

On 25 September the Allies decided to send Blücher north to join Bernadotte and the Army of the North. Blücher advanced north-west, down the right bank of the Elster, heading towards Wartenburg, close to the junction of the Elster and the Elbe. At the same time Bennigsen's 60,000 strong Army of Poland was close to joining up with Schwarzenberg.

On 27 September Napoleon issued a new call for conscripts, calling up 160,000 men from the class of 1815 and 120,000 men who had avoided being called up in the classes of 1808 to 1814. None of these men would fight in Germany, but some would serve in France in 1814.

On 2 October Murat was given command of II, V and VIII Corps, with orders to delay any advance by the Army of Bohemia towards Leipzig. He was to try and hold them as far south as possible, ideally south of Chemnitz, 40 miles south of Leipzig. At the same time I Corps (Löbau) and XIV Corps (St. Cyr) were ordered to defend Dresden against Bennigsen. Napoleon didn't want to abandon Dresden, the capital of his main remaining ally in Germany, but he would sorely miss those two corps at Leipzig.

On 3 October Blücher won one of the key, but lesser known battles of the campaign, when he defeated Bertrand at Wartenburg on the Elbe. This allowed him to move his army across the Elbe, and made sure that he would be in place to take part in the battle of Leipzig. On 4 October he moved south from the Elbe toward Düben, and coordinated his advance with Bernadotte, who was moving from Rosslau and Barby, further to the west down the Elbe, having crossed the Elbe at those places on the same day. This advance threatened Ney's position on the Elbe, and he had to move to Delitzsch, north of Liepzig. On 5 October, in response to these Allied moves, Napoleon ordered III Corps to join Marmont (VI Corps). The two corps would then move to Torgau to collect reinforcements, before moving west to Düben on the Mülde, repair the bridge there and then move to join Ney. Augereau was ordered to move to Leipzig to reinforce the garrison of the city.

By 6 October the Allies were thus widely separated, with Schwarzenberg to the south of Leipzig and Bernadotte and Blücher to the north. Napoleon decided to head north-west from Dresden to try and defeat Blücher, then Bernadotte.

On 7 October he made the crucial decision to leave St. Cyr and Löbau in Dresden. They were thus not available for the attack on Blücher or the battle of Leipzig, and would eventually be left behind when the French retreated from Germany. Napoleon's plan was to defeat Blücher and Bernadotte in one battle, then turn south to defeat Schwarzenberg, and then return east to Dresden. Napoleon was clearly not sure this was the right move, as he changed his mind several times.

By 8 October Napoleon was close to Leipzig (at Wurzen), and expected to find Blücher at Düben (now Bad Düben) and Bernadotte near Dessau, just to the south of the Elbe. On the same day Bavaria defected to the Allies, although it took a few days for the news to reach Napoleon.

On 9 October the French moved north to try and catch the Allies, but Blücher was warned just in time. Bernadotte wanted to retreat north of the Elbe, but Blücher insisted on a move west towards the Saale. Napoleon was denied his battle, although one of Blücher's divisions was badly mauled by Sebastiani's cavalry. Once again Napoleon's lack of cavalry hurt him, and he was unable to tell which way Blücher was going. In an attempt to catch them, Napoleon decided to send the troops already at Duben north to Wittenberg and north-west to Dessau, in an attempt to threaten the Allied position at Rosslau, just north of Dessau on the north bank of the Elbe. This advance would end if Murat became heavily engaged with Schwarzenberg, in which case the French would dash south and try and defeat the Army of Bohemia.

Between 10-14 October Napoleon and his headquarters remained inactive around Düben. During this period Blucher was located near Halle on the Saale, and on 12 October Marmont's VI Corps was ordered to move to Taucha, to support Murat. In the north Ney's leading division defeated part of Bernadotte's army as it was crossing the Mulde at Dessau. In the south Schwarzenberg was advancing slowly towards Leipzig, and suffered a setback at Borna (10 October 1813). The key moment came when Blücher decided to move south-east from Halle to join Schwarzenberg around Leipzig. Bernadotte was less keen on the move, and delayed his march. As a result he was absent on the first day of the battle of Leipzig, a decision that may have helped play a part in Napoleon's escape from the city after the battle.

Early on 14 October Napoleon realised that he needed to concentrate his army around Leipzig. The orders were issued at 3am, and Napoleon expected to be in place in time to fight a battle on 15 October. The same day saw the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, the largest cavalry battle of 1813, triggered after the Tsar ordered a cavalry investigation of Murat's positions. Neither side learnt much from the battle.

The campaign was now reaching its climax. The four day long Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813), also known as the battle of the Nations, was the largest battle in European history to that date, and effectively decided the fate of Napoleon's empire.

The battle began with a miscalculation on Napoleon's part. He expected Blücher and Bernadotte to move south to the west of Leipzig to join with Schwarzenberg. As a result he believed that his line of retreat ran north, and so he ordered all but one of the bridges across the Elster, to the west of Leipzig, to be blown.

On the first day of the battle (16 October), Napoleon expected to be fighting to the south of Leipzig, where Murat had kept possession of a good defensive position. Napoleon's plan was to defeat Schwarzenberg by pinning him in place and then launching a breakthrough attack with fresh troops. Although the French generally had the better of the fighting to the south of Leipzig, they were caught out when Blücher attacked from the north, not having moved around the city. Marmont had to fight an almost separate battle at Möckern, where he just about managed to hold off Blücher. As a result Napoleon lacked the troops he needed to take advantage of his successes in the south.

17 October saw little fighting. The Allies received a massive boost when Bennigsen and Bernadotte arrived with their armies, giving the Allies a massive numerical advantage for the rest of the battle. Napoleon received a handful of reinforcements, but also missed a chance to retreat with much of his army intact. Instead he stayed on to fight again.

18 October saw fighting all around Leipzig. The attack to the west was easily repulsed, and the French held their own to the south, but they were pushed back in the north. They also suffered a blow when the Saxon and Württemberg contingents deserted in the middle of the battle.

By the end of the day it was clear even to Napoleon that it was time to retreat. The retreat began well early on 19 October, and it took the Allies far too long to realise what was going on. Once they did a street battle broke out in Leipzig, but once again the French were holding their own. The turning point came when the last bridge to safety was blown while there were still thousands of troops trapped in Leipzig. Before that the balance of the fighting had just about favoured the French - Napoleon had lost 40,000 men, the Allies 54,000, but another 30,000 French soldiers had to surrender after the bridge was blown. Amongst the French dead was Marshal Poniatowski, who drowned while trying to swim to safety. The French lost six general officers killed, twelve wounded and thirty six captured during the battle. The King of Saxony was also captured.

The survivors of Napoleon's army managed to reach France without much difficulty. The Allies had suffered heavy losses themselves, and weren't really in a condition to mount a serious pursuit. It is also possible that Schwarzenberg wasn’t keen on totally destroying Napoleon's army, as the Austrians didn't really want to see a Europe dominated by Prussia and Russia. There were rearguard actions at Kösen on the Saale and Freiburg on the Unstrut on 21 October, but there were only minor affairs.

On 23 October, 100,000 troops reached the massive supply depots at Erfurt, where they were able to refit before the march continued on 24 October. Blücher shadowed the French to the north, Schwarzenberg to the east, and on 26 October part of Yorck's army clashed with the French rearguard at the Hroselberg.

The only battle took place at Hanau (30-31 October 1813), where a Bavarian and Austrian force attempted to stop what they believed was the southern flank of the French army, only to be brushed aside by the main force. Napoleon returned to the Rhine with 70,000 soldiers in formation and 40,000 stragglers.

The defeat at Leipzig ended any change that Napoleon could hold on in Germany. Saxony, Württemberg and most other rulers of the Confederation of the Rhine changed sides. Danzig and Dresden soon surrendered, costing Napoleon another 90,000 men. Overall the French lost 400,000 men in the 1813 campaign, almost as big a blow as in Russia in 1812. A further blow to Napoleon's reputation came late in the year when Wellington invaded French soil from Spain, the first Allied troops to cross the French border for many years.


Despite the disaster in Russia in 1812, Napoleon's cause wasn't hopeless in 1813. On several occasions he had the chance to win a significant victory that might have knocked one or more of his enemies out of the war. At Lutzen only a lack of time saved the Allies, who had advanced carelessly towards Napoleon. At Bautzen Napoleon and Ney have to share the blame for the failure of the attack on the Allied right.

In the autumn campaign Napoleon came very close to getting his victory at Dresden, but probably chose to take part in the wrong part of the battle – his marshals could have defended Dresden, but only Napoleon could have achieved the success he needed south of the city.

Even at Leipzig Napoleon still had chances. If he hadn't left two corps in Dresden then he might have had enough men to defeat Schwarzenberg on the first day of the battle. If Ney hadn't committed an entire corps to the fight at Lindenau, or if Macdonald had moved rather quicker, the result might have been the same.

Once Napoleon had failed to achieve victory on the first day of the battle he had a chance to slip away with most of his army intact. An entire day passed without significant activity on either side. As a result Napoleon was committed to an entire day of battle on the third day, for no obvious reason, which cost him more men, and the retreat on the fourth day ended in disaster.

Napoleon's failure in Germany had many causes. He had lost most of his experienced troops in Russia (and many of the rest were committed in Spain, and was fighting with a largely novice army. His cavalry was weak, and he lacked horses for transport and artillery use as well. His Marshals didn’t perform terribly well when they were given independent commands – Oudinot, Ney, Macdonald and Vandamme all suffered defeats that undid many of Napoleon's achievements.

Finally Napoleon himself wasn't always at his best. He was prone to assume that his enemies had done what he wanted them to (and again his lack of horses meant that he struggled to find out what was really happening). On occasions he was indecisive, letting chances slip by. He is also said to have let the Emperor rule the General, making decisions for political reasons, such as leaving two corps in Dresden when he needed every available man at Leipzig, or indeed his unwillingness to retreat from Leipzig on the second day of the battle, and thus admit that he had lost Germany.

The defeat in Germany set the scene for Napoleon's defence of France in 1814. Although he performed brilliantly for parts of this campaign, this time Napoleon was unable to build a third army, and he had to try and defend France with the remnants of the army lost in 1813 and a handful of raw recruits.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 January 2017), War of Liberation, 1813 (Germany) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/war_of_liberation_1813.html

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