The Battle of the Nations
It was a wretched day: the sky hung low and grey and the weather was cold and wet. The battlefield was a terrible sight…We saw before us a numerous, courageous enemy determined, at any cost, to regain his independence…Colonel Jean Auguste-Noel
The rivers that surrounded Leipzig separated the terrain into three rough sections. Occupying a central position, the emperor believed he would be able to defeat the separate coalition armies by using Leipzig’s bridges to quickly shift his forces from one sector to another. Four armies opposed him: the Prussian Army of Silesia under Blücher, a Russian army led by Levin August von Bennigsen, a Swedish army under Charles John Bernadotte and the Austrian Army of Bohemia which was commanded by Schwarzenberg.
The night before the battle was bitterly cold. Soldiers huddled together around campfires, shielding themselves from an icy rain that fell throughout the evening. Napoleon strolled through the French lines offering words of encouragement. He told his men that they should prefer death to defeat, but nervousness caused a sombre mood to envelop the camp. Schwarzenberg wrote to his wife Marie Anne for comfort. Realising the significance of the approaching battle, the Austrian prince told her ‘if God is with us, the enemy will receive his just deserts. God knows I would happily turn by back on everything, but giving up at this point would have tragic results…When I look out my window and see the many camp fires of the Guard and when I think that I am facing the greatest military commander of our age and one of the greatest of all time…I must confess, by dear, that I feel my shoulders are too slender to burden this enourmous weight.’
Fighting Around Möckern
The following day, at around nine o’ clock in the morning, an enourmous artillery duel signalled the start of the Battle of the Nations. Blücher ordered the Prussian and Russian corps under his command to advance towards Leipzig from the north. Much of the fighting took place around the village of Möckern which had been turned into a fortress by the defending French troops. Loopholes were dug into the low walls that dominated the village, and Marshal Marmont brought up columns of infantry behind the position in reserve. The fighting was ferocious, and continued long after sundown. It resulted in a costly stalemate, however Blücher had managed to pin down two large French corps that Napoleon wanted to use as a reserve force. In doing so, they would not have a decisive bearing on the outcome of the battle.
In the west, Austrian troops led by Gyulai advanced upon the village of Lindenau, which forced Napoleon to send his Fourth Corps into action. The coalition troops were initially successful, but once reinforced the French were able to hold on to the village and push the Austrians back.
Fighting in the South
The bulk of the coalition army was drawn up to the south of the city, and Schwarzenberg tried to force his troops across the River Pleisse near the village of Connewitz. However, by late morning it was becoming clear that this plan was doomed to fail. French skirmishers and artillery were well positioned, and threw down a heavy fire upon the attacking soldiers. East of the Pleisse, four huge allied columns were also instructed to go on the offensive and take the villages of Wachau and Markkleeberg. The attack on Wachau was initially delayed, as the Austrian corps commander Klenau could not form his men up in time for the assault. Gorchakov, who led a Russian column, was due to attack in combination with Klenau, and had already deployed his men ready to advance. They consequently had to wait in the open and were fired upon by French artillery. General’s Kleist and Eugen, who commanded the other two columns, managed to get their attack away on time. By 9.30 in the morning Markkleeberg had been taken and it looked like Wachau would soon follow. However, French infantry positioned on the heights above Wachau counter-attacked, and after brutal street-to-street fighting the allied soldiers were forced out of the two villages. The French troops were well supported by masses of artillery that began to blast huge holes in Prussian and Russian ranks. The allied troops showed tremendous bravery and urgently tried to press forward, but casualties were mounting and the offensive stalled.
Eugen’s Russians in particular suffered appalling losses on the slopes east of Wachau. They had no cover, and could not break ranks for fear of being run down by French cavalry that had been lingering in the east. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon Eugen’s regiments stood their ground and despite the devastating bombardment they held the allied line. Napoleon knew that if he quickly concentrated his forces and attacked Eugen and Kleist’s rapidly diminishing battalions, he might be able to crush the Army of Bohemia against the banks of the Pleisse. Tsar Alexander anticipated the danger, and sent word for reinforcements to march towards the battlefield at speed from Rotha, about twelve miles south of Leipzig. However, it would take them at least three hours to reach the coalition armies.
Luckily for the allies, Napoleon showed indecisiveness, and it took him a long time to organise and launch his assault. He had to wait for Marshal MacDonald to bring up his corps and push back the Austrian troops towards Seifertshain. MacDonald was initially successful, however thousands of Cossacks appeared on his left flank and the French attack was impeded. Nevertheless, by the early afternoon Napoleon finally threw infantry, cavalry and artillery against Kleist and Eugen’s beleaguered brigades. The allies fought desperately to prevent the French from breaking through, and were eventually aided by reinforcements from the eastern bank of the Pleisse. Amongst these reinforcements was Count Weissenwolf’s infantry division’s, the best troops in the Austrian army. They stabilised the allied position and prevented the French from advancing any further.
Having attacked both enemy flanks, Napoleon now set about trying to punch a hole through the weakened allied centre. Once again, a huge artillery bombardment opened up upon the allied lines, and Murat led 5,000 galloping cavalrymen towards the village of Gossa. These mounted troops swept aside two regiments of Russian light cavalry before they could even react, and things looked bleak for several of Eugen’s already mauled infantry battalions that had been redeployed around the village. Showing immense courage and bravery, these Austrian troops managed to conduct a fighting retreat into Gossa. The French pushed on, and were just a few hundred meters from a hill in the coalition centre that was occupied by the allied kings when disaster struck. The cavalry stumbled into a marshy ravine, which caused a huge amount of confusion amongst the ranks of such an unwieldly mass. Sensing an opportunity, a Russian regiment of hussars appeared at their rear. Murat’s men began to panic, and tried to retreat, but Alexander had sent several squadrons of Cossacks in pursuit. These Russian horsemen careered into the flank of the French cavalry corps, and Murat’s force was routed. However, the danger was not yet over for the allies.
Thousands of French infantry had massed behind Murat’s cavalry, and they swiftly descended upon Gossa. A young and able artillery officer called Sukhozanet quickly brought up eighty artillery batteries and they formed a line behind the village. The Russian guns forced the French artillery to withdraw, as they couldn’t withstand this formidable concentration of firepower. In the meantime, the Russian and Prussian Guards moved into the allied centre, ready to meet the French assault.
The battle for Gossa turned into a brutal struggle between some of the best infantry regiments of both armies. The fighting raged for three hours. The French would be driven off, only for a new wave of infantry to appear and force their way back into the village. The Russian 2nd Division eventually had a decisive impact, storming Gossa from the south-west and forcing back the remaining French infantry. One private solider, serving in the Finland Regiment, earned particular acclaim for his bravery. At one point in the afternoon, the officers of the Third Battalion of the Finland Guards found themselves cut off after a sudden French counter-attack. Leontii Korennoi managed to fight off the French single-handedly and hold them off while the officers escaped over a nearby wall. He was eventually captured, and presented to the French Emperor himself who praised him for his courage. The actions of men like Korennoi ensured that Gossa was held, and Napoleon’s assault on the allied centre eventually petered out.
As the day’s fighting drew to a close, Napoleon and his adversaries must have reflected on an extraordinarily vicious day of fighting. Thousands of men lay dead on the fields and ditches surrounding Leipzig, but very little had changed. The opposing armies ended the day in more or less the same positions from which they started. Crucially, however, the allied leaders knew that it would now be almost impossible for Napoleon to defeat the coalition army. Only a short distance away, a further 100,000 allied troops were marching to their comrades aid, and the French Emperor would not be able to hold off such overwhelming numbers.
Day Two- 17th October
Napoleon was also aware that allied assistance was close at hand, but he refused to yet consider a retreat. On the 17th, very little fighting occurred. When the coalition monarchs realised that Napoleon was willing to stay put, they let their men rest and recuperate while they waited for the remaining reinforcements to arrive. The only significant action that occurred on the 17th was a dashing cavalry charge by a Russian hussar division. They smashed through French defences north west of Leipzig, capturing many guns and forcing the French to pull back to the defences in front of the Halle Gate.
Day Three- 18th October
The following morning was bright and clear. The allies formed a huge semi-circle surrounding Leipzig from the north, east and south. Once again, the coalition army was determined to assault Napoleon’s troops and force them back from their defensive positions.
The allies attempted no clever troop movements or shrewd feints. They simply used brute force and tried to pound Napoleon’s army into submission. In the north west, Russian troops once again tried to storm the Halle Gate, however it was surrounded by imposing defences. The French had built field fortifications, and the narrow approach to the gate meant that attacking forces were subject to enfilading fire. The Russian troops that continued to throw themselves against this seemingly impenetrable position were commended for their bravery, and they suffered very heavy casualties. They were unable to capture the position, but forced French soldiers to be diverted from Schönefeld, the key to Napoleon’s position in the north. Schönefeld was also an extremely strong defensive position, and many French troops fought behind robust garden walls and stone houses. However, by mid-afternoon Bernadotte had managed to bring around 60,000 of his reinforcements onto the battlefield, and he deployed most of his artillery against the village. By 6.p.m., Schönefeld had fallen.
The allies now threatened to encircle Napoleon completely, and cut off his line of retreat. The Emperor realised this, and soon set about trying to organise an evacuation of his army. He drew his army further into Leipzig, and continued to use the many walls and buildings that surrounded the city as strongholds. By doing so, and despite being heavily outnumbered, he managed to stop the coalition forces from breaking into his rear and surrounding his troops. He knew that the following day would be an immense test of his ability as a general and his soldiers resolve. He would have to rely upon his rearguard to hold off the allied armies long enough to evacuate the majority of his men over the one bridge that spanned the Elster River.
Day Four-19th October
The allies smelt blood, and began a huge, final assault on the French positions outside of Leipzig at 7 a.m. The French rearguard was mostly made up of Polish, German and Italian troops. Napoleon believed that if he retreated out of Germany, most of these troops would no longer fight for him. They put up a stout defence, and held off the allied assault for several hours. However, these soldiers could not hold out indefinitely, and the coalition armies started to break through at around 11 a.m., while thousands of Napoleon’s infantry and artillery were still desperately trying to escape from the city. In the north, the Halle Gate was finally taken by the elite 39th Jager regiment. This unit was very experienced and had previously assaulted powerful fortresses when fighting the Ottoman Turks. These veterans used their superior marksmanship and knowledge of street fighting to great effect.
Two other Jager regiments got within range of the bridge, over which Napoleon’s army was retreating. They began to open fire upon the withdrawing troops, which caused the corporal who was in charge of the crossing to panic. He ordered explosives that had been placed under the bridge to be detonated, thereby trapping the remaining French soldiers and supplies. Hundreds tried to swim to safety but drowned, and thousands were taken prisoner within the walls of Leipzig. The Battle of the Nations had finally ended, and the Sixth Coalition could proclaim victory.
Up Next: The Aftermath of Leipzig
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