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The German Campaign of 1813

The Battle of Lützen

           

The spring campaign of 1813 initially got off to a bad start for the allies. Russian Field Marshal Kutuzov, who had played a major role in expelling the French out of Russia in 1812, died on 28 April. The Tsar appointed the respected general Wittgenstein to replace him, and he was made Commander-in-Chief of the allied army.

           

Despite this setback, the allies advanced westwards, believing that their presence would encourage the Confederation of the Rhine to rebel against French rule. However, on the 30 April Napoleon advanced towards Leipzig with the intention of driving a wedge between the allied armies. Marshal Ney’s corps ran into 70,000 troops led by general’s von Blücher and Wittgenstein, who attacked his right flank. Napoleon set a trap for the allied army, instructing Ney to fall back towards Lützen where he had deployed a strong force in a defensive position. He then launched a devastating counterattack into the allied flank and bombarded Wittgenstein’s centre with a mass of artillery. The Prussian and Russian army was forced to retreat but did so in good order owing to the Emperor’s lack of cavalry. The day was certainly Napoleon’s, but he lost some 20,000 men to the allies 12,000. His inexperienced army was enthusiastic but attacked in an uncoordinated fashion, and as a result suffered far heavier casualties than it should have. The Battle of Lützen was not the decisive engagement Napoleon desperately sought.

The Battle of Bautzen

 

Eighteen days later, on the 20 May, the French and allied armies once again clashed at the Battle of Bautzen. The Prussians and Russians adopted a strong defensive position around the German town. They made use of embankments left over from the Seven Years War and built entrenchments and redoubts in between several villages. Napoleon led his grande armée east in two columns, the first of which attacked Bautzen head on. The second column, led by Marshal Ney, was ordered to attack the allies vulnerable right flank. The Emperor hoped to cut off the allies’ line of retreat so that they would have to withdraw into Austria. This would violate Austrian neutrality and force Francis to join the war on France’s side. Around noon on the first day of the battle, the grande batterie launched a terrifying barrage against the allied lines, and Napoleon threw French columns against both sides of Bautzen. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day, and by nightfall the French had taken the first allied lines of defence and most of the town. The following day, Ney arrived on the battlefield, but he misunderstood his orders. Napoleon continued to launch assaults against the Prusso-Russian army in an attempt to pin them down so that Ney could cut them off. However, Ney advanced in the wrong direction and became preoccupied with capturing the village of Preititz. He was unable to significantly penetrate the allied right flank. Once again, the allies conducted a fighting retreat and managed to escape. Both sides suffered around 20,000 casualties.

Klemens von Metternich

A Brief Interlude

Some of the heaviest fighting of the Napoleonic Wars occurred at Lützen and Bautzen, and both sides were shaken by the ferocity of these engagements. Napoleon was fatigued by the campaign and had suffered substantial losses, despite winning two victories. Consequently, the three armies signed a nine-week armistice on 4 June. The Truce of Pläswitz was mediated by the Austrian minister Metternich. The Emperor wanted to rest and replenish his army, as did the Prussians and the Russians. However, this armistice would prove to be far more beneficial for the allies, and became a key turning point in the war. In the Polish town of Reichenbach, a series of treaties were signed between Austria, Prussia, Great Britain and Russia. Once again, Great Britain promised to pay substantial subsidies to Prussia and Russia, and Austria agreed to join the war if Napoleon refused to accept Metternich’s conditions for peace. These included vacating Germany and Italy, recognising the independence of the Confederation of the Rhine and returning Prussia to its 1806 frontiers. Napoleon reacted furiously when Metternich presented these conditions to him. He threw his hat into the corner of the room and launched a fierce tirade against the Austrian foreign minister, telling him ‘so you, too want war; well, you shall have it...I can assure you that…next October we shall meet in Vienna; then will it be seen what has become of your good friends, the Russians and the Prussians!’

The Struggle Continues

 

Austria added 127,000 men to the coalition, and Prussia and Russia reinforced their armies. Consequently, by August Napoleon faced an enourmous allied force of at least 515,000 men. His own army contained around 335,000 troops. The allied generals agreed to avoid fighting whenever Napoleon himself was present to command, and instead looked to engage the Emperor’s less able marshals whenever possible. A period of extraordinarily intense fighting followed, and the French were defeated at the Battles of Großbeeren, Katzbach and Kulm in late August. However, the allies were unable to avoid Napoleon at the Battle of Dresden and were heavily defeated despite significantly outnumbering the French army. Once again, Napoleon was incapable of turning this victory into a rout and the commander of the Austrian army Schwarzenberg narrowly escaped.

 On 6 September, a French army led by Marshal Ney was defeated at the Battle of Dennewitz by primarily Prussian troops. Ney had been instructed to take Berlin in the belief that it might knock Prussia out of the war, and he moved with real energy. However, lacking cavalry he was unable to properly scout the allied positions and sprung headlong into a strong defensive position. Ney still almost triumphed, but Bernadotte arrived with his Swedish army and attacked the French left flank. They were routed.

 By October, Napoleon was in a perilous position. The grande armée’s supply routes were being constantly harassed by enemy cavalry and it was going hungry as a result. Morale was extremely fragile, and many malnourished soldiers began to succumb to disease. Some soldiers were also in need of new clothing and footwear. The Sixth Coalition was closing in on Napoleon, but he was not prepared to retreat or accept a compromise peace. Instead, he concentrated his troops around the German city of Leipzig in eastern Germany, and prepared to make a stand.

Up Next: The Battle of the Nations

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