Battle of Leipzig

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The Battle of the Nations on 1619 October, 1813 was one of the most decisive defeats suffered by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Napoleonic Wars. The Völkerschlacht was fought on German soil and involved German troops on both sides, as a large proportion of Napoleon's troops actually came from the German Confederation of the Rhine. It is considered the largest battle in Europe before World War I, with over 500,000 troops involved.

Contents

Prelude

Following Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia and his defeats in the Peninsular War, the anti-French forces had cautiously regrouped as the Sixth Coalition, comprising Britain, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Prussia, Austria, Sweden and certain smaller German states. In total, the Coalition could put into the field well over a million troops — indeed by the time of Leipzig, total Allied armies east of the Rhine probably exceeded a million. By contrast Napoleon's forces had dwindled to just a few hundred thousand.

Napoleon sought to re-establish his hold in Germany, winning two hard-fought victories, at Lützen on 2 May and Bautzen on 2021 May, over Russo-Prussian forces. The victories led to a brief armistice. The Coalition forces, under the command of Gebhard von Blücher, Crown Prince Charles of Sweden and Karl von Schwarzenberg, Count Benningsen, and Barclay De Tolly followed the strategy outlined in the Trachenburg Plan to avoid clashes with Napoleon but to seek confrontations with his marshals, which led to victories at Großbeeren, Kulm, Katzbach and at Dennewitz.

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot failed to capture Berlin with his army of 120,000 and Napoleon was forced to withdraw westwards due to the threat to the north, crossing the Elbe in late September and organizing his forces around Leipzig to protect his supply lines and meet the Allies. Napoleon arranged his army around Leipzig, but concentrated his force from Taucha through Stötteritz (where Napoleon placed his command). The Prussians advanced from Wartenburg, the Austrians and Russians from Dresden and the Swedish force from the north.

16th October

In total, the French had around 190,000 soldiers and the Allies almost 330,000 with both sides having significant artillery — in total there were over two and a half thousand pieces of ordnance on the field. The battle began on 16 October with an attack by 78,000 Allied troops from the south and 54,000 from the north, with Napoleon using the bulk of his army in the south. The allied offensives achieved little and were soon forced back, but Napoleon's outnumbered forces were unable to break the allied lines, resulting in a hard fought stalemate.

Austrian II Corps Dölitz

The Austrian II Corps (Gen. von Merveldt) advanced towards Connewitz via Gautzsch and attempted to attack the position to find that the avenue of advance was well covered and didn't allow the Austrians to place their own artillery to support the attack. Repulsed, the Austrians then moved to attack nearby Dölitz crossed by two bridges and leading to a Manor house and a Mill. Two companies of the 24th regiment threw out the small Polish garrison and took the position. A prompt counter attack ejected the Austrians and the battle seesawed until the Austrians brought up a strong artillery battery and blew the Poles out of the position. The Poles left bodies everywhere in their furious defense and set fire to both the Manor and the Mill on the way out.[1]

Battle of Markkleeberg

The village of Markkleeberg was defended by Marshalls Poniatowski and Augereau, the attacker was General Kleist moving along the Pleisse River. The Austrians repaired a bridge and took a school building and manor. The French counter attacked throwing the Austrians out of the school and back over the river. French attacks on the manor only resulted in repulse and mounting casualties for the French and Poles. The Russian 14th Division began a series of flanking attacks that forced the Poles out of Markkleeberg. Marshal Poniatowski stopped the retreat and stopped the advancing Russians. Catching four battalions of the Prussian 12th Brigade in the open Poniatowski directed attacks by artillery and cavalry until they were relieved by Russian Hussars. Marshal Poniatowski retook Markkleeberg but was thrown out by two Prussian battalions. Austrian Grenadiers then formed in front of Markkleeberg and by flank attack drove the Poles and French out of the area.[2]

Attack on Wachau

The Russian II Infantry Corps attacked Wachau with support from the Prussian 9th Brigade. The Russians advanced unaware that French forces were in wait and took them by surprise in the flank mauling them. The Prussian engaged and entered Wachau engaging in street to street fighting. French artillery blasted the Prussians out of Wachau and the French recovered the village.[3]

Battle of Liebertwolkwitz

Liebertwolkwitz was a big village in a commanding position defended by Marshals MacDonald and Lauriston with about 18,000 men. The Austrian IV Corps attacked with 24,500 backed up with Pirth's 10th Brigade (4,550) and Ziethen's 11th Brigade (5,365). The Austrians attacked 1st driving the French out of Liebertwolkwitz after hard fighting only to be driven out in turn by a French counter-attack. At this point Napoleon directed General Drouot to form a grand battery on Gallows hill. This was done with 100 Guns that proceeded to blast the Russian II corps and forcing the Prussian battalions supporting it to take cover. Russian General Eugene Duke of Württemberg was notable in his extreme bravery directing his troops under fire. The hole had been opened as Napoleon wished and at this point Marshal Murat was unleashed with 10,000 French, Italian, and Saxon, Cavalry. Murat's choice in formations was unfortunate showing massive columns with no reserve. Smaller formations of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian, Cavalry were after hard fighting able to chase Murat's Division back to its own artillery and was saved only by the French Guard Dragoons. The Young Guard Division was sent in to advance and drive the allies out and give Napoleon his break through. They captured both Liebertwolkwitz and Wachau again but the Allies countered with Russian Guard and Austrian Grenadiers backed up by Russian Cuirassars. They proceeded to show what elite troops are all about forming squares blasting French Cavalry off its horses and over running artillery batteries. In the southern front although Napoleon gained ground he could not break the Allies lines.[4]

Northern Attack

The northern front opened with the attack by General Langeron's Russian Corps on the villages of Groß-Wiederitzsch and Klein-Wiederitzsch in the center of the French northern lines. This position was defended by General Dabrowski's Polish division of four infantry battalions and two Cavalry battalions. At first sign of the attack the Polish division boiled out to attack. The battled wavered back and forth with attack and counter-attack. General Langeron rallied his forces and finally took both villages with heavy casualties.

Battle of Möckern

The Northern front was dominated by the battle of Möckern. This was a 4 phase battle and saw some hard fighting this day. A Manor, Palace, walled gardens, and low walls, dominated the village. Each position was turned into a fortress with the walls being loopholed for covered fire by the French. The ground to the west of the position was too wooded and swampy for emplacement of artillery. A dike ran east along the river Elster being 4 meters high. Marshal Marmont brought up infantry columns behind the positions in reserve and for quick counter-attack against any fallen position. Blücher commanded Langeron's (Russian) and Yorck's (Prussian) corps against Marshal Ney and Marshal Marmont. The battle into attacks lasting well into the night. Artillery caused the majority of the 9,000 Allies and 7,000 French casualties, and the French lost another 2,000 prisoners.[5]

17th October

There were only two actions on the 17th: the attack by the Russian General Sacken on General Dabrowski's Polish Division at the village of Gohlis. The Polish Division continued to put up heroic resistance and was openly admired by General Sacken. In the end the numbers and determination of the Russians prevailed and the Poles retired to Pfaffendorf. Blücher, who was made a field marshal the day before, ordered General Lanskoi's 2nd Hussar Division (Russian) to attack General Arrighi's III Cavalry corps. As they had the day before the Sixth Coalition's Cavalry again proved to be superior driving the French away with great loss.

Reinforcements

The French however received only 14,000 additional troops. Russian General von Bennigsen and Prince Charles John of Sweden had arrived with other troops also arriving for a total of 145,000 for the Allies, greatly increasing their strength.

18th October

The Sixth Coalition was arranged as with Field Marshal Blücher (Prussian) and Crown Prince Charles John of Sweden to the north, the Generals Barclay De Tolly, Bennigsen (both Russian) and Prince von Hessen-Homburg (Austrian) to the south, and General Gyulay (Austrian) to the west.

Wachau, Lößnig, and Dölitz, Southern Front

The Prussian 9th brigade occupied the abandon village of Wachau while the Austrians with General Bianchi's Hungarians threw the French out of Lößnig. The Austrians proceeded to give a demonstration of combined arms cooperation as Austrian Cavalry attacked French infantry to give Austrian infantry time to arrive and deploy in the attack on Dölitz. The Young Guard Division arrived and threw them out. At this point three Austrian Grenadier battalions arrived and began to contest for the village with artillery support.[6] On the 18th the Allies launched a huge assault from all sides. In over nine hours of fighting, in which both sides suffered heavy casualties, the French troops prevented a breakthrough but were slowly forced back towards Leipzig. Napoleon saw that the battle was a lost cause and on the night of the 18th–19th he began to withdraw the majority of his army across the river Elster. The retreat went well until early afternoon when the single bridge was mistakenly destroyed, leaving the French rear-guard to fight to the last man, be caught by the Allies, or drown while trying to swim the river.

Results

Total casualties are uncertain; estimates range from 80,000 to 110,000 killed or wounded from both sides. Taking an estimate of 95,000 total, the Coalition lost 55,000. Napoleon's side lost 40,000, with around 30,000 taken as prisoners or left behind in hospitals. Amongst the casualties was the French marshal Józef Antoni Poniatowski (a nephew to the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski), who had only received his marshal's baton the previous day.

The battle ended the First French Empire's presence east of the Rhine river and brought the liberated German states over to the Coalition.

In addition to the 91 m high Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the course of the battle in the city of Leipzig is marked by numerous monuments and the 45 Apel-stones that mark important lines of the French and allied troops.

Notes

  1. http://web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Leipzig_battle.htm#leipzigbattle11
  2. http://web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Leipzig_battle.htm#leipzigbattle11
  3. http://web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Leipzig_battle.htm
  4. http://web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Leipzig_battle.htm#leipzigbattle11
  5. http://web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Leipzig_battle.htm#leipzigbattle12
  6. http://web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Leipzig_battle.htm#leipzigbattle3

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