A Leipzig of Faith


If one man’s ego had not gotten in the way of his good sense, there would be someone named Napoleon VIII or IX who at least held the title emperor of France. The mistake that prevented this from happening was made by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. And he made this mistake not during but after the Battle of Nations fought in October 1813 in and around the city of Leipzig.

By October 16, more than 175,000 soldiers from Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden had converged on the main French army consisting of about 160,000 soldiers. Napoleon had faced worse odds and won decisively, but something was different. This was after the massive losses incurred in the invasion of Russia, so the quality and training level of the French army was far below that of the Grande Armée before 1812. And if the French emperor’s weapon was inferior, his foes had gotten smarter. The allies had finally learned from the many times Napoleon had defeated them over the past two decades.

Bonaparte had been doing well. In May, he defeated the main Prussian Army near Lützen, but a lack of cavalry meant he was unable to do more than drive them away. On May 20, 1813, he fought the Russians and gave them a beating as well. In fact, the French emperor was so successful that the allies all agreed to a truce that was mostly to the advantage of the French. This provided more time to train his new army and recruit new regiments. While the French trained, the allies concentrated their forces.

The truce was finally over on August 16, 1813, when Germany’s fanatically anti-Napoleon diplomat Metternich demanded terms he knew would be unacceptable to any Frenchman. The general opposing Bonaparte had found a winning strategy. If they could not beat Napoleon in a battle, they wouldn’t even try to. Instead, they would attack where he was not. Supply needs forced all armies of the period to separate a few days’ march apart. There were not enough rations or wagons to bring in food to an army of 100,000 men staying for any time in one location. So the Austrians, Prussians, and even the Swedes went after the French army’s dispersed corps.

First, the former French marshal who had become the Swedish king and changed sides, Bernadotte, defeated Oudinot that August 23. Then General von Blucher and his Prussians beat the Napoleonic marshal MacDonald’s corps three days later. After that, Napoleon had no choice but to react to every move by any of the allied armies. For a while he held them all at bay, at the expense of exhausting his constantly marching soldiers. Marching as much as forty miles in a day, the French main army and Napoleon managed to reach Dresden, the capital of his Saxon ally, in time to drive off an Austrian attack. By October 15, Napoleon was preparing for yet another march, this time to meet von Blucher and his Prussian army, who were approaching Bonaparte’s base in Leipzig from the north. But just as that move started, word came that an even larger Austrian army was marching toward the French army’s position from the south. With far inferior numbers, Napoleon prepared to use a strategy he had successfully employed many times. He would defeat his enemies one at a time. This strategy at Leipzig, often called the Battle of Nations because just about every nation in Europe was involved, meant Napoleon had to first attack the Prussians in the north with the bulk of his army before the other forces approaching him could threaten the weak units facing them. If Napoleon could break through the Prussian line, scatter the army, and then turn south, he had a chance to roll up the allies’ armies one after another from north to south. But the Prussians would not cooperate. Even though outnumbered and taking significant casualties, they refused to retreat.

When that attack failed, Napoleon used his central position to shift his forces and attempted to break through the Austrians in the south. That 180,000-man army was almost as many men as were under Napoleon’s command. But the French had seen their emperor beat worse odds. Joachim Murat led 10,000 cavalry against the Austrians, and the horsemen tore through the line. But after the loss of horses in Russia there just weren’t enough horsemen left to exploit the breakthrough. Before the French infantry could follow up, the Austrian cavalry countercharged. The fresh riders drove the blown French horses back, restoring the line. Another cavalry charge might have broken through since the Austrian horses were blown, but there was simply no more French cavalry left. At the same time as the cavalry were fighting, von Blucher’s Prussians in the north pushed hard against the weak force left in front of them. Marshal Marmont and his soldiers fiercely defended their position. Around 9,000 soldiers from each side died that day fighting for the village of Mockern. The fighting ended when Marmont was seriously injured by the explosion of an ammunition wagon. Then the position being so stubbornly held by the badly outnumbered French infantry and gunners fell apart. But they had fought on until it was late in the day, too late for the Prussians to continue their attack.

The next day, both sides licked their wounds and waited for expected reinforcements. When the 6,000 men of the Saxon army changed sides and marched out to join the allies, French morale sagged. The Saxons had been the last ally fighting with them. When the Swedish army of more than 65,000 men also arrived to reinforce the allies, Napoleon decided on a fighting withdrawal. There were just too many allies for his tired and often poorly trained soldiers to stand off, much less attack. He was now outnumbered two to one. The first French units were able to pull out without any problem. Then the allies began to attack from all sides. In the end, none of the 30,000 men left as a rear guard made it out. Within a few days, Napoleon had barely 60,000 men in his retreating army, while the allies still had 300,000 soldiers on France’s borders and more coming.

The defeated army slowly retreated to France. Three weeks after Leipzig, on November 8, 1813, the allies offered the greatly outnumbered French emperor a peace settlement. France would have immediate peace and retain almost all of the land it had held in 1789. That was the year that the war had started. Napoleon would retain his throne, and everyone would agree not to attack one another anymore. Outnumbered more than five to one, his economy collapsing, with no more men available to call up and train, even his most devoted allies having changed sides, and all of Europe joining against him, Napoleon had a chance to retain his throne and end the killing. The offer showed how much the allies still feared him. The French emperor’s marshals urged him to accept the treaty. They felt that militarily there was no chance Napoleon could stop the inevitable. Bonaparte’s unquestionably brilliant campaign over the next few months showed they were correct. A string of amazing victories did little but slow the overwhelming number of armies invading France from all sides. Even the English and Spanish had crossed the Pyrenees and were marching up from the south.

By turning down this final peace offer, Napoleon made the one mistake that he could not correct. A mistake that cost him his throne, and by March 1814, Paris was under siege. He tried to return to power one more time, but that ended with the Battle of Waterloo. It was at Waterloo where another decision he made reverberated into defeat, sending the French emperor into an exile he would never return from.

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