The armistice between Napoleon and the allies was agreed on 4 June. Initially it was set to continue until 20 July. Subsequently, at Austria’s insistence, the allies very unwillingly agreed to extend it until 10 August. During the armistice a peace conference opened in Prague, with Austria mediating between the two sides. Before the conference convened Austria had secretly committed itself to joining the allied cause unless Napoleon agreed to the four minimal Austrian conditions for peace by 10 August. When he failed to do so Austria declared war and the autumn 1813 campaign began. Once this campaign started diplomacy largely took a back seat for three months. The Russians, Prussians and Austrians were agreed on the need to get Napoleon out of Germany and back across the Rhine, and were also agreed that this could only be achieved by military means. Had Napoleon won the initial battles it is possible that rifts would have reopened between the allies, and Austria would have resumed negotiations with Napoleon. In fact, however, diplomacy was mostly confined to consolidating the alliance between the four great powers fighting Napoleon and drawing the smaller German states to their side. Unlike in the spring of 1813 all the decisive moments in the autumn campaign occurred on the battlefield.
On the eve of the armistice Alexander sent Nesselrode to Vienna to clear up misunderstandings and urge the Austrians to take a firmer stand against Napoleon. On the way he met Francis II and Metternich; the latter had decided that at this moment of supreme crisis it was essential for himself and his sovereign to be closer to events. Face-to-face negotiations might well reduce distrust and misunderstanding between the allies and Austria. They would certainly avoid the delays created as messengers shuttled to and from Vienna. For the next ten weeks European top-level diplomacy was concentrated in the small area between Napoleon’s headquarters at Dresden, allied headquarters at Reichenbach in south-western Silesia, the great north-eastern Bohemian chateaux of Gitschin and Ratiborsitz, where many private meetings between the allied leaders occurred, and the Bohemian capital, Prague, where the peace conference took place.
Nesselrode had a series of discussions with Metternich, Francis II and the Austrian military leaders, Schwarzenberg and Radetsky, between 3 and 7 June. Both generals were enthusiastic supporters of entry into the war, so their explanations of the problems facing the Habsburg army’s preparations carried conviction. Nesselrode trusted and saw eye-to-eye with Metternich, whom he had known for many years, and he brought back to allied headquarters a memorandum setting out Austrian views on peace conditions. He emerged from his conversations with all the Austrian leaders convinced that Francis II was indeed the main obstacle to Austria joining the allies but that his opposition was by no means insurmountable. There was no chance, however, of moving the Austrian monarch towards war until Napoleon had been offered and rejected very moderate and minimal terms of peace.
These minimal terms boiled down to four points. The Duchy of Warsaw must be re-partitioned between the Russians, Austrians and Prussians: Prussia must get back Danzig, and Napoleon must evacuate all the fortresses on Prussian and Polish territory: Illyria must be returned to Austria: Hamburg and Lübeck must regain their independence immediately, and other French-occupied towns on the North Sea and Baltic coastlines in due course. On the eve of Nesselrode’s return to allied headquarters at Reichenbach, Metternich wrote to the anxious Philipp Stadion that he had enjoyed many good conversations with the Russian diplomat and that both men understood and appreciated their two countries’ interests and positions. ‘Nesselrode is very well disposed to us and will depart very happy. I believe that I can fully promise you this. His mission has been of real benefit.’1
After Nesselrode’s return to Reichenbach a series of meetings between the Russian and Prussian leaders discussed their response to Metternich’s memorandum and the peace terms which would satisfy the allies. The basic point was that the Russians and Prussians were stuck. They badly needed Austrian assistance. As Nesselrode reminded Christoph Lieven, ‘recent events have shown us just what resources Napoleon still possesses’. Only Austrian intervention could swing the balance in the allies’ favour. Given ‘the extreme distaste which the Emperor Francis shows for war’, the allies had no option but to accept Metternich’s strategy of presenting very moderate terms to Napoleon and comforting themselves with the thought that ‘however inadequate they seem to us, it is very unlikely that the enemy will accept the Austrian conditions, given what we know of Napoleon’s character’. But of course there was a risk that Napoleon would surprise the allies by accepting the Austrian terms. As Metternich subsequently wrote to Stadion, ‘no one could be a reliable judge’ of how Napoleon would react when he finally woke up to the imminent threat of Austrian intervention, ‘given the peculiar character of the man on whom in the last resort peace depends’.2
The Russian problem was that Alexander and Nesselrode were convinced that the Austrian minimal terms were wholly inadequate to guarantee a lasting peace. The very high stakes involved concentrated Russian thinking. More minor issues went out of the window. Alexander and Nesselrode concerned themselves exclusively with achieving a stable peace which would guarantee Russian security. They focused almost entirely on the German question, which they saw as the key Russian interest. Since their thinking was displayed not just in communications to other powers but also in secret internal memorandums there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of their views.
Both Alexander and Nesselrode were convinced that if Napoleon continued to control most of Germany there could be no true European balance of power and no security for Prussia, Austria or Russia. They believed that if Austria only regained Illyria it would still be at Napoleon’s mercy. At a minimum it needed to get back Tyrol, the fortress of Mantua and a strategically defensible frontier in northern Italy along the river Mincio. Understandably, however, the Russians left the Austrians to worry about their own salvation and concentrated on defending Prussian security. The four Austrian conditions would have left Napoleon as master of the Confederation of the Rhine, with his brother Jérôme still on the throne of the kingdom of Westphalia. He would also hold almost the whole length of the river Elbe, including all its key fortified crossings. In these circumstances ‘any hope for the independence of any part of Germany would be lost for good. Prussia would constantly be exposed to attacks which could come at any moment and against which it could only offer a feeble defence, and the Emperor Napoleon could almost at will make himself master of the Baltic coastline, so that any hope of the security of trade would be entirely illusory.’3
Nesselrode wrote to Metternich that, if peace was concluded on the basis of the four Austrian points, it would only be a truce, which would allow Napoleon sufficient time to restore his armies and then reimpose his unchallenged domination of Europe. The sine qua non for any true peace was that Prussia and Austria had to be strong enough to balance France. The stronger they were, the less likely Napoleon would be to challenge the peace settlement. Nesselrode emphasized the uniquely favourable present circumstances. For the first time since 1793 the armies of the three eastern monarchies were potentially united and concentrated for battle in the same theatre. They were superior in numbers, spirit and organization to Napoleon. ‘It would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to re-create a similar conjunction of circumstances if the present ones did not lead to a result which, after so many efforts and sacrifices, did not erect powerful barriers against France.’ If peace was made on the Austrian terms, history would repeat itself. After a short breathing space Napoleon would once again confront Austria and Prussia, who would be too weak and exhausted successfully to resist him. As in the past, the issue would be resolved before Russia’s distant armies could come to her allies’ aid.4
The Treaty of Reichenbach between Austria, Russia and Prussia signed on 27 June set out the four minimal Austrian conditions and guaranteed that Austria would enter the war unless Napoleon had accepted them by the expiry of the armistice on 20 July. The allies made it clear to Metternich, however, that although they would enter negotiations on this basis they would only sign a peace if it included other terms which would end Napoleon’s domination of Germany and guarantee Prussian security. Relations between Austria and the allies reached their lowest ebb when Metternich returned from discussions with Napoleon in Dresden and imposed an extension of the armistice until 10 August. Some of the loudest denunciations of this extension came from Baron Stein. In his case the normal allied view that Austrian peace terms were inadequate was enhanced by fierce disagreement with Metternich about the war’s ultimate goals. Stein wanted a reborn and more united German confederation with a constitution guaranteeing civil and political rights. He appealed to German nationalist feeling to achieve this. Since April 1813, however, Stein’s influence with Alexander had been in decline as Germany failed to revolt against Napoleon and the allies’ need for Austrian assistance became more pressing. Now he attempted to strike back, claiming that Metternich was pulling the wool over allied eyes and that with half a million Russians, Prussians and Swedes ready to take the field against 360,000 enemy troops Austrian help was probably unnecessary anyway. Previously he had supported Nesselrode because the latter shared Stein’s view that Russia should commit herself wholeheartedly to the liberation of Germany from Napoleon. Now, however, he called Nesselrode Metternich’s dupe, a well-meaning but empty weakling.5
In reality Nesselrode was right and Stein was wrong. The allies could not have driven Napoleon out of Germany without Austrian help. At the very moment when Stein was writing these denunciations Metternich was moving quietly to swing Austria towards the allied camp. With peace negotiations now in the offing, Metternich wrote to Francis II that it was essential that he and the emperor were in complete agreement as to future policy. The peace negotiations might have three outcomes. The two sides might agree terms, in which case Austria need only rejoice. Metternich did not need to spell out to Francis how unlikely this outcome was, since the Austrians were well aware how far apart the opposing sides were as regards acceptable peace terms. A second and somewhat likelier possibility was that Napoleon would accept the Austrian minimal terms and the allies would reject them. Metternich wrote that Austria could not determine in advance what to do in this event since to some extent it would depend on contexts and circumstances. Under no circumstances could it side with France, however, and the defeat or dissolution of the allied coalition would be a great threat to Austrian security. Armed neutrality might be a short-term option but it would be very difficult to sustain for any length of time and the only other alternative would be to join the allies.
Metternich’s memorandum concentrated, however, on the third and likeliest possibility, which was that Napoleon would reject the Austrian terms. In that case Metternich’s unequivocal advice was that Austria must declare war. He concluded his memorandum with a question: ‘Can I count on Your Majesty’s firmness in the event that Napoleon does not accept Austria’s conditions for peace? Is Your Majesty resolutely determined in that case to entrust a just cause to the decision of arms – both those of Austria and of the whole of the rest of united Europe?’6
Francis responded that any decent man must desire stable and lasting peace and that this was all the more true for a sovereign like himself who bore responsibility for the well-being of ‘his good subjects’ and their ‘beautiful lands’. No greed for territory or other advantages could justify war. But he trusted Metternich’s judgement: ‘To a great extent I have you to thank for the present excellent political situation of my monarchy.’ Therefore he agreed with his foreign minister’s conclusions. In the event that Napoleon accepted Austria’s terms and the allies rejected them he would await Metternich’s advice. If Napoleon rejected the Austrian terms then the monarchy would declare war on France.7
In the end therefore everything depended on Napoleon and he played into the allies’ hands. The French representatives at the Prague peace conference arrived late and without powers to negotiate terms. Nothing could have done more to confirm Austrian suspicions that Napoleon was merely playing for time and had no interest in peace. Not until two days before the armistice was due to expire did Napoleon make a serious diplomatic move. On 8 August Caulaincourt, one of the two French delegates to the peace conference, visited Metternich’s quarters to enquire what price Austria required to stay neutral or join the French camp. Not until the day after the armistice expired did the French provide Metternich with a response to the four minimal peace conditions set out by Austria. Napoleon agreed to abandon the Poles and hand over much of Illyria to Austria. He conceded nothing as regards the north German ports, rejected Prussian annexation of Danzig, and required compensation for the King of Saxony to make up for the fact that he had lost his position as Duke of Warsaw. These conditions would never have satisfied Metternich and by now it was in any case too late. Austria had closed the peace conference and now declared war on France.
Ever since August 1813 most historians, French ones included, have condemned Napoleon’s ineptitude in failing to use diplomacy to divide the allies and keep Austria neutral. Even the inadequate concessions presented to Metternich on 11 August might have made an impact on Francis II if put forward as a first move at the beginning of the peace conference. There was room to exploit differences in Austrian and Russo-Prussian war aims, as regards both German and Polish territories. If the peace conference could be extended to include Britain, Napoleon’s chances of sowing dissension must improve further. All the continental powers resented the fact that, while their territories had been occupied and ravaged, the United Kingdom had remained inviolate and become seemingly ever richer. They hoped to achieve territorial concessions by Napoleon in Europe in return for British willingness to hand back French colonies.
Nevertheless, even if Napoleon erred in not using diplomacy more skilfully to explore potential splits among his enemies, it is possible to understand his point of view in the summer of 1813. Refusal seriously to explore peace terms was much less obvious a blunder than his initial agreement to the armistice. The French monarch feared that once he began making concessions the allies would raise their demands. He was correct: the Russians and Prussians intended to do just this. The concessions he was being urged to make in north Germany might conceivably be acceptable in the context of a general peace which would include the return of French colonies, but Napoleon could hardly be expected to concede these territories in a continental peace and thereby find himself naked when he had to bargain later with the British.
A fundamental issue underlay all these peace negotiations. The allies, and indeed Austria, wanted to restore something approaching a balance of power in continental Europe. Napoleon was committed to French empire or at least hegemony. His defenders might plausibly assert that unless he preserved some version of French dominion on the continent he had lost his war with Britain and the vastly powerful maritime empire which it had created. Napoleon’s basic problem was that although the continental powers resented the British version of empire, the French version was a much more direct threat to their interests. No amount of clever diplomacy could alter this. The only way in which Napoleon could get the continental powers to accept his empire was by re-creating their terror of French military power, which the disaster of 1812 had undermined. This was not an impossible task in August 1813. Napoleon had good reason to believe that he could defeat the Russians, Prussians and Austrians because the chances were very evenly matched. This adds to the drama of the autumn 1813 campaign.
In numerical terms Napoleon’s forces were inferior to the allies but not greatly so. The Russian and Prussian official histories put allied numbers in Germany at the beginning of the autumn campaign at just over half a million. Napoleon himself reckoned in early August that he could put 400,000 men in the field, not counting Davout’s corps at Hamburg, which was subsequently able to detach 28,000 men from garrison duties for an offensive against Berlin. On 6 August his chief of staff reported 418,000 men in the ranks. Exact numbers available for action on the battlefield are impossible to calculate for either side: roughly speaking, however, in the first two months of the campaign Napoleon could put rather more than four men in the field to every five allies. It was fortunate for the allies that 57,000 French troops were facing Wellington in the Pyrenees and another small corps under Marshal Suchet was still attempting to hold Catalonia.8
After two months the odds would shift somewhat towards the allies. The only reinforcements Napoleon could expect were Augereau’s small corps which was forming in Bavaria. There were dangers in moving Augereau forward, since this made it easier for Bavaria to switch sides, which is what happened in October. To some extent the Russians faced a similar dilemma in the Duchy of Warsaw, where Bennigsen’s Army of Poland was both a strategic reserve and an occupation force. In the Russian case, however, it was possible to move Lobanov-Rostovsky’s Reserve Army into the Duchy to replace Bennigsen’s 60,000 troops when they set off for Saxony. A steady flow of Austrian recruits also joined Schwarzenberg’s army in September and October. In addition, once one began looking beyond the 1813 campaign it was clear that Austria and Russia had greater reserves of untapped manpower than Napoleon, especially if he was forced to rely just on France’s own population. Napoleon’s best chance of defeating the allies would therefore come in the first two months of the autumn campaign. This thought is unlikely to have worried the French emperor. After all, most of his great victories had been won in less time than this.
They had been won by better soldiers than he commanded in August 1813, however. Above all, Napoleon remained very inferior to the allies in cavalry. His mounted arm had improved considerably during the armistice, chiefly in terms of numbers. Some good cavalry regiments subsequently arrived from Spain. The Guards cavalry was mostly competent, as were the Polish and some of the German regiments. But the bulk of Napoleon’s French cavalry was still well inferior to the Russian reserves formed by Kologrivov, not to speak of the veteran Russian cavalrymen. In addition, all sources agree that the cavalry was the best arm of the Austrian army. The situation as regards artillery was if anything the opposite. French equipment was much less cumbersome than Austrian guns and caissons. The Prussian artillery was so weak that the Russians had to second some of their own batteries to a number of Prussian divisions in order to give them sufficient firepower. The Prussian general staff history concluded that French artillery officers were usually more skilful than their allied counterparts. The main allied advantage as regards artillery was numerical. If they could concentrate their three field armies and Bennigsen’s Army of Poland on a single battlefield, the weight of their firepower should be overwhelming.9
The majority of both the allied and the Napoleonic infantry were recruits, most of whom had never seen action before August 1813. The French conscripts were younger than their allied peers, but on the other hand many of them had experienced the spring campaign, which was true neither of the Austrians nor of the Prussian Landwehr. The Russian reserves were also going into action for the first time but at least in their case they had enjoyed plenty of time to train and were usually very tough and resilient. Above all, however, the Russian infantry contained more veterans than its French counterpart. This meant not just the men who had served throughout the 1812 and spring 1813 campaigns, but also many thousands of veterans who returned to their regiments during the armistice from hospitals and detached duties. Not surprisingly, the Guards contained exceptionally large number of veterans. The Guards regiments had not seen action in the spring 1813 campaign, and many of them had received drafts of veteran troops from regiments of the line. During the armistice, for example, from Osten-Sacken’s Army Corps the Belostok Regiment provided 200 veterans for the Lithuania (Litovsky) Guards and the Iaroslavl Regiment lost 94 to the Izmailovskys.10
The choice of Sacken’s corps to provide cadres for the Guards was not an accident because his regiments contained exceptional numbers of veterans. A closer look at his units gives a good sense of the Russian infantry’s rather diverse make-up in the autumn campaign.
Sacken commanded two infantry divisions, Dmitrii Neverovsky’s 27th and Johann von Lieven’s 10th. We have already encountered Neverovsky’s men in the 1812 campaign. His regiments were all newly created just before the war began and were made up mostly from soldiers in garrison regiments. In 1812 they had performed magnificently. When Alexander met Neverovsky for the first time in 1813 he told him: ‘Your division fought gloriously and I will never forget its service or yours.’ Glory came at a very high price. When the Odessa Regiment left Vilna in December 1812, for instance, it had only 4 officers, 11 NCOs and 119 men in its ranks, having suffered more than 1,500 casualties in the 1812 campaign. The 27th Division had been so shattered that it was left behind to recuperate in Lithuania in the spring of 1813, only rejoining the army during the armistice. Neverovsky scrounged new uniforms and equipment for his men while they were in the rear, but finding reinforcements proved much harder. The experience of the Odessa Regiment was typical of the whole division. The overwhelming majority of the regiment’s sick and wounded were in hospitals in Russia and Belorussia. Those who recovered were sent to join Lobanov’s Reserve Army. Ultimately the Odessa Regiment received its share of reserve companies from Lobanov, but on the eve of the autumn campaign it still contained only 21 officers, 31 NCOs and 544 men. Roughly half these last were new recruits.11
Lieven’s 10th Division was very different. His regiments were drawn from Chichagov’s Army of the Danube. All of them had campaigned in the Balkans before 1812. Some of them had remained in reserve, guarding fortresses and frontiers in 1812 and the first half of 1813. None had experienced anything like the appalling casualties suffered by the main army’s regiments at Borodino, during the pursuit of Napoleon from Moscow to the Berezina, and at Lutzen and Bautzen. On 1 June 1813 the three infantry regiments of Lieven’s division for which records remain (the Iaroslavl, Kursk and Belostok regiments) had 120 officers, 253 NCOs and 3,179 men present in their ranks. The overwhelming majority of these men were veterans, many of whom had fought in the wars of Paul and of Catherine II. In the whole course of 1812, for instance, the Belostok Regiment received only fifty new recruits. To be sure, both the Belostok and Iaroslavl regiments lost men to the Guards in the summer of 1813 but not enough seriously to damage their quality. Even in wartime the Guards seem to have picked men in part because of their appearance, though no doubt they avoided anyone with a bad record. Of the 94 men chosen by the Izmailovsky Guards from the Iaroslavl Regiment, for example, only 39 were from the elite grenadiers and sharpshooters.12
Above all, the Guards took none of Lieven’s NCOs and it was around this body of veterans that formidable fighting regiments were built and preserved. In the Kursk Regiment the 23 sergeant-majors (fel’dfebeli) and quartermaster-sergeants (kaptenarmusy) in the ranks had served on average sixteen years in the army and almost thirteen in the regiment. The twenty-five most senior sergeants (unterofitsery) had been in the regiment for an average of eighteen years. The Belostok Regiment had been created only in 1807 but all but one of its twelve sergeant-majors had been in its ranks since then. The regimental sergeant-major, Boris Vasilev, aged 33, was a soldier’s son. He had joined the Kronstadt Garrison Regiment as a drummer aged only 13 and became a company sergeant-major ten years later. Along with many other men from the Kronstadt Regiment, Vasilev was transferred to the newly created Belostok Regiment in 1807. He won a Military Medal four years later at the siege of Rushchuk in the Balkans. Still quite youthful but already very experienced, he was a competent, literate manager in peacetime but also a soldier with a fine combat record: to the extent that one can judge from the bare facts of his official record, he epitomized everything a regimental commander could desire in his senior sergeant-major.
In addition to its veteran NCOs, the Belostok Regiment also had a surprisingly large number of officers of lower-class origin, most though by no means all of whom were soldiers’ sons, and all of whom became officers well before the 1812 campaign began. These men too were hardened veterans. Lieutenant Nikolai Shevyrev, for example, had served fifteen years in a garrison regiment before becoming a sergeant-major, and had joined the Belostok Regiment as it was forming and just after he had been promoted to officer rank. Men such as Vasilev and Shevyrev were worthy opponents of the promoted rankers who packed the junior-officer and NCO ranks of Napoleon’s army in 1812. By August 1813, however, there can have been very few French units in Germany able to match the veteran cadres of the Kursk and Belostok regiments.13
Though his army was inferior to the allies in both numbers and quality, in other respects Napoleon enjoyed key advantages. As he himself pointed out to Count Bubna, Metternich’s envoy, interior lines combined with a clear chain of command and his own undisputed leadership were very valuable in themselves. When opposed to a coalition made up of equal great powers with diverse interests, and with armies deployed in a huge semicircle from Berlin in the north to Silesia in the east and Bohemia in the south, these advantages ought to be decisive. In his memoirs, Eugen of Württemberg wrote that in August 1813 he had been optimistic about allied victory but having discovered after the war how disunited and conflict-ridden the allied leadership had been he was now very surprised by ultimate allied success.14
The allied commander-in-chief was the Austrian field-marshal, Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. Before 1813 Schwarzenberg had shown himself to be a skilful ambassador and a competent and courageous commander of a division. His record of commanding larger units had been less impressive. Nothing in his personality or career suggested that he was a match for Napoleon as the commander of a huge army. Schwarzenberg was a patient, tactful, kind and honourable man. He believed in the allied cause and served it unselfishly and to the best of his ability. A grand seigneur, he had the manners and the lack of personal ambition appropriate to his status. In the manner of an Eisenhower, he could absorb and defuse conflicts between the many ambitious and aggressive personalities over whom he exercised command. Of course, the aristocratic Schwarzenberg was fluent in French, the lingua franca of the allied high command. As commander-in-chief, however, he was hampered by his lack of confidence in his own military ability, his awe of Napoleon, and the immense difficulty of commanding a coalition army of equal great powers, two of whose sovereigns insisted on travelling with his headquarters and second-guessing his decisions. Though he often found Alexander very difficult to handle, Schwarzenberg on the whole liked him. He echoed the consensus that the Russian monarch was ‘good but weak’. Frederick William III on the contrary was ‘a coarse, churlish and insensitive person whom I dislike as much as I value the poor, valiant Prussians’.15
For all his inadequacies, Schwarzenberg was the best man available for the post of commander-in-chief. The supreme commander had to be an Austrian, not a Russian. This reflected allied dependence on Austria in August 1813 as well as the fact that the largest allied army was deployed on Austrian territory. Even if the Austrians had been willing – which was far from the case – Alexander himself would never have accepted the job. Had he wished to be the supreme military commander, the position was his for the asking after Kutuzov’s death in April 1813. Some of his generals urged him to take personal command then but Alexander was far too lacking in confidence in his military abilities to agree. Instead he preferred to operate from behind the shoulder of the actual commander-in-chief, to the latter’s acute discomfort.
The emperor treated Schwarzenberg with more respect than he had Wittgenstein. At the beginning of the autumn campaign, for example, one even finds him telling Wittgenstein to obey Schwarzenberg’s orders when they conflicted with Alexander’s own commands. Quite soon, however, confidence in the supreme commander began to fade and old habits to some extent returned. Schwarzenberg quickly learned that the only way to guarantee that Russian commanders would actually execute his orders was to consult in advance the emperor’s representative at allied headquarters, Karl von Toll, and on any major matters to get Alexander’s own approval. Inevitably this delayed and blurred decision-making to a degree which could have proved fatal.16
Consulting Alexander and Frederick William entailed listening to the opinions of their military advisers. In Alexander’s case this meant above all Barclay de Tolly, Diebitsch and Toll. Always inclined to trust foreign ‘military professors’, Alexander now found a partial substitute for Pfühl in Major-General Antoine de Jomini, one of the most respected military writers of the time, who had deserted from Napoleon’s army during the armistice. Alexander put even more trust in Napoleon’s old rival General Moreau, who had defeated the Austrians at Hohenlinden in 1800 and whom he had invited into his entourage from American exile. For Schwarzenberg and his Austrian staff officers it was bad enough having to listen to the allied monarchs and their Russian and Prussian generals. Having to defer to Moreau and Jomini was the final straw. The commander-in-chief wrote to his wife about the frustrations of being ‘surrounded by weaklings, fops of every sort, creators of eccentric schemes, intriguers, idiots, chatterers and fault-finders’. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky commented in his diary that allied decision-making was sometimes akin to the deliberations of a popular assembly, quite unlike the clear-cut system of command which had existed – in his rather idealized memory – at Kutuzov’s headquarters in 1812.17
If Schwarzenberg’s power over the main army – the so-called Army of Bohemia – was conditional, it was almost non-existent as regards the two other allied armies. The Army of the North was commanded by Bernadotte and was deployed around Berlin. As the de facto sovereign of a large, independent country Bernadotte had to be given command of one of the armies and would be very difficult for any commander-in-chief to control. In so far as anyone at the main army headquarters could influence Bernadotte’s actions, it was Alexander to whom the Swedish crown prince to some extent deferred. In any case, the whole area between Schwarzenberg’s and Bernadotte’s armies was held by Napoleon, so messengers between the two headquarters generally made a huge detour to the east and took many days to shuttle back and forth. Even Schwarzenberg’s attempts to control General Blücher, the commander of the Army of Silesia, bore little fruit. By delay and by appealing to Alexander and Frederick William the Prussian general successfully resisted all the commander-in-chief’s many efforts to draw the Army of Silesia into Bohemia in order to cover the main army’s right flank. At least in the Army of Bohemia Schwarzenberg could give direct orders to the 120,000 men who formed its Austrian contingent. In the Army of Silesia and the Army of the North, however, there were no Austrian troops.
In principle, allied movements were supposed to follow the plan agreed at Trachenberg between 10 and 12 July by the Russians, Prussians and Swedes. The plan stated grandly that ‘all the allied armies are to act offensively: the enemy camp will be the point at which they will join’. If Napoleon advanced against any one of the allied armies, the other two were to attack his rear. Only the Army of Silesia was explicitly ordered to avoid battle with Napoleon, above all because in early July the allied planners believed that it would only be 50,000 strong. The chief architect of the Trachenberg plan was Toll: although still-neutral Austria could not participate in the Trachenberg war-planning conference, he had travelled to Austrian headquarters for lengthy discussions with Schwarzenberg and Radetsky, who agreed with the Trachenberg plan’s principles. Austrian caution did subsequently modify the plan in one respect: all allied armies were now enjoined to avoid battle against Napoleon himself unless the other allied armies were able to join in.18
In many ways the Trachenberg plan made good sense. Napoleon was in Germany and the only way to remove him was by a coordinated offensive of all the allied armies. Avoiding a battle between any one allied army and Napoleon’s main forces under his personal command was also sensible. Whether it was achievable was another matter. An army which invaded Saxony and then retreated in the face of Napoleon’s counter-movements would be doing a great deal of exhausting marching. Avoiding battle with Napoleon on your tail was anyway easier said than done. The Russian army would probably have the skill in rearguard actions and the endurance to sustain this strategy. Whether the Austrian army or the Prussian Landwehr could do so was a moot point. In the absence of radio or telephones it was in any case impossible to coordinate the concentric movements of three armies in anything but the barest outlines. Some armies were bound to move more quickly than others. As the allies closed in, Napoleon’s chances of using his central position to strike one and hold off the others for a few crucial days would improve. The personalities of the three allied commanders added to this likelihood. Blücher was bold, aggressive and much inclined to take risks. He had no fear of Napoleon. Schwarzenberg and Bernadotte were the exact opposite in all respects.
At the beginning of the campaign Alexander seems to have had high hopes that Bernadotte would mount a vigorous offensive. Perhaps he was seduced by his respect for foreign, and above all Napoleonic, generals. In a letter to Bernadotte of 21 August, for example, he held out the prospect that with Napoleon seemingly moving eastwards the Swedish crown prince could storm into his rear, taking Dresden and Leipzig, occupying the defiles into Bohemia, and even dispatching light forces westwards to encourage the confederation of the Rhine princes to abandon their alliance with Napoleon. In fact, however, there was nothing in Bernadotte’s past to suggest that he might be willing or able to carry out such grandiose offensive operations. Over the years he had shown himself to be an excellent administrator and a skilful politician but nothing more than a competent, if cautious, general.19
Bernadotte was also operating under serious constraints, some of them political. The Swedish elites who had offered him their crown had done so in the expectation that this would improve relations with Napoleon and maybe help their planned revenge against Russia. Instead Bernadotte had led Sweden into alliance with Alexander, abandoning what seemed a golden opportunity to regain Finland in the process. To justify this policy, Bernadotte had to deliver on his promise to take Norway from the Danish king in compensation. In one sense this bound him to the allies, because Napoleon would never agree to robbing his Danish ally. Allied victory was a necessary but far from sufficient condition as regards grabbing Norway for Sweden, however. Apart from anything else, this was a minor issue for the allied great powers. They would be very slow to commit their own troops against Denmark. Bernadotte would also be well advised to have Norway firmly in his grasp before the horse-trading began at a post-war peace conference. All this helps to explain why the crown prince was so determined to keep his Swedish corps intact during the autumn campaign. There was also a simpler reason. Of all the allied troops the Swedes were probably the worst. If their infantry got into serious combat with the French there was every chance they would be badly mauled. The likely result would be that Bernadotte would return to Sweden with no Norway and half an army. In that case his chances of gaining the throne on the king’s death would probably be slim.20
The Army of the North also faced a strategic dilemma. If Napoleon advanced against Blücher or Schwarzenberg at the beginning of the campaign both had room to retreat. Schwarzenberg, for example, could move back on to his supply bases, fortresses and good defensive positions in central and southern Bohemia. With the two other allied armies and a horde of light cavalry moving into his rear there were strict limits to how long Napoleon could pursue either Blücher or Schwarzenberg.
Bernadotte’s army on the other hand was deployed right in front of Berlin. He himself might wish to retreat towards his own Swedish bases on the Baltic coastline but if he abandoned Berlin without a struggle he would face revolt from his Prussian generals, whose troops constituted the biggest contingent in his army. Bernadotte knew this and therefore planned to beat off any French attack on Berlin. His nervousness was increased by his conviction that seizing the Prussian capital would be Napoleon’s first priority. He was actually not far wrong: Napoleon was obsessed by Berlin and directed two offensives against it, led by marshals Oudinot and Ney, in the first month of the war. Had the initial battles with the armies of Bohemia and Silesia gone successfully, Napoleon’s next move would have been to move northwards against Bernadotte with his Guards and the bulk of his other reserves.21
The armies of Silesia and Bohemia were in a safer position than Bernadotte so long as they stood on the defensive. If Napoleon was to be driven out of Germany they could not do this for long, however. Once they invaded Napoleon’s base in central Saxony they also would be vulnerable. In Schwarzenberg’s case his troops would have to cross the Erzgebirge, in other words the mountain range that ran along the whole length of the Saxon–Bohemian frontier. The only two decent roads from Bohemia across the Erzgebirge were the highways to Dresden and Leipzig. As they crossed the range these were 100 kilometres apart. If Schwarzenberg spread his advancing columns across both highways and the mountain paths between them, there was a chance that Napoleon would pounce on one of his flanks before the rest of the army could come to his aid. Rapid lateral movement across the steep valleys and along the winding mountain paths of the Erzgebirge was difficult even for messengers, let alone large bodies of troops. On the other hand, if Schwarzenberg tried to concentrate most of his army on just one highway, logistical problems would mount and his columns would move very slowly. That would increase the possibility of Napoleon pouncing on the leading divisions of the allied army while the rest of Schwarzenberg’s army was crawling forward in a long crocodile across the mountains.22
If Blücher’s army was to invade central Saxony it had to cross the Elbe. All the fortified crossings were in Napoleon’s hands, which meant that only he could move his troops across the river rapidly and in full security. The only way for Blücher to cross was by building pontoon bridges. For this he depended on his Russian pontoon companies, who did an outstanding job in getting the Army of Silesia across first the Elbe and later the Rhine. Their bridges were distinctly ramshackle affairs. A senior Russian staff officer in Blücher’s army recalled that ‘these bridges, which only lay a couple of feet above the surface of the water, had to be crossed with great care. They moved up and down all the time, horses had to be led, and any damage to the tarpaulin of one of the barges could immediately sink it.’ Once the army had crossed the river, either it dismantled the bridge and abandoned its communications or it had to construct field fortifications to protect the bridgeheads. The latter could never be as strong as permanent fortresses and therefore required much bigger garrisons. An army crossed such bridges much more slowly than over a permanent structure. It therefore had a higher chance of being caught by the enemy while moving across a river. The nightmare for any commander was to be forced to cross such a bridge in a hurry with Napoleon on his tail. True disaster loomed if the weather then turned against them, damaged the pontoons or made the bridge impossible to cross.23
Inevitably, to see things just from the allied perspective is to forget that Napoleon too faced serious problems. By standing on the defensive in Saxony with a large army he doomed his men, and above all his horses, to hunger. The marches and counter-marches imposed by the allied Trachenberg strategy exhausted Napoleon’s young conscripts. The hostility of the local population and, above all, his great inferiority in light cavalry made it difficult to gather intelligence. His main base at Dresden, on which his army’s supply of food, ammunition and fodder greatly depended, was inadequately fortified and only one day’s march from the Austrian border. Odeleben, still in Napoleon’s headquarters, relates these and other problems and recalls that Napoleon’s great aim and hope in the autumn campaign was to pounce on allied mistakes. This hope was realistic given the theatre of operations, the problems of coalition warfare, and the failings of the allied commanders.24
Telling the story of the first weeks of the autumn 1813 campaign in Germany is complicated by the fact that fighting occurred on three distinct fronts. The main army under Schwarzenberg in the south, Blücher’s Army of Silesia in the east and Bernadotte’s Army of the North in front of Berlin operated independently and it is necessary to follow each of their campaigns in turn for the sake of clarity. Only after the first half of the autumn campaign was concluded and the three allied armies advanced into Saxony towards Leipzig is it possible to tell the story of the campaign as a single integrated narrative.
Predictably, of the three allied army commanders it was Blücher who was off to the quickest start after the expiry of the armistice. In fact, thundering that ‘it’s time to finish with diplomatic buffoonery’, he went into action even before hostilities were supposed to start.25 Egged on by Barclay, he seized as an excuse minor French infractions of the armistice terms and invaded the neutral zone between the opposing armies in Silesia on 13 August. This move made sense. In a province exhausted by the presence of two big armies in June and July 1813 the neutral zone around Breslau stood out because its harvest had barely yet been tapped. This was a prize worth cornering for oneself and denying to the enemy.
More important, Blücher’s move seized the initiative and forced Napoleon to respond to allied movements rather than himself dictating events. The advance of the Army of Silesia, for example, diverted Napoleon’s attention from Barclay’s columns of Russian and Prussian troops, which at this time were marching south-westwards to join Schwarzenberg’s army in Bohemia. Had the French attacked these columns while they were strung out on the march the consequences could have been serious. In addition, by seizing the initiative Blücher caught the French forces opposite him by surprise and pushed them right back out of the neutral zone and all the way over the river Bober. Blücher advanced with Sacken’s Army Corps of 18,000 Russian troops on his right, Yorck’s 38,000 Prussians in the centre and Langeron’s 40,000 Russians on his left.
Count Alexandre de Langeron, the senior Russian officer in Blücher’s army, was one of the many French émigrés in Russian service. His first experience of battle had been in the American War of Independence. He had joined the Russian army besieging the Ottoman fortress of Izmail in 1790, partly out of a sense of adventure but also, so it was whispered, to escape the consequences of a duel with a bishop. Langeron won the respect of the Russians by the courage and enterprise he showed during the siege and he remained in Russian service for the rest of his life. The first time Langeron saw Paris in many years was when his troops stormed the heights of Montmartre outside the city’s gates in March 1814. He worked his way up the army’s ranks, fighting mostly against the Turks but also at Austerlitz, where his less than brilliant performance excited Alexander’s anger and almost cost him his career. Subsequently Langeron had regained favour through his performance against the Turks, but few people doubted that the count was a competent rather than a brilliant general.26
Langeron cut something of a strange figure in Blücher’s Russo-
Prussian army. He was very much the southern Frenchman, dark in complexion with black eyes and hair. He had the charm, the wit and the conversation of the Old Regime Parisian salons. He wrote tragedies and songs. Extremely absent-minded, he loved word-games, puzzles and charades. At times he would march up and down, his head down, his hands behind his back, lost in his thoughts and riddles. On the battlefield, however, he was calm and imposing and had a good eye for terrain. He had learned to speak a fluent and voluble Russian but in a weird accent that was often incomprehensible to his soldiers. Nevertheless he was well liked by the men and the admiration was mutual. One of his most endearing characteristics was his enormous admiration for the courage, decency and self-sacrifice of the ordinary Russian soldiers whom – as he always put it – he had the great honour to command. Perhaps there was in this a touch of the colonial officer, who far preferred the doughty native peasantry to the vulgar and pushy bourgeois back at home. But Langeron was also generous, even chivalrous, to his officers, quick to give praise to others and often critical about himself.
As the senior Russian officer in Blücher’s army, however, Langeron had some responsibility for good relations between the Russian and Prussian troops and their commanders. This presented problems. Langeron spoke no German and Blücher had not a word of French or Russian. Communications went through Blücher’s chief of staff, Gneisenau, in the French language. Like most Frenchmen of his day, Langeron thought Germans were rather a joke, once commenting that ‘the heaviness, the stiff formality, the slow imagination of this nation and their uncouthness do not make them agreeable to other people’. Gneisenau hated the French even more than Langeron disliked the Germans. In addition, Blücher’s chief of staff was something of a radical, who dreamed of arousing the German people to the same level of nationalist frenzy which had seized France in the Revolution. A Frenchman with similar inclinations he would have hated but understood; an émigré count fighting against his own nation was a different matter.27
The command structure of the Army of Silesia in fact had the potential for disaster. Sacken and Blücher could at least communicate in German.
In time they came to admire each other’s qualities. Their good relations were an unanticipated blessing, however, because Sacken was a sharp-tongued and short-tempered man with a poor reputation as a subordinate. Even so, in comparison with Yorck he was an angel. The Prussian corps commander thought Blücher was an idiot and the much younger Gneisenau a mere theoretician of war and a dangerous radical. The fact that he was subordinated to this pair was an obvious disgrace to merit and common sense. It was with these senior commanders that the Army of Silesia woke up on 21 August to the fact that it now faced Napoleon himself, his Guards and the core of his reserves, which had raced up to support the corps retreating before Blücher’s forces.
Blücher reacted in accordance with the Trachenberg plan. His corps retreated and refused to become engaged in a major battle. As one might by now expect, the Russians did this with cool professionalism. On the right wing, outside Bunzlau, Sacken waited calmly for the five hours that it took the corps of Ney, Marmont and Sebastiani to deploy against him. Then he left it to the disciplined skill of Lieven’s infantry and Ilarion Vasilchikov’s horsemen to mount a rearguard action that frustrated the enemy commanders and kept the French at a respectful distance. In the Belostok Regiment alone ten soldiers won military medals for their calmness, courage and skill in the rearguard action at Bunzlau on 21 August. The infantry was helped enormously by the fact that Vasilchikov was one of the ablest light cavalry commanders in Europe and his regiments were far superior in every way to the horsemen of General Sebastiani’s French Second Cavalry Corps, by whom they were opposed.28
On the other wing of Blücher’s army Langeron’s rearguard also performed well under heavy pressure. Its cavalry was ably commanded by General Georgii Emmanuel, the son of a Serbian colonist in southern Russia. The overall commander of the rearguard was Aleksandr Rudzevich, a Crimean Tatar who had been baptized into the Orthodox Church at the age of 12. In principle, Rudzevich, a trained staff officer, was Langeron’s chief of staff. In fact, however, Langeron used his quartermaster-general, Colonel Paul Neidhardt, in this role and employed Rudzevich as his troubleshooter wherever the going was toughest. He wrote in his memoirs that Rudzevich, unique in his combination of staff training and long combat experience in the Caucasus, was much the ablest general in his Army Corps. For once, Blücher and Gneisenau agreed wholeheartedly with Langeron’s opinion. Gneisenau wrote to the Prussian chancellor, Hardenberg, that on 21 August Rudzevich’s rearguard risked being cut off by very superior enemy forces. Many generals would have lost their balance and judgement in so dangerous a position but Rudzevich had reacted with intelligence, calm and courage, pushing the French back and getting his men across the river Bober under their noses.29
How the Prussian troops, and above all the Landwehr, would cope with mounting a rearguard action against Napoleon was more uncertain. In fact the Prussians fought with courage and discipline in the four-day retreat back from the river Bober to behind the river Katzbach, where Blücher’s advance had commenced only eight days before. The Army of Silesia’s marches and counter-marches exhausted the troops, however, and in particular the Prussian militia. The 6th Silesian Landwehr Regiment, for example, was 2,000 strong when Blücher’s advance began; eight days later it had melted down to just 700 men. Above all, this was due to the speed of the army’s advance and subsequent retreat. In addition, it took time for Blücher’s staff to get into their stride: the Army of Silesia had after all only come together on the very eve of the campaign. In the retreat from the Bober to the Katzbach columns sometimes crossed or got entangled in baggage trains. Night marches were a particular source of exhaustion to Yorck’s corps.
Given the personalities involved, it was inevitable that tempers would explode. After a furious argument with Blücher, Yorck sent in his resignation to Frederick William III, noting that ‘it may be that my limited abilities do not enable me to understand the brilliant conceptions by which General Blücher is guided’.30 Blücher’s worst problems were with Langeron. Though personalities played a part, a more basic issue was their main cause. When the Trachenberg plan was originally devised, of the three allied groupings the only one explicitly urged to caution was the Army of Silesia. This was because at that time it seemed that this army would be only 50,000 strong. By the beginning of the campaign its numbers had actually doubled but Blücher’s instructions from the monarchs still urged him to avoid major battles. Blücher promptly responded that, if these were his orders, then the allies needed to find an alternative commander more suited to caution. Barclay and Diebitsch replied, no doubt in the monarchs’ name, that of course no one could stop the commander of 100,000 men from seizing whatever opportunities presented themselves. On this assurance Blücher accepted the command.31
Langeron was informed of Blücher’s initial instructions but not of the manner in which they had been changed by Barclay and Diebitsch. It is possible that this was an oversight amidst the frantic last-minute preparations to move Barclay’s force into Bohemia. It is also possible that it was a deliberate ploy by Alexander to use Langeron to check Blücher. There is no doubt that the emperor remained very nervous about where Blücher’s aggressive nature would lead. After receiving the news of the Army of Silesia’s initial advance to the Bober, for instance, he wrote to Blücher that ‘your recent battles which have been so glorious must not lead you to involve yourself in a full-scale engagement’.32
Whether deliberate or accidental, the treatment of Langeron was deeply unfair to both him and Blücher. Langeron had some reason to believe that he was acting in accordance with Blücher’s instructions and Alexander’s own wishes. He also had excellent reason to fear that if Napoleon was allowed just a few more days to pursue Blücher, the latter would stand and fight, whatever the odds. The commander-in-chief might indeed have had no choice in the matter since there was a limit to how much more retreating the Landwehr regiments could take before they disintegrated. In fact Blücher himself wrote to Alexander that if need be he would stand and fight against Napoleon even if seriously outnumbered, providing he could find a strong defensive position where he could deploy his artillery to advantage. Inevitably, Blücher was furious about the many occasions during the first two weeks of the campaign when Langeron disobeyed his orders in the name of caution. By 25 August he and Gneisenau had lost all patience and were determined to get Alexander to remove the Russian general.33
Very fortunately for the Army of Silesia, the Trachenberg plan worked as intended. By 23 August it was clear to Napoleon that he could spare no more time chasing Blücher. Schwarzenberg’s army was invading Saxony and threatening the key supply base of Dresden. Turning back to confront this danger with the Guards and the corps of Marmont and Victor, Napoleon left Marshal MacDonald to cope with Blücher. Under his command would be Sebastiani’s Second Cavalry Corps and the Third, Fifth and Eleventh Infantry corps. Though Napoleon left Third Corps to MacDonald, he ordered its commander, Marshal Ney, to hand over command to General Souham and himself to take control of the army facing Bernadotte in front of Berlin.
Before departing for Dresden Napoleon ordered MacDonald to advance over the river Katzbach and drive Blücher back beyond Jauer.
After this his job was to keep the enemy pinned down in eastern Silesia, far away from the crucial theatre of operations in Saxony west of the Elbe. MacDonald ordered his men to advance over the Katzbach on 26 August. Meanwhile Blücher was immediately aware of the departure of Napoleon and much of the enemy army. He therefore ordered the Army of Silesia to resume offensive operations, beginning with an advance over the Katzbach, also planned for 26 August. The scene was set for the crucial battle which took place on that day. Neither commander expected the other to advance. The resulting confusion when the two advancing armies bumped into each other was increased because heavy rain greatly reduced visibility.
MacDonald’s army advanced on a wide front. Two of his divisions, under generals Ledru and Puthod, were deployed well to the south near Schönau and Hirschberg. Their job was to tackle the small Russian Eighth Corps commanded by Count Emmanuel de Saint-Priest, another royalist émigré and Petr Bagration’s former chief of staff, and threaten Jauer from the south-west. This move would outflank Blücher’s army and endanger its communications and its baggage, which was concentrated in and near Jauer. Meanwhile at the other end of MacDonald’s line the Third Corps, deployed near Liegnitz, was ordered to cross the Katzbach at that city and then push down the road from Liegnitz to Jauer behind the allied right flank. The remainder of MacDonald’s army, made up of his own Eleventh and Lauriston’s Fifth Corps was to advance directly over the Katzbach towards Jauer. Having detached Ledru and Puthod, these two corps only amounted to four infantry divisions but they would be supported by Sebastiani’s cavalry.
There were dangers in dispersing the French army so widely. MacDonald seems to have assumed that Blücher would be static or in retreat.
This was a very dangerous assumption when facing so aggressive an enemy. A senior Russian staff officer subsequently wrote that failure to reconnoitre the allied position was the key to the French defeat at the Katzbach. For this not just MacDonald but also the atrocious weather and the poor quality of the French cavalry was to blame.34
The terrain over which MacDonald was advancing and on which the battle was fought added to the dangers of poor reconnaissance. Roughly speaking, before the battle the two armies were divided by the river Katzbach, which flows south-westwards from Liegnitz. The French were on the north bank and the allies on the south. MacDonald’s troops crossed the river and the battle took place on the south bank between the Katzbach and Jauer. The battlefield was divided into two distinct halves by the river Wütender Neisse, which flows from Jauer and joins the Katzbach at something approaching a right angle.
The northern half of the battlefield – in other words the area north of the Wütender Neisse – was a flat and treeless plateau which falls steeply into the valleys of the Katzbach to the north-west and the Wütender Neisse to the south-west. The plateau is never more than 75 metres above the rivers but its steep and thickly forested slopes makes it impossible for anyone on the French side of the rivers to see what is happening there, even on a clear day. The roads across the Katzbach climbed on to the plateau through steep and narrow defiles, especially the one near Weinberg up which most of the French troops advanced. On a muddy or icy day this lane is troublesome even today in a car. Getting thousands of men, horses and guns up this lane in August 1813 amidst mud and driving rain was much worse. There was also a considerable danger of being surprised by what one might find on the plateau.
On 26 August 1813 the French encountered roughly 60 per cent of Blücher’s army on the plateau, in other words the whole of Yorck’s and Sacken’s army corps. Sacken was on the right, with his open flank anchored in the village of Eichholz, in which the 8th and 39th Jaegers of Johann von Lieven’s division were deployed. Beyond Eichholz to the north were Major-General Kretov’s Cossacks. To the left (i.e. south) of the village, Sacken deployed his infantry, with Neverovsky’s 27th Division in the front line and the remainder of Lieven’s 10th Division behind in reserve. Ilarion Vasilchikov’s hussar and dragoon regiments were deployed behind and just to the right of Eichholz. Between Sacken’s Army Corps and the Wütender Neisse stood Yorck’s Prussians.
Langeron’s troops were deployed in the southern half of the battlefield, in other words south of the Wütender Neisse. The ground here is very different to the plateau north of the river. It is dominated by two ridges which run from the banks of the Wütender Neisse to the wooded hills which mark the south-western border of the battlefield. These ridges provided commanding views and artillery positions. In addition, the two villages of Hennersdorff and Hermannsdorf could be turned into strong-points for Langeron’s infantry.
MacDonald’s plans began going wrong from early on 26 August. As a result of misunderstood orders Third Corps had marched away from Liegnitz on the previous day. By the time they got back to the area General Souham decided that it was too late to execute MacDonald’s order to cross the Katzbach at Liegnitz and march from there to Jauer. The main reason given by Third Corps for disobeying MacDonald’s orders was that the crossings at Liegnitz were no longer usable because of the heavy rain. This sounds dubious, because Sacken’s Russians crossed at Liegnitz on 28 August after two days of further continuous rain. Whatever the reason, on 26 August Souham decided to move his corps down the north bank of the Katzbach instead, thereby linking up with MacDonald’s main body and supporting their attack across the river.35
In principle this concentration of the French army sounds sensible. In practice, however, the narrow roads on the north bank of the Katzbach could not sustain the movement of so many men. Between the villages of Kroitsch and Nieder Crayn a massive traffic jam developed. It included Sebastiani’s cavalry, as well as artillery and baggage. Into this jam headed the four divisions of Third Corps. Only one of these divisions, General Brayer’s 8th Division, succeeded in pushing its way through this traffic jam and moving onto the plateau across the bridge and up the defile at Weinberg. Even Brayer was forced to leave all his artillery behind. MacDonald ordered the other three divisions of Third Corps to backtrack and seek to cross the river further towards Liegnitz. Two of these divisions ultimately forded the Katzbach near the village of Schmogwitz but by the time they approached the plateau the battle was over. In the end the only French units to play a role in the fight on the plateau were Brayer’s men, General Charpentier’s 36th Division of MacDonald’s corps and Sebastiani’s cavalry. Since Brayer’s artillery was stuck at Kroitsch on the wrong side of the Katzbach this force did not even have its full complement of guns. As the French were opposed by the entire army corps of both Yorck and Sacken, in other words 60 per cent of Blücher’s army, it is not at all surprising that they lost this battle.
Having given his own orders to advance across the Katzbach, Blücher was surprised to be informed at about 11 a.m. on 26 August that the French were also advancing across the river against both Langeron and Yorck. Since the picture provided by the retreating Prussian outposts was very confused, Colonel Baron von Müffling, the quartermaster-general, rode forward on his own to spy out French numbers and where they were headed. Müffling recalled that ‘I was mounted on a mouse-coloured horse, and had on a grey cloak, so that in the pouring rain I was not visible at 100 paces’. Müffling discovered French cavalry and artillery deploying on the plateau between Nieder Weinberg and Janowitz, with infantry moving up behind them in the valley near Nieder Weinberg. Informed of this situation, Blücher ordered Yorck to attack the French and Sacken to deploy artillery on the Taubenberg hill just south-west of Eichholz. The Russian artillery would distract French attention northwards and away from Yorck’s advance. They would also support the Prussian infantry as and when they made their attack. Meanwhile Sacken’s infantry would hold their position at Eichholz and watch out for possible further French columns coming onto the plateau from their right, north of Janowitz.36
At best it would take Yorck’s infantry an hour’s marching to reach the French. Meanwhile, however, long before Blücher’s orders arrived Sacken had posted Colonel Brahms’s 13th Russian Heavy Battery on the Taubenberg and had begun to bombard the French. The Taubenberg ‘hill’ is actually a very slight elevation but it commands the entire plateau north-westwards to the Katzbach and south-westwards to the Wütender Neisse. Having inspected the position allocated to his Army Corps, Sacken was far too good a general not to have spotted the Taubenberg’s advantages and acted immediately on his own initiative. Soon Brahms was joined by other Russian and Prussian batteries.
Meanwhile Yorck and Müffling had got into an argument as to how the Prussian troops were to advance. Yorck wanted them deployed in line, whereas Müffling argued that there was insufficient room for this on the plateau and that the manoeuvre would in any case waste precious time. When Blücher supported Müffling, Yorck sulkily complied and sent two of his brigades forward in column. Inevitably time was lost, but by about 3 p.m. Yorck’s men were in action against French infantry on the edge of the plateau near the defile which leads down into the river valley by Ober Weinberg. In the pouring rain few muskets would fire but after a brief hand-to-hand fight the outnumbered French infantry fled down the defile towards the river crossing. At this point some of Sebastiani’s cavalry charged the Prussians in order to rescue their infantry and allow them to disengage and re-form. With their muskets useless in the rain Yorck’s infantry were very vulnerable to cavalry, and Colonel Jurgas, commanding the Prussian reserve cavalry brigade, tried to come to their rescue. To Yorck’s rage, however, the Prussian cavalry’s attack was poorly coordinated and failed. According to Müffling, who was with Yorck all this time, there then followed a strange hiatus, lasting perhaps fifteen minutes, in which Yorck’s infantry and some 4,000 French cavalry faced each other without either quite daring to attack. Then suddenly, to Müffling’s great surprise, the French cavalry turned tail and fled down the defiles into the river valley.
The reason for their flight was that Sebastiani’s men had been attacked by Vasilchikov’s Russian cavalry. From where Sacken and Vasilchikov stood near Eichholz, the position taken up by Sebastiani and by Brayer’s infantry seemed the answer to a cavalryman’s prayer. The plateau was perfect ground for cavalry, with no ditches, walls, trees or other obstacles. Moreover, Sebastiani’s left flank was hanging in the air, open to attack. It seems that the French cavalry commander was expecting that the missing three divisions of Souham’s corps would soon be advancing through Janowitz to his support. Whatever the reason, to offer an open flank to a general of Vasilchikov’s calibre was asking for trouble. Vasilchikov sent out scouts to ensure that the villages to the north of Sebastiani’s line were not occupied by infantry and that his men would not be ambushed as they advanced. Having discovered that they were empty he advanced and attacked the French from three directions simultaneously.
The Alexandria and Mariupol Hussar regiments attacked the enemy front and were supported by a brigade of dragoons. Meanwhile the Akhtyrka and Belorussia Hussar regiments moved out behind the village of Klein Tinz and charged into Sebastiani’s flank. Between Klein Tinz and Janowitz, Vasilchikov’s Cossacks stormed into the rear of the French cavalry. The Count de Venançon, a Piedmontese émigré serving as Sacken’s quartermaster-general, wrote to Petr Volkonsky that ‘I am not exaggerating when I say that never was a manoeuvre executed with more precision and intelligence, and it was crowned with complete success because the entire enemy left flank was taken from the rear and overwhelmed’. Sebastiani’s cavalry fled down the defiles to the Katzbach, carrying with them Brayer’s infantry and abandoning all the guns that the French had succeeded in getting up to the plateau. According to French accounts, Brayer’s infantry retreated in good order and even covered the flight of Sebastiani’s cavalry. Disorder only set in when the infantrymen were forced to cross the Katzbach in the growing darkness, under enemy fire and amidst the chaos of roads blocked by carts, guns and cavalry.37
It was not until well after the rout of the rest of the French forces that two remaining divisions of Souham’s corps began to approach the battlefield from the ford at Schmogwitz. According to Russian accounts, their advance was slow and hesitant. As the French moved southwards from the ford at Schmogwitz towards the village of Schweinitz, they encountered skirmishers sent forward from Neverovsky’s 27th Division to slow them down. Skirmishing began at about seven in the evening. The bulk of Neverovsky’s and Lieven’s divisions then moved forward, supported by many batteries of allied artillery. Outnumbered, and informed of the disaster that had befallen the rest of the army, General Ricard ordered his men to retreat back over the ford at Schmogwitz. With this retreat ended the fighting on the northern half of the battlefield.38
Meanwhile a very different battle had been fought on the southern half of the battlefield, south of the Wütender Neisse. Langeron had detached Saint-Priest’s Eighth Corps to guard the approach routes to Jauer from Hirschberg and in his absence the rival forces were roughly matched. Langeron had more and better cavalry but faced superior numbers of infantry in the three French divisions deployed against him. Given the terrain, he should nevertheless have been able to hold his ground against the attacks of MacDonald, who led the French forces in person, all other things being equal.
In fact, however, they were anything but equal since Langeron appears to have been staging a fighting retreat rather than a battle. Obsessed with the threat to his left and to Jauer, Langeron put most of his effort into securing his line of retreat. Fearful that Maison’s division was seeking to push beyond his left, Langeron dispatched Kaptsevich’s Tenth Corps back to Peterwitz to guard the line of retreat to Jauer. This left him with just two small corps, Olsufev’s Ninth and Prince Shcherbatov’s Sixth, and Rudzevich’s detachment to hold off MacDonald. In his memoirs, however, Shcherbatov writes that his corps was held in reserve until late afternoon and played no part in the fighting until after 4 p.m. In addition, almost all Langeron’s heavy batteries had been dispatched to the rear in order not to block any retreat down the narrow, muddy roads. Of course, when all these detachments were added together, they gave the French overwhelming superiority on the battlefield in terms of both numbers and firepower. By late afternoon they had pushed Langeron off the heights between Hennersdorf and Schlaupe which commanded the whole southern half of the battlefield. The Russian troops fought hard but had no chance of holding on against such superior numbers.39
At this point Müffling arrived from Blücher’s headquarters, where the news that Langeron had been driven out of his strong position was greeted with scorn. In his memoirs Müffling recounts that he found Langeron on the hill behind Schlaupe, in company with Rudzevich, Olsufev and Shcherbatov. Müffling told them of the victory north of the Wütender Neisse, sang Sacken’s praises and urged them to counterattack and regain the Hennersdorf Heights immediately. The other Russian generals agreed with enthusiasm but Langeron responded: ‘Colonel, are you certain that the commander-in-chief is not deploying my corps to cover his retreat?’ Müffling added: ‘This was the fixed and firmly rooted idea of Count Langeron, which had misled him into his false measures.’ If Langeron had any doubts about the truth of Müffling’s message, however, it was dispelled by the evidence of his own eyes. Captain Radozhitsky, whose battery was deployed on the hill, recalled that through the rain it was suddenly possible to see Prussian troops in full pursuit of fleeing French battalions on the other bank of the Wütender Neisse. He heard Langeron, standing not far away, exclaim, ‘Good God, they are running.’40
All this was enough to persuade Langeron to order an immediate counter-attack to retake the Hennersdorf position. Rudzevich attacked on the left, Olsufev in the centre, and for the first time Shcherbatov’s corps came into action on the right. The momentum and unexpectedness of the attack drove the French back off the heights with little serious fighting, according to Russian sources. Thus the Pskov Regiment, part of Shcherbatov’s corps, had waited in reserve all day until ordered forward after 4 p.m. for the counter-attack. The regiment advanced at rapid pace in textbook fashion: it attacked in battalion columns with skirmishers out in front and artillery moving forward in the intervals between the columns. According to the regimental history, their skirmishers drove back the French light infantry screen and began to shoot down men in the ranks of the battalions behind. At this point, seeing the Russian columns advancing to storm their position, the French infantry decamped at speed. In good patriotic fashion, the regimental history forgets to mention that Shcherbatov’s attack towards Schlaupe was much helped by Prussian troops fording the Wütender Neisse to take the French in the rear. But the official Russian history of the campaign does mention this and pays tribute to the courage of the Prussian troops.41
For the French, the battle of the Katzbach was a defeat but not a disaster. What turned defeat into catastrophe was the pursuit which followed the battle. This was by far the most successful pursuit of a defeated enemy in 1813. On 26 August Langeron had, to put things mildly, not distinguished himself. His misunderstanding of Blücher’s intentions and disobedience of his orders could have had disastrous consequences. The heroes of the day were Yorck’s infantry, Vasilchikov and his cavalry, and Fabian von der Osten-Sacken. During the pursuit, however, it was Langeron’s corps which achieved much the most spectacular results. This did not come across in Blücher and Gneisenau’s account of the battle. It would, of course, take time for Blücher to forget Langeron’s insubordination. Moreover the Prussian leaders had good reason to try to build up the Landwehr’s self-respect and morale by glowing accounts of its merits. In a secret report, the Prussian military government of Silesia had no need to go in for propaganda, however. Rejoicing in the liberation of their province and the destruction of MacDonald’s army, their account of the pursuit of the defeated enemy ascribed the catastrophe which had overtaken the French to Langeron alone.42
This was to go too far, because Yorck and Sacken did also contribute to the French debacle. On the evening of the battle Blücher ordered both men to cross the Katzbach immediately and hasten the enemy’s flight. This was impossible. The allied troops were far too tired, the Katzbach was in full flood, and the night was pitch-black. The next day Yorck did just manage to get across the bridge and fords near Weinberg but immediately ran up against a well-organized French rearguard. There was nothing surprising in this, since three-quarters of Souham’s corps had barely been in action the previous day.
Meanwhile Sacken’s attempts to get across the fords between Schmogwitz and Liegnitz were thwarted by the flooded river banks and the depth and current of the Katzbach river, which the constant heavy rain had turned into a torrent. The Russians lost a day by having to march all the way to Liegnitz and cross the Katzbach there. All this meant that the French had time to mount a relatively orderly, albeit dangerously rapid, retreat. Many stragglers and baggage were lost but no large units were cut off or destroyed. Nevertheless casualties were high. On 29 August, with the retreat far from over, Third Corps’s roll-call revealed that 930 men were dead, 2,722 wounded and 4,009 missing. On 3 September Sacken reported to Petr Volkonsky that his army corps had captured 2 generals, 63 officers, 4,916 men and 50 guns since 25 August. By then the French had retreated right back out of Silesia and over the border into Saxony.43
Langeron’s men set off in pursuit of the French before dawn on 27 August. Their commander no doubt felt the need to redeem his poor performance on the previous day. Once again Rudzevich commanded the advance guard though he was now strengthened by regiments of Baron Korff’s cavalry corps and by the whole of Lieutenant-General Petr Kaptsevich’s Tenth Corps. Almost none of Korff’s and Kaptsevich’s men had fought on 26 August and they were therefore full of beans. By contrast the French troops were exhausted after two weeks of ceaseless marches, pouring rain, little food, and a day’s battle in which initial victory had turned suddenly into defeat and an exhausting night-time retreat. The chief of staff of Korff’s cavalry corps wrote in his memoirs that ‘it is incredible to what extent a lost battle and a few days of very bad weather depressed the morale of the French troops’. This is harsh. Even Wellington’s infantry might have gone to pieces if abandoned by their commissariat and cavalry, and forced to mount rearguard actions with muskets unusable because of the rain against a mass of well-disciplined enemy cavalry, supported by horse artillery and thousands of fresh infantry. But it is true that the exceptionally exhausting last few days played to the strengths of the tough Russian soldiers and to the weaknesses of Napoleon’s young conscripts. It is also true that although French élan was unmatchable when things were going well, in times of adversity French troops very often lacked the disciplined calm and solidity of the Russian infantry.44
On 27 August, when the Russians caught up with the French rearguards, many of the latter collapsed. Near Pilgramsdorf, the Kharkov and Kiev Dragoon regiments under General Emmanuel rode down part of the French rearguard and captured 1,200 men. Another rearguard under Colonel Morand was overtaken by the Tver Dragoon Regiment and the Seversk and Chernigov mounted jaegers, commanded by Ivan Panchulidzev, a veteran cavalry general of Georgian origin. Morand fought bravely but with their muskets unusable his infantry squares caved in to a simultaneous assault from three sides by the Russian cavalry. With the infantry rearguards collapsing and the French cavalry nowhere to be seen, the floodgates threatened to open. Cossacks swarmed around the retreating French. Langeron reported that ‘the level of losses and the disorder in the enemy ranks reminded me of their disastrous flight from Moscow to the Vistula’.45
MacDonald and his corps commanders decided that it would be fatal to try to rally their men or oppose the Russians. Their only chance was to outrun them and subsequently find a safe spot to regroup and rebuild the men’s shattered morale. This was probably realistic but it guaranteed that huge numbers of stragglers would desert or be scooped up by the Russian cavalry and Cossacks. It also meant abandoning the detached divisions of Ledru and Puthod to their fate. Ledru escaped but Puthod decided to try to link up with MacDonald’s fleeing corps. Marching north-westwards from Hirschberg, Puthod was shadowed all the way by Major-General Iusefovich’s cavalry. The Russians intercepted Puthod’s report to MacDonald which outlined his plans and his line of march. On 29 August they encircled and trapped his division near Löwenberg with its back to the river Bober, which the heavy rain had made impossible to ford. General Rudzevich waited to press his attack until Prince Shcherbatov’s Sixth Corps had arrived. Against such overwhelming odds resistance was pointless, and Puthod surrendered with more than 4,000 men and 16 guns. His division had begun the autumn campaign just two weeks before with over 8,000 men in its ranks. Very few of them escaped to serve Napoleon again.46
Not until the first week in September did the allied pursuit come to a halt. By then MacDonald’s army had been pushed right back into Saxony and had lost 35,000 men even according to French sources. The Army of Silesia had also lost heavily but very many of its missing men were exhausted Prussian militiamen who would in time return to the ranks. This was far less true of the French wounded and missing, who had been overrun by the allied advance. Napoleon could not afford such losses. Nor could he afford to have Blücher established within striking range of Dresden, the Elbe crossings and the other allied armies. The disaster which had befallen MacDonald’s army made it very unlikely that the emperor would be able to execute his plan to take his Guards and reserves north to deal with Bernadotte.
Victory hugely raised the morale and confidence of Blücher’s army and resolved many of the tensions which had existed among its commanders. Langeron’s disobedience was forgiven. Blücher’s report to Alexander on the battle of the Katzbach won for Sacken promotion to full general and the Order of St George, second class. The day after the battle Blücher told every Prussian within earshot that victory had been owed in great part to Sacken’s handling of his cavalry and artillery. The next time Sacken rode past Yorck’s corps he was greeted with volleys of cheers from the Prussian troops. All this was balm for the soul of a man who for many years had seen himself as the victim of injustice and bad luck. The battle of the Katzbach was the turning point in Sacken’s fortunes. He would die many years after the war a prince, a field-marshal and one of the most respected figures in Russia.47
However great Blücher’s victories were, in the end the fate of the campaign would rest above all on the performance of the main allied army, in other words Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. It contained many more troops than the armies of Bernadotte and Blücher combined. Only the Army of Bohemia could hope to confront and defeat Napoleon himself. Moreover, only the Army of Bohemia contained a large contingent of Austrian troops. Potentially, Austria remained the weak link in the coalition. If the main army was destroyed or seriously weakened and Bohemia was invaded, then there was a real chance that Austria would renew negotiations with Napoleon or even drop out of the war.
In June and July Schwarzenberg and Radetsky had assumed that if the Austrians joined the war Napoleon would strike first against them into Bohemia. The allies tended to share this view and in any case were anxious to calm Austrian fears in any way possible. From an early stage in joint military consultations, therefore, it was planned to send Wittgenstein and 25,000 men into Bohemia to reinforce the Austrians. As unexpected numbers of reserves and men returning from hospital flowed into the allied regiments plans became more ambitious. When Count Latour, Schwarzenberg’s representative, arrived at allied headquarters on 22 July to carry forward joint planning he was surprised to discover that the allies had hugely increased the size of the force they intended to send into Bohemia to assist the Austrians. In addition to the whole of Wittgenstein’s Army Corps, they also earmarked Lieutenant-General von Kleist’s Prussian Army Corps and the Grand Duke Constantine’s Reserve Army Corps, which included the Russian and Prussian Guards, the Russian Grenadier Corps and the three Russian cuirassier divisions. In all, 115,000 Russians and Prussians would now march from Silesia into Bohemia the moment war was renewed.
The Austrians had slightly mixed feelings about this. On the one hand this huge reinforcement, which included the best troops in the allied armies, made a great contribution to the defence of Bohemia. On the other hand enormous last-minute efforts were required to feed all these men. Worst of all, there was no way that Frederick William, let alone Alexander, would resign all control over their elite regiments and what was now unequivocally both the main allied army and the core of the allied war effort. With the Russian and Prussian divisions came the two monarchs, as distinctly unwelcome guests in Schwarzenberg’s headquarters.48
Under no circumstances was Schwarzenberg a commander who would seize the initative and impose his will on Napoleon. But in August 1813 his only initial option was to await the arrival of the Russo-Prussian reinforcements and take precautions against any attempt by Napoleon to attack them on the march or to invade Bohemia. Radetsky rather hoped that Napoleon would invade. The allies would then have the possibility of catching his troops as they sought to emerge from the narrow defiles of the Erzgebirge rather than the other way round. The Austrian quartermaster-general also had justified fears about how quickly and efficiently the commanders of the various allied columns would coordinate their operations if they were launched on an offensive through the mountains and into Saxony. Even leaving aside problems of terrain and inter-allied cooperation, the Austrian army itself had an over-centralized and unwieldy command structure. In 1809 the Austrians had adopted the French system of separate all-arms corps. The lesson they drew from the war was that their senior generals and staffs could not be relied on to make this system work. Uniquely among the four main armies in 1813, they had therefore in part reverted to a centralized army high command dealing directly with divisions and ad hoc column commanders. Radetsky had good reason to fear that this arrangement would prove defective.49
Had he understood the internal arrangements of the Russian forces his pessimism would have increased. The Russians had gone to war in 1812 with a lean and rational command structure of corps, divisions and brigades. By the autumn of 1813, however, there had been many promotions to the ranks of major- and lieutenant-general. There were now, for example, far more lieutenant-generals than there were corps, and Russian lieutenant-generals thought it beneath their status to command mere divisions. The result was the emergence of many corps which in reality were little bigger than the old divisions. These ‘corps’ were subordinated to the seven larger units into which the Field Army was divided in the autumn campaign. Though these seven units were also confusingly called corps, to avoid bewilderment I call them Army Corps. Two such Army Corps (Grand Duke Constantine and Wittgenstein) were in the Army of Bohemia; two were in the Army of Silesia (Langeron and Sacken); two were in the Army of Poland (Dokhturov and Petr Tolstoy); one was in the Army of the North (Winzengerode). To a great extent the creation of mini-corps was merely a cosmetic concession to generals’ vanity, but it did make the Russian command structure top-heavy and it complicated relations with the Prussians. A Russian corps commanded by a lieutenant-general could contain no more men than a Prussian brigade, which on occasion could be commanded by a mere colonel. Since both Russian and Prussian officers were acutely conscious of seniority and status, ‘misunderstandings’ were inevitable.50
A further cause of inefficiency was the position of Mikhail Barclay de Tolly. Having performed excellently during the armistice as commander-in-chief, Barclay now found himself de facto relieved of the supreme command and subordinated to Schwarzenberg. Apparently it took Alexander some days to summon up the courage to tell Barclay about this. To maintain his pride – perhaps indeed to retain his services – Barclay kept his official position as commander-in-chief of the Russian forces. In principle Russian corps in the armies of Silesia and the North were in operational terms subordinated to Bernadotte and Blücher, but in matters of administration and personnel to Barclay. Given the wide dispersal of these forces this was an unworkable arrangement which caused frustration on all sides.
Barclay’s power over the Russian and Prussian forces in the Army of Bohemia was more real without being more rational. It would have been more efficient had orders passed directly from Schwarzenberg to the Army Corps commanders (Constantine, Wittgenstein and Kleist), rather than being delayed and distorted by having to go through Barclay. Even Wittgenstein’s position was problematic in the first half of the autumn campaign. In principle he commanded Eugen of Württemberg’s Second Corps and the First Corps of Prince Andrei Gorchakov, the brother of the minister of war. In practice, however, Eugen’s corps was detached from the main body in August 1813 and Wittgenstein only actually controlled Gorchakov’s men. As a result, Wittgenstein too was more or less redundant on occasion: in August he and Gorchakov often merely frustrated each other by both trying to do the same job.51
By the time the leading allied generals met at the council of war in Melnik on 17 August, there was no sign of any French advance into Bohemia: almost all of them now believed that Napoleon would probably attack Bernadotte and seek to take Berlin. Radetsky and Diebitsch, the two ablest staff officers present, both shared this view. In this case it was impossible for the main army to stand still behind the mountains and leave Bernadotte to his fate. If Napoleon was heading northwards, the allies could safely cross the mountains on a broad front with their main line of advance aiming to move via Leipzig into the enemy’s rear. The council therefore decided to invade Saxony the moment the Russian and Prussian reinforcements arrived. Wittgenstein would advance on the right up the Teplitz highway from Peterswalde via Pirna to Dresden. In the centre, Kleist’s Prussians would march from Brux through Saida to Freiberg. Behind them would come Constantine’s reserves. Meanwhile the main Austrian body would advance along the highway that led from Kommotau via Marienberg to Chemnitz and ultimately to Leipzig. Smaller Austrian forces would use the roads on either side of the highway, with Klenau’s column on the Austrian extreme left.
The allied columns crossed the border into Saxony early in the morning of Saturday, 22 August. Even before they did so, however, intelligence arriving at headquarters was increasingly suggesting that Napoleon had not headed northwards against Bernadotte after all but was on the contrary in eastern Saxony facing Blücher. If true, this suggested that an advance towards Leipzig was pointless and was heading into nothing. Meanwhile Napoleon might destroy Blücher. He might also either march westwards and overwhelm Wittgenstein or use his control over the Elbe crossing at Königstein to strike south-westwards into the allied rear in Bohemia. These worries were not imaginary. Once the allies were deep in the Erzgebirge it would take at least four days to concentrate the whole army on Wittgenstein’s flank in the event that he was attacked by Napoleon. Though the allied commanders could not know this, Napoleon had in fact written to his commander in Dresden, Marshal Saint-Cyr, that he cared nothing if the allies marched into western Saxony or cut his communications with France. What concerned him was that they should not seize the Elbe crossings and above all the huge supply base which he had built up for the autumn campaign in Dresden. Moreover Napoleon was indeed contemplating the possibility of striking via Königstein into the allied rear.52
If allied arrangements had been sufficiently flexible they would have changed their plans before their advance began and shifted its weight eastwards towards Dresden. Last-minute changes to the movements of this vast army with its very cumbersome command structure were extremely difficult, however. Therefore, as Schwarzenberg informed his wife in the evening of 20 August, ‘we want to cross the border on 22 August and then quickly swivel towards the Elbe’. This plan was no problem for the Russians since it did not change the planned line of march of Wittgenstein or the Grand Duke Constantine. Even Kleist’s Prussians did not have too far to march to get to the new area of concentration in the area of Dippoldiswalde and Dresden. For the Austrians, however, it was a completely different matter. They had the furthest to go and they would have to move across dreadful mountain paths which snaked up and down over the steep valleys of one stream after another. Already on 23 August General Wilson had encountered Klenau’s Austrians ‘drenched to the bones; most of them without shoes, many without greatcoats’. Wilson recorded that the morale of Klenau’s men, very many of them fresh recruits, seemed good but it was debatable whether it would remain that way with the rain pelting down, stomachs already empty, the Austrian commissariat wagons trailing well in the rear, and the paths dissolving into mud. It took Klenau’s men sixteen hours to cross the last 32 kilometres cross-country to the Freiberg area. To reach Dresden they still had the even worse path through the Tharandt forest to negotiate.53
The initial allied shift eastwards had far more to do with protecting Wittgenstein and Bohemia than with seizing the opportunity to capture Napoleon’s base at Dresden. By 23 August, however, intelligence revealed that Napoleon was in fact in Silesia, even further away to the east than the allies had realized. On the evening of 23 August Schwarzenberg wrote to his wife that allied headquarters would be at Dippoldiswalde by the next day and that the army would attack Dresden on the afternoon of 25 August if sufficient forces could be concentrated there in time. He then went a long way towards guaranteeing that this would not be the case by giving most of the Austrian army a rest-day on 24 August.54
The thinking behind this move was that there was less urgency than previously feared because Wittgenstein and Bohemia were not in immediate danger. No doubt too the kindly commander-in-chief listened to the howls of his Austrian generals about the miserable condition of their men. Uncertain in his own mind whether it would be possible to take Dresden on 25 August, Schwarzenberg wavered between describing the planned attack as a coup de main or simply a reconnaissance in force. Had Schwarzenberg been Blücher, Dresden would have been attacked on 25 August, even if half the Austrian troops had dropped out from exhaustion along the line of march. From this moment on, the Austrians enjoyed the reputation of being the slowest marchers of all the allied armies. George Cathcart, a British officer and the son of the ambassador to Russia, wrote politely of the ‘comparative tardiness of their movements’. Alexandre de Langeron put things more bluntly: ‘The Austrians are always late and it is their incurable slowness which constantly leads to their defeat.’55
The Austrian official history claims that when the moment planned for the attack came in the afternoon of 25 August not only their own troops but also Kleist’s Prussians had not yet arrived. The decision was taken to postpone the attack until the next day. But on 26 August fierce arguments raged among the allied leaders as to whether an assault on Dresden was practicable. Frederick William III was committed to an attack and so, less fervently, was Schwarzenberg if and when sufficient troops had arrived. Alexander was always dubious and by the afternoon of 26 August was opposed to the idea. He drew on the advice of both Moreau and Toll, who thought that any attack would fail.
So too even by 25 August did Dresden’s commander, Saint-Cyr. At nine in the morning of 25 August he reported to Napoleon that allied columns were approaching the city and seemingly planned an assault: ‘This attack seems to me a bit belated, given Your Majesty’s approach.’ He added that since Murat had already shown himself in the front lines and the campfires of Napoleon’s corps must be visible to the allies they could not be under any illusion about the emperor’s imminent arrival. Whether Dresden could have been stormed on 26 August is doubtful. The city’s defences had been restored and improved by Napoleon during the armistice: as he himself had discovered in the previous year at Smolensk, even out-of-date walls and improvised fortifications could greatly slow down an attacking force. Moreover, by 26 August Napoleon’s reinforcements were already flowing into the city.56
Given the speed with which his own troops moved, it is perhaps not surprising that Schwarzenberg was baffled by Napoleon’s feat in marching his three corps the 120 kilometres from Löwenberg in Silesia to the Dresden area in just three days. Though this frustrated allied plans to take Dresden, to some extent it fulfilled the purpose of the Trachenberg plan. By advancing into Napoleon’s rear and threatening his key base at Dresden the Army of Bohemia had stopped him from pursuing and overwhelming Blücher. In retrospect, too, the allies could be thankful that Napoleon had satisfied himself with marching to the rescue of Dresden rather than carrying out his initial and much more daring plan to destroy Schwarzenberg’s army.
When first he heard, on 22 August, that the allied army was concentrating towards Dresden with the likely aim of attacking the city Napoleon began to plan a devastating counter-move. So long as Saint-Cyr could hold out for a few days, Napoleon intended to march with his Guards and the corps of Marmont, Victor and Vandamme across the Elbe at Königstein into the allied rear and either destroy the enemy army before it could concentrate against him or at the least devastate its rear bases. Had Napoleon carried out this plan it is very possible that he could have ended the campaign within a fortnight with a victory on the scale of Austerlitz or Jena. He would have been across the allied line of retreat and able to pin Schwarzenberg’s army within the Erzgebirge. Moreover, the speed and daring of his move would have paralysed and totally disoriented the slow-moving and divided allied leadership. When he arrived at Stolpen on 25 August, however, Napoleon changed his mind because both his trusted aide-de-camp, General Gourgaud, and Marshal Murat reported from Dresden that the city could not hold out against the allies unless reinforced immediately by the emperor and the corps he had brought from Silesia. So Napoleon turned his men towards the Saxon capital and left the move across the Elbe at Königstein to General Vandamme alone.57 Even without Napoleon’s projected master stroke, matters looked grim for the allies by 27 August. They had finally made their attempt to storm Dresden in the late afternoon of 26 August and it had failed. By then Saint-Cyr’s garrison had been reinforced by Napoleon. The city’s defences proved just as hard to crack as Alexander, Moreau and Toll had feared. The allied leaders nevertheless decided to try again the next day, on the grounds that on 26 August less than half their army had participated in the fight. This decision was not in accordance with the Trachenberg plan, as modified by Schwarzenberg and Radetsky. Much more important, it was foolish. With Napoleon’s three corps from Silesia now inside Dresden there was no chance of storming the city. Unless they took Dresden, however, the allies could not remain in front of it for long, since they could not feed themselves off the land in the Erzgebirge and their supply trains were having a terrible time struggling forward down the mountain paths. Even more important, the position they had taken up outside the city made them very vulnerable to a counter-attack by Napoleon.
One key problem was that outside Dresden the allies were strung out along a line of almost 10 kilometres. Safe behind their fortifications, Napoleon’s troops occupied a line half as long. The city’s walls and fortifications allowed the defenders to hold off attacks made by superior allied numbers. Meanwhile Napoleon could concentrate troops to counter-attack and exploit the weaknesses of his over-extended enemy. On the far right Wittgenstein was trying to hold a weak position, 4 kilometres long, with only 15,000 men. His corps was also under fire from French batteries deployed on the other side of the Elbe. Under heavy pressure on 27 August his troops were pushed back towards the allied centre, losing their hold on the Teplitz highway which was their main chance of a safe retreat to Bohemia. When Barclay was ordered to counter-attack to regain the lost ground he refused, arguing that amidst the mud and the pelting rain he would never be able to get his artillery back onto its present high ground once he had sent it forward to support the counter-attack of his infantry. George Cathcart was present at allied headquarters that day. In his opinion Barclay’s fears were fully justified. Even the Austrian official history, often critical of Barclay, states that on this occasion he probably acted wisely.58
At the time, however, there was too much confusion at allied headquarters on the Racknitz Heights for anyone to take up the matter with Barclay. Cathcart recalled that shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon ‘a cannon shot struck Moreau (who at the moment might have been half a horse’s length in advance of the emperor) in the right leg, and going through his horse, shattered his left knee’. Moreau died a week later. Had the ball hit the emperor the consequences would have been dramatic. The Grand Duke Constantine could never have replaced his brother as the linchpin of the coalition. He totally lacked Alexander’s charisma or his diplomatic skills, and shared neither his brother’s commitment to defeating Napoleon nor his ability to generate loyalty among senior Russian generals, who in some cases had doubts about whether the war in Germany really served Russian interests. Given Constantine’s extreme shifts of mood and his own frequent outbursts against continuing the war, Europe might have witnessed dramatic changes in Russian policy reminiscent of those in the time of his father and grandfather.59
Meanwhile disaster had befallen the allied left wing, all of whose troops were Austrian. One problem here was that the allied left was cut off from the rest of the army by the steep Plauen gully. It was impossible to reinforce troops beyond the gully from the allied centre in any emergency. General Mesko, who commanded the Austrian troops on the far left, was supposed to be supported by Klenau’s 21,000 men but the latter were so delayed on the road through the Tharandt forest that they never reached the battlefield. To an extent Schwarzenberg was the victim of the fact that his army had grown to a size which was impossible to control with the technology available at the time. By the time news reached the commander-in-chief from the army’s wings it was far too late to react.
Nevertheless Schwarzenberg managed a difficult problem incompetently. It made no sense to mass so much of the allied cavalry in the centre, where much of it was unusable, and to leave Mesko’s infantry with so little protection. Moreover, for all the difficulties of getting down the road through the Tharandt forest, one suspects that a Blücher, with the smell of impending battle in his nose, would have done more to galvanize his subordinates into overcoming obstacles. He certainly would not have followed Schwarzenberg’s example in initially allowing Klenau’s men a rest-day on 26 August as they passed through the forest. The next day, with Klenau’s troops still just emerging from the forest and hours from the battlefield, Mesko’s detachment was destroyed. On 27 August the French took 15,000 Austrian prisoners. Not only were Mesko’s unfortunate men set on by overwhelming numbers of French cavalry and infantry, their muskets were unusable in the rain. Even so, more of them would have escaped if they had had better leadership from their general and their staff officers.60
On the afternoon of 27 August, even before he heard of the disaster which had befallen Mesko, Schwarzenberg was determined to retreat back into Bohemia. The allied attacks on the right and in the centre had failed and it was clear that it would be impossible now to capture Dresden. In that case it was pointless to expose the troops to hunger, cold and sickness by remaining outside the city in bivouacs, while Napoleon’s men were often quartered cosily inside Dresden. The weather was atrocious. Sir Robert Wilson noted in his diary: ‘Heavy rain and fierce wind. The worst English December day was never more bleak or soaking.’ In addition, however, alarming news was coming in that Vandamme had crossed the Elbe at Königstein and now posed a threat to the allied right flank and to Schwarzenberg’s communications with Bohemia.61
When Wittgenstein had marched up the Teplitz highway to Dresden he had detached Eugen of Württemberg to watch the crossing at Königstein.
Eugen was given most of his own Second Corps and Major-General Gothard von Helfreich’s 14th Division from First Corps. In all, this added up to 13,000 men and 26 guns. Eugen had only four squadrons of regular cavalry and one small Cossack regiment, but his command included almost half of Wittgenstein’s infantry. Nevertheless it was far too weak for the task Eugen now faced. Vandamme’s force included not just his own First Corps of three strong divisions but also three big infantry brigades and a cavalry division drawn from other corps. At roughly six in the morning of 26 August Eugen’s pickets informed him that the French were beginning to cross the Elbe at Königstein and that the prisoners they had taken stated that Vandamme had roughly 50,000 men in his command.
Eugen appealed urgently to Barclay and Wittgenstein for help but this would inevitably take time to arrive. For the moment the only reinforcement he received was the temporary loan of one cuirassier regiment from the Grand Duke Constantine, whose Army Corps was marching up the Teplitz highway on the morning of 26 August in order to join in the assault on Dresden. With the Empress’s Own Cuirassier Regiment came the commander of its brigade, the 23-year-old Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. One of Leopold’s sisters had married Grand Duke Constantine, another was the wife of Duke Alexander of Württemberg, Eugen’s uncle, who was currently commanding the Russian corps besieging Danzig. Like Eugen, Leopold had been made a Russian major-general while still a child. Though he had served in East Prussia in 1807, Leopold had subsequently retired from military service and only rejoined the army during the 1813 armistice. In the following weeks the young prince was to show that he was an able and courageous commander of cavalry and thereby to take his first small steps towards fame. Many years after the war he was to become famous throughout Europe as the first king of the Belgians and, incidentally, Queen Victoria’s uncle.
On the morning of 26 August, faced with a very dangerous situation, Prince Eugen remained calm and showed excellent skill and judgement. Given Vandamme’s overwhelming superiority in numbers, all Eugen could hope to do was to delay his advance and gain time for reinforcements to arrive. He decided that his only chance of doing this was to stop the French from deploying out of the woods surrounding Königstein for as long as possible. A number of factors worked to his advantage. Vandamme moved slowly and failed to get his artillery into action until the battle was well under way. The Russian artillery was thereby able to break up the initial French efforts to form up in attack columns in front of the woods. In addition, even when the French did force their way forward from the woods Eugen occupied a strong position, protected in front by a gully and anchored in the villages of Krietzschwitz and Struppen. The Russians fought with skill and courage, skirmishing effectively. They suffered more than 1,500 casualties and inflicted more. Every reserve had to be committed, including even Leopold’s cuirassiers, despite the fact that this was very poor ground for heavy cavalry. Eugen just hung on but it was clear that he would have no chance of holding his position the next day against overwhelming numbers whose commanders could smother the Russians with artillery fire and turn their flanks.62
On the evening of 26 August, having delayed the French for a day, Eugen knew that he must retreat. The question was in which direction. He could not simultaneously cover the right flank of the allied army before Dresden and the allied line of retreat down the highway to Bohemia. To do the former required a retreat to the north, while protecting the route into Bohemia meant moving southwards down the Teplitz highway. With the battle at Dresden in full swing and the allies aiming to storm the city Eugen decided that the top priority was to stop Vandamme marching northwards to roll up their right flank. This was a fully reasonable choice at the time it was made and with the information available to Eugen, but when Schwarzenberg decided on a general retreat the next day it meant that Vandamme was in a position to block the movement of Eugen or any other allied forces down the Teplitz highway back to Bohemia.
Schwarzenberg’s orders for the retreat to Bohemia went out at six in the evening of 27 August. They were drawn up by Radetsky and Toll. The army was to retreat in three groups. Roughly half the Austrian troops, including Klenau’s detachment and the remnants of the left wing, were to march almost due west to Freiberg and from there to turn south-west and rejoin the Chemnitz highway at Marienberg. This would take them back to Commotau. The rest of the Austrian forces, including Colloredo’s men, were to retreat to Dippoldiswalde. From there half would march via Frauenstein and the other half via Altenberg back to Dux in Bohemia. Meanwhile all the Russians and Prussians under Barclay and Kleist – in other words half the entire army – would retreat south-eastwards via Dohna on to the Teplitz highway before the defile at Berggieshubel. From there they would retreat down the highway to Teplitz via Peterswalde.63
These orders were ‘modified’ by some of the generals to whom they were sent. In part this was because they were unrealistic and had been overtaken by events. Of the three groups, the only one to march more or less according to plan was the central Austrian column, which set off quickly in the early evening of 27 August and got away, exhausted but unscathed, to Dippoldiswalde. On the allied left, however, it was impossible for Klenau’s men to follow the planned retreat westwards via Freiberg since the Freiberg road was already occupied by Murat. The Austrian commanders also flatly refused to take the next parallel road to the south since this led through the Tharandt forest and had caused them dreadful difficulties in their advance to Dresden. They therefore struck out to the south-west via Pretschendorf. From there some of the Austrian troops marched to Dux while others rejoined the Chemnitz highway at Marienberg and there turned left to march back to Commotau. Though the initial stages of this retreat were exhausting, dangerous and chaotic, by the night of 28 August the Austrian troops were no longer in danger of being cut off. They had been helped greatly by Murat’s rather lackadaisical pursuit. Most of Murat’s cavalry in any case headed too far to the west and lost touch with the main Austrian body.
By far the most dangerous situation occurred on the allied right wing, where Barclay and Kleist decided to ignore the proposed march-route for the Russian and Prussian forces. As overall commander of the allied right wing Barclay took responsibility for this decision though he may well have acted in agreement with Toll.64 Instead of moving south-eastwards onto the Teplitz highway the Russians and Prussians headed due south over the Erzgebirge. Barclay had good reasons for this deviation from Schwarzenberg’s orders. Prince Eugen’s reports showed that Vandamme and 50,000 men were in a position to block any march down the Teplitz highway into Bohemia. The highway passed through defiles which could be held by half that number of men against a multitude. Meanwhile there was every reason to believe that if Barclay and Kleist headed down the Teplitz highway they would be pursued by much of Napoleon’s army. A great danger existed that Barclay and Kleist’s men would be trapped on the Teplitz highway between Napoleon and Vandamme with no possible means of escape.
Barclay therefore preferred the risk of retreating across the Erzgebirge. The Russians marched down the road to Dippoldiswalde and Altenberg. The Prussians made their way down the ‘Old Teplitz Road’ which went from Maxen via Glashütte and Barenstein before descending into the Teplitz valley through the defile near Graupen. Both roads were unsuitable for tens of thousands of troops, not to mention their baggage and artillery. The Old Teplitz Road was the worse of the two, especially in its final stage as it descended into the valley. On the other hand, Kleist had half as many men as Barclay’s Russians and at least he had the Old Teplitz Road more or less to himself. The Russians on the contrary were trying to force their way down the Dippoldiswalde–Altenberg road in the wake of a large column of retreating Austrians. Even worse, when the retreat began a good deal of the Austrian baggage had still been trying to force its way up the road towards Dresden. A huge traffic jam was inevitable, especially near Altenberg and Dippoldiswalde where a number of country lanes joined the main road.
Marshal Saint-Cyr described the Dippoldiswalde–Altenberg road as ‘nothing other than one continual defile’. General Wilson wrote that the retreating Russian troops had to squeeze ‘through the most difficult roads, through the most desperate country, through the most impracticable woods that Europe presents’. The road only became truly steep in its last section as it wound down into the Teplitz valley. At that point the horses drawing the guns and wagons had a terrible time braking and many lost their horseshoes. For most of the journey the road wound up and down the hills through which it passed from leaving Dippoldiswalde to beyond Altenberg. The worst problem was that the road was extremely narrow along its entire route. Only one gun, cart or artillery caisson could pass at a time. The embankments on either side of the road were anything from 4 to 6 metres high. The dense pine forests came right down to the embankments on either side of the road. Infantry who marched off the road to leave room for guns and wagons could only pass in single file along the tops of the embankments. Any cart which broke down, and many did on the flinty surface, had to be lifted off the road and over the embankment by hand.65
On 28 August the rain poured down incessantly on the Russian troops, all of whom were cold and hungry and some of whom had their boots sucked off in the mud. Among the latter was Private Pamfil Nazarov, on his first campaign and marching in the ranks of the Finland Guards. His regiment had begun to retreat late in the evening of 27 August and had marched through the night. At eight the next morning they stopped to cook their porridge but before it was ready the French arrived and they were forced to decamp. At one point during the day the exhausted, barefoot Guardsmen emerged from the forests into an open field and passed by Alexander and Barclay. Pamfil recalls that, on seeing the sad state of his Guards, ‘the emperor began to cry bitterly and, taking a white handkerchief out of his pocket, began to wipe his cheeks. Seeing this, I also began to cry.’66
Fortunately for the Russians their rearguards performed with their usual calm discipline in adversity. So too did the Prussian and Austrian troops detailed to perform this duty. The terrain on the whole favoured rearguards and impeded rapid pursuit by cavalry. Having performed brilliantly in marching from Silesia and defeating the allies, the French troops and their commanders had every right to be exhausted. Perhaps the most important point, however, was that Napoleon had taken his eye off the pursuit and retired to Dresden, where most of his attention was directed to the bad news coming not just from MacDonald in Silesia but also from Marshal Oudinot, whose advance on Berlin had been defeated at Gross Beeren. The emperor appears to have been unaware of his opportunity to destroy Schwarzenberg’s army. Perhaps this stemmed partly from the fact that he did not know the terrain of the Erzgebirge well, and in particular had no knowledge of the defiles on the Austrian side of the border. In the absence of Napoleon much of the energy and coordination went out of the pursuit.
For the allies the biggest danger was not the forces pursuing them from Dresden but Vandamme’s detachment. When the retreat began on 27 August not merely did Vandamme’s force greatly outnumber Eugen’s but he was also positioned to its south. He could have shouldered Eugen aside and marched unopposed down the highway past Peterswalde and into the Teplitz valley, reaching the defiles leading from the Erzgebirge well before most of the Russian and Prussian units could escape from the mountains. It did not require many troops to block the key defiles at Teplitz and Graupen towards which Barclay and Kleist were heading. Had this been combined by an energetic and coordinated pursuit by Napoleon then the allied army could have been cut off in the mountains and forced to surrender. In fact Napoleon settled for a lesser goal, ordering Vandamme merely to march into the Teplitz valley and seize the enormous amount of baggage and artillery which would not be able to escape. Once in the Teplitz valley Vandamme might have used his initiative, blocked the defiles and astonished Napoleon by the extent of the damage he inflicted on the allied armies. Even had he confined himself to obeying Napoleon’s orders, the loss of their artillery and supply trains would have been a crippling blow to the allies. Rebuilding the Army of Bohemia in time to renew the campaign in the autumn of 1813 would have been very difficult. Dissension between the allies, already growing fast because of the defeat at Dresden, could easily have destroyed the coalition.67
Much therefore turned on the struggle between Vandamme and Prince Eugen on the Teplitz highway. On 26 and 27 August Eugen received two reinforcements, one welcome, the other quite the opposite. The welcome reinforcements were the 6,700 men of Major-General Baron Gregor von Rosen’s 1st Guards Infantry Division. The Preobrazhensky, Semenovsky, Izmailovsky and Jaeger regiments of the Guards, which made up this division, were the finest infantry in the Russian army, so this addition to Eugen’s force was much more valuable than mere numbers might suggest. They were accompanied by a small detachment of Guards marines, mostly used for building bridges, and by Aleksei Ermolov, now the commander of the Guards Corps.
The unwelcome reinforcement was General Count Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy, who arrived from headquarters on 26 August with instructions to take over command of all the forces on the allied right near Königstein. There might perhaps be some excuse for appointing a senior general to fulfil this role. Eugen was only 25 and had never commanded an independent detachment. Ostermann-Tolstoy was the wrong man for the job, however. It seems that Alexander was simply trying to rid himself of a nuisance who was infesting his headquarters and constantly waylaying the emperor with pleas to be given something to do. When on 25 August Alexander told Ostermann to take overall command opposite Königstein he had no idea that this was soon to become a vital post. Nevertheless Alexander’s assignment of Ostermann was yet another example of how sensitivity to the feelings of senior generals was allowed to undermine the army’s structure of command.
Even at the best of times Ostermann lacked the temperament or the tactical skill to command an independent detachment. Unfortunately too, August 1813 was far from the best of times, for it was no secret that Ostermann-Tolstoy had returned from sick leave in spring 1813 in an extremely excitable and even unbalanced frame of mind. In the three days that followed his arrival at Eugen’s headquarters he was to be an enormous nuisance. The immediate source of Ostermann’s hysteria was his fear that Alexander’s precious Guards might come to grief while under his command.68
What made this obsession particularly dangerous was the orders Ostermann received when the army began its retreat in the evening of 27 August. These orders allowed him to abandon the Teplitz highway and retreat over the Erzgebirge if he believed that attempting to march down the highway would be too dangerous. Inevitably the very nervous Ostermann did believe this and ordered the entire force to retreat off the highway and into the mountains. Had this order been carried out disaster must have followed. His men would have been added to the traffic jam on the Dippoldiswalde road. Vandamme would have been free to march unopposed into the Teplitz valley. What saved the allied cause was Eugen’s flat refusal to obey Ostermann’s orders. Eugen had a very clear understanding of the need to stop Vandamme from getting into the valley and blocking the allied army’s escape routes from the Erzgebirge. He was backed by Ermolov, who had an excellent map of the area and had studied the local terrain and grasped its implications for military operations. The decisive voice was Eugen’s, however. As a royal prince and the emperor’s first cousin he was not easily overruled. When Eugen offered to take full responsibility for all the consequences, Ostermann caved in and plans were made to retreat down the Teplitz highway on 28 August.69
This was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Fortunately for the allies, Vandamme had done nothing to block the road on 27 August. This enabled the Russians to get much of their baggage away safely back to Bohemia. Nevertheless, most of his force was positioned south of the allied position at Zehista. He could still occupy the highway ahead of them on 28 August. To reach semi-safety at Peterswalde, just over the Austrian border, the allies had to carry out an 18-kilometre flank march under the noses of an enemy who had double their numbers. The risk of being attacked while on the march was great. The highway itself was much better than the roads over the Erzgebirge but it was far from perfect. The allies would have to pull their guns and their ammunition carts up and down 15-degree gradients in the pouring rain and on a stony road covered in fallen pine-needles and leaves, which at times were as slippery as ice. The biggest danger of all would come at the narrow defiles near Giesshübel and Hennersdorf, which could be blocked by relatively small enemy forces, but the whole march would be full of peril.70
Eugen decided that the allies’ best chance was for his Second Corps and Helfreich’s division to make a diversionary attack towards Krieschwitz and the Kohlberg heights, in other words in the direction of Königstein. He hoped that this would draw Vandamme’s attention and his reserves northwards and allow the Guards to retreat safely through the Giesshübel and Hennersdorf defiles. The Guards would leave rearguards at both these danger-spots to cover the retreat of Eugen’s men and, if necessary, to extract them from the clutches of the pursuing French. The plan went better than anyone had a right to expect. Eugen himself led the attack on Krieschwitz, while Ermolov attacked the Kohlberg heights with a force that included some of Eugen’s regiments of the line and the Guards Jaegers. The Russians attacked with great determination. The Kohlberg heights, for example, changed hands three times before finally being stormed by the Guards Jaegers. Helfreich’s 14th Division first lost and then recaptured Cotta. The French threw in reserves in the north but they did nothing to reinforce the small detachments they had sent to ambush the Russians at the Giesshübel and Hennersdorf defiles. The Preobrazhenskys broke through without too much difficulty at Giesshübel and the Semenovskys drove Vandamme’s men off the road at Hennersdorf.
Disengaging Second Corps and Helfreich’s men from the battle in the north and getting them down the highway was bound to be very difficult, but in the main the Russians succeeded even here, though at quite heavy cost. The Estland Regiment, part of Helfreich’s division, lost 6 officers and 260 men, in other words one-third of its entire strength, in the battles on the Kohlberg and at the Giesshübel defile. Helfreich got his men back through Giesshübel safely but it took a counter-attack led by Eugen himself to disentangle one of Prince Shakhovskoy’s brigades from the pursuing French. Four of Eugen’s infantry regiments, commanded by Major-General Pyshnitsky, had been heavily engaged at Krieschwitz at the northern end of Eugen’s line and were in fact cut off on the highway but they succeeded in taking to a side lane, evaded the French, and rejoined Second Corps on the evening of 29 August, in time for the second day of the battle of Kulm.71
By the evening of 28 August the whole of Eugen and Ermolov’s force, with the exception of Pyshnitsky’s regiments, had reached Peterswalde. This was an enormous village strung out for 3 or more kilometres along the main road. Eugen’s men held the village and formed the army’s rearguard while the Guards marched back into the Teplitz valley and took up a holding position at Nollendorf, on which Eugen’s men could retreat in safety the next day. This plan was almost wrecked early in the morning of 29 August. Orders from Ostermann-Tolstoy seem to have persuaded Prince Shakhovskoy’s rearguard to hang on in front of Peterswalde much longer than Eugen intended. When they finally did begin to retreat through the village at dawn on 29 August they were caught by French units attacking not just along the highway but also infiltrating into Peterswalde down side lanes. Amidst the dense early morning mist a panic ensued in the village streets among some of Shakhovskoy’s regiments. Fortunately, enough Russian infantrymen remained steady to put up a fight in Peterswalde and delay the French pursuit. When the numerous but disorganized French units did begin to advance out of Peterswalde towards the Teplitz valley they were charged by Eugen’s cavalry, headed by Leopold of Saxe-Coburg’s cuirassiers. This bought Eugen sufficient time to restore order, reorganize a rearguard, and set off on a steady retreat to Nollendorf and the cover provided by the Guards.72
At Nollendorf Eugen found not just two regiments of Guards but also four regiments of Shakhovskoy’s division which had got out of Peterswalde by side roads and made their own way back to allied lines. In his memoirs Eugen wrote that the Guards Jaegers skirmished very skilfully and held up the French pursuit long enough for him to take up position, reorganize his corps and send the two Guards regiments and most of his own units back to Ermolov. Eugen then stood at Nollendorf for roughly ninety minutes with two of Shakhovskoy’s regiments and the Tatar Lancers as a rearguard. He himself then retreated past the small town of Kulm which gave its name to the two-day battle that followed. By midday Eugen and his rearguard had reached Ermolov’s position at the village of Priesten, 2 kilometres beyond Kulm. Here he found Ostermann-Tolstoy, Ermolov and the entire force deployed for a major battle against Vandamme.73
Ostermann-Tolstoy had not initially intended to make a stand. Late in the evening of 28 August he had written warning Francis II to leave Teplitz since the enemy was heading in that direction in very superior numbers and Ostermann was unable to stop him. The Austrian monarch decamped but before doing so he warned Frederick William, who had just arrived in the town, about Ostermann’s message. The Prussian king immediately understood the potentially catastrophic consequences if Vandamme was allowed to take control of the crucial passes out of the Erzgebirge near Teplitz, towards which both his own forces and the Russians were heading. Even Alexander himself was at risk, since he was still stuck in the mountains somewhere on the road from Altenberg. The king immediately sent first his aide-de-camp, Colonel von Natzmer, and then his chief military adviser, General von dem Knesebeck, to warn Ostermann that he must block the French advance on Teplitz at all costs. With their own emperor’s safety at stake, there could be no question of refusing Frederick William’s plea to make a stand. Ostermann and Ermolov therefore chose the next possible defensive position at Priesten, roughly 7 kilometres from Teplitz. The Guards were already deploying in this position by eight o’clock. Roughly two hours later Frederick William arrived for a long discussion with Ostermann and Ermolov. By then the sun was out and the Russian troops were enjoying their first clear, warm day for a week.
The Russian position was anchored in three villages: Straden in the north, Priesten in the centre, and Karwitz in the south. Had these been Saxon villages, with their stone farmhouses and churches, their massive barns and their stout boundary walls, the three villages would have been of great assistance to their defenders. In Bohemia at that time, however, almost all buildings were of wood with thatch or shingle roofs. Far from offering shelter to defenders the buildings burned quickly and could easily become death traps. The Eggenmühle, a sawmill behind the Russian left, and a nearby chapel – the so-called Leather Chapel – were the only buildings of even marginal use to the defenders. Even the sawmill burned down in the course of the battle, however, killing the wounded who had taken shelter there.
As to the ground on which Ostermann had more or less been forced to fight, it too was not of great use. Its main advantage was that the Russian left flank was firmly anchored in the steep foothills of the Erzgebirge and could not easily be turned. On the Russian right, the meadow stretching southwards from Priesten to Karwitz was bordered to the east by a stream, which helped the Russian cavalry keep the French at bay. But all the serious fighting on 29 August was confined to the centre and north of the Russian line, which stretched from Priesten to Straden. This was open ground, dotted with bushes, shrubbery, and the ditches which were the normal boundary-markers between the villagers’ small gardens. The Teplitz highway, which ran just south of Priesten, was slightly raised above the surrounding land and offered some cover from French artillery to the east for men in or just behind the village.74
On the far left of the allied line, Straden was held by the Guards Jaegers and the Murom Regiment. In the centre Priesten was occupied by the skirmishers of the Reval regiment and the 4th Jaegers, with the rest of both regiments just behind the village in support. Eugen expected these men to delay a French attack, not to defeat it. They were ordered to fall back to the right and left of the village. French infantry advancing out of Priesten would face the fire of two of Eugen’s batteries deployed a few hundred metres behind the village. Just behind the batteries were Shakhovskoy’s infantry. To his left were Helfreich’s battalions. The former were low on ammunition, the latter had almost none left. To a great extent they would be forced to rely on their bayonets.
On Helfreich’s left were the three Guards regiments, the Semenovskys and Izmailovskys in the first line, with the Preobrazhenskys behind and the two Guards artillery batteries deployed just in front of the columns of infantry. Initially the only cavalry on the Russian centre and left were the Guards Hussars, which Ermolov placed behind his infantry. When the battle began the Russians had only parts of four regular cavalry and one Cossack regiment to hold their right flank between Priesten and Karwitz, but this was not to matter since the French cavalry made little serious effort to challenge them and Vandamme concentrated all his infantry on Straden and Priesten with the aim of breaking through by the quickest route to Teplitz. Astride the highway were Lieutenant-Colonel Bistrom’s twelve guns of the First Guards Horse Artillery Battery. When the battle began the Russians had roughly 14,700 men to hand.
Vandamme underestimated his enemy. He was an arrogant man and he was also in a hurry. The prospect of a marshal’s baton had been dangled in front of him if his advance into Bohemia succeeded. On the previous evening he had reported to Marshal Berthier that ‘the enemy has fought in vain against our brave troops: he has been defeated on all occasions and is in a state of complete rout’. The moment his advance guard, the brigade of Prince Reuss, was ready Vandamme ordered it to attack the Russian left at Straden. The Guards Jaegers and the Murom Regiment resisted stoutly and when the Semenovskys came up in support Reuss’s men were forced to withdraw. The attack was swiftly renewed, however, when three regiments of Mouton-Duvernet’s division arrived on the scene and advanced towards the space between Straden and Priesten. Helfreich’s battalions moved up to meet them, supported by the Tobolsk and Chernigov regiments from Shakhovskoy’s division. Still further pressure built up after two o’clock when four regiments of General Philippon’s division arrived on the battlefield. One headed for Straden and the other three attacked Priesten.
Straden, by now in flames, was abandoned by the Russians, who fell back on the sawmill (Eggenmühle) and the ‘Leather Chapel’. Around these two points a ferocious hand-to-hand battle developed. Ermolov sent in two battalions of the Preobrazhenskys to support the Semenovskys, who were fighting there alongside Helfreich’s and Shakhovskoy’s men. Meanwhile Philippon’s regiments burst into Priesten but were met by murderous canister fire when they tried to break out of the village. When Philippon’s men retreated Eugen brought forward two of his batteries to the left of Priesten and directed their fire into the flank and the rear of the French troops who were fighting near the chapel and the sawmill. This forced a further French assault on the village in order to silence the batteries.
Eugen’s exhausted battalions were all now committed and he appealed to Ermolov to release the Izmailovsky Guards to drive the French back. Ermolov refused and a ferocious argument ensued. According to Eugen’s aide-de-camp, Ermolov shouted, ‘the Prince is a German and doesn’t give a damn whether the Russian Guards survive or not: but my duty is to save at least something of his Guard for the emperor’. In this moment some of the underlying strains in the Russian high command came out, but Ermolov’s refusal was by no means just xenophobic and irrational: the Izmailovskys comprised two of the only three battalions he still held in reserve. Eugen appealed to Ostermann-Tolstoy, however, and the Izmailovskys were released. The two battalions stormed forward and drove back the French but themselves suffered very heavy casualties.75
The Prussian general staff history cannot be suspected of bias since there were no Prussian troops present on 29 August. It comments that the fighting at Priesten was among the most ferocious in the entire Napoleonic wars. Sir Robert Wilson, present on the battlefield that day, wrote that ‘the enemy could not gain an inch of ground…Never was an action more gloriously fought by the Russians – never was success more important.’ Charles Stewart, also at the battle of Kulm, wrote subsequently of the ‘reckless bravery’ and ‘dauntless conduct of His Imperial Majesty’s Guards’. Shortly after the counter-attack of the Izmailovskys, Ostermann-Tolstoy was hit by a cannon ball which tore off part of his arm. Carried to the rear, he told the stretcher party, ‘I am satisfied. This is the price I paid for the honour of commanding the Guards.’76
Not long after that the second brigade of Philippon’s division arrived on the battlefield and a final attempt was made to storm Priesten. Both Philippon’s brigades attacked the village in two big columns. The Russian batteries left of Priesten were forced to withdraw and the village was overrun. By now the Russians only had two companies of the Preobrazhenskys in reserve and matters looked desperate. The two companies counter-attacked and were joined by some of Shakhovskoy’s battalions, though the latter were exhausted by days of continuous fighting and had almost no ammunition left. Salvation came, however, from the Guards cavalry. During the battle the Guards Dragoons and the Guards Lancers had arrived from the defile at Graupen and had been deployed behind the Guards infantry. At the moment of crisis Diebitsch also arrived from Barclay to announce that large numbers of fresh infantry would shortly reach the battlefield. After a brief discussion with Eugen he rode over to the Guards Dragoons and led them forward against the French infantry who were surging forward around Priesten.
Nikolai Kovalsky was a young officer of the Guards Dragoons in 1813. He recalls how the regiment was led down narrow and sometimes precipitous paths from the mountains into the Teplitz valley by staff officers and by two local shepherds who acted as guides. Apparently, when Diebitsch rode up to the Guards Dragoons and initially ordered them to charge no one moved because no one knew who he was. Only when he opened his coat and displayed his orders and medals did he get a response. First one dragoon, then more and finally the whole regiment moved forward. Ermolov tried to stop this disorderly attack which he had not authorized but it was too late. Kovalsky records that the French cavalry panicked and fled at their approach and the infantry did the same after just one volley. The weak French response undoubtedly owed much to the fact that while the Guards Dragoons were threatening their front the Guards Lancers were driving deep into their right flank and their rear. Almost certainly it was the Lancers who did the most serious fighting because while the Dragoons’ losses were relatively modest, the Lancers lost one-third of their officers and men during the battle.77
Nevertheless the Guards cavalry’s attack was a triumphant success. By their own estimate, French losses were very heavy and Philippon’s attack was shattered. Sir Robert Wilson wrote that ‘the lancers and dragoons of the guard charged through garden-ground and ravines upon the right column, which threw down its arms and fled with the most rapid haste, but many hundreds were killed and several hundred made prisoners. The other column retired with more order but not less speed.’ Though on a smaller scale, the episode reminds one of the attack of the British heavy cavalry on d’Erlon’s infantry in the first stage of the battle of Waterloo. On that occasion, too, French infantry advancing in column and convinced that victory was in their grasp were hit unexpectedly by a mass of enemy cavalry. The Russian cavalry were much more disciplined than their British equivalents, however. With Gobrecht’s cavalry brigade deployed in the rear of the French columns they needed to be. The Russian counter-attack was not followed, in British style, by a mad pursuit into the arms of the enemy’s reserves. The order of the day of the commanding general of the Guards cavalry praised not just the courage and timing of the attack but also the ‘perfect obedience and attention to words of command and trumpet calls’ shown by the troops, and the fact that they remained ‘always ready to resume excellent formation to confront and defeat the enemy’.78
The rout of Philippon’s division ended the day’s fighting. For the Russians it had been a day of genuine glory. Roughly 14,700 Russian soldiers had kept some 30,000 French troops at bay. But glory had been very costly. No fewer than 6,000 Russians were dead or wounded. Until the very last stage of the battle all the fighting had been done by the infantry: of these 12,000 men, 5,200 were casualties, 2,800 of whom were Guardsmen and the rest from Eugen’s regiments. Among the wounded was Aleksandr Chicherin. Fixing a handkerchief to the tip of his sword so that his men could see him, Chicherin was hit in the shoulder blade while trying to lead forward his platoon of the Semenovskys. The doctors were unable to remove the bullet and he died in agony some weeks later in the Russian military hospital in Prague. On his deathbed he persuaded a rich relative to give 500 rubles to help soldiers of his regiment who had been wounded during the battle at Kulm.79
That evening the allied leaders in Teplitz decided to counter-attack the next day in order to drive Vandamme further from the defiles out of the Erzgebirge before he was reinforced by Napoleon, as all the allied generals expected him to be. The mood in Teplitz was anything but triumphant. The Dresden campaign had been a disaster and had cost huge numbers of men, especially in the Austrian regiments. Now Alexander’s Guards had also suffered terribly. During the battle for Dresden leadership and coordination in the allied high command had been woeful. Tensions were now running high between the Russians and Prussians on the one hand and the Austrians on the other. The Austrians were accused of having marched slowly, which was true, and fought badly, which was mostly unfair. But it was the case that the new recruits from Bohemia who filled up the ranks of Mesko and Klenau’s regiments were poorly clothed and trained, and had not been ready for the rigours of the campaign. On the other hand Schwarzenberg approached Francis II requesting permission to resign, justifiably exhausted and indignant at frequent Russo-Prussian disobedience to his orders. Meanwhile large numbers of Russian and Prussian troops were still stuck in the Erzgebirge and needed to be extracted and given time to recover.
One of the largest of these contingents was Lieutenant-General von Kleist’s Prussian Army Corps, which had retreated from Dresden mostly down the Old Teplitz Road through Glashütte and Fürstenwalde.
Although Saint-Cyr was supposedly pursuing the Prussians, in fact he lost touch with them after they left Glashütte. Kleist’s men began to arrive at Fürstenwalde by four o’clock in the afternoon of 29 August. Shortly before then Frederick William’s aide-de-camp, Count von Schweinitz, arrived with orders from the king for Kleist to get through the defiles into the Teplitz valley and go to the aid of Ostermann-Tolstoy. As Kleist told Schweinitz, by now it was too late in the day to do this and in any case his exhausted troops had to rest before being called on for further efforts. Schweinitz informed Kleist that the defiles out of the Erzgebirge at Teplitz and Graupen were completely choked by Russian troops and baggage. This meant that it was impossible for Kleist to get into the Teplitz valley from Fürstenwalde by marching south or south-west.
That evening another envoy, Colonel von Schöler, arrived from the monarchs with orders for Kleist to march south-eastwards via Nollendorf into Vandamme’s rear. In fact, however, by the time Schöler arrived Kleist had already reconnoitred the road to Nollendorf and had decided on this move for himself. A key figure in this decision was Kleist’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl von Grolmann, who had studied Frederick the Great’s campaigns in the region and knew the terrain well. Kleist’s decision was extremely courageous. By marching on to the Teplitz highway at Nollendorf he would be between Vandamme’s corps and the reinforcements which Kleist, Vandamme himself and indeed almost every other general in the neighbourhood assumed Napoleon was sending down the highway to support the incursion into Bohemia. Kleist and Grolmann knew and weighed the risks and nevertheless committed themselves to marching via Nollendorf from first light. The allied victory at the battle of Kulm on 30 August owed much to luck and accident but, contrary to some accounts, there was nothing accidental about Kleist’s appearance in Vandamme’s rear.80
Colonel von Schöler got back to allied headquarters at 3 a.m. on 30 August, woke Diebitsch and informed him of Kleist’s intentions. For the first time the headquarters staff began to see the possibility of a resounding victory over Vandamme. At first light Diebitsch and Toll set off to reconnoitre the battlefield and plan the allied attack. By the normal standards of the Russian high command – or perhaps of human nature – Toll and Diebitsch ought to have been enemies. They were the ablest Russian staff officers of their day. Until Kutuzov’s death Toll had been the leading influence at headquarters as regards strategy and had won the confidence of Alexander. When Wittgenstein took over the command, Toll was pushed aside and Diebitsch became the key adviser on strategy to both the commander-in-chief and the emperor. He preserved this position under Barclay de Tolly. There was initially some tension between Toll and Diebitsch. Most men would have been very jealous of the latter’s success, not least because Diebitsch was eight years younger than Toll. Both men, and especially Toll, were famous for passionate temperaments, great energy and very strong wills. This could easily have made matters worse between them. Very soon, however, mutual respect won out. To the great credit of both men, they understood each other’s intelligence, resolution and absolute commitment to victory and to the army’s well-being. By the time of the autumn campaign they had become firm allies and close friends, which they remained until Diebitsch’s death in 1831.81
The two generals returned to Barclay’s headquarters convinced that the Russians must pin down Vandamme’s right and centre between Straden and Priesten, while Colloredo and Bianchi’s Austrian divisions, supported by Russian cavalry, worked their way through and around the French left flank in the south. They had spotted the weakness of Vandamme’s left, his vulnerability to an outflanking movement, and the fact that the Austrian approach could to a great extent be concealed behind the Strisowitz heights. If, as was now expected, Kleist struck into Vandamme’s rear at the same time as the Austrians were turning his flank, the possibilities of a decisive victory were clear. Without Kleist the allies outnumbered Vandamme by perhaps five to four. If the Prussians joined the battle, however, then allied superiority would be massive. Barclay, who commanded the allied forces on the battlefield, accepted Diebitsch’s and Toll’s suggestions and the counter-attack was launched in the morning of 30 August.82
For once in August 1813, things went more or less as the allied commanders had planned. It was in fact Vandamme who restarted the battle at seven o’clock by again trying to batter his way through the Russians at Straden. Overnight the First Guards Division had withdrawn into reserve, to be replaced by the Second Guards and the First Grenadier divisions. Pyshnitsky’s regiments, cut off on 28 August, had rejoined Eugen’s corps. The Russians stopped Vandamme’s attack without much trouble. Colloredo went into action at about 9.30. He quickly spotted the possibilities of outflanking the French troops facing him. Barclay agreed to Colloredo’s proposal to shift to his right and Bianchi’s division moved up to fill the gap. The threat from the south caught the French by surprise and they were unable to stop the Austrian infantry’s advance, which kept threatening to outflank them on their left. Within an hour the Austrian infantry was over the Strisowitz heights and advancing deep into Vandamme’s left flank towards Kulm and Auschine. The Austrians were well supported by Russian cavalry, which overran one big French battery and kept the French infantry in a constant state of alarm. Austrian and Russian artillery got up onto all the heights to the south of Vandamme’s position and inflicted heavy casualties on the French infantry as they tried to make a stand in Kulm and Auschine.
At this point Kleist’s corps of 25,000 infantry and 104 guns joined the fray. Amidst the confusion of battle it was initially unclear both to the French and to the allied commanders whether these new troops were the Prussians or Napoleon’s reinforcements. Colloredo, for instance, stopped his advance until the situation was clarified. Once Kleist’s artillery opened fire, however, all doubts disappeared. Vandamme’s situation was now desperate but he responded calmly and courageously. He accepted the need to sacrifice his artillery and planned to stage a fighting withdrawal in the west against the Russians and in the south against the Austrians, while breaking through to the east against the Prussian forces on the Teplitz highway. His plan partly succeeded in that much of his cavalry did break through Kleist’s corps and make its escape up the highway. This happened above all because most of Kleist’s units were Landwehr battalions filled with exhausted militiamen, very many of whom were seeing action for the first time. Trained infantry would have deployed across the road and stopped the cavalry’s advance but the Landwehr battalions panicked and scattered into the surrounding forest. Kleist’s corps did, however, rally in time to block the French infantry which were trying to retreat in their cavalry’s wake.
By two o’clock in the afternoon the battle was over. Vandamme himself was captured by the Cossacks and delivered to the allied monarchs. The Russian officer who rescued him from these Cossacks recalls that, in the mistaken belief that he was a general, Vandamme handed over his sword to him. The gesture was accompanied by a rather theatrical speech: ‘I surrender to you my sword which has served me for many years to the glory of my country.’ By the time the speech was made for the third time, when Vandamme and his sword were finally handed over to Alexander, it had lost some of its sprightliness. The monarchs treated him politely but the German civilian population was less generous, since he was notorious throughout Germany for his cruelty and extortion. Everywhere he showed himself he was greeted with jeers, insults and sometimes stones: shouts of ‘tiger’, ‘crocodile’ and ‘poisonous snake’ were interspersed with good wishes for his trip to Siberia. In fact when he got to Moscow Vandamme was well treated by the local nobility until an indignant Alexander reminded the city’s governor-general that Vandamme’s harsh and avaricious behaviour had made him detestable even to his own troops. The emperor directed that Vandamme be removed to Viatka. This was not quite Siberia but it was the nearest thing to it in European Russia.83
The allies also claimed 82 guns and more than 8,000 prisoners, including Vandamme’s chief of staff. At least as many Frenchmen were killed and wounded, and this came on top of the heavy casualties of the previous days. Vandamme’s First Corps essentially ceased to exist. Even so, in terms of sheer numbers the allies had lost more men in the Dresden campaign as a whole than Napoleon. Not only could they afford to do so, however, but their biggest losses – Mesko’s raw recruits – could quickly be replaced because the Austrian mobilization of manpower was finally cranking into top gear. Nor in any case were numbers the key point. Victory at Kulm made a huge difference to allied morale and unity. The great tensions between the allies created by defeat at Dresden were very much reduced, not least because of the fact that Kulm was in the fullest sense an allied victory. If the Russians were the heroes on 29 August, Colloredo’s Austrians and Kleist’s Prussians had made the biggest contribution to victory on the following day.
An officer in Alexander’s entourage recalled that as the emperor rode across the battlefield of Kulm after Vandamme’s surrender ‘joy shone on his face, for this was the first total defeat of the enemy in which he had participated personally’. All his life he had dreamed of military glory. Until now his dreams had been mocked. At Austerlitz his army had been routed and he himself humiliated. In 1812 his closest advisers had conspired to remove him from the army as a nuisance, and the emperor was far too intelligent and sensitive not to have seen through their arguments. All his enormous efforts thus far in 1813 had led to defeat at Lutzen, Bautzen and Dresden. Now at last there was a spectacular victory and one which was owed above all to his Guards, who were the apple of his eye.
With his cup already overflowing, just after Vandamme had been dispatched to Teplitz the emperor received news of Blücher’s victory at the river Katzbach. Even his normally restrained entourage burst into resounding cheers. Riding back to Teplitz, Alexander overtook carts carrying the Russian wounded. ‘The emperor rode up to them, thanked them, asked them how he could help them, and called them his comrades in arms.’ To do him justice, if he had never quite shared his men’s hunger or their bivouacs, he had frequently risked his life on the battlefield and he had carried mental burdens of which few of them could conceive. To his dying day Alexander talked frequently of the two days of battle near Kulm. In time he was to witness other victories and triumphs, ‘but the battle of Kulm remained always his favourite memory’.84
Rewards poured down on the heads of generals and even soldiers, with the partial exception of the brave men of Eugen’s and Helfreich’s divisions, whose enormous services and sacrifices were cast into the shade by the attention given to the Guards. Barclay de Tolly was awarded the Grand Cross of St George, the soldier’s ultimate accolade, granted to only thirteen military leaders in the whole history of the Russian Empire.85 Barclay richly deserved this award for everything he had done for the army as both war minister and commander-in-chief. Never did he deserve it less than in August 1813, however, when his performance was often mediocre. In this respect Barclay was rather typical of the allied leadership during the Dresden campaign.
Undoubtedly the allies had been extremely lucky. There can have been few victories in history won by such a chaotic and inefficient command structure. Not merely could the campaign have ended in disaster, in all logic it ought to have done so once the retreat from Dresden began. The allies owed much to luck, though also to the courage and endurance of their troops, especially of the Russians on the first day of the battle of Kulm. Some of the allied generals had performed well. Kleist had shown real courage in advancing into Vandamme’s rear. Ermolov displayed inspiring leadership on the first day at Kulm, and Colloredo did well on the second. Above all, Eugen of Württemberg stands out as the allied general who contributed most to making victory possible.
But Napoleon and his generals had also made a big contribution. In Vandamme’s case this had less to do with his performance at Kulm than in the three days before the battle, when he had allowed the Russians to hold his far larger corps at bay and to sneak back to Bohemia under his nose. Saint-Cyr was also to blame for losing touch with Kleist’s corps and thereby allowing it to intervene in the battle of Kulm. Above all, however, the disaster was Napoleon’s fault. He had explicitly ordered Vandamme to advance into Bohemia and equally explicitly had ordered the Young Guard to remain on the Teplitz highway right back at Pirna. These two commands were the key reasons for Vandamme’s destruction. More important than the loss of a single corps was the fact that in the three days after the battle of Dresden Napoleon had it within his power to destroy the main allied army and end the war. Not merely did he fail to grasp this opportunity but he made a big contribution to turning possible total victory into a very serious defeat.
As usual, Napoleon remained calm in the face of defeat. Kulm was not the only blow. At the same time news came in of MacDonald’s rout at the river Katzbach on 26 August and of the defeat of Marshal Oudinot’s advance on Berlin at Gross Beeren by Bernadotte’s Army of the North on 23 August.
Bernadotte’s army was made up of three ‘national’ contingents: Swedes, Russians and Prussians. Of these the Swedes were the smallest and the Prussians the largest. In the middle were Winzengerode’s Russian Army Corps of 32,000 men and 120 guns. Histories of the Army of the North’s 1813 campaign are always dominated by the Prussian perspective. Not only were the Prussians the largest contingent but it was also they who played much the biggest role in the two battles which defeated Napoleon’s attempts to seize Berlin: at Gross Beeren on 23 August and at Dennewitz on 6 September. The commander of Winzengerode’s infantry was Count Mikhail Vorontsov, an outstanding general who distinguished himself on many occasions in 1812–14. The only time in which he and his troops had no chance to show their quality was, however, during the autumn 1813 campaign. By contrast, the role of the Prussian forces in the battles to defend their capital understandably became part of Prusso-German mythology.
So too did the ferocious conflicts between Bernadotte and his Prussian subordinates. The senior Prussian officer in Bernadotte’s army was Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow.
Bülow was an easier subordinate to deal with than Yorck, but that was not saying much. He was a clever, honest and well-educated man and a very competent general: he was also blunt, outspoken, self-confident and possessed of a violent temper. Bülow had little time for Frenchmen and none at all for the voluble Gascon renegade who had somehow clambered next to the Swedish throne and who, in Bülow’s view, seemed certain to sell out the Swedes, the allies and anyone else who got in the way of his ambition. It did not help relations that after the rout at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 Bülow’s detachment had in fact surrendered to Bernadotte’s corps. According to one neutral historian, the Prussian general never forgot this humiliation.86
Bülow and Bernadotte had different views on how best to fight the war. Left to his own devices Bernadotte would have staged a fighting retreat towards his bases on the Baltic coast in the event of an advance by Napoleon, which he was convinced would soon materialize. He was cautious, nervous and very much in awe of Napoleon’s genius. Bülow, far more confident and aggressive, was not just determined to defend Berlin but wanted to attack the French forces threatening the city and keep them as far from the capital as possible. As often happened in the allied armies in 1812–14 differences of opinion on strategy were quickly interpreted in political terms and seen as betrayal of the common cause. The events in Hamburg in the spring had confirmed Prussian suspicions that Bernadotte was not committed to the liberation of Germany and might even be constrained by his own dreams of replacing Napoleon on the throne of France. The commander-in-chief’s caution in the autumn campaign was soon interpreted in this light.87
Some Russians shared this dim view of Bernadotte. On 3 September Alexander’s representative at Blücher’s headquarters wrote to Petr Volkonsky to protest at Bernadotte’s inactivity. As always, such letters to Volkonsky were really for the attention of Alexander: Volkonsky was merely a filter. Baron Tuyll wrote that ‘the crown prince of Sweden has not taken one step forward in nine days, that is to say since 23 August, though according to the overall plan of operations this was the moment to undertake a vigorous offensive’.88
The emperor’s chief representative at Bernadotte’s headquarters was Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo. Alexander’s instructions to Pozzo were to make sure that Bernadotte used his army to serve the common cause and not purely Swedish interests, let alone any hopes Bernadotte might have about his future role in French politics. So long as the latter were simply Bernadotte’s happy daydreams they could be indulged, as must also be Sweden’s legitimate claim to Norway after the war. But Pozzo was warned to be very much on his guard against Bernadotte and to ally himself with Sir Charles Stewart, the British representative at the crown prince’s headquarters. Alexander told Pozzo that in this instance Russian and British interests were identical: they were to ensure that Bernadotte used all the troops entrusted to him in the common cause and did not either paralyse them or misuse them for purely Swedish and secondary operations. Pozzo was the perfect man for this commission. By 1812 Alexander had gathered into his entourage a considerable gang of what one might describe as dyed-in-the-wool foreign anti-Bonapartists. The Baron vom Stein was the most famous of these men and Winzengerode was also a charter-member of the group. The anti-Bonapartist credentials of Pozzo di Borgo were soundest of all: of Corsican descent, he had been an enemy of Napoleon in French and Corsican politics since 1793. Pozzo was just the right bloodhound to set on that veteran of French revolutionary politics, the former republican, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Not surprisingly, both Sir Charles Stewart and Baron vom Stein thought highly of Pozzo.89
The Russian troops in Bernadotte’s army seem on the contrary to have liked the crown prince and the feeling was mutual. With fine tact Bernadotte was much inclined to tell the Prussians and Swedes that they should model themselves on their splendid Russian comrades-in-arms. His headquarters were always guarded by Russian troops, whom he treated indulgently, making sure they were well fed and got their vodka. He tried hard to ensure that all his soldiers were quartered whenever possible in houses, making them bivouac only when strictly necessary. The Russian soldiers appreciated his attentiveness and rather took to Bernadotte’s Gascon flamboyance and eccentricity. Bernadotte was also polite and popular in the circle of his Russian senior officers. Vladimir Löwenstern wrote in his memoirs that Bernadotte conducted a model campaign in the autumn of 1813 despite the difficulties of his position in front of Berlin. As to Aleksandr Chernyshev, who commanded the Russian ‘flying detachments’, and Mikhail Vorontsov, they seem to have reserved their bile for Winzengerode, whom they correctly saw as a third-rate general, much inferior to themselves.90
Winzengerode himself reported to Alexander that Bernadotte’s headquarters’ staff were slow-moving. Like virtually all observers, he complained that the crown prince ‘acts with great caution’ after the battle of Gross Beeren and had failed to exploit the allied victory. On the whole, however, Winzengerode seems to have enjoyed good relations with Bernadotte. Like his commander-in-chief, Winzengerode was not at all anxious to advance boldly into Napoleon’s lair. In addition, he had his own axe to grind as regards the Prussians, above all because of their failure to supply his troops adequately, as they were supposed to do according to the Russo-Prussian convention. Winzengerode’s complaints on this score began in July and continued throughout the campaign. In one of his earliest letters, for example, he complained that not only his own corps but even Russian batteries lent to the Prussians to make up for their shortage of artillery were going unfed.91
Faced by Prussian failure to supply their troops adequately, the Russians resorted to their usual ploy of squeezing the Poles. In the first week of August Barclay de Tolly had ordered another large requisition in Poland, designed to tap the current harvest and above all to feed the Russian corps in the Army of Silesia. The levy included huge amounts of flour for the soldiers and oats for the Russian horses, and 295,000 litres of vodka. The Prussian government appealed to Barclay to use some of this food to lessen the burden on the Berlin region of feeding Winzengerode’s troops and their horses. One week after Barclay issued his orders for the new requisition, part of the levy was diverted to Winzengerode. This included more than 500,000 kilograms of groats for the men’s porridge, 87,000 litres of vodka and 524,000 kilograms of meat.92
Immediately the armistice had ended on 10 August Winzengerode ordered raiding and scouting parties to move out around the western flank of Oudinot’s army and into its rear. Rumours that Napoleon himself was moving up towards Oudinot’s headquarters even persuaded the Russian commander that he might seize the French emperor. Löwenstern was given a detachment of Cossacks and the task of bagging Napoleon. Moving southwards before swinging into Oudinot’s rear, Löwenstern’s Cossacks promptly pillaged a juicy manor house they encountered en route. Löwenstern records that he gave the men one hundred lashes each and degraded an NCO but he could not get most of the plunder back because his Cossacks were much too experienced in hiding it away. Löwenstern’s scouts quickly discovered that Napoleon was far away in Silesia. Much closer was Oudinot’s weakly guarded treasury, on which Löwenstern pounced with glee. The Russian colonel was something of a pirate by nature. In Petersburg before the war he won and more often lost vast sums at cards. During the war he combined great courage and boldness in action with the seduction of women all the way from Vilna to Paris. Even so, he was in his way a rather honourable pirate. Although he records that prisoners of war were a big nuisance for a raiding party, he always took them along with him and he despised Figner for murdering his French captives.
Oudinot’s treasury contained the equivalent of 2.4 million paper rubles in coin. Löwenstern insists in his memoirs that by Russian military convention the treasure was his, since he had captured it sword in hand. Getting it home safely was quite a challenge. Judging by Löwenstern’s memoirs, evading the French was less of a problem than beating off ‘allies’ anxious to share his spoils. The first threat was his own Cossacks. Russian military convention may (or may not) have made Löwenstern the rightful owner of his spoil but Cossack convention was more democratic. The Cossacks were the descendants of full-time plunderers who traditionally divided up their booty equally, with a special bonus for their commander. No one had quite got round to codifying how this tradition might be modified when in the service of the emperor. To avoid misunderstandings, Löwenstern gave each Cossack 100 silver francs and promised them the same again when they got the booty back to Berlin. His next success was to outwit and evade the neighbouring raiding party of Cossacks under Colonel Prendel, who felt an urgent need to help protect Löwenstern’s loot from the awful possibility of recapture by the French.
Having got back to Berlin Löwenstern then faced the most dangerous enemy of all in the person of the city’s fierce military governor, General L’Estocq. At a time when Prussia was desperate for cash, L’Estocq saw no reason to allow piracy to succeed untaxed and under his nose. There followed a strange hide-and-seek across Berlin as the governor tried to discover Löwenstern’s carts and their contents. By the time he found them Löwenstern had his loot safely hidden. He then paid off a number of possible threats to his haul. In his memoirs he adds that old acquaintances popped up from all sides and ‘it was a real joy to me to be useful to my friends’. Prince Serge Volkonsky, Winzengerode’s duty general, was very much an old friend. He records that Löwenstern’s haul of foreign coin was so enormous that it depressed the exchange rate of the Prussian taler in the entire Berlin region. Judging by Löwenstern’s memoirs, business also increased dramatically among the best whorehouses and champagne-sellers in the Prussian capital.93
Meanwhile Napoleon was making the first of his two attempts to take Berlin, led in this case by Marshal Oudinot. Napoleon’s obsession with capturing Berlin was fortunate for the allies. Had he simply masked Bernadotte’s army he could have transferred substantial forces elsewhere. Bernadotte is most unlikely to have gone over to a bold offensive. He would instead have sat down to besiege Wittenberg, since he was determined to hold a fortified crossing over the Elbe before moving across the river and exposing himself to a sudden counter-thrust from his former boss. Not merely did Napoleon order first Oudinot and then Ney to march on Berlin but he also gave them too few soldiers of too low quality to perform their assigned task. He did this partly because he despised the Prussian infantry and discounted its potential on the battlefield.
Oudinot bungled his advance and was defeated at Gross Beeren on 23 August by Bülow’s corps. On 27 August, the day the allied retreat from Dresden began, a strong division under General Girard, advancing from Wittenberg to support Oudinot, was annihilated at Hagelberg. The Russians were not involved at Gross Beeren, with the important exception of Russian batteries permanently attached to Bülow’s corps to make up for the Prussians’ own shortage of artillery. Winzengerode’s corps stood at the right of the allied line covering Berlin, whereas Oudinot attempted to break through on the left. The battle was over before the Russians had time to intervene. The French commander advanced in such a manner that his columns were widely separated and unable to support each other. Therefore the two Prussian corps of Bülow and Tauenzien were more than adequate to defeat him without Russian help. At Hagelberg, however, Chernyshev threw the enemy into confusion by charging with his Cossacks unexpectedly into their rear in the middle of the battle and made a big contribution to their disintegration.94
The second French advance on Berlin was led by Marshal Ney. It was defeated at the battle of Dennewitz on 6 September. Once again the French advanced against the allied left, which was manned by Bülow and Tauenzien’s Prussians. On this occasion, as at Gross Beeren, Winzengerode’s corps was deployed on the allied right and only part of its cavalry and artillery participated in the battle. Even they became involved only in its final stages. No one could blame the Russians for this. Their deployment and movements were subject to Bernadotte’s orders. But the crown prince’s actions have ever since been subject to severe criticism, especially of course from historians of a Prusso-German nationalist persuasion. On the other hand, Bernadotte has also had numerous defenders, including probably the best historian of the campaign, the Prussian general staff colonel and military historian, Rudolph von Friederich.95
Bernadotte’s enemies argue that he moved too slowly to the Prussians’ aid, left the dirty work to them, and then took credit for himself, the Swedes and the Russians. His supporters claim on the contrary that he had no alternative but to deploy on a broad front to cover the various possible lines of advance on Berlin, and that once he discovered that Ney was moving against Bülow he came to the Prussians’ aid with all possible speed. They stress the big contribution made by the Russian cavalry and artillery in the final stage of the battle. They also argue that even if Bülow had been forced to fall back at that time, by then the exhausted enemy army would merely have advanced into the jaws of the Russians and Swedes.
No one denies that the Prussian troops fought with great courage for many hours. Bülow himself directed his men with skill, calm and good timing. The Landwehr regiments performed far better than the militia units in Kleist’s corps at the battle of Kulm one week before. Also unarguable is the fact that if Prussian courage and grit to a great extent won the battle of Dennewitz, the French commanders did much to lose it. Though in principle the Prussians should have been heavily outnumbered, in practice Ney never succeeded in getting all three of his corps into action on the battlefield. The story was a rather familiar one. Ney was present on the northern half of the battlefield. He became wholly absorbed in the struggle going on around him and lost his sense of the overall situation, summoning the whole of Oudinot’s corps to his own assistance and thereby exposing Reynier’s Saxon corps on his southern wing to defeat. Oudinot, deeply insulted at being removed from overall command, was happy to contribute to his successor’s defeat by dumb obedience to stupid orders. Bülow took advantage of Oudinot’s march northwards to launch a counter-attack against Reynier’s Saxons. Shortly afterwards the Russian cavalry and horse artillery drove into Reynier’s open left flank, turning defeat into rout. Ivan Liprandi wrote that the concentrated fire they brought down on the wavering Saxons was the most professional performance by the Russian artillery which he witnessed in the course of the entire war.96
The historian of the St Petersburg Dragoon Regiment, one of the Russian cavalry units which struck the French left towards the end of the battle, wrote that the Russian cavalry played a decisive role in rescuing the exhausted Prussian infantry, scattering the French artillery, panicking the enemy infantry into flight, and then overrunning some of their rearguards. General Kamensky, who wrote this history, complained that foreigners never recognized the Russian contribution, though in fact his analysis of the battle is not too far removed from that of Rudolph von Friederich. Serge Volkonsky was as biased a nationalist as any Prussian historian of the battle of Dennewitz. He wrote (absurdly) in his memoirs that ‘the whole honour’ of the victory belonged ‘to Bernadotte’s dispositions and to the boldness of the Russian and Swedish artillery and the attack of the Russian cavalry’. In a much lower key, the dispute has something in common with subsequent arguments about the Prussian role at Waterloo, and was an almost inevitable aspect of coalition warfare. It has to be said, however, that the Prussian army did far more hard fighting at Waterloo than the Russians at Dennewitz, as in fact the Russian official history made clear. The one point on which all Prussian and Russian sources agreed was that Bernadotte failed to pursue Ney’s fleeing army with sufficient determination, at a time when a full-blooded pursuit might well have destroyed it.97
Even without this, Ney’s army had suffered badly. The Russians reckoned that he had lost up to 18,000 men, including more than 13,000 prisoners. Since the latter were mostly scooped up during the cavalry’s pursuit of the fleeing French their number does say something about the Russian contribution to victory. Overall, in the first month of the war Napoleon had lost 100,000 men and more than 200 guns. The allies had lost barely 50 guns and not more than 85,000 soldiers. Reinforcements were flowing in to fill the allied ranks. By the time the advance on Leipzig began at the beginning of October Schwarzenberg had replaced all the Austrians lost at Dresden, and the new recruits were on the whole better trained than Mesko’s men had been in August. Russian ranks were replenished by more arriving reserves and men returning from hospitals. Above all, they were augmented by the nearly 60,000 men of Bennigsen’s Army of Poland. It is true that almost half of Bennigsen’s infantry were Count Petr Tolstoy’s militia, who were only really usable for sieges, but the rest of his infantry and all his cavalry and artillery were good troops.98