The Battle of Leipzig

The battle of Dennewitz ended the first phase of the autumn campaign. The rest of September was a hiatus. The second and decisive phase of the campaign began in early October, culminating in the battle of Leipzig. Napoleon would have liked to break the stalemate in September and impose his will on the enemy in his usual fashion. His strategic situation and, above all, his losses made this impossible, however. At the beginning of the autumn campaign Napoleon had hoped to deal the allies a knockout blow by leading his Guards and reserves northwards to strike against Berlin. Such a move was now unthinkable: the men could not be spared from the armies watching Blücher and Schwarzenberg. Napoleon restored MacDonald’s army to some degree of order and attempted an advance on Blücher but the latter merely withdrew and dared Napoleon to pursue him across eastern Saxony and Silesia, thereby abandoning Dresden to Schwarzenberg.

In mid-September Napoleon moved southwards down the Teplitz highway and into the Erzgebirge, with the aim of defeating the main allied army. Pursuing Schwarzenberg’s powerful army and trying to bring it to battle deep in Bohemia was unlikely to be successful, however. Schwarzenberg could find plenty of strong defensive positions. Meanwhile Napoleon’s communications would be vulnerable to swarming allied cavalry and Blücher – even perhaps Bernadotte – would be at the gates of Dresden and devastating his base in Saxony. By now, unless he decided to abandon central Germany, Napoleon’s only real option was to wait for the allies to invade Saxony and then try to exploit their mistakes.

The initiative lay in the hands of the allies. No invasion of Saxony was possible, however, unless the Army of Bohemia advanced back across the Erzgebirge. Schwarzenberg was not yet willing to try this again. In part he needed time to receive and train the Austrian troops who were to fill the gaps left by the battle of Dresden. During the chaotic retreat through the mountains in late August many carts and more supplies and ammunition had been lost. These too needed to be replaced before there could be any thought of a further offensive. Many horses had lost their shoes amidst the mud and stones of the mountain roads and, above all, during the steep descent into the Teplitz valley. In September 1813 horseshoes were in very short supply in Bohemia and had to be shipped in from elsewhere.

In general, supplying the allied armies in northern Bohemia was difficult and resulted in many disagreements between the Austrian, Russian and Prussian troops. The Austrians accused the Russians of marauding. The Russians replied that their troops were forced to hunt for food because the Austrians were failing to feed them, as they were obliged to do by the agreement between the two governments which covered the upkeep of the Russian troops while they were stationed on Austrian territory. Kankrin subsequently stated that there was in principle nothing wrong with the Austro-Russian agreement: the only, and far more costly, alternative would have been to use private contractors. But the Austrians had failed to implement the terms of the agreement efficiently. Ultimately, one partial solution to problems of supply was to move much of the cavalry towards central Bohemia where forage was abundant, until the allies were ready to resume the offensive.1

Strategic considerations also delayed allied operations. The near-disaster in late August had confirmed existing Austrians fears about the perils of advancing down the roads through the Erzgebirge. It had also provided ample justification for their concern that Napoleon would use their advance into the Erzgebirge to strike into their right and rear in Bohemia. Schwarzenberg would not move forward again into Saxony unless he was confident that he was well protected against any such threat. The problem was set out rather well in a memorandum by Jomini of 3 September. The main army needed to invade Saxony with at least 170,000 men, of whom 20,000 must be left to watch Dresden. It could not simultaneously detach sufficient troops to guard the line of the Elbe south of Dresden against the kind of strike contemplated by Napoleon and actually attempted by Vandamme in August. Jomini’s solution was the one favoured by Schwarzenberg and agreed by the monarchs: Blücher’s army must march into Bohemia to protect the right flank of the main army as it advanced across the Erzgebirge. Should no threat materialize from Napoleon, the Army of Silesia could then itself join the invasion of Saxony by marching up the Teplitz highway to Dresden and beyond.2

The victory of Dennewitz and the arrival of reinforcements for the Army of Bohemia changed some of Jomini’s numbers without altering the basic strategic issue. Not at all surprisingly, Blücher was deeply unwilling to lose his independence and become a mere adjunct of Schwarzenberg’s lumbering army. He wrote to Knesebeck as follows: for the ‘sake of the common good, preserve me from a union with the main army; what can such a vast mass of men achieve in terrain of that sort?’ Another letter from Blücher, drafted by Gneisenau and dated 11 September, went directly to Alexander and stressed the impact on Bernadotte if Blücher moved away from him and towards Bohemia: ‘The battle of 6 September [i.e. Dennewitz] has certainly changed the military position within the theatre but the crown prince of Sweden would probably straight away and with good reason fall into inactivity if he noticed that the Army of Silesia was moving a long way away from him.’3

Caution was required when writing on such delicate themes. Along with the letter, Blücher also sent his excellent staff officer, Major Rühle von Lilienberg, to pass on his views orally to Alexander and Frederick William. Rühle stressed Blücher and Gneisenau’s opinion that ‘so long as the crown prince is deployed on his own in a separate theatre of war we can expect no activity from him because of his political position’. The combination of written and oral urgings convinced the monarchs and had a decisive influence on the future of the campaign. Blücher was allowed to remain independent and to plan his crossing of the Elbe and link-up with Bernadotte. Nesselrode wrote to Pozzo to keep the crown prince in line during the forthcoming military operation. Meanwhile Bennigsen’s Army of Poland would be diverted from its march across Silesia and would instead be brought southwards to Bohemia to guard Schwarzenberg’s right and rear.4

On 13 September Alexander wrote to Blücher to tell him that General von dem Knesebeck was coming to him with instructions which would give Blücher wide leeway to plan his forthcoming operations. On the same day he wrote to Bennigsen ordering him to march to Bohemia. The emperor simply told Bennigsen, ‘I think that it would be difficult to turn him [Blücher] from the direction he has taken’, and gave the commander of the Army of Poland the march-routes he was to follow into Bohemia. He stressed the urgency of the movement and that Bennigsen was to report daily. Bennigsen received Alexander’s orders at Hainau on 17 September. He immediately stirred up his corps commanders, allowing Count Tolstoy’s militia just one day’s rest at Liegnitz and telling their general to leave behind any units incapable of combat in the field. It would take Bennigsen’s men at least two weeks, however, to reach Bohemia along bad roads, in areas already eaten out by passing troops and in dreadful weather. Bennigsen subsequently reported daily to Alexander on all these problems but he did add that the Austrian commissariat on this occasion had done a good job in keeping his army fed.5

While Bennigsen’s men were on the march most of the allied troops were resting. Military operations were largely confined to the light troops which by now were swarming in Napoleon’s rear and doing great damage to his supplies. Both east and west of Leipzig, Russian, Prussian and Austrian light cavalry and Cossacks forced Napoleon to divert ever larger escorts to supply trains. Even this did not guarantee safety. On 11 September a supply convoy west of Leipzig with an escort of 4,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry was overwhelmed by an allied force. Alexander ordered Blücher to release six Cossack regiments which he wanted to redeploy behind enemy lines in western Saxony. Through Petr Volkonsky he requested Platov to lead them, writing him a letter of an exquisite politeness, worthy of the days when the ataman of the Don Cossacks was truly an independent potentate. Platov took the job and justified Alexander’s trust. Near Pennig on 28 September, together with other allied light cavalry units, he routed General Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s 2nd Guards Cavalry Division, which Napoleon had sent back to the rear to deal with the allied partisans.6

Even more spectacular were the operations of the Army of the North’s Russian light forces commanded by Aleksandr Chernyshev. Chernyshev writes that he prevailed on Bernadotte to allow him ten days in which he could operate behind enemy lines west of the Elbe according to his own plans and initiative. His force consisted of five Cossack regiments, six weak squadrons of regular cavalry and four guns. Crossing the Elbe on the night of 14 September, Chernyshev decided to head westwards for Kassel, the capital of Jérôme Bonaparte’s tottering puppet kingdom of Westphalia. His journal states that in part he preferred this goal to Leipzig because the French forces were so numerous and so well organized around the latter. Chernyshev argued that a successful attack on Kassel could spark off revolt throughout the region.

He moved quickly and secretly, covering 85 kilometres in one day alone, and attacked Kassel early in the morning of 29 September. A combination of surprise, courage, bluff and French awareness of their deep unpopularity among the local population led to the flight of King Jérôme, the surrender of his capital, and the capture of extensive stores and a war chest of 79,000 talers. Chernyshev was no pirate: he distributed 15,000 of the talers to his men and sent the rest back to Winzengerode, before evacuating the city. His journal states that if he had found sufficient weapons in the city he would have armed civilian volunteers and tried to hold on to Kassel until relieved. His raid had been a spectacular affair and his boldness and leadership were once again in evidence. On the other hand, unlike on previous occasions when his raids sometimes had major strategic value, it is not obvious what the temporary capture of Kassel contributed to the allied cause in autumn 1813. What really counted in terms of undermining Napoleon’s position in western Germany was the secret negotiations Metternich was conducting with the Confederation of the Rhine states, which were now on the verge of bringing Bavaria into the allied camp. Above all what mattered was the massive battle about to take place at Leipzig, which would decide the fate of Germany and perhaps Europe. Unlike Platov and the other partisan commanders in Saxony, Chernyshev did not weaken Napoleon’s main army by diverting its troops or stopping its supplies. On this occasion he was the star of a brilliant but largely irrelevant sideshow.7

Meanwhile Bennigsen’s army was heading towards Bohemia. In its ranks marched a young militia officer called Andrei Raevsky. As a militiaman, Raevsky’s perspective was somewhat different to that of the regular officers. His memoirs celebrate the self-sacrifice of nobles who have volunteered to abandon home and family despite in many cases having earned a peaceful retirement after years of service to their country. Full of pride that the cream of the local community is offering itself up as a patriotic sacrifice, he says not one word about the peasant militiamen they commanded. In that respect there is a strong contrast between Raevsky’s memoirs and the diary of Aleksandr Chicherin, with its sensitive and humane comments about the men in the ranks of the Semenovsky Guards.

In most ways, however, Raevsky’s memoirs are typical of the writings of Russian officers who made the long march through Poland and Silesia into Bohemia. He contrasted Polish squalor and poverty with the wealth and tidiness of Silesia. When he got to Bohemia he noted that the locals were fellow Slavs and added how much less pleasant they were than the Germans of Silesia. Not only were they much poorer and less clean, they were also far meaner and less welcoming than the Germans as regards the arriving Russian army. Like many of his peers, Raevsky was uplifted by a sense of Russian power, prestige and generosity. He felt proud that Russians were not just defeating Napoleon but also liberating Europe from his yoke. His memoirs are also in part a romantic travelogue. At Leutmeritz, for instance, he recalls that the Russian militia came upon the wagon-train of the main army: ‘a long row of carts, horses beyond number, everywhere the smoke of campfires with the Bashkir and Kalmyks who crowd around them reminding one of the wild nomadic tribes who roam on the steppes of the Urals and on the banks of the stormy [river] Enisei’.8

At Leutmeritz Bennigsen received Alexander’s orders for the coming campaign. His chief task was to defend the main army’s bases and communications in Bohemia. If Napoleon invaded the province then Bennigsen was to fall back on the strong defensive position behind the river Eger. If on the contrary the French moved against the main army then Bennigsen was to advance up the Teplitz highway into their rear. On 30 September General Dokhturov’s men arrived in the Teplitz valley and began to occupy the former bivouacs of the Army of Bohemia. The Leipzig campaign was about to begin.9

Schwarzenberg’s advance guard began to move northwards on 27 September. On this occasion the Army of Bohemia would be using just one of the two highways through the Erzgebirge, in other words the road from Kommotau through Chemnitz to Leipzig. Inevitably this slowed down its movements. Both Schwarzenberg and Barclay were acutely conscious of the army’s vulnerability to a sudden attack by Napoleon as it emerged from the mountains. With so much of the light cavalry away in raiding parties around Leipzig, reconnaissance was a problem. Wittgenstein and Kleinau commanded the leading allied corps: the former had no Cossacks and the latter only 1,200 light cavalry. Despite Barclay’s worries about supplies, the area between Chemnitz and Altenburg had never been fought over and food and fodder turned out to be relatively abundant. Schwarzenberg advanced out of the Erzgebirge with 160,000 men. Facing him were only 40,000 men under Joachim Murat. But the allied movements were so slow and uncoordinated that Murat was easily able to delay them and even score a number of minor victories in skirmishes. The pressure on his force was so weak that Murat believed that he was facing only part of the Army of Bohemia, with Schwarzenberg and the main body probably still poised to move on Dresden. Murat’s reports to this effect misled Napoleon but the key result of Schwarzenberg’s caution was that Napoleon was free to turn on Blücher and Bernadotte with the great majority of his army.10 Blücher’s army began its march northwards to link up with Bernadotte on 29 September. On 3 October his Russian pontoon companies got Blücher’s Prussians across the Elbe at Wartenburg. Though outnumbered, the French forces at Wartenburg held very strong positions, which Yorck’s infantry stormed with great courage. Meanwhile Bernadotte kept his promise to cross the Elbe to join the Army of Silesia: all three of his corps crossed the river on 4 October at Rosslau and Aken. Winzengerode had orders from Bernadotte to attack Ney’s rear if the French advanced against Blücher. The Army of Silesia headed south-eastwards towards Düben with Yorck in the lead, followed by Langeron, with Sacken’s corps bringing up the rear. Having abandoned their bases east of the Elbe Langeron’s men were already having to scrounge food from the local countryside and some of them were beginning to go hungry. Captain Radozhitsky complained that marching in the wake of the Prussians was always unpleasant because they stripped the country bare, treating the Saxon population much worse than the Russians’ behaviour towards the Poles when marching through the Duchy of Warsaw earlier in the year.11

For their own safety and if the campaign was to succeed the armies of Silesia and of the North had to act in unison. In practice neither Bernadotte nor Blücher could give orders to the other army commander: they had to agree on strategy. Given Blücher’s boldness and Bernadotte’s caution this was bound to be difficult. Blücher’s aim was to link up with Schwarzenberg near Leipzig, pulling Bernadotte along with him, and thereby uniting the three allied armies for a decisive battle against Napoleon. In principle Bernadotte did not object to this strategy. If Napoleon advanced on Leipzig to do battle with Schwarzenberg then Bernadotte was fully willing to move forward into his rear, as the Trachenberg plan demanded. Quite reasonably, however, Bernadotte feared that if he and Blücher marched on Leipzig before the Army of Bohemia arrived in the neighbourhood they would expose themselves to being attacked by the whole of Napoleon’s forces. At the very least they needed to be clear about Schwarzenberg’s whereabouts and Napoleon’s movements before undertaking so risky a move. In addition, Bernadotte believed that Napoleon might well rely on Schwarzenberg’s slowness and himself march northwards to destroy the other two allied armies before the Army of Bohemia could intervene. In this prediction Bernadotte was entirely correct and his caution was fully justified.

When the Leipzig campaign began Napoleon was in Dresden. Initially he found it hard to get a grasp of the allied movements, partly because of his lack of good cavalry but also because he could not easily believe that Blücher would be bold enough to cross the Elbe with his entire army, advancing into Napoleon’s lair and abandoning his bases and supplies in Silesia. The emperor only marched out of Dresden on 7 September, heading for Meissen and Wurzen, which he reached on the following day. This was the logical route either if he was going to move towards Leipzig against Schwarzenberg or if he wanted to strike northwards against Blücher. Only once he reached Wurzen would he have to show his hand by either continuing westwards to Leipzig or marching north-eastwards down the east bank of the river Mulde towards Düben.

Meanwhile, however, Napoleon had made what was probably his greatest mistake of the campaign. Initially he had ordered Saint-Cyr to abandon Dresden and join the main body with his corps. Saint-Cyr had already withdrawn his outposts in the Erzgebirge when the emperor changed his mind and told him to remain in Dresden to defend the city. By now Dresden’s supplies had been eaten up and its usefulness as a base was almost gone. Since the city was not properly fortified it was also much less valuable than the other crossing-points over the Elbe at Torgau, Wittenberg and Magdeburg. In any case the allied invasion of western Saxony gave Napoleon his best and last chance to win the 1813 campaign and save his position in Germany. He needed to concentrate all his forces for the decisive battle. In the event Bennigsen was able to use Count Tolstoy’s corps of militia, almost useless on a battlefield, to blockade Saint-Cyr in Dresden while taking the great majority of his regular troops to join the allied army in time for the battle of Leipzig. In November 1813 Saint-Cyr’s hungry garrison of Dresden, totally isolated after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig, was to surrender: 35,000 men who could well have turned the battle of Leipzig in Napoleon’s favour went into captivity, having made almost no contribution to his cause in the crucial month of October.12

On 9 September Blücher and Langeron were at Düben, with Langeron’s corps quartered in and around the village enjoying a rest. Early in the afternoon the alarm was sounded. Napoleon was moving on Düben from Wurzen in great strength, with his advance guard already dangerously close. In his memoirs Langeron wrote that he and Blücher could easily have been captured. Clearly his cavalry’s reconnaissance had failed badly. Probably this owed something to the detachment of Cossack regiments from Blücher’s army to join Platov’s raiding parties near Leipzig. It was also true that the forests in the neighbourhood impeded intelligence-gathering. These were not good excuses for failure on this scale, however. Though both Langeron and Blücher had high respect for generals Rudzevich and Emmanuel, who generally commanded the Russian advance guard, their opinion of the most senior cavalry commanders in Langeron’s army corps was low. Langeron wrote that ‘during the entire campaign my cavalry was paralysed by the negligence, laziness and lack of resolution of its leaders’, by which he meant above all the overall commander of the cavalry corps, Lieutenant-General Baron Korff, a man by now much addicted to campaigning in gentlemanly style and comfort.13

Thanks to the calm of General Kaptsevich and the skilful rearguard action mounted by his Tenth Corps, Langeron got all his troops safely out of Düben and retreated to the north-west, crossing the river Mulde at Jessnitz: but Napoleon’s advance cut off Sacken’s army corps from the rest of the Army of Silesia. In his subsequent report to Barclay de Tolly, Sacken recounted that his army corps had crossed the Elbe on 4 October. During the next few days his cavalry, including a Kalmyk regiment, had conducted a number of successful skirmishes with the French. Suddenly, on 9 November, ‘the corps found itself in the most dangerous situation it encountered in the course of the whole of this war’. His advance guard under Major-General Lanskoy found its path blocked by enemy forces ‘in great strength’. Meanwhile Major-General Iuzefovich’s rearguard was pressed hard by all Sebastiani’s cavalry, 6,000 infantry and eighteen guns arriving from the direction of Torgau. French troops seemed to be on all sides.

Fortunately, Sacken was never one to panic and his cavalry commanders, headed by Ilarion Vasilchikov, were very competent. They held off the French long enough for Sacken to get his infantry on the march down country lanes, through the forests towards the north of the French forces in his path. Arriving at the village of Presl at midnight, after a ten-hour march, Sacken found part of his cavalry there and Sebastiani not far away. However, the French cavalry commander allowed himself to be hoodwinked by the fact that ‘our baggage train was sent off towards Elster on the river Elbe: he assumed that our corps would march in the same direction’. In fact Sacken sent his troops in the opposite direction – in other words north-westwards in the wake of the rest of the army. Sebastiani ended by missing most of the baggage and all Sacken’s troops. For Sacken, the next stretch of his march – ‘where the main road heads from Düben to Wittenberg’ – was the most dangerous moment. His men passed down this road during the night. ‘We deployed our jaegers on both sides of this road, and we passed between them with the enemy’s bivouacs in view but the foe did not notice our movement.’14

In his memoirs Langeron comments:

A less bold general than Sacken would have retired in haste via Smiedeberg to the bridgehead at Wartenburg but Sacken was absolutely determined not to be separated from us and he was an audacious general, very skilful at marches: he passed within a mile of Napoleon during the night, outflanked him, cut between his army and its advance guards, and rejoined us by forced marches via Raguhn, where he crossed the Muühlde. He was never brought to action and he didn’t lose so much as one soldier of his baggage train. It is hard to find a bolder or better executed manoeuvre.15

Sacken’s exploits averted immediate disaster but the situation was still dangerous. Blücher and Bernadotte had agreed that both the Army of the North and the Army of Silesia would march westwards and take up position on the other (i.e. western) side of the river Saale. United, and with the river between them and Napoleon, they could wait in security while they discovered Schwarzenberg’s whereabouts and Napoleon’s intentions. If, as Blücher predicted, the emperor headed towards Leipzig to fight the Army of Bohemia, then he and Bernadotte could march safely down the west bank of the Saale and attack Leipzig from the north. If, as Bernadotte feared, Napoleon tried to retreat across the Saale or towards Magdeburg and Marshal Davout, then the joint armies would be well placed to block him. They were also within easy reach of the Elbe crossings at Rosslau and Aken, should Napoleon attempt an attack on Berlin or on the Russo-Prussian army’s communications.

By now, however, Blücher and all the Prussian generals were deeply distrustful of Bernadotte and more convinced than ever that he was a potential traitor to the allied cause. Believing that the crown prince had promised to build a pontoon bridge for Yorck’s corps to cross the Saale at Wettin, when the Prussians got there on 11 October and found no bridge they interpreted this as an underhand trick to force them to retreat northwards along the Saale towards the Elbe crossings – in other words to defer to Bernadotte’s priorities. Instead, Blücher marched southwards to the next crossing upriver at Halle. Very fortunately for the Prussian commander, Napoleon’s cavalry reconnaissance was poor and his attention was fixed northwards towards the Elbe, in which direction he was convinced that Sacken and much of the rest of the allied army was retreating. Had he turned his gaze westwards towards the Saale, his chances of catching Yorck’s isolated corps, pinning it against the river and destroying it would have been excellent.

By 12 October both the Army of Silesia and the Army of the North were deployed on the west bank of the Saale, with their commanders trying to make sense of confusing and contradictory information. Inevitably both Blücher and Bernadotte interpreted this evidence to fit their preconceived views. To an extent their confusion is unsurprising since at this very time Napoleon was sitting in Düben unable to make up his mind whether to concentrate at Leipzig against Schwarzenberg or to strike either west across the Saale or northwards towards the Elbe. In a way it was the allied supreme commander who made up Napoleon’s mind for him. Had Schwarzenberg used his four-to-one advantage to push back Murat, the latter would have been forced to abandon Leipzig and fall back northwards on Napoleon. At that point the emperor’s only realistic option would have been to follow Bernadotte’s prediction and force his way over the Saale or move further north towards Magdeburg. Instead, Schwarzenberg’s lack of speed or resolution persuaded Napoleon in the late afternoon of 12 October that his best chance would be to concentrate on Leipzig and smash the Army of Bohemia before Blücher and Bernadotte could intervene. Before taking this decision, however, on 11 October Napoleon had sent two corps on a raid towards Dessau and Wittenberg on the Elbe.

In the atmosphere of heightened tension and uncertainty then prevailing, not only Bernadotte but also Lieutenant-General von Tauenzien, the Prussian commander north of the Elbe, interpreted this raid as proof that Napoleon was aiming to strike towards Berlin. Tauenzien’s report to Bernadotte that Napoleon himself and four full corps were moving northwards to cross the Elbe increased the crown prince’s determination to get back across the river himself in order to protect his communications and the Prussian capital. Fortunately for the allied cause, the approach of Napoleon’s corps had persuaded the allied commanders at Aken and Rosslau to dismantle the pontoon bridges across which Bernadotte was hoping to march.

Bernadotte’s army was therefore stuck south of the Elbe long enough for new information to arrive from Blücher which suggested strongly that Napoleon was headed for Leipzig. Under strong pressure not just from the Prussians but also from the Russian and British envoys (Pozzo di Borgo and Charles Stewart) at his headquarters, Bernadotte turned south again. Even now he did so in very hesitant fashion, heading not directly for Leipzig but rather towards Blücher’s rear at Halle. Even this move came to a halt on 15 October as an increasingly confused Bernadotte overreacted to reports of French columns advancing from the east and deployed his columns against this new but imaginary threat. The net result of all this confusion was that the Army of the North was too far from Leipzig to participate in the battle’s first day on 16 October.

The battlefield at Leipzig is best seen as three distinct sectors. In the north, where Blücher and Bernadotte’s men were deployed, the river Parthe flowed from east to west between the allied and Napoleonic armies. Near its banks were the villages of Möckern, Eutritzsch and Schönefeld, all of which saw ferocious fighting. So too did the area around the Halle Gate just to the north of Leipzig, where the river Parthe flows into the river Pleisse. All these places have been absorbed into the expanding city of Leipzig in the last two hundred years and virtually nothing remains of the battlefield.

The same is true for slightly different reasons of the second sector, west of Leipzig. This area is dominated by the rivers Elster and Pleisse, which flow in parallel and close together before joining near Leipzig. In 1813 this whole area was a maze of waterways, large and small. Most of the land between the waterways was swampy, and this was particularly so in October, after weeks of rain. The few villages and very few roads in this area were almost islands amidst the swamps and waterways. Nowadays all this area has been tidied up, drained and embanked. Save to a very limited extent at Dölitz, it is impossible to get any sense from today’s terrain of the enormous difficulties facing any general who tried to deploy large numbers of troops in this area in 1813.

The third sector, south and east of Leipzig, is very different. Until very recently it was also much better preserved.16 On the crucial first day of the battle fighting in this sector was confined to the area south of Leipzig along the line which stretched from Markkleeberg on the river Pleisse to Liebertwollkwitz and beyond that to the village of Seifertshain. The key feature of this area is the ridge that runs all the way from the banks of the Pleisse to Liebertwollkwitz, a distance of roughly five and a half kilometres.

George Cathcart, present at the battle, writes that Liebertwollkwitz stood

on the top of a hill which formed a regular glacis to it. A ridge ran all the way from the shoulder of the eminence of Liebertwollkwitz to the river Pleisse, passing in rear of Wachau and commanding it. This position could not fail to present itself to the eye of an experienced officer as the only one which that uninteresting country afforded for the purpose of covering Leipzig towards the south.17

The ridge at Liebertwollkwitz gave Napoleon many advantages. It provided excellent views over most of the terrain to the south and east. It offered a perfect firing line for a massive concentration of artillery. Behind its slope troops could be brought up out of the enemy’s sight. For an enemy seeking to attack the ridge, Cathcart’s use of the word ‘glacis’ to describe the terrain was deadly accurate. In particular the slope from Gossa in the south up to the ridge between Liebertwollkwitz and Wachau is a bare and open killing ground with no cover whatsoever.

As one of the best historians of the battle notes, ‘the terrain very much favoured Napoleon’s objectives’. In the south he had a splendid defensive position, which also had good potential as a springboard for a counter-offensive which could burst unexpectedly from behind the ridge at Liebertwollkwitz and strike allied forces who were pinned down by massed artillery fire from the heights above them. The terrain west of the city, beyond the Pleisse, made any attack from that direction immensely difficult. A relatively small defending force could block the few narrow approaches to the city and keep vastly superior numbers of enemy troops at bay almost indefinitely. Moreover the whole area east of the Pleisse was dotted with villages, whose houses were usually sizeable, built of stone and surrounded by stout garden walls. As one approached the city, the denser and more stoutly built the houses became, with the old gates and walls of Leipzig and its suburbs still providing its defenders with welcome cover.

Against this, the disadvantage of Napoleon’s position was that the area east of the Pleisse did allow a huge army to deploy fully. If the allies were given the opportunity to bring their whole superiority in numbers and firepower to bear, then the emperor would be hard pressed to keep them at bay. If forced to retreat, his entire army would need to retire through the narrow streets of Leipzig, across the city’s only bridge over the river Elster, and down the long causeway through Lindenau which led westwards to safety, and ultimately to the Rhine. If the allies took Lindenau catastrophe threatened, but the village and its approaches were so easily defensible that only gross carelessness would allow this to happen. Even without this, however, getting a huge army, its wounded and its baggage away through Leipzig and Lindenau was bound to be tricky, especially after a lost battle.18

Prince Schwarzenberg’s operational plan for the battle seemed guaranteed, however, to ensure that Napoleon need not worry about defeat. The commander-in-chief could not be blamed for the fact that neither Bernadotte nor Bennigsen would reach the battlefield on 16 October. Bernadotte’s hesitations have already been explained and Bennigsen’s Army of Poland was advancing from Dresden as quickly as possible. Schwarzenberg was to blame, however, for planning to deploy Blücher’s troops and most of the Army of Bohemia west of Leipzig, where the terrain ensured that most of them would never get to grips with the enemy. The core of the Austrian army was supposed to advance over the Pleisse at Connewitz and Dölitz. Subsequently it would roll up the right flank of Napoleon’s line east of the river and cut off its retreat to Leipzig. This made no sense. Getting across the Pleisse would at best be very costly and time-consuming. Even if ultimately sheer numbers prevailed and some Austrian units got across the river, they would be advancing very close to Napoleon’s reserves and would have no chance of exploiting their initial success.

Truly bizarre, however, was Schwarzenberg’s plan to deploy the Grand Duke Constantine’s reserve corps, containing the Russian and Prussian Guards, on the west bank of the Elster to support the Austrian attack. On top of this he aimed to use both Blücher’s army and General Gyulai’s Austrian ‘corps’ to attack Lindenau, on terrain which made the deployment of tens of thousands of troops inconceivable. Had Schwarzenberg’s initial plan been executed, 54,000 troops would have been funnelled into the attack on Connewitz, 75,000 would have tried to reach Lindenau, and a mere 72,000 would have been left to oppose the bulk of Napoleon’s army east of the river.19

This plan was so obviously mistaken that all Alexander’s senior advisers protested and the emperor himself was mobilized to take on Schwarzenberg. Alexander was usually very tactful with the commander-in-chief and Schwarzenberg was a model of polite deference towards the monarch. On this occasion, however, the Austrian defended his plan stubbornly and there was a row. The upshot was that Blücher’s line of advance was directed back to the east bank of the Elster: he was to march on Leipzig down the main road from Halle. The Grand Duke Constantine’s reserve corps was also brought back to the east bank, though the Guards were only moved to Rotha, right by a bridge over the Pleisse and still 10 kilometres behind the front-line Russian divisions. But no amount of argument could shift Schwarzenberg from his basic idea of using the Austrian army on the west bank of the Elster.20

On this matter the commander-in-chief deferred to his chief of staff, General von Langenau, a Saxon officer who had transferred into the Austrian service only in 1813. Austrian sources admit that too much credence was given to Langenau’s superior knowledge of the local terrain as a native of the area. Rather lamely, they suggest that only the heavy recent rains had made the ground west of the Elster truly impassable. They also claim that French cavalry had stopped Schwarzenberg from conducting a thorough personal reconnaissance of the area. One recent author has even suggested that Langenau may have been a traitor to the allied cause, though there is no evidence for this. Perhaps the likeliest explanation is that Langenau was better at planning battles from maps than from any eye for actual terrain. On a map, his plan to thrust over the Elster into Napoleon’s flank and rear had a certain plausibility. If successful it would give the chief glory for victory to the Austrian forces in general and Langenau in particular. Possibly one need look no further for explanations for the bizarre deployment of the allied forces at Leipzig.21

One reason why Schwarzenberg liked the plan was that he had never initially intended to bring on a great battle at Leipzig. His aim throughout the October campaign had been to block Napoleon’s retreat to the west and force the emperor to attack the allied forces standing in his path. Though not totally implausible as a strategic concept, his efforts to translate this idea into tactical deployments around Leipzig were a disaster. There was in any case a very basic problem with the Austrian plan. Napoleon had not concentrated his forces in Leipzig in order to retreat westwards. He was intending to smash the Army of Bohemia and win the campaign.

Napoleon took it for granted that the bulk of the enemy army would be deployed in the only sensible place, in other words east of the rivers Elster and Pleisse. His plan was to turn the allies’ right flank east of Liebertwollkwitz, smash through their centre and drive Schwarzenberg’s army into the Pleisse. Even without Bernadotte and Bennigsen the allies had 205,000 troops available on 16 October against Napoleon’s 190,000. But Schwarzenberg’s plan, even after modifications to appease Alexander, meant that on the key southern front 138,000 French troops would face 100,000 allies, of which Constantine’s 24,000 reserves could not arrive on the battlefield for a number of hours. Of course the allies would outnumber Napoleon in other sectors but the terrain would make it impossible to use this superiority. On the first day at Leipzig Schwarzenberg therefore gave Napoleon a completely unnecessary chance to snatch victory against the odds and against the previous flow of the autumn campaign.22

On 16 October Blücher’s army advanced on Leipzig from the north. Langeron took the village of Euteritzsch and Yorck’s corps finally stormed Möckern after a ferocious struggle which lasted until the evening. The main point, however, was that Blücher had succeeded in pinning down two large French corps in the north, including Marmont’s men, on whom Napoleon was depending for his attack on Schwarzenberg. Blücher’s achievement at Leipzig was similar to his impact on the battle of Waterloo. By arriving on the battlefield much earlier than Napoleon had predicted, he diverted a key part of the strategic reserve on which the emperor was counting to decide the battle on its main front.

West of Leipzig, the advance on Lindenau of Gyulai’s Austrian troops forced Napoleon to send the whole of Bertrand’s Fourth Corps across the rivers to secure the village, and with it his line of retreat to the west. Further south, all the Austrian attempts to cross the river Pleisse near Connewitz and Dölitz got nowhere, to Schwarzenberg’s increasing frustration. By late morning he was prepared to give way to Alexander’s pleas and agree that Langenau’s plan had failed. He therefore ordered the Austrian reserves to cross the Pleisse to help beat off Napoleon’s attack. By now the allied situation east of the Pleisse was increasingly dire. The key question was whether the Austrian reserves would arrive in time to shore up the allied line.

Eugen of Württemberg’s Second Russian Corps was deployed near the centre of the allied line east of the Pleisse, in front of the village of Gossa. In his memoirs Eugen wrote that from Gossa on 15 October Napoleon could be seen on the heights near Wachau inspecting his troops and handing out medals. Eugen and his officers expected themselves to be attacked the next day but ‘we could not understand why Schwarzenberg decided on a general attack for the 16th when on the following day we would have been strengthened by 130,000 men of the Army of the North, the Army of Poland, and Count Colloredo’s corps’. It seems that the allied high command wished to pin down Napoleon and feared that he would otherwise attack Blücher and Bernadotte, and perhaps even slip away to the north.23 To avoid this, the allied forces east of the Pleisse were ordered to attack in four columns from early in the morning of 16 October. On the left Kleist’s Prussian corps and Helfreich’s 14th Russian division would advance on Markkleeberg. To Kleist’s right Eugen’s Second Corps would attack Wachau, supported by Klux’s Prussian brigade. The third column was commanded by Lieutenant-General Prince Andrei Gorchakov. It comprised Gorchakov’s First Corps and Pirch’s Prussian brigade. Gorchakov would attack Liebertwollkwitz from the south-west while the fourth column, made up of General Klenau’s Austrians, would advance on the village from the south-east.

The night of 15/16 October was cold and very windy. Trees were uprooted and roofs damaged. The next morning Klenau’s troops arrived late for the assault. Gorchakov had to wait for them with his regiments already deployed for the attack and under artillery fire. Kleist and Eugen advanced on time, however, moving forward on this still stormy October morning before it was fully light. By 9.30 Kleist had taken Markkleeberg and Eugen had moved into Wachau. The initial French response was mild, partly because they had not expected the allies to attack. Things soon changed, however: French infantry counter-attacked at both Wachau and Markkleeberg, and ferocious artillery fire began to pour down from the massed batteries on the ridge onto the Russian and Prussian troops. The latter nevertheless pushed forward their attacks with great courage. The French artillery colonel, Jean-Nicolas Noel, who was stationed at Wachau, recalled that the Russians and Prussians ‘attacked with a determination which I had never before seen in our adversaries’.24

Casualties mounted quickly on both sides but especially among Eugen’s Russians on the bare slopes east of Wachau. Already by eleven o’clock most of Eugen’s artillery had been knocked out. There was nowhere to find cover and the French cavalry deployed east of Wachau were an additional threat to any infantry who broke formation. Rudolph von Friederich, the Prussian general staff historian, comments that ‘it took all the tenacity and contempt for death of the Russian soldiers and all the heroic courage of Duke Eugen to stand one’s ground in such a position’. By the end of the day two-thirds of Eugen’s men were casualties. All his regimental commanders were killed or wounded. Eugen wrote in his memoirs that his troops had been similarly smothered in artillery fire for a time at Borodino but on the first day at Leipzig their ordeal ‘lasted for much longer’.25

The heroism of Eugen’s infantry was all the more impressive because his regiments had suffered very heavy casualties at Kulm only a few weeks before. The Murom and Reval regiments, for example, lost many men first in 1812, and then at both Kulm and Leipzig as part of Prince Ivan Shakhovskoy’s Third Infantry Division. Officers and NCOs had needed to be drafted into the regiments from other units after Kulm to fill the gaps left by its killed and wounded veterans. Nevertheless many regimental old-timers remained in the ranks during the battle of Leipzig, including most of the Reval Regiment’s sergeant-majors. An unusual number of illiterate but veteran senior sergeants had in fact been promoted to sergeant-major in the Reval Regiment in 1813. They included sergeant-majors Aleksei Fedorov, Mikhail Lashbin and Mina Afanasev, who between them had seventy years’ service in the regiment. Lashbin was a state peasant from Tobolsk in Siberia and Afanasev a serf from Smolensk, but Fedorov was actually a Chuvash, one of the small, pagan peoples of the Volga region, though his family had become Christians. All three men held military medals, as did seven of the ten sergeant-majors in all. No other regiment whose records I have seen could equal this.26

Among the officers of the Murom Regiment who fought at Leipzig were lieutenants Ilia Shatov and Ivan Dmitrev. Both men had entered the Murom Regiment as privates more than twenty years before, had risen to sergeant-major and had then been commissioned in 1812. Both had fought with the regiment in East Prussia in 1807 but Shatov had even served in its ranks in Switzerland in 1799. The senior officer of the Murom Regiment to survive the battle of Leipzig was Petr Kladishchev, from a run-of-the-mill noble family of Riazan province, who became a colonel aged only 29. Kladishchev had joined the Murom Regiment at the age of 16 and never left it. He was decorated for courage in East Prussia in 1807, as well as at Vitebsk in 1812 and Bautzen in 1813. He was one of many young officers whose record of courage and leadership brought rapid wartime promotion. These men were much less visible than spectacular cases such as generals Chernyshev and Diebitsch. Nevertheless they made a crucial contribution to the army’s performance.27

All morning and through the early afternoon of 16 October Eugen’s regiments held their ground and preserved the allied line under the French bombardment. The French artillery commanders themselves subsequently paid tribute to the steadfast courage of the Russian infantry, who closed their ranks and held their positions in the face of terrifying losses. By late morning the battle had become a race. If Napoleon could concentrate his forces and attack before the allied reserves arrived, Eugen and Kleist’s thinning infantry battalions would not be able to stop him from breaking through the allied line and crushing the Army of Bohemia against the banks of the Pleisse.

Alexander, Barclay and Diebitsch were acutely aware of this danger. The moment he arrived on the battlefield and could see the two armies’ deployment amidst the October gloom, Alexander sent orders for the Guards to advance at speed from Rötha. From the time they received their orders it would take them three hours to reach the battlefield. Nikolai Raevsky’s Grenadier Corps was closer but his two divisions on their own would never suffice to shore up the whole allied line. Meanwhile, even after they had been released by Schwarzenberg shortly before midday, the Austrian reserves had to march south down the west bank of the Pleisse to the fords near Crobern, get themselves across the swollen river, and then turn northwards to come to the aid of Kleist’s corps at Markkleeberg. For the Austrian infantry, this was a four-hour march. It was very fortunate that Alexander’s insistence on bringing his Guards over to the east bank of the Pleisse meant that at this moment of supreme crisis they would not be competing with the Austrians for river crossings.28

Also luckily for the allies, Napoleon took longer than he had anticipated to organize and launch his counter-attack. He was waiting for Marmont but the latter was forced to stop while on the march southwards and race back to block Blücher at Möckern. Above all, Napoleon would not move until Marshal MacDonald’s whole corps had come up on his left and had advanced against the Austrians towards Seifertshain. Only when MacDonald’s threat in the east had developed would the emperor throw in his main forces against Kleist and Eugen. It was almost midday before MacDonald was in position and ready to attack. Though he then drove back Klenau’s Austrians all the way to Seifertshain, at this point Austrian resistance stiffened and MacDonald’s attack stalled. The sudden arrival to his east of thousands of Cossacks commanded by Matvei Platov distracted MacDonald’s attention and also contributed to slowing his advance. Platov drew off Sebastiani’s cavalry corps which was operating on MacDonald’s eastern flank and without Sebastiani MacDonald lacked the means to outflank Klenau or the numbers to smash through the Austrian position at Seifertshain.

By the early afternoon Napoleon’s attention had shifted westwards, towards Kleist’s and Eugen’s shrinking battalions. Against them he launched his Guards, most of his cavalry, Drouot’s artillery reserve, and all the remaining infantry at his disposal.

By 3 p.m. Kleist’s brigades were fighting desperately to hold Markkleeberg and had been forced out of Auenhain, with French cavalry in pursuit. The 2nd Russian Grenadier Division came up behind Auenhain but could not stop the French advance. Fortunately for the allies, the six excellent regiments of Count Nostitz’s cuirassier corps arrived in the nick of time, scattered the French cavalry and restored the situation. Nostitz’s regiments were the first of the Austrian reserves to arrive from the west bank of the Pleisse but they were followed by more cavalry and then by Bianchi and Weissenwolf’s infantry divisions. Count Weissenwolf’s Grenadier battalions were among the best infantry in the Austrian army. Once they were on the scene Napoleon’s chance of breaking through Kleist’s position had disappeared. On the contrary, by the time evening approached and the battle ceased Weissenwolf’s Grenadiers had recaptured Auenhain and it was Napoleon who was having to commit even part of his Old Guard to stop the Austrians advancing from Markkleeberg.29

While Kleist’s Prussians and Russians were fighting for their lives at Markkleeberg and Auenhain during the afternoon of 16 October an even fiercer battle was raging to their right around the village of Gossa. This was the centre of the allied line east of the river Pleisse and behind Gossa the allied monarchs and their staffs were positioned on a small hill. The infantry leading the French advance came from Lauriston’s Fifth Corps and Marshal Oudinot’s Young Guard. Down the hill in their support came much of the French artillery reserve, including all the Guards artillery, commanded by General Drouot, who had good claim to be the finest artillery commander in Europe.

This was classic Napoleonic tactics. Having attacked the enemy flanks, the emperor was now deploying massive mobile firepower to smash through its weakened centre. The only visible infantry in front of Gossa was Eugen’s shredded battalions, whose ranks had become even thinner after the prince had been forced to redeploy one of his second-line brigades to the left to counter the growing threat from the direction of Auenhain. General Diebitsch’s account of the battle speaks of ‘a storm of concentrated artillery fire never previously encountered in war’ now descending on Eugen’s battalions. Spotting the weakness of the allied infantry Murat launched his cavalry to sweep through the allied centre and overrun the artillery defending the village of Gossa and the approaches to the hill from which the allied monarchs, now joined by Schwarzenberg, were directing the battle. Perhaps the most important and certainly the most famous episode in the first day at Leipzig was the result.30

Sorting out what happened in a cavalry attack is even more difficult than imposing some kind of order on battles in general. Amidst the excitement, the dust and the speed with which events unfold, participants are seldom reliable witnesses. Because Murat’s cavalry attack on 16 October was in many ways the high point of the day, putting the allied sovereigns and the very centre of the allied position at risk, it also aroused a competition as to who was responsible for the repulse of Murat’s horsemen. The best eyewitness account of the action in any language is provided by George Cathcart. He was a professional cavalry officer and, standing near the monarchs on the hill behind Gossa, he had an excellent view of events without himself being involved in the mêlée. Equally important, Cathcart was relatively neutral, since there were no British troops involved.

Cathcart recalled that some 5,000 French cavalry were involved in the attack. As they formed up for the assault on the shoulder of the ridge by Liebertwollkwitz they were visible from allied headquarters on the hill behind Gossa. Apart from Eugen’s infantry, the only visible allied force in their path was the Russian Guards Dragoon and Guards Lancer regiments. To their great credit, most of Eugen’s shrunken infantry battalions formed so-called ‘masses’ against the cavalry and, with the soldiers standing back to back, retreated in good order, his right wing falling back into the village of Gossa itself. The Russian Guards light cavalry was caught before it had deployed, possibly because its commander, General Shevich, was killed by a cannon ball just as the action was about to start. In any case, two regiments could never have held back the equivalent of an entire cavalry corps. The lancers were pushed aside to the south-west, the dragoons directly southwards. The French cavalry overran part of the allied artillery, advanced past Gossa and came within a very few hundred metres of the hill on which the allied monarchs were watching events.

At this point the horsemen were brought to a halt by what Cathcart describes as

a small brook or drain [which] ran from Gossa towards the Pleisse…Its banks happened to be swampy and could only be passed with difficulty, and by a leap across a wide drain, unless by causeways made in two or three places by the farmers, for agricultural purposes. This obstacle was only partial, and a few hundred yards to the right, nearer Gossa, it ceased to be an impediment…But the enemy…were unexpectedly checked by this unforeseen obstacle; their crowding and confusion increased; and at that moment the Russian regiment of hussars of the guard, which Wittgenstein had sent…appeared in their rear. This caused a panic. The unwieldy mass became noisy, and attempted to retire; the Russian light cavalry instantly followed them. The Emperor Alexander, who stood on the hill above, seized the opportunity to send off his own escort of Cossacks of the guard, amounting to several squadrons, under Count Orlov Denisov, who passed the stream at a favourable spot near Gossa, and took the retiring mass in flank. This completed the panic, which then became a flight, and the fugitives did not draw their bridles till they had regained the protection of their infantry.31

Cathcart does not mention the intervention of two Prussian cavalry regiments to which most German-language sources assign a role in the defeat of the French attack. Though he praises the Russian Guards cavalry, the main point of his narrative is the incompetence with which the attack was mounted. The French cavalry seemed to advance closely bunched together in columns and ‘certainly in one body only, that is, with no sort of second line or reserve’. Inadequate discipline and leadership allowed them to be thrown into confusion ‘by an insignificant obstacle’ and then to be ‘seized by a panic’ and ‘fly before a force of light cavalry, which altogether could not have amounted to 2000 men’. The fact that most of the French horsemen were heavy cavalry made their defeat by Cossacks, lancers and hussars all the more remarkable. Above all, Cathcart put down the rout to ‘want of a second line on which to rally, and from which to take a fresh departure – a precaution without which no cavalry attack ought ever to be made’.32

A true ‘cavalry patriot’, in one respect Cathcart is clearly a little biased in his account of what he calls ‘this remarkable cavalry affair’. He forgets the contribution of the Russian artillery. As the French cavalry approached his hill, Alexander turned to the commander of his artillery, Major-General Ivan Sukhozanet, and said: ‘Look: whichever side gets its forces here first will win. Is your reserve artillery far away?’ Only 25, Sukhozanet was another good example of how promotion on merit during the wars of 1805–13 had brought a number of excellent young officers into key positions. The son of a Polish officer, and himself without wealth or connections, Sukhozanet had done well in 1806–7 and thereby secured the notice of his superiors and transfer to the Guards artillery. For his performance under Wittgenstein in 1812 and then at Bautzen in 1813, he had won the St George’s Cross and two promotions. Wittgenstein’s elevation to commander-in-chief benefited officers close to him. In Sukhozanet’s case it resulted in appointment as deputy to Prince Iashvili, the army’s new commander of artillery. When Iashvili fell ill during the autumn campaign, Sukhozanet replaced him and Leipzig gave him the opportunity to distinguish himself under the emperor’s eyes.33

Sukhozanet took this opportunity and justified Alexander’s trust. To the emperor’s question about the whereabouts of the artillery reserve, he replied, ‘It will be here within two minutes.’ Sukhozanet was better than his word. Two horse artillery batteries arrived immediately: one directly supported the attack of the Cossack Life Guards towards the east of the brook behind Gossa: Sukhozanet reported that ‘it took the enemy columns by surprise and, opening up a punishing fire, brought them to a halt’. Meanwhile the other battery moved forward west of the brook and took up a flank position, from which it struck the packed ranks of the French cavalry to great effect. But for Sukhozanet and the Russian artillery the big test was still to come. As the French cavalry flooded back towards Liebertwollkwitz, their infantry moved on Gossa, supported by Drouot’s massed artillery. Unlike at Borodino, however, on this occasion the Russian reserve artillery was well managed. Sukhozanet brought forward 80 guns from the reserve and, adding them to the batteries already in place, formed a line of more than 100 guns behind Gossa. This massive concentration of firepower took on Drouot’s batteries and finally forced the French artillery to retreat. General Miloradovich had been at Borodino but he subsequently recalled that the artillery battle near Gossa on 16 October was the loudest he had ever heard in his life.34

Meanwhile the terrain had played a trick in the Russians’ favour. From where Napoleon stood on the heights west of Liebertwollkwitz it was impossible to see what was happening behind the hill on which the allied monarchs were standing. In fact, as the French infantry were approaching Gossa the Russian and Prussian Guards infantry were arriving behind the allied centre. Their commander, Aleksei Ermolov, had ridden out with his aide-de-camp, Matvei Muromtsev, to scout the ground around Gossa and was almost caught by the French cavalry’s attack. Fortunately, the Russians’ horses were speedier than those of the French cavalrymen who pursued them but it had been a close shave. Some time before, Muromtsev had lost a bet to Ermolov. His forfeit was that at any moment when Ermolov began to whistle the first bars of an aria, Muromtsev was obliged to burst into song and complete the piece. Having regained the Russian lines, Ermolov began to whistle and Muromtsev launched into Leporello’s famous aria from Don Giovanni. He recalls that Ermolov, ‘at this moment, having just saved himself from death or captivity…completely preserved his composure, but I remember very well that my response was not expressed with anything like the same calmness’.35

Ermolov was a charismatic and inspiring figure at all times. In action he was larger than life, and his battlefield exploits and quips went the rounds of the Russian army. So too, in a quite different sense, did the behaviour of Aleksei Arakcheev. As the Semenovskys drew up behind the hill on which Alexander stood, Arakcheev rode down to talk to an old acquaintance, Colonel Pavel Pushchin. At this moment French batteries began to range in on the Semenovskys and a shell burst only 50 metres from where Pushchin and Arakcheev were talking. The count was an administrator, not a battlefield commander; Pushchin commented that this was the closest Arakcheev had come to French artillery during the Napoleonic Wars. Thoroughly alarmed by the explosion and learning from Pushchin that it was a shell, Arakcheev’s face ‘changed colour, he turned his horse round and departed at the gallop from the place of danger’. Russian officers saw cowardice as the greatest of vices. Most Guards officers loathed Arakcheev anyway, but his lack of physical courage was the final and unforgivable blot on his reputation.36

The French infantry which attempted to storm Gossa included Maison’s division of Lauriston’s Fifth Corps. Both Russian sources and General Griois, who commanded some of Drouot’s batteries just behind Gossa, say that Oudinot’s two Young Guard divisions also took part in the battle in the village. The initial allied ‘garrison’ of Gossa was made up of some of Eugen’s battalions and three battalions of Pirch’s Prussian brigade: both had been hotly engaged for hours and were very under strength. The St Petersburg and Tauride Grenadier regiments joined the defence of the village, as did the Guards Jaegers. Attack and counterattack followed each other in a struggle for Gossa, which lasted for three hours. According to the Russians, each time the French were driven out, a fresh wave of enemy infantry forced their way back into the village. In the end the issue was decided by the Russian 2nd Guards Infantry Division, who stormed into the village from the south-west in battalion columns without firing a shot. Fighting literally under the eyes of the emperor, the Guards displayed exceptional courage. More than half the officers of the Finland Guards Regiment were killed or wounded. The commander of the regiment, Major-General Maksim Kryzhanovsky, was wounded four times before he allowed himself to be carried off the battlefield.37

For once, however, it was not an officer but a private soldier who earned most fame in the battle for Gossa. Leontii Korennoi was a grenadier in the Third Battalion of the Finland Guards. Like most grenadiers of the Guards, he was tall and broad-shouldered. He was a veteran, who had been in the Finland Regiment since its formation, having previously served in the Kronstadt Garrison Regiment. A married man, he became known as ‘uncle’ in the Finland Guards. At Borodino he had won a military medal for his courage in the skirmishing line. Now he surpassed himself. Gossa was a village of stone houses, stout garden walls and many lanes. Amidst the ebb and flow of the action, the commander of the Third Battalion of the Finland Guards, Colonel Gervais, and some of his officers were cut off by a sudden French counter-attack. At first with a handful of comrades and then alone, Korennoi held off the French while the officers escaped over the walls back to the rest of the battalion.

To their great honour, the French not only took Korennoi prisoner but presented him to Napoleon himself, who praised his courage and ensured that he was well looked after. Since the French army was itself not short of heroes, Korennoi’s exploit must indeed have been remarkable to win such treatment. He got back to his regiment by the end of the battle, where his comrades regarded him as a figure virtually risen from the dead. Korennoi’s bust was to occupy pride of place in the barracks of the Finland Guards until 1917 and the song of the regiment (‘We remember Uncle Korennoi’) was composed in his honour.38

While Leontii Korennoi was winning fame, Pamfil Nazarov was fighting his first real battle with the Finland Guards. He recalls that the Grand Duke Constantine rode down the ranks of the regiment before they advanced against Gossa, telling the Guardsmen to load their muskets and ordering them to advance. Like many of his comrades, Pamfil was wounded in the attack before he even reached the village, in his case in the right leg above the knee. He remembers too that his overcoat was shredded by bullets. Pamfil collapsed and lost much blood. He recalls how hot his blood seemed to him. Somehow he dragged himself back the 2 kilometres to the medical point, collapsing once more on the way and constantly threatened by the cannon balls that continued to whistle by. When he got to the casualty point he found the regimental ammunition, flags, musicians and doctor. After being bandaged, he tottered to a fire by which to spend this cold and rainy night. A comrade from the regiment gave him two salted cucumbers, a big boon.

After much bleeding in the night, Pamfil re-bandaged himself and set off to the rear, carrying his haversack and using his musket as a crutch. His leg swelled up from days of walking and in the end he had to find a cart to get him to a hospital. Finally he got to a field hospital in Plauen on 28 October, where there were so many wounded that he had to be placed in a chapel. On the other hand there were also many German doctors and medical assistants present. It was now twelve days since Pamfil’s wound had been bandaged and it was infected. There followed days of agony as bandages were changed and ointment was injected directly into the wound twice daily on lint attached to a huge needle. He did not get back to his regiment until the beginning of 1814.39

Nevertheless the sacrifices of Pamfil and his comrades did achieve their goal. Gossa was held and Napoleon’s great counter-attack stopped. That evening the young officers of Ermolov’s staff put on an impromptu performance of Racine’s Phèdre in the ruins of Gossa. In tactical terms the first day of Leipzig was a draw. Apart from Blücher’s capture of villages north of Leipzig, the two armies occupied almost the exact positions where they had started the day. In reality, however, a draw signified an allied victory. If Napoleon was to hold Germany, he had to defeat the allies decisively on the battle’s first day. Otherwise, with more than 100,000 fresh troops close at hand, allied strength would become overwhelming. This should have been clear to Napoleon by nightfall on 16 October, though as always clarity is far easier in retrospect than on the evening of a battle. The wisest policy would have been to organize an immediate orderly retreat, getting his baggage away as quickly as possible and building additional crossings over the river Elster to avoid the very dangerous dependence on a single bridge. In fact it was not until the evening of 17 October that he made any arrangements for a retreat and even then nothing was done to ease the army’s passage out of Leipzig and over the Elster. Instead he wasted time talking to the captured General Meerveldt, whom he then sent back to Francis II, seemingly in the naive hope that the allies might negotiate and allow him to escape.

Very little action occurred on Sunday, 17 October. Neither Bernadotte nor Bennigsen was yet on the battlefield and, since Napoleon showed no sign of departing, the allied monarchs were content to let their men rest and await the arrival of reinforcements. The only significant fighting to occur that day was a brilliant charge by Ilarion Vasilchikov’s hussar division, which delighted Blücher, himself an old hussar, and resulted in the French not only losing many men and guns but also pulling right back in the north-west to the suburbs in front of the Halle Gate. From here any further retreat was unthinkable: if the Russians burst through the Halle Gate into Leipzig, the line of retreat of Napoleon himself and the entire army would be cut. Once he received news that the Army of Bohemia would not attack that day, however, Blücher was forced to postpone Sacken’s attempt to break into Leipzig from the north until 18 October.40

The last two days of the battle of Leipzig – 18 and 19 October – were in one sense an anticlimax. There were no daring movements or examples of inspired military leadership. It was often the French, fighting with skill and courage in the many stout buildings in and near Leipzig, who had the better of encounters at least in the short run. When thousands of men are losing their lives it is wrong to talk of a battle being ‘boring’, but for the military scholar, when compared to an Austerlitz or Cannae, Leipzig was indeed a ‘boring’ battle. The key point, however, is that ‘boring’ battles were exactly what the allies needed to fight. Given their army’s unmanageable size, its multi-national composition and its chaotic command structure, any attempt to do something clever or complicated was bound to end in disaster. What was required was to pin Napoleon down in a spot where his army could be subjected to the full weight of allied superiority in men and guns. This is what the allies achieved in the last two days of the battle of Leipzig. By the afternoon of 18 October they had concentrated all their troops and 1,360 guns on the battlefield.

The morning of 18 October dawned bright and sunny. That day the allies formed a huge semicircle enclosing Leipzig to the east, north and south. They attacked Napoleon all along this line. Probably the best-known events on 18 October are the defection of some Saxon regiments to the allies, but the desertion of a very few thousand men was actually of little significance in a battle fought by half a million soldiers. More important was the fact that Bernadotte’s almost 60,000-strong Army of the North only arrived on the battlefield in mid-afternoon. This in turn forced Bennigsen to spread his army more thinly and reduced the possibility of his outflanking the village of Probstheida from the east and thereby forcing its abandonment. Probstheida was the key strong-point of Napoleon’s position south of Leipzig and he hung on to it all day, thanks to the strength of its buildings and the heroism of its French defenders, to which allied accounts pay tribute. On the allied side it was the Prussians who bore the brunt of the costly attempts to take the village but even the remnants of Eugen’s corps were made to join in, despite their terrible losses on the previous day. Meanwhile three regiments of the Russian 1st Guards Division and the whole of the Prussian Guard stood by idly less than a kilometre away, despite not having fired a shot on the battle’s first day.

To an extent this was the monarchs once again protecting their Guards, but it was also simply the logic of Napoleonic-era warfare to try to preserve elite units as reserves until the moment of crisis came in a campaign or battle. Sacken had no Guards but in fact he conducted his attempts to storm through the Halle suburb in similar fashion. He committed Neverovsky’s 27th Division and Lieven’s two jaeger regiments but the three veteran infantry regiments of the 10th Division were held in reserve throughout the battle despite the tremendous casualties of the rest of Sacken’s corps as they tried to fight their way through Leipzig’s northern suburbs.

Even without the field fortifications constructed by the French, the suburbs around the Halle Gate were a formidable obstacle. Just in front of them flowed the river Pleisse, while the hamlet of Pfaffendorf with its stout buildings formed a strong advance point to blunt any attempt to break into the town. The approaches to the Halle Gate were narrow and the Russian infantry was vulnerable to flanking fire, not just from Pfaffendorf but also from the walls of the Rosenthal park to their west. The Austrian official history, by no means Russophile in sympathy, commented that ‘the Russian soldiers performed with wonderful bravery and their officers too did everything possible’.41

Colonel Petr Rakhmanov, the brave and exceptionally intelligent former editor of Voennyi zhurnal and the commander of one of Neverovsky’s brigades, was killed here, as was Colonel Huene, the 27th Division’s artillery commander. We last encountered Dmitrii Dushenkevich as a 15-year-old ensign during his first battle, at Krasnyi in August 1812. By October 1813 he was an aide-de-camp to Dmitrii Neverovsky. He recalls that on 18 October Neverovsky was as usual in the thick of the action, with buildings burning all around, and attack and counter-attack rapidly following each other in ferocious house-to-house fighting. Neverovsky was encouraging Rakhmanov’s troops as they attempted to storm their way towards the Halle Gate when he was hit in the left leg by a bullet. He was carried out of the battle by his Cossack escort and died a few days later. As part of the centenary celebrations in 1912, his body was taken back to Russia and reburied near the position defended by his division at Borodino.42

By the end of 18 October the Russians had suffered serious casualties but were little nearer the Halle Gate than they had been that morning. Nevertheless, contrary to some accounts, their sacrifice was by no means in vain. Dombrowski’s Polish division were the initial defenders of the Halle suburb and, as often happened when Poles encountered Russians, the fighting was particularly bitter. But as Russian pressure mounted, more and more French reinforcements were committed to defend this vital area. These included Brayer’s 8th Division, as well as twelve battalions and three batteries of the Young Guard. As Langeron noted, Sacken’s attack diverted all these men from reinforcing the defenders of Schönefeld against his attempts to capture this crucial village.43

Schönefeld was the key to Napoleon’s position in the north, just as Probstheida was in the south. It too was made up of mostly two-storey, solidly built stone houses and their gardens, with the whole village surrounded by a stout wall. To complicate the Russians’ problem further, just to the village’s south was a walled cemetery which gave excellent cover to defenders. It was also difficult to outflank Schönefeld from the north since the village lay very close to the marshy banks of the river Parthe. In addition, the attack on Schönefeld ran into the normal problems facing any army attempting to take these Saxon villages. Given sufficient numbers and courage, the attacking infantry would break into the village, albeit at the cost of heavy casualties. But they would then be subject to counter-attacks by fresh enemy troops concentrated out of fire behind the village and supported by their massed artillery. Bringing forward the attackers’ own guns through or around the village in sufficient numbers to match these enemy batteries was extremely difficult. Captain Radozhitsky attempted to do just this at Schönefeld and found his batteries smothered by overwhelming canister fire at short range. Langeron’s first two major attacks took Schönefeld and then lost it again. Only after Bernadotte deployed all his artillery and pounded the village from the south did Schönefeld finally fall at 6 p.m. Even then Langeron’s men had to hold it against fierce French counter-attacks which lasted into the night.44

The fall of Schönefeld posed the risk that the allies would advance into the rear of Napoleon’s troops south of Leipzig and cut off their retreat. In fact, however, even by the morning of 18 October Napoleon had decided to abandon Leipzig. The only issue was whether he would get most of his army and its baggage away safe and sound. Already, early on 17 October, Bertrand’s corps had been ordered down the highway beyond Lindenau in order to secure Weissenfels and Napoleon’s retreat to the west. His corps was replaced at Lindenau by troops sent by Marshal Ney. The army’s baggage train began to move back through Leipzig too. Drawing in his perimeter and using the stout Saxon buildings as strong-points, Napoleon stopped the allies from breaking into his rear or cutting off his retreat on 18 October.

The big test would come on 19 October, when his rearguards needed to hold the allies at bay for long enough for Napoleon to squeeze most of his soldiers, his guns and his still considerable baggage through the streets of Leipzig and over the bridge which was the only route to safety. Inevitably, many of Napoleon’s batteries had to remain on the battlefield as long as possible to protect the rearguard from the allies’ overwhelming superiority in artillery. Equally inevitably, this would greatly worsen the traffic jam in Leipzig on 19 October. Above all, Napoleon had needlessly worsened the situation by failing to build extra bridges to span the Elster. The Russian official history blamed Napoleon’s failure on ‘the usual disorder of French military administration of that time’.45

The allied columns began their advance on Leipzig at 7 a.m. on 19 October. Meanwhile Napoleon had entrusted the task of forming a rearguard to Poniatowski’s Polish corps and to MacDonald’s corps of French, Italian and German divisions. It is probably realistic to note that if Napoleon retreated behind the Rhine very many of these non-French troops would abandon his cause anyway. Nevertheless the rearguards fought effectively outside Leipzig’s walls, using the many buildings and other obstacles to delay the allied advance. Even so, by eleven in the morning the allies were beginning to break through the four gates into the inner city. By midday, though the fight put up by the rearguards had enabled most of Napoleon’s troops to escape over the Elster, many thousands of men and a vast amount of artillery were still trying to force their way through the streets of Leipzig. In these circumstances it is not surprising that a catastrophe occurred.

On the far right of the allied line north of Leipzig the Halle Gate into the city was finally stormed by the 39th Jaegers of Lieven’s 10th Division. This was a formidable unit, formed out of the Briansk Infantry Regiment in 1810. Most of its officers and every single NCO had served their entire careers in the regiment. The 39th Jaegers had fought against the Ottomans in 1809–12 and then had performed well under Sacken in 1812 and the first half of 1813. Used to tackling strong Ottoman fortresses, the regiment had overwhelmed the defenders of the Polish fortress town of Czenstochowa in no time in March 1813 by their accurate marksmanship, winning ceremonial silver trumpets for themselves and promotion to lieutenant-general for Johann von Lieven. At Leipzig the regiment was commanded by Mikhail Akhlestyshev, an excellent officer who was badly wounded in the final assault on the Halle Gate.46

Meanwhile Alexandre de Langeron’s infantry was moving up in Sacken’s support. Two of his jaeger regiments – the 29th and 45th – advanced westwards through the Rosenthal garden and around the city’s northern wall, getting across an undefended bridge over a small branch of the Elster and advancing into the city past the Jakob Hospital. Both the 29th and 45th Jaegers had fought in all the key actions of the recent war against the Ottomans, from the siege of Khotin in 1806 through the attempts to storm Brailov and Jurja, and concluding with Kutuzov’s annihilation of the main Ottoman army in the winter of 1811–12. In 1812 and the spring of 1813 they had served in Sacken’s corps, winning many plaudits but suffering nothing like the casualties of the regiments which had fought at Borodino or pursued Napoleon from Tarutino to Vilna. When they arrived at Leipzig both regiments were still packed with veterans who had years of experience of sharpshooting, street-fighting and raiding parties.47

The advance of the 29th and 45th Jaegers past Jakob Hospital brought them shortly after midday to within close range of the only bridge over the main branch of the Elster, across which Napoleon’s army was retreating. Explosive charges had been laid under the bridge. Amidst the chaos of the retreat, the officer in charge had abandoned his post to get clarification as to when to detonate the charges, leaving a mere corporal in command in his absence. Coming under accurate musket fire from the 45th and 29th Jaegers and armed with instructions to destroy the bridge when the enemy approached, the corporal quite understandably detonated the charges. Not only Napoleon but also a number of other memoirists subsequently blamed the corporal for the loss of the thousands of men and hundreds of guns which the bridge’s destruction stranded in Leipzig. Rather obviously, when the fate of a huge army is allowed to depend on a single bridge and a solitary corporal the responsibility lies further up the military hierarchy.48

The allies lost 52,000 men at the battle of Leipzig, of whom the largest share – 22,000 – were Russians. It says a great deal for the discipline of the allied armies that despite three days of fighting and this level of casualties there was very little looting or disorder when they stormed into Leipzig. French losses were certainly greater. Perhaps they were only 60,000, as French accounts claim: on the other hand, by the time the army reached Erfurt it had only 70,000 men under arms and 30,000 unarmed stragglers, so overall casualties during or immediately after the battle must have been closer to 100,000. Three hundred guns and 900 ammunition wagons were also left behind in Leipzig. The allied victory was therefore unequivocal and led to the loss to Napoleon of all Germany east of the Rhine.49

Given their superiority in numbers this was a battle that the allies ought to have won. That they came close to losing it on the first day was above all the fault of Schwarzenberg. The battle of Leipzig was Napoleon’s last chance to hold Germany and he was right to seize the opportunity that Schwarzenberg’s mistakes gave him on the battle’s first day. His failure to win decisively on 16 October owed much more to the courage and tenacity of the allied troops than to any mistakes made by Napoleon. Once the chance of victory on the first day had gone, however, the odds were hopelessly against Napoleon and he delayed his retreat too long and failed properly to prepare for it.

Among the allied leaders, the chief hero was Blücher. Without him the three allied armies would never have converged on Leipzig at all. Admittedly, he had taken some great risks and luck had been on his side. Blücher too was responsible for diverting Marmont’s corps from Napoleon’s attack on the Army of Bohemia on 16 October and for finally dragging Bernadotte onto the battlefield two days later. Great credit does also go to Alexander, however. Only his intervention could have forced Schwarzenberg to change the initial allied deployment for the battle. Without his insistence, the Russian reserves would never have arrived in time behind Gossa on 16 October. His nagging contributed to Schwarzenberg’s release of the Austrian reserves in time as well. It is fair to conclude that without Alexander the battle of Leipzig would probably have been lost. The emperor had finally made amends on the battlefield for the disaster at Austerlitz.

Napoleon’s retreat from Leipzig bore some resemblance to his retreat from Moscow. The French army moved at great speed, at the price of many stragglers and much indiscipline. Russian Cossacks and light cavalry harried the retreating columns, picking up thousands of prisoners. Schwarzenberg pursued Napoleon no more quickly than Kutuzov had done. Even Blücher was left well behind by the French and then swung too far to the north because he misjudged their line of retreat. The role of Chichagov was played by the Bavarian-Austrian army under Marshal Wrede, which tried to cut across Napoleon’s march at Haynau and was defeated. Since the Bavarians had just changed sides the French took particular pleasure in this victory over ‘traitors’. As at the Berezina, Napoleon’s army showed great courage and resilience with its back to the wall and its very survival in question. Nevertheless Napoleon could not afford the almost 15,000 additional casualties he sustained at Haynau. On 2 November he crossed the Rhine back into France.

No doubt the retreat from Leipzig lacked many of the horrors of the march from Moscow to the Russian border exactly one year before. There was little snow, fewer avenging peasants and no tales of cannibalism. There was, however, plenty of typhus: Napoleon got back to the Rhine with perhaps 85,000 men but thousands succumbed to the disease within days. Meanwhile the allied armies occupied Frankfurt, the old ‘capital’ of the Holy Roman Empire, and moved up to the Rhine. Germany east of the river was theirs. The foundations of the European balance of power had been restored. The objectives of the Russo-Prussian-Austrian alliance had therefore largely been achieved. The 1813 campaign was over.

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