In the turbulent spring of 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte was the master of Europe. But then, in what would prove an act of sheer hubris, the Corsican chose to invade Russia. The outcome is well known: The Russians traded their vast spaces for time, and their country itself crushed Napoleon’s legions. Those vast spaces, the winter and the hunger, wrecked the once glorious Grande Armée. Napoleon entered Russia with more than 500,000 fighting men; he returned, beaten and humiliated, with fewer than 100,000 half-dead skeletons.
His many enemies, even those who had been pretending to be his allies, saw their opportunity: First Prussia turned against him, joining with Russia, then Sweden, then Austria. A formidable coalition took shape, and its leaders began to believe that maybe, just maybe, with these forces and these odds, Napoleon could finally be brought to heel.
In the fall of 1813, however, Napoleon was not a beaten general, though he faced many challenges. His Grande Armée, having left so many frozen dead along the roads out of Russia, had to be rebuilt. Napoleon tried and France tried, and the result was an army of respectable numbers but of markedly inferior quality. The new recruits had scant training and precious little equipment, many of them marching to join their units in Germany without muskets or gear. The shortage of horses was especially painful. The war in Russia had decimated the army’s horses, and since France wasn’t horse country, replacements were hard to come by. All branches suffered, but the cavalry—eyes and ears of the army—most of all. Napoleon would never have a weaker cavalry than he did in 1813.
While the new coalition he faced was strong, it too faced serious challenges. And no one felt the pressure of those challenges more than the coalition’s commander, Karl Philipp, Prince Schwarzenberg, field marshal in the army of the Austrian emperor: “It really is inhuman what I must tolerate and bear,” Schwarzenberg wrote that summer, “surrounded as I am by feeble-minded people, eccentric projectors, intriguers, asses, babblers, and niggling critics.” Dozens of other generals, Russians and Prussians and Austrians, noisily offered their opinions. Worse yet, there were three monarchs at headquarters, breathing down his neck: Alexander I, tsar of Russia; King Frederick William III of Prussia; and Schwarzenberg’s sovereign, Emperor Francis I of Austria.
All those asses and babblers, though, were dedicated to the defeat of Napoleon. They just weren’t sure how to go about it. Prince Schwarzenberg possessed a cool head, but even he had his doubts. “When I reflect that opposed to me stands the greatest Leader of all times,” he told his wife on the eve of battle, “I must confess to you that my shoulders seem not strong enough to bear the load.” Yes, the coalition seemed to be keeping “the Ogre” Bonaparte at bay, but the prospect of bringing him to battle remained intimidating.
Nevertheless, in four days in October 1813, the armies of the Old Regime would accomplish just that. The Battle of Leipzig, soon to be known as die Völkerschlacht—“the Battle of the Nations”—fought in the sleepy villages and marshes around the old Saxon university town of Leipzig, marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s remarkable career. What makes the battle significant was that it was a near-run thing: Napoleon’s defeat was never a foregone conclusion. At the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon came within a hair’s breadth of pulling of one of his better escapes…and almost scored a victory.
The Russian debacle in 1812 had shaken Bonaparte’s self-confidence but hadn’t destroyed it, and in spite of all the setbacks, his optimism wasn’t entirely ground- less: His rank and file might be untested and badly supplied, but his command staff was experienced and efficient. His enemy, moreover, was far from perfect: It was a coalition army, and coalitions rarely functioned smoothly. There was nothing to suggest that its leaders would work together well—or at all. Still, in raw numbers, the constituent elements of the Sixth Coalition—Russia’s Army of Poland, Austria’s Army of Bohemia, Prussia’s Army of Silesia, and Sweden’s Army of the North—far outnumbered the French. And they were better fed, better disciplined, better supplied. At Leipzig, they would muster a total of 380,000 effectives and 1,500 field guns against Napoleon’s 225,000 and 700 guns.
As Napoleon, recovering from the blow dealt him in Russia, tried to reassert his authority in the German states, the initial furtive clashes between the opposing armies bore out the emperor’s high expectations. At Lützen (May 2, 1813) and at Bautzen (May 20–21), the French handily beat the united Russian-Prussian forces in Saxony. Even at Dresden (August 26), where he faced a much larger Russian-Prussian-Austrian army under Prince Schwarzenberg, Napoleon still managed to score a tidy victory.
But then the allies changed their strategy. Adopting the conservative “Trachenberg-Reichenbach Plan” favored by the Austrian high command, the coalition armies deliberately avoided any direct confrontation with Napoleon and his main army while taking every opportunity to pounce on smaller French forces led by the emperor’s lieutenants. The plan worked. Napoleon found that his enemies would not give him the battle he wanted, on his terms, while his subordinates suffered a string of small but costly defeats that the French could not afford: at Grossbeeren (August 23), Katzbach (August 26), Kulm (August 29–30), and Dennewitz (September 6). Waning French fortunes inspired one German state after another to turn against the French and join the coalition, while hunger, sickness, and small-scale actions whittled down French manpower. Giving up for the moment on his German ambitions, Napoleon reluctantly made the decision to fall back to the west, across the Elbe River. He would move north, where the countryside was relatively unravaged by war, and he cast his eyes on Leipzig as a defensible rallying point.
The coalition armies were hot on his heels—most of them, anyway. There was a touch of hesitation in the high command: After all, they were rushing to attack Napoleon himself, and they knew just how dangerous he could be. Schwarzenberg led the main body of Russians and Austrians from the southeast. The Swedish Army of the North—commanded by Napoleon’s former general Bernadotte, now the Crown Prince of Sweden—advanced at a pace that can only be described as “leisurely,” while General Blücher brought his Prussians from the northwest. Blücher, who hated Napoleon with an ardor that bordered on mania, was the most eager to bring the French to battle. “The three [allied] armies are now so close together,” he wrote on October 13, “that a simultaneous attack…might be undertaken.”
Napoleon quickly came to see the gravity of his predicament the very next day. As he rode into Leipzig to rendezvous with the Grande Armée, advance elements of the Army of Bohemia got tangled in a nasty but indecisive engagement with Joachim Murat’s French cavalry. Their fight didn’t change anything, but it confirmed what Napoleon suspected: He was in for a big fight.
On October 15, both sides busied themselves in preparation for battle the next morning, as each waited nervously for reinforcements to arrive. Napoleon in particular had reason to make haste. The roads south of town were already clotted with Austrian troops and green-clad Russians, in numbers roughly equal to his own, but the troops coming from the north—the Prussians and Swedes—worried him most. The emperor, though, assumed that Blücher and Bernadotte were still some distance away, at least two days’ march. In this he was entirely mistaken, the victim of poor cavalry and inept reconnaissance. It proved a decisive miscalculation.
The ground in and around Leipzig favored the French defenders. The town itself was unimpressive, with crumbling city walls that could not withstand a determined assault, but the topography around the town gave Napoleon the advantage. Tree small rivers—the Parthe, the Pleisse, and the Elster—came together in Leipzig. Ordinarily these would not have presented intimidating obstacles, but heavy autumn rains had swelled them to the point that they were virtually impassable, and French engineers destroyed most of the bridges crossing them. A chain of bald hills south and southeast of town provided a commanding position for artillery emplacements. Vast marshy areas separating the villages surrounding Leipzig would make troop movements difficult for an attacker. The French also had the advantages of fighting a battle along interior lines: While the enemy struggled to envelop the city, Napoleon could easily shunt reinforcements from one position to another.
Both commanding generals, Napoleon and Schwarzenberg, intended to attack, and in the same general location—around the villages south of Leipzig. Schwarzenberg initially ordered an assault through the marshes between the Parthe and the Pleisse where the French positions were clearly the strongest. His plan was horrible, so manifestly bad that the Russian commanders all but threatened revolt. To Antoine-Henri Jomini—formerly in Napoleon’s service, now in the tsar’s—Schwarzenberg’s plan bordered on the ludicrous. “One would imagine,” he wrote later, “that Napoleon [himself] must have dictated it in order to procure for himself the most decisive victory possible.” (Jomini would soon become famous as the interpreter of Bonaparte’s legacy to future generations of soldiers.)
Under much pressure, Schwarzenberg scrapped his plan. Instead, the allies would attack along a broader front, mostly focusing on the villages of Wachau, Liebertwolkwitz, and Markkleeberg, while the Hungarian general Ignaz Gyulai tried to force his way down the causeway that went straight into Leipzig from the west. Napoleon’s battle plans weren’t much different. Committing two-thirds of the forces he had at hand, including two corps that were guarding the northern and western approaches to Leipzig, he would try to drive in the Austrian-Russian right to the southeast and smash through the enemy’s center in the south.
What Napoleon didn’t plan for was a battle on multiple fronts.
The next morning, October 16, was wet and dark, with a steady soaking rain and heavy leaden clouds that never lightened during the course of the day. The battle began with an allied cannonade around 8 a.m., which took Napoleon by surprise. When he rode to the battlefield about an hour later to watch the action unfold, he saw the allied assault just beginning to surge forward: Four dense columns, under the overall command of Russian general Prince Wittgenstein, moved slowly and steadily toward the French line. The downpour impeded visibility, and the assault soon deteriorated into an uncoordinated series of piecemeal attacks. For the next two hours, the Austrian and Russian troops, supplemented with a handful of Prussians, tried to force a crossing of the Pleisse River and to wrest control of the southern villages from the French. Both sides fought stubbornly, viciously, and at close quarters, with the only tangible result being a high body count.
At Dölitz, where the Poles of General Józef Poniatowski’s French corps held the line, the dead piled up on both banks of the Pleisse from volleys exchanged at nearly point-blank range. In the streets of Wachau, French and Prussian foot soldiers fought from house to house in some of the bitterest hand-to-hand combat of the age. Wachau, Liebertwolkwitz, and Markkleeberg changed hands multiple times and were in ruins by the end of the day, their houses and shops burned by one army or the other. Neither side had made significant headway when the musketry began to subside around noon.
The French had held firm, but Napoleon had not yet launched the attack he had been planning. The allied assault had preempted his own, of course, but there was also the issue of reinforcements. Marshal Ney, commanding French forces north of Leipzig, was supposed to have sent Marmont’s VI Corps to bolster Macdonald’s forces on the French left flank. Noon was fast approaching and still Marmont was nowhere to be seen.
It wasn’t Marmont’s fault. Early in the morning it had become clear that Blücher’s Prussians were closer than anyone in the French lines would have imagined. No sooner had Marmont put his corps on the road south than the Prussian advance guard made contact with Ney’s forward elements. Marmont promptly halted his corps, did an about-face, and marched back north to face Blücher. Ney then chose Henri-Gatien Bertrand, commanding the French IV Corps, to go to Macdonald in Marmont’s place. But when Bertrand left his position at the village of Eutritzsch, Gyulai’s Austrians hit the French positions at Lindenau and Plagwitz guarding the causeway west of town. With the causeway under attack, Bertrand felt he could not be spared, so Ney canceled his marching orders, too.
The upshot of this was that Napoleon was denied the numbers that two full, strong corps—or even one—could have lent to the attack in the south. But he couldn’t wait for them forever. The French on the southern part of the battlefield had suffered heavy losses, and the survivors were showing signs of fatigue. Even before Wittgenstein’s attack had sputtered to an anticlimactic end, Napoleon had seen fit to commit nearly all of his reserves just to keep the line intact. Yet he still planned to attack, and while he waited in vain for the promised troops from the north, Bonaparte reformed his line for the assault: A massive artillery battery of 150 guns would pummel the enemy’s center, and while Macdonald rolled up the enemy’s right flank, Murat would lead a cavalry charge into the enemy center. Tis was classic Bonaparte, and the emperor had every right to think it would succeed.
The French attack began shortly after noon. Despite a few minor holdups, it proceeded as planned. The Austrians and Russians gave ground, grudgingly but steadily, driven back to the positions they had started from hours earlier. It went so well, even without the reinforcements, that at around 2 p.m. Napoleon gave the nod to Murat and to Druout, his artillery commander, and set the last phase in motion. Druout’s grand battery tore bloody gaps in the allied formations between Wachau and Markkleeberg. Ten Murat’s 10,000 horsemen raced into the milling mass as the infantry along the entire French line moved steadily forward. The French cavalry easily punched through the allied line. One division of French heavy cavalry destroyed two Austrian battalions, captured 26 allied cannons, and came within a heartbeat of capturing Tsar Alexander at his command post before being repulsed by Russian cavalry.
The French attack on the afternoon of the 16th was dramatic yet indecisive. Austrian reserves arrived just in time, bolstering the allied line. The success of the French cavalry charge, while very real, was ephemeral. No one followed up on Murat’s breakthrough. When the battle ground to a halt in late afternoon, it ended essentially as a draw.
Perhaps Napoleon still could have remedied the situation. Perhaps the emperor, by monitoring Murat’s impact on the Austrian line, could have sent in infantry in just the right place and at just the right time to keep the shattered allied troops from restoring their cohesion, as scholars have since insisted. But that is all speculative, because Napoleon, in fact, was not there. At 2:30, shortly after setting Murat in motion, the emperor mounted his horse and rode frantically to the north. He had just received word that Blücher’s Prussians had hit the French north of Leipzig.
After first making contact with Ney’s troops, Blücher had shied away, reluctant to bring on a general engagement when Bernadotte lagged so far behind. But he soon changed his mind, and just as the French onslaught around Wachau was unfolding, Blücher sent forward Yorck’s Prussian corps and Langeron’s Russians against the French. Here French (Marmont) and Polish (Dąbrowski) troops held a short line stretching from Möckern to Widderitzsch. As at Wachau, possession of the villages went back and forth over the course of the afternoon, but by evening Blücher had prevailed. Yorck and Langeron had succeeded in driving the French out of Möckern. Allied losses were heavy—more than 33 percent for Yorck’s command—but the fighting at Möckern was undeniably a French defeat.
A draw at Wachau, a defeat at Möckern…Bonaparte’s confidence had waned dramatically by nightfall on the 16th. His attendance to the fighting up north had likely precluded a victory, maybe even a truly decisive one, at Wachau in the south, and his presence in the north had not helped. There were so many missed opportunities, so many small blunders. There were blunders on both sides, and those on the allied side were probably the more grievous, but the cumulative effect of the French missteps was worse. Ney had decided to send two divisions from Souham’s III Corps to reinforce Macdonald in the south, then recalled them when the fighting broke out at Möckern, then felt badly about it and put Souham back on the road again. Souham did not get to Wachau before nightfall, and hence his two divisions served no useful purpose. Instead of fighting, they spent most of the 16th marching and changing direction.
The Battle of Leipzig could have ended there. It should have ended there. The French had suffered slightly smaller losses—25,000 men to the allies’ 30,000—but then Schwarzenberg was anticipating the arrival of much larger bodies of fresh troops, including Bernadotte’s army of more than 70,000. Napoleon decided to retreat once more, west, to the Rhine and the natural boundaries of his France. Retreat…but not immediate retreat. The emperor evidently didn’t want to escape that badly, and besides he had made a play for extra time by offering Schwarzenberg a brief armistice. The allies rejected the offer out of hand: Clearly Napoleon was closer to defeat than he let on; why else would he ask for a cease-fire?
Napoleon knew the odds facing him and was well aware that they were getting worse with every passing hour. He knew that retreat was the only viable option available to him. And yet he dallied. Reynier’s VII Corps arrived from the east, bringing the total strength of the Grande Armée to just over 200,000. Bernadotte’s Swedes and Russians under Levin August von Bennigsen, who were scheduled to arrive the next day, brought the allied army up to more than 300,000 men. Leipzig was by then completely encircled. The allies watched and waited, but apart from some very limited skirmishing, the 17th passed quietly. Napoleon could have retreated during the night. But he did not, and the allies prepared to crush the French at will the next day.
The noose tightened on the afternoon of October 18. Schwarzenberg planned a series of attacks, to hit all French positions simultaneously and with overwhelming numbers. It didn’t proceed that way. Instead, as in the first assault two days earlier, the allied attack went off piecemeal. In the morning, there were limited actions in the southwest and the west; by afternoon the engagement had become a general one. Bernadotte’s Swedish army, after taking its time getting to the battlefield, took up position immediately to the east of Blücher’s force, and Bennigsen’s Russians moved into line just south of Bernadotte. The French steadily gave ground there during several hours of fighting; no back and forth this time but a measured retreat that took the French positions very close to Leipzig itself.
Late in the afternoon two entire infantry brigades from Reynier’s corps—Saxons, allied with the French—moved forward toward the allied lines with fixed bayonets, in perfect order, cheered on by their French comrades whose spirits soared to see this impromptu attack. The cheers died in their throats when they saw Prussian troops receive the Saxon onslaught not with volleys but with wild shouts of their own, and embraces too. The Saxons, tired of their alliance with the French, had simply defected, right in the middle of a battle.
When darkness brought an end to the fighting on the evening of the 18th, only the causeway through Lindenau lay open to the French. Napoleon was not going to wait for daybreak to get out of the trap in which he had allowed himself to be caught. At around 2 a.m. on October 19, the dejected Grande Armée formed up in marching order and started west over the causeway. Some 30,000 troops, three full army corps, would hold Leipzig and cover the retreat. Five hours later, allied patrols discovered the movement, but not until nearly 10 a.m. were they able to contest the retreat. By then it was too late. Most of the emperor’s army had crossed the Elster causeway to safety. It was not Napoleon’s greatest moment, to be sure, but neither was it his worst. The army had fought an honorable battle against a superior enemy. It had come very close to defeating that enemy, uncomfortably close in fact. And now, as the French rearguard fought a valiant action in the streets of Leipzig against its pursuers, Napoleon and the bulk of his army were executing a well-ordered retreat, under hostile fire, while crossing a river.
Bad reconnaissance and bad luck, mostly the latter, turned what should have been a simple French victory into a draw on the first day of the battle. And bad luck would hound Napoleon on the last day. To slow the enemy pursuit, Napoleon had taken the routine precaution of rigging the causeway bridges with explosives, so that after his entire army had crossed the Elster safely the bridges could be blown. After they had crossed. Unfortunately, the general to whom Bonaparte had entrusted the task of destroying one of the bridges passed the assignment down to a colonel, who in turn passed it down to a corporal. That panicked corporal lit the fuse at precisely 1 o’clock that afternoon, when the bridge was still crowded with French soldiers, and a full 30,000 French troops had yet to cross. With a deafening boom the bridge rose in the air and disintegrated, as soldiers and horses were blown to bits or thrown into the Elster. Some swam to safety. Others, like corps commander Poniatowski, one of Napoleon’s most capable subordinates, drowned. Poniatowski’s loss was keenly felt; the emperor had promoted him to Marshal of France only days before.
The Battle of Leipzig was over. Its effects would be felt for a very long time. The Grande Armée was badly mauled in this, the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars: 45,000 killed or wounded, another 36,000 taken prisoner, out of a total force of around 225,000. Fifteen French generals lost their lives. To Carl von Clausewitz—the great philosopher of modern war, who was present at the battle as a staff officer with Prince Wittgenstein—Blücher alone deserved credit for defeating Napoleon. Still, the defeat did not end Napoleon’s career—as the 1813 campaign itself had demonstrated, it would take a lot more than a shattered army to finish of Bonaparte. But the Leipzig failure closed Germany to Napoleon, as those few German states still paying homage to France quickly saw the error of their ways and cast their lot with the victors. When Napoleon took to the field again the following year, it would be to defend the borders of his much-reduced France.
What makes Leipzig intriguing is not merely its finality—the fact that it did more to end a career, an empire, an era than even the more celebrated defeat at Waterloo less than two years later. Leipzig was a missed opportunity for Napoleon Bonaparte, still a brilliant commander with a substantial chance of victory. It is possible to imagine a very different outcome for the Grande Armée at Leipzig, an ending ultimately precluded by serendipity and hubris.
Paul Lockhart, a professor at Wright State University, frequently contributes to MHQ. His most recent book is The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington (2011).
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.