16–19 October 1813

A German postcard of 1913 commemorates the centenary of the Battle of Leipzig in which the Prussian general Gebhard von Blücher, pictured here, was one of the Coalition commanders against the armies of Napoleon.

The Battle of Leipzig was almost certainly the largest land battle fought in Europe before the First World War. It has been called the ‘Battle of the Nations’, but it was in truth a battle of monarchies – the Sixth Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain against the upstart emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. Smaller monarchies joined in or changed sides, but the deciding struggle was between the big players, and the stakes were very great. This time the old monarchies of Europe wanted to be rid of Napoleon for good, even though they could not agree among themselves under what terms the defeated emperor would be tolerated once he was contained in France. The final showdown around the Saxon city of Leipzig in eastern Germany turned into a fierce face-to-face battle as the troops from both sides took and inflicted high casualties. The raking fire was nothing new to a Napoleonic battlefield, but this time all the armies involved understood that it had to be endured for what was evidently a climactic confrontation.

The army of 177,000 men that Napoleon mustered for the final battle was not the army of his earlier campaigns. After the disastrous adventure in Russia in 1812, Napoleon was forced to scrape the bottom of the recruitment barrel. Young, raw recruits, older men, disabled veterans, 20,000 naval marines and gunners and units of the National Guard militia were drawn together, seasoned with the few remaining veterans and professionals. There was a severe shortage of cavalry horses, and the new horsemen recruited compounded the problem by not understanding how to care properly for their mounts, which died in thousands on the campaign. There was also a shortage of heavy horses to pull the guns and not enough time to train new animals to cope with the stresses of the work. The whole campaign in 1813 was dogged by a shortage of trained cavalrymen and difficulties in keeping open long lines of communication into central Europe.

A nineteenth-century engraving by the French artist François-Louis Couché (1782–1849) shows the retreat of Napoleon Bonaparte (on a white horse) from the Battle of Leipzig on 19 October 1813. The only bridge over the River Elster in Leipzig was detonated prematurely by a French sergeant while French troops were still crossing it, leaving 30,000 on the wrong side.

The campaign in 1813 was complicated for both sides because fighting was taking place in three separate theatres: in Italy, in the Low Countries and northern Germany, and across the central German area of Saxony. Two major battles were fought at Lützen on 2 May and at Bautzen on 21 May; in each case Napoleon, whose army was divided, was able to bring up strong reinforcements in time to compel the Russians and Prussians to withdraw, though not to defeat them. Both sides took heavy casualties, and for a number of months a ceasefire existed. In the interval, Napoleon tried to win over the Austrians, but he could not agree to their demands and the Austrian chancellor, Prince Metternich, brought Austria into the Coalition camp in August. Napoleon now had almost the whole of Europe ranged against him. The Coalition comprised an Army of the North numbering 120,000 under Napoleon’s former marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who was now king of Sweden and had taken the name Carl Johan; the Army of Silesia under the Prussian general Blücher, with 95,000 men; and the Army of Bohemia with 240,000 men. The overall commander was the Austrian field marshal, Prince Karl zu Schwarzenberg. Napoleon had armies stretched out across Europe, a total of 473,000 men. For the next two months they fought indecisive engagements against part of the enemy force as the two sides manoeuvred for advantage, but in the process Napoleon lost tens of thousands of his carefully garnered troops.

The climax finally came in October. Leaving a force of 45,000 at Dresden under Marshal Joachim Murat, Napoleon took 150,000 men to try to pin the Prussians down to a decisive battle. Blücher avoided combat, but suddenly Napoleon had news that the Austrians and Russians, under Schwarzenberg, had returned from their sojourn in Bohemia and were pushing Murat back towards the city of Leipzig. What followed was a three-day battle on a truly awe-inspiring scale as half a million men were pitted against each other for the future of Europe. Napoleon had left 177,000 men, though few cavalry, to confront his approaching enemies. He attacked the Army of Bohemia, expecting to have support from other French armies further north. But they now faced stiff combat from the Prussians moving rapidly south. Napoleon’s offensive came to a halt, and on 17 October both sides regrouped for a final showdown. Though 14,000 more men reached Napoleon, the pause gave time for the Army of the North and additional Russian units to arrive at Leipzig, bringing the Coalition total to 256,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry and 1,382 guns. The two gigantic armies then crashed together again on 18 October, but this time Napoleon was surrounded by a great semi-circular arc of enemy troops, who attacked in six columns, pushing the French back towards Leipzig.

The fighting was fierce and confused for much of the day, but the direction was clear. When the traditional three cannon shots signalled the end of the day’s fighting, Napoleon had no alternative but to order a general retreat, and at 2 a.m. on 19 October, his armies began to withdraw westwards as best they could. The rearguard held the enemy at bay but was finally swamped by sheer numbers in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Throughout, both sides had fought in the face of withering fire and heavy cannonades, with battlefield casualty rates among the worst of the war. For the French there was still one more tragedy. The single bridge over the River Elster at Leipzig had been mined for detonation by French engineers. A French sergeant blew up the bridge prematurely while it was still crowded with French troops, leaving 30,000 men to be captured or killed on the wrong side of the river. The 38,000 French dead and wounded from the three-day battle, added to the loss of the rearguard, took the heart out of what was left of the Grande Armée. The ferocity of the final days of fighting could be judged by the 54,000 casualties on the Coalition side. When the British ambassador to Vienna, Sir George Jackson, crossed the battlefield two days later he was shocked by the scene. He later wrote that ‘a more revolting and sickening spectacle I never beheld.’ He witnessed bloated horses, headless corpses, heads without bodies and thousands of ‘upturned faces of the dead, agony on some, a placid smile on others.’

The ‘Battle of the Nations’ satisfied dynastic ambition at last and demonstrated that the armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria had learned something from the long campaigns against an ailing military genius. Napoleon turned back again to France, where he faced months of fruitless argument over seeking peace and a bitter and hopeless defence against a vast invading army. On 2 April, the French Senate deposed him as Coalition forces finally entered Paris. On 28 April, he was exiled to the island of Elba, off the Italian coast. Most of the battles in the revolutionary and Napoleonic era were not decisive in any meaningful sense, but Leipzig was.