Battle of Dresden, Day One (26 August 1813)

26 August
The Battlefield
The Battle - The Morning Attack
The Battle - French Reinforcements Arrive
The Battle - The main Allied attack.
The Battle - The French Counterattack

The first day of the Battle of Dresden (26 August 1813) saw Napoleon defeat an Allied attack on the city, and launch a successful counterattack that prepared the way for his offensive on the second day.

At the start of the Autumn campaign of 1813 Napoleon was based in Saxony, with enemy armies to his north (Bernadotte's Army of the North), east (Blücher's Army of Silesia) and south (Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia). The first clashes came in the east, where Blücher was the first of the Allied commanders to move.

Napoleon decided to move east to deal with Blücher. On 17 August he reached Bautzen (east of Dresden), where he learnt that 40,000 Russians under Wittgenstein were heading for the campaign area (either to join Blücher or Schwarzenberg). This triggered a period of unusual indecisiveness on Napoleon's part.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Autumn Campaign

His first plan was to move every man east to try and defeat Blücher before these reinforcements could join him. Vandamme was ordered to move to Bautzen to cover this move, while St. Cyr was ordered to hold Dresden against any possible attack from the south.

On 18 August Napoleon reached Görlitz, where he changed his plan. He now intended to head south to Zittau to attack Wittgenstein in his flanks as he moved west towards Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia. Ney, Marmont and Lauriston were left to watch Blücher.

On 20 August Napoleon reached Zittau, where he learnt that Blücher was moving to attack Ney. The value of a move into Bohemia via Zittau was also reduced by the news that Wittgenstein was moving past to the west. Napoleon's arrival at Zittau did have one significant impact – the Army of Bohemia changed its plans from an advance on Leipzig to an advance on Dresden, to avoid getting too far from Blücher. This took it away from its prepared routes, and caused some problems during the battle of Dresden.

On 21 August the main French army crossed the River Bobr in an attempt to catch Blücher, but he retreated (combat of the Bobr or Lowenberg).

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

On 22 August Napoleon was at Lowenburg when a message reached him from St. Cyr, informing him that the entire Army of Bohemia was heading for Dresden and requesting urgent aid. On the same day St. Cyr's outposts at Hellendorf (on the Bohemian side of the border) were being forced back towards Berggiesshübel, on the road to Dresden.

Napoleon's first plan was to lead his army straight to Dresden. Vandamme and the Guard would take the lead, with Marmont and Victor to follow. Macdonald was left in Silesia, with orders to push Blücher back to Jauer, and then take up a strong defensive position behind the Bobr.

Later on the same day Napoleon changed his plan. This time St. Cyr was to hold Dresden without any help, while Napoleon led the main army across the Elbe to the south-east of Dresden, at Pirna and Konigstein. This would put him behind the Allied right flank, and if all went well trap the Allied army outside Dresden. Napoleon expected to have 100,000 men at Pirna by daybreak on 27 August. The Guard, I, II and VI Corps and the 1st Cavalry Reserve Corps were to concentrate at Stolpen by 25 August, ready to attack across the Elbe. Ney, whose III Corps had been left with Macdonald, was summoned to join the main army, but without his troops, who were to be commanded by Souham. Ney either disobeyed or misinterpreted these orders, and began to move with his entire corps and Sebastiani's cavalry. This mix-up was soon sorted out, but it did mean that Macdonald's army was badly stretched out for the next few days.  

None of Napoleon's plans would have mattered if the Allies had moved with more urgency. On 23 August a Russian light division from Wittgenstein's forces approached Dresden coming from Zehista and pushed back the French outposts, taking up a position on the heights of Strehlen (four or five miles south of Dresden). There was limited skirmishing on 24 August, and on 25 August St. Cyr was even able to go onto the offensive and drive the Russians off the heights.

The Allies missed a clear chance to capture Dresden on 25 August. St. Cyr only had 20,000 men to defend the city, while the Allies had most of their Russian troops in place. The Tsar and General Moreau (then serving with the Allies) favoured an immediate attack, which would probably have succeeded. Schwarzenberg disagreed, and insisted on waiting until the bulk of the Austrian troops were in place. The Allies were also unsure where Napoleon was, so Schwarzenberg may have been waiting for more accurate information.

On the morning of 25 August Napoleon reached Stolpen. He had Vandamme's corps close by, Latour-Maubourg's cavalry corps and the Guard on the road from Bautzen, but Victor and Marmont were a day east of Bautzen. Vandamme was ordered to prepare to cross the Elbe. Bad news then arrived – Oudinot had suffered a defeat at Grossbeeren during his attempt to capture Berlin and had retreated to Wittenberg, on the Elbe north of Leipzig. This left Napoleon's communications between Dresden and Leipzig, which then ran down the east bank of the Elbe for some way, potentially exposed to attack. Napoleon ordered St Cyr to send l'Heritier's Cavalry Corps north to Grossenhain (east of the Elbe, north of Dresden) to guard against any raid from that direction.

Napoleon was worried about the state of Dresden, and so he sent Gourgaud to examine the place. He returned to Napoleon at Stolpen late on 25 August and reported that the city would fall if it was not reinforced as quickly as possible. This gave Napoleon a problem. He really wanted to keep as many men as possible for the attack on Schwarzenberg's rear, but he also couldn't afford to lose Dresden and its supply dumps.

26 August

At 1am on 26 August Napoleon issued new orders. His grand plan to cross the Elbe above Dresden and cut off the Army of Bohemia had to be cancelled. Instead he would rush reinforcements directly to the city, leaving a much smaller force to cross the Elbe. The Guard and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry were to depart for Dresden immediately, with Victor and Marmont to follow as soon as possible. Vandamme's corps was left to carry out the attack from Pirna. This decision has since been greatly criticised. Events on 26 August proved that Napoleon was able to hold the city without Victor and Marmont, but Vandamme was unable to carry out his part of the plan with a single corps. If either Victor or Marmont had been left with Vandamme, then Napoleon might have gained the overwhelming victory he was hoping for.

As it was Napoleon reached Dresden at 9am on 26 August, followed by the Imperial Guard at 10am. This gave him 70,000 men on the first day of the battle, as Marmont and Victor didn’t arrive in time to take part.

The Battlefield

Dresden sits on both sides of the Elbe. In 1813 the Altstadt (old town), on the left bank of the Elbe was by far the larger, but the city only had a population of around 30,000. The old fortifications had been partly dismantled, and in most directions were surrounded by suburbs ('schlags'), which extended for another 600-700 yards from the old fortifications. The Freidrichstadt, west of the main city, extended further. These suburbs blocked the fields of fire from the old walls. Although the French had occupied Dresden in May, at that time the only threat came from the Russians and Prussians east of the river, and so little work had been done on the fortifications of the Aldstadt.

The Neustadt, on the right bank of the Elbe, was connected to the Altstadt by one bridge within the city walls. Work on improving the fortifications of the Altstadt began soon after the French occupation in May, and it was much better defended than the Aldstadt.

Unfortunately for St. Cyr, in August it was the Altstadt that was in danger. During the armistice some work had been done on improving its fortifications. Five lunettes (earthwork artillery redoubts) had been built outside the city, but nos. I, II and III couldn't support each other. No.IV was badly sited, with dead ground in front, and a large building within 300 yards. To the south-east of the city was the 'Grosser Garten', a walled garden 1,000 yards wide and 2,000 yards long, stretching away from the city, and with a palace at its centre. This garden was just outside the line of lunettes.

St. Cyr had constructed a second defensive line at the edge of the suburbs, building palisades, barricading the streets and building loopholes into the buildings.

The third and final line of defence was the weak fortifications around the Altstadt. 

The area between the Grosser Garten and the Elbe was fairly level and open. To the south and west the ground rose to a line of heights, which ran from Tschertnitz to Briesnitz. To the west of the city the Weisseritz river ran through the hills and into the city, passing between the Altstadt and the western Friedrichstadt suburb. Upstream from the village of Plauen the river could only be crossed on a limited number of bridges after heavy rain. On the first day of the battle the river was fairly easy to ford, but on the second day rain made it difficult to cross.

At the start of the day St. Cyr had around 20,000 men to defend the city - 15,000 men from three divisions of his own corps, 4,500 Westphalians, two cavalry regiments and two Polish cavalry squadrons and a handful of allied troops. The Westphalians formed the garrison of Dresden. XIV corps held the outer lines of the defence, with the 43rd division on the left, between the Elbe and Redoubt No.III. The 44th division held the area around the Grosser Garten. The 45th division held the right, from the garden to the Freidrichstadt.

Overnight on the Allied side the Russians held the Allied right, from Blasewitz on the Elbe to the villages of Striesen and Grüna, just to the north-east of the Grosser Garten.

The Prussians held Prohlis, Torna, Leubnitz and Ostra, a cluster of villages south-east of Dresden.

To their left the Russians held Gostritz, south/ south-east of the city.

Next were two divisions of Austrians (Colloredo and Lichtenstein), on the heights behind Räcknitz, due south of Dresden.

On their left Chasteler arrived with two divisions at around 8pm, and was positioned on the right bank of the Weisseritz, facing the French around Plauen.

At the start of the day Milorodovich with the Prussian and Russian Guards were twelve miles south of Dresden, around Dippoldiswalde. Klenau was at Freiberg, a similar distance to the west of Dippoldiswalde.

Schwarzenberg decided to attack the city, but he then missed his chance to win a fairly easy victory by delaying his main attack. The morning was to be taken up with a reconnaissance in force, while the main attack was to begin at around 4pm.

When it did begin, the main attack was to be made in five columns. On the right Wittgenstein, with 10,000 Russians, would attack between the Elbe and the Grosser Garten, in an attempt to draw the French towards him. To his left 35,000 Prussians were to attack the Grosser Garten. In the centre Colloredo, with 15,000 Austrians, was to attack Redoubt No.III. On the left Chasteler was to capture Plauen, and then cover the march of the final column. The fifth attack was to be made on the left bank of the Weisseritz by Bianchi, with 35,000 Austrians. His aim was to reach the Elbe at Friedrichstadt. The idea was for the right and centre to attack first, to draw any French reserves towards the eastern side of Dresden. The Allied left would then attack, and would hopefully be able to take advantage of a weakened French line.

The Battle - The Morning Attack

The battle began with the Allied reconnaissance in force, which took place while Napoleon and his reinforcements were arriving in the city.

First to move were Zeithen and Pirch, who attacked the Grosser Garten from Strehlen, to its south-east at about 5am. Progress was slow - by 8am the Prussians had only captured the half of the garden farthest from the city.

At about 7am the Russians under General Roth attacked on the Allied right. When his troops attacked the north-eastern corner of the garden the Prussians were able to make more progress. By 9am they were about half way between the Palace in the centre of the garden and the city end, but they were then ordered to pause.

The main Russian attack on the right also began at about 7am. At first they suffered heavy losses from the fire of French artillery batteries on the opposite side of the Elbe, but as the Prussians advanced in the garden, the Russians were able to make progress. They built a gun battery on the Windmill height, from where they could duel with the French guns over the river, and under the cover of its fire were able to capture a foothold on the Elbe. However an attack on the Hopfgarten, on the left of the French line, was repulsed.

On the left the Austrian attack on Plauen began at around 6am. By 9am they had forced the French to retreat past the Feldschlösschen, and were threatening Redoubts Nos.IV and V, at the western end of the French line. French fire was unable to damage the Feldschlösschen, but Austrian attacks on the redoubts were repulsed.

Finally, on the far left, across the Weisseritz, the Austrians pushed the French out of Lobtau, a village to the south-west of the Friedrichstadt suburb.

At about noon this first phase of the battle ended. The Allies had made some progress on their left and right, but none in the centre (west of the Grosser Garten and east of the fighting around Plauen). 

The Battle - French Reinforcements Arrive

On the French side Napoleon left Stolpen at 5am, and reached Dresden between 9am and 10am. His arrival restored the morale of the defenders, and of the citizens of Dresden. The sounds of cries of 'Vive l'Empereur' also reached the Allied high commander, causing a great deal of uncertainty.

As the French reinforcements arrived, Napoleon distributed them around the city. Three special columns were set up, while St. Cyr retained command of the defensive battle.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

Murat was posted on the French right, at Freiderichstadt, and was given part of XIV Corp and I Corps, starting with Teste's division, along with the 1st Cavalry Corps and Pajol's cavalry from St. Cyr's Corps. 

Mortier was posted on the French left, with Decouz's and Roguet's divisions of the Young Guard.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

Ney was posted in the centre, in the Dippoldiswalde and Falken suburbs, around Redoubt No.IV, with two more divisions of the Young Guard.

The Old Guard remained in reserve in the city, although three regiments were sent into the suburbs, one on each flank and one in the centre. The cavalry was posted behind Friedrichstadt. Between them Latour-Maubourg and Pajol had 23,000 troopers in 124 squadrons, although many of them were very inexperienced. 

The Battle - The main Allied attack.

The arrival of Napoleon and his reinforcements was soon known on the Allied side of the lines. This triggered the inevitable argument about what to do next. Jomini, who had changed sides during the armistice (having served as Ney's chief of staff at Bautzen) and the Tsar were both in favour of cancelling the attack and retreating to Dippoldiswalde, obeying the overall Allied plan. The King of Prussia wanted to risk an attack, on the grounds that Napoleon must be outnumbered.

The decision was eventually made to cancel the general attack, which was to begin at 4pm. The decision was made too late, and before it could be cancelled, the signal to begin the attack, the firing of three guns, was made, and the attack got underway. 

On the Allied right the Russians made mixed progress. Near the Elbe they were able to reach Anton's and Lämmchen, approaching the riverside suburbs. In the Russian centre they were unable to push on far past the windmill hill. On their left, near to the Grosser Garten, they got close to Redoubt No.II, but were unable to take it.

The Prussians in the Grosser Garten were finally able to reach the city end. From there they also attacked Redoubt No.II, also without success. They also attempted to attack Prince Anton's garden, just to the west of the Grosser Garten, again without success.

To their left Kleist advanced from the Rothe Haus (just to the south of the Grosser Garten), and attacked the area east of Redoubt No.III. The Prussians got close to the suburbs, but then had to retreat when St Cyr's 44th Division counterattacked.

Between Kleist and the Weisseritz a series of Austrian columns attacked. On the Austrian right the attackers almost reached Redoubt No.III but then ran into very heavy French fire and collapsed, undermining Kleist's attack.

Next in line two columns attacked Redoubt No.III, but they also ran into heavy fire. They were on the verge of retreating when the French ran out of ammunition, and the Austrians were able to storm the redoubt. The French retreated to the second line of defences, at the edge of the city. The Austrians here also reached the Hospital Gardens, but this attack was repulsed.

Next to the left attacks on Redoubt No.IV and Redoubt No.V both failed, although for a period No.IV was briefly deserted, and only the arrival of French reserves saved it. Three attacks on Redoubt No.V failed.

On the far side of the Weisseritz Bianchi advanced towards Friedrichstadt but was slowed down by heavy French fire. Finally, near the Elbe, a force under Meszko briefly got into the area west of Friedrichstadt and a loop of the Elbe, but then had to retreat to avoid getting cut off.

The Battle - The French Counterattack

At about 6pm the French counterattack began, with the three special columns under Ney, Mortier and Murat all involved, supported by artillery on the opposite bank of the Elbe on both flanks.

On the French left, east of Dresden, Mortier attacked with the 3rd and 4th Divisions of the Young Guard on the far left and three columns advancing towards the Grosser Garten.

Roguet's division advanced along the Elbe, while Decouz advanced further inland, and after a hand-to-hand fight captured the Windmill height, the site of the Allied artillery battery. The heights fell at about 7pm and by 8pm the French had pushed the Allies back to their starting point. Wittgenstein personally visited Barclay to ask for reinforcements, and was given Klüx's Prussian brigade. With this aid the Russians were able to hold on to Striesen village until midnight.

In the Grosser Garten the French had reached the palace at its centre by 7pm, but the Prussians still held the palace at 8pm, when the fighting ended. Finally on Mortier's right the French were able to retake Redoubt No.III.

In the French centre Ney attacked around Redoubt No.IV. The Feldschlösschen was taken on the second attempt. The Austrians conducted a determined fighting retreat back towards Plauen, and were able to hold on close to the Weisseritz.

On the French right Teste's troops from Murat's column attacked Altona, and forced the Austrians to abandon Lobtau. Neither side occupied that village during the night.

By the time darkness ended the fighting the French had recaptured most of the ground lost during the earlier Allied attack

To the south-east Vandamme crossed the Elbe, and pushed back Eugène of Wurttemberg's corps at Pirna. Eugène was outnumbered (12,000 to 40,000 if all of Vandamme's men had been present), and called for help. The Allies sent Ostermann to take command.

That evening Victor and Marmont began to reach Dresden, giving Napoleon 120,000 men for the next day. The Allies only received another 12,000 men. Although they did outnumber Napoleon, with 170,000 men, they would prove to be outclassed when the fighting resumed on the following day (27 August)

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 May 2017), Battle of Dresden, Day One (26 August 1813) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_dresden_26_aug.html

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