Second day of the battle of Leipzig, 17 October 1813

The second day of the battle of Leipzig (17 October 1813) was fairly inactive, and is most notable for the arrival of large numbers of Allied reinforcements, and Napoleon's failure to take a chance to escape (War of Liberation).

On the first day of the battle Napoleon had attempted to defeat Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia to the south of Leipzig, but his efforts had been spoilt by the unexpected need to defend against Blücher's Army of Silesia to the north of the city. This meant that he was unable to transfer enough troops to the south to win a significant victory there (He wasn’t helped by Macdonald, who moved rather slowly, or Ney, who committed an entire corps to the fairly minor fight west of Leipzig.

Reinforcements

The most significant activity on 17 October was the arrival of reinforcements on both sides. This greatly favoured the Allies. Napoleon was only expecting Reynier's corps, which had missed the fighting on 16 October. In contrast the Allies were expecting Bernadotte's Army of the North, which could easily have been present on the first day – Blücher had actually passed Bernadotte in the days before the battle, Colloredo's troops and Bennigsen's troops. Once everyone was in place this would give Napoleon around 160,000 men, the Allies around 295,000 (exact figures vary between sources).

The three Allied forces were coming from different directions. Colloredo was approaching from the south, and was expected to reach Magdeborn, south of Leipzig, at 6am on 17 October. Bennigsen was approaching from the east/ south-east, via Colditz, Grimma and Naunhof. Bernadotte was approaching from the north.

Events of the Day

Although 17 October is generally skipped over in accounts of the battle of Leipzig, there was some significant fighting on the northern front. A series of watercourses sat between Blücher and the city, starting with the Rietzschke brook, which flowed past Eutritzsch into the Elster at Gohlis, and the River Partha, which ran into the Elster a little nearer Leipzig. After the fighting on 16 October Marmont withdrew across the Partha, but he left Delmas's division and some cavalry between the Rietzschke and the Partha.

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

Blücher reorganised his forces after the fighting of 16 October. St. Priest was posted on the left and Sacken on the right, facing the brook. Yorck had suffered such heavy losses that his four brigades were reduced to two.

The fighting began at 9.30am, when Blücher ordered Sacken to attack Gohlis and Langeron to attack Eutritzsch, as a preliminary step towards forcing the French behind the Partha. Ney took command of the defense in person. Dombrowski was ordered to replace the Wurtemberg garrison at Gohlis, while Delmas was ordered to form up east of Gohlis. The Russian cavalry pushed back Fournier (from Arrighi's cavalry) and Lorge's cavalry, but were repulsed when they attacked Delmas's infantry. Delmas then pulled back into the Halle suburb of Leipzig and Dombrowski retreated from Gohlis.

Blücher's next objective was to cross the Partha, but this was a more difficult obstacle, and was especially swampy as it approached the Elster. He began to prepare for an outflanking move. St. Priest and Sacken would attack the main French position and pin them in place, while Langeron was send out on the Prussian left to cross the river past the French right. However he then discovered that the Army of Bohemia wasn't attacking so decided to stop where he was and prepare to attack on the following day.

A little further to the east Reynier, was was approaching Taucha from Eilenburg, was attacked by a small party of Wintzingerode's cavalry. After fighting off this attack he continued on south-west, heading for the Heiterer Blick farm, two miles to the north-east of Leipzig. At this point he encountered the cavalry fleeing from the Russians (see above), and had to stop and prepare for an attack. When no attack took place, he took up his position in the lines around Leipzig.

The Allied high command expected Napoleon to attack again on the morning of 17 October, so when the noise of gunfire was heard from the north of Leipzig, the commanders in the south assumed that Napoleon was attacking Blücher. Plans were put in place for a large scale attack, to begin at 2pm (not much use for Blücher if he had really been under attack). Gyulai was to attack Lindenau, west of Leipzig. Lederer, who had replaced General Meerveldt, was to attack in the difficult ground between the Pleisse and the Elster. Three columns were to attack east of the Pleisse, with the left advancing up the Pleisse, the centre attacking Liebertwolwitz and the right hitting Leibertwolkwitz and Holzhausen. The Allied commanders clearly hadn't learnt much from the events of 16 October, and were still planning to attack in five columns, with two isolated by water and a wide gap between the two on the right and the central column.

By 2pm the sounds of firing had died down, and instead of an attack the Allies held a council of war. The Allied reinforcements had not arrived as quickly as expected. Colloredo had arrived at 10am, four hours later than originally expected, but his men were tired from their march. Bennigsen had arrived, but his troops were still some way off. As a result the planned attack was postponed until the next day.

All of these orders did produce some minor fighting around Lindenau. Gyulai, who had initially been ordered to join the main force east of the Pleisse, then told to wait until St. Priest moved south from Blücher's army to replace him, decided to make a demonstration towards Lindenau, as he wasn't sure if the main attack was going ahead or not. This soon faded away into skirmishing.

Napoleon's Plans

General Henri Gratian, Count Bertrand, 1773-1844
General Henri Gratian,
Count Bertrand,
1773-1844

The most important event of day two of the battle was Napoleon's decision to stand and fight at Leipzig. The events of the previous day should have convinced him that any chance of a significant victory had gone. His options for a retreat had also shrunk. Blücher now held a strong position to the north of the city, so that route was blocked. Schwarzenberg blocked any movement to the east. In earlier days, with a more experienced army, Napoleon might have risked a dash east, but in 1813 that really wasn't an option. That only left the road west, across the causeway to Lindenau, and that was a very narrow escape route. On the night of 16-17 October Napoleon interviewed the captured General Meerveldt, who confirmed that the Bavarians had officially changed sides and were about to attack the French lines of communications. 

Napoleon did issue some orders relating to the retreat late on 17 October. Bertrand was to leave his position at Lindenau and secure the crossing points over the Saale and the Unstrut, at Mersebug, Freiburg, Weissenfels and Kösen, all on the route to Erfurt. Mortier would take over the defence of Lindenau. However he doesn't appear to have ordered the construction of any extra bridges over the Pleisse and the Elster near the causeway, something that his engineers could easily have achieved on 17-18 October.

Either late on 17 October or early on 18 October Napoleon decided to withdraw to a new defensive line closer to Leipzig. The new French position formed a single curved line around Leipzig, with Ney in command on the left (facing north), MacDonald in the centre (facing east) and Murat on the right (facing south). The move into the new positions began at 2am on 18 October.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 September 2017), Second day of the battle of Leipzig, 17 October 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_leipzig_17_october.html

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