Third day of the battle of Leipzig, 18 October 1813

The third day of the battle of Leipzig (18 October 1813) was dominated by a general Allied assault on three sides of the city, and by the start of Napoleon's retreat west towards the Rhine.

By the end of 17 October the French were badly outnumbered. Napoleon had around 160,000 men left at Leipzig, the Allies close to 300,000. Napoleon's grand attack in the south on 16 October had failed, and he had missed a chance to retreat, probably largely unchallenged, on 17 October. As a result he was forced to fight a largely pointless defensive battle just outside Leipzig on 18 October.

French Plans

Early on 18 October Napoleon decided to withdraw to a smaller defensive position, closer to Leipzig. The move began at 2am, and eventually created a continuous defensive position around the city (in contrast to 16 October, where Napoleon had been free to manoeuvre to the east and north of the city). At first there was a gap to the east of the city, where there had been no significant Allied troops on the 16th, but that was soon filled.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

The new French line was split into three, with Ney in command on the left (facing north), Macdonald in the centre (facing east) and Murat on the right (facing south).

Ney's left began at Gohlis, on the right bank of the Elster north of Leipzig. It then ran up the river to Pfaffendorf, on the right bank of the Partha, where it flowed into the Elster. The line then ran up the left bank of the Partha to Schönefeld. Souham was posted in the reserve between Schönefeld and Volkmarsdorf (just to the east of Leipzig). Marmont's VI Corps held Ney's centre, from Schönefeld towards Paunsdorf (four miles east of Leipzig). Reynier's VII Corps held the right of Ney's line, with Durutte's division to the left of Paunsdorf and his Saxon division at Paunsdorf.

Macdonald's left was formed by Lauriston's V Corps, at Zweinaundorf and Molkau, two miles south of Paunsdorf. Macdonald's XI Corps was on his right, at around Zuckelhausen and Holzhausen, four miles to the south of Paunsdorf. Part of Lauriston's corps was in reserve.

Murat's left was formed by the Guard, which was posted between Probstheida (one mile to the west of Macdonald's right at Zweinaundorf), and Stötteritz (one mile to the north). Victor's II Corps formed Murat's centre, to the west of Probstheida. Poniatowski's VIII Corps was on the right, between Lösnig and Connewitz on the Pleisse. Finally Lefol's division guarded the Pleisse south of Leipzig, on Murat's right-rear.

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

The French rear was formed by the rivers Pleisse and Elster, which ran from south to north just to the west of Leipzig. A single causeway crossed these two rivers, heading to the village of Lindenau, on the western side of the Elster. This had been defended by Bertrand on 16 October, but his orders were now to move west to secure the escape route across the Saale and Unstrut, and his place at Lindenau was to be take by Mortier.

The Allied Plan

Schwarzenberg's orders for the Allied attack don't appear to have survived, but assuming that what happened reflects his orders they can be reconstructed.

The Allies attacked in six columns.

The first column was commanded by the Prince of Hessen-Homburg, the commander of the Austrian reserve. He had an entirely Austrian force, made up of Colloredo's I Corps, Meerveldt's II Corps, and the Army Reserve – Bianchi's and Weissenwolf's divisions and Nostitz's cavalry division. He was to attack from the south, advancing up the right bank of the Pleisse via Markkleeberg and Lösnig, with a detachment on the left bank.

The second column was commanded by Barclay de Tolly. He had Wittgenstein's Russian Corps (itself made up of Gortschakow's I Infantry Corps and Prince Eugène of Wurttemberg's II Infantry Corps), Kleist's II Army Corp (Prussian) and the Russian and Prussian Guards and Reserves under Grand Prince Constantine. His task was to capture Wachua and Liebertwolkwitz, then advance north to Probstheida.

The third column was commanded by Bennigsen. He had his own Army of Poland, Bubna's 2nd Austrian Light Division, Klenau's IV Corps (both Austrian units from the Army of Bohemia), Ziethen's Prussian Brigade (taken from Kleist's corps) and Platow's Cossacks. His task was to advance from Fuchshain and Seifertshain (south-east of Leipzig) towards Zuckelhausen and Holzhausen. The Allies expected that this movement would take them around Napoleon's left flank, on the assumption that the French remained in their positions of the previous day.

The fourth column was made up of Bernadotte's Army of the North (Wintzingerode's Russian corps and Bülow's Prussian corps). Bernadotte also insisted that he should be given reinforcements from Blücher's army, so Langeron's and St. Priest's corps (both Russian) were transferred to Bernadotte's command (Blücher decided to accompany these troops to make sure they were actually used in the battle). Bernadotte's main role was to connect Blücher's forces in the north with Schwarzenberg's in the south, but he also had to attack west towards Paunsdorf (east of Leipzig).

The fifth column was made up of the rest of Blücher's Army of Silesia. This included Sacken's Russian corps and Yorck's battered Prussian corps. Their task was to attack the north-east of Leipzig, crossing the Partha on their way.

The sixth column was Gyulai's force operating to the west of Leipzig. He was given his own Austrian III Corps, Lichtenstein's 1st Light Division and detachments under Mensdorf and Thielmann. His task was to attack Lindenau.

There really wasn't any finesse to the Allied plan. Five of the six columns were to be used as battering rams, to push the French back towards Leipzig. Only the sixth offered the chance of destroying Napoleon's army by cutting off their only escape route, but it was too weak for that task. The plan was also based on the assumption that the French would remain in the positions they had held since the end of the fighting on 16 October and throughout 17 October, and the overnight French retreat thus came as a surprise.

The Battle

Phase One – 10am to 2pm

On the southern front the Allied attacks began between 9am and 10am. The hardest fighting came on their left, where Hessen-Homburg was advancing alongside the Pleisse. He pushed north, taking Dölitz, Dösen and Lösnig. A counterattack by Poniatowski, the Young Guard and Augereau forced Hessen-Homburg to retreat. He was wounded in the fighting and replaced by Colloredo. Schwarzenberg committed Rajewski's grenadiers and the 3rd Cuirassier Division to the fighting, and the Allies were able to recapture Dölitz. By noon the Allies had advanced up to the original French position between Connewitz and Lösnig, while a detachment under Lederer was opposite Connewitz on the left bank of the Pleisse. Between noon and 2pm the fighting here was largely limited to an artillery dual.

The second column, under Barclay de Tolly, advanced towards Probstheida, but couldn't advance any further as Bennigsen's third column had yet to arrive.

Bennigsen had furthest to go of the southern three columns. He set part of his column in motion at around 3am, sending the Cossacks to get in touch with Bernadotte. This move caused some confusion amongst Bernadotte's supply trains, who weren't expecting to meet friendly cavalry. Bennigsen's main force was in place at Fuchshain, to the south-east of Leipzig, by 6am, but he then had to wait for Bubna's troops to arrive. Once Bubna was close, Bennigsen advanced to attack, but discovered that the French had actually gone from their original positions. By 10am Ziethen was in front of Zuckelhausen and Hohenlohe was in front of Holzhausen, the new French positions. Bennigsen launched attacks on the new French positions. At about 1pm Charpentier was forced to retreat from Holzhausen, on the French left. This forced Marchand to abandon Zuckelhausen, on the French right. Macdonald was forced to pull his line back to Zweinaundorf and Paunsdorf. Finally Bubna reached Paunsdorf, where he faced Reynier's troops from Ney's force. A first attack at noon failed, but a second forced Reynier to retreat west to Sellerhausen. Reynier counterattacked, hit Bubna's left flank and forced him to retreat.

On Bennigsen's extreme right Platow's Cossacks managed to get between Normann's unreliable Saxon cavalry, which had refused to charge at a key point on 16 October and their French allies. At this point Normann decided to change sides, although he refused to actually attack the French without orders from the King of Saxony, who was then actually with the French in Leipzig. This action did not win approval after the war – Normann was exiled from Saxony, his regiments disbanded, and he died fighting in Greece

The Allied advance in the south rather ground to a halt in the early afternoon, largely because Bernadotte was moving so slowly. This prevented Bennigsen from advancing any further, as his right flank would have been exposed, and that in turn delayed Barcley de Tolly.

Freidrich Wilhelm Graf Bülow von Dennewitz
Freidrich Wilhelm
Graf Bülow
von Dennewitz

Bernadotte did have to move some distance and cross the Partha before he could take his place in the line, but his route was overly cautious. He sent Bülow out to Taucha, five miles to the east of Leipzig, with orders to cross the river there. Wintzingerode was to follow Bülow, and post cavalry forces on his left to watch for any French troops coming from Eilenburg or Wurzen. Langeron was to cross the river downstream of Taucha, but to keep his left flank in contact with Wintzingerode's right. Finally his Swedish troops were to cross between Langeron and Wintzingerode. If the French attacked his troops were to concentrate on the heights of Plaussig, north of the Partha. Bülow made the quickest progress, and he was facing west level with Plaussig by 2pm. The rest of Bernadotte's army was still some way behind. Bülow also sent some Cossacks to attack Napoleon's trains at Eilenburg, but they were repelled by the German escorts.

Blücher interfered with Bernadotte's orders, on the grounds that they would involve Langeron in an unnecessarily lengthy march. He ordered him to remain between Mockau and Plaussig, and cross the Partha there once Bernadotte was engaged. Langeron further modified these orders, and crossed the Partha before Bülow had arrived. Marmont was forced to abandon his positions south of the Partha and retreat towards Schönefeld. By about 2pm even Bernadotte couldn’t delay things any longer, and he ordered Langeron to attack Schönefeld.

In the meantime Blücher sent Sacken to attack the northern suburbs of Leipzig. The Polish defenders defeated Sacken, and so at 1pm Blücher committed Yorck's battered formation to the fight.

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

On the western front the battle went rather differently. Bertrand was ordered to begin his march to the Saale, and launched an attack on Gyulai. Gyulai's forces were scattered, with many taken prisoner and most of the survivors escaping across the rivers to rejoin the main Allied armies. Bertrand set off on the march to Weissenfels on the Saale.

At 11am Napoleon ordered the retreat to begin. For most of the day the single causeway to Lindenau was filled with the non-combat parts of the army. At 4pm the 1st Cavalry Corps was sent across, followed by the 3rd and 5th Cavalry Corps. They took up a new position on a small hill west of Lindenau.

Phase Two: 2pm onwards

Although four of the six Allied columns had spent most of the morning attacking the French, they hadn't achieved much. In the north Blucher's attack had been repulsed. In the south the three Allied columns had made limited progress, but the French still held on to most of their original main position.

Heavy fighting broke out along most of the front after 2pm. Once again the Allies would make limited progress, but the French were running out of room to retreat.

On the Allied left Bianchi and Colloredo were initially pushed back by a French counterattack, but then spent most of the afternoon on the offensive. By the end of the day they had taken Lösnig, but their attacks on Connewitz were all repelled by Augereau and Poniatowski. By the time the fighting ended Poniatowski only had 2,500 of his Poles left.

Barcley de Tolly wanted to wait until Colloredo and Bennigsen had advanced before risking another attack on the fortified village of Probstheida, but the Tsar insisted that he attack without delay. His first attack, by two Prussian brigades supported by Eugène of Wurttemberg's 2nd Russian Corps, was repulsed with heavy losses, despite getting into part of the village. A series of attacks failed, but Victor's troops were also suffering and Napoleon replaced them with Lauriston's men. The final assault, by 1,500 men under Eugène, was repulsed with ease by Lauriston. The Allied leaders then forbade any more attacks on this strong position.

In the east Bernadotte was finally in place. Bernadotte and Bennigsen decided that the dividing line between their two forces would be Paunsdorf. Bennigsen was thus able to concentrate his efforts against Zweinaundorf and Molkau, while Bernadotte would cover the area between Paunsdorf and the Partha.

The fighting on this front started with a Prussian attack on Paunsdorf (Bülow). This was supported by the only British contingent to fight at Leipzig, the Congreve Rocket brigade. This unit helped force the French out of Painsdorf and back towards their reserves at Sellerhausen. The brigade's commander, Captain Richard Bogue, was killed leading his dragoon escorts in a charge at this point and replaced by Fox-Strangways (later famous as the first British officer to be killed at Inkerman during the Crimean War).

At this point the two Saxon brigades in Reynier's corps changed sides. They had been planning this move all day, and had told the Saxon commander-in-chief, General von Zeschau, of their plans. A messenger had then been sent to the King of Saxony, who was in Leipzig. His reply was that he 'looked to Von Zeschau to keep his men to their allegiance'. The brigade officers believed that this was deliberately ambiguous, and when Reynier ordered one of his Saxon artillery batteries to withdraw, it defected instead. The two infantry brigades followed. At first the French didn’t all realise what was happening, and De France's cavalry even cheered the Saxons on their way, thinking it was an attack. Von Zeschau was more aware of what was going on, and made an attempt to stop the desertion. He was able to convince around 600 men to stay with the French, but the remaining 3,900 went over to the Allies. Napoleon would later use this as an excuse for his defeat, but the scale of the desertion was tiny compared to the size of the overall battle.

After taking Paunsdorf, the Allies captured Sellerhausen, but their advance ended there. This advance still exposed Marmont's right flank, and forced him to form a new flank heading towards Sellerhausen, but this danger passed after Ney sent Durutte to recapture the village.

The Saxons deserted at around 4.30-5.00pm. Soon afterwards Nansouty, with the French Guard cavalry, attacked into the gap between Bubna's troops (on Bennigsen's right) and his main force. This attack made limited progress and was soon repelled.

By around 5pm Bennigsen was ready to launch a fresh attack, taking advantage of the arrival of Bernadotte's main force. Klenau captured Zweinaundorf, was repulsed once, and then recaptured the village. To his right Bubna captured Molkau. Klenau attacked Stötteritz, a key French position north of Probstheida, but was repulsed. Likewise a French counterattack against Zweinaundorf also failed. After that night ended the fighting on this front.

On the northern front Langeron began a series of assaults on Schönefeld. This strongly fortified village was held by Lagrange's division of Marmont's corps, with Friederichs's division in support. Langeron's first attack successfully reached the centre of the village. The French then counterattacked and drove him back to the edge of the village. This came just as the French had been forced out of Sellerhausen, and that allowed St. Priest to attack Schönefeld from the south. Faced with a two-pronged assault, at about 4.30pm Marmont decided to withdraw to Reudnitz.

Ney decided to try and retake the village. He committed his remaining reserves – Brayer's and Ricard's divisions – to the attack, and was wounded while preparing for it (along with Souham, their corps commander). The attack succeeded, as Langeron had run short of artillery ammunition. Bernadotte fed Wintzingerode's and his Swedish guns into the fight, and recaptured the village. Brayer was wounded, and the French retreated to a position between Reudnitz and Schönefeld. They held on there until 9pm, but were then forced back to Reudnitz.

On the Allied right the weakened Army of Silesia resumed its attacks on the northern approaches to the city, but were once again repulsed.

By the time the fighting stopped around Leipzig, Yorck had already been sent west to try and block the routes across the Saale. His orders were to secure the bridges at Halle and Merseburg, and he was present at Halle by early on the following day. However the French were planning to cross the river further to the south, and his efforts were largely in vain.

To the west Gyulai's main role during the afternoon was to watch for any signs of a French retreat. By 3pm he had sighted Bertrand's corps, advancing along the Lützen road, heading south-west from Leipzig towards Weissenfels on the Saale. When this report reached the small Austrian force at Weissenfels it destroyed the bridge and then retreated.

Aftermath

Napoleon's plan for 19 October was to retreat to the major supply depot at Erfurt. The supply trains and part of the cavalry were already on the road west, and the key bridges across the Saale were being secured.

Although Napoleon put a clear plan in place for the final day of the battle, it largely unraveled. He hoped to be able to defend the city itself for twenty-four hours, but once it was clear that the Emperor had left the defensive became increasingly disorganised. The end came when the one bridge out of the city was blown up while thousands of French troops were still in the city. Around 30,000 men were captured in the city, and any chance of claiming that the retreat had been a success went.

This was soon followed by other disasters. The isolated garrisons at Dresden and Danzig surrendered, losing Napoleon another 90,000 men. Wellington invaded French soil, the first Allied troops to cross the border for many years. The only positive for Napoleon was that the Allies failed to pursue him properly. An attempt by a Bavarian-Austrian army to stop him failed at Hanau (30-31 October 1813), but even so he only had 70,000 soldiers in formation and 40,000 stragglers on his return to France. A second major army had been lost is as many years, and Napoleon would have to defend France in 1814 with tiny forces.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 September 2017), Third day of the battle of Leipzig, 18 October 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_leipzig_18_october.html

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