Fourth day of the battle of Leipzig, 19 October 1813

The fourth day of the battle of Leipzig (19 October 1813) saw the French attempt to carry out a fighting retreat from the city, but their efforts were marred when the only bridge heading west out of the city was destroyed while tens of thousands of French troops were still in the city.

Napoleon began to prepare for the retreat on 18 October. His first move was to order Bertrand to lead his corps south-west from Lindenau to Weissenfels on the Saale. Bertrand moved during the morning of 18 October, brushed aside Gyulai's Austrians, the only Allied forces west of the Elster, and began his march west.

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

Napoleon ordered the retreat to begin at 11am, starting with the non-combat parts of the army. At 4pm he ordered the cavalry corps to move across the causeway to Lindenau. The 1st Cavalry Corps moved first, followed by the 3rd and 5th Cavalry Corps. The artillery park was ordered to distribute supplies to the ammunition dumps at the front, destroy most of its empty wagons, and lead the rest to Lindenau.

The orders for the following day were drawn up on the evening of 18 October. The artillery and parks were to move first, during the night. They were to be followed by the Old Guard, then Oudinot's two Young Guard divisions, the 4th Cavalry Corps, IX Corps (Augereau), II Corps (Victor) and the 2nd Cavalry Corps.

The rest of the army was to defend Leipzig. Durutte's division (the only remaining part of Reynier's division) was posted in the Halle suburb, on the French left. Marmont's VI Corps and one division from Souham's III Corps held the area from the Partha to the Grimma gate. The rest of Souham's corps was on Marmont's right. V Corps (Lauriston) was to his right, followed by XI Corps (Macdonald), and finally VIII Corps (Poniatowski), which held the French right, up to the Pleisse south of Leipzig.

VII (Reynier), VIII and XI Corps were given the specific task of acting as a rearguard to hold Leipzig until the rest of the army had passed through, and ideally for another twenty four hours. Macdonald was given command of the rearguard. The one remaining bridge over the Elster, which led to the causeway to Lindenau, was to be prepared for destruction, but wasn't to be destroyed until Macdonald had retreated.

Away from Leipzig Bertrand was ordered to spread out between Kösen and Merseburg, occupy Freiburg, and guard the line of the Saale. Kellermann at Mainz was ordered to recall all recruits who were marching to depots that were about to be abandoned. St. Cyr, uselessly blockaded at Dresden, was ordered to try and escape. The commanders at Torgau and Wittenberg were given permission to surrender those places, as long as their troops were allowed to leave. 

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr
Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr

On the allied side Gyulau reported sighting Bertrand on the Lützen road, heading south-west from Leipzig, at 3pm. When this news reached the small Austrian force at Weissenfels it destroyed the bridge and then retreated. Bertrand was able to reach Weissenfels without any problems, and by the following morning the bridge had been repaired.

Late on 18 October Blücher received reports that the French were beginning to retreat west towards the Saale, heading for either Merseburg or Weissenfels. He ordered Yorck to move west to block the bridges at Merseburg and Halle, and his battered corps set off at 8pm. By 7am on 19 October he had Horn's brigade and the reserve cavalry at Halle on the Saale and Hunerbein's brigade at Burg Liebenau on the Elster, to the north-east of Merseburg.

At the end of the day the Allies had pushed the French back a short distance from their original positions. The French line began at Connewitz, on the Pleisse south of Leipzig. It ran east to Probstheida, then north to Stötteritz, Crottendorf and then curved north-west to Reudnitz on the Partha. From there it followed the river downstream to the Halle suburb of Leipzig.

The Allies were largely camped in areas that had been the French front line at the start of the day. On the Allied left Colloredo was around Lösnig, Dölitz and Dösen. Barclay was around Dösen, south of Probstheida and in Zuckelhause. To the east of Leipzig Bennigson was on a line from Zuckehausen to Zweinaundorf and then Molkau. Bernadotte was in Stüntz, Sellerhause and Paunsdorf. Langeron was at Schönefeld. Sacken was in the area between the Partha and Gohlis, north of the river.

Schwarzenberg outlined his first plans for the following day late on 18 October. This was for a five pronged assault on Leipzig, but with the provision for a powerful pursuit of Napoleon. Colloredo, commanding the column south of Leipzig, was to send three cavalry brigades to Pegau, on the Elster south of Leipzig. Lederer, commanding the corps between the Elster and the Pleisse, was to move to Pegau. Finally Bubna was to move to Pegau once his troops were rested. This would have put 60,000 troops on the road to the Saale, with a chance of catching Napoleon as he attempted to cross at Weissenfels. At midnight on 18-19 October Schwarzenberg cancelled Colloredo's and Lederer's orders. This just left Bubna, who wasn't due to move until later in the day. Schwarzenberg's official reason was that it was not certain that the French were retreating.  

The Battlefield

The fighting on 19 October took place in the suburbs and old town of Leipzig. The old town was roughly rectangular, and was surrounded by the remains of the old fortifications. These had little or no military value, but did block easy movement.

There were four gates through the walls. To the west was the Rannstädt Gate, which led to the bridges over the Pleisse and the Elster, and the causeway to Lindenau. One potential danger of the French position was that the Rannstädt Gate was towards the north-western corner of the city, so a successful Allied attack from the north had the potential to isolate the French defenders to the south.

To the east was the Grimma Gate.

The old town was surrounded by suburbs. The largest suburbs were to the south and east. There was a gap to the north-east caused by marshy ground. To the north was the Halle suburb, between the old town and the Partha. 

The Retreat

The French retreat began at 2am, when the troops on the southern perimeter began to withdraw from Connewitz, Probstheida and Stötteritz towards the suburbs of Leipzig. Camp fires were left burning, and rearguards were left behind, and it took some time for the Allies to realise what was happening.

By the time the Allies were ready to attack, the French had reached their allotted defensive positions. On their left Durutte's division and the garrison of Leipzig held the Halle suburb, north of the old town, with some troops north of the Partha. Two divisions of III Corps were in reserve.

Ricard's division from III Corps held the line from Durutte's right to the Hintertor (the outer gate on the eastern side of the city). The 22nd Division (VI Corps) was in reserve.

The remaining two divisions of VI Corps held the line from the Blindentor to the outer Grimmator (to the south-east of the city).

The stretch from the Grimmator to the Windmill gate (south of the city) was held by Ledru's and Gérard's divisions of XI Corps. Charpentier and Marchand were in the reserve.

To the south Rottenbourg's foreign division of the Old Guard and Poniatowski's corps held the area from the Windmill to the Munz gates, with their right on the Pleisse. Dombrowski's division was in reserve. 

The Allied advance began at 7am. Colloredo advanced down the Pleisse. Barclay de Tolly advanced towards the south side of Leipzig, Bennigsen on the south-east, Bernadotte on the east and Blücher on the north. There was some limited fighting to the east, where Bülow forced the French out of the few outlying villages that were still in their hands. To the north Blücher split his forces, sending Langeron to attack across the Partha into the Halle suburb, and Sacken to cross the Pleisse and outflank the French left. By 10am the Allies were ready to begin their assault on the suburbs.

Just as the Allied attack began, Napoleon learnt that Bertrand was safely at Weissenfels, and the bridge had been repaired. He sent orders to Bertrand to build more bridges at Weissenfels, and also to occupy Kösen and possibly Merseburg. Napoleon also attempted to gain more time by opening indirect negotiations with the Tsar. He encouraged a group of the local magistrates to go to the Tsar to offer to negotiate. They were followed by a messenger from the King of Saxony. Both groups wanted to prevent the city being stormed, and at around 10am the Tsar ordered a halt to the Allied attack to allow these negotiations to begin.

At about 9am Napoleon paid a last visit to the King of Saxony. He left the King at 9.30am, and attempted to leave the city. By this point the roads were so congested that it took Napoleon an hour and a half to reach Lindenau.

The negotiations ended at around 10.30am, and the Allies attacked all around the city. By 11.30 the French had been drive out of all of the suburbs, and the fighting was now approaching the Old Town.

Some of the worst fighting took place at the Grimma Gate, where the Baden troops of the garrison had orders to let nobody pass. They took this to include their retreating French allies, and this triggered something of a massacre. Eventually the gate was forced open, allowing the French to pass. The gate was then closed once again.

In the north Durutte held out against Langeron until Bülow's troops, advancing from the east, threatened his flanks. Durutte then retreated to the south bank of the Partha. Langeron followed up, and forced his way across the Partha, although at great cost.

At about 12.30pm the Allies captured the Grimma Gate, allowing them into the Old Town. Poniatowski was still holding on in the south but the French were now being forced back through the town, and he was in danger of being cut off.

Marshal Berthier at Work
Marshal Berthier at Work

Although the situation was becoming chaotic (and any chance of holding the city for twenty four hours had clearly gone), the French were still escaping across the one line of bridges. Unfortunately for Napoleon, his arrangements for blowing the bridge weren't very good. General Dulauloy, an unreliable Guard officer had been given the task, but he had passed it on to Colonel Montfort of the engineers. Montfort then decided that he absolutely had to know which corps was expected to cross the bridge last, and went to Lindenau to ask Berthier. Unsurprisingly he was unable to get back to the bridge. Corporal Lafontaine of the sappers was left in charge, with orders only to blow the bridge if it was about to be captured. At about 1pm he spotted some of Sacken's skirmishes, sent across the rivers by Blücher. Lafontaine panicked, and blew the bridge, even though it was covered with French troops. This probably cost Napoleon around 10,000-15,000 men, trapped in the city.

This left the French rearguard trapped in the city, along with Marshals Macdonald and Poniatowski (promoted to that rank twelve hours earlier). Macdonald managed to swim his horse across the Elster, but Poniatowski, who had been wounded, and Dumoustier, both drowned. A final desperate battle broke out in the north-west corner of the city, as the trapped garrison were attacked by Blücher and Bülow. By about 1pm the last surviving French troops surrendered.

The Allied commanders now began to celebrate their victory. Tsar Alexander and King Frederick William III of Prussia entered the city at about 1pm, and rode to the market place. There they met Bernadotte and Bennigsen, who had just visited the King of Saxony. Blücher and Gneisenau then joined the party, coming from the fighting around the Rannstädt Gate. An attempt to visit that gate was blocked by the chaos on the streets, and the Tsar and the King of Prussia then left to inspect Bernadotte's Swedish troops. Only Blücher made any effort to pursue the retreating French, and even that was largely limited to sending some cavalry across the rivers.

The exact numbers of casualties suffered by the two sides over the four days of the battle aren’t entirely clear, and only figures for the overall battle can be given. Friederch gave figures of 16,033 Prussians, 22,605 Russians, 14,958 Austrians and 178 other (Swedes and other allies), for a total of 53,784 casualties. Other sources give slightly lower figures, between 42,000 and 47,500, but these were still massive losses and help explain the limited Allied pursuit.

French losses are more obscure. Friederch gave figures of 38,000 killed and wounded, 15,000 prisoners, 15,000 sick and wounded captured on the fall of the city and 5,000 Germans who changed sides, a total of 73,000. Napoleon finally escaped to France with around 80,000 men, of whom some 60,000 were still effective. The poor sapper who blew the bridge often gets the blame for the scale of the French defeat, but Napoleon was really to fault, for having decided to stand and fight after failing to achieve any great victory on 16 October.

The French lost a significant number of generals and marshals. Poniatowski, Dumoustier, Vial, Rochambeau, Freidrichs and Delmas were all killed. Lauriston, Reynier, Charpentier, Pino, Hochberg and Prince Emil of Hesse were amongst thirty-six who were captured.

Ney, Macdonald, Marmont, Reynier, Lauriston, Souham, Latour-Maubourg, Pajol (broken left arm and other bones after a shell killed his horse), Sebastiani, Compans, Gérard and Maison were amongst the wounded. The King of Saxony originally expected to be treated as a fellow monarch, but instead was treated as a prisoner of war and sent to Berlin.

Leipzig 1813: The Battle of the Nations, Peter Hofschroer, Osprey, 1993, 96 pages. A very well regarded entry in the Osprey catalogue, covering not just the battle of Leipzig but the entire German campaign of 1813 that led to the final collapse of Napoleon's empire. [see more]
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 September 2017), Fourth day of the battle of Leipzig, 19 October 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_leipzig_19_october.html

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