Buildup to the battle of Leipzig, 25 September -15 October 1813

The buildup to the battle of Leipzig (25 September-15 October 1813) saw the failure of Napoleon's last attempts to defeat one of his opponents in isolation, and ended with him forced to fight the united armies of his Russian, Prussian, Austrian and other enemies.

During the autumn campaign of 1813 Napoleon was opposed by three main Allied armies, with a fourth arriving as reinforcements late in the campaign. The Army of the North, commanded by the Crown Prince of Sweden (the former Marshal Bernadotte), was based around Berlin, and had Prussian, Russian and Swedish contingents. Bernadotte was probably the least confident of the Allied commanders, but his army did stop all of Napoleon's attempts to reach Berlin.

The Army of Silesia, under Marshal Blücher, began the war in Silesia. In the first part of the campaign it repeatedly advanced west into eastern Saxony, before retreating whenever Napoleon appeared in person. Blücher inflicted a heavy defeat on Marshal Macdonald at the Katzbach (26 August 1813), permanently weakening Napoleon's eastern flank.

The Army of Bohemia, under Prince Schwarzenberg, was the largest of the Allied armies. Although Schwarzenberg wasn't as aggressive as Blücher, he did conduct a series of advances towards Dresden and later Leipzig. One of these resulted in Napoleon's most impressive victory of the campaign, at Dresden (26-27 August 1813), but in the aftermath Vandamme was defeated at Kulm, and the benefits of the battle were lost.

For most of September the campaign followed the same pattern. To the east of the Elbe Blücher advanced and Macdonald retreated. Each time Napoleon appeared on this front Blücher retreated, but his actions meant that Napoleon was unable to concentrate on either an attack on Berlin or an advance into Bohemia.

To the north of the Elbe the last French attack on Berlin failed when Ney's Army of Berlin suffered a crushing defeat at Dennewitz (6 September 1813) and had to seek safety at Torgau on the Elbe.

In the south Schwarzenberg advanced towards Dresden, with his army divided by the Elbe. In mid September Napoleon actually got into position for an attack on Barclay de Tolly's isolated wing of the Army of Bohemia, but decided not to risk the attack.

The Campaign Area

The Leipzig campaign took place in a area bordered by the Elbe to the east and north, the Saale to the west and the mountainous border of Bohemia to the south.

On the eastern front the Elbe emerges from the mountains and flows north-west past Dresden, Meissen and Torgau, before turning west at Wartenburg.

The westward flowing Elbe runs past Wittenberg (on the north bank), Rosslau (north) and Dessau (opposite on the south bank) and Aken, where it turns north-west.

The western side of the campaign area was formed by the River Saale, which flows generally north from the mountains, running into the Elbe just to the north-west of Aken. On its way north the river flows past Jena, the site of one of Napoleon's triumphs of 1806 and Halle. At its closest the Saale is around 14 miles to the west of Leipzig.

A number of other rivers run across this area. The Mulde runs north-west, roughly parallel to the Elbe. It passes Freiberg and Bad Düben, and flows into the Elbe just to the north of Dessau. At its closest the Mulde is around 14 miles to the east of Leipzig.

Leipzig itself sits to the east of two rivers, the White Elster, a tributary of the Saale, and the Pleisse, a tributary of the Elster. The two rivers flow north past Leipzig, with a narrow spit of swampy land between them, then turn west and merge just to the north-west of the city. A third river, the Parthe, runs east to west on the northern side of Leipzig and flows into the Pleisse just north of the city.

The Campaign

The key decisions that led to the battle of Leipzig were made in late September. Napoleon decided to abandon the area east and north of the Elbe and concentrate his troops along the left bank. Eastern Saxony had been ravaged by the war, and even the major supply base at Dresden was losing its value. By concentrating his army further west, Napoleon hoped that he would get a chance to defeat each of the Allied armies in turn. He still had 260,000 men and 784 guns, but his army was being worn down by the fruitless campaigning to the east and north of the Elbe.

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

On the Allied side Benningsen's Army of Poland, which had been forming since the start of the campaign, was finally ready to join the fight. The decision was made to send Benningsen to join Schwarzenberg in the south, while Blücher advanced down the right bank of the Elbe to join up with Bernadotte. The danger of this move was that it gave Napoleon a chance to defeat either Schwarzenberg or Blücher and Bernadotte while they were isolated, but the potential benefit was that Napoleon might become trapped between all three Allied armies and have to fight them all at once. As the campaign unfolded Napoleon came close to catching Blücher, but failed, and by the middle of October he was indeed trapped at Leipzig, where he was forced to fight all of his opponents at once.

The French retreat across the Elbe began on 24 September and by the end of 25 September the French were mainly back across the Elbe. Macdonald's XI Corps was at Weissig, on the east bank of the Elbe close to Dresden. Lauriston's V Corps and Mortier with the Guard were in Dresden. To the north Souham's III Corps, Marmont's VI Corps and Latour-Maubourg's 1st Cavalry Corps were at Meissen on the Elbe. To the south St. Cyr's XIV Corps was at Pirna and Borna, south-east of Dresden on the west bank of the Elbe. A little further south, into the mountains, was Lobau's I Corps, at Berggieshübel.

On the southern front, facing Schwarzenberg were Victor's II Corps at Freiberg (19 miles to the west of Dresden) and Poniatowski's VIII Corps, which was moving to Waldheim (north-west of Freiberg).

On the northern front Ney's army, now reduced to Bertrand's IV Corps and Reynier's VII Corps was at Wartenburg, at the bend in the Elbe. 

On the Allied side Blücher was around Bautzen, east of Dresden, but he was just about to begin his move north-west towards Bernadotte. Schwarzenberg was around Aussig (now called as Usti nad Lebam) on the Elbe just inside Bohemia and Brüx (Most), a few miles further west, while his advance guard, under Klenau, was in the passes that led to Chemnitz, to the north-west of his main position. This put the Army of Bohemia on the roads to Leipzig rather than Dresden. Bernadotte was moving south slowly, and was between Herzberg and Zerbst, facing a wide stretch of the Elbe on either side of the bend. Over the next few days Bernadotte established bridges over the Elbe at Rosslau, Wittenberg and Wartenburg, but dismantled them whenever he was threatened by the French (and in particular by Ney).

By the end of September the French positions were largely unchanged, although Ney's two corps had were more spread out, between Wittenberg and Torgau. The troops at Meissen were to aid Ney if the Allies crossed the Elbe on his front. Augereau's XI Corps was approaching Jena, and would arrive in time for the final battle.

On the Allied side Blücher was marching north-west, along the right bank of the Black Elster, heading for the Elbe opposite Wartenburg. Bernadotte's army was shifting to the west. Bülow had built two bridges across the Elbe at Wartenburg. Tauenzien was to his east, at Jessen. The rest of the army was further west, at Rosslau and Barby, with bridges at Rosslau, Aken (where the river turns north-west) and Barby (a few miles further to the north-west, on the left bank of the Saale). 

By 1 October Blücher had joined up with Bernadotte. Bülow and Tauenzien were free to move west to rejoin the Army of the North, while Blücher approached Wartenburg. The Prussians had a bridgehead across the Elbe here, but it led onto a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Elbe, and with Wartenburg at its neck. Ney ordered Bertrand to move to Wartenburg to stop the Allies taking advantage of their bridgehead, and he was in place by 2 October.

On 2 October Napoleon gave Murat command of II Corps, V Corps and VIII Corps, and the 5th Cavalry Corps. His task was to try and delay the advance of the Army of Bohemia, which was now advancing into Saxony, heading for Leipzig.

On 3 October Blücher won one the key battles of the campaign, at Wartenburg. Bertrand believed his position to be more secure than it really was, and didn't realise that he faced an entire army, not just a corps. Blücher sent Yorck's corps across the two Prussian bridges. While part of his corps got held up in a frontal assault on Wartenburg, Prince Charles of Mecklenburg captured the village of Bleddin, to the south-east, and then attacked the main French position from the south-west. Bertrand was forced to withdraw, and Blücher was able to get his army across the Elbe.

On 4 October Blücher completed his move across the Elbe and began to move west towards Düben on the Mulde. On the same day Bernadotte crossed at Rosslau and Barby, and began to move south up the Mulde. Ney was forced to retreat to Delitzsch (north of Leipzig and west of the Mulde) to avoid being trapped on the Elbe. On the same day Klenau's advance guard from the Army of Bohemia reached Chemnitz. Klenau was forced out of the city by Lauriston, who was then forced to retreat north to Mittweida.

News of the defeat at Wartenburg reached Napoleon on 5 October. He responded by ordering Marmont to take III Corps and VI Corps from the Meissen and Dresden areas to Torgau, gather all the troops available in the depots there and then move west to join Ney. On the way Marmont was to rebuild the bridge over the Mulde at Düben. Napoleon's aim at this point was to try and throw Blücher back across the Elbe. Elsewhere Oudinot with two divisions of the Young Guard was posted at Meissen, whle Murat was ordered to hold Chemnitz. Augereau was ordered to move to Leipzig and combine his corps with Arrighi's garrison. St. Cyr was ordered to concentrate around Dresden, with Lobau's I Corps at Pirna.

On 6 October Napoleon was at Dresden. He planned to move to Meissen, where he would have 80,000 men. He would then cross to the right bank of the Elbe, and advance down the river. This would allow him to cut Blücher and Bernadotte off south of the Elbe, and force them to fight a battle. Murat was to delay Schwarzenberg. St. Cyr and Lobau were to defend Dresden. Napoleon's longer term plan was to turn on Schwarzenberg after defeating Blücher and Bernadotte and then return to Dresden.

On the same day Blücher suggested that Bernadotte should take up a position in front of Merseburg (on the Saale to the west of Leipzig), while Blücher took up a position between the Saale and the Mulde. If Napoleon attacked either of them, the other would be able to attack his flanks. Unsurprisingly Bernadotte didn't agree to this idea, which was far more adventurous than the Allied plan required.

One of Napoleon's characteristics during the 1813 campaign was an increasingly level of indecision. At this key moment he couldn't decide if he was going to defend or abandon Dresden. At midnight on 6-7 October he summoned St. Cyr and informed him that he was going to abandon the city, which was no longer of any great value to him. St. Cyr and Lobau would join the attack on Bernadotte and Blücher. According to St. Cyr Napoleon wanted to have every available man with him for the upcoming battle, and was considering using the line of the Saale over the winter of 1813-14.

At 1am on 7 October Napoleon issued a new set of orders. This time he was going to concentrate around Wurzen, on the Mulde east of Leipzig. III Corps, a central position from where he could move east or north to attack the enemy, move to Leipzig or even retreat across the Saale. Dresden was to be abandoned.

By 1pm on the same day Napoleon had changed his mind. From Meissen he ordered St. Cyr to defend Dresden with his and Lobau's corps. These two corps would thus not be available for the attempted attack on Blücher, or for the battle of Leipzig, and after the defeat at Leipzig would be trapped at Dresden and forced to surrender.

By the end of 7 October the French had IV Corps and VII Corps at Bennewitz (close to Wurzen) on the Mulde. III Corps (Souham) was to the north-east, at Torgau on the Elbe. The Guard, XI Corps (Macdonald) and Sebastiani's cavalry were around Meissen, south-east of Torgau. Most of these troops were heading for Ney at Wurzen, and by the end of 8 October Napoleon had 140,000-150,000 men concentrated there.

On the Allied side Bernadotte had 30,000 men at Dessau, close to the mouth of the Mulde, and the rest of his army to the west of the Mulde. Blücher was a day's march to the east and south-east, with Yorck, Langeron and his headquarters at Düben on the Elbe, and Sacken at Mockrehna, south-east of Düben and about half way between Blücher's main force and the new French concentration. Bernadotte wrote to Blücher, presenting him with two options - to withdraw north of the Elbe or to move west of the Saale. While Blücher was keen for a fight, Bernadotte wanted to wait until the Army of Bohemian could arrive from the south before taking that risk. Blücher agreed to the second option, and set his army in motion heading west. Yorck, on his right, would cross the Mulde at Jessnitz. Langeron in the centre would cross at Bitterfeld and Sacken, on the left, at Düben.

On the southern front Colloredo's advance guard reached Zehista, just south of Pirna (east of Dresden) on 8 October. On the same day the small force Blücher had left opposite Dresden captured the French bridge head on the opposite bank to Pirna. Murat was at Mittweida (north/ north-east of Chemnitz), while Poniatowski defeated an Austrian force at Penig, twelve miles to the west.

On 9 October Napoleon decided to move north towards Wittenberg, partly to lift the siege of that place, and partly to force a battle with Blücher around Düben. His aim was to reach Wittenberg by the end of the day, cross to the right bank of the Elbe, and capture the Allied bridges at Wartenburg and Dessau.

Napoleon came tantalisingly close to catching Blücher on 9 October, but the two armies effectively crossed paths. Ney, with the leading French corps, reached Düben by 3pm. Sacken escaped to the north, and crossed the Mulde at Raguhn, to the north of Jessnitz, although one of his divisions was caught and mauled by Sebastiani's cavalry at Probsthain.. Yorck and Langeron reached their targets on the Mulde. By the end of the day the leading French troops were around Düben, with most of the rest of the army to the south-east, but Blücher had slipped past them, and on 10am he met up with Bernadotte near Zorbig, between the Saale and the Mulde. Bernadotte then moved to Rothenburg on the Saale. Tauenzien was left behind at Dessau to cover the bridges at Rosslau and Acken.

On the southern front Klenau recaptured Penig. Poniatowski retreated back towards Murat, who was then at Rochlitz, fifteen miles to the north.

On 10 October Napoleon moved to Düben, where he planned his next move. He was aware that he had missed Blücher, but his lack of cavalry meant that he didn't know which way the Prussians had gone. He gambled on their having gone north towards Dessau, and ordered his troops to move north to Wittenberg and north-west to Dessau in an attempt to catch them. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Blücher was now moving west.

On the southern front Bennigsen left 20,000 men under Ostermann to blockade Dresden, while he led his other 30,000 men towards Colditz, on the road to Leipzig. Further to the west Wittgenstein moved towards Borna, to the north-west of Murat's main position. This forced Murat to move to Wachau and Liebertwolkwitz, now outlying suburbs of Leipzig, but in 1813 separate villages.

By 3pm on 11 October Napoleon learnt that there were very few Allied troops left at Dessau. On the same day Reynier was on the right bank of the Elbe, where he lifted the Allied blockade of Wittenberg. When this news reached Tauenzien he moved to Rosslau, but left one division at Dessau, where it was almost destroyed later on the same day (12 October). Tauenzien and Thümen then began a rather disorderly retreat towards Berlin, knocking them out of the campaign.

In the south Schwarzenberg had reached Altenberg, while Wittgenstein, Kleist and Klenau were further north, at Borna. The Army of Bohemia was now getting dangerously close to Leipzig.

By 3am on 12 October the crucial news arrived that Blücher was moving to Halle on the Saale. Once again new orders were issued. Ney was to attack the Allied bridgehead at Dessau, while Reynier moved onto the right bank of the Elbe and took Rosslau. Bertrand would join Ney. Marmont would move to Delitzsch (north of Leipzig, east of Halle) to watch Halle and possibly support Murat if needed. Later in the day yet another new plan was issued. This time Napoleon planned to bring together most of his army at Taucha, just to the north-east of Leipzig. On the Allied side Bernadotte remained at Rothenburg, while Blücher moved to Halle. The net was now closing in on Napoleon. Bernadotte and Blücher were to his west, threatening to cut him off from France. Schwarzenberg was moving north towards Leipzig. Napoleon's chances of inflicting a defeat on either wing of the Allied army were slipping away. 

On the same day Augereau's IX Corps reached Leipzig, where it joined the garrison.

Early on 13 October Napoleon decided to concentrate at Leipzig, but only after Reynier had completed his move along the right bank of the Elbe and destroyed the Allied bridge at Acken. After that was done, Ney and Reynier were to move down to Leipzig. However this plan was based on the assumption that Bernadotte had retreated north of the Elbe. Within an hour of issuing these orders, Napoleon learnt that Bernadotte was still on the Saale. This made the move on Acken pointless, and Reynier was ordered to cross back to the left bank of the Elbe and move to Düben. Macdonald, who had been operating further to the east, was also called to Düben.

Early on 14 October Napoleon issued his orders for the day. Bertrand was to move from Düben to Leipzig. Macdonald was expected to pass the Mulde at Düben during the day, followed by Ney on the evening. Reynier was expected to be close to Düben by the end of 14 October. Sebastiani's cavalry was to leave Macdonald and make for Leipzig as quickly as possible. Latour-Maubourg was to do the same. Oudinot and Mortier, the Guard cavalry and the Old Guard were to move to within two and a half miles of Leipzig. Durrieu was to guard the French artillery parks and other depots, which were to be left at Eilenburg, north of Leizpig on the left bank of the Mulde. Napoleon was expecting to have to fight Blücher and Schwarzenberg on the following day.

The first large scale clash of the Leipzig campaign came at Liebertwolkwitz, one of the largest cavalry battles of the entire Napoleonic Wars. The clash was triggered by the Tsar, who had ordered a reconnaissance towards Leipzig, and despite its scale was somewhat inconclusive. Murat lost more cavalry than he should have done, but the Allies failed to properly coordinate their attacks.

On 15 October the forces began to move into place for the battle of Leipzig. Napoleon made his deployed on the assumption that Bernadotte and Blücher had united their forces, and were moving south down the Saale, with the intention of crossing the Saale around Weissenfels, to the south-west of Leipzig. This would allow them to join up with Schwarzenberg and unite all three Allied armies. The French were mislead by campfires around Markranstädt, which they believed to belong to Bernadotte and Blücher. In fact they belonged to the left flank of Schwarzenberg's army, which covered a wider flank than the French realised.

On the Allied side Bernadotte remained some way from Leipzig, around Wettin and Zorbig (around 20-25 miles to the north). Blücher had crossed the Saale at Halle, and was heading east, on the north bank of the White Elster. By the end of the day his right wing was at Schkeuditz, and he was facing east from a position only eight-ten miles to the north-west of Leipzig. Schwarzenberg was spread out around the south-west and south of Leipzig.

On the French side Napoleon was expecting to fight a battle south of Leipzig, against an army advancing from the south.

By the end of the day Bertrand was at Eutritzsch, just over two miles to the north of Leipzig.

Marmont was at Lindenthal, four miles to the north-west of Leipzig, facing towards Halle.

Souham had two divisions at Mockau, two miles to the north-west of Leipzig), and his third on the road leading from Düben to Leipzig.

These forces thus formed the rear of Napoleon's army.

To the south of Leipzig Poniatowski was at Markkleeberg just under five miles south of the city) and Dösen (two miles to the east of Markkleeberg), and his right stretched down the Pleisse to Connewitz, two miles to the north of his front line. This put him on the French right.

Victor was at Wachau, about a mile to the east of Dösen, in the centre of the main French line.

Lauriston was at Liebertwolkwitz, just under two miles east of Wachau, on the French left.

Augereau was at Zuckelhausen, about a mile to the north of Wachau.

Further away Macdonald was at Taucha, about five miles to the east/ north-east of Leipzig. Napoleon hoped to use him to outflank the Allied right flank, east of Liebertwolkwitz.

Reynier was at Düben, nearly fifteen miles to the north of Taucha.

The Guard was in reserve at Reudnitz (one mile east of the city centre) and Crottendorf (another mile to the east).

Of the cavalry Latour-Maubourg was at Zweinaundorf (east of Leipzig, three miles north of Liebertwolkwitz). Pajol was at Holzhausen (a couple of miles to the south-east of Zweinaundorf). These forces were thus in place behind the French left. Sebastiani was further off, heading for Taucha.

The battle of Leipzig began on the following morning (16 October). On the first day of the battle Napoleon had some chance of success, but he was unable to concentrate his available forces against Schwarzenberg, and failed to achieve his aims. On 17 October neither side did much, but the Allies received sizable reinforcements. On 18 October the Allies pushed the French back towards the city itself, and the French retreat began with non-combat troops. Finally, on 19 October, the retreat began in earnest. It was going fairly well until the only bridge out of the city was destroyed, leaving some 30,000 French troops trapped in the city.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 August 2017), Buildup to the battle of Leipzig, 25 September -15 October 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/campaign_leipzig.html

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