The Battle of Dresden: A Soldier’s Account
In the Battle of Dresden, fought on August 26-27, 1813, French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte defeated a much larger Austrian, Prussian and Russian force commanded by Austrian Field Marshal Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg. The battle took place on the outskirts of Dresden, then capital of the Kingdom of Saxony in what is today Germany.
After Napoleon’s defeat in the Russian Campaign of 1812, members of the Sixth Coalition tried to liberate the German states from French domination. Dresden was occupied by a French garrison of fewer than 20,000 men. When Napoleon learned that Schwarzenberg’s army was advancing on the city, he rapidly sent reinforcements, giving the French 70,000 troops on the first day of the battle. They effectively pushed back 158,000 coalition troops, causing Schwarzenberg to lose ground. That night, a heavy rain fell. When the battle resumed on August 27, Napoleon had approximately 120,000 troops at his command, thanks to the arrival of two additional corps. He went on the offensive against the coalition force, which now numbered some 200,000.
All three of the allied monarchs were present at the Battle of Dresden: Emperor Francis I of Austria, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and King Frederick William III of Prussia. Jean-Victor-Marie Moreau was also at the battle, giving advice to the Tsar. Moreau was a French general who helped Napoleon come to power but then became his rival and was banished from France. He had recently returned to Europe from the United States, where he had been living since 1805.
Captain Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, takes up the tale.
The rain fell in torrents; but the enthusiasm of our soldiers was unabated. The Emperor directed all our movements. His guard was in a street to our left, and could not go out of the city without being riddled by a redoubt defended by eight hundred men and four pieces of cannon.
There was no time to lose. Their shells were falling in the midst of the city. The Emperor called up a captain of fusiliers of the guard named Gagnard (of Avallon). This brave soldier presented himself to the Emperor with his face a little askew.
‘What have you in your cheek?’
‘My quid, sire.’
‘Ah! You chew tobacco?’
‘Take your company, and go and take that redoubt which is holding me up.’
‘It shall be done.’
‘March along the palisades by the flank, then charge right on it. Let it be carried at once!’
My good comrade set off at a double by the right flank. Within a hundred feet of the barrier of the redoubt his company halted; he ran to the barrier. The officer who held the bar of the two gates, seeing him alone, thought that he was going to surrender, and so did not move. My jolly soldier ran his sabre through his body and opened the barrier. His company made two leaps into the redoubt, and forced them to surrender. The Emperor, who had watched the whole affair, said, ‘The redoubt is taken.’ …
I hastened to my comrade…, I embraced him, and taking him by the arm, I led him to the Emperor, who had made a sign to Gagnard to come to him. ‘Well, I am well pleased with you. You shall be put with my old grousers: your first lieutenant shall be made captain; your second lieutenant, lieutenant; and your sergeant-major, second lieutenant. Go and look to your prisoners.’ The rain was falling so heavily that the Emperor’s plumes drooped upon his shoulders.
As soon as the redoubt was taken, the old guard went out of the city and formed a line of battle. All our troops were in line in the low grounds, and our right wing rested on the road to France. The Emperor sent us off in squads of three, to carry orders for the attack all along the line. I was sent to the division of cuirassiers. On my return from my mission, I went back to the Emperor. He had in his redoubt a very long field-glass on a pivot, and he looked through it every moment. His generals also looked through it, while he, with his small glass in his hand, watched the general movements. Our right wing gained some ground; our soldiers became masters of the road to France; and the Emperor took his pinch of snuff from his waistcoat pocket.
Suddenly, casting his eye towards the heights, he shouted, ‘There is Moreau! That is he with a green coat on, at the head of a column with the emperors. Gunners to your pieces! Marksmen, look through the large glass! Be quick! When they are half-way up the hill, they will be within range.’ The redoubt was mounted with sixteen guns of the guard. Their salvo made the very earth shake, and the Emperor, looking through his small glass, said, ‘Moreau has fallen!’
A charge of the cuirassiers put the column to rout, and brought back the general’s escort, and we learned that Moreau was dead. [Moreau died on September 2 as a result of wounds sustained at the Battle of Dresden.] A colonel, who was made prisoner during the charge, was questioned by our Napoleon in the presence of Prince Berthier and Count Monthyon. He said that the emperors had offered to give the command to Moreau, and he had refused it in these words: ‘I do not wish to take up arms against my country. But you will never overcome them in mass. You must divide your forces into seven columns; they will not be able to hold out against them all; if they overthrow one, the others can then advance.’
At three o’clock in the afternoon the enemy made a hasty retreat through the cross-roads and narrow, almost impracticable, byways. This was a memorable victory; but our generals had had enough of it. I had my place among the staff, and I heard all sorts of things said in conversation. They cursed the Emperor: ‘He is a —, they said, ‘who will have us all killed.’ I was dumb with astonishment. I said to myself, ‘We are lost.’ The next day after this conversation, I made bold to say to my general, ‘I think our place is no longer here; we ought to go on to the Rhine by forced marches.’ ‘I agree with you; but the Emperor is obstinate: no one can make him listen to reason.’
The Emperor pursued the enemy’s army as far as Pirna; but just as he was about to enter the town, he was seized with vomiting, caused by fatigue. He was obliged to return to Dresden, where a little rest soon re-established him. General Vandamme, upon whom the Emperor relied to keep in check the remnant of the enemy’s army, risked an engagement in the valleys of Toeplitz, and was defeated on the 30th of August [at the Battle of Kulm]. This defeat, those of Macdonald on the Katzbach and Oudinot in the plain of Grossbeeren, destroyed the fruits of the victory of Dresden. (1)
Prussian writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann was also in Dresden during the battle.
He had experience of a bombardment; one of the shells exploding before the house in which Hoffmann and Keller, the comedian, with bumpers in their hands to keep up their spirits, watched the progress of the attack from an upper window. The explosion killed three persons; Keller let his glass fall. Hoffmann had more philosophy; he tossed off his bumper and moralized: ‘What is life!’ said he, ‘and how frail the human frame that cannot withstand a splinter of heated iron!’ He saw the field of battle when they were cramming with naked corpses the immense fosses which form the soldier’s grave; the field covered with the dead and wounded, with horses and men; powder-waggons which had exploded, broken weapons, shakos, sabres, cartridge-boxes, and all the relics of a desperate fight. He saw, too, Napoleon in the midst of his triumph, and heard him ejaculate to an adjutant, with the look and the deep voice of the lion, the single word, ‘Voyons.’ (2)
Napoleon later described the Battle of Dresden as the best action of the campaign. In Napoleon in America, he commends Narcisse Rigaud, who served at the Battle of Dresden as his father’s aide-de-camp.
The Battle of Dresden was Napoleon’s last major victory on German soil. In October 1813, after his defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon began to retreat into France. In March 1814, coalition troops entered Paris. Napoleon was forced to abdicate the French throne and was exiled to Elba.
You might also enjoy:
- Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), pp. 249-252.
- Walter Scott, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1841), p. 28.
My jolly soldier ran his sabre through his body and opened the barrier. His company made two leaps into the redoubt, and forced them to surrender. The Emperor, who had watched the whole affair, said, ‘The redoubt is taken.’