Battle of Leipzig: Largest Battle of the Napoleonic Wars
The Battle of Leipzig, fought from October 16 to 19, 1813 in Saxony (Germany), was the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Over half a million soldiers were involved. Napoleon Bonaparte and his army of roughly 200,000 men were defeated by over 300,000 soldiers from the armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden, led by Russian Tsar Alexander I and Austrian Field Marshal Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg. Because of the number of countries involved, the Battle of Leipzig is also known as the Battle of the Nations. It was the biggest battle in Europe prior to World War I.
After Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 ended in disaster, the French Emperor returned to France to rebuild his Grande Armée, largely with inexperienced conscripts. In 1813, he confronted a coalition composed of Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Britain, Spain, Portugal, and some German states. As British, Spanish and Portuguese forces succeeded in pushing French troops out of Spain, Napoleon tried to hold on to territory in Germany.
Napoleon won a tactical victory at the Battle of Dresden on August 26-27, 1813, but his generals suffered defeats on other fronts. With the coalition armies closing in, Napoleon concentrated his forces around the prosperous city of Leipzig. He had about 200,000 soldiers under his command, primarily French troops, along with some Poles, Italians, and Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine. The coalition had at least 300,000 soldiers, possibly over 350,000. The Austrian army was led by Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg; the Prussian army by Gebhard von Blücher; the Russian army by Count Levin August von Bennigsen; and the Swedish army by Crown Prince Charles John (otherwise known as Jean Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s former marshals). A company of the British Rocket Brigade was also under Swedish command.
Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King Frederick William III of Prussia, and Emperor Francis I of Austria were all present at the Battle of Leipzig. Tsar Alexander was the supreme commander of the coalition forces, and Schwarzenberg was the field commander.
Several of the characters who appear in Napoleon in America fought at the Battle of Leipzig, including Barthélemy Bacheville, Simon Bernard, Charles Fabvier, Henri Lallemand, Claude Victor Perrin, and, on the Austrian side, Adam Adalbert von Neipperg, who later married Napoleon’s widow, Marie Louise.
The magnitude of Napoleon’s defeat was such that many French participants were too disheartened to write about the Battle of Leipzig. Louis-François Lejeune, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s Chief of Staff Marshal Berthier, commented:
Although on [October] 18th my regiments were engaged, and I lost many men in the suburbs of Leipzig, I do not feel equal to describing the grand tragedy. (1)
Some combatants did leave accounts of the Battle of Leipzig. As the battlefield was so vast, none cover all of the action, but they do supply some interesting vignettes.
October 16: A bloodbath of pure attrition
The Battle of Leipzig began on the morning of October 16. There was fighting both to the southeast and to the north of the city, described by one of Napoleon’s biographers as “a murderous slugging match, a bloodbath of pure attrition.” (2) By the end of the day, neither side had gained ground.
Alfred Saint-Chamans, a colonel with Napoleon’s 7th Regiment of chasseurs à cheval (light cavalry), was placed opposite a regiment of Austrian cavalry.
A terrible bombardment commenced on our right…. We were weak on this part of the battlefield; the Austrians knew this and they brought up a battalion of infantry, whose fire hindered us a lot, and a battery of artillery, which bothered us even more. They fired so well that every shot hit its target. I lost so many men and was powerless to fight back…. The fire became more intense, clearing my ranks so much that disorder began to appear; slaughtered and rearing horses drove back the others, and a number of men dismounted in order to carry wounded comrades to the rear. The morale of the regiment remained good; still, I felt it necessary to encourage my chausseurs, and I began to ride up and down in front of the regiment shouting soldierly words, when I was suddenly lifted out of my saddle and thrown to the ground where I lost consciousness.
A cannonball had grazed me, hitting my leather pouch at shoulder height, toppling me and causing immense pain (particularly in the chest), which I would continue to feel for many years….
When I came to, I found that they were carrying me in a cloak to the nearest village…. I felt my mouth filling rapidly and I spat into my hand. I saw with horror that it was blood. I was sure I was going to die. I was in severe pain and told myself it was all going to be over in a matter of hours.
I had the regiment surgeon with me. He appealed to another gentleman of the same profession…. Despite their assurances I could see that they were worried. Finally, after a thorough examination they decided that I had a massive contusion and that they would have to bleed me, which they did quickly and abundantly. I didn’t feel any relief and persisted in thinking I would be dead in a few moments.
The village was in danger of being stormed by the enemy, as the firing was getting closer and our troops were being pushed back. They decided to get me to Leipzig, about two leagues away. They loaded me onto a stretcher covered in straw and carried me off, as I screamed in agony. I was racked by atrocious pain from the nape of my neck to the base of my spine.
They had great difficulty carrying me and we advanced slowly. As we entered a large village one league from Leipzig, we saw many wounded who told us that the road to Leipzig had been cut by the Cossacks. I was set down in an inhabited house. I began to vomit clots of black blood and felt such intense pain that I begged those who had carried me to put an end to my sufferings. Fortunately they refused….
Towards evening we were told that the road to Leipzig had reopened. The enemy had been pushed back and his cavalry had been forced to withdraw. I arrived in the city around eight or nine in the evening and I was taken straight to some quarters prepared in advance. I was still in great pain and convinced that my ribs or spine must have been broken….
I did not sleep that night. I had a strong fever and I was screaming; the danger of my position worried my poor head, which was already weakened from hunger and loss of blood (they had bled me a second time). In no state to be transported, what would become of me if the French army was forced to withdraw! (3)
October 17: As if on dress parade
Although a Russian cavalry charge to the north of Leipzig drove French forces towards the city, most troops saw no action on the second day of the battle. Lieutenant Charles Parquin, a chasseur in Napoleon’s Old Guard, wrote:
During all of…the 17th, the two armies confronted each other as if merely on dress parade…. We spent the entire day cleaning our arms and equipment and by next day, the 18th, we were…in the correct style to be killed. (4)
October 18: Thousands of arrows and a hare
The coalition launched a huge assault from all sides. The bloodiest fighting was in Probstheida, a village southeast of Leipzig, where more than 12,000 men were killed in three hours. Colonel Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcellin de Marbot, a member of the same light cavalry division as Colonel Saint-Chamans, wrote:
The Old Guard was deployed in rear of the village, ready to aid its defenders…. The French were maintaining their position all along the line. On the left, where Macdonald and Sébastiani had held their ground between Probstheida and Stotteritz in the teeth of frequent attacks from Klenau’s Austrians and Doctoroff’s Russians, we were suddenly assailed by a charge of more than 20,000 Cossacks and Bashkirs. Their efforts were chiefly directed against Sébastiani’s cavalry, and in a moment the barbarians surrounded our squadrons with loud shouts, letting off thousands of arrows. The loss these caused was slight, for the Bashkirs are totally undrilled and have no more notion of any formation than a flock of sheep. Thus they cannot shoot horizontally in front of them without hitting their own comrades, and are obliged to fire their arrows parabolically into the air, with more or less elevation according to the distance at which they judge the enemy to be. As this method does not allow of accurate aiming, nine-tenths of the arrows are lost, while the few that hit are pretty well spent, and only fall with the force of their own weight, which is inconsiderable; so that the wounds they cause are usually trifling. As they have no other weapons, they are certainly the least dangerous troops in the world. However, as they were coming up in myriads, and the more of these wasps one killed the more came on — the vast number of arrows with which they filled the air were bound sooner or later to inflict some severe wounds. Thus one of my non-commissioned officers named Meslin, was pierced from breast to back by an arrow. Seizing it in both hands he broke it and drew the two portions from his body, but died a few minutes later. I fancy this was the only case of death caused by the Bashkirs’ arrows: but I had several men and horses hit, and was myself wounded by the ridiculous weapon. (5)
Meanwhile Lieutenant Parquin spent the day near Napoleon’s headquarters.
The regiment was held in reserve until evening, and we suffered merely a few losses from the enemy’s heavy guns. I had to deplore the death of one personal friend, a lieutenant of my regiment named Helson, who was struck by a cannon-ball that ricochetted full against his breast.
At nightfall we made our bivouac behind a hedge. As I was riding toward the spot that had been assigned for my squad, I heard my own name called. It was by one of my friends, a captain in the Guard infantry, who was in company with two other officers of his corps, from their bivouac close by. He invited me to come over to his quarters, as soon as I should be free, and join them in a modest supper.
‘I shall do so with pleasure, dear fellow; I’ll also bring with me a bottle of brandy which I obtained from a sutler.’
A quarter of an hour later, with my loaf of mess-bread and bottle under my arm, I joined Servatius — such was the name of my friend, latterly a colonel of gendarmes at Arras. When we were all seated and ready one of the officers emptied into a big tin dish a fragrant stew, made of a hare, chopped into pieces and done brown with plenty of potatoes and onions. The dish was found to be capital.
‘I see you have found means to send to the Leipzig market,’ I said to Servatius.
‘No, indeed, dear friend,’ he answered, ‘but my sergeant-major sent a bullet, not ten yards away from here, through the excellent fat hare we are now despatching, and which was so silly as to cross the battle-field near my famished company.’
‘But how is it you did not invite the sergeant-major to share with us?’
‘Well, there was a little difficulty in the way,’ replied Servatius, ‘the sergeant-major had scarcely shot and picked up the hare, and was crying out to me: ‘Captain, here is our supper for tonight!’ when he was himself hit by a cannon-ball that sent him to take supper with Pluto. The hare he gave me has turned out to be his legacy, and that is the whole history of our banquet.’ (6)
During the day, two Saxon brigades and some Württembergers deserted to the coalition, leaving a hole in the French line. Encircled, with casualties rising and ammunition running low, Napoleon realized that the battle was lost. He ordered a phased retreat westward, across the bridge over the Elster River to Lindenau.
As we had for three days beaten off the enemy and held our part of the field, the troops were much astonished and grieved to hear…that for want of ammunition we were going to retreat. Hardly were we out of our bivouac when we felt the inconvenience arising from the neglect of the imperial staff to prepare for the retreat of so large an army. Every minute the columns were stopped by broad ditches, by marshes and brooks, which might so easily have been bridged. Horses and wheels stuck in the mud; and as the night was dark there were blocks everywhere….
Day broke; the broad road was covered with troops of all arms in great number…. The Emperor came by; but as he galloped along the flank of the column he heard none of the acclamations which were wont to proclaim his presence. The army was ill-content with the little care which had been taken to secure its retreat. (7)
October 19: A climax to disasters
As soon as the coalition became aware of Napoleon’s withdrawal, they launched a full-scale assault on the retreating French, who put up a fierce resistance in Leipzig. Combat raged from street to street and house to house.
The last kick was given to our troops by a Baden battalion which, being notorious for cowardice, had been left in the town during the battle to chop wood for the bakehouses. These miscreants, from the shelter of the windows of the great bakery, also fired on our soldiers, killing a great number. The French, meanwhile, made a brave resistance, defending themselves in the houses, and, in spite of their losses, disputing the ground foot by foot with the allied armies, while they retired in good order towards the bridge of Lindenau. (8)
Napoleon gave orders for the bridge to be blown up after the French had crossed, to prevent the coalition forces from pursuing his troops. Unfortunately, the fuse was ignited when the bridge was full of French soldiers and the rearguard was still in Leipzig.
[T]heir retreat was wholly cut off. It was a climax to our disasters….
After the destruction of the bridge, some of the French threw themselves into the Elster, in the hope of swimming across. Some succeeded, including Marshal Macdonald; but the greater number, Prince Poniatowski among them, were drowned, because when they had crossed the river they could not get up the muddy banks, which were lined, moreover, with the enemy’s skirmishers. Those of our men who remained in the town, thinking only how to sell their lives dearly, barricaded themselves behind the houses, and fought valiantly all the day and part of the night; but their ammunition failed, their hastily-raised entrenchments were forced, and nearly all were slain. (9)
Thousands were killed and some 30,000 were taken prisoner, including the wounded Colonel Saint-Chamans, who had been moved to a hotel.
It was easy to foresee that we were going to become prisoners. My companions in misfortune therefore busied themselves in carefully hiding our money, which came to around a hundred louis, leaving just one purse containing 2 or 300 francs in view, to satisfy the greed of the soldiers and save us from the search that would otherwise be made.
Having made these arrangements, we waited; only one thing worried me: that they might throw me down in trying to see if I had hidden anything in my mattress and thus cause my pains to begin anew.
Shooting began in the street, under my window, and from the cries of the people and the ‘hourras’ of the Russians it became obvious that the enemy was now master of the town. Just then we heard a commotion in the corridor. The doctor ran out to find the hotel owner being threatened by a French infantry officer, who wanted to run him through with a sword because he had refused him some bread. The doctor, who was very strong, intervened and the officer fled. (11)
A party of Prussian grenadiers appeared, took the money, and left. Some Russian generals moved into the hotel, and that night a drunk Cossack officer asked Saint-Chamans and his companions for money. Eventually, thanks to his acquaintance with a French aide-de-camp of the Swedish Crown Prince (Bernadotte), Saint-Chamans was able to join a convoy of prisoners bound for Straslund. He was fortunate. Many of those left in Leipzig became victims of starvation, reduced to eating raw horseflesh and even the flesh of dead comrades in an attempt to survive.
Although the Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest single day of fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, overall casualties at the Battle of Leipzig were higher. Over 90,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Napoleon lost at least 38,000; the coalition about 54,000.
Aftermath of the Battle of Leipzig
The Battle of Leipzig ensured the collapse of the French Empire east of the Rhine. The coalition armies pressed their advantage and began crossing into eastern France in December 1813. The Duke of Wellington was already in southwestern France with his forces. The coalition headed for Paris, which surrendered on March 31, 1814. Compelled to abdicate, Napoleon was banished to exile on Elba.
You might also enjoy:
- Louis-François Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, translated by Mrs. Arthur Bell, Vol. II (London, 1897), p. 292.
- Frank McLynn, Napoleon: A Biography (London, 1997), p. 569.
- Alfred Armand Robert Saint-Chamans, Mémoires du Général Cte. De Saint-Chamans, Ancien Aide de Camp du Maréchal Soult, 1802-1832 (Paris, 1896), pp. 238-241.
- Denis Charles Parquin, Napoleon’s Victories: From the Personal Memoirs of Capt. C. Parquin, of the Imperial Guard, 1803-1814 (Chicago, 1893), pp. 256-57.
- Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcellin de Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, translated by Arthur John Butler, Vol. II (London, 1892), pp. 402-403.
- Parquin, Napoleon’s Victories., pp. 259-260.
- Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, pp. 413-414.
- Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, p. 411.
- Parquin, Napoleon’s Victories, p. 261.
- Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, pp. 411-413.
- Saint-Chamans, Mémoires du Général Cte. De Saint-Chamans, p. 242.
I felt my mouth filling rapidly and I spat into my hand. I saw with horror that it was blood. I was sure I was going to die. I was in severe pain and told myself it was all going to be over in a matter of hours.