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Battle of Leipzig

french, allies, napoleon, elster, oct, attack, retreat, schwarzenberg and marmont

LEIPZIG, BATTLE OF, or more grandiloquently BATTLE OF THE NATIONS, the engagements of Oct. 16, 18 and 19, 1813, which ended in the defeat of Napoleon and the destruction of what remained of the grande armee. That Napoleon fought at Leipzig at all was due to the Allied threat to concentrate at that city and cut him off from his base, marked on Oct. 3 by Blucher's defeat of Bertrand, and advance to Kemberg, Bernadotte's passage of the Elbe at Acken and Rosslau, and Schwarzenberg's advance south of Leipzig. The initiative, as throughout the war of 1813, had passed to his opponents : moreover, in pursuance of diplomatic rather than strategic ends, he left St. Cyr and Lobau with three corps in Dresden even after he had decided to move westwards (Oct. 8).

On Oct. 14-15 the first conflict took place at Wachau, where Murat threw back the van of Schwarzenberg's army advancing from the south. Napoleon's dispositions were complete by the night of Oct. 15 and the battle began next morning (see plan). The Allies were in two armies, the Prussian BlUcher attacking from the north, the Austrian Schwarzenberg from the south Bernadotte with his Swedes was, probably of intention, hanging back. He had no wish, entertaining the hopes he did of a French crown, to become famous for a victory over French troops and he probably shared in an unusual degree the general fear of Napo leon's abilities. Blucher's main strength lay on the eastern side of the river Elster, before Mockern, where he faced Marmont. West of the Elster Bertrand covered the sole French line of retreat, the Frankfort highway, his opponent being Gyulay. The main attack was made by Schwarzenberg from the south, and against him Napoleon launched his heaviest blows. The allies had 325,000 effective troops to the French 214,00o.

Battle of Leipzig

Schwarzenberg, a commander of second-rate abilities, nearly gave the victory to the French early in the day. He adopted the plan of attempting to outflank Napoleon's forces by extending his army to the left, beyond Connewitz. Such a movement was per fectly possible on paper, but in fact the low-lying meadows of the Pleisse and Elster were an almost impassable swamp. The Aus trian forces were before long helplessly entangled : they were in fact mired. Meanwhile, the French troops had withstood the general assault and by midday Napoleon judged that the time was ripe for his grand stroke, which was to be to smash through the enemy's centre as far as Guldengossa and roll up his right. It is stated that the artillery attack at this time was so severe that the French cannon was no longer heard in separate shots but as one continuous roll. By two o'clock Victor, Oudinot, Mortier and MacDonald were beyond Guldengossa, but the village itself still held out, until the cavalry, directed by Murat, Kellerman and Latour Maubourg, were launched upon it in a magnificent charge.

The allied forces were driven out in apparent disaster, but ruin was averted by the tsar Alexander, who overruled Schwarzenberg, withdrawing from him the Russo-Austrian reserves, which he sent with the Cossack guard against Murat, who was forced to retreat. Marmont meanwhile had been forced to withdraw before Blucher, while Bertrand had driven back Gyulay.

The day had thus ended indecisively, but victory might yet have gone to the French. On the next day, however, when the allies did not attack, Napoleon was overcome by the curious lassitude which reappears so frequently in this campaign, "a carelessness" wrote Marmont, "which it is impossible to explain." He amused himself by sending a useless message to the emperor of Austria suggesting negotiations and on the i8th, when the Allies renewed the attack, the French position was unimproved, while the Allies had at last received the assistance of Bernadotte. The battle of the i8th, as may be seen from the plan, was fought on a some what different field. In the north, as before, Marmont slowly withdrew before Bliicher, Ney (around Paunsdorf ) bef ore Bennig sen and Bernadotte. Beyond the Elster Bertrand routed Gyulay. The fiercest fighting of all took place at Probstheida and State ritz, under Napoleon's own eyes, where the combined Russians and Austrians repeatedly flung themselves in vain upon the French lines, until human bodies formed the ground upon which the armies fought. The ferocious conflict continued until nightfall when with the cessation of the battle news was brought to Na poleon that 35,00o Saxons had deserted to the enemy. This, together with the absence of the victory on which he had calcu lated, made retreat essential, but the emperor sat for nearly an hour in a stupor before he gave the necessary orders.

The French troops streamed all night across the one stone bridge over the Elster (the temporary wooden structure erected by French engineers early collapsed). In the morning the Allies, realizing what was occurring, pressed their attack, and the retreat grew hastier and more confused. At last, at two o'clock, as the main French army had crossed the river, the Allies stormed the town. By an idiotic mistake a French subaltern had blown up the bridge, and as the French rearguard came crashing through the town they found their last retreat cut off. Horse and foot were forced into the river; some, like MacDonald, swam across; many, like Poniatowski, were drowned ; 20,000 French soldiers were captured (see NAPOLEONIC CAMPAIGNS ; NAPOLEON).

(R. W. P.)