Battle of Leipzig Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, resulted in the defeat of Napoleon’s army by a combined allied force and marked the decline of the French emperor’s fortunes.

Summary of Event

Napoleon I’s failure to impose a French peace on Czar Alexander I of Russia and the destruction of his vast army during its retreat from Moscow in the fall of 1812 led to the formation of the sixth and final coalition against France. As the Russian army advanced westward into central Europe, the nations that had been held in submission by Napoleon’s military might prepared for what is sometimes called the “War of Liberation.” Prussia and Sweden were the first to join Russia and Great Britain; Prussia, to regain its position as a major state in Europe, and Sweden to acquire Norway Norway;and Sweden[Sweden] Sweden;and Norway[Norway] and glory. Leipzig, Battle of (1813) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Leipzig Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Battle of Leipzig France;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and France[France] [kw]Battle of Leipzig (Oct. 16-19, 1813) [kw]Leipzig, Battle of (Oct. 16-19, 1813) Leipzig, Battle of (1813) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Leipzig Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Battle of Leipzig France;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and France[France] [g]Germany;Oct. 16-19, 1813: Battle of Leipzig[0650] [g]France;Oct. 16-19, 1813: Battle of Leipzig[0650] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 16-19, 1813: Battle of Leipzig[0650] Bernadotte, Jean-Baptiste-Jules Blücher, Gebhard Leberecht von Schwarzenberg, Karl Philipp zu

By April, 1813, Napoleon was able to field a respectable army in southern Germany along the Elbe River. By June, he had won several minor battles and had driven the allied armies back to the Oder River. An armistice halted operations during most of the summer, but since neither side was really interested in peace without military victory, both gave more time and energy to reorganizing and reinforcing their respective armies than to peace talks. The resumption of hostilities in mid-August, however, brought the advantage to the allies. Perceiving that the time had come to end French domination on the Continent, Austria joined the Coalition.

The opening of the final phase of the campaign found allied armies on three sides of Napoleon, with a numerical superiority of two to one. Nevertheless, Napoleon had the advantage of a centralized command and internal lines of communication, which enabled him to deal effectively with the separated and poorly coordinated allied armies for two months. Gradually, however, the allied forces began to draw closer. By mid-October, the three allied armies had crossed the Elbe and were converging on the French forces near Leipzig. The main allied force, commanded by Karl Philipp zu Schwarzenberg, Schwarzenberg, Karl Philipp zu was moving up from the south; the Army of the North, commanded by Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, Bernadotte, Jean-Baptiste-Jules crown prince of Sweden, was moving in from the north; and the Army of Silesia, commanded by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher Blücher, Gebhard Leberecht von , was approaching from the northwest.

Czar Alexander I meeting the rulers of Austria and Prussia at Leipzig.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Napoleon believed that he could concentrate against Schwarzenberg south of Leipzig and defeat his combined Austro-Russian army before Blücher and Bernadotte could arrive to support him. On the morning of October 16, 1813, the allied army attacked the French position five miles south of Leipzig. By noon, the allied attack had been halted and the French were advancing along the whole front. The numerical strength of both armies was about equal, with the allies having had an advantage in the morning and the French at noon. The day’s fighting ended without a definite decision.

On October 17, there was little combat as both sides prepared for the final round. As the day wore on, it became increasingly obvious to Napoleon that he could not hold his Leipzig position and, with Blücher Blücher, Gebhard Leberecht von and Bernadotte Bernadotte, Jean-Baptiste-Jules closing in on him from the north, he would have to retreat through the city of Leipzig and along the main road to Erfurt. During the predawn hours of October 18, the French army withdrew to a preselected perimeter about Leipzig. The allied high command ordered an all-out attack, hoping to crush the French by sheer weight of numbers now that they enjoyed a superiority of two to one. However, their attack was neither concentrated on any one point of the French line nor energetically carried out by all commanders. The French stood their ground.

During the night of October 18-19, the French army began a methodical evacuation of the right bank of the Elster River, including the city of Leipzig. The operation went well through the morning of October 19, but as the allies closed in on the bridgehead, a nervous corporal blew up the only bridge linking Leipzig with the west bank of the Elster while it was still crowded with French troops and in no immediate danger of falling into enemy hands. This premature destruction of the only escape route for the French rear guard turned the brilliant defensive operation into a clear-cut defeat.

Napoleon’s strategic plan during the 1813 German campaign was twofold. On the political side, he sought to retain control of the German states and, if possible, force Prussia and Austria to withdraw from the Coalition against him. Militarily, he understood the need to defeat in detail the various allied armies converging against him before they had the opportunity to unite their overwhelming forces and smash his army, terribly weakened both in morale and matériel from the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. He failed in both efforts.

Politically, Napoleon underestimated both the power of German nationalism, which had grown steadily during the years of French dominance, and the determination of the allies to put an end to Napoleon’s mastery of Europe. In June, 1813, Napoleon had rejected an offer from Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, for a negotiated peace that would have greatly reduced French territory but left Napoleon the French throne. Rightly or wrongly, Napoleon believed that his security, and French greatness, depended solely upon continued military dominance of central Europe. His attitude hardened the allied determination and led to unprecedented cooperation among his enemies.

These political calculations heavily influenced Napoleon’s military decisions in 1813. After winning the battle of Bautzen (May 19, 1813) for example, he accepted a seven-week armistice with the Prussians, rather than crushing their defeated army. Elsewhere throughout Germany, Napoleon’s troops were scattered in garrisons rather than united in a powerful striking force. Holding territory, especially the German state of Saxony, rather than defeating the enemy’s main armies, became a prime component of Napoleon’s strategic plan. The combination of these miscalculations, political and military, placed Napoleon into his desperate position at Leipzig. Faced with allied armies approaching him from all points of the compass, he fought an essentially defensive battle that turned into defeat because of ill luck and poor coordination.

Significance

The Battle of Leipzig was a decisive victory for the allies that broke Napoleon’s hold on Germany and forced the French armies back behind the Rhine. The aura of invincibility that had attached to Napoleon before Leipzig was based at least as much on his brilliant manipulation of public perception as on the reality of his military prowess, but it was nonetheless an important aspect of his success as a conqueror. After Leipzig, that aura was gone. In the campaign of 1814 that followed, the allies would press their advantage of numbers and position until Napoleon’s own marshals forced him to admit defeat and abdicate the throne.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett-James, Antony. Europe Against Napoleon: The Leipzig Campaign, 1813. London: Macmillan, 1970. Study of the campaign and the battle, much of it drawn from eyewitness accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Britt, Albert Sidney. The Wars of Napoleon. Wayne, N.J.: Avery Publishing Group, 1985. One in the West Point military history series, this volume offers a comprehensive, illustrated view of Napoleon’s career, with a fine section on Leipzig.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1987. Argues that Napoleon’s victories were the result of brilliant improvisation and that, when this genius faltered, defeats such as Leipzig resulted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esposito, Vincent. Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: AMS Press, 1978. A good basic history that provides background and visuals to understand the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Paul. Napoleon. New York: Viking Press, 2002. Concise biography, providing an overview of Napoleon’s life and career. Johnson portrays Napoleon as an opportunist whose militarism and style of governance planted the seeds for warfare and totalitarianism in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall-Cornwall, James. Napoleon as Military Commander. London: D. Van Nostrand, 1967. Argues that Napoleon was no innovator in military practice but instead raised conventional practice to its logical conclusion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Scholarly, detailed biography covering all facets of Napoleon’s life and career. Schom is unusually candid about his subject’s character flaws and failures.

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