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The Battle of Dresden, 1813 (The 11W Military History Series

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JKH1232's picture
July 18, 2016 at 11:37am

My apologizes, first, for this coming in a day later than usual.  Life can sometimes be a pain.  This week, we look at the start of the War of the Sixth Coalition, which is the alliance that would persevere and overthrow Napoleon- twice, as it would take.

The Great Retreat and the Sixth Coalition

This may be a shocker to those who have an interesting in military history, but Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow did not go well.  The weather turns cold early in Russia- October, highs average in the 40s (F) and snows begin falling.  This would have been even colder, on average, in the 1800s, and, in 1812, the situation was even worse, given the colder than average temperatures.  Napoleon occupied Moscow near the effective end of the campaign season, in mid-September,  needing to establish a winter base.  However, the city had been stripped of food, civilians that could be impressed for labor, and, soon after the French arrival, much of the city burned, making it impossible to shelter the army there.  Napoleon had no choice but to leave Moscow to look for food, and, logically, the best place to head was closer to his main bases of supply.

During the retreat, the Russians moved to the north and south of Napoleon’s army.  The objective was not so much to fight the French, but to force the French to retreat down the Moscow-Smolensk road, the same route the armies had followed to get to Moscow.  Both armies had stripped the area of supplies during the march.  However, while the Russians could supply their armies by bringing in supplies from outside the area of operations, the French largely could not.  The first serious casualties of the retreat were not French men, but French animals.  The lack of forage and grain hit the oxen and horses of the Grande Armee first, and, as the animals became sickly, and the soldiers more desperate, the men butchered the animals for food.  This actually made the situation in the French Army worse- without animals to pull the carts, it would be impossible to move food.  Without horses for the cavalry, the Russian commanders could unleash their Cossacks, swarming over French foraging parties and supply groups, with the French unable to respond.  This made it increasingly difficult for the French to feed their troops from what they could scavenge, and tens of thousands of French soldiers died of starvation, exposure, and in small skirmishes across the Russian countryside.  Once Napoleon started reteating, he never found a place to stop until he reached Poland.

While it’s often said that Napoleon entered Russia with 650,000 troops and left with 22,000, this is a bit misleading.  It’s technically correct, but does not count the various wing armies and detachments that made separate retreats not under Napoleon’s command, nor the surrendered Prussians or the Austrians that abandoned the effort early on.  Still, nearly 400,000 French and allied soldiers were dead somewhere in Russia, and the Russians had lost barely half that.  Given the success of the campaign, the Russians were perfectly happy to resume the war the next year, along with their British, and rather quickly, Swedish allies.

However, the retreat and collapse of the Grande Armee sent shockwaves throughout the German kingdoms.  The Russian army, which had a large number of German and Prussian expatriates, and the Russians as a result treated German and Prussian soldiers well.  The most significant action taken by the Russians occurred outside Riga, where Carl von Clausewitz, acting for the Russians, negotiated a truce with the Prussian commander, allowing the Prussian contingent to leave Russia for Prussia with a minimum of harassment and with Russian and British supplies.  As the French stragglers marched towards their fortresses in Prussia, the local populace began turning on them, attacking them on the road and moving to blockade the fortresses.  Even as the Prussian government vacillated, the Prussian army began to move against the scattered French garrisons.  Murat, the French commander in Prussia over the winter, decided he was better off in Italy (He was King of Naples) and abandoned coordinating his command.  Napoleon himself had abandoned the army as well, returning to France to put down a coup led by one of his generals in Paris. 

Meanwhile, British diplomats went on the march.  In February, the British recognized Sweden’s claim to Norway, and Bernadotte, now the Crown Prince of Sweden, began mobilizing the Swedish Army under his command.  At the same time, the Prussians and Russians formalized an alliance, now that the French were largely out of Prussia, and, for the first time, the King of Prussia directly appealed to his subjects, calling upon the people of Prussia to join the armies and militias to fight off the French.  This led to a surge of eager recruits, swelling the ranks of the Prussian army with enthusiastic, if not well trained or drilled, men.  Negotiations with Austria, however, went more slowly,  The Austrian Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich, wanted to try and mediate a peace between the French and Russians.  However, the Austrians renounced their alliance with the French, and began mobilizing 300,00 men to protect their neutrality in the coming year of war, robbing the French of their most powerful ally.

Napoleon did not wait around, however, accepting his defeat quietly.  During the lull between 1809 and 1812, Napoleon had recreated the National Guard in France to defend against British invasions, creating a body of semi-trained men that were supposed to stay at home.  He quickly stripped these of all the men suitable for campaigning.  He reinstated conscription, raising tens of thousands of “Marie-Louises,” so named because the French Empress had issued the conscription decree as Regent of France in Napoleon’s absence.  Napoleon also called upon veterans in Spain and Italy.  He also called upon his allies in the Confederation of the Rhine.  However, these calls were met with a certain reluctance amongst most of the Confederation,  Only the most stalwart German allies, Bavaria and Saxony, sent large numbers of troops.  However, by spring, Napoleon had managed to mobilize nearly 650,000 men in Germany, spread out over the countryside.  However, while he had replaced the men, he could not replace the horses, and he would suffer from weak cavalry for the rest of the campaign.

The German Campaign

By the arrival of Spring, Napoleon had deployed his forces largely along the Elbe.  The bulk of his command, between 200,000 and 250,00 men, deployed to Erfurt, in central Germany.  To the north, Eugene of Italy commanded his army, with Davout commanding an independent corps in Hannover to guard against the Swedes, while another army deployed to Bavaria to observe the Austrians.  The Allies deployed two large field armies, one under Blucher in Dresden, the other under Wittgenstein, the Russian General, in Berlin.  Most of the troops in the campaign were Russian, though the Prussians had several corps in both armies.

From Erfurt, Napoleon could threaten either Dresden or Berlin, but, without cavalry or his strong spy network, he had little intelligence to go on to base his campaign.  He decided to move on Dresden, with keeping his right secure by staying closer to Bavaria, and hoping to defeat the separated armies on their own.  In late April, he crossed the Elbe, marching for Leipzig in a strong mass, recalling Eugene to follow him.  Both Blucher and Wittgenstein decided to unite to stop Napoleon from reaching Leipzig, and gathered their armies outside of Lutzen, the site of one of Gustavus Adolphus’ great victories.  In fact, Napoleon had taken a break from the march to lead a staff ride of the battlefield as his advanced guard made contact with the Russo-Prussian army.

The bulk of the Allied forces were deployed to the south of the main French line of advance.   Once they contacted the French advanced guard, under the command of Ney, the Allies believed that they had a chance to defeat a detachment of the French army, and began a full throated attack against the southern flank of the French advance.  Ney began giving ground slowly, while nearby commands rushed to reinforce him.  Meanwhile, to the north, Napoleon gathered up a second force, launching a counterattack from the north against the Allied flank.  The Prussian reserves stopped the attack, and allowed for an Allied retreat as the day drew to a close. 

The lack of effective French cavalry precluded any serious pursuit of the Allied army, but Napoleon kept the pressure on, forcing the Allies to retreat past Leipzig, then to Dresden, then across the Saale.  During the retreat, Barclay de Tolly arrived to reinforce Blucher and Wittgenstein, and, finding a series of hills in front of a river outside Batuzen, they decided to make a stand.  The Allies deployed in two defensive lines on hills, and waited for the French.  Napoleon’s plan was fairly simple.  He would make a series of frontal attacks against the Allies, while Ney maneuvered around the flank to the north, cutting off the retreat.  Much like Wagram and Borodino, Napoleon relied on brute force to attack the Allied position.  Deploying his artillery into a grand battery, he battered the Allied position, then made frontal attacks for two days against the positon, breaking through both lines.  However, Ney’s troops got lost, and could not cut off the Allied retreat.  After the Imperial Guard attacked the remains of the second line, the Allies made it off the field. 

Despite the fact that the French had won both battles so far in the campaign, the Allies were in good shape- both victories had exacted a deep price in French blood, and, with their army still intact, and there was a whole lot of Germany and Russia left to retreat into.  Meanwhile, Napoleon had won two battles, but not the war.  His supply lines were getting long, and he was concerned that he would end up in the same spot he had the previous year.  In the opening days of June, Metternich approached both sides, offering to mediate the war once again.  Both sides agreed to a truce.  The Truce allowed Napoleon to bring up supplies to support his army.  It allowed the Russians to rest their troops.  It allowed the Prussians to train their recruits.  It let the Austrians mobilize their reserves. It allowed Sweden to get an army into Germany. And it allowed the British to flood the Allies and Austrians with money to sustain the campaign and to woo Vienna.

During the truce, which lasted nearly all summer, both sides rushed to Vienna to gain the alliance of the Austrians.  Napoleon, using the same tactics that he had long used to control the Confederation of the Rhine, attempted to intimidate the Austrians into an alliance, massing armies along the Austrian borders.  The Allies went with a different plan, offering some money and land considerations after the war, along with working with Metternich’s efforts to mediate the dispute.  Seeing the French pushing for war, while the Allies were working with him, Metternich agreed to join the war if the French rejected one last appeal for peace.  Napoleon rejected that appeal in August, 1813, and the Austrians entered the war, bringing more than 300,00 men to the war against Napoleon.

By virtue of bringing the largest army, and in deference to Austrian sensibilities to get them in the war at all, overall command of the Allied effort fell to Swarzeburg, the Austrian overall commander.  When the armistice expired, the Allies had Napoleon rather boxed in.  In Berlin lay Bernadotte with the Swedish Army, to the East, Blucher, preventing an advance into Russia, and to the south the Austrians preparing to leave Bohemia.  However, those armies were hardly unified.  He could defeat them in detail if he moved quickly enough. Lacking solid intelligence, though, Napoleon decided to wait in the center, sending detachments to find and block the allied armies in place.

At first, Napleon began moving towards Blucher, believing that his northern detachment would defeat the Swedes, and his corps holding Dresden would slow the Austrians.  He closed with Blucher, who began to give way in late August, hoping to draw Napoleon into a trap.  However, as he skirmished with Blucher, Napoleon received word that the Austrians had closed rapidly on Dresden, and, in a sudden panic, Napoleon dropped his pursuit of Blucher.  Marching nearly 100 miles in three days, Napoleon reached the city just as the Austrians were preparing their attack.


Battle of Dresden

The battle opened on the morning of the 26th of August, 1813.  Schwarzenberg deployed the Austrian army in a broad line ahead of the fortress, with the hopes of sweeping up the town before Napoleon could arrive with the rest of the Grande Armee.  St Cyr, the French commander on the scene, deployed his men out to the outer works of the fortress, hoping to delay the Austrian advance long enough for the Emperor to arrive.

The initial Austrian attacks went well.  The  French in the outer positions began to give way, making a retreat back to the outer redoubts that surrounded the city and that had been reinforced by St Cyr in the previous days.  By noon, the Austrians were in a good position to make a push into the city, but needed to bring up enough artillery to prepare for the assaults on the redoubts, and to prepare the attack on the central citadel of Dresden.  However, as the Austrians were wrapping up their first round of attacks, it became clear that, first, the leading elements of the Grande Armee were arriving in Dresden, and, a bit later, that Napoleon himself had arrived in the city.

The shift in the balance of forces required Schwarzenberg to call a council of war to determine the next step.  He had planned to launch his attack late in the afternoon, but that was when he held a heavy numerical advantage.  Present at the council was, of course, Schwarzenberg, Tsar Alexander I of All Russias, King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia, and Emperor Francis II of Austria, King of Hungary, etc.  It’s not often that an Austrian Field Marshal is the most junior member of a council of war!  The kings debated what exactly to do.  Alexander argued that, since Napoleon was present, it didn’t make sense to continue the attack.  Francis argued he didn’t know anything about fighting, so had no opinion.  Frederick Wilhelm argued that the Allied advantage was still enough to continue the attack. It took the three monarchs some time to sort out exactly what to do, and, as a result, the Austrians made no attack that afternoon.

Napoleon, however, knew what he wanted to do.  He deployed his troops out around the city, and launched a general counterattack.  This attack started at about 1730, and the French advanced, retaking the positions they had lost earlier in the day before nightfall cut off the fighting.

Overnight, both sides decided to continue the battle, and received reinforcements.  The Allies brought their total force around Dresden up to 170,000 men, with the French reaching about 120,000.  The Allies, clearly, intended to make an attack with their numerical advantage.  The concentrated on the center, deploying about 120,000 men to make the attack, with about 25,000 men to hold each flank.  Napoleon, despite his numerical disadvantage, also planned to go on the attack.  However, his plan was the opposite of the Allied plan.  Napoleon’s plan called for a double envelopment, with flank attacks led by Murat on the right and Ney on the left.  Marmont and St Cyr would hold the middle.  About 35,000 French went to each flank, with 50,000 men in the center.

Overnight, the heavens opened, and covered the area in thick, wet mud.  It also swelled the rivers running around and through Dresden, making them hard to cross and, effectively, dividing the battlefield into separate sectors.  The rain continued through the day, making the field even sloppier and making musket fire less effective, as flints, powder and men soaked in the water. 

Both sides launched their attacks at 0600 on the 27th.  The Austrian center made its way forward against the French center, largely using the weight of their numbers to force the French to give way.  However, St Cyr led the defense well, giving ground slowly against the Austrian attack.  The French attacks, however, went much better.  On the left, Ney made steady progress against the Russians there, and, as the Allied center moved forward, the French pushed the Allied flank around. However, on the French right, Murat launched a well coordinated cavalry trot (Charges were impossible on the muddy field) that cut through the Allied left, aided by the fact that the rain made musketry nearly impossible. Given that part of the field was cut off by a swollen river, it was impossible to reinforce or retreat.  Many of the Allied troops on that end of the field surrendered, nearly 14,000 men total. 

As the attacks started to grind down,  Schwarzenberg planned a counterstroke that he hoped would separate the Ney from St Cyr, but the field was too muddy to move the artillery into place to support the attack.  Realizing the day was pretty much lost, Schwarzenberg called it a day, and pulled his army off the field in good order before Vandamme cut off his route of retreat.  Given the state of the field, and poor quality of his horse, Napoleon could not pursue after the battle.  The poor weather also affected his health, so he retired personally rather than organize the pursuit, and Schwarzenberg got away clean.

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