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The Top 5 Battles Napoleon Lost (Part 3)

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Battle of Leipzig

3. Battle of Leipzig, October 1813, vs Tsar Alexander I (Russia), Karl von Schwarzenburg (Austria), Count von Bennigsen (Russia), Gebhard von Blücher (Prussia), Charles John Bernadotte (Sweden)

The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of Nations, was fought in and around the German city of Leipzig during the War of the Sixth Coallition. The battle was the culmination of Napoleon's 1813 German campaign and the Emperor's decisive defeat decided the war in the allies' favor. In terms of numbers of the troops engaged and amount of artillery, Leipzig was the largest battle fought in Europe before the First World War. Separate but coordinated allied armies made up of Russians, Prussians, Swedes, and Austrians brought 380,000 troops and 1,384 guns to the battlefield, whereas the strength of the Grande Armée stood at 225,000 men with 717 guns.

In October 1813, Napoleon, hoping to divide his enemies' armies and defeat them individually, had seized the city of Leipiz. The rivers that converge around the city split the surrounding terrain into many separate swathes of land; this would allow Napoleon to shift troops from one sector to another far more rapidly than the Allies could. Nonetheless the Allies had the intention of accepting the disadvantageous terrain and use their huge numbers to surround the French in the Leipzig area.

Battle of Leipzig Map 1

Fighting began early on 16 October and lasted well into the night. At the outset of the battle the armies of Bennigsen and Charles John Bernadotte had yet to arrive so the Allies only numbered 235 thousand against 211 thousand French. Nonetheless the armies of Blücher and Schwarzenberg launched a series of fierce attacks against the French positions around the villages of Mockern (on the North front) and Wachau (on the South front). Though the offensives were forced back and acheived little, the French were unable to break the Allied lines and were worn down.

The next day only two minor engagements took place. The Allies consolidated their position, receiving 145 thousand reinforcements in the form of the two aforementioned Russian and Swedish armies, while the French only received an additional 14 thousand of their own. Despite the overwhelming build up in Allied strength, Napoleon, still convinced that the Grande Armée had the capacity to win another stunning victory at Leipzig, spent most of the day redeploying instead of attempting a break out, thereby dooming his army to a tighter and tighter noose.

Battle of Leipzig Map 1

On 18 October the Emperor, at last realising that the Grande Armée was in great danger of being encircled and destroyed, began to consider a withdrawl through Lindenau, though he still had high hopes for the coming engagements. The Emperor also attempted to sue for an armistice but the Allies promptly refused. The Coallition then lauched a massive assault from all sides. In nine hours of fighting the French were forced back towards Leipzig, with a series of fierce attacks thrown against Probstheida and Schonefeld; only the resilience of the French soldiers prevented a collapse of Napoleon's lines. During the fighting 5,400 Saxons defected to the Allies along with Württemberg's cavalry, further weakening the French.

By the 19th Napoleon knew that he had lost and began an orderly retreat to the west, leaving a strong rear guard under Marshals Oudinot and Poniatowski (he had just received his baton on the 16th) in Leipzig to hold off the Allies. The street to street fighting was fierce and validated Napoleon's belief that a strong rear guard in the city could hold off any attack long enough for a coherent retreat. Any coherency was lost however when a French corporal blew up the only bridge over the Elster River prematurely, resulting in the death and capture of thousands of French troops still on the Leipzig side. Marshal Poniatowski later drowned in the river after throwing himself in rather than surrender to the enemy.

Leipzig ended Napoleon's German Campaign with total failure and was the first battle that Napoleon himself undisputably lost. The Emperor lost 44 thousand men dead/wounded and another 36 thousand captured while the Allies lost 54 thousand dead (60% Austrians). The First French Empire lost all of its presence east of the Rhine and the German states joined the Coallition. The Grande Armée continued its westward retreat so as to be in position to defend France itself until, in 1814, the victors closed in on Paris and Napoleon abdicated.


Napoleon at Waterloo

2. Battle of Waterloo, June 1815, vs Duke of Wellington (England) and Gebhard von Blucher (Prussia)

It is well known that Napoleon's reign as the First French Emperor came to an end with his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo by an Anglo-Allied army under the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under Gebhard von Blücher. The battle, fought just to the south of the city of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, saw the Anglo-Allied army repel repeated attacks by the French until the Prussians arrived and broke through the French army's flank, at which point Anglo-Allied army also attacked, routing the French and winning the battle.

Napoleon had built up his army almost entirely from hardened veterans of his previous campaigns. His artillery and cavalry were also very strong, certainly much more powerful than Wellington's. The Emperor's priority was to break the enemy's frontline; to do so he decided to first create a diversion by attacking Hougoumont with Reille's Corps, then use his Grand Battery's heavy artillery to bombard the defences of the Allied centre and left, and lastly to seize the ridge with an overwhelming concentrated attack. Marshal D'Erlon's I Corps, positioned in the front line on the right behind the guns, was to form the backbone of this onslaught.

Battle of Waterloo Map

for an in-depth analysis of the Battle of Waterloo, including a discussion of how Napoleon could have won, please see one of my previous articles



for part 4 please see


for the Top 5 Battles Napoleon Won please see





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