Battle of the Nations: The 200th Anniversary of the Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig in 2013

16 October 1813, the Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig (Battle of Nations), the largest battle in history prior to World War I, began. After three days of fighting, Napoleon was defeated decisively for the first time in a single major action.

"For wife and child what do I care!  Far better longings I know: As hungry beggars let them fare - My emperor, emperor - woe! / "But grant me, brother, one only prayer: Now when I here shall die, My body take to France and there In French earth let me lie! / "My cross of honour with scarlet band Upon my heart be placed; And put my gun into my hand, My sword gird round my waist! / "Then quietly I'll lie and hark, A sentry in my tomb, Till I the horses' prancing mark, And hear the cannon's boom. / "Then my emperor rides across my grave, And swords will be clashing hard: And armed I'll rise up from my grave, My emperor to guard!" (Heinrich Heine, ”The Two Grenadiers”)

An imagination of the battle by the Russian draughtsman and military painter Vladimir Ivanovich Moshkov (1792 – 1839), called “The Battle of Leipzig” (1815).

Napoleon’s retreat from Russia slowly but steady marked the beginning of the end of his career. More than 350,000 of his men serving in his Grande Armée did not come back, Spain was almost lost and nearly all of the German-speaking states began to rebel, rethink their alliances or openly declare hostilities. The Wars of Liberation had begun. Despite the terrible losses suffered in Russia, Napoleon nonetheless managed to scrape together another army of 225,000 men again, 15,000 Polish, 10,000 Italian and 30,000 German allies from the last loyal states of the Confederation of the Rhine among them. Battles between his troops and the Russo-Prussian alliance had already been fought and won, giving him a bit more breathing space, but by mid-August, the Austrians joined the alliance and now three armies marched towards Saxony to bring him to bay, Russians, Prussians, Austrians and Swedes under the command of Crown Prince Charles XIV of Sweden, née Jean Bernadotte, one of his old Marshals, 380,000 men in total.

Richard Caton Woodville (1856 – 1927): “Poniatowski's Last Charge at Leipzig” 

A cavalry battle won by the allies on October 14th near a hamlet called Liebertwolkwitz was the prelude to the battle and on the morning of 16 October, heavy clashes on all French front lines drawn up in a semi-circle around Leipzig began. Most of the positions held, though, only the rushed charge made by the Russo-Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher coming from Silesia whom Napoleon hadn’t expected at all on the battlefield made some progress. The second day saw hardly any action, Napoleon could have probably withdrawn but remained in place, still believing that the troops of his father-in-law, the Austrian Emperor, didn’t mean business. However, they did and on October 18th, allied reinforcements arrived on the field and the French were in deep water. The battle became a bloody rear-guard action during the course of the day, but Napoleon could withdraw at least two thirds of his men. Nevertheless, the battle was lost. Leipzig was taken by the allies on the following day and Napoleon prepared his exit from the German states.

Fritz Neumann (1881 – 1919): “The charge of the 19th Hungarian infantry regiment in the Battle of Leipzig against the French” (around 1900)

Casualties on both sides amounted to more than 120,000 men, dead and wounded, numbers that had been unheard of to that day and were not surpassed until the matériel battles of World War I began to eclipse everything in warfare. Napoleon, after his Russian disaster, had obviously made it a habit to flee ahead of his army and, all in all, only 100,000 soldiers of the Grande Armée made it out of the German states back home. The Austrian chancellor Prince Metternich, as allied spokesman, offered peace if France kept her “natural borders”, Napoleon refused, and by the beginning of 1814, allied troops crossed the Rhine and marched on Paris, cumulating in the end of the First Empire and Napoleon’s exile to Elba.

Contemporary depiction of the “Grand Entry of the Allied Sovereigns into Leipzig”

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