So where were we?
Ah yes, Saxony…retreating eastward from Lutzen with the Russian and Prussian armies. Followed–not very swiftly because they had very few horses–by the French led by Napoleon.
But Napoleon did something else, too. Because–despite what had happened in Russia the year previously–he still clung to the belief that if one took the enemy’s capital they would be forced to negotiate terms, etc. So with that in mind, he ordered Marshal Ney to march down the Elbe, with an army of 45,000 troops, to raise the Prussian sieges at Wittenberg and Torgau, and to scare the breeches off the right flank of the united Allied army…And then, he ordered Ney to take back Berlin–the Prussian capital.
It seemed a clever enough plan. (That’s when you should start to worry…) And he also hoped that threatening the Prussian capital, besides being a morale-breaker, would have the added advantage of splitting the Allied army and allow him to deliver a coup de grace to the remaining Allied troops he was pursuing in the direction of Dresden.
So what happened? And did it work out the way the upstart Corsican mushroom (I prefer the Shakespearean term, mushrump, myself…) had planned?
Up in Berlin, they were equally nervous about a Napoleonic approach, and they had–obviously with as much bureaucracy as the early 19th century could manage–appointed General Friedrich von Bulow to be in charge of the defense of the capital. He had set to work with a will.
Under his direction, the troops of the newly formed Landwehr (since 17 March, service in the Landwehr was compulsory for all middle-class males and landed peasants between the ages of 17 and 40) and Landsturm were receiving enormous amounts of training, and he had as much of the rest of the populace as he could muster, digging waterways and ditches and a series of obstacles and earthworks all across the area west of the city, rendering it virtually unreachable for a marching army…Very cool.
I’ll tell you now that the peasants he drafted in to do the heavy digging complained bitterly about missing the cabbage and sugar beet harvest…And the bureaucrats not in the field with him did everything they could to make his life…er…interesting. So interesting that often he had to ignore them.
Meanwhile, to the south in Saxony, the Allies had retreated in an orderly, almost leisurely fashion, recrossing the Elbe and eventually reaching Bautzen on the 12th May. And all the while, they were negotiating their socks off with Austria, attempting to coax her back into the fray, while the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Metternich, played for time and power…
(Just to add to the confusion, and just as at Lutzen, the Napoleonic battle is not the only battle fought at Bautzen–there was another, this time on the 21-22 April 1945…Just thought you’d like to know that.)
Also, as a result of the outcome of the Battle of Lutzen, the king of Saxony, a fence-sitter if ever there was one, decided to jump back into Napoleon’s field (a very stupid decision…) and he ordered the fortress of Torgau to welcome the Frenchies back in.
However, with the prospect of Austria shaking off her timorous torpor, the Allies decided to have another crack at battle with the French forces. After all, they’d had a week’s rest, while (due to his crying want of horses) Napoleon had dragged his army across the land to meet up with them.
From his point of view too, he wanted nothing more than a big set battle piece, the kind like Austerlitz or Friedland, where he could wallop the enemy with sheer staggering force of numbers, and have done with it. And again, he had a groovy plan: on the 20th, a series of feints and skirmishing attacks would staple the Allies along a long defensive line. They’d continue this on the 21st too.
Then, in a nifty little manoeuvre, Marshal Ney would swoop down from the North upon Barclay de Tolly and his Russian forces and instigate a headlong muddle of a retreat into the south towards Austria. Cool or what? (What.)
And the fly in this bowl of soup was Ney.
So, on the 20th, with Napoleon in charge at Bautzen, things went well for the French. According to plan. And they gave the Russians and Prussians quite a hammering–it was really pretty devastating. The Allied leadership again and again put themselves into gravest danger, encouraging their men to stay steady and to fight on…
Then on the 21st, you might say things went pear-shaped.
Wanting to gain his share of the action, or something, Ney ordered his men not to do what Napoleon had ordered, but instead to throw their all into a struggle to the southwest, where General Blucher was holding on in a fierce attack by Marshal Soult. And not only that, but Ney ordered another French general, Lauriston, to support him in this.
Faced with these overwhelming numbers, Old Papa Blucher stopped haranguing his men as he always did with “Vorwarts mein Kinder, Vorwarts!” and began an orderly retreat, protected by Barclay de Tolly’s rather fine troops of Russian Guards and heavy cavalry…
And when I say it was orderly, I mean it was orderly. As Langeron wrote of it: “it was nevertheless achieved in the greatest order and without suffering the slightest loss, just like all the other retreats that this admirable Russian army made during the war, thanks to its perfect discipline, its obedience and to the innate courage of the Russian officers and soldiers…” (He may have been a little biased, but still…)
So, the whole thing turned into another kind of damp squib for Napoleon, though of course he called it a victory because at the end of the day, the French were left in possession of the field. Yet gone were his changes of the blistering victory he craved; without cavalry, he couldn’t succeed in cutting off any part of the Allied army and defeating that, or even of capturing their artillery.
Moreover, of the total 167,000 men he’d brought to battle, he had lost some 25,000 of them, as against 10,850 lost by the Allies out of their total of some 97,000 troops. Not only that, but the French losses were irreplaceable–Napoleon had already called up all the reserves France could muster for this new army and the territory from which she could restock her military machine was rapidly shrinking too…
And finally, again, just as a Lutzen, the Russians cleared the fields of battle of everything–again denying the French any share of plunder. And that just completely unnerved them, poor dears.
Then, to make matters worse, the day after Bautzen, on the 22nd May, the French van caught up with that pesky Russian rearguard as it became stuck in a traffic jam of horses, gun carriages, troops and fleeing civilians on the streets of Reichenbach. It was the moment the French been waiting for!
(You’d think by now they’d know better…)
The Russians did not panic or give in to over-excitement though. Their commanders, Miloradovich and Eugen of Wurttemberg took their position atop a hill as the road leads out of town and held it against the French while the remainder of the Allied forces retreated. Then they took up position on another height between Reichenbach and Markersdorf and held that, stopping the French in their tracks.
And funnily enough–this was what was known as Eugen’s ‘retreat in echelon’ which turned the whole thing into a process roughly resembling a slug travelling through treacle. Which, this won’t surprise you, made Napoleon so cross he took command of the vanguard himself. Ha ha ha! And led them on, into another situation just like the last two, in Markersdorf…during which the first shot from the Russian artillery fatally wounded his closest friend and Marshal of the Court, Geraud Duroc.
And that’s kind of it. For the time being, Napoleon and his troops had had enough. (There’s a first time for everything.)
So tune in next time, kids, to see what sort of a rabbit Prince Metternich pulled out of his hat…