Napoleon in 1813

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
Share it

Napoleon in 1813

In a sleigh ride from Russia to France in December 1812 Napoleon had two weeks to talk and reflect upon what had just happened (his army had disintegrated and there had been a (failed) coup d’état at home) and what was about to happen (his European coalition was about to disintegrate with Britain hovering in the background, waiting to take advantage). Above all, he must have been wondering what to do about the impending Russian backlash. He must have known that all his alliances were not just meetings of minds.

Indeed the campaign in the spring and summer of 1813 is all about alliances. How Russia, Prussia and Austria against all the odds finally manage to work together for a common target without bailing out on account of personal interests. And how Napoleon’s alliances created partly out of force but also partly out of interest could not hold together once there was no military power to hold it together and no political will in Paris to compromise with the individual goals and necessities of the individual parts of the empire.

But having said that, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the year 1813 is (when you step back and look dispassionately), that none of the above needed to happen. Napoleon was still an exceedingly powerful ruler, and there were still enough reasons for some parts of the Empire to stay loyal to the French centre. And the allies still had not understood that collaboration meant sometimes putting other goals before personal interest. We are surprised by this (in my opinion) because we have a tendency to see the campaigns and year of 1813 in a teleological way, in other words knowing that Napoleon lost and seeing everything though that prism, because we know the end of the story, the loss at Leipzig and the abdication – everything takes on an air of destiny. And yet when seen from the perspective of the beginning of 1813 and seeing the way the campaign unfolds, in fact the most surprising feature is that we do not see another French victory and the return of the French empire in greatness.

But what were the contingencies and issues of the year?

Troops to fight with

It is true that Napoleon left a huge number of troops in Russia in 1812. But as 1813 shows, he had plenty more where that came from. Not only were there scattered garrisons in Silesia and East Prussia, and troops such as Macdonald’s near Danzig. There were also rich seams of manpower to be tapped within the Hexagon. The Senate voted at the beginning of January to allow sedentary troops to serve abroad thus freeing up 350,000 further men. In April, the Senate voted again, this time to allow the mobilization of the National Guard. The same month would see the early drafts of the conscripts for 1814 the famous “Marie Louise” men.  So despite having lost more than 100,000 men in Russia, the French army would return relatively quickly back to strength. Naturally, a good percentage of this “top up” comprised raw recruits, whose performance no one (not even Napoleon) could predict. But as was typical with the monumental bloodbaths of the end of the Napoleonic period, fighting did not involve complicated manoeuvres learned on the parade ground; all that was expected was that you stood there to kill and be killed. In fact, the Marie Louise men, the National Guard and other recruits of 1813 would fight with a tenacity which did them credit, whether at Lützen, Bautzen, Dresden, Kulm or Leipzig itself. Furthermore, at almost all times in the campaigns of 1813 (apart from the later days of Leipzig), Napoleon found himself with superior troops numbers. Perhaps Bautzen is the most impressive outnumbering of the enemy. But it is also the case at Dresden and Kulm in August.


One thing that Napoleon did not have an endless supply of was materiel, notably transport, but also gunpowder, cannon, bullet and above all cart animals and horses. The French cavalry was severely depleted, and this hole was never to be filled. The net result of this penury of horses was poor reconnaissance – though even with sufficient horses, this was never a French forte – and an inability to pursue a retreating army effectively. As a result, neither Lützen nor Bautzen (at either end of the month of May in 1813) were decisive French victories for lack of a horse (or rather several…). Though this should not lead us to underestimate the brilliance of the rear-guard maneuvering of the Russian army. The latter had had a great amount of practice the summer of 1812, and their expertise in this domain was unrivalled.

The difficulties of coalition warfare

In many ways, the allies had a much more difficult task than Napoleon in 1813. For most of the first half of the year Napoleon could count on the support (or at least passivity) of the lands of the Confederation of the Rhine. Indeed the preservation of this key body of French interest in central Germany was behind Napoleon’s careful (and in the end, indulgent) treatment of the king of Saxony. The latter was perhaps Napoleon’s most devoted supporter, but even he suffered a wobble before returning to the Napoleonic fold after the French victories at Lützen and Bautzen. The rest of central Europe, though united in their dislike of the Napoleon, were not easy bedfellows and had traditional policies towards each other which were not necessarily friendly. Austria (officially a French ally for the first half of the year but in fact playing her cards very close to her chest – despite the fact that the French emperor had married a Habsburg) had very conflict-ridden relations with Prussia. They clashed notably on interests in Poland and Silesia.  Russia was not usually a friend of Austria (again related to Silesia) but also for imperial power reasons and influence in European politics. And even though the Tsar Alexander said he was Frederick William of Prussia’s friend, he nevertheless felt that he had been badly treated by him several times, and his attitude was occasionally ambivalent. As for Denmark and its new crown prince, that ex-jacobin general from the Basque region, Bernadotte, who had married Napoleon’s first-love, Désiré Clary, he distrusted of Alexander (because of joint and conflicting interests in Finland and Norway) and was nervous with respect to Napoleon. His activity then within the allied manoeuvres before Leipzig was timid and self-interested to put it mildly. So the actors ‘on the ground’ in the anti-French coalition had more reasons not to be able to ‘play well together’ than vice versa. Financial assistance from Britain did however provide appropriate glue when action would have been compromised by lack of funds. In fact, Britain’s financial investment in the struggle against Napoleonic France was very significant in this period, what with a full campaign being sustained in Spain as well as financial assistance to the individual allies (though naturally depending on their worthiness and potential use to Britain). The two notable moments in this respect were the signing of treaties at Kalisch and Töplitz consecrating first Russo-Prussian collaboration, then bringing Austria into the fight against Napoleon. Once all three central European powers were on ‘the same song sheet’ (spurred on by Alexander’s quasi-religious zeal to ‘free’ Europe) then the real military opposition could begin.

Napoleon in all this

Up to June 1813, Napoleon played his part with bravura and skill. Though Prussia and Russia had given their best shot when taking on Napoleon at Dresden, Lützen and Bautzen, the French Emperor had won all three battles, had driven one part of the allies almost out of Saxony and back into Silesia and backed another part up against the Austrian border in Bohemia. With a possible major military affair on its border, Austria was furthermore given much ‘food for thought’ regarding her possible retreat from the French alliance. Napoleon had also dragged the Saxon king back to the French side and away from his attempted neutrality, thereby preventing any ‘heading for the exit’ on the part of any members of the Confederation of the Rhine. He also relieved one of the fortresses in Silesia and was back in force on the line of the Oder river by June. However, precisely at that time, when Napoleon had the chance to prise open the Russo-Prussian alliance and destroy their forces independently, and consequently reassert his position in central Europe, he ‘choked’ and accepted a period of negotiation at Pleiswitz. Why? Both Prussian and Russian were in fact delighted and amazed in equal measure at this unexpected gift of time to recover and take stock. They clearly thought that the French emperor’s decision to talk was a calamitous mistake – two weeks more campaigning would have been all it needed to finish the job, it is thought. But this is again to see things too teleologically. When seen from the French emperor’s viewpoint, this final victory clearly did not appear so easily achievable. After Bautzen, though in contact with the allies, Napoleon was unable to deal the final blow. The model allied rear-guard retreat continued, and French forces weakened and tired. Large numbers of the French Grande Armée men were sick or wounded. Napoleon’s army needed time to recuperate. And Napoleon was also confident that he could keep the allies talking until he was powerful enough to do without talking.

The end of the year, the end of the game?

When the negotiations failed – as both parties knew they probably would – the fighting started again. The allies were to fail again catastrophically at Dresden, but then the tide turned with the first French stumble and the massive allied morale victory at Kulm. It is true that Napoleon in his central position at Dresden was better placed than the allies, since he could be concerted in his movements, but the allies came up with a new (and cunning) plan of never standing and fighting if Napoleon was on the opposing side, and only fighting when his lieutenants led. So ensued a game of cat and mouse, as Napoleon thrust south, east and northwards towards enemies who permanently gave way, who crossed rivers to stay out of reach, who defeated his forces commanded by others. Finally when Blücher stepped out of reach of Napoleon at Düben in the first weeks of October, Napoleon knew he had to pull back to Leipzig to try to provoke a final showdown. Even in his frustration, he still had reasons to be confident. It was true that Austria had left the French alliance, along with (somewhat crucially for the continued survival of the Confederation) Bavaria, but Napoleon on 16 October, 1813, had a greater number of men concentrated at Leipzig, whilst the allies were spread out. His troops were centrally commanded and centrally positioned, thus with shorter command distances, and the allies were scattered, stationed on the perimeter of a circle around Leipzig, a piecemeal force and with different strategic goals and commanded by generals of different languages and cultures. The French retreat route, though stretched out, was still strongly defended, and Napoleon… – well he was still Napoleon, not only for himself but also for the others. So when the allies opened proceedings on that stormy Saturday in mid-October, 1813, the French emperor could still have won. And he nearly did. Only the heroic refusal of Eugen’s men to give up (when all seemed lost) saved the allies that day – along with a well-timed and fortunate cavalry counter attack. But, at the close of the first day of fighting around Leipzig, Napoleon made his second, and this time fatal, mistake. He refused to retreat, or even prepare the route for one on 17 October. One particular oversight was the refusal to prepare more than a single bridge over the Pleisse over which the whole army (artillery and huge numbers of men) had to pass.

The result

As we know now, the combination of these two errors, one strategic (at Pleiswitz), the other tactical (at Leipzig), lead to the French retreat, the allied repossession of the city, the subsequent collapse of French-influenced Germany, and eventually the fall of Napoleon himself. He could, indeed should, have won. But he didn’t. And the rest is history…


LENTZ Thierry, Nouvelle Histoire du Premier Empire, volume II : L’effondrement du système napoléonien, 1810-1814, Paris : Fayard, 2004.

LIEVEN Dominic, Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807-1814, London: Penguin, 2010.

Share it