Battle of Lützen (1813)
In the Battle of Lützen (German: Schlacht von Großgörschen, May 2, 1813), Napoleon I of France halted the advances of the Sixth Coalition after the French invasion of Russia and the massive French losses in the campaign. The Russian commander, Prince Peter Wittgenstein, attempting to forestall Napoleon's capture of Leipzig, attacked the isolated French right wing near Lützen, Germany. After a day of heavy fighting, the combined Prussian and Russian force retreated; due to French losses and a shortage of French cavalry, Napoleon was unable to conduct a pursuit.
Following the disaster of French invasion of Russia in 1812, a new Coalition formed against him. In response to this, Napoleon hastily assembled an army of just over 200,000 consisting largely of inexperienced, barely trained recruits and severely short of horses (a consequence of the Russian invasion, where most of his veteran troops and horses had perished). He crossed the Rhine into Germany to link up with remnants of his old Grande Armée, and to quickly defeat this new alliance before it became too strong. On April 30 Napoleon crossed the river Saale, advancing on Leipzig in three columns led by an advanced guard. His intention was to work his way into the Coalition's interior lines, dividing their forces and defeating them in detail before they could combine. But due to inexperienced cavalrymen and faulty reconnaissance, he was unaware of 73,000 allied troops under Wittgenstein and Graf (Count) von Blücher concentrating on his right flank to the south. Marshal Ney's corps was surprised and attacked on the road from Lützen to Leipzig. On the eve of the battle, one of Napoleon's marshals, Jean-Baptiste Bessières, was killed by a stray cannonball while reconnoitering near Rippach.
Napoleon was visiting the 1632 battlefield, playing tour guide with his staff by pointing to the sites and describing the events of 1632, in detail from memory, when he heard the sound of cannon. He immediately cut the tour short and rode off towards the direction of the artillery fire. Arriving on the scene, he quickly sized up the situation and decided to set a trap using Ney's corps as bait. He ordered the Marshal to make a fighting withdrawal towards Lützen. Meanwhile, he sent Ney reinforcements which would take up strong, defensive positions in and around two villages south of the city. Once these divisions were ready, the rest of the corps would withdraw towards them, luring the allies to attack, while Napoleon, leading the main 110,000 strong French force, would come around the allied flank and counterattack.
Wittgenstein and Blücher took the bait, continuing to press Ney until they ran into the "hook" Napoleon had prepared. Once their advance had halted, with the perfect timing of old, he struck. While he had been reinforcing Ney, he had also concentrated a great mass of artillery (Grande Batterie) that unleashed a devastating barrage towards Wittgenstein's center. Then Napoleon himself, along with his Imperial Guard, led the massive counter assault into the allied flank. A Prussian counterattack managed to halt the French offensive, and allow enough time for the main army to retreat. In addition, darkness was closing in. This allowed the allied force to retreat in good order. The lack of French cavalry meant there would be no pursuit. Napoleon lost 19,655 men killed and wounded, while the Prussians lost 8,500 and the Russians 3,500 killed, wounded and missing. But casualties aside, by nightfall Wittgenstein and Blücher were in retreat while Napoleon controlled Lützen and the field.
Napoleon demonstrated his usual prowess in driving back the Russo-Prussian force at Lützen, but the costliness of his victory had a major impact on the war. Lützen was followed by the Battle of Bautzen eighteen days later, where Napoleon was again victorious but with the loss of another 22,000 men, twice as many as the Russo-Prussian army. The ferocity of these two battles prompted Napoleon to accept a temporary armistice on June 4 with Tsar Alexander and King Frederick William III. This agreement provided the allies respite to organize and re-equip their armies and, perhaps more importantly, encouraged Britain to provide Russia and Prussia with war subsidies totaling 7 million pounds. The financial security offered by this agreement was a major boon to the war effort against Napoleon. Another important result of the battle was that it encouraged Austria to join the allied coalition and, when it did so on upon the armistice's expiration, the balance of power had shifted dramatically in the coalition's favor. Due to these developments, Napoleon later regarded his June 4 truce, bought at Lützen and Bautzen, as the undoing of his power in Germany.
During the battle of Lützen, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, one of the brightest and most able Prussian generals, serving as Wittgenstein's Chief of Staff, was wounded. Although the wound was minor, owing to the hasty retreat it could not be tended to soon enough. Infection set in and he died as a result.
- Pigeard, Dictionnaire des batailles de Napoléon, pp. 499–500.
- Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, p. 365.
- Smith, Digby. Napoleonic Wars Data Book
- Clark, 365
- Clark, 366
- Dupuy, R. Ernest; Dupuy, Trevor N. The Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 B.C. to the Present. (2nd Revised Edition, 1986) pg 760.