The Battle of Lutzen 1813 – The greatest account of Napoleon’s toughest battle…

Okay here it is – as requested, the fullest account of the battle of Lutzen 1813 that has ever been produced. Yes, it is produced by me. Every single quote in existence, every word said, every action, account, memoir, figure, you name it – and all woven together with a narrative. Now I’m going to be honest; this hasn’t been entirely checked, so there may be a mistake or a typo here and there as it isn’t in print yet, but here it is. This forms a part – in fact a very small part of my seven-volume history of Napoleon.

This book or series of books may never see the light of day; simply they are too large for any publisher to take a chance on. I will have to do them myself. They won’t be cheap either, but I deal with everything you ever knew or thought you knew in this kind of detail. In short, these are the volumes for the real experts. If you find yourself thinking ‘this is long’ then it isn’t for you. That’s me being very blunt. This is for the experts and the fanatics; the people who want more from their Napoleonic history.

I promised myself I wouldn’t ever do this; release my work before publication, even a small part of it, but this could take a while to get out. So this is a direct ‘cut and paste’ from my own manuscript. Of all of the battles I have ever written of (and there are hundreds if not thousands) this is one which ranks in my top three. The day on which Napoleon stopped playing ‘Emperor’ and reminded the world that he was, first and foremost, the world’s greatest General, though with an army comprised of boys, old men, defective artillery and a wholly deficient cavalry arm.

He had been finished by Russia. The army did not exist and his senior commanders said that it could not be done, yet Napoleon somehow grew an army out of nothing and took it back to war. The finesse was gone; the veterans of Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland had largely gone to be replaced by youngsters – the ‘Marie Louise’ conscripts most too young to grow a moustache in emulation of the veterans. Now they were to face the combined might of Russia and Prussia. It was not to be their – or Napoleon’s greatest battle, but for me it was to be the finest moment in the annals of the Napoleonic wars and of that ‘little corporal’ who was to remind the world, one more time, why he was the greatest commander in the world.

So grab some battle maps, watch the action unfold and, if you like it, tell me and share it! I’m probably going to need every Napoleon fan to move this history to publication!

The battle of Lutzen

Having achieved a concentration of his forces well in advance of the allies’ expectation, Napoleon set out with the army from Mainz on April 25th towards the forward-assembly area at Erfurt. The army of Wittgenstein and Blucher had not expected any movement before June and now found themselves in the path of a rapidly advancing army, of which they had been largely unaware and wholly unprepared for, and which swiftly bowled back their advanced posts. The allied commanders had news of this advance from their mounted patrols and Cossacks, who had long since been scouting the build-up and movement of troops and had been harassing the French advance wherever possible, but the sheer size and speed of the advance was something for which they were in no way ready. Through intelligence received from their cavalry, the allied commanders soon realised that they would be outnumbered, but put in place a plan to advance and attack Napoleon’s army as it crossed the Saale, isolating and destroying the leading corps and evening the odds. Though outnumbered, they already knew that they enjoyed a great superiority in cavalry and veteran infantry, and put their plan to the Tsar and the King of Prussia, who approved it so much that they arrived in person with a fresh corps under general Miloradovitch and the Russian Guard, bringing their army up to a strength of 73,000 men, including 25,000 cavalry and over 500 cannon. Both sides were now poised to strike each other, and the critical factor in deciding whose plan would work was now speed.

Napoleon’s lightning advance, and in such strength, had caught the allies by surprise, and he hurried his units to the front, intent upon striking the first blow. Already, the green but eager conscripts had bested the enemy, forcing back their outposts at Merseburg and Halle in several bloody but successful actions. General Souham’s division of Marshal Ney’s corps – woefully low on veterans and made up mostly of the flower of France’s youthful conscripts had a heavy action at Weissenfels crossing the Saale on the 29th, where they received their first test of fire and passed it like veterans, as Colonel Noel of the artillery recalled; “The infantry of the Main army consisted of young recruits who had never come under fire, but there were excellent soldiers among them and they were very well led. The whole army anxiously awaited the outcome of this first encounter. The enemy cavalry, reputed to be very numerous and well mounted, was especially feared. Marshal Ney’s infantry formed into squares, and calmly withstood several successive charges from this cavalry; charges that are so terrifying for novice soldiers, and are dreadful even when anticipated. Then, forming into columns and taking the offensive, our soldiers attacked the enemy with spirit and determination and put them to flight. We heard of this outcome with something approaching rapture, seeing it as a good omen for the future.” – Ney was elated at his conscripts and their performance. The Russians had ensconced themselves in a ravine, covered by a fog, and had thrown themselves upon Souham’s men. The soldiers had acted calmly, had listened to their orders, performed the movements they had learned at drill, and repulsed the enemy cavalry with squares of muskets and bayonets, moved on, presented square again, repulsed another charge, then cleared the ravine under fire of the Russian guns from Weissenfels and finally charged the guns and the Russian veterans from the field. Ney gathered his conscripts in the town square and congratulated them all, laughing at the way in which they had charged the guns like veterans.

The whole army, including the Emperor, was up and crossing the Saale on May 1st before the startled enemy could concentrate to strike at them. The advance saw the army of the Elbe led by Marshal Macdonald and General Lauriston advancing through Merseburg towards Leipzig, with Marshal Ney’s III corps followed by Marshal Marmont’s VI corps pushing on through Weissenfels towards Lutzen, south west of Leipzig, and Marshal Oudinot and General Bertrand with the XII and IV corps moving up in echelon from Naumburg. At Rippach, just east of Weissenfels, the allied advanced posts made a stand, and Napoleon at once ordered; “Have Souham’s division at once take this position!” Marshal Bessieres, leading the advance guard, moved forward to reconnoitre in advance of Souham. The Marshal and his staff were unmissable in their finery, and soon a battery of guns was trained on them, with the first shot decapitating a young sergeant of the Polish light cavalry of the escort. Bessieres galloped closer, inspected their positions further and then returned, ordering the young man to be buried, when he was struck down by a cannon ball, which hit him full in the chest. He was dead before he hit the ground. This early loss was a blow to the Emperor who counted Bessieres as amongst his closest friends. When Napoleon was notified, he was seen to go motionless and stare blankly for a moment and finally to pronounce; “So…Bessieres lived like Bayard; he died like Turenne. We should all be envious of his fate.” – With that, he turned and walked away, although heard to mutter to himself; “Death is coming nearer to us.” Still the advance continued, and despite warnings that the allied main body was concentrating just to the south around Zwenkau, Napoleon pushed the pace, aiming to pass through Leipzig and arrive in Dresden to sever their retreat before they could catch him on the march.

Napoleon’s plan was coming together. By speed he had crossed the Saale and had three columns advancing, with a refused right flank under Oudinot and Bertrand there to lure the allies in to the trap which was forming around them, Ney and Marmont forming the central pivot with the main army and his left-hand columns under Macdonald and Lauriston almost at the gates of Leipzig, there to close the trap. He sent a message to Ney at 4AM on May 2nd instructing him to send out advanced guards towards Zwenkau and Pegau to give notice of any allied advance, and dictated his orders through the night for a continued push on Leipzig in the morning.

Ney, perhaps with a warrior’s instinct for danger, went against his orders, instead sending fully two of his five divisions to hold a small ring of villages at the foot of some high ground, retaining the other three in Lutzen as support. The allied cavalry, however, was roaming with impunity, and had given notice of this advanced force to Wittgenstein, who now held command over Blucher’s force as well as his own, and the allied commander quickly decided to set his columns marching through the night, ready to pounce on Ney in the morning and crash through the very centre of Napoleon’s army. His plans called for the advance to start at 1AM, with a concentration in the vicinity of the villages within six hours, but in the dark, the columns lost their way, and it was not until 11AM that the allied columns arrived in some disorder at their forward staging area. Wittgenstein immediately saw that his movement, however clumsy, was as yet undetected. There was no French cavalry screen, no patrols on the ridge behind which the allied army assembled, and upon sending some officers to climb the low crest above the village of Gross-Gorschen and spy out the French position, they reported back only 2,000 French soldiers who were busy cooking their midday meals, blissfully unaware of the storm about to break. Wittgenstein, not believing his luck, ordered up Blucher’s cavalry to assemble ready for a charge down the ridge to sweep the paltry French force away. Blucher at once set to ordering his cavalry up into formation, and with a last look to ensure he had remained undetected, the old Prussian war-horse galloped up to Wittgenstein, threw him a salute and begged permission to lead the charge and begin the battle. Wittgenstein at once gave his approval, calling back after Blucher, who at once galloped away; “With God’s help!”

As the French soldiers of Souham’s division lazed around their campsites and enjoyed their meals they suddenly looked up to see a horde of Prussian cavalry descending on them from the ridge. Warning shots were fired, bugles sounded, and the French stood to arms as their comrades poured out of the villages from all sides and began to form square. Blucher, thinking he was attacking two weak battalions was now confronted by a complete division around which his cavalry swirled ineffectively, and quickly called on his men to a retire, sending back for artillery support as the conscripts jeered nervously and fired a few ragged last shots in the direction of the retreating enemy. The second the cavalry had cleared, the Prussian artillery opened up, with roundhsot and shells finding easy targets amongst the packed squares. Souham at once ordered his men into cover and ordered up his two divisional batteries to return the fire. To the west, the second division under General Girard was now roused to arms and threw themselves likewise into the defence of the village of Starsiedel, to where Dolffs’ Prussian and Winzingerode’s Russian cavalry now advanced, but being met by Girard’s men in good positions, soon pulled back themselves and ordered up artillery to bombard the village. Girard, his guns scattered and unlimbered, could do nothing to return the fire and his men hung on grimly, finding cover where they could. By irresolution, the allies had thus thrown away their element of surprise, and now Souham and Girard, after sending back riders to request support, stood ready to contest the ground.

Around Gross-Gorschen, the artillery exchange went on unabated for forty minutes, with Souham’s guns woefully outnumbered and forced to retire, two of them being struck and dismounted before they could get away, and artillery teams being decimated. Then was heard a ‘strange confused noise like a rising tide’; the stomping of thousands of boots mixed with a rising crescendo of “Fatherland! Fatherland!” and the old veteran General Souham instantly knew what was about to follow. As the massed Prussian infantry columns crested and poured down the ridge, he quickly threw his men into the villages of Gross-Gorschen, Klein-Gorschen and Rahna where they barricaded the streets with carts and furniture and loop-holed walls and windows to meet the attack. The Prussians advanced ‘in a black depth’ to assault the villages, led by Klix’s brigade advancing under a barrage of covering fire, and were soon met with a storm of musketry from behind walls and gardens, from windows, barricades and loop-holed walls, but nothing could stop their advance as they crashed into Gross-Gorschen, where the young French soldiers met them with bayonets and clubbed muskets. Gradually, the Prussians fought their way through the village, overrunning Souham’s two crippled guns and sending back scores of prisoners, finally ousting the French from the village. Souham, riding up at the head of his reserves, raced to stem the rout, turned about the fugitives and now led a vigorous counter-attack, pushing Klix’s brigade back inch by inch, street by street and house by house to the outskirts of the village.

Meanwhile, back in Lutzen, Napoleon was with Marshal Ney and his staff, reconnoitring towards Leipzig, where Lauriston’s force had been in action since 10AM. Having found Kleist’s cavalry division of 1,800 men barring the main road from Lutzen to Leipzig at the village of Lindenau, Lauriston had advanced at the head of his escort of a hundred cavalry to reconnoitre, and soon had his corps and divisional artillery dragged forward to pound Kleist’s men out of their position, bringing up his infantry for support and sending Maison’s division around Kleist’s right to envelop his flank. As soon as he saw his plight, and being unable to respond to the barrage erupting around him, Kleist ordered the withdrawal, hastened by the arrival of more French forces who, having forded the Elster, were now approaching his left flank at the rush. Napoleon watched on through his telescope as Kleist evacuated his position and fled back to Leipzig, passing back through the town to the far side and leaving the scanty garrison of a lone Prussian battalion to contest the city walls as long as they could. Lauriston at once followed up and attacked the city walls with his guns, soon compelling the Prussian garrison to prepare to evacuate.

As Lauriston was following Kleist, Napoleon, Ney and their entourage rode over the old Lutzen battlefield where Gustavus Adolphus had fought his famous battle a hundred and seventy-one years before, and the Emperor took the opportunity to describe the action as he rode over the field, pointing out the key features of the battle. Suddenly, as Napoleon was some way through his impromptu tour, the sound of cannon fire reached the small group, and they saw plumes of powder smoke emanating from the ridge above Ney’s advanced posts. Ney at once dashed off to his command, picking up his three reserve divisions around Lutzen and ordering them forward into the fight, galloping off alone to take command of the battle which was now raging along the front of his line. Meanwhile, back on the main front, Souham had been edged once more out of Gross-Gorschen, although Klix’s brigade was now exhausted, and quickly Blucher followed up with Ziethen’s brigade, which rushed down the ridge on the right of Klix covered by a massed barrage of artillery, hastily bowling Souham’s men out of Klein-Gorschen, and together Klix and Ziethen now swept on, pushing Souham’s retiring units out of Rahna and back onto Kaja, which position Souham knew he must hold at all costs or face his force being pushed back onto the open plain, where the massed allied cavalry would make short work of them.

As Ney had dashed off to his command, Napoleon had stayed in Lutzen, where his experienced ears told him the fortunes of the battle, and after a few minutes’ calm deliberation, he dashed off orders to his various commanders, ordering Ney to stand firm at all costs and act as a ‘pinning force’ whilst Marmont with VI corps was ordered to advance to his right, linking Ney’s line with Girard’s isolated force in Starsiedel. General Bertrand with IV corps was to advance rapidly to the right of Marmont to take the enemy on the left flank, and Macdonald with XI corps was to veer off south from the Leipzig road and march across country to encircle the allied right. Meanwhile, Lauriston was ordered to leave a division to oversee the Prussian evacuation of Leipzig and counter-march his other two divisions to Markrandstadt just behind Lutzen as a strategic reserve if needed. Finally, the Imperial Guard was to march with him in person to Kaja where the action was now raging.

On the French right, the corps of Marshal Marmont now entered the fray to support the hard-pressed Girard and quickly threw themselves into the fight, as Marmont recalled; “After crossing the Rippach and having arranged my troops to march in six chessboard squares, I started following the right bank towards Starsiedel. We had barely approached this village when we saw, forming on the heights overlooking us the considerable masses of the enemy cavalry, supported by numerous artillery, and at the same time, we heard the fire in the direction of Kaja and Gross-Gorschen. There, Girard’s division of the third corps…had been surprised by the enemy and had taken up arms in great confusion…this division would have run large risks if I had arrived a few minutes later; but I hastened my advance in order to cover him and gave him time to organise. The forces the enemy had before us were impressive, and seeing their cavalry, they appeared to me formidable enough to prvent me from fulfilling my instructions. Therefore, I decided to approach without losing a single moment…I occuppied the village of Starsiedel in strength, which I intended should serve me well as a fulcrum. I placed in front of the village, and a little to the left, the division of Compans; and in echelon more to the left again the division of Bonnet. The troops, backed by the fire of my numerous artillery, began to walk forward without rushing. This charge was executed vigorously and expeditiously; but the forces of the enemy increasing quickly, I soon saw that a great battle was to be fought, so I halted my movement which, by distancing myself from my point of strength and security, would inevitably have caused me to be lost. However, I maintained my offensive attitude to divide the attention of the enemy and prevent him from crushing the troops of the third corps, which fought on in Kaja and Klein-Gorschen.”

By this time, Ney had arrived at the head of Brennier’s and Ricard’s divisions and soon found that Souham had been forced to evacuate Gross-Gorschen by sustained infantry attacks and concentrated allied artillery fire, and that Klein-Gorschen and Rahna had been lost to a furious attack, with the whole line having fallen back towards Kaja. Ney at once led up his fresh divisions to forestall this retreat, retake the villages and counter-attack the allied infantry who were rapidly advancing. Girard’s division having arrived from Starsiedel to support Souham, he found his colleague falling back under fire on Kaja and massed his division behind the village to forestall the retreat when Ney rode up, with Brennier and Ricard soon deploying in the field to support him. Ney now had four of his five divisions in the front line and at once massed Souham, Brennier and Girard’s forces for a counter-attack, leaving Ricard’s division in close support and deploying his corps and divisional artillery to the south-west of Kaja which now opened a furious barrage on the advancing Prussians, who stalled in their attack. Ney at once ordered the advance and rode forward at the head of his three divisions, smashing into the Prussian line and bowling them back through Rahna and Klein-Gorschen, following up to Gross-Gorschen where his men battled in the streets as the massed Prussian artillery now came again to the rescue with a barrage which halted his further advance. Blucher quickly sent in reserves of his own in the form of Roder’s brigade, which soon joined the attack and edged Ney back again, recovering Klein-Gorschen and Rahna as both sides battled doggedly amongst the villages, which by now were blazing furiously.

Ney now hurled his divisions time and again at the villages, which changed hands over and over. His young conscripts engaged the Prussian veterans with vigour as each side sought to flank the other beyond Klein-Gorschen. The allies brought up fresh reinforcements and hurled them again upon Ney, who furiously battled back, winning and losing each yard of ground by turn, but numbers were telling, and the allied commanders looked now to drive off Marmont and encircle Ney’s corps from both sides as Marmont again recalled; “The enemy felt the importance of exploiting our weakness to envelop the third corps; but he could not succeed after I had caused myself to retire. So he brought his great strength against me, directing the fire of a hundred and fifty pieces of cannon entirely against my forces. My troops endured this terrible fire with great calm and with a remarkable courage. The soldiers of Compans’ division, especially more exposed than others, were worthy of admiration. The ranks thinned at every moment but re-formed again without uncertainty, and no one thought of running away. The brave Navy gunners, accustomed especially to fights at sea where artillery plays the main and almost the only role, appeared to be in their element. Immediately after this terrible fire, the enemy cavalry began a move, and made a great and vigorous charge, directed mainly against the 1st Marine Artillery regiment. This regiment, commanded by Colonel Esmond, showed that it could be as good as infantry, and the enemy ran aground against its bayonets. Other charges were renewed, but in vain and all unsuccessful.” The allies now brought up infantry along with fresh cavalry and artillery to hurl at Marmont, and he now pulled back his men to a better defensive position, throwing Compans’ division into Starsiedel and the rest into better cover, whilst extending his right wing, which the enemy cavalry sought to turn, with his third division along and behind a ravine. Thwarted, the Russians and Prussians hurled themselves against Starsiedel, but the attack was mismanaged, and Compans’ infantry hurled them back with great loss. Though he had not been driven from the field, Marmont had been forced to pull back, and satisfied with their efforts, the allies now redoubled their efforts against Ney, whose dwindling command was being edged slowly backwards from the field, throwing their full weight against his crumbling force. Numbers and experience were now telling, and Ney’s conscripts were about to be swallowed whole, with one Prussian battalion, led by the King of Prussia in person, even breaking into Kaja. The conscripts of Ney’s command, now dying in droves, looked desperately to the rear for a sign of relief, with the veterans calling on them to hold firm just a while longer. To the very rear, a thin line of Guard cavalry was now spread out, not as support, but to catch and turn back anyone who now tried to run from the bitter fight, but the veterans knew what this heralded and took heart, for the Guard cavalry’s appearance meant only one thing; the Emperor was on his way.

Napoleon reached the battlefield around Kaja at 2.30PM to find his army of conscripts and youths disintegrating around him. Against the massed cannon of the Russian and Prussian allies and their tough veterans, the realities of the horrors of war were becoming all too apparent, and they cowered from the cannon fire, the young conscripts tearful, looking back over their shoulders for support or a chance of retreat, and on the verge of collapse. Napoleon rode up at the head of his staff and senior commanders and at once saw the gravity of the situation; “This is like one of our Egyptian battles!” he commented, surveying the ground before him, “We have infantry and artillery, but no cavalry – Gentlemen, we must not spare ourselves here!” with which he set off to prove by example that the Emperor was still the foremost general in the world.

Into the maelstrom of battle rode Napoleon, encouraging the refugees back to the ranks, braving the cannon fire as if it did not exist, rallying and exhorting the men as he rode amongst them and personally leading units back to the front in fresh counter-attacks. Seeing one unit of shaken conscripts falling back, he admonished them; “Conscripts, for shame! It was on you that I was basing my hopes. I expected much from your young courage, and you are running away!” then he was dismounting and leading them back into the fray and joining the new attack alongside them. “In the utmost heat of the action,” recalled General Bertrand, “Napoleon alighted from his horse, and to use his own words, he ‘did not spare himself’. Whole batteries were carried by bayonet charges.” Napoleon’s presence, personality and sheer courage had a magical effect on the conscripts who formed up and went back into the fight. Seeing their Emperor ride into the storm of shot and shell, the men at once straightened and eagerly marched to confront the foe from whom they had cowered in fear just moments before. Napoleon threw himself into the heat of the action, ordering his aide General Mouton to lead Ricard’s division forward to bowl the Prussians out of Kaja as he rode amongst Souham’s, Girard’s and Brennier’s men and sent them to retake Rahna and Klein-Gorschen. Napoleon was now everywhere, leading the men on in desperate charges, cheering them to victory, stemming the routs, plugging the gaps, bringing up his second line to relieve or reinforce the first where needed, driving them on and calling on them to stand firm, and the cry of; “Vive l’Empereur!” erupted across the field as the men took heart and took the fight back to the enemy. As Marshal Marmont was later to recall; “This was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle. He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of III Corps back to the charge.” Another spectator was to recall that; “Hardly a wounded man passed before Bonaparte without saluting him with the accustomed ‘vivat’. Even those who had lost a limb, who would in a few hours be the prey of death, rendered him this homage.”

With his men thus roused to new endeavours, Napoleon took command of III corps in person after Ney was wounded, and fought to stabilise the situation until his flanking columns could come up. Lacking the experienced troops of his once-great Grande Armee he resorted to the ‘mob tactics’ of his earliest years as a General of the Republic, and gradually pushed the allied line back, although casualties on both sides were becoming monstrous. Kaja, Rahna and Klein-Gorschen fell, the Prussians counter-attacked with a fury and still Napoleon fought back, wearing them down, gaining time and forcing them to commit more men to the fight. The battle was now a savage brawl; a cacophony of noise and smoke, flames and the screams of the wounded of both sides, who carpeted the field in masses, as one Prussian Jager recalled; “The field between Klein and Gross-Gorschen resembled a bivouac where whole battalions had lain down.” Again came the Prussians, their massed artillery dominating the field from the top of the ridge, and the French recoiled. Napoleon again stemmed the rout, ordering a grand battery to be assembled between Kaja and Starsiedel, and then drove his men once more back into the fray. General Dumas, approaching the field from Merseburg and escorting a column of artillery and other stores, here gives his impressions of the action at this time; “I restored order as well as I could, and went to join the Emperor in the field of battle; it was at the moment when a column of the Young Guard, commanded by General Rouget, which was directed by the Emperor himself, marched along the skirts of a wood in which the allies had placed a great number of sharp-shooters. The object of this manoeuvre appeared to me to be to attack the right of the centre of the enemy’s line, in order to facilitate the reiterated attacks of Marshal Ney upon the village, of which the enemy had made themselves masters, and towards which they had advanced the greater part of their forces, in order to cut the line, and penetrate to the causeway. It was a very critical moment. The Emperor having sent for me, asked where the treasure and the equipages were? I replied, “I have executed Your Majesty’s orders; they are at Lutzen.” – “Well! Do not lose an instant to take them back to Merseburg; that is the point of retreat!” – Dumas duly did so, discovering the division of General Reynier already moving up to take possession of the place, as meanwhile, Napoleon turned back to the fight and plunged into the fire once more, to stem the allies’ latest counter-attack. There was news now that Macdonald and Eugene were approaching the field to envelop the allied right, but still no word from Bertrand, whose corps was nowhere to be seen. Soon a rider from Bertrand found Napoleon in the thick of the fighting and gave him the incredible news that Bertrand had halted his march and asked for orders, as Russian forces had been spotted in Zeitz, some ten miles from his position, and he needed clarification whether he was to attack towards Zeitz or continue to assail the allied left. Napoleon quickly sent the man back, barking at him that Bertrand was to continue his march and join the desperate fight, soon sending two more riders in quick succession to reinforce the point. The battle had become a savage pounding match, and Napoleon yet knew that he would have to hold the line a while longer until his plan could be put into execution. All around him, the dead and dying carpeted the floor, but still he sent the terrified young conscrpits back to the front with renewed vigour to gain time. To Napoleon’s right, Marmont was now in difficulty and sent to Napoleon for reinforcements or to send in the Imperial Guard, but Napoleon sent Marmont’s messenger back with the rebuke; “Tell your marshal that he is mistaken. He has nothing against him; the battle turns about Kaja!” In the allied lines too, things were becoming desperate. Marshal Blucher was wounded and his deputy, General Yorck, a much less inspiring leader, had taken command. General Scharnhorst was also gravely wounded, and despite needing reserves for the front, Wittgenstein was denied the use of the Russian Guards and Grenadier divisions by Tsar Alexander, who wished to retain them under his personal command and lead them forward at the end of the battle in the final great push.

Not until 4.00PM did Wittgenstein manage to have all of his reserves on the field, and he now ordered a massed attack towards Klein-Gorschen and Rahna to redeem the situation. The reserves ploughed into the embattled French line, edging the young conscripts back and taking the villages at the point of the bayonet before following on towards Kaja and delivering a powerful attack which drove the French line back to the outskirts of the village. Napoleon again rescued the situation, once more rallying his tearful and shaken conscripts and calling out to them; “Where do you think you are going? Can’t you see that the battle is won? Come on, stand firm!” and pointing to a tree two-hundred paces to their front, ordered them to re-form by it, leading them back personally to the attack and bolstering them with Lanusse’s division of the Young Guard, who charged back through Kaja, carrying the place by storm and ejecting the Prussians. Napoleon was now once more amongst the shattered remnants of Ney’s corps and leading them forward over a field thick with corpses several men deep, driving them again into Klein-Gorschen and Rahna, which fell after a brutal fight, and still he ploughed on, pushing the allied troops back once more to the outskirts of Gross-Gorschen, where Prussian and Russian reserves, under the cover of their massed batteries, resisted all attacks.

Meanwhile, Wittgenstein was increasingly aware of the danger to his flanks as Bertrand’s leading division under Morand was now seen in the distance marching up on his left, and Macdonald’s corps and Eugene’s Army of the Elbe were spotted marching across country to assail his right, both moves forcing him to detach units to check their advance, and seeing that Macdonald and Eugene threatened to cut him off and would arrive first, he hurried General St. Priest to nearby Eisdorf with a brigade to support the two Prussian battalions there as meanwhile Prince Eugene of Wurttemburg advanced, cleared Klein-Gorschen once more and pushed on towards Kaja, with St. Priest swinging around to take Ney’s corps in flank. By now, and inexplicably late, Ney’s fifth division under General Marchand had appeared on the field, and this fresh division enetered the fight, taking post on the right bank of the Flossgraben, north of Klein-Gorschen, and at once opened a galling enfillading fire against Eugene of Wurttemburg’s brigade, advancing by both wings to wrap around his flanks, with Marchand’s left-hand brigade breaking back into Klein-Gorschen. The allied troops at once ran for cover, finding shelter amongst the trees and bushes along the Flossgraben, which bought them some respite, and then re-forming they counter-attacked, checking the movement by Marchand’s right and clearing his left back out of the village as several units of cavalry moved around ready to take him in the flank. By now, however, Macdonald’s corps was fast-approaching the field, and Eugene was ordered to stand firm as Wittgenstein ordered the 2nd Russian Grenadier division to advance and hold Eisdorf to meet the attack.

Macdonald now arrived on the field, with his corps leading the way for Eugene’s Army of the Elbe, and threw his full force into the attack, battling the Russian Grenadiers and turning the allied right, and Wittgenstein, seeing his plight, now hurled his full weight at him, as Macdonald recalled in his memoirs; “We went at the double, and it was full time, for the enemy’s cavalry had already slipped in between me and Marshal Ney, who had lost much ground. The enemy, having realised my movement, turned to retreat; but I had had time to point thirty pieces of cannon, and they galloped rapidly through my grapeshot. We continued to advance on their right flank, and forced them into a position covered by a little artificial canal used for floating wood. After crossing—not without loss—a little valley, we crowned the heights; the plain lay outstretched before us, but without cavalry it would have been unsafe to venture there. Suddenly the fire ceased all along the front of the army, and was directed at us; the enemy sent forward their cavalry reserves, composed of the Guards of the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia. Thrice they attempted to break our squares, but in vain; each time they were driven back with loss, and the third time in such confusion as must have given great advantage to our cavalry had we possessed any. Only a few squadrons covered our left, commanded by the Marquis de Latour-Maubourg, who wished nothing better than to charge. I sent to beg him to do so; but the Viceroy, under whose orders he was acting, refused, in spite of my entreaties, as he did not wish to risk the little body of brave men who were our only resource.” Gradually, Macdonald and Eugene battled the Russians back through Eisdorf and nearby Kitzen, easing the pressure on Ney’s left flank and deploying their cannon to bombard the centre of the allied lines.

By 5.30PM Napoleon’s plan was in effect, with Morand’s division of Bertrand’s corps now arriving on the field and joining Marmont’s right wing, and with Macdonald’s force storming through and past the villages of Eisdorf and Kitzen on the allied right flank, placing Wittgenstein’s army in serious jeopardy. In one last bid to break the French line, Wittgenstein ordered a fresh advance with all of his forces, which doggedly forced Napoleon’s centre back and retook two of the villages, but Napoleon was ready for them, ordering Marmont to change front and pivoting on Starsiedel, supported by Bertrand, leading the attack now from the right as the left fell back under cover of the batteries. The allied formations were caught almost in flank by this new onslaught, which tore into them with volleys of musketry and a crash of cannon-fire and bowled them backwards as Napoleon’s own guns wreaked havoc to their front and tore bloody holes in the ranks, which fell back under the two-sided assault. To cover the retreat of his stunned men, Wittgenstein now hurled his cavalry in wave after wave against the corps of Marmont and Morand’s division, but again the young conscripts formed themselves into squares and repulsed charge after bloody charge, sending the allied horsemen reeling back towards their own lines, as Napoleon brought up his left and centre to push the rest of the allied infantry back. It had been a costly last-ditch attempt to redeem the fortunes of the battle, but by perfect timing and a little tactical finesse, Napoleon had seen them off, and now in position, and with the enemy falling back, the Emperor was ready to storm the field.

Having now taken a rising spur on the allied ridge, Napoleon brought forward the fifty-eight guns of the Guard Artillery, joined these with what remained of Ney’s, and now massed eighty heavy cannon under command of his excellent general of artillery, General Drouot, lined wheel to wheel and aiming straight at the centre of the allied line. These cannon unleashed a massed barrage upon the allies, punching twelve-pound balls through their ranks and oblitterating whole formations, the guns being manhandled forward to point blank range as they had been at Friedland and pounding the allied lines into ruin, which twitched and writhed like a great beast in its death throes. Across the field, every French gun was now brought into play, pushed forward at every discharge to bring them closer and closer to the allies whose ranks shredded as canister fire, roundshot and shells gouged a bloody path through them from all three sides. One-hundred-and-ninety-eight cannon, crowned by the great grand battery of the Guard in the centre were soon pulverising the allies and driving them back in confusion, dominating the allied artillery whose exhausted gunners, with depleted reserves and men falling all around, could mount no effective reply.

With the allied lines recoiling and their men worn down by the terriffic battle, Napoleon now played his trump card and ordered his Young Guard forward into four assault columns, each of four battalions, 9,800 men in total and led on by Marshal Mortier supported by four marching squares of the Old Guard, six battalions strong, two divisions of the Guard Cavalry, some 3,335 horsemen in all and the shattered remnants of III corps, and led them in a great counter-attack, ordering Morand, Marmont, Macdonald and Eugene to advance and sweep the field from all sides. From Starsiedel, Bonnet’s division launched themselves forward, Marmont pivoting on him in a great left wheel with his other two divisions, and Morand’s division, leading the way for Bertrand’s corps advanced into the allied flank and rear. This fresh attack surged forward, with the four Young Guard colums advancing at a rush upon Klein-Gorschen with their left, Rahna with their right and the two central columns leading the drive on Gross-Gorschen through the middle, and like an irresistable torrent the Guard advanced, smashing back the Prussian and Russian veterans. To the right of this attack, Bonnet’s and then Compans’ divisions of Marmont’s corps wheeled into the side and rear of Rahna as the Guard carried it by frontal assault, as meanwhile Macdonald likewise wheeled Charpentier’s division in from Eisdorf to assail Klein-Gorschen from the flank and rear as the Guard stormed through the streets, shooting and bayoneting all they found before them.

Across the field, the mighty French batteries crashed out their triumphant roar as the whole French line advanced, battling the Russians and Prussians back yard by bloody yard and finally wresting the blazing ruins of Gross-Gorschen from them. The attack drove forward, unstoppable and ferocious, swarming up the ridge and bowling the allied troops before it. The conscripts, now mixed with the indomitable veterans of the Guard, sought to assert their valour and raced forward with an equal degree of pluck and courage, and the allied line recoiled from the relentless speed of the assault and the barrage of the guns until units started to break and flee to the rear. Though Mortier was down, pinned beneath the body of his horse around Kaja, yet Napoleon in person drove the assault on and into the allied ranks, crashing through their lines and sending them tumbling back. All across the field, the French army rolled inexorably onward and inward; Napoleon, Ney and Marmont in the centre, Bertrand on the right and Macdonald and Eugene on the left, and all the while the French guns pounded at the compressed mass of allied soldiers who fell back grudgingly before the three-sided assault. Wittgenstein and his commanders were now all-in and had nothing with which to meet this fresh onslaught, which was rolling back their lines on all sides, and now ordered the retreat, and the allied army, in the vaguest semblance of order, fled from the field, covered by the remnants of their cavalry.

Had the allies stayed longer, they would have been crushed between the flanking corps of Macdonald, Eugene and Bertrand and torn apart by the unstoppable onslaught of the Guard against their centre, but now they were streaming away, abandoning their wounded comrades who carpeted the field, throwing down thousands of muskets as they fled, and leaving behind them several dismounted guns in their rush to escape the converging wings of the French army. Seeing the enemy break at last, Napoleon was triumphant, roaring out; “I have gained the battle of Lutzen like the general-in-chief of the Army of Italy and of the Army of Egypt!” – giving voice to any concerns that he was no longer the man of his youth. Only his lack of a strong cavalry arm saved the allies from complete destruction, but Napoleon shelled them as they withdrew, and allowed his jubilant conscripts to chase away the recoiling foe and begin the task of looting the dead and the wounded.

Marmont’s forces led the pursuit, such as could be mustered, but in the darkness, nine squadrons of the Prussian cavalry turned about and descended upon his leading units of Bonnet’s division. Hearing the horses, Marmont called the alarm and shut himself within a square of the 37th Light Infantry, but in terror they broke and streamed away into the night, being severely mauled, and Marmont only escaping by tucking his plumed hat under his arm so as not to be recognised, and riding for his life, whilst his chief aide Colonel Jardet was shot by a fleeing French conscript who mistook him for a Prussian cavalryman. The Prussians were eventually halted by the 1st Naval regiment and retired, not knowing what forces were against them in the dark, but Marmont, guessing that they would soon be back with reinforcements, steadied his men, berated their officers and led them out again, forming a closely packed defence of interlocking squares. Barely an hour after the initial attack, the Prussians came again, this time four regiments strong, one of which of the Prussian Guards, and this time Marmont’s men held firm, met the enemy resolutely and shattered them with close volleys until they pulled away leaving five or six hundred killed behind them. So ended the last episode of the battle of Lutzen.

Lutzen had been a blood-bath, although in truth, it had been a well-fought battle in which the Emperor had showed as much if not more of his old energies, and which had turned surprise and near-defeat into victory almost by personal example, determination and sheer will to win. Napoleon had spent the night before the battle at the obelisk to his fallen hero Gustavus Adoplhus, and there, he later admitted, he had “experienced impressions, which…appeared to him a sort of revelation” – and his actions this day were so reminiscent of those of his great hero, that he truly believed the great man was with him, and that victory was assured. He braved cannon fire, shot and shell in the front lines and feared death not at all in the name of victory, which he never doubted to be certain. Had Napoleon had two hours more daylight and a decent cavalry arm, the battle of Lutzen and the ensuing pursuit would have spelled the doom of the allied army, but it was not to be. The allies had been defeated by Napoleon, but he could not follow up his victory and turn the allied retreat into a rout, and knew that he must again fight another day.

In the growing darkness, Napoleon sought out and found Ney, who had fought in the front line all day and had sustained the bulk of the fighting, even returning to the front after his wound had been dressed, to continue the struggle. Ney looked like a blood-stained corpse, with his uniform in tatters and soaked in gore; “My dear cousin!” Napoleon called out, alarmed at the sight of him, “You are covered in blood!” – Ney looked down before smiling and replying; “It isn’t mine Sire…except where that damned bullet passed through my leg!” The two conversed a while about the battle and in particular the performance of the conscripts, to which Ney told him; “Sire, give me a lot of these young fellows. I will lead them wherever I wish. The old sweats know as much as we do; they reason, they have too much sangfroid. These lads, on the other hand, are fearless and do not know the difficulties; they look straight ahead, not to right or left.”

The battle been a slaughter with casualties on both sides far beyond those of the great and bloody battle once fought in the neighbouring fields; the French had lost 20,400 men including 2,700 killed, 16,900 wounded and 800 men and five guns captured and another 22 guns disabled, the allies perhaps 22,000 men all in, though with only two guns lost and doubtless many more damaged or disabled, and although they attempted to paint the battle as a near-success, the fact remained that they had been severely mauled and were on the run. As ever, Napoleon understood the value of the ‘propaganda victory’ and fully utilised the victory to buoy the morale of his battered army, and to impresss upon his Saxon allies, whose commitment to the cause was in serious doubt. The day after the battle he issued a grandiose proclamation to his army; “Soldiers, I am pleased with you! You have fulfilled my expectations! You have achieved everything by your readiness to obey, and by your courage. On the famous 2nd of May you defeated and routed the Russian and Prussian armies, commanded by the Emperor Alexander and the King of Prussia. You have added a new lustre to the glory of my eagles. The battle of Lutzen will rank higher than the battles of Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland and the Moskowa”. Napoleon’s propagannda was hyperbole in the extreme, but it served to rouse the new recruits, who had performed marvels upon the field, into believing themselves immortal gainers of one of the greatest battles in history. By coolness, a collective mind and the strength of his dispositions, Napoleon had turned the tide of what could have been a disaster, but the victory went as much to his young conscripts, who had performed marvels on the day. As Ney recounted to Dumas the day after the battle; “I had only battalions of conscripts, and I have reason to congrtulate myself on it; I doubt whether I could have done the same thing with the Old Grenadiers of the Guard. I had before me the best of the enemy’s troops, the whole of the Prussian Guards; our bravest grenadiers, after having twice failed, would perhaps not have carried the village, but I led these brave children five times to the charge, and their docility, perhaps too their inexperience, served me no better than veteran courage. The French army is never too young!”

For Napoleon, Lutzen was perhaps his toughest personal victory, requiring all the elements of a truly great commander; a cool head, personal courage, leadership, grit, tenacity and the ability to absorb the situation, plan a counter-attack and time it to perfection whilst the cannonballs flew around him. He had beaten tough Russian and Prussian veterans with an army of boys, most scarcely old enough to grow their moustaches in the French fashion, and had boosted their morale and courage by personal example. He had been at once commander of the army, and colonel of every regiment at one time or another as he dashed from point to point to steady the line, but had never once lost sight of the great objective. Later, he was to spell out as one of his maxims; “A general of ordinary talent, occupying a bad position and surprised by a superior force, seeks his safety in retreat; but a great captain supplies all deficiencies by his courage, and marches boldly to meet the attack. By this means he disconcerts his adversary, and if this last shows any irresolution in his movements, a skilful leader, profiting by his indecision, may even hope for victory.” These eloquent words no doubt recall the battle of Lutzen, where his forces were caught napping, posted on bad ground, heavily outnumbered for most of the day, and had been surprised and attacked in force. It was only the Emperor’s personal courage, example and coolness of thought which had won the day. Immediately after the battle, however, he was less eloquent. Commenting on the allied attack and near-victory he was heard to remark acidly; “These animals have learned something.”

Note: I really hope you have enjoyed this as much as I did when I wrote it. I have added some images for you (I don’t own them) just to break the text and keep it colourful. If you did enjoy this, then please do like it and share it and reward me back for the time and effort spent in this – weeks of pouring over every account of the battle, every map, every word.

With this and so much more coming up, please find me and ‘Like’ my professional page at ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ on Facebook and together let’s make history.


2 thoughts on “The Battle of Lutzen 1813 – The greatest account of Napoleon’s toughest battle…

  1. Excellent read. Yes, could stand some editing, but the narrative overall is engaging and evocative, Incidentally, there is a brief mention of Lutzen in Col Henderson’s biography of Stonewall Jackson, concerning the army of stragglers stretching for miles behind the battle lines at Lutzen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ion, glad you liked it! Yes it hasn’t been anywhere near the editing stage yet I’m afraid!! I hadn’t heard that about Henderson’s biography…which is embarrassing as I have it! I suppose I wouldn’t naturally go looking for Lutzen in a book on Stonewall!! 🙂


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