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Battle of Leipzig

Also known as the Battle of Nations, Leipzig was, In terms of numbers of troops engaged and amount of artillery, the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Separate but coordinated armies of Russians, Prussians, Swedes, and Austrians brought 370,000 troops and 1,384 guns to the battlefield, whereas Napoleon’s strength stood at 198,000 men with 717 guns.

The battle developed when Napoleon seized the Leipzig position, intending to divide his opponents and attack them one by one. The French almost had that chance on the first day of fighting, when the Prussian army engaged while the Army of the North, a Russo-Prusso-Swedish force under Bernadotte (a former French marshal), hung back. However, Napoleon became the victim of his own repeated changes of operational focus during this campaign.

With allied strength building up on the second day of Leipzig, Napoleon spent most of the day redeploying, while on the final day allied numbers and combat power proved simply too much. Even in withdrawal there was disaster for the French-a premature destruction of the major river bridge at Leipzig trapped the French rear guard. Casualties quoted for the battle are usually 73,000 French and 54,000 allies.

Leipzig was the first occasion on which Napoleon was clearly defeated in the field (the Austrian repulse of Napoleon at Aspern-Essling in May 1809 brought about a stalemate, not a clear victory, and its effects were soon reversed by the Battle of Wagram; French defeat in Russia in 1812 was the product of strategic factors, not an army in the field). The French Grande Armee continued its westward retreat until, in 1814, the victors closed in on Paris and Napoleon abdicated.

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The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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