More than half a million soldiers from across Europe converged on the outskirts of Leipzig, in Saxony, in October 1813 for the Battle of Leipzig—a clash of empires that decided the fate of the continent’s governance for 50-plus years to come.
A coalition of forces from Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden delivered a decisive defeat to Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army in the largest and bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, paving the way for the French emperor’s eventual downfall.
Causes of the Battle
The Napoleonic Wars, a series of major conflicts that took place from 1803-1815, were fueled by Napoleon’s military might and ambitions to seize control and dominate Europe, in a competition for economic resources, colony and trade route control and other political factors.
Napoleon’s campaign was successful at first. After rising to prominence during the French Revolution, the self-declared emperor of France led his Grande Armée to victories, gaining control of land from Spain to Poland. Even with serious setbacks, including a defeat in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, he continued to expand his empire until the pivotal Battle of Leipzig.
With his army stretched thin following heavy losses from its 1812 invasion of Russia, Napoleon set out to rebuild his depleted ranks, relying heavily on new, inexperienced recruits, as he planned a strike in Germany in 1813. In addition to Frenchmen, his army included troops from Poland, Italy and Germany’s Confederation of the Rhine.
After a failed attempt to take Berlin forced him to retreat, Napoleon moved his army of approximately 180,000 men to Saxony, in eastern Germany. Ready for battle, the allied coalition, with an estimated 320,000-plus soldiers and led by Tsar Alexander I, Austrian Field Marshal Karl von Schwarzenberg and Emperor Francis I of Austria, advanced on the key economic center of Leipzig.
The Battle Begins
On October 16, 1813, coalition forces began attacking the French near Leipzig. The first day, considered a draw, key French positions were captured, but Napoleon’s army held its ground. The next day, a French counterattack saw some success, but new coalition troop arrivals and mounting casualties continued to drive Napoleon’s army back.
By October 18, the coalition surrounded the French, gaining control and forcing the French to retreat. On the fourth consecutive day of fighting, the coalition unleashed another assault as it pursued Napoleon and his retreating troops.
During the retreat, a botched order to destroy a bridge over the Elster River by one of Napoleon's generals led to thousands of French deaths and the capture of approximately 30,000 men. The resounding defeat put an end to the French Empire’s rule east of the Rhine.
The French defeat at the Battle of Leipzig marked the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s reign and is considered a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. In Europe’s largest battle pre-dating World War I, the French suffered approximately 38,000 casualties, while the coalition also saw heavy losses, with some 55,000 killed or injured.
Forced to abandon his plan to conquer all of Europe, Napoleon remained under pursuit by the coalition army. In 1814, they entered Paris and forced the emporer to abdicate his rule and go into exile on the island of Elba.
The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna, signed June 9, 1815, resulted in a redrawing of Europe’s political map and established a new European balance of power that lasted for more than 50 years.
"Napoleon Bonaparte’s Most Decisive Land Battles: The History of Austerlitz, the French Invasion of Russia, Leipzig, and Waterloo," by Charles River Editors