April 18, 2024

Travels in Europe ~ Leipzig & The East, Part 1

Jim Owczarski, 18 August 2023

I have a bit of a reputation around these parts as a ranter, but I have yet to fall face-first into street-corner preaching.  There are times, though, when I am wandering through those battlefield visits I feel very privileged to make that I want to grab people by the scruff of the neck, stare straight into their terrified eyes, and announce in a very loud voice, “do you know how amazing the battlefield is that you have right…over…there?!”  This would also involve wild gesticulation and, ultimately, my arrest, which is why I have, to date, avoided it.

The urge came upon me again last week in Dresden, though, as I searched for the spot I was told was marked with a bronze “N” in memory of Napoleon’s various visits to the City.

leipzig N
As advertised

click images to enlarge

 

I found it in one of the central squares under the feet of a Pentecostal preacher who, with a remarkably loud un-amplified voice, was passionately quoting John 3:16 and damning a fair number of souls to hell.  Leaving to the side the unnerving effect of anything being preached loudly and somewhat angrily in German, I waited a little while for him to finish so I could take a picture of the “N”.  As I did so, I reflected both on the remarkable effect the Emperor of the French had on the psyche of his time and how much of the history of these battles is, sometimes even literally, right under our feet.

That, however, is to begin this most recent story near its end.

This year’s journey began in Leipzig, a wonderful city I last visited in 2017.  As I have said on several occasions, the battle is there, but you do have to be willing to look.  Much smaller in October of 1813, it has grown dramatically since and swallowed up a great deal of what was once one of history’s greatest battlefields.

I can think of no better example than Probstheida, the village to the south and east of the city center that was the site of a sanguinary back-and-forth struggle between the French and the Prussians.  It is now largely indistinguishable from any other Leipzig neighborhood.  It does, however, house the Brauhaus Napoleon which I have taken to calling the Napoleon Dells, a reference which requires one to live somewhere near Wisconsin.

leipzig BRAU
Remember, kids, Napoleon lost this battle.  Order the schnitzel.

 

It is a lovely restaurant, serving traditional German food with a modest inflection courtesy of Saxony, and offers a locally-brewed beer selection that includes a number of drafts named after Napoleon.  It also has number of historical displays, my favorite being that dedicated to the female camp followers who helped keep the troops on the march fed and adequately supplied with liquor.  It does have the distinction of having been open as an inn during the battle.  By the owner’s own account, Napoleon and Marshal Murat met in the inn’s garden — the inn itself was on fire — on October 18, 1813, to discuss whether to retreat from the battle.

leipzig GARDEN
I can almost smell Murat’s perfume.

 

By my own lights, though, the place of Probstheida in the Battle of Leipzig is better remembered at the nearby Torhaus Dolitz.  It was the site of an early attack by the Austrians against Poniatowski’s Poles and bears matching plaques commemorating their respective deeds.  Its facade is still decorated with a number of cannon and musket balls that date from the period.  It is entered by crossing a small bridge over the Muhlpleisse stream that, by my lights, gives one of the better insights into what an unchannelized watercourse of this type would have looked like in 1813 and why even the smaller ones provided tactical problems.

DUELING PLAQUES!

 

Inside, the Torhaus holds one of the world’s largest collections of toy soldiers on public display.  Not strictly Napoleonic, it includes dioramas of battles from antiquity through the Seven Years’ War as well.  It also includes non-military scenes, notably a lovely depiction of a triumphal entry into Babylon at the height of its glory.  It does, of course, have several Napoleonic dioramas, the largest and best of which is the fight for Probstheida.  Given the terrible manner in which the Siborne Waterloo model is displayed at the National Army Museum in London, this is the best Napoleonic battle diorama out there.

leipzig PROBST
It is terribly hard for me to describe how awesome this is.

 

One of the reasons I tend to make so much of the Muhlpleisse when I discuss Leipzig is that, while rivers and streams played a significant role in a lot of battles, modern development often leaves them channelized and looking nothing like they would have at the time.  This is surely the case for the White Elster.  The premature blowing of the main bridge over the White Elster, by a corporal to whom the task had been unwisely given, resulted in the trapping of French Commanders MacDonald and Oudinot who were forced to swim for safety.  The Polish patriot and French Marshal Poniatowski was also trapped by this same event, but, hampered by wounds, drowned in the river.

The monument to Poniatowski is simple but affecting and is placed not far from the spot where he attempted his crossing.  During my visit, I discovered it removed pending further work on the Elster’s course.  They have promised to return it.

leipzig PONIMONUMENT
From an earlier visit.

 

The river itself as it runs through that area seems far more a marsh pond than the dangerous waterway it proved to be in 1813.

leipzig ELSTER
Frankly, eww.

 

When I first visited Leipzig a few years ago, the Torhaus Dolitz had only kidnapped — for its own protection, of course — one Apelstein.  It now has two, which is good news for those of us that regard these 19th Century marker stones as something akin to Pokemon for adults.  Erected at the expense of a poet between 1861 and 1865, the 50 stones memorialize the commanders and forces from the Battle of Leipzig and were placed at significant locations throughout the area.  Those that the Torhaus Dolitz folks took off the street as being in an advanced state of decay were replaced by duplicates.  When they were first placed, most of their locations were in the country.  Now very few are and many find themselves in carriage walks, near parking lots, or just out in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  A German-language Wiki article about them is here: Die Apelsteine in Leipzig

Tracking them all down has become a bit of an obsession and I am presently at 34 found.  Below are photos of a couple of those added this trip.  They particularly relate to the Battle of Mockern, one of the preliminaries to Leipzig.  As can be seen, these are well within the developed city today.

Saving the biggest for last, there is the Voelkerschlacht Denkmal.  The largest war memorial in the world and likely still the largest monument in Europe, this 299-foot monster truly must be seen to be believed.  Since my last visit, they have repaired the reflecting pool to its front and revivified the public spaces around it.

leipzig Volker
It mocks lesser monuments.

 

Paid for almost entirely by public subscription, it opened in 1913 to commemorate the centennial of the battle.  The view from the top, particularly towards the south, is remarkable, but the development of the city does make picking out the topography of the battlefield, much more the likely placement of troops through its course, difficult.

leipzig DMSOUTH
Curse you, development.

 

The monument’s architecture, decoration, and, particularly, interior would be of interest to anyone, even those not necessarily there for the battle.

leipzig STATUTES
I know what they say this is, but I will never believe this to be anything other than a summoning chamber.

 

Its museum is a must-visit, containing another lovely diorama of the fight for Probstheida, and unique artifacts including the saddle from Marshal Poniatowski’s last horse.

leipzig SADDLE

I was so intent on visiting the battlefield at Grossgorschen that I did not reprise my visit to the south of Leipzig.  Do know that there are sites of great interest that way.  If one is up for the hunt, there is the Monarchs’ Hill where the commanders of the three allies — Russian, Prussia, and Austria — are said to have watched the battle on October 18.  It is now within a well-appointed Leipzig suburb.

leipzig MONARCH
With an Apelstein in the bargain.

 

And there is also Liebertwolkwitz with its well-known church as well as the monument to the Battle of Wachau, which I love best for the inscription on its back.  Located atop the Galgenberg, a central bit of topography for that battle, the monument has, almost hidden from view, the simple scripture citation, Job 38:11 which reads, in the King James’ Version, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed…”

leipzig WACHAU

Struggling to find the pieces and traces of a battle like Leipzig within the undergrowth of later development makes me very grateful for those American battlefields that have been preserved against encroachment, notably Gettysburg and Antietam.  It also makes me feel even more strongly about preserving as much as may be on fields like Fredericksburg where far too close to Marye’s Heights, an apartment development has been allowed to sprout, or Chancellorsville where, if I understand correctly, a big box chain had wanted to build.

This has gone on far longer than I thought and, if you are still along for the ride, thanks for sticking with it.  Next stop, Grossgorschen and one of the finest small battlefields I have ever visited.

 


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In Leipzig, where history blends,
Napoleon’s great tale never ends.
Monuments rise,
‘neath vast open skies,
Where his legacy forever transcends.
With pride, Leipzig’s landscapes proclaim,
Napoleon’s remembered by name.
Statues so grand,
Tell tales of his stand,
In war’s tumultuous, fiery flame.

5 thoughts on “Travels in Europe ~ Leipzig & The East, Part 1

  1. Cool, thanks for that mini-tour and pictures. I’ll have to check out the related articles.
    I’m somewhat surprised Germans would pay such tribute to their erstwhile enemies, especially ones that kicked their ass.
    Are you sure the Völkerschlacht Denkmal is the largest war memorial in the world? It would seem the Mother Russia statue and memorial in Volgograd would dwarf it. But lets not get into a war about who has the biggest war memorial, :-/
    (Also, nouns are always capitalized in German – ergo, Schnitzel.) 😉

      1. yes, but what kind of Schnitzel?! Rahmschnitzel? Zigeunerschnitzel? Jägerschnitzel? Wienerschnitzel? Plenty of options! (Rahmschnitzel is the right answer, of course)

  2. Hmm, I’d actually never heard of Rahm, but online pictures look good. I left Germany at a young age, so I didn’t have too much exposure to these things, just occasionally. I’ve always gone for the Jäger, for the mushroom sauce, or simply the Wiener.
    Little known fact I read a few years ago – the Wienerschnitzel recipes were originally a Northern Italian dish.
    So I’m sure y’all are familiar with Spätzle, the noodle-ish side – to die for, haha.

    If you’re ever in the Phoenix, Az. area, or for readers who live thereabouts, you might check out a place called Haus Murphy’s, which despite the name is a German restaurant. I think their menu, including the Schnitzels, are very authentic, at least they were 20 years ago. It’s actually in nearby Glendale, one of the many municipalities surrounding Phoenix. Link: https://hausmurphys.com/

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