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