Jim Owczarski, 23 August 2023
I panicked a bit as the last entry into this miniseries grew to be much larger than I had planned and I fear I gave short shrift to the holdings of the Torhaus Dolitz, the building my wife has often described as my happy place. So, here are some pictures of toy soldiers.
click images to enlarge
That to the side, the next stop on our trip to Saxony was the battlefield of Grossgoerschen (2 May 1813). As a bit of housekeeping, I shall henceforth always use that name for the battle, forsaking the more common Luetzen. Two reasons come to mind, the first being that it prevents confusion with the 1632 battle that saw the death of the Swedish “Lion of the North”, Gustavus Adolphus. The second, is that Luetzen, though in the near vicinity of the battlefield, is remote compared to Grossgoerschen.
I cherish intact battlefields. They give the visitor a chance to read the accounts, study the maps, and imagine events as they happened. In this regard, Grossgoerschen is an admixture of the wonderful and terrible. On the terrible side, one must first know that the centerpiece of the battle was an imperfectly-shaped quadrangle of four modestly-sized villages, namely Grossgoerschen (southeast corner), Kleingoerschen (northeast corner), Rahna (southwest corner), and Kaja (northwest corner). In the days prior, Marshal Ney’s III Corps had been directed to the area around Luetzen to secure Napoleon’s right flank. The latter was planning to move against Leipzig with the army he had built nearly from scratch after the 1812 Russian disaster. The Allied commander, General Wittgenstein, thought he might be able to strike near Grossgoerschen, divide Napoleon’s army, and thereby protect Leipzig.
Wittgenstein’s forces, notably those under Blucher, advanced on Grossgoerschen from the south. The mad thing is, though impossible to see on the battlefield today, is that it did so under the cover of a long, low ridge that entirely concealed it from the view of the French. It is true that Ney’s forces failed to conduct adequate reconnaissance in that direction, but, nonetheless, when the battle began in earnest, the surprise of the French in Grossgoerschen was near total.
Unfortunately, later strip mining of the area south of the village has left near nothing of the plateau or the ridge. I say near nothing, because at least a portion of the Monarchenhugel, fairly well confirmed to be the spot from which the Prussian King and the Russian Tsar watched the battle, remains. Located about 2.1 km (1.3 Freedom Units) south of Grossgoerschen, it rises significantly above the plain and affords an excellent view of the battlefield.
A marker was placed on the hill not long after the battle to profess Saxony’s loyalty to the Kingdom of Prussia to which it was joined after Napoleon’s final defeat.
At the direction of the King of Prussia, a larger monument, the Schinkelpyramide, was built near the same spot. In 1985 it was removed to Grossgoerschen where it stood until quite recently. A remarkable piece, it has been taken for preservation to Leipzig and is expected to return in the Fall. The base on which the pyramid stood is still on the hill and now bears a commemorative inscription.
With the terrible bit out of the way, I am very pleased to report that the balance of the battlefield is in very fine shape. One thing that makes Grossgorschen a joy to visit is that no piece of the central quadrangle is more than a kilometer or two from another. Walking between them is simple and pleasant.
This was an intense battle. As mentioned above, the Allies caught the French initially by surprise, but did not press their advantage soon enough. This allowed Napoleon to order his army into counter-attack. What followed was hours of back-and-forth battle, most of it centered in the midst of the quadrangle. Villages changed hands several times, often after protracted periods of hand-to-hand combat.
At the village of Grossgoerschen, as at the others, the level of devastation is difficult to imagine. Even the most conservative estimates place the number of combatants at about 150,000 and some run as high as a quarter of a million; this in a relatively small battle space. Casualties are given as anywhere from 30,000-50,000. With rates that high, it is not surprising that the damage to infrastructure was significant as well. Most of the buildings had thatched roofs and accounts suggest that just about anything in the area that could be burned was on fire by day’s end.
There are survivors. This is the church at Grossgoerschen.
The tower was built in the 12th Century for secular purposes — local defense. It was not until the 15th Century that the church proper was erected. It appears in a number of depictions of the battle. The church in Kleingoerschen is similar. Likewise in Kaja there is the home at which Marshal Ney is said to have stayed. It has since been turned into an infrequently-open museum.
And, as ever on a battlefield visit, there are buildings and even walls that you wonder, based on their construction and condition, if they might have been there in the Spring of 1813.
Along with survivors, there are echos. Far and away my favorite was the orchards on the northeast side of Rahna. Ordinance survey maps platted not long after the battle show orchards in much the same location. I would also note that they helped me understand why orchards ought not give excessive amounts of cover, and certainly no protection, in tactical games like “Chain of Command”, but I digress.
As to walking the battlefield, each of the quadrangle’s four sides is rewarding in its own way. This is the road from Grossgoerschen to Rahna, facing west. Allied troops would have attacked perpendicular to its course, moving from right to left, particularly in the early going.
My favorite segment is the longer, L-shaped walk from Rahna to Kaja. If Grossgoerschen was a sanguinary tug-of-war, Kaja was the one place the Allies could never quite take to seal their victory. Despite their initial surprise attack, dilatory behavior on the Allies’ part followed by a more decisive response from Napoleon, gave the French an opportunity to fortify the area around Kaja, funnel troops from behind it and points further west, and eventually win.
With Kaja just out of shot to the right, this is the view to the northwest towards the ridge where the French posted a large battery to pound the center of the quadrangle.
Taken from the opposite angle from that above, this is the view from the same road into the heart of the quadrangle.
And this is a panoramic shot of the same view. French reinforcements, large numbers of Young Guard, would have poured into this space to resist Allied attacks and attempt to seize both Rahna and Grossgoerschen.
This is the road from Kleingoerschen to Kaja, facing the latter. There is a famous depiction of Prussian troops trying to force their way into the village and it would likely have been along this path.
Probably the best-known monument on this battlefield is that to the great Prussian military reformer, General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst. Among many other achievements, he is credited as the creator of the legendary Prussian staff system. He was seconded to the Russian army with Blucher’s consent and was talking to Wittgenstein at a spot very near where his monument now stands when he was wounded in the foot. The injury itself was not severe, but, as often was the case, it became infected and he died several weeks later in Prague, still trying to convince the Austrians to return to the war against Napoleon.
Before leaving Grossgoerschen for Bautzen, I wanted to post just one more example of how much Napoleon remains with us. This mural is painted on the wall of a home in Kaja, a little way down the road from the Ney museum mentioned earlier. Remember, this is painted on the home within a German village, ravaged by Napoleon’s wars, on the site of a battle that marks one of the earliest successes of the Befreiungskrieg. I note that it was a success not because the battle was won, it was not. It was a success because the Allies, particularly the Prussians, were acknowledged to have fought well. Further, Napoleon, due to a lack of horses caused by the Russian disaster, could not follow up his victory. Even here, one could be forgiven for thinking the Emperor had won.
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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.