September 26, 2023

Travels in Europe ~ Leipzig & The East, Part 3

Jim Owczarski, 30 August 2023

The Battle of Bautzen is now at the top of my list of Napoleonic battles that no one studies and everyone should. Perhaps I am overreacting, but I do not fear contradiction when I say that the ratio of books written and games played on the topic of Austerlitz, Waterloo, or even Leipzig versus the events of 20-21 May 1813 is wildly disproportional.  And, no, I am not talking about this battle.

It is bad enough when you are trying to study the 1813 Battle of Dresden and all anyone wants to talk about is February 1945, only to go to the lovely German town and everyone thinks you are hunting the ghosts of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.

Here is some preliminary reading on today’s topic.  There will be a quiz.

Leipzig is, of course, the largest battle in European history prior to World War I.  Bautzen gets into the strong honorable mention category with, by some estimates, nearly 300,000 combatants.  It was larger than Borodino, might have been larger than Dresden, and compares favorably with Wagram.  It is, in some ways, Napoleon’s last great victory, if an incomplete one, and as a narrative offers a compelling story.  And, pertinent to the present exercise, the battlefield is largely still all there to see.

I would like to begin, though, with the town itself.  With fewer than 40,000 present inhabitants, Bautzen has nonetheless been around for a long time.  Currently the capital of Upper Lusatia and considered the capital of the Sorbs, archeological evidence suggests settlement as far back as the Stone Age.  As Wikipedia would tell you, in 1018 the German king Henry II and the Polish ruler Boleslaw I, “The Brave” signed the Peace of Bautzen, leaving the town under Polish rule.

Straight out of Warhammer, say I.


With a main castle situated above the valley of the River Spree, narrow streets lined with small shops, and an easier pace than the larger cities, it has the “old German charm” that many seem to seek in their vacations.

Straight off the postcard.




It leans approximately 1.4 meters off true.


Credit where due, it also hosts the Cathedral of St. Peter one of the first simultaneum mixtum churches.  It began offering, within the same building, both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran services only seven years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

It leans approximately 1.4 meters off true.


Bautzen’s position above the Spree was certainly one of the reasons the Allies thought to withdraw there after their defeat at Grossgoerschen.  Another was its proximity to the Austrian border.  Francis was still nominally Napoleon’s ally and most definitely his father-in-law, but his government had already communicated its willingness to join the fight against France given sufficient time.  It was thought that positioning the Allied army so close by might hurry matters along.

The Allies, though beaten, fell back from the Battle of Grossgoerschen in good order.  Napoleon had very few cavalry to hand, 1812 being what it was, and he failed to turn their retreat into the rout it might have been.  Retreating the Allies were, though, and it was only the combined orders of the Tsar and the King of Prussia that brought General Wittgenstein to halt at Bautzen.  Wittgenstein established a front line defense that ran for some seven miles.  It anchored its left on Bautzen itself and its right on a number of small lakes that were used as fish ponds.  When Napoleon approached, he overestimated the strength of the Allies, delaying the start of his attack.

When the battle began on 20 May, Bautzen really became the tale of two battles.  The first, indecisive, battle is largely covered by the first day.  Napoleon’s intention was to convince the Allies that he was attacking their left, persuade them to draw reinforcements to that flank, pound their center with a grand battery, and then send the entire corps of Marshal Ney on a long march around their right, eventually cutting off their line of retreat.

The defenses established by Wittgenstein in preparation for the battle as well as the terrain served the Allies well almost everywhere as the attack began.  This is the view looking north from the Monarchenhuegel from which King Friedrich Wilhelm III and Tsar Alexander I watched the early portion of the battle.  Well defended and with 40,000 troops in the vicinity, the progress of the French against it was slow.

That’s Bautzen straight on.


Further to the Allies’ right, Marshal Soult made, in Napoleon’s view, frustratingly slow progress advancing over the Spree and the nearby fish ponds in the face of strong resistance from Blucher’s Prussians who were positioned near the Village of Kreckwitz.

On the Allied left, however, matters were different.  This is a view part the way up the Schmoritzberg right above the Village of Pielitz which anchored the Allied left.


In the early going, Marshal MacDonald’s troops drove the Allied defenders back from the Spree and pushed them from left to right in this picture.  It took some time and no small amount of reinforcement from the Tsar to stabilize matters and drive them back.  What followed was a swirl of fights around the villages on this flank, with MacDonald’s force dividing around one of the large hills in the area and fighting along a line running all the way from Pielitz to Jenkwitz and the Monarchenhuegel.  This convinced the Tsar of precisely what Napoleon wanted him to believe and he began to feed reinforcements to his left over the strenuous objections of a number of his commanders.  All this while, Marshal Ney was marching deliberately to the Allied rear.

21 May could have been a victory for Napoleon of the scale of Austerlitz.  Had his plan gone forward as he intended, he would have trapped and destroyed most of the Allied army which could only have compelled Prussia to withdraw from belligerence.  One can only guess what Alexander I would have done, but, with Austria certain to remain neutral, there would have been no Leipzig.  So great were the stakes and so much was lost, or gained, I suppose, depending on one’s perspective.

As written above, the Tsar had been doing his best to ensure the stability of his left.  This left MacDonald and the other commanders on the French right in a series of difficult fights over the hills and villages that dot the entire battle space.  In the center, Soult, Marmont, and elements of the Young Guard, supported by a grand battery, were continuing their push on the well-prepared center of the Allied lines.  Eventually, they forced the Prussians under York and Blucher to turn their line from east-west to north-south facing west to meet Marmont’s attack on the Kreckwitz Heights from their left.

Though obscured by trees, this is a view from the Kreckwitz Heights looking towards Bautzen.  Marmont’s attack would have been coming this way.


This is the monument on the Kreckwitz Heights in honor of the Prussian defenders.


Napoleon had told Marmont and Ney that the final push against the heights would begin at 11 a.m. with Ney seizing the town of Preititz to the right of the Prussians.  Ney had been marching for some time over the past two days, crossing the Spree at Klix and making his way in a wide arc around the Allied right.

This is the point at which Ney would have crossed.  Bridge, of course, modern.


He then marched to the Village of Gleina where he climbed up the Windmill Hill there and viewed the situation.  This view would not have been his, but it is taken a fair distance up the south face of the Windmill Hill looking towards Hochkirch.


Ney’s orders, admittedly a bit imprecise, were to march due south.  He could clearly, however, hear and see the attack on the Kreckwitz Heights to the right of this photograph.  As a result, he sent a token force against Preititz, which should have been his target on his way to Hochkirch, and instead pivoted far further to the west to assist in the assault on the heights.  Jomini excoriates him for this decision in his memoirs.

A panoramic shot of the same basic scene is presented in the hope of better clarifying:



This is where Ney should have been marching.  Also, as it turns out, the site of a significant battle during Frederick the Great’s Third Silesian War.


Preititz was eventually taken and the Kreckwitz Heights seized, but Blucher and the Allies generally were afforded their chance to escape.  Somewhat comically, Marmont’s and Ney’s men, coming from opposite directions, arrived on the heights nearly simultaneously and time had to be spent un-entangling them before beginning their pursuit.  The Allies were defeated and again in retreat, but not destroyed.  They petitioned for a ceasefire which Napoleon unwisely granted.  His last, best, chance to end the coalition had passed.

There are a number of monuments scattered throughout the area.  This one is to 23 French and Bavarian soldiers in the Village of Kubschutz.

Near a quiet cemetery.


One of the most unusual is that to Marshal Duroc in Markersdorf.  Geraud Duroc was the grand marshal of Napoleon’s palace and one of his last friends of long-standing.  The day after the Battle of Bautzen, he was standing with Napoleon and his staff when a Russian cannonball ricocheted off a nearby tree and disemboweled him, splattering Napoleon with blood and viscera.  He died shortly thereafter.  Napoleon, shaken by the incident, had him buried near the farmhouse where he died and then purchased both the grave site and the farm.  While it is now a cenotaph, Duroc’s remains having been removed to Les Invalides in Paris, the grave site has ever since been a piece of French territory within Germany.


And, as further evidence that Germans still love the Emperor, there is a resort hotel just down the road named after him.


One last note, if one looks to the Arc de Triomphe, the Battle of Bautzen does not appear.  The French took to naming it the Battle of Wurschen for the castle in the area where both the Allies and Napoleon spent time during the campaign.  It was the Allied headquarters on the run-up to the battle.  These days, it is has been turned to far more pastoral pursuits as it is a center for horticultural studies.


Next stop, Dresden, where discussion of firebombing will be kept to a bare minimum



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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.

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