The Battle of Leipzig: What You Don’t Know About the Fall of Napoleon

Napoleon - Smithsonian Magazine

Up until the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and his Grand Armee looked invincible. However, his invasion of Russia proved disastrous, and at Borodino, on September 7, 1812, he lost up to 35,000 men and almost 50 generals. Although he captured Moscow after that, the bitter Russian winter obliterated his army. When it was all said and done, the Grand Armee had lost almost 400,000 men at the end of the campaign and Napoleon had to return to France and lick his wounds.

Despite this setback, however, Napoleon was still a grave threat to Europe and had yet to be decisively defeated in battle. Even so, the armies of France were on the retreat across Europe, so several of Europe’s biggest powers combined to form the Sixth Coalition. By working together, the Coalition was able to muster up an enormous amount of resources, and ultimately, it was able to use sheer weight of numbers to beat Napoleon. The French Emperor quickly rebuilt his army after the Russian fiasco and was confident he could defeat the might of the Coalition. He was proven wrong, and at the Battle of Leipzig, his first major loss was the start of his downfall.

Napoleon painting – National Interest

Background

When Napoleon lost most of his army in Russia, some may have thought there was a possibility it would mark the end of his attempts at conquest. They were dead wrong as the setback only served to increase his determination. Unbeknownst to him, Prussia was already taking steps to abandoning its alliance with the French. On December 30, 1812, the Prussian General von Wartenberg, who led a group of 15,000 German auxiliaries in Napoleon’s army, declared a ceasefire with the Russians in the Convention of Tauroggen.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was able to raise a large army in quick time. During his campaigns, he had been able to call on his allies for support, so there was still a large number of available Frenchmen. By the end of March 1813, he had around 200,000 men marching on the Elbe. He would need these extra troops because, in February, Prussia had signed the Treaty of Kalisz with Russia which formalized their alliance. On March 17, Prussia declared war on France while Britain sent 23,000 men, along with munitions, to Russia and Prussia.

Battle of Leipzig – Wikipedia

Napoleon began his Spring Campaign in April and marched into Germany. At this point, the allies were unable to generate more than 200,000 men and elected to bide their time and avoid facing Napoleon in open battle for the time being. The Battle of Lutzen on May 2 was the first major fight of the German Campaign and ended in a victory for Napoleon with the aid of the Duchy of Warsaw. However, he was not able to pursue the combined Prussian and Russian forces due to heavy losses.

Nonetheless, the Russian-Prussian army was in full retreat and was eventually chased by Napoleon and Marshal Ney. At the Battle of Bautzen on May 20-21, the French won again but suffered over 20,000 casualties. It is claimed that Ney may have failed to block their retreat which robbed the French of complete victory. On June 4, Napoleon signed the Armistice of Pleischwitz which was extended to August 10. He hoped to use the time to increase his troop and cavalry numbers while also training his men. The allies also used their time well and, boosted by Austria joining the Coalition; they were ready for the French when hostilities resumed.