Incompetence That Shaped History

Battle of Leipzig. Weapons and Warfare

39. Surviving the Battle of the Nations

Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign culminated in the Battle of the Nations, so called because it was fought by contingents from many countries. Fought near Leipzig from October 16th to 19th 1813, it pitted 225,000 men under Napoleon against a multinational coalition army of 380,000 men. Napoleon held his own until the 18th, when 10,000 Saxon allies suddenly switched sides, abandoned their positions in Napoleon’s lines, and marched off to join his foes.

With a gaping hole now suddenly appearing in his lines, Napoleon had to abandon an entire sector. By nightfall, his position had become untenable, so he ordered an orderly retreat. Without alerting the enemy, Napoleon began withdrawing his forces across the nearby Elster River, using a single bridge in Leipzig. It was to be blown after the last of Napoleon’s men had crossed to prevent the enemy from using it. Things went smoothly at first, until incompetence struck.