In This Article Battle of Leipzig

  • Introduction
  • Eyewitness Accounts
  • Strategic Commentary
  • Coalition Warfare
  • Leipzig and the Wars of Liberation in Memory
  • The Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Grandiose Monument to the Battle

Military History Battle of Leipzig
by
John H. Gill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0126

Introduction

The largest military engagement in 19th Europe, the Battle of Leipzig was fought from 16 to 19 October 1813 following a major preliminary clash on the 14th. The battle marked the climax of the campaigns in Germany that began in the wake of Napoleon’s disaster in Russia in 1812. Early in 1813, Russian forces, soon joined by the revitalized Prussian army, pursued the defeated French into central Germany. Napoleon, however, assembled a large but raw army and won two incomplete victories in May 1813 before exhaustion led both sides to accept an armistice over the summer. The renewal of fighting in August saw another partial victory by the French emperor at Dresden, but his subordinates elsewhere suffered crippling defeats and, by mid-September, he was withdrawing to concentrate in a central position near Leipzig. Austria and Sweden had joined the coalition against Napoleon (the Sixth Coalition or simply the “Allies”) during the armistice and the converging Allied armies caught up with the French in mid-October. The congregation of troops was immense: the French and their various satellite contingents numbered more than 190,000, while the Allies brought some 350,000 to the field. These vast forces made Leipzig the largest European battle prior to the First World War. The colorful mix of armies quickly led observers to refer to Leipzig as the “Battle of Nations” or Völkerschlacht. Leipzig was also unusual in its duration: a cavalry clash on 14 October being followed by four days of battle from the 16th to the 19th. Napoleon lost his only real chance for victory when fighting on the 16th proved bloody but inconclusive. After a pause on 17 October, the final two days consisted of concentric Allied blows against fierce resistance, but the French defense collapsed when the bridge that constituted the sole French line of retreat was prematurely destroyed. Thousands of men were trapped in the city and forced to surrender as Napoleon retreated toward the Rhine. Casualties in the four days of carnage were enormous, estimated at more than 60,000 killed, wounded, or captured on the French side against Allied losses of 46,000. The Allied victory was decisive. Napoleon’s empire in Germany was gone forever and he would abdicate only five months after Leipzig. Beyond its significance for the military-political history of the Napoleonic era, the battle became a central point in the “Wars of Liberation” (Befreiungskriege), a potent symbol in the development of German nationalism and political consciousness. Assigned different meanings by monarchists, constitutionalists, Nazis, and Communists over the years, the commemorative events on the 200th anniversary in 2013 transformed the grand bloodletting into a celebration of European unity.

Campaign and Battle Histories

Despite its size and significance, the number of relatively recent (that is, 20th-century) book-length studies specifically dedicated to the Battle of Leipzig is surprisingly small. Even the many works prompted by commemorations of the battle tend to be very general (placing the battle in the grand sweep of German history) or narrowly regional (e.g., stories of particular individuals or localities). To find detailed military accounts of Leipzig in most cases, therefore, the interested researcher must turn both to larger works covering the entire war of 1813 in Germany and to publications predating the First World War. Embedding Leipzig in its campaign context is a useful precondition to understanding the battle, but the relative paucity of focused studies (contrast this circumstance, for instance, with the innumerable books on Waterloo) means that important military details are often submerged or missing in broad-brush outline treatments. It is worth noting in this connection that the phrase “Leipzig campaign” is often loosely used as a rubric for the entire war from the spring through the autumn of 1813. A more precise and useful analytic approach is to consider the war as consisting of two broad phases (spring and autumn) divided by the summer armistice, with each phase including several campaigns of varying scope and duration; this approach is also more consistent with modern military terminology. Nonetheless, the literature on 1813 overall is enormous and the bibliographies Loh 1963 and Mannschatz and Walter 1988, though now sadly dated, can help locate many otherwise obscure pieces on the Battle of Leipzig, especially within the vast sea of 19th-century military history and regional studies periodicals.

  • Loh, Gerhard. Die Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig: Eine bibliographische Übersicht. Leipzig: Der Deutschen Bücherei, 1963.

    E-mail Citation »

    Well organized and especially valuable for the listing of small but helpful pieces in recondite German periodicals from the 19th century as well as commemorative publications.

  • Mannschatz, Hans-Christian, and Ursula Walter. Sachsen und Leipzig in den Jahren 1806 bis 1815: Herausgegeben anlässlich des 175. Jahrestagung der Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig. Leipzig: Stadts- und Bezirksbibliothek und Museum für Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides sources on the battle that were published after Loh 1963 as well as a broader coverage of topics related to Saxony during the entire period of its involvement with Napoleonic France (1806–1815).

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