Napoleon’s Last Great Victory: The Battle of Dresden

September 29, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: FranceNapoleonNapoleonic WarsBattle Of DresdenDresdenFrench Empire

Napoleon’s Last Great Victory: The Battle of Dresden

While Marshal Gouvion Saint-Cyr held off the Allies at Dresden, Napoleon force-marched three corps to the rescue. The next day, the emperor counter­attacked. It would prove to be his last significant triumph.

Key Point: For a brief moment it seemed as though Napoleon’s star was once again in the ascendant.

Marshal Gouvion Saint-Cyr was in a tight spot, and he knew it. It was the morning of August 26, 1813, and Saint-Cyr and his French XIV Corps were defending Dresden, the capital of Saxony, from a large and menacing Allied army that outnumbered his own by at least four to one. But if Saint-Cyr had any doubts about his ability to hold the city, he kept them to himself. Nicknamed “the Owl,” Saint-Cyr was an intellectual whose cold, efficient manner commanded respect, if not love, from his soldiers. The battle had started around 5 am, with Austro-Russian attacks increasing in scale and intensity. The French had been forced to give ground, but so far their strongpoints had held against all odds.

Fortifying the “Florence on the Elbe”

As the sun rose higher, Dresden was revealed in all its glory, a baroque gem of a city known far and wide as “Florence on the Elbe.” It was like a fairy tale come to life, with jewel-like palaces rising at every turn and the city skyline crowded with splendid church domes and fanciful towers that spiked the sky. Saint-Cyr had trained as a painter in his youth and was a fine musician. He might have appreciated the splendors all around him had he not been preoccupied with more urgent military matters.

Indeed, the arts of peace took second place to the necessities of war. A few weeks earlier, Napoleon had ordered a major strengthening of Dresden’s defenses. Dresden was a city of some 30,000 souls that straddled the Elbe River. The Altstadt, or Old City, and its patchwork quilt of suburbs lay on the left bank, while the smaller Neustadt (New City) nestled on the right bank. The Old City was ringed by a partly demolished medieval wall. Major streets were barricaded, houses were fitted with gun loopholes, and artillery platforms were erected. The Gross Garten, or Great Garden, a landscaped park that lay to the southeast, surrounded by a wall, guarded Dresden’s approaches in that direction and was considered a strongpoint.

Napoleon directed that the seven gates to the suburbs be blocked and the Pirna Gate be strengthened by excavating a ditch in front of it that could be filled with water. Saint-Cyr was counting primarily on the 13 redoubts that ringed the city like a necklace. So far, they had successfully stopped all Allied attacks—but how long could they hold out?

Shortly after 9 am, Saint-Cyr heard something between the booming cannon reports. At first indistinct, it became clearer as hundreds of soldiers took up the cry: “Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!” Saint-Cyr was elated. The swelling chorus of cheers meant only one thing—Napoleon had arrived in Dresden. With the emperor present, potential defeat might well be changed into victory. Napoleon’s charisma was so great that he instilled everyone, from Saint-Cyr down to the lowest private, with newfound confidence in their ultimate triumph.

Reeling From the Failed Russian Invasion

The contest for Dresden was part of Napoleon’s last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling remains of his grand empire. In 1812 he had invaded Russia with a multinational army of 600,000 men. The Russian campaign played out like a Greek tragedy: Napoleon’s hubris led to disaster. He lost more than 500,000 men in the debacle, as well as 200,000 trained cavalry, artillery, and transport horses. Ironically, the men could be replaced, but the horses could not. Cavalry was the eyes and ears of an army, the shock troops that galloped forward to clinch a victory when the enemy retreated. Napoleon’s relative lack of cavalry was to figure heavily in the 1813 campaign.

Eager to throw off the French yoke, Prussia joined Russia in what became the nucleus of the Sixth Coalition against France. In those early months of 1813, Austria remained neutral. In spite of its dynastic ties with Napoleon—Austrian-born duchess Marie Louise was his wife and empress—Austria had little love for the man they considered a Corsican upstart. By the same token, Vienna had little affection for Russia either, and feared czarist expansion into central Europe.

For the moment Vienna thought it wise to wait, using the time to play the role of honest broker between the opposing sides. Austria’s chief diplomat, Prince Clemens von Metternich, played his cards well, arranging a personal interview with Napoleon while secretly negotiating with Russia and Prussia. By the time the German campaign opened in April 1813, Napoleon had managed to muster an army numbering nearly 200,000 men and 372 guns—a miracle of improvisation under very trying circumstances. Yet on closer inspection, the new Grand Armée bore little resemblance to the famous Grand Armée that had won the Battles of Austerlitz, Jena, and Friedland only a few years earlier.

Napoleon glumly acknowledged his lack of cavalry. He wrote that he could finish matters very quickly “if only I had 15,000 more cavalry; but I am rather weak in that arm.” The army’s troubles went deeper than that. It took time to adequately train cavalry, and time was something in very short supply. Most of the troopers were young, and 80 percent had never even ridden a horse. They were hastily trained and barely knew such basic skills as taking care of a mount. The senior officers were veterans and the ranks were stiffened by old NCOs who had been promoted to lieutenants. In some cases, even retired officers were recalled to the colors.

The infantry wasn’t much better. Most were callow youths, eager but lacking the strength and stamina needed for a grueling campaign. An inspection report ruefully admitted that “some of the men are of rather weak appearance.” Barely out of their teens—and some much younger—they scarcely knew how to load and fire their Charleville muskets.

Even after the catastrophic Russian campaign, Napoleon’s name still retained much of its magic. If the emperor was with them, these young recruits were sure that France would emerge victorious. And despite their youth and inexperience, these new soldiers fought well. French officer Jean Barres recalled: “Our young conscripts behaved very well [in battle]; not one left the ranks. Our company was disorganized: it lost half its sergeants and corporals but we were confident in the genius of the emperor.”

Austria Joins the Sixth Coalition

In May 1813 Napoleon won two hard-fought battles at Lutzen and Bautzen, but the shortage of cavalry and the sheer exhaustion of his young conscripts prevented them from becoming decisive victories. In June the emperor agreed to an armistice. He later regretted the decision, calling it one of the worst mistakes in his career.

At the time there were good reasons to seek breathing space. The French had lost 25,000 men since the beginning of the campaign. Even more significantly, another 90,000 were on the sick lists. Thousands more were stragglers, not deserters but unable to keep up with the marching and countermarching through the length and breadth of Germany. The young recruits had fought well, but if the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak.

Negotiations with Austria soon broke down. Metternich, feeling that Napoleon was vulnerable, secretly cast his lot with the Allies. Austria in effect demanded that the Napoleonic empire be dismantled east of the Rhine. Prussia would be restored to its 1805 boundaries and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Confederation of the Rhine would be abolished.

The terms were purposely outrageous, and predictably Napoleon rejected them. On August 12, Austria declared war against France and formally joined the Sixth Coalition against the emperor. Sweden also joined the Allies, led by Swedish crown prince—and former French marshal—Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. Counting reserves and second-line troops, the coalition could now field some 800,000 men.

As always, Great Britain was the coalition’s paymaster. The island nation pledged two million pounds to Russia and Prussia, and Austria would also share in the largesse. Fueled by British gold and backed by enormous reserves of manpower, the Allies felt confident they could defeat France. But they were still fearful of Napoleon, and there was much debate in Allied headquarters about how to neutralize his genius on the battlefield.

The Allies would have three main field forces: the Army of the North, the Army of Silesia, and the Army of Bohemia. The Army of the North, some 110,000 Prussians and Swedes under the command of Crown Prince Bernadotte, would be in the Berlin region. Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher’s Army of Silesia (95,000 men) would be massed around Breslau. The main Allied force was the Army of Bohemia, 230,000 strong, led by Field Marshal Prince Karl Philip von Schwarzenberg.

Three Bothersome Monarchs

The Allies were divided on how to open the new phase of the campaign. Plans were put forward, only to be rejected after passionate squabbling. But one thing united all parties: a healthy fear of Napoleon’s genius. They had been given a bloody nose at Lutzen and Bautzen and were not anxious to repeat the experience. Eventually, a plan was adopted that grudgingly acknowledged the emperor’s gifts. The Allied armies would assiduously avoid battle if Napoleon was present, and if he was advancing in person with his main army they would retire as quickly as possible. Allied forces would threaten his line of communications and, if possible, defeat Napoleon’s subordinates whenever an opportunity to do so presented itself.