Battle of Bautzen
Arc de Triomphe: BAUTZEN
May 20, 1813 - May 21, 1813
After the loss of the Battle of Lützen, the combined Russian and Prussian army of Prince Wittgenstein retreated eastward. Ordered to make a stand by Czar Alexander and the King of Prussia, Wittgenstein took up a defensive position at Bautzen and formed a line seven miles long.
On the 19th, Napoleon arrived on the scene and in his reconnaisance overestimated the strength of his enemies. While Napoleon estimated his enemies to have 150,000 soldiers, they only had 96,000 men and 450 guns. In contrast, the French soon had 115,000 men on the scene with 84,000 more approaching from the north in four corps under the overall command of Marshal Ney. As the French corps began to arrive, Marmont's VI Corps and Macdonald's XI Corps formed the center, while Oudinot's XII Corps held the right to the south and Bertrand's IV Corps held the left to the north. Ney's III Corps and Lauriston's V Corps were approaching from the north to form the extreme left, and they were supported by Victor's II Corps and Reynier's VII Corps. The Imperial Guard were kept in reserve to be used as needed.
Later on the 19th, a force under Generals Barclay de Tolly and Yorck set forth from the Allied line to determine the French positions. Bertrand detached his Italian division to intercept them, but they were soon overrun. General Kellerman's cavalry quickly moved to stop the Allied force, and the advance elements of Ney's and Lauriston's corps also launched into an attack, forcing the Allies to retreat back to their lines.
The Emperor's battle plan was a sound one. Both flanks would attempt to envelop the Allied line, forcing the Allies to reinforce both ends of their line. After the Russians had sufficiently weakened their center in reinforcing their wings, Bertrand and Marshal Soult would attack the Allied right center, breaking the line at that point, while Ney moved his Corps into the enemy rear and cut off their line of retreat. Soult was specifically placed in charge of the French left center, for he was quite experienced with such maneuvers, having led a similar attack on the Pratzen Heights at the Battle of Austerlitz.
At noon on the 20th, the French artillery opened fire and at three in the afternoon the French began their attacks. Napoleon did not want to make significant progress on the 20th, instead he wanted to spend most the day weakening the Allied line and keeping them pinned, so Ney had time to move around the Allied line and into their rear. By six in the evening, the French had pushed the Allies back from all of their positions.
On the 21st, the battle resumed. The ferocity of Oudinot's attack the previous day had worried the Allies, and they reinforced their left to try and push Oudinot's XII Corps back. As Oudinot was pushed back, he requested reinforcements, but this was denied as it suited Napoleon's plans to have the Allies overextend their flanks.
As the fighting was growing more noticeable on the extreme left, Napoleon assumed that Ney was in position and so ordered Soult to take command of IV Corps and seize the Allied center right. The 20,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and 30 guns of IV Corps launched into a brutal attack against General Blucher's position and his key fort. Napoleon moved 60 guns of the Imperial Guard into a supporting position, and before long the fort was taken and Blucher was falling back. However, IV Corps could not find any good ground to deploy their artillery on for the next stage of the attack, and so the attack lost momentum.
At the same time, Ney was across Blucher's rear, but had not advanced far enough to cut off all of Blucher's avenues of escape. A series of mistakes and confusion had slowed the advance of his corps, and General Blucher managed to slip south past Ney's troops. Ney then made the mistake of ordering his men to attack the village of Preititz, a strongly defended village in his path. This was a mistake, as the village had little strategic value now that Blucher had moved south, and Ney could have ordered a small force to contain the city and otherwise bypassed it, continuing southward to follow his original objectives of blocking the enemy retreat and attacking their rear. In fact, his chief of staff Baron Jomini recommended he do this, but Ney ignored his advice and instead launched costly and slow assaults against the village, which were all repulsed. Finally Reynier arrived on the scene and rallied Souham's division, and these reinforcements were able to launch a decisive attack against the village, finally taking it hours later.
Back in the center, Napoleon was massing as many guns as he could to fire upon and destroy the Allied center. The Russian Imperial Guard held off the French attacks though, and only at four in the afternoon did the Russians begin to fall back. Soult continued to try and make a breakthrough, but was unable to truly break the Allied line. Finally, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to support Soult and these veterans made the critical breakthrough that broke the Allied line. However, the Allies ordered a retreat, and with the main road to the east still open and unhindered, successfully escaped from the trap Napoleon had laid for them, reputedly with every single one of their guns. The French tried to pursue, but all of the soldiers were tired due to the fighting, and the French lack of cavalry, most lost in the Russian campaign, made the pursuit less than vigorous.
A violent thunderstorm arrived that evening, further slowing any chance of pursuit. The next day the French resumed the pursuit, and a clash with the Allied rearguard unfortunately mortally wounded Napoleon's personal friend, General Duroc. The death of Duroc seemed to drain away the energy of Napoleon, and the French pursuit faltered more.
Nonetheless, the French had won a critical victory, driving the Allies back significantly and severely shaking their morale. A short time later the Allies requested an armistice, which was agreed to. Much as Bautzen was a great victory for the French, had Ney and Lauriston successfully blocked the Allied main line of retreat, it would have most likely resulted in the destruction of Wittgenstein's army, a huge victory much like Austerlitz or Friedland. Marshal Ney, perhaps realizing the impact of his mistakes, submitted his resignation, but the Emperor refused to accept it.
- Chandler, David G. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1979.
- Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1966.
Updated February 2014
© Nathan D. Jensen