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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Bautzen

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Battle of Bautzen: Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Bautzen was fought May 20-21, 1813, during the War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon (1812-1814).

Armies & Commanders

French

  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Marshal Michel Ney
  • 115,000 men

    Prussians & Russians

  • Count Gebhard von Blucher
  • Prince Peter Wittgenstein
  • 96,000 men

  • Battle of Bautzen - Background:

    Falling back from their defeat at Lutzen on May 2, 1813, the combined Prussian and Russian army was ordered to halt at Bautzen by King Frederick William III and Tsar Alexander I. Possessing around 96,000 men, the Allies established a strong position on the heights behind the River Spree and anchored on Bautzen. It was the hope of Prince Peter Wittgenstein and Count Gebhard von Blucher that a prepared position would offset Napoleon Bonaparte's numerical advantage if the French leader attacked. If that situation occurred, they intended to halt the assault before counterattacking and driving the French back (Map).

    Approaching Bautzen with around 115,000 men, Napoleon sought to achieve a crushing victory that would knock the Allies out of the war. Arriving with the corps of Henri Bertrand, Auguste Marmont, Jacques Macdonald, and Nicolas Oudinot, Napoleon intended to fix Wittgenstein and Blucher in place until Marshal Michel Ney arrived with an additional 84,000 men. Approaching form the north, Napoleon intended for Ney to attack the Allied rear and cut off their line of retreat. Assessing the Allied position, he found that they had constructed extensive earthworks on the opposite bank of the Spree.

    Battle of Bautzen - The Fighting Begins:

    Awaiting news from Ney, Napoleon delayed until noon on May 20 before ordering attacks to commence against the Allied lines. These began with Oudinot striking the Allied left on the heights south of Bautzen. To the north, the capture of the town was entrusted to Macdonald and Marmont, while Bertrand was instructed to assault the heights around Burk. Moving forward, Oudinot's attack succeeded in drawing in the Allied reserves as fighting intensified. In Bautzen, Allied troops initially were able to hold back MacDonald, but were forced back when Marmont's assault came in from the north around 1:00 PM.

    By 4:00 PM, using temporary bridges and fords, the French were across the Spree in force and had taken the town. In doing so, they forced Allied troops under Prince Eugen of Wurttemberg to retire back to a ridge between Auritz and Jenkwitz. To the north, Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult oversaw the Bertrand's assault on Prussian troops led by General Johann von Yorck. Making little headway, he reinforced and renewed the attack late in the afternoon. This was more successful and he captured a series of villages. Advancing as far as Pleifskowtiz, they forced Allied troops under General Friedrich von Kleist to withdraw.

    Battle of Bautzen - An Opportunity Missed:

    In assessing the situation, the Allied command believed that Oudinot's advance in the south represented the main French thrust. Acting on this, they launched a counterattack around 7:00 PM which drove the lead French division, led by General Guillaume de Latrille, comte de Lorencez, back to Denkwitz. Far to the north, Ney was approaching the battlefield and drove back Russian forces at Klix. This allowed his men to begin crossing the Spree. In the morning, the Allies renewed their attack on Lorencez and gained back some ground. At 6:00 AM, Oudinot countered with MacDonald in support.

    Overwhelmed, the Russians were forced to fall back, ceding the heights between Daranitz and Rabitz. This ground was swiftly occupied by MacDonald's artillery which went into action. By 10:00 AM, the French guns supported by the infantry had taken control of the southern part of the field, forcing the Allied left to retire. With the situation critical, Tsar Alexander ordered further Allied reserves south to stem Oudinot's advance. Done against Wittgenstein’s wishes, these forces halted the French advance and put them under heavy pressure. Requesting reinforcements, Oudinot was told to hold by Napoleon.

    While fighting raged on the left, Marmont began shifting his men north to support Soult and Ney. Able to hear the fighting, Ney paused during the morning as his orders from Napoleon were unclear. This pause to clarify his orders would ultimately prove critical. Finally advancing from Klix, Ney's command drove back the Russian forces on their front. Alerted to the threat on their right, the Allies fought a series of delaying actions as they worked to escape Napoleon's trap. Falling back, the troops of General Barclay de Tolly abandoned the village of Preititz which threatened Blucher's line of retreat.

    A swift counterattack re-took the village for the Allies. Rather than work to cut off the Allies' lines of retreat, Ney became involved in a battle for Preititz. After heavy fighting, the French captured the village. Hearing the fighting on Ney's front, Napoleon sent forward the Imperial Guard against the heights west of Kreckwitz. Under attack on multiple fronts, Blucher and Yorck were forced to follow the remainder of the army in retreat. Escaping east, the Allies' withdrawal was covered by cavalry.

    Battle of Bautzen - Aftermath:

    Though another victory for Napoleon, the Battle of Bautzen failed to deliver the decisive result he was seeking. Worsening the situation was the loss of his close friend General Geraud Duroc who was mortally wounded in the fighting. In the wake of Bautzen, Wittgenstein was relieved in favor of de Tolly and relations between the Russians and Prussians soured. On June 2, the Coalition requested a seven-week truce with Napoleon. This was agreed to two days later and the resulting Armistice of Pleischwitz halted the fighting. During the interlude, the Allies worked to reorganize, while Napoleon sought to train and augment his forces. Casualties numbers for Bautzen are disputed and range from 11,000-20,000 for the Allies and 20,000-30,000 for the French.

    Selected Sources

  • Napoleon Guide: Battle of Bautzen
  • Battle of Bautzen
  • Harvey, Robert. (2006) War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France, 1789-1815. New York: Carroll & Graf.

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