Sheer Weight of Numbers
It is important to note that the Coalition’s victory was due to the weight of numbers, which led to a grueling battle fought over four days; 16-19 October. In the south of Leipzig on Day One, Napoleon ordered a barrage of cannonballs in a bid to immobilize the Russians. The Coalition forces exhausted themselves trying to cross the River Elster to the West, but Napoleon was unable to launch his major attack quickly enough because, as was the case at Waterloo, the early arrival of an enemy turned the tide.
Blucher surprised the French by arriving at 10 am so Napoleon had to delay his general attack until 2 pm. The Austrians arrived to support Russian divisions at Wachau and eventually, the day ended in a âdraw,’ bad news for Napoleon since the Coalition had at least 100,000 fresh troops to come. Day Two saw a pause in proceedings as the allies waited for reinforcements. Napoleon was expecting Saint-Cyr to arrive from Dresden, but crucially, he did not come.
Although Day Three began with both forces in similar positions to Day One, the allies attacked north and south Leipzig simultaneously. Moreover, Bernadotte was arriving from the north with 30,000 men, and another 60,000 of his troops were approaching the East of the battlefield. Napoleon refused to retreat, but by now, he was outnumbered almost two to one and in danger of being surrounded. A lack of ammunition was also a problem; Napoleon later claimed that he could have saved everything if he had an extra 30,000 rounds. As Bernadotte did not arrive on time, and the Russians lost a lot of men when attacking Halle gate, Day Three drew to a close with no decisive outcome.
This state of affairs changed on Day Four when Napoleon finally elected to retreat. The Coalition breached the Halle gate and were within shooting distance of the Elster Bridge by midday. This chain of events hampered the French retreat and a moment of chaos ruined everything. A French corporal was supposed to blow up the Elster Bridge when the French had fled, but he did it too soon and caused the capture of 30,000 men. Overall, the French lost anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 men; the game was up for Napoleon.
Napoleon managed one more brilliant move while retreating. A 50,000-man Bavarian force under the command of Wrede blocked the French retreat near Hanau. Led by General Drouot, the French attacked their enemy and destroyed almost all of Wrede’s force. Napoleon and his entourage returned to Paris in the knowledge that their dreams of European conquest were all but over.
A large percentage of his remaining troops deserted before they even crossed the French border and in early 1814, the Coalition forces invaded Paris. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, and while he returned for one last hurrah, his military career finally ended at the Battle of Waterloo.
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