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The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VI: Battle of Leipzig

The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VI: Battle of Leipzig

The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau; Chapter VI

IV: Battle of Leipzig (16, 17, 18, 19 October).

Translated by Greg Gorsuch

To face the Army of Bohemia, to which Schwarzenberg brought 160,000 soldiers to the front of Großpösna, Güldengossa and Großdeuden, south of Leipzig, the Emperor relied on 115,000 men on the three villages of Liebertwolkwitz, Wachau and Markkleeberg; to the north, Marmont established himself on the road to Halle, at Möckern and Eutritzsch: Ney would come to extend his right, and their 40,000 united soldiers would fight against the 60,000 men of Blücher who would subsequently reinforce Bernadotte’s army. Leipzig was occupied by the 4th Corps and the Margaron Division; finally, the 1st and 14th Corps, with Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, immobilized part of the Austrian army in front of Dresden.

On 15 October, Marchand’s division bivouacked at Taucha, in sight of Leipzig; on the 16th it was posted to Holzhausen when the battle began; at nine o’clock in the morning, the Army of Bohemia advanced where Augereau formed our right, the Prince of Württemberg threatened Wachau, our center, where Victor was established; finally Klenau rushed on Liebertwolkwitz, our left fulcrum, occupied by Lauriston’s troops; Macdonald, on the far left, held Zuckelhausen and Holzhausen.

Around eleven o’clock, Marchand engaged near Liebertwolkwitz, covered by a battery of 12 and the 5th Regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval. The Hessian Brigade was deployed facing the Callenberg, its right wing resting on the road of Laußig; to its right, the Charpentier Division stormed the Callenberg from where the Austrians were driven out with enormous losses and seized an enemy battery: the battalions of Prince Emile immediately came to occupy the position conquered from the Austrian regiment of Jordis, and the French engineers were employed to turn over the breast works which the enemy had built there. In the evening, the Hessian battery established on the slopes of Callenberg in the middle of a mass of killed and wounded Austrians, stopping an opposing column which it prevented from leaving the woods. The division bivouacked on the spot. In this first day of the battle, the French army repelled all the attacks of the allies and retained all its positions.

The Hessian Light Horse, since the failure of Marshal Ney in his movement on Berlin, had followed the 4th Corps; at Trebitz, near Wittenberg, on 21 September, the regiment numbered only 200 horses; it took part in a great reconnaissance carried out on the left bank of the Elbe towards Wartenburg (27 September) and in the capture of this city (29th) then, it established itself near there, in Bösertiz. When the Yorck Corps, of Blücher’s army, forced the passage of the Elbe at Wartenburg, it strongly pressed the Italian Fontanelli Division of the 4th Corps, which General Beaumont was responsible for supporting with the regiments of the Wolf Brigade and another cavalry brigade: the Prussian artillery having caused these two brigades to suffer considerable losses, Beaumont had to give them the order to beat a retreat; the Darmstadt light horse, attacked during the execution of this movement by the Prussian Black Hussars, lost 50 prisoners:  this unfortunate incident was gloriously compensated by the brilliant action accomplished by Lieutenant Glock, detached with 30 Hessian horsemen near General Fontanelli, who recovered from the enemy two pieces of cannon lost by the Italian Division. Beaumont, whose squadrons were on 10 October at Schilda and on 13 October at Düben, arrived on the 14th at Leipzig and Lindenau, and shared with the 4th Corps the mission of guarding the army’s retreat route on Lützen and Weissenfels.

Gyulay’s Austrian corps had moved on Lindenau during the day of 16 October, threatening our line of retreat; but Bertrand, leaving the Leipzig with the 4th Corps and the Wolf brigade, had held it in check.

October 17th was a day of rest for the two armies: the reserves were getting closer, the ammunition was replenished, everything was being prepared for a fierce resumption of the fight.

During the night of the 17th to the 18th, Macdonald’s corps took a position a little behind: at four o’clock in the morning, Prince Emile silently abandoned Callenberg, had Holzhausen occupied by du Corps Regiment, Zuckelhausen by the 1st Battalion of the Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion of Guards the 2nd Battalion of Guards with a French Navy battery was located behind this village; finally, between Zuckelhausen and Holzhausen, the ground was filled by the Hessian tirailleurs and the voltigeurs of Baden.







  1. — Marshal MacDonald (Based on an engraving from the time)




Around eight o’clock, the Army of Bohemia, reinforced by the two corps of Bennigsen and Colloredo which had been left in front of Dresden, took the offensive in three masses of 60,000 men each: a column of grenadiers attacked Holzhausen, but it was repulsed by the 11th Corps; meanwhile Poniatowski and Augereau fought at Delitzsch and Dösen and fell back on Connewitz; Victor was in Probstheida; Lauriston, in the 2nd line at Stötteritz; Marmont and Ney fought in the north against Blücher and Bernadotte and only slowly ceded the ground, despite the betrayal of the Saxon army which passed on the battlefield into the ranks of allies!…

At eleven o’clock, the battle was general: 2,000 guns thundered without interruption… The Hessian battery had not stopped its fire since the morning and suffered a lot from that of the enemy who ended up outflanking the line of the 11th Corps: the order was then given to fall back; making a front on three sides against the enemy which menaced their wings, the battalions of Darmstadt reunited behind Zuckelhausen; formed into squares at the approach of the Austrian cavalry, they arrived in front of Stötteritz at one o’clock in the evening and received the compliments of Marshal Macdonald.

But soon the corps of Zieten, Klenau and Bennigsen debouched from Zuckelhausen, Holzhausen and Paunsdorf: the 24 artillery pieces of the division, reinforced by a battery of 12 of the Imperial Guard, again entered into action against the enemy masses whose powerful batteries inflicted heavy losses on the 1st Fusilier Battalion. Faced with the imminent danger which threatened our line, the Emperor arrived at Stötteritz with part of the Guard: he launched Murat in a charge, to the right of the village, with a division of cuirassiers: the enemy fell back: Stötteritz was set on fire by the artillery of the allies, which raged: the Hessians saw many killed or wounded fall from their ranks: Captain von Erbach, Aide-de-Camp to Prince Emile, had his head taken off by a cannonball. cannon… Russian skirmishers had slipped in near the village and their fire became troublesome: the 1st Battalion of Fusiliers would flush them out and bring back prisoners, helped by the 8th Hussars, – a regiment with which the Hessian fusiliers got acquainted in Hungary in 1809. The Darmstadt battery, of which the captain was wounded, was established on the height of Stötteritz: as the French cannonballs which it received the day before from Leipzig, during supply, were a little too big for the Hessian guns, they were sometimes caught in the middle of barrel; also, only 3 pieces were able to fire until the evening; however, the battery fired 855 rounds during the day.

At Lindenau, the 4th Corps cleared the army’s retreat route; the Wolf brigade, with 2 Württemberg regiments, served as support for 2 mounted batteries established at Plagwitz, south of Lindenau; the cavalry took many prisoners; the Hessian light horse still had 150 horses in the ranks.

On the night of 18-19, the retreat to Leipzig began. The Hessian battery received the order to join the reserve park: it arrived in front of Leipzig, entered it by the Dresden Gate, crossed the city at a gallop, left it by the Ranstadt Gate and took the road to Weissenfels: only 2 pieces remained with Prince Emile’s brigade.

On the 19th, at daybreak, Marchand’s division began its retrograde march; the 7th, 8th and 11th Corps had the task of maintaining the enemy while the army would flow to the other side of the Elster: the numbers were greatly reduced by the last days of the struggle; since the betrayal of the Saxons, the 7th Corps no longer included only the Durutte Division… The Hessians were placed in front of the gate of Grimma, which was guarded by the Baden of the Count von Hochberg.

Blücher thought that a summons would suffice to make us lay down our arms: his negotiator did not go far: he was shamefully driven out by our outposts… It was not courage; it was the number which was lacking that day…[1]

Around nine o’clock, the allies carried out a concentric attack on the city of Leipzig in large masses: the shells rained on the Hessians, whom Prince Emile led to a more sheltered position on the promenade which separated the city from the suburbs; the 1st Battalion of Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion of the Guards pushed back for a moment the enemy who forced the gate of Kohlgarten: but the Swedes took these battalions from behind… The Regiment du Corps fortunately released them.

At noon, we abandoned the suburbs; two grape shots fired by the Hessian pieces made the assailants retreat further; meanwhile the Swedish artillery arrived, so that the attack was resumed by the allies on the gate of Grimma, where Baden and Hessian competed in courage and devotion. The two pieces of Hessian cannon that remained with the brigade were heading towards the Elster bridge, from which they were only a few meters away, when the latter blew up… The Hessian artillerymen then spiked their two pieces, crossed Elster swimming and rejoined their battery in Lützen the next day.

Finally yielding to numbers, the Hessians retreated while fighting in the streets of the city; the Austrians had already entered through the Saint Peter Gate and had reached the market place… the Prussians were also emerging from all sides… Prince Emile could no longer continue a fight that had become useless: he ordered a cease fire, stopped and assembled what remained of soldiers, had their arms piled: 45 officers and 200 men were thus taken prisoner; in the three days of the battle the contingent of Darmstadt lost 3 officers and 22 men killed, 12 officers and 169 soldiers wounded, without counting more than 150 missing men; the 1st Fusilier Bataillon had only two-thirds of its strength; the Regiment du Corps numbered on the morning of 16 October, 20 officers and 440 men; of this number 16 officers and 81 soldiers were prisoners, all the rest were killed, wounded or disappeared… the two flags of the regiment, torn and buried in Leipzig, did not fall into the hands of the enemy.

The battle cost the French 20,000 hors-de-combat and 30,000 prisoners – including 12,000 as a result of the premature explosion of the Elster bridge: the allies had 80,000 killed or wounded, and as trophies, 60 pieces of cannon, including 2 Hessian lost in the circumstances that we have just recalled.

The army took the road to Weissenfels on which the 4th Corps preceded it, with the Hessian Light Horse reduced to 100 cavalry. The Hessian battery joined our retreating troops which arrived in Freiburg on 21 October: there, the Young Guard and the Guilleminot Division stopped the pursuit of the cavalry of Yorck and Gyulay on the Unstrut; On the 24th we reached Erfurt and the 25th at Gotha: it was on that day, at Hünefeld, that the Darmstadt battery fired its last cannon shots at the Cossacks. Via Buttelstedt and Eisenach, on the 26th, we reach Fulde, and on the 28th, Hanau; the Hessians, to the left of the army column, took no part in the battle where the Austro-Bavarian corps of General von Wrede was beaten and jostled.

The Grand Duke of Hesse had just left the Confederation of the Rhine… The light horse regiment and the battery returned to Darmstadt on 30 October: there were no other Hessians left under our flags, in Germany, except the 2nd Battalion of Fusiliers which was blockaded in the stronghold of Torgau.

The crosses intended for the light horse had been captured in Cassel by the Cossacks: the captains von Boyneburg and Breidenbach, the lieutenants Bosfeld, Glock, von Lüningk, von Schorlemmer, von Bubna, 8 non-commissioned officers and 4 horsemen were decorated with the Star of the Brave.

It is interesting to recall here the opinion of a German author, a veteran of the Rhine contingents, on these last days of the Campaign of 1813:

‘To critics who say that Napoleon could have been destroyed during this retreat, an eyewitness can answer with a smile that it would have been possible if the Old Guard had not existed; but the battles on the Unstrut, Gotha, Eisenach, where a handful of these brave men were enough to stop the enemy cavalry, show that the capture of the Emperor was impossible…[2]

V: The defence of Torgau.

We left the Hessian 2nd Fusilier Battalion when it had just been detached to escort convoys from the great Imperial Quarter and was heading for Dresden with the Emperor’s Guard. This battalion, commanded by Major Karlsen, received with other troops the mission of accompanying the army’s treasury vans to Torgau when Napoleon left Dresden before the battle of Leipzig; it went to Eulenburg on 13 October and stayed there until the 18th; at this moment, a parliamentarian from the coalition army came to summon the troops who were in Eulenburg to surrender: but Generals Durrier and Dutaillis, commanding these troops and the precious convoy they were escorting, amused the parliamentarian and by night sped on Torgau where they reached without incident on the 19th.

The battalion of fusiliers met in this place with a marching battalion which arrived from Darmstadt under the orders of Major Kraft: the two Hessian battalions entered the garrison of the place where the governor was the General de Narbonne-Lara. Torgau then contained more than 27,000 sick or wounded, and typhus was in the city where it was killing up to 400 men per day. Despite the difficulties of the situation, the weak garrison made up of French naval troops, gendarmes, Baden and Hessians, finally soldiers of the train who were transformed into cavalry for lack of cavalry in the place, defended itself energetically against the blockade troops commanded by Tauentzien, and composed of Prussian line and Landwehr regiments as well as Saxon troops, defectors from Leipzig; among the latter were the light infantry which had previously been garrisoned in Torgau.

The defence of the town was very actively led: in a sortie executed on 2 November by General Durrier at the head of the battalion of Hessian fusiliers and of a French battalion, accompanied by a detachment of gendarmes and a howitzer, we captured the village of Zinna; when these troops retreat to the town in front of very superior forces, they kept a distance and vigorously pushed back the enemy cavalry which wanted to attack them.

Food was becoming scarce in the garrison: they ate horse meat preserved in saltpeter, and potatoes that they would unearth with bayonets in front of the outposts of the siege towers. Desertions were numerous among the German troops: there were more than 100 in the two Hessian battalions during the night of 12 to 13 November alone. The rumor circulated in the town that the Confederation of the Rhine was dissolved, that the contingents were recalled by the princes of the Rheinbund: to clarify the situation and calm the agitation of the German troops, the Governor sent to Darmstadt the Hessian Captain von Lyncker, in charge to report news and instructions from the Grand Duke if necessary.

General Narbonne having succumbed on 15 November to the attacks of typhus, the funeral honors were rendered to him on the 17th by the garrison: the Hessian battalion provided 2 officers, 8 non-commissioned officers, 2 drummers and 50 men for this service.  General Dutaillis took charge of the defense when Captain von Lyncker returned from his mission (23 November); but the Prussian General Tauentzien did not allow the Hessian officer to enter the town. It was then said that the battalions of Hesse were going to be disarmed…These battalions were gathered at the bridgehead and the gendarmerie General Lauer explained to them that the rights of the war would make it possible to keep them as prisoners, since their Prince was ranked among the enemies of France, but that they would be authorized to leave the town unarmed; as for the officers, if they gave their word not to serve for a year against the French, they could only accept this capitulation if their soldiers left Torgau with arms and baggage:  the governor having admitted this condition, the 2 battalions from Darmstadt left the city on 25 November at five o’clock in the evening.

The majors Karlesen and Kraft remained in Torgau: they had not consented to sign the convention: but two days later General Dutaillis released them, and they left Torgau after receiving the thanks of the Governor for loyalty and distinction with which the Hessian battalions had served France.

The 2nd Fusilier Battalion and the marching battalion returned to Darmstadt on 25 December.

Fleeing from the approach of the French armies and united, the Grand Duke of Hesse took refuge in Manheim where he had notified the French envoy Vandeuil that he was withdrawing from the Confederation of the Rhine and meeting with the allies: this new evolution of the Hessian policy, imposed by the force of events and executed under the leadership of a victorious inviting army.

The historical phase of the Confederation of the Rhine was over: some German writers consider ‘that it was not at all pleasant (erfreulich) for Hesse, but that this power should not, however, be ashamed of it’ … They do not remember that Hesse could have disappeared from the map of Germany in 1806, that Napoleon was willing to forget his justified grievances against the Landgrave by admitting him into the Confederation, that he raised the latter to the dignity of Grand Duke and considerably increased its states, finally, that the campaigns carried out by the contingent of Hesse under the French flags were not titles of shame but of glory, and that the Hessian soldiers need not be ashamed of having triumphed at our sides in Jena, Wagram, Krasnoi, Lützen, nor to have shared with us the darker laurels of Berezina and to have fought in our ranks against united Europe at the fields of Leipzig!…

The Napoleonic period was advantageous for our allies of Rheinbund from the political point of view and eminently glorious from the military point of view: neither the diplomats of good faith, nor the impartial soldiers, nor the historians without biases can deny it.

The French suzerainty in Germany, the protectorate exercised by France over the states of the Confederation of the Rhine introduced into Germany internal transformations which greatly advanced the social development of this country: also, when our former allies turned against us, when they returned Napoleon after serving and making use of him, ‘in driving out the conqueror they wanted to keep the legislator, and they could not make up their minds to curse him entirely.’[3]

[1] Kosterus, p. 100.

[2] Kosterus, p. 112.

[3] Rambaud, Germany under Napoleon Ist, in conclusion.