Throughout human history, conflicts have been fought for land, resources, plunder, religion and for power. It is an unfortunate reality that war has often been the greatest driver of history and decisions made and actions taken in the midst of conflict all too often shape the course of the future. The purpose of this series is to shine a spotlight not on certain conflicts that have determined the course of history, but on specific instances where the outcome of a single battle has defined the future not just for those directly involved, but for greater mankind.

This article goes back to the first decades of the modern period when Europe was dominated by the will of one man. After a decade of war, that one man faced the combined strength of all the powers of Europe united against him. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte and the engagement that followed became known to history as the Battle of the Nations.

The year was 1813 and it was the Battle of Leipzig.


Emperor Napoleon I

By 1813, Napoleon had been Emperor of the French for nine years. During that time he had transformed Europe. The territory of France proper had expanded to include Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Italy, while Napoleon had conquered the neighbouring states in every direction, dismantled them and established ‘sister-republics’ in their place. In some cases, he simply replaced a hostile ruler with one of his own, often a member of his own family. While not ruled directly by the Emperor, they were almost completely subservient to his will.

He had decisively defeated the Third and Fourth Coalitions (the First and Second had been formed against the French Republic and later the Consulate) that had formed to oppose him. All the great powers of Europe, save for Great Britain, had challenged Napoleon and had been crushed, time and again. It seemed that he was unstoppable.

However, everything changed in 1812. In 1811, Tsar Alexander I of Russia withdrew his nation from the Continental System, the economic policy that Napoleon had imposed on Europe in an effort to weaken Great Britain. In retaliation, Napoleon resolved to force Russia back into the fold.First French Empire

To that end, he assembled possibly the greatest fighting force the world had ever seen. The Grand Armée, as it was known, numbered around 650,000 men, with around half of them French and the rest drawn from the ‘sister republics’ as well as from extremely reluctant allies such as Austria and Prussia (who had been Napoleon’s enemies in the recent past and would be again soon enough). In addition to the sheer size of the host, many of the French troops were among the finest soldiers in Europe, veterans of more than a decade of war. At the core of this army was the 50,000 strong Imperial Guard, the elite force that acted as both the Emperor’s bodyguard and his tactical reserve. In contrast, Russia could not muster more than 200,000 regular soldiers, though they were to be supported by militia several hundred thousand strong.

On 24 June 1812, the Grande Armée began crossing the Niemen river in Lithuania, marking the start of the most fateful campaign of Napoleon’s career.

retreat from Russia
Retreat from Russia

The Russian Campaign of 1812 is considered one of the greatest military disasters in military history. A potent combination of battle, sub-zero temperatures after the onset of the infamous Russian winter, an extreme lack of supplies (largely due to ‘scorched earth’ tactics employed by the Russians) and disease meant that when the last stragglers crossed back across the Niemen river in December, the once mighty Grand Armée had lost over 500,000 men. The shattered remnants of the central force under Napoleon’s personal command, once numbering over 220,000 men, now consisted of fewer than 25,000 half-starved and frostbitten survivors, with only 10,000 capable of combat. Most of the other French corps were at less than 5% of their full strength. Marshals that had commanded tens of thousands of troops now led only a fraction of that, with some contingents consisting of just a few hundred men. The total strength of the French forces in Central Europe was now less than 75,000.

In addition to this catastrophic loss of life, the French had lost thousands of valuable artillery pieces, most of them abandoned and spiked to prevent their use by the enemy, and over 200,000 horses. A chronic shortage of both of these essential assets would plague Napoleon for the remainder of his reign.

To make all of this even worse, the ongoing war in Spain (known as the Peninsula War), in which the French were fighting the Spanish, Portuguese and the British under General Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), continued to tie down large numbers of sorely needed French troops.

However, Napoleon did not dwell on his humiliating failure. He knew that come the spring, Tsar Alexander (who had openly committed to destroying Napoleon) would begin advancing from the East. He would almost certainly be joined by the Prussians and most likely Emperor Francis I of Austria, Napoleon’s own father-in-law, as well. They could smell blood in the water and they would not miss the opportunity to throw off French shackles once more.

Napoleon was determined to engage and defeat his enemies in Germany, where he could make use of troops from the allied German states that formed the Confederation of the Rhine. In addition, this would prevent foreign troops from entering France proper and would maintain the Confederation as a buffer between France and her enemies in the east.

Grande Armee
Soldiers of the Grand Armèe

Upon his return to France, Napoleon immediately began preparations for the following year. In an effort to rebuild his shattered forces, he incorporated the 90,000 men of the National Guard into the regulars; called up nearly 250,000 conscripts from two separate age groups (1809-12 and 1813-14); created thirty new infantry regiments; ordered 150,000 muskets from arms factories; rolled the 16,000 marines from the essentially useless navy into the army. He also stripped troops from the forces in Spain to rebuild the Imperial Guard and bought or requisitioned horses wherever he could find them.

On top of the Russians, Prussians and Austrians ranging themselves against him, Napoleon also suffered an unexpected blow from the north. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte had been one of Napoleon’s Marshals until 1810 when he was unexpectedly offered the position of heir-apparent to the elderly and childless King Charles XIII of Sweden. When he accepted the offer, Napoleon had tried to make him swear never to take up arms against France. Bernadotte refused to make such a promise. While Sweden had been neutral in 1812, Bernadotte, now known as Crown Prince Charles John, declared war on France in January 1813.

4 T
Tsar Alexander I of Russia

In February 1813, Napoleon received word that the Austrian Emperor was amassing an army at least 100,000 strong. On 26 February, Tsar Alexander secured an agreement with Frederick William III of Prussia whereby Prussia would regain the territory lost in the Treaty of Tilsit (forced upon them after being crushed by Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland) in 1807. Alexander agreed to commit 150,000 Russian troops to the Coalition if Frederick William would match him with 90,000 of his own. Almost immediately Britain began providing funds and equipment to both countries, as they had been doing since Napoleon first rose to power. In March, Sweden also committed 30,000 men to the Sixth Coalition, also subsidised by the British.

Incredibly, less than four months after he returned from Russia with 10,000 effective soldiers, Napoleon had amassed an army of 150,000 men for his German campaign. Tens of thousands more were being mustered, equipped and trained. However, this army was astonishingly inexperienced and the limited training many of the conscripts had received severely restricted the manoeuvres Napoleon was able to perform. Even more problematic was the extreme lack of cavalry. Out of the 150,000, just over 8,000 were mounted. To put that in perspective, before the Russian campaign the cavalry contingent of the Imperial Guard alone numbered over 7,000. Napoleon could replace men with relative ease (though they were vastly less experienced than their predecessors) but he could not replace horses. This would have a significant impact on the coming campaign.

In late April, Napoleon led his army across the Elbe river and into Saxony. Within five weeks, the Emperor had defeated the Allies at Lützen and Bautzen. Neither of these were decisive victories, but they allowed him to reestablish his control over much of what is now Germany, albeit with a higher cost in men than he would have liked. A temporary ceasefire was agreed upon and both sides used the lull to gather their strength. Napoleon received reinforcements, including vital cavalry units, from France while also incorporating the Saxon army into his own forces.

The Prussians and Russians were joined by the Austrians and the Swedes, bringing the total allied forces in the region to over 420,000. These troops were divided into three armies. The Army of the North, under Crown Prince Charles John (formerly Bernadotte) and comprised of 110,000 men, was encamped in the region of Berlin. The Army of Silesia was commanded by the talented Prussian General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and was situated directly to Napoleon’s west with around 90,000 men. Lastly, the Army of Bohemia, consisting of 230,000 Austrians, Russians and Prussians, approached from the south under the command of Field Marshal von Schwarzenberg. Against all of this, Napoleon could muster 350,000 men. Importantly, he now had 45,000 cavalry, though this was still not enough given the size of the enemy armies.

Karl Philip von Schwarzenberg

It should have been clear that, in order to defeat all three enemy hosts, Napoleon would need to concentrate his forces and engage each army separately. This was a strategy that he had used to such great effect for so many years. All of his greatest victories had involved concentrating his forces and defeating the main enemy army in a single, decisive engagement. However, instead of pursuing this strategy as he had in the past, Napoleon instead divided his strength. He sent Marshal Oudinot against the Allied Army of the North with 65,000 men with the objective of capturing Berlin. Further detachments were the garrisons of Dresden, Danzig and Hamburg, which totalled around 106,000 men. Importantly, the commander of the Hamburg garrison was Louis Nicholas Davout, the most formidable of Napoleon’s Marshals. His absence would be sorely felt in the months to come.

In late August, Napoleon, despite being outnumbered by nearly 100,000 men, inflicted a major defeat on the allies at the Battle of Dresden. However, due to his shortage of cavalry, he was not able to follow up with a close pursuit as he had done so many times before, losing an opportunity to turn a convincing victory into a crushing one. His victory was further soured by news that Oudinot had been defeated at Groβbeeren and Marshal Macdonald had been bested at Katzbach. This was part of the strategy decided upon by the Allies, known as the Trachenberg Plan. They had learned from a decade of bitter experience that defeating Napoleon at his full strength was beyond them. Instead, they would avoid engaging Napoleon himself in open battle, focusing their attention on defeating his Marshals when they were isolated from the main force.

The next month consisted of a contest of manoeuvre, with Napoleon attempting to pin down each of the allied hosts and the allies successfully evading his movements in turn.

By mid-September, the armies of the Coalition were closing in around the French Emperor. Sensing a decisive encounter was imminent and with an increasingly hostile German countryside threatening his stretched supply lines, he withdrew to the west in search of a favourable position.

The German city of Leipzig was located on the east bank of the White Elster river, which would protect Napoleon’s rear while he fought the Coalition armies attacking from the east. In addition, the Parthe and Pleisse rivers divided the battlefield into several sectors, separating the Coalition armies and inhibiting their ability to deploy in support of each other. Control of the bridges across these rivers also allowed Napoleon greater freedom in moving troops around the battlefield.

When Napoleon occupied the city in early-October, he did so with almost the entirety of the French field army, consisting of a little over 200,000 men, including just 28,000 cavalry and 738 guns. By the final day of battle, the Coalition forces on the battlefield will have totalled 362,000 men and 1,456 guns. There were no less than four monarchs of the Great Powers of Europe present; Napoleon himself, Tsar Alexander of Russia, King Frederick William of Prussia and Emperor Francis of Austria. However, unlike Napoleon, his Coalition counterparts were merely there to oversee the campaign. Actual command of the armies was left to the professionals. The last time Alexander and Francis had faced Napoleon on the battlefield had been at the Battle of Austerlitz (known as the Battle of the Three Emperors) in 1805. On that occasion, Alexander had held effective command. Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz is considered a tactical masterpiece.

The nationalities represented at Leipzig included French, German, Russians, Swedes, Italians, Poles, all of the many nationalities within the Austrian Empire and even a single British rocket section. Little wonder, then, that it became known as the Battle of the Nations.

The Battle

On the eve of battle, Napoleon uttered perhaps his most famous quote: “Between a battle lost and a battle won, the distance is immense and there stand empires.”

So it would prove at the Battle of Leipzig.

The first of the Coalition armies to engage Napoleon was Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia, which posed the greatest threat as on its own it matched the French army in size. On October 16, Schwarzenberg advanced towards Leipzig from the south. Arrayed against him was almost two-thirds of the French host. Napoleon calculated that he had at least a day and maybe two to deal with Schwarzenberg before the second and possibly third Coalition army arrived.

The Battle of Leipzig officially began in the early morning of the 16th when the Prussians launched an attack against the 15,000-strong Polish contingent of Napoleon’s army, which was under the command of the talented Prince Joseph Poniatowski. The battle rapidly escalated from there, with Russian and Prussian brigades assaulting French positions all along the front. Ferocious combat erupted as they fought over control of the bridges over the Pleisse River. The Coalition made early gains against the French line but these were halted by the power of the French artillery, which had been a point of strength for more than a generation.

French artillery
French artillery

While Napoleon was occupied to the south, a detachment under Austrian General Ignaz Gyulai had crossed the White Elster and advanced on the village of Lindenau, threatening to cut the only means by which the French could escape, if necessary, to the west. A French corps under General Bertrand was dispatched to clear Gyulai out and to do it quickly, as his corps was slated for deployment as part of Napoleon’s main counter-attack against Schwarzenberg. Unfortunately, unexpectedly stubborn resistance from Gyulai meant that it wasn’t until 5pm that Bertrand finally achieved his objective. The road west was clear, but the damage had been done. Gyulai had managed to pin down an entire French corps for the whole day and the absence of Bertrand’s force greatly weakened Napoleon’s counter-attack.

By 11am, Schwarzenberg’s forces were back where they had started, though they were now exhausted after hours of intense fighting and their reserves had been almost completely depleted. For his part, Napoleon was surprised by the aggression of the Allies and had been forced to deploy his own reserves much earlier than he had planned.

Leipzig cavalry charge
Charge of the Polish chevau-legers

In the early afternoon, Napoleon spotted an opportunity to slice through Schwarzenberg’s line at its weakest point. Once divided and in chaos, the Army of Bohemia should prove easy prey for the French forces. To that end, at 2pm he launched a massed cavalry attack, consisting of 2,500 horsemen, that smashed through the Coalition front, overwhelmed an elite Russian Guard Cavalry Division and threatened Schwarzenberg’s headquarters. However, the French infantry was too slow in following up the cavalry assault and the attack soon stalled. Both the French cavalry and infantry were forced to retreat and they took a beating from Coalition artillery while doing so.

With his concentrated thrust failing, Napoleon launched a general attack. He had been waiting for Marshal Marmont, commander of the northern front, to reinforce him with his troops, but by 3pm the Emperor decided to go ahead with the forces he had at hand. Under a heavy artillery barrage, ferocious infantry assault and repeated cavalry charges, the Coalition line was pushed to breaking point. It seemed that, at last, Napoleon would sweep Schwarzenberg away.

It was not to be.

The timely arrival of fresh Austrian troops, many of whom had waded waist-deep through the Pleisse to more quickly enter the fray, stiffened the Coalition line and prevented a disastrous French breakthrough.

It was around this time that Napoleon heard sustained cannon-fire from the north. He had miscalculated. Marmont was unable to come to his Emperor’s aid because he was occupied in the north. Blücher had arrived.

Battle of Leipzig 1
October 16

After hours of bloody hand-to-hand fighting over the village of Möckern, Marmont was steadily pushed back towards Leipzig. With almost all of the reserves now committed to fighting Schwarzenberg in the south, Napoleon was unable to reinforce Marmont with fresh troops.

To make matters worse, Napoleon’s scouts now reported that the third Coalition army under Bernadotte was nearing Leipzig, with the main force expected to arrive the next day.

By 5pm, the fighting had died down and both armies withdrew to their encampments to assess their losses. The cost was great, with a single day’s fighting resulting in 25,000 French and 30,000 Allied casualties.

In contrast to the heavy fighting on the first day of battle, the only notable event on October 17 was the arrival of reinforcements for both sides. However, the new French troops numbered just 14,000. For their part, over 100,000 fresh troops arrived for the Coalition. This brought the total number combatants to well over half a million, making Leipzig the largest battle in European history until the advent of the First World War.

By the morning of October 18, Napoleon was facing the Allies on three sides. As a result, he was forced to contract his army’s defences, abandoning the outer positions his troops had fought so doggedly for two days prior.

The fighting on the 18th was some of the most intense of the entire Napoleonic Wars, as 300,000 Coalition troops assaulted the French defences on three sides, supported by nearly 1,400 guns. Again and again and again the Allies threw themselves at the French, sensing an opportunity to, at long last, crush the hated French army once and for all. Only sheer stubbornness on the part of Napoleon’s men kept the Coalition at bay, as they engaged the enemy in savage close quarters fighting and delivered devastating cannonades.

Battle of Leipzig 2
October 18

By nightfall, both sides had lost around 25,000 men in the day’s fighting.

As dwindling ammunition and a shortage of food began to bite, in the very early hours of October 19 Napoleon finally decided to withdraw. In retrospect, it seems obvious that he should have come to that decision after the first day’s fighting when it was clear that any gains he may have made would be more than offset by the arrival of a hundred thousand Coalition reinforcements. Indeed, the Duke of Wellington later commented that if the Emperor had retreated from Leipzig earlier, the Allies could not have moved to cross the Rhine river. However, withdrawing from Leipzig without an armistice would have meant abandoning the garrisons that remained intact to the east. As it was, after Leipzig, those garrisons surrendered one by one to Coalition siege operations.

In any case, by October 19, Napoleon had given the order to withdraw. During the night, French divisions quietly began abandoning the outer positions and retreating into Leipzig in order to cross the White Elster river.

Unfortunately, the only means of crossing the river was a single, narrow stone bridge that soon became congested with soldiers, artillery, wagons, the wounded and a crowd of camp followers.

Three French corps were to remain in the city to act as a rearguard, holding the Coalition armies at bay long enough for the rest of the French army to make their escape. One of these corps was commanded by Prince Joseph Poniatowski, who only days earlier had received from Napoleon the rank of Marshal of the Empire, the only non-French officer to be given such an honour. He promised his Emperor that he would hold his position to the last man. He made good on his promise.

The Allies only became aware of the French withdrawal between 7-8am and they immediately scrambled to organise their forces. By 10:30 am, the remaining French formations in Leipzig were under full-scale assault from three sides as the Allies desperately sought to prevent Napoleon’s escape.

Infantry at Leipzig
French and Russian infantry

They were held up by savage urban combat as French soldiers forced their enemy to take the city street-by-street. What ensued was pure butchery as Allied troops attempted to storm barricades and houses packed full of determined Frenchmen, who made them pay dearly in blood for every inch of ground.

Around noon, Napoleon and his beleaguered army were dealt one final, bitter blow, this time entirely of their own making. In order to prevent the Allies from pursuing him, Napoleon had given orders that the bridge be destroyed once the army had crossed. The task was given to one Colonel Montfort, who in turn delegated it to a corporal. Unfortunately, this particular corporal appears to have been completely unaware of both the timetable for the bridge’s destruction and the ongoing withdrawal operations when he detonated the explosives around noon… While the bridge was still packed with men, horses, cannons and wagons. According to some accounts, both human and animal body parts rained down into the streets of Leipzig and into the river.

Leipzig bridge explosion
The bridge explosion

With the bridge destroyed, many French troops attempted to swim across, with a large number drowning in the process. Among these was Marshal Joseph Poniatowski, who had ridden his horse into the river, making it to the other side before his mount proved unable to climb the bank and fell back on top of him. Both were swept away by the current.

It was a sad conclusion to the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Aftermath

By the end of the fourth day, Napoleon’s army had suffered around 45,000 killed or wounded. A further 36,000 men were captured, mostly once the bridge was destroyed and their only line of escape severed. For their part, the Coalition had lost approximately 54,000 men, killed or wounded. According to some accounts, there were so many bodies left in the aftermath that the locals had difficulty disposing of them all and some corpses were still visible a year later.

The Battle of Leipzig was the first of only two decisive defeats of Napoleon’s 60-battle military career. The second would come at Waterloo in 1815.

Napoleon’s reign did not end immediately after his defeat at Leipzig. When the Allies invaded France proper in January 1814, Napoleon, despite the almost comical disparity in the troop numbers, ran a brilliant campaign in northern France in which he inflicted several defeats on Coalition forces. However, despite his best efforts, Napoleon was ultimately unable to halt the Allies’ progress.

Napoleon on elba
Napoleon on Elba

In April 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was subsequently sent into exile on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast. In his place, Louis XVIII (brother of Louis XVI) returned from exile and was crowned King of France, a particularly bitter occasion for a French populace that had enjoyed the new society that had been developed since the Bourbons were first toppled during the Revolution more than 20 years earlier. Slow but steady and systematic efforts on the part of the resurgent royal regime to restore the monarchy to its former, absolutist glory (known as the ancien règime) certainly did little to comfort government officials, politicians, the army or the people.

However, this was not the end for Napoleon Bonaparte. On February 26, 1815, he escaped Elba and returned to France, where he swept back to power (the route he travelled from Grenoble to Paris on his march back to the throne is now known as the Route Napoléon and is among France’s most popular cycling routes). Once word of his return reached the Congress of Vienna, where the Allies were conducting negotiations over the future of Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, they immediately began mustering their forces once more.

Return of Napoleon
Napoleon’s return from Elba

The so-called Hundred Days (so-named for the duration of Napoleon’s ‘second’ reign) came to a bloody climax at the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated once and for all. Having learned from their mistake, this time the Allies exiled him to St Helena, a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There he would remain until his death in 1821.

How it shaped history

Before discussing how the Battle of Leipzig shaped history, there is one question the demands an answer: why was it Leipzig that was a major influence on the course of history and not the far more famous Battle of Waterloo?

The answer to this question is actually relatively simple. It is true that Waterloo represents the final defeat of Napoleon and the end of the First French Empire. However, in reality, by 1815 France was spent. The nation had been fighting for more than 20 years and a generation of conflict certainly took its toll.

When the Allies officially formed the Seventh Coalition (in response to Napoleon’s return to power) in Vienna, they agreed that they would not lay down arms until Napoleon was defeated once and for all. Together, they could muster at least 850,000 troops, though it would take weeks before the Austrians could become actively involved and months before the Russians (250,000 of them) finished marching across the breadth of Europe.

Against the might of a virtually united Europe, Napoleon was able to gather approximately 300,000 men. In total. Moreover, these troops were out of necessity spread across four different fronts. The re-imposition of conscription, this time expanded to include previously exempt married men, was not particularly well received at all by the French people, though Napoleon did manage to mitigate much of the unrest by invoking French patriotism against the foreign invaders.

In April, Napoleon asked his Finance Minister Gaudin to find him the 100 million francs he needed for the Waterloo campaign. Despite taking a metaphorical razor to almost every non-military budget, borrowing heavily from the Banque de France and cashier-general of Paris, selling government assets and raising existing/imposing new taxes on industries such as salt mines, Gaudin raised less than 17.5 million francs. There was no more money to be found. As a result, Napoleon’s Waterloo campaign was on a knife edge from the very beginning. France literally could not afford a prolonged campaign. One major setback and it would be all over. As it was, that was exactly what happened.

Battle of Waterloo

However, even victory at Waterloo would only have delayed the inevitable. Defeat at Waterloo would have had little impact on the British commitment to the war effort (after all, they had been subsidising the war efforts of Napoleon’s enemies since the very beginning, even if they weren’t in open war themselves). Likewise for the Prussians. Field Marshal Blücher’s army at Waterloo consisted of 50,000 men, just a third of the total of 150,000 Prussia had committed to the Seventh Coalition. The Russians and Austrians hadn’t even entered the fray yet, not to mention the Spanish, Portuguese and an assortment of other, minor nations. With his strength spread so thinly, the only thing victory at Waterloo would have won Napoleon was time.

Additionally, any further attempts to reduce the disparity in mobilised troop numbers between France and the Coalition through mass conscription would likely have faced internal resistance that he could ill afford. There had been several bloody anti-conscription riots in 1813 when Napoleon was desperately attempting to rebuild his shattered forces after the disastrous Russian campaign. In 1815, after his return to power and the re-introduction of conscription, the discontent was even more widespread, though it did not manifest itself quite so violently as it had two years earlier.

Widespread civil unrest, while facing such colossal external threats, would have almost certainly have proven fatal to Napoleon’s restored regime. There was already one rebellion in response to his resurgence, a royalist revolt in the Vendèe (a troublesome region that had been the heartland of an intermittent guerrilla war since the formation of the French Republic in the 1790s). In 1815, that rebellion flared once more, necessitating the deployment of 25,000 troops, including several formations of the newly raised Young Guards (a sub-section of the Imperial Guard) that would have proven invaluable at Waterloo.

The role of the British and Prussians at Waterloo (as opposed to the many nations involved at Leipzig) has seen the battle enter the cultural histories of both nations as the moment the finally ended the rule of the mighty Napoleon. There is even some dispute over who should receive the lion’s share of the credit for the victory (it is generally accepted among military historians that neither could have triumphed without the other). Waterloo took on even greater importance for the British due to the fact that, apart from a single rocket section, they were not involved at Leipzig. In fact, prior to Waterloo, the British had never faced Napoleon himself on the battlefield. The fact that their first encounter with one of the greatest generals of all time was a victory only further entrenched the perceived importance of Waterloo in the British cultural psyche.

Despite popular belief, in effect, Waterloo was the final act of a story in which the end result was virtually a foregone conclusion. However, it was at the Battle of Leipzig that the tide fatally turned against Napoleon and the First French Empire.

In contrast to the dire circumstances of 1815, in 1813 Napoleon, though significantly weakened, still retained the strength to stabilise his empire. True, it is unlikely a French victory at Leipzig would have returned the First French Empire to its pre-Russia glory. Those heady days were well and truly in the past, never to be restored. However, a decisive defeat for the Coalition at Leipzig would very likely (given the precedence set by previous major French victories and the resulting peace treaties) have triggered peace talks that were highly favourable to Napoleon and may have even left the Confederation of the Rhine still under French hegemony. At the very least, Napoleon would have secured his position as Emperor of France for the foreseeable future. Peace in Central Europe would also have left him free to deal with the Anglo-Iberian invasion across the Pyrenees.

With his rule no longer under immediate threat, we can only speculate what further achievements Napoleon may have added to his already enormous military, political, social and cultural legacy.

Considering all of this, it is clear, then, that it was at Leipzig that any realistic hope of his continued rule as Emperor of France disappeared.

In any case, by the end of June 1815, Napoleon had abdicated for the second and final time and the First French Empire was officially dissolved.

On June 9 (nine days before the Battle of Waterloo), the Allies formally ratified the last of a series of Acts negotiated at the Congress of Vienna. In effect, the agreements transformed the geopolitical landscape of Europe. The expansion of the French Republic and later Empire had resulted in the dismantling of a great number of old European states and the establishment of many more in their place, often in a completely different form (such as a kingdom being succeeded by a republic). The destruction of so many old states meant that the Allies had to consider what to do with the new pro-French states once Napoleon was defeated.

Congress of Vienna

In addition, the settlement of the Congress of Vienna represented a return to balance-of-power politics (a system which theoretically prevented any one state from becoming too powerful) in Europe, a tradition that extended back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Only this time, they would not simply restore the old boundaries of the Great Powers (which had clearly proven inadequate for maintaining the balance), but would actively resize (i.e expand by way of allocating previously French-controlled territory) the Great Powers so that they more effectively balanced each other both in terms of wealth, might and population. In this way, peace would be assured, at least for the foreseeable future. And it worked. Following the conclusion of more than 20 years of conflict (French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars), the European continent enjoyed over four decades of relative peace. The nearest war involving two or more of the Great Powers was the Crimean War (1853-56).

Prussia 1866
Kingdom of Prussia in 1866

In addition, the permanent addition of the Kingdom of Prussia to the ranks of the Great Powers as a result of Napoleon’s defeat (and the significant expansion of its territory as a result of the Congress) paved the way for the eventual unification of Germany under Prussian hegemony in the 1860s and 70s. For the first time, the geographical region of Germany was consolidated into a single nation-state. There is little need to discuss how an integrated German state would influence European and world history. Similarly, freedom from both Austrian and French domination laid the foundation for the unification of Italy, a process which began at the Congress of Vienna and ended in 1871 (coincidentally, the German Empire was officially established the same year). Other, smaller states also used the opportunity provided by the new Europe to assert their autonomy. One such example was the independence of Belgium from the newly-established United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Clearly, in the wake of Napoleon’s empire, the very fabric of Europe was transformed.

In this way, the Battle of Leipzig shaped history.


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