As a renewal of hostilities appeared imminent, Metternich thought the moment right to switch sides and give up his ‘neutrality’, which he promptly did, waiting, characteristically, until the last possible moment, 10 August, 1813. Yet again this man’s strategic genius was on display. Having seen Austria almost wiped off the face of the map of Europe in 1809, Metternich realised that only a massive coalition of continental powers – England was a military irrelevance – could help achieve his ends. Despite the limitations on Austria’s peacetime strength imposed by the Treaty of Schönbrunn, the military had slowly and carefully built up its numbers. Napoleon now faced 280,000 Austrians and a further 80,000 being called up as a reserve. Given that Austria had fought – with an interruption of barely five years – unceasing war against France since 1792 this was quite an achievement.
It had suited both the Archduke Charles and his brother, the Emperor, that a new commander-in-chief be found. The new command was to be taken by a reliable aristocrat by the name of Schwarzenberg. Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, the new commander of the Imperial and Royal Armies was born in Vienna in 1771, a member of one of the Bohemian aristocratic families who owed their rise to the great redistribution of wealth in the early years of the seventeenth century overseen by Ferdinand II. He had joined the Imperial Army young and had taken part in the ill-starred Turkish campaigns of the Emperor Joseph II. By 1794 he had distinguished himself so considerably in the campaigns against the French Republic that he was promoted to Colonel and received the following glowing recommendation from the then army commandant, Prince Coburg: ‘While all my generals and field officers cannot do much, the example of Prince Schwarzenberg is exemplary. He knows what he wants and gives his orders well.’
As we have seen, it was Schwarzenberg who, together with the Archduke Ferdinand, saved the honour of General Mack’s besieged army by staging a large cavalry breakout fighting their way to Eger. In 1809, as Ambassador to the Russian court, he had showed some diplomatic flair even though efforts to persuade the Russians to join the Austrians that year proved fruitless. Later, as Ambassador to Paris, he worked hard to support Metternich’s policy of keeping Austria out of the 1812 campaign against Russia. Later, in 1813, he spent much time in Napoleon’s presence. He was brave and capable but had none of the intellectual brilliance and almost reckless disregard for personal safety of the Archduke Charles.
Nevertheless, Prince Schwarzenberg is rightly counted a member of the pantheon of Austrian military commanders. Perhaps his best talent was to see this quality in others. This made him a formidable adversary; he always surrounded himself with excellent officers. On his appointment as commander-in-chief of the allied armies his first move was to secure Radetzky as his quartermaster general and chief of staff.
He had already sounded Radetzky out a few months earlier on his appointment to Paris, convinced that war was imminent. As the armed mediation of Austria gradually became armed belligerence, Radetzky began to draw up plans for the coming coalition campaign. As Metternich played for time, the gradual mobilisation of the Imperial and Royal Army gathered momentum.
Radetzky’s staff-work at Leipzig
Radetzky did not let his commander down. He set about rewriting and re-organising the entire allied advance for the autumn of 1813. His role in executing the final plan was critical. At Dresden, on 27 August, an allied force, including a strong Austrian contingent, was heavily defeated, losing 25,000 men. The allied cavalry and artillery were poorly deployed, with none of the tactical instincts which had characterised the Archduke Charles’s dispositions four years earlier. The Habsburg forces grumbled that this would never have happened under their old Generalissimus. The French on the other hand were deployed with their leader’s usual tactical flair. Moreover, Napoleon showed an energy that had not been seen since Austerlitz. As the allies retreated, Napoleon pursued them with four large columns. But at Kulm the Russian rearguard halted and inflicted a blistering check to the French pursuit under General Vandamme. Vandamme might have escaped with some of his forces intact had not the Prussians under Kleist suddenly appeared, barring his withdrawal and finally avenging Jena in a crushing attack.
Further French defeats were to follow against the newly rejuvenated Prussian army. Oudinot and Marmont were both sent reeling while Ney was heavily defeated at Dennewitz by Bernadotte, the incompetent bungler of Wagram who had switched sides following his adoption by the Swedish royal family. Napoleon, who had been determined to take Berlin and menace the Russians around Danzig to induce them to leave Bohemia, had to think up a new strategy. He remained confident of beating the forces now arrayed against him in the north: ‘this cloud of Cossacks and bad Landwehr’.
But as Schwarzenberg advanced with 60,000 Austrians along the right bank of the Elbe, Napoleon’s right flank was becoming vulnerable. Less than a fortnight later, Napoleon began concentrating his forces around Leipzig where he awaited the advance of a vast allied force. The long campaign of 1813 was now drawing to its inexorable climax. The forces arrayed against each other were enormous but Napoleon was heavily outnumbered. Against a coalition army that would exceed 365,000 men (of which barely a quarter were Austrian) at its height, the French and their German allies fielded barely 195,000 men. Radetzky argued forcefully that, as hostilities began, Napoleon was only 10,000 men weaker than his opponents, and that the Austrians had good reason to fear that the weight of the French attack would fall on their sector of the front.
Against this disparity in forces, even Napoleon would have his work cut out. It was the brilliance of Radetzky’s staff-work which ensured that the weakness of the different individual sections of the coalition was masked by their excellent coordination. There was even a British rocket contingent commanded by Captain Brogue. On 16 October, Schwarzenberg formally began hostilities, sending a strong Russian force under Barclay de Tolly against the French southern flank. By mid-morning this attack, supported by Wittgenstein’s corps and other Russian units, had petered out. Napoleon counter-attacked vigorously, regaining all the ground he had yielded to the Russians earlier.
At the same time, the Prussians under Blücher launched a strong attack against Napoleon’s northern position. Although 54,000 Prussians advanced against Marmont’s few divisions entrenched around Mockern, Marmont held his ground despite being outnumbered two to one. By the end of the first day, the battle had had no decisive outcome. Although the French had successfully beaten off their numerically superior opponents, they had failed to crush either force. As more and more allied troops responded to Radetzky’s careful staff-work and were fed into the battle, the position of the French defenders became increasingly precarious. It was at this moment that under cover of darkness Napoleon should have organised his withdrawal but some strange (‘inexplicable’, as Radetzky later called it) obstinacy on his part persuaded him to hold on.
The following day was calm, with both sides reorganising their units. Within the Leipzig perimeter Napoleon was busy reordering his troops, using his most reliable units in positions that would reinforce the weakest parts of his defence. While this occurred, the allies began to deploy their reinforcements of some 150,000 men, so the following day could see a single concentric attack on all fronts. Once again Radetzky worked tirelessly to ensure that the coordination problems which had so often bedevilled the allies were resolved as seamlessly as possible. This achievement was all the more remarkable given the large personalities with which he was faced, especially among the Russian generalship, let alone the likes of Blücher and Gneisenau among the Prussians. (It may have helped that Gneisenau had an Austrian title.)
Despite the extraordinary heroism displayed by the outnumbered defenders, the outcome of the battle could never really be in doubt. As the concentric attacks hammered away at the French positions, the first to crack were the two Saxon brigades, demoralised by the recently invented Congreve rockets, which were effective against the defenders of Sellerhausen, a mile and a half from the city centre.
At this critical moment in the battle, the Saxons chose to abandon their French allies, and marched off to the enemy to the amazement of the nearby French cavalry, who at first cheered them on, thinking they were about to attack the Prussians. Despite this loss of some 4,000 troops, the French fought on. On the Austrian sector of the front, Klenau issued from Zweinanundorf to attack the ramparts of Stoetteritz only to be repulsed by a furious French counter-attack.
The French reserves were becoming exhausted so, at 5 p.m., Napoleon ordered a general retreat over mined bridges in an attempt to save something of his army. As the Austrian contingent, led by Colloredo, prepared to storm Leipzig, Napoleon was relieved if not surprised that his opponents made no attempt to cut off his line of retreat. In true Austrian style, Schwarzenberg had left a modest opening. He, like the Archduke Charles, saw no merit in fighting a war to the last subaltern. Napoleon’s forces escaped, although their casualties had been a staggering 75,000.
For the Austrians, the smallest of the three main contingents, casualties were 15,000. The Russians and Prussians who had borne the brunt of the battle suffered close to 40,000. But the French had not been eliminated as a military force, as Wrede’s Bavarian contingent discovered a few days later when, with unerring instinct, Napoleon wiped out this force at Hanau. Driven from Germany, Napoleon would now embark on the campaign that perhaps illustrated his genius more than any other: the Defence of France.
As Napoleon demonstrated with his back to the wall at Bar and Brienne and elsewhere, his brilliance of manoeuvre remained unequalled. But, as at Leipzig, the sheer force of numbers would eventually tell. Schwarzenberg, in true Austrian style, was always reluctant to risk his army even when he commanded vastly superior forces. This was particularly the case when facing Napoleon commanding. Radetzky devised much of the so-called ‘Trachenberg Plan’ whereby the allies agreed to avoid where possible confronting Napoleon in person. Instead they would attempt to wear down his subordinates successively through superiority in numbers.
Under Schwarzenberg’s leadership the Austrian troops fought less well than under the Archduke Charles, and seemed to be in danger of reverting to their old ways. Thus, at Arcis-sur-Aube, 80,000 Austrians faced 28,000 relatively raw French conscripts but were so cautiously deployed that the French held out until dark before making good their retreat and destroying the bridge. In the course of the action they had inflicted far more casualties on the Austrians than they had incurred but neither time nor numbers were on the French Emperor’s side.
With the fall of Paris, the Austrians basked in the glory of their triumph more than any of their allies. Their soldiers had posed an opposition whose pedigree and longevity, as demonstrated on the battlefields of Europe, were unrivalled. Entering Paris – dazzlingly attired in white and blue, equipped with their recently issued taller bearskins with large Biedermeier cockades in the Imperial yellow and black colours – the Hungarian grenadiers swiftly became the subject of countless watercolours and drawings. They became the embodiment of the Habsburg army’s valour and traditions, and an exotic addition to Parisian life.
These achievements were not confined to the artists’ canvas. When the Prussian general Gneisenau threatened to form an alliance with Russia to claim Saxony, even going as far as to speculate on bringing Napoleon back from Elba to provoke a civil war in France to distract the British, Schwarzenberg threatened Habsburg mobilisation against ‘diese Preussische Baggage’. The Prussians stood down.