Russian, Austrian, and Prussian troops in Leipzig.
Painting by Alexander Sauerweid.
The Treaty of Reichenbach between Austria, Russia and Prussia signed on 27 June set out the four minimal Austrian conditions and guaranteed that Austria would enter the war unless Napoleon had accepted them by the expiry of the armistice on 20 July. The allies made it clear to Metternich, however, that although they would enter negotiations on this basis they would only sign a peace if it included other terms which would end Napoleon’s domination of Germany and guarantee Prussian security. Relations between Austria and the allies reached their lowest ebb when Metternich returned from discussions with Napoleon in Dresden and imposed an extension of the armistice until 10 August. Some of the loudest denunciations of this extension came from Baron Stein. In his case the normal allied view that Austrian peace terms were inadequate was enhanced by fierce disagreement with Metternich about the war’s ultimate goals. Stein wanted a reborn and more united German confederation with a constitution guaranteeing civil and political rights. He appealed to German nationalist feeling to achieve this. Since April 1813, however, Stein’s influence with Alexander had been in decline as Germany failed to revolt against Napoleon and the allies’ need for Austrian assistance became more pressing. Now he attempted to strike back, claiming that Metternich was pulling the wool over allied eyes and that with half a million Russians, Prussians and Swedes ready to take the field against 360,000 enemy troops Austrian help was probably unnecessary anyway. Previously he had supported Nesselrode because the latter shared Stein’s view that Russia should commit herself wholeheartedly to the liberation of Germany from Napoleon. Now, however, he called Nesselrode Metternich’s dupe, a well-meaning but empty weakling.
In reality Nesselrode was right and Stein was wrong. The allies could not have driven Napoleon out of Germany without Austrian help. At the very moment when Stein was writing these denunciations Metternich was moving quietly to swing Austria towards the allied camp. With peace negotiations now in the offing, Metternich wrote to Francis II that it was essential that he and the emperor were in complete agreement as to future policy. The peace negotiations might have three outcomes. The two sides might agree terms, in which case Austria need only rejoice. Metternich did not need to spell out to Francis how unlikely this outcome was, since the Austrians were well aware how far apart the opposing sides were as regards acceptable peace terms. A second and somewhat likelier possibility was that Napoleon would accept the Austrian minimal terms and the allies would reject them. Metternich wrote that Austria could not determine in advance what to do in this event since to some extent it would depend on contexts and circumstances. Under no circumstances could it side with France, however, and the defeat or dissolution of the allied coalition would be a great threat to Austrian security. Armed neutrality might be a short-term option but it would be very difficult to sustain for any length of time and the only other alternative would be to join the allies.
Metternich’s memorandum concentrated, however, on the third and likeliest possibility, which was that Napoleon would reject the Austrian terms. In that case Metternich’s unequivocal advice was that Austria must declare war. He concluded his memorandum with a question: ‘Can I count on Your Majesty’s firmness in the event that Napoleon does not accept Austria’s conditions for peace? Is Your Majesty resolutely determined in that case to entrust a just cause to the decision of arms – both those of Austria and of the whole of the rest of united Europe?’
Francis responded that any decent man must desire stable and lasting peace and that this was all the more true for a sovereign like himself who bore responsibility for the well-being of ‘his good subjects’ and their ‘beautiful lands’. No greed for territory or other advantages could justify war. But he trusted Metternich’s judgement: ‘To a great extent I have you to thank for the present excellent political situation of my monarchy.’ Therefore he agreed with his foreign minister’s conclusions. In the event that Napoleon accepted Austria’s terms and the allies rejected them he would await Metternich’s advice. If Napoleon rejected the Austrian terms then the monarchy would declare war on France.
In the end therefore everything depended on Napoleon and he played into the allies’ hands. The French representatives at the Prague peace conference arrived late and without powers to negotiate terms. Nothing could have done more to confirm Austrian suspicions that Napoleon was merely playing for time and had no interest in peace. Not until two days before the armistice was due to expire did Napoleon make a serious diplomatic move. On 8 August Caulaincourt, one of the two French delegates to the peace conference, visited Metternich’s quarters to inquire what price Austria required to stay neutral or join the French camp. Not until the day after the armistice expired did the French provide Metternich with a response to the four minimal peace conditions set out by Austria. Napoleon agreed to abandon the Poles and hand over much of Illyria to Austria. He conceded nothing as regards the north German ports, rejected Prussian annexation of Danzig, and required compensation for the King of Saxony to make up for the fact that he had lost his position as Duke of Warsaw. These conditions would never have satisfied Metternich and by now it was in any case too late. Austria had closed the peace conference and now declared war on France.
Ever since August 1813 most historians, French ones included, have condemned Napoleon’s ineptitude in failing to use diplomacy to divide the allies and keep Austria neutral. Even the inadequate concessions presented to Metternich on 11 August might have made an impact on Francis II if put forward as a first move at the beginning of the peace conference. There was room to exploit differences in Austrian and Russo-Prussian war aims, as regards both German and Polish territories. If the peace conference could be extended to include Britain, Napoleon’s chances of sowing dissension must improve further. All the continental powers resented the fact that, while their territories had been occupied and ravaged, the United Kingdom had remained inviolate and become seemingly ever richer. They hoped to achieve territorial concessions by Napoleon in Europe in return for British willingness to hand back French colonies.
Nevertheless, even if Napoleon erred in not using diplomacy more skilfully to explore potential splits among his enemies, it is possible to understand his point of view in the summer of 1813. Refusal seriously to explore peace terms was much less obvious a blunder than his initial agreement to the armistice. The French monarch feared that once he began making concessions the allies would raise their demands. He was correct: the Russians and Prussians intended to do just this. The concessions he was being urged to make in north Germany might conceivably be acceptable in the context of a general peace which would include the return of French colonies, but Napoleon could hardly be expected to concede these territories in a continental peace and thereby find himself naked when he had to bargain later with the British.
A fundamental issue underlay all these peace negotiations. The allies, and indeed Austria, wanted to restore something approaching a balance of power in continental Europe. Napoleon was committed to French empire or at least hegemony. His defenders might plausibly assert that unless he preserved some version of French dominion on the continent he had lost his war with Britain and the vastly powerful maritime empire which it had created. Napoleon’s basic problem was that although the continental powers resented the British version of empire, the French version was a much more direct threat to their interests. No amount of clever diplomacy could alter this. The only way in which Napoleon could get the continental powers to accept his empire was by re-creating their terror of French military power, which the disaster of 1812 had undermined. This was not an impossible task in August 1813. Napoleon had good reason to believe that he could defeat the Russians, Prussians and Austrians because the chances were very evenly matched. This adds to the drama of the autumn 1813 campaign.
In numerical terms Napoleon’s forces were inferior to the allies but not greatly so. The Russian and Prussian official histories put allied numbers in Germany at the beginning of the autumn campaign at just over half a million. Napoleon himself reckoned in early August that he could put 400,000 men in the field, not counting Davout’s corps at Hamburg, which was subsequently able to detach 28,000 men from garrison duties for an offensive against Berlin. On 6 August his chief of staff reported 418,000 men in the ranks. Exact numbers available for action on the battlefield are impossible to calculate for either side: roughly speaking, however, in the first two months of the campaign Napoleon could put rather more than four men in the field to every five allies. It was fortunate for the allies that 57,000 French troops were facing Wellington in the Pyrenees and another small corps under Marshal Suchet was still attempting to hold Catalonia.
After two months the odds would shift somewhat towards the allies. The only reinforcements Napoleon could expect were Augereau’s small corps which was forming in Bavaria. There were dangers in moving Augereau forward, since this made it easier for Bavaria to switch sides, which is what happened in October. To some extent the Russians faced a similar dilemma in the Duchy of Warsaw, where Bennigsen’s Army of Poland was both a strategic reserve and an occupation force. In the Russian case, however, it was possible to move Lobanov-Rostovsky’s Reserve Army into the Duchy to replace Bennigsen’s 60,000 troops when they set off for Saxony. A steady flow of Austrian recruits also joined Schwarzenberg’s army in September and October. In addition, once one began looking beyond the 1813 campaign it was clear that Austria and Russia had greater reserves of untapped manpower than Napoleon, especially if he was forced to rely just on France’s own population. Napoleon’s best chance of defeating the allies would therefore come in the first two months of the autumn campaign. This thought is unlikely to have worried the French emperor. After all, most of his great victories had been won in less time than this.
They had been won by better soldiers than he commanded in August 1813, however. Above all, Napoleon remained very inferior to the allies in cavalry. His mounted arm had improved considerably during the armistice, chiefly in terms of numbers. Some good cavalry regiments subsequently arrived from Spain. The Guards cavalry was mostly competent, as were the Polish and some of the German regiments. But the bulk of Napoleon’s French cavalry was still well inferior to the Russian reserves formed by Kologrivov, not to speak of the veteran Russian cavalrymen. In addition, all sources agree that the cavalry was the best arm of the Austrian army. The situation as regards artillery was if anything the opposite. French equipment was much less cumbersome than Austrian guns and caissons. The Prussian artillery was so weak that the Russians had to second some of their own batteries to a number of Prussian divisions in order to give them sufficient firepower. The Prussian general staff history concluded that French artillery officers were usually more skilful than their allied counterparts. The main allied advantage as regards artillery was numerical. If they could concentrate their three field armies and Bennigsen’s Army of Poland on a single battlefield, the weight of their firepower should be overwhelming.
The majority of both the allied and the Napoleonic infantry were recruits, most of whom had never seen action before August 1813. The French conscripts were younger than their allied peers, but on the other hand many of them had experienced the spring campaign, which was true neither of the Austrians nor of the Prussian Landwehr. The Russian reserves were also going into action for the first time but at least in their case they had enjoyed plenty of time to train and were usually very tough and resilient. Above all, however, the Russian infantry contained more veterans than its French counterpart. This meant not just the men who had served throughout the 1812 and spring 1813 campaigns, but also many thousands of veterans who returned to their regiments during the armistice from hospitals and detached duties. Not surprisingly, the Guards contained exceptionally large number of veterans. The Guards regiments had not seen action in the spring 1813 campaign, and many of them had received drafts of veteran troops from regiments of the line.
Though his army was inferior to the allies in both numbers and quality, in other respects Napoleon enjoyed key advantages. As he himself pointed out to Count Bubna, Metternich’s envoy, interior lines combined with a clear chain of command and his own undisputed leadership were very valuable in themselves. When opposed to a coalition made up of equal great powers with diverse interests, and with armies deployed in a huge semicircle from Berlin in the north to Silesia in the east and Bohemia in the south, these advantages ought to be decisive. In his memoirs, Eugen of Württemberg wrote that in August 1813 he had been optimistic about allied victory but having discovered after the war how disunited and conflict-ridden the allied leadership had been he was now very surprised by ultimate allied success.
The allied commander-in-chief was the Austrian field-marshal, Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. Before 1813 Schwarzenberg had shown himself to be a skilful ambassador and a competent and courageous commander of a division. His record of commanding larger units had been less impressive. Nothing in his personality or career suggested that he was a match for Napoleon as the commander of a huge army. Schwarzenberg was a patient, tactful, kind and honourable man. He believed in the allied cause and served it unselfishly and to the best of his ability. A grand seigneur, he had the manners and the lack of personal ambition appropriate to his status. In the manner of an Eisenhower, he could absorb and defuse conflicts between the many ambitious and aggressive personalities over whom he exercised command. Of course, the aristocratic Schwarzenberg was fluent in French, the lingua franca of the allied high command. As commander-in-chief, however, he was hampered by his lack of confidence in his own military ability, his awe of Napoleon, and the immense difficulty of commanding a coalition army of equal great powers, two of whose sovereigns insisted on travelling with his headquarters and second-guessing his decisions. Though he often found Alexander very difficult to handle, Schwarzenberg on the whole liked him. He echoed the consensus that the Russian monarch was ‘good but weak’. Frederick William III on the contrary was ‘a coarse, churlish and insensitive person whom I dislike as much as I value the poor, valiant Prussians’.
For all his inadequacies, Schwarzenberg was the best man available for the post of commander-in-chief. The supreme commander had to be an Austrian, not a Russian. This reflected allied dependence on Austria in August 1813 as well as the fact that the largest allied army was deployed on Austrian territory. Even if the Austrians had been willing – which was far from the case – Alexander himself would never have accepted the job. Had he wished to be the supreme military commander, the position was his for the asking after Kutuzov’s death in April 1813. Some of his generals urged him to take personal command then but Alexander was far too lacking in confidence in his military abilities to agree. Instead he preferred to operate from behind the shoulder of the actual commander-in-chief, to the latter’s acute discomfort.
The emperor treated Schwarzenberg with more respect than he had Wittgenstein. At the beginning of the autumn campaign, for example, one even finds him telling Wittgenstein to obey Schwarzenberg’s orders when they conflicted with Alexander’s own commands. Quite soon, however, confidence in the supreme commander began to fade and old habits to some extent returned. Schwarzenberg quickly learned that the only way to guarantee that Russian commanders would actually execute his orders was to consult in advance the emperor’s representative at allied headquarters, Karl von Toll, and on any major matters to get Alexander’s own approval. Inevitably this delayed and blurred decision-making to a degree which could have proved fatal.
Consulting Alexander and Frederick William entailed listening to the opinions of their military advisers. In Alexander’s case this meant above all Barclay de Tolly, Diebitsch and Toll. Always inclined to trust foreign ‘military professors’, Alexander now found a partial substitute for Pfühl in Major-General Antoine de Jomini, one of the most respected military writers of the time, who had deserted from Napoleon’s army during the armistice. Alexander put even more trust in Napoleon’s old rival General Moreau, who had defeated the Austrians at Hohenlinden in 1800 and whom he had invited into his entourage from American exile. For Schwarzenberg and his Austrian staff officers it was bad enough having to listen to the allied monarchs and their Russian and Prussian generals. Having to defer to Moreau and Jomini was the final straw. The commander-in-chief wrote to his wife about the frustrations of being ‘surrounded by weaklings, fops of every sort, creators of eccentric schemes, intriguers, idiots, chatterers and fault-finders’. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky commented in his diary that allied decision-making was sometimes akin to the deliberations of a popular assembly, quite unlike the clear-cut system of command which had existed – in his rather idealized memory – at Kutuzov’s headquarters in 1812.
If Schwarzenberg’s power over the main army – the so-called Army of Bohemia – was conditional, it was almost non-existent as regards the two other allied armies. The Army of the North was commanded by Bernadotte and was deployed around Berlin. As the de facto sovereign of a large, independent country Bernadotte had to be given command of one of the armies and would be very difficult for any commander-in-chief to control. In so far as anyone at the main army headquarters could influence Bernadotte’s actions, it was Alexander to whom the Swedish crown prince to some extent deferred. In any case, the whole area between Schwarzenberg’s and Bernadotte’s armies was held by Napoleon, so messengers between the two headquarters generally made a huge detour to the east and took many days to shuttle back and forth. Even Schwarzenberg’s attempts to control General Blücher, the commander of the Army of Silesia, bore little fruit. By delay and by appealing to Alexander and Frederick William the Prussian general successfully resisted all the commander-in-chief’s many efforts to draw the Army of Silesia into Bohemia in order to cover the main army’s right flank. At least in the Army of Bohemia Schwarzenberg could give direct orders to the 120,000 men who formed its Austrian contingent. In the Army of Silesia and the Army of the North, however, there were no Austrian troops.