Battle of Großbeeren

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Battle of Großbeeren
Part of the War of the Sixth Coalition
Grossbeeren 1813.jpg
Rain having rendered small arms fire impossible, Saxon infantry (left) use musket butts and bayonets to defend the churchyard at Großbeeren against a Prussian onslaught.
Date23 August 1813
Location
South of Berlin
Result Coalition victory
Belligerents
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg French Empire
State flag of Saxony before 1815.svg Saxony
Flag of the Kingdom of Prussia (1803-1892).svg Prussia
Flag of The Russian Empire 1883.svg Russian Empire
Flag of Sweden.svg Sweden
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg Nicolas Oudinot Flag of Sweden.svg Crown Prince Charles John
Flag of the Kingdom of Prussia (1803-1892).svg Friedrich von Bülow
Strength
60,000
32+ guns
80,000
Casualties and losses
3,000 killed or wounded
1,500 captured
13 guns lost
1,000 killed, wounded or captured

In the Battles of Großbeeren and neighboring Blankenfelde and Sputendorf (23 August 1813) an allied Prussian-Swedish army under Crown Prince Charles John – formerly Marshal of France Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte – defeated the French under Marshal Oudinot. Napoleon had hoped to drive the Prussians out of the Sixth Coalition by capturing their capital, but the swamps south of Berlin combined with rain and the Marshal's ill health all contributed to the French defeat.

Contents

Prelude

Following the Battle of Bautzen, in May 1813, during the War of the Sixth Coalition, both sides agreed to a seven-week truce to plan and better prepare. When the campaign resumed, in August, Napoleon ordered an offensive drive to take the Prussian capital of Berlin. With its capture, he hoped to knock the Prussians out of the war. Meanwhile, he kept the bulk of his army on the strategic defensive, to deal with any potential moves by the large Austrian army, which had now gathered in southeastern Germany. For this task, he chose one of his bravest and best commanders, Marshal Nicolas Oudinot, to lead the offensive. Oudinot tried to turn down this honor due to his poor health. He had been wounded on several occasions during the previous year's disastrous campaign in Russia, and had not yet fully recovered. But the emperor insisted, so Oudinot with three corps of about 60,000 men advanced on Berlin.

Unknown to both Napoleon and Oudinot at the time, this strategy played right into the Coalition's hands. In accordance with the Trachenberg Plan (the Allied plan for the campaign formulated during the truce), in large part created by Bernadotte himself, they would avoid any large, main engagement with Napoleon himself until after they had gathered overwhelming strength and weakened the emperor by defeating his marshals in separate, smaller battles.

Initially, Bernadotte, as commander of the Allied Army of the North, felt that Berlin was not defensible against a large French attack due to the lack of natural barriers to the south of the city and the danger to his line of retreat to Swedish Pomerania in the event Napoleon made the attack against Berlin his main effort. However, for political reasons, and the Prussian insistence that they would defend Berlin by themselves if necessary, [1] the Crown Prince relented and began planning for the defense of the city. Bernadotte made use of the disposition of local road networks and marshy terrain and placed his various corps in position to hold an enemy advance along the few North-South roads long enough for the rest of the Army of the North to take advantage of a larger number of East-West roads, and the open terrain, to arrive. [2] [3] [4]

Battle

Memorial tower in Grossbeeren Grossbeeren Turm.jpg
Memorial tower in Großbeeren
Medal for the opening on 23 August 1913 of the memorial tower at Grossbeeren, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle, obverse Napoleonic War Medal Battle of Grossbeeren 1813, obverse.jpg
Medal for the opening on 23 August 1913 of the memorial tower at Großbeeren, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle, obverse
Medal for the opening on 23 August 1913 of the memorial tower at Grossbeeren, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle, reverse. Napoleonic War Medal Battle of Grossbeeren 1813, reverse.jpg
Medal for the opening on 23 August 1913 of the memorial tower at Großbeeren, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle, reverse.

From its start the offensive was plagued by misfortune. On the same day as the advance began, the 19 August, heavy rain storms broke out turning the roads into muddy quagmires and making it nearly impossible to move the artillery. Further hindering the advance, the area south of Berlin was crisscrossed with small lakes and swamps. In the best of weather there were only a couple of roads by which to approach the city from the south. But rain turned many of the Prussian defensive positions into fortified islands. Oudinot was forced to advance his Corps along three separate roads, with little communication between them.

General Bertrand's 4th Corps of 13,000 and 32 cannons to the right, on the left General Guilleminot's 12th Corps of 20,000, mainly inexperienced recent recruits, (nicknamed Marie-Louises). In the centre was the main column of General Jean Reynier's 7th Corps of 27,000 largely French allied Saxon troops. Oudinot did not expect any serious opposition and a lack of cavalry kept him unaware of the position of the enemy.

Berlin was defended by the Army of the North, commanded by Crown Prince Charles John of Sweden, formerly French Marshal Bernadotte. When Reynier's corps reached Großbeeren, he encountered the bulk of Prince Charles' army drawn up for battle. Acting without orders or support, he attacked Friedrich von Bülow's corps, which had just been reinforced by the Swedes to 38,000 strong, and was repulsed with heavy casualties. Oudinot, unable to concentrate his army, arrived late in the day just as Reynier's Saxons had begun to waver after that general failed to rally them for another assault. Von Bülow's Corps suffered light casualties, had fought extremely well, and petitioned to set out on an immediate pursuit of the unorganized French but was reined in by Charles John. [5] [6]

Aftermath

Realising the advance had been checked, and believing his army was in an exposed position, Oudinot ordered the retreat to Jüterbog after sustaining heavy losses. Reynier alone lost over 3,000 killed or wounded, 1,500 captured and 13 guns lost.

Bernadotte did not order a pursuit, despite the extreme vulnerability of the demoralized French and the vigorous protests of his Prussian generals. Bülow and Tauentzien argued that the French forces under Oudinot could be utterly destroyed by a rapid pursuit south, and protested Bernadotte's idleness to the senior Prussian commander in the field, Field Marshal Blücher and the King of Prussia. [7] [8] However, Bernadotte feared that moving away from Berlin to chase the French might be falling right into Napoleon's hands as it would mean isolating his Army, endangering his lines of communication by leaving Marshal Davout and his force of 35,000 in Hamburg in his rear, and drawing closer to the French main body thus allowing Napoleon to use interior lines to attack him before any Allied army could intervene. As a consequence, and to the extreme displeasure of the Prussians, the Allied Army of the North remained in its favorable defensive position near Berlin waiting to receive another French attack. [9]

The defeat at Großbeeren, combined with continued ill health, had shaken Oudinot's confidence, and he continued the general retreat to Wittenberg. Napoleon was furious with Oudinot, not so much for his defeat, but for his withdrawal to Wittenberg instead of back to Luckau. He fumed, "It is truly difficult to have fewer brains than the Duke of Reggio!". Napoleon then appointed Marshal Michel Ney to lead a second drive on Berlin with the same three, now reduced and demoralized, corps and the ailing Oudinot as Ney's subordinate. The result would be the Battle of Dennewitz.

Literary reference

In 1833 Theodor Fontane – then a fourteen-year-old boy – visited the site of the Battle of Großbeeren and was deeply impressed, later writing a school essay about this battle – the first work known to have been penned by a man who would become a major German writer. Fontane recounted this reminiscence in a much later essay, written in his old age (1894). He mentioned also that his mother – at the time a young Berlin woman – had in the aftermath of the battle tended wounded soldiers, both German and French. Being of a Huguenot family who still spoke French among themselves, she was able to speak to dying French soldiers in their own language. [10]

Notes

  1. Leggiere, Michael V. (2015) Napoleon and the Struggle for Germany. Pp. 452-453. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Chandler, David (1991) The Campaigns of Napoleon. Pp. 908-911. Easton Press, Norwalk
  3. Wencker-Wildberg, Friedrich. (1936) Bernadotte: A Biography. P. 294-295
  4. Barton, Sir Dunbar Plunket. Bernadotte: Prince and King. Pp. 91-92. John Murray, London. 1925.
  5. Leggiere (2015). P. 452.
  6. Leggiere, Michael V. (2002) Napoleon and Berlin. Pp. 174-176. Oklahoma University Press, Norman
  7. Leggiere (2015). Pp. 452-453.
  8. Leggiere, (2002) P. 175
  9. Barton, Dunbar Plunkett. (1925) Bernadotte Prince and King. Pp. 85-91. John Murray, London.
  10. Theodor Fonatane, "Mein Erstling: Das Schlachtfeld von Gross-Beeren", in Kurt Schreinert and Jutta Neuendorf-Fürstenau (eds.) Meine Kinderjahre (=Sämtliche Werke, vol.XIV), pp. 189–191; quoted in Christopher Clarke, The Iron Kingdom, pp. 681–682)

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References


Coordinates: 52°21′00″N13°18′00″E / 52.35000001°N 13.30000001°E / 52.35000001; 13.30000001