Battle of Dennewitz, 6 September 1813

The battle of Dennewitz (6 September 1813) was a French defeat that ended Napoleon's second attempt to take Berlin during the autumn campaign of 1813.

At the start of the campaign Marshal Oudinot had been given the task of taking Berlin, but he suffered a defeat at Grossbeeren (23 August 1813) on the approaches to the city and retreated towards the Elbe at Wittenberg. This came a few days before Napoleon's last great victory, at Dresden (26-27 August 1813), and helped to undo Napoleon's victory. The retreat to Wittenberg also angered Napoleon, as it left the northern flank of his Army of the Bobr (Marshal Macdonald) vulnerable to attack.

By 3 September the French Army of Berlin was posted around Wittenberg facing north, with Bertrand's IV Corps on the right, Oudinot's XII Corps in the centre and Reynier's VII Corps on the left. Ney also had Arrighi's III Cavalry Corps. Oudinot was still with the army, but in the aftermath of the defeat at Grossbeeren he had been replaced by Marshal Ney as commander of the army. Napoleon probably should have replaced Oudinot as a corps commander as well, to avoid any complications during the upcoming attack on Berlin.

Freidrich Wilhelm Graf Bülow von Dennewitz
Freidrich Wilhelm
Graf Bülow
von Dennewitz

Napoleon's original plan after Dresden had been to lead the attack on Berlin in person. Marshal Ney would command the main force involved, and he was to be given 80,000 men. This plan had to be altered when it became clear that Marshal Macdonald's Army of Bobr hadn't really recovered from its defeat on the Katzbach, despite Napoleon personally rallying it around Bautzen in early September. As a result Napoleon had to take 25,000 men from Ney's force, and use it to bolster Macdonald once again. Ney was left with 58,000 men for the attack on Berlin.

He faced the Allied Army of the North, under the former Marshal Berndotte, by this point the Crown Prince of Sweden. This was made up of Bülow's III Corps, Tauentzien's IV Corps (both Prussian), Wintzingerode's Russian Corps and Stedingk's Swedish Corps. Only the Prussians took part in the main part of the battle.

Ney reached his new command on 3 September. At this point his army was facing north/ north-east to the north of Wittenberg, with Bertrand's IV Corps on the right, Oudinot's XII Corps in the centre and Reynier's VII Corps on the left.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign

As he pursued Oudinot Bernadotte's troops had become rather widely scattered, but on 4 September Oudinot made a demonstration towards Zahna, six miles to the east/ north-east of Wittenberg. Bernadotte then moved his troops closer together, with Tauenzien's corps at Zahna on his left, Bülow's corps in his centre and Stedingk, Winzingerode and Hirschfeld's division at Lobbese, eight miles to the north of Zahna, on his right.

Ney was still expecting to join up with Napoleon at Luckau, 45 miles to the east of Wittenberg, and he issued orders for an advance east. On 5 September XII Corps and IV Corps were to head to Zahna, and then towards Juterbogk, 14 miles to the east/ north-east of Zahna, with XII Corps in the lead. VII Corps was to move north, then turn right to form the left flank of the advancing French army, heading in the direction of Baruth, to the east/ north-east of Juterbogk.

On 5 September the French were thus advancing east in three columns. Oudinot, in the centre, clashed with Tauenzien's advance guard at Zahna, and after a hard fight forced it to retreat towards Juterbog.

Bernadotte realised that he had a chance to launch a flank attack on the advancing French. Tauenzien was ordered to retreat east as the French advanced. As the French moved east, they would become vulnerable to a flank attack by the rest of Bernadotte's army, to their north.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

By the end of 5 September XII Corps (Oudinot) had Pacthod's and Guilleminot's divisions in front of Seyda (five and a half miles to the east/ south-east of Zahna), with Fournier's cavalry and Raglovitch's Bavarian's behind Gadegast (just to the north-west of Seyda).

IV Corps (Bertrand) and Lorge's cavalry were at Seehausen (five miles north of Seyda) and Naundorf (half way between Seyda and Seehausen)

VII Corps (Reynier) was around Zahna, in the centre-rear of the French position. The French were facing east, with Oudinot on the right and Bertrand on the left.  

Ney's orders for 6 September were for Bertrand to mach east from Seehausen, and pass to the south of Juterbog, to guard the left flank of the French movement. Reynier was to move to Rohrbeck (just south of Juterbog), going via Gadegast and Oehna (heading almost directly east to Oehna, then north to Rohrbeck). Oudinot was to wait until Reynier had passed Oehna, and was then to move east towards Dahme (20 miles to the east of his starting position) and Luckau (another ten miles to the east). If all went well Ney's army would then form the left wing of Napoleon's advance on Berlin, with Reynier and Bertrand on the left and Oudinot connecting the two wings of the army.

Bertrand's IV Corps was first to move, setting off at 8am. Its route took it towards Dennewitz, a village 10 miles to the east/ north-east of Zahna and just over three miles to the south-west of Juterbog. Here he found Tauenzien's troops in a defensive position.

Reynier's VII Corps was second to move, but he chose a different route - instead of heading east to pass Oudinot and then north, he moved directly north/ north-east on a route that took him to Dennewitz. He had further to move that Bertrand, but set off later, so didn't arrive on the battlefield for some time.

Oudinot's XII Corps would be last to arrive. Although his corps was ready to move by 10am, his orders were to wait for Reynier to reach Oehna before moving. As Reynier hadn't taken the expected route, he never appeared at Oehna, and Oudinot didn't move. He finally received fresh orders between 1 and 2pm and only then began to move.

On the Allied side Tauenzien was posted to the north-east of Dennewitz, to the south-west of Jüterbog. Bülow began the day at Eckmannsdorf, just over seven miles to the west of Jüterbog.

The Battlefield

The battle took place on a sandy plain, with several woods and low hills scattered around. A stream, the Agerbach, flows east/ south-east across the plain, passing through Neider Görsdorf, then flowing south-east to Dennewitz and east to Rohrbeck. The village of Gölsdorf was to the south-west of the stream (south of Neider Görsdorf and south-west of Dennewitz).

The Battle

The battle began with Bertrand attacking north-east towards Tauenzien. The French were able to cross the Agerbach without difficulty. Bertrand then used Fontanelli's division for the main attack. Lorge's division was posted to his left, while Morand's division waited in Dennewitz until there was enough space for them to deploy north of the stream.

Fontanelli's attack began at 11am. Tauenzien's flanks were both pushed back, but a Prussian cavalry attack stopped the French pushing him back any further. If the French had been free to concentrate on Tauenzien, he couldn't have held out much longer, but by 12.30pm the first of Bülow's troops were arriving from the west. Morand's division was posted on the hills north of Nieder Görsdorf.

Bülow's first attack was made by Thümen's brigade, but this was easily repulsed by the French. A second attack, by the Hessen-Homburg division, was more successful, and Morand was forced to retreat east in good order. By 2.30pm the French had formed a new line, this time facing west. Their left flank was on a windmill hill near Dennewitz, their right in some woods to the north-east of Nieder Görsdorf (still present today).

This new line didn't hold for long. Thümen and Tauenzien attacked the French right, in the woods, and after a hard fight defeated the Wurtemberg troops who were defending it. The French had to abandon the line, and pulled back east to Rohrbeck.

The next phase of the battle began when Ney and Reynier's VII Corps arrived.Reynier only discovered that a battle was taking place at around 1pm (heavy wind masked the sound of the fighting, and probably also stopped Oudinot hearing the fighting). He split his forces. Durutte's troops were sent towards Dennewitz, while Reynier took two Saxon divisions and De France's cuirassiers further left, towards Nieder Görsdorf.

Durutte's division reached the main battlefield, where Ney ordered it to cross the stream and retake the windmill heights at Dennewitz. Durutte, with help from Bertrand, managed to take the hill, but only temporarily. By 4pm Thüman's Prussians had taken up a position between Dennewitz and Rohrbeck.

By now more of Bülow's troops had reached the battlefield, and they were posted around Gölsdorf, south of the stream. At this point Bernadotte's forces were thus largely facing east from Gölsdorf and Dennewitz. Bertrand was facing west from Rohrbeck. Reynier's troops were approaching the battle from the south.

Reynier and his Saxons captured Gölsdorf, on Bülow's right, at about 2.30pm, but were soon forced to retreat. At Dennewitz the Prussians were able to advance past the village.

By about 3pm the first of Oudinot's troops began to arrive, appearing on the French left where they were able to support Reynier. Reynier's Saxons, supported by Guilleminot's and Pacthod's divisions from Oudinot's corps, were able to take Gölsdorf. Bülow was now in a rather dangerous position, facing most of two French corps. Bernadotte's Swedish and Russian troops, who had started the day furtherest from the battlefield, were still a few miles away. Bernadotte hadn't been sure where Ney would move, and so had to guard against a possible attack on Berlin, as well as the actual move east.  

The French thus had a real chance for success, but a combination of Ney's lack of knowledge of the situation across the battlefield and Oudinot's simmering resentment at being replaced in command of the army meant that they threw it away. If Oudinot and Reynier had combined they could have defeated Bülow's corps before Bernadotte's last troops arrived, split the Allied army in two, and then restored the situation on the French right.

Ney was based south-east of Dennewitz, with the French right. He decided to mount an attack on this flank, and ordered Oudinot to move from the French left to the French right to support it. Reynier pleaded with Oudinot to remain on the left and complete the defeat of Bülow, but Oudinot replied that he was bound to obey the order literally. As a result his corps was largely uninvolved in the final acts of the battle.

On the French right Bertrand was unable to hold on to Rohrbeck, which fell to the Prussians by 5pm. At this point Oudinot's corps was still moving east.

Just as Oudinot's movement began, Bülow committed his reserves, under General Borstell, to a fresh attack on Gölsdorf. The Saxons lost 1,500 men and were forced to retreat. De France's cuirassiers charged the pursuing Prussians and saved the rest of the Saxons. 

By 5pm Bülow had been joined by the first Swedish and Russian troops. Any chance of a French victory was now over, and the Allies held the upper hand. Bülow attacked, and forced Reynier's men to retreat east. They got mixed up with Oudinot's columns, and they got swept up in the defeat. By 6pm Ney realised that the battle was lost, and ordered a retreat east towards Dahme. By this point his army was scattered and large parts of it didn’t get the order.

The defeated French retreated in several directions. Reynier and Oudinot headed south towards Torgau on the Elbe, thirty miles to the south. Ney and Bertrand went to Dahme, but most of the troops fled south. Most of the survivers reached Torgau on the day after the battle. Ney and Bertrand were soon forced to join them, but the Allies were able to take anoher 3,200 prisoners in scattered fighting around Dahme (7 September 1813).

The majority of the fighting on the Allied side had been done by Bülow's and Tauenzien's Prussians. Bernadotte had spent much of the day marching towards the battlefield, covering 15 miles in just over six hours, and arriving towards the end of the battle.

The entire brief campaign had been a disaster for the French. At Dennewitz the French probably lost 10,000 men, the Allies around 7,000. In the entire campaign, from the start of the advance around Zahna to the arrival at Torgau, the French lost 22,000 men, including 13,500 prisoners and 43 guns. The French Army of Berlin had this lost more than a third of its original strength. Napoleon's plans for September were also affected – any idea of an attack on Berlin came to an end, and the northern flanks of his armies east of the Elbe were also now vulnerable to attack.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 June 2017), Battle of Dennewitz, 6 September 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_dennewitz.html

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