Battle of Dresden, day two (27 August 1813)

French Position
Allied Position
The Allied Plan
Napoleon's Plan
The Battle on the French Right
The Battle on the French Left
End of the Battle

The second day of the Battle of Dresden (27 August 1813) saw Napoleon launch a massive counterattack that forced the Allies to retreat, and that might have given him a decisive victory if Marshal Vandamme had made more progress to the south of Dresden.

At the start of the Autumn Campaign of 1813 Napoleon moved east towards Silesia to deal with Marshal Blücher, the first Allied commander to begin to move. Blücher obeyed the Trachenberg plan and withdrew without risking a battle. News then reached Napoleon that the main Allied army, under Prince Schwarzenberg, was advancing on Dresden. Napoleon turned back to save the city. He briefly considered leaving St. Cyr to defend Dresden alone while he took the bulk of his army across the Elbe into the enemy's rear, but then decided that Dresden was too vulnerable. Vandamme was given the task of getting into the enemy's rear, with a single corps, while Napoleon led the bulk of his army directly to Dresden.

The fighting on the first day of the battle had fallen into three phases. In the morning the Allies conducted a rather half-hearted reconnaissance in force. In the afternoon they launched a larger, but unsuccessful attack on the city. Finally Napoleon launched a counterattack that forced the Allies back to their starting points.

French Position

Overnight VI Corps (Marmont) arrived with 40 infantry battalions, 8 cavalry squadrons and 78 guns, II Corps (Victor) with 36 battalions, 2 squadrons and 68 guns and the Guard Cavalry (Lefebvre-Desnoettes) with 10 squadrons and 6 guns. As a result Napoleon had around 120,000-125,000 men ready for the second day of the battle. The Allies had 158,000 men on the field, with reinforcements of their own expected.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

On the first day of the battle St. Cyr had commanded the defence of Dresden, Murat had been given a column to the west of the Wiesseritz, Ney a column in the French centre and Mortier on the French left, east of Dresden.

On the second day Murat, Ney and Mortier remained roughly in their original positions, with Marmont and St. Cyr slotted into the line between Murat and Ney.

Mortier was on the French left, with Decouz's and Roguet's divisions from the Young Guard. He held the area between the Grosser Garten and the Elbe, with Nansouty's cavalry on his left.

Ney had Barrois's and Dumoustier's divisons from the Young Guard, and was to attack through the Grosser Garten and along its northern edge.

St. Cyr was next in line, with his XIV Corps and Jacquet's cavalry brigade. His left faced the south-east courner of the Grosser Garten and his main body was to the north-west of Strehlen.

Marmont was on the right bank of the Wiesseritz, commanding his VI Corps and supported by Normann's cavalry brigade. He held the area from the Weisseritz to Redoubt No.III.

Murat was posted on the left bank of the Wiesseritz, with Victor's corps and six battalions of Teste's division, supported by 63 squadrons of cavalry (Pajol and Latour-Maubourg).

To the south-east Vandamme had crossed the Elbe and defeated Eugen of Württemberg. The Allies send reinforcements under Ostermann-Tolstoy to help him.

Allied Position

On the Allied side the Russian advanced guard held a line from Blasewitz on the Elbe to Grüna, to the north-east of the Grosser Garten. The Russian 5th Infantry Division was between Torna and Leubnitz, south-east of the Grasser Garten. Ziethen's and Klüx's Prussians were to the north-east of the 5th Division.

Two more Prussian brigades were spread out to the south-west of Leubnitz, reaching Gostritz, with the third brigade behind Gostritz. The landwehr cavalry formed the 3rd line.

To their left General Miloradovich's Russians were in Tschertnitz (or Zscherntnitz), Klein Pestitz and Mockritz, to the west/ north-west of the Prussians.

The Austrians formed the left of the Allied army. Colloredo's and Chasteler's corps were between Miloradovich and the Weisseritz, with troops at Plauen and Coschütz on the river (Plauen nearest to Dresden, Coschütz a little way to the south-west). Civillart's division and Moritz Lichtenstein's cavalry were behind Colloredo and Chasteler, with Nostitz's cavalry forming a third line.

The Austrian reserve (Weissenwolf's division but without its commander, Bianchi's division and Schuler's cavalry, commanded by Ignaz Gyulai) were posted at Gittersee, south of Coschütz.

The Austrian left, on the left bank of the Weisseritz, were commanded by Weissenwolf. On his right he had Czöllich's brigade, two infantry regiments from Klenau, and two squadrons of cuirassiers around Dölzschen (on the Weisseritz), Rossthal and Neu Nimptsch (west of Plauen). Messery's brigade formed a reserve to the south/ south-west at Pesterwitz and Alt Franken. On his left Meszko's division was around Neider Gorbitz and Leutewitz, connecting the Austrian right to the Elbe west of Dresden.

Klenau was approaching the battlefield with 21,000 men, and was expected to take up a position on the far left, with Weissenwolf, but most of his troops didn't arrive in time to take part in the battle.

The Allied numerical advance was thus reduced from around 80,000 on the first day of the battle, to 50,000 on the second day (120,000 French vs 170,000 Allies).

The Allied Plan

The Allies expected Napoleon to attack their centre on 27 August. This was thus the strongest part of their line, with two thirds of their available strength. Bianchi had 25,000 men on the left, across the Weisseritz River. He would also have received Klenau's reinforcements if they had arrived. Wittgenstein had another 25,000 men on the right.

The weather played a part in the second day of the battle. The first day had been fine, but heavy rain began at midnight and continued throughout the second day of the battle. As a result the Weisseritz River turned from a minor inconvenience to a major barrier. The only contact between the Allied left and centre was via the bridge at Plauen.

The Allies were outnumbered to the west of the Weisseritz, and could easily be cut off. In the centre the Allied outnumbered the French by two-to-one. To the east of Dresden Ney and Mortier outnumbered their opponents by a similar margin.

Napoleon's Plan

By the end of the fighting on the first day Napoleon expected the Allies to retreat overnight, having failed to take the city before his reinforcements could arrive.

Napoleon's plan was to fight a holding action in the centre, to keep the bulk of the Allied army pinned down. He would attack on both flanks. The attack on the French right would cut off and defeat the Allied left, taking advantage of the barrier of the Weisseritz. The attack on the French left was designed to cut the road to Pirna and Peterswalde in Bohemia (now Petrovice in the Czech Republic).  Total victory would only be possible if Vandamme could cut of the lines of retreat across the mountains into Bohemia.

Murat commanded on the French right, with 35,000 men (including Victor and Latour-Maubourg's commands).

Marmont and St. Cyr were in the centre, with 50,000 men. Behind them the Old Guard infantry formed the only French reserve.

On the left were Ney and Mortier with 35,000 men, including Nansouty's cavalry.

The battle felt into two clear halves - the fighting to the west of the Weisseritz and the fighting to the east and south-east of Dresden.

The Battle on the French Right

On the French right Victor's corps was to attack on the left, with Teste's division on the right. Victor's first target was a group of four villages - Wolfnitz in the north, Nauslitz in the east, Rossthal in the south and Gorbitz in the west. The key bridge at Dölzschen was to the south-east of these villages.  From the French point of view Nauslitz was on the left and Wolfnitz on the right as they advanced towards the Allied line.

Victor attacked in four columns. On his left the first column took advantage of a hollow lane than ran from his position to the area between Rossthal and Dölzschen. This column reached its destination easily. The second column attacked Nauslitz, which fell after a number of attacks. Once the village fell, this column followed two ravines which ran towards Rossthal and the area between Rossthal and the river. The Austrians in that key position were forced to give way, with some heading to Dölzschen and some to Rossthal. The first French column was able to trap the Austrians in Dölzschen, while the second column captured Rossthal.

The third French column advanced to the right of Nauslitz, in the gap between that village and Wolfnitz. Supported by a flank attack from the second column at Rossthal, they were able to force their Austrian opponents to retreat towards Neu Nimptsch (an estate between Rossthal and Gorbitz) and Pesterwitz, a village to the south-west of the four villages. The third column then captured Neu Nimptsch.

The fourth column attacked Wolfnitz and then Nieder Gorbitz. Wolfnitz was captured early. The garrison of Gorbitz attempted to retreat south-west, but was surrounded and captured in a ravine between Neu Nimptsch and Alt Franken (a village to the south-west of Gorbitz and north-west of Pesterwitz).

By noon a mix of troops from Meszko's and Munb's brigades, along with the surviving defenders of Wolfnitz and Ober Gorbitz  (west of Gorbitz) were in open ground west of Neu Nimptsch. Victor's cavalry attacked, and the Austrian infantry formed squares, but in the rain their muskets wouldn't fire, and the cavalry rode down all four squares.

By the early afternoon the Austrian line had thus been split into three - one part was trapped around Dölzschen. The second was west of Rossthal, the third was west of Gorbitz.

On the French right Teste and Murat's cavalry attacked Meszko's and Mumb's brigades, in the area west of Ober Gorbitz. The Austrians fulled back. By now Weissenwolf realised that his line had collapsed, and he ordered a general retreat towards Pesterwitz, to the south-west of his original position.

The French now began to capture large parts of the Austrian force. Meszko's brigade was trapped when Teste's right wing got to Pennrich, west of Gorbitz, cutting off their only escape route. Threatened by cavalry on three sides and infantry on the fourth, four Austrian regiments surrendered, along with Meszko and Mumb themselves. On the other flank the defenders of Dölzschen fought on until around 2pm, when a French shell set fire to the village. The surviving defenders attempted to get down to the river, but there was no way across. The sizable Austrian forces on the other side of the river were unable to intervene.

By about 2pm resistance had largely collapsed on this front. The French probably took around 12,000 prisoners, although the figure might be higher. The Austrian survivors retreated well into the Allied rear.

The Battle on the French Left

Mortier attacked at 6am, with Roguet's division on his left, nearest to the Elbe and Decouz's division on his right. By 7am Roguet had taken the village of Blasewitz, on the Elbe, at the far right of the Allied line. He then advanced into the Blasewitz woods, while Decouz advanced to the south of the wood. A little further south Ney's divisions advanced along the northern edge of the Grosser Garten. There was little fighting in this area, as the Prussians had retreated from the garden at daybreak, realising that they were dangerously exposed in front of the main Allied line.

The Russians were forced out of Grüna, east of the garden, and retreated east to Seidnitz. Their new line now ran north-east from Seidnitz to the Elbe.

Mortier's men now swung around, with their right fighting at Seidnitz and their left advancing via Tolkewitz to threaten to outflank the Russian position. Wittgenstein ordered a retreat south to Reick and Prohlis, away from the Elbe, but close to the main Allied position around Torna. However Seidnitz remained in Russian hands for some time longer.

As the Russians retreated from the Elbe, Mortier's cavalry passed through Tolkewitz and continued along the river to Laubegast. They then formed up south of that village, facing south towards the key Pirna road.

On Mortier's right Seidnitz was captured. Roguet then advanced toward Dobritz, east of Seidnitz and south of Laubegast. Nansouty's cavalry moved to Leuben, east of Dobritz, a move that forced the Russians to retreat south-west to Reick.

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

Ney also made good progress, reaching Grüna. To his right St. Cyr pushed a single Prussian battalion out of Strehlen, but then left most of his corps behind Strehlen.

At about 11am Napoleon reached Seidnitz, after making sure that the attack on his right had gone well. He ordered an attack on Reick, which now formed the right flank of the main Allied position. This village was protectd to the north and east by a water feature, the Landgraben, at this point a channel eight feet deep, six to eight feet wide and protected by an embankment ten-twelve feet high and twenty feet wide. The French attacked from the north-east, hitting a corner in the Landgraben. The Russians made a determined defence of the village, but were forced to retreat into the southern half of the village after a shell set the northern half on fire. The Russian garrison was then cut off. By noon the defenders had been wiped out, and the rest of the Russian force retreated to Torna.

At about the same time St. Cyr made two unsuccessful attacks on Leubnitz, where the Prussian garrison had been replaced by the Russians. The first was repulsed close to the village after two Prussian battalions made a bayonet charge. The second didn't get as far. Napoleon then arrived, after making sure Reick had failed. He ordered a third attack on the village, to be made from Strehlen, with support provided by some hore artillery. This attack failed after it was hit by heavy artillery fire while the French were leaving Strehlen.

At about 1pm, after the failure of this attack, Napoleon left St. Cyr. On his way to Redoubt No.IV he paused to direct the fire of a horse artillery battery. Its second target was a group of horsemen seen just to the left of Räcknitz. This group turned out to be the Tsar and his advisors. The first shot hit General Moreau, then serving with the Russians. The shot mangled both of his legs, which were later amputated in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life. This happened just as the Tsar, with Moreau's and Jomini's advice, was preparing a counterattack against Mortier and Ney. Barclay de Tolly objected to the plan, and in the confusion caused by Moreau's wounding no reply to his objections was sent. As a result the counterattack never happened.

End of the Battle

Moreau was wounded at about the same time that news of Prince Eugène's defeat at Pirna on the previous day arrived. The French had also rather run out of steam. By 3pm the artillery fire had ended, and by 4pm Napoleon had returned to the palace in Dresden

On 28 August the French patrols found little but rearguards. Although the Allies had to retreat along a limited number of roads, Vandamme hadn't been able to occupy Teplitz, and so some lines of retreat were still open.

The battle of Dresden was Napoleon's last great victory. Despite being heavily outnumbered on the first day he had been able to defeat the Allied attack on Dresden and then counterattack, then on the second day he managed to defeat both flanks of the larger Allied army.

The battle showed that the French army was still a potent force. The Allies had lost 38,000 men in the two days of the battle, the French only 10,000. The battle also showed that the French could defeat a larger army – Leipzig is often portrayed as an inevitable Allied victory, but Dresden shows that this wasn't really the case.

The big difference between 1813 and earlier campaigns was that Napoleon was unable to take full advantage of his victory. His lack of cavalry meant that the pursuit wasn't as powerful as in earlier years, and despite the victory at Dresden the French were still outnumbered. Vandamme's failure to move more vigorously on the second day of the battle meant that the best roads to Bohemia were still open.

Elsewhere Napoleon's subordinates were letting him down. On 23 August Oudinot was defeated by Bülow at Grossbeeren and his attack on Berlin came to an end. On 26 August Macdonald suffered a careless defeat at the Katzbach at the hands of Blücher. As a result Napoleon had to spend the days after the battle of Dresden concentrating on how to undo those defeats leaving his subordinates to conduct the pursuit of Schwarzenberg and the defeated Army of Bohemia. This led to a third disaster, at Kulm (29-30 August 1813). Vandamme spent the first day of this battle attacking part of the Allied rearguard, but on the second day a second Allied force, retreating down the same road, attacked him in the rear. Vandamme was trapped, and was eventualy forced to surrender. 

Napoleon has also been critised for his distribution of forces at Dresden. He was able to hold the city on the first day of the battle without Marmont or Victor. If he had kept their troops on the upper Elbe with Vandamme, and attacked the Allied rear area with three corps instead of one then he probably would have been able to cut their lines of retreat into Bohemia. On the other hand if Napoleon hadn't been present at Dresden in person then the city might have fallen.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 May 2017), Battle of Dresden, day two (27 August 1813) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_dresden_27_aug.html

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