Combat of Geiersberg, 10 September 1813 (Saxony)

The combat of Geiersberg (10 September 1813) saw Napoleon get into a position from where he could attack the Prussian and Russian contingents of the Army of Bohemia, but then decide not to risk a descent into Bohemia.

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

In early September Napoleon was forced to move east from Dresden to deal with the aftermath of Marshal Macdonald's defeat on the Katzbach (26 August 2016), and the near collapse of his army. While Napoleon was moving east, Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia began a new advance up the Elbe towards Dresden, advancing along both banks of the river. This forced Napoleon back to Dresden. News of his arrival ended the Allied advance, and he then pushed then back from their closest positions south of Dresden (Combat of Dohna, 8 September 1813). By the end of 8 September St. Cyr's XIV Corps had its right at Kottwitz and its left in front of Sedlitz, just to the south of Dohna.

At the start of 9 September the Army of Bohemia was dangerously spread out, with one part of the army east of the Elbe and Austrian columns further west, on the roads to Freiberg and Chemnitz. St. Cyr suggested that the French could advance along the 'Old Road', which led south across the mountains via Dohna and Furstenwalde, before dropping down onto the plains near Teplitz. 

The local geography was the key to this brief campaign, which lasted for just over a week, and saw the only significant fighting in Bohemia during the War of Liberation. The border between Saxony and Bohemia is formed by the Ore Mountains, which rise up as you head south from Saxony into Bohemia, then on the Bohemia side of the border drop down abruptly to flatter ground. This area of flatter group began at Tetschen on the Elbe (modern Decin), and ran west to Kulm (Chlumec) and then Teplitz (Teplcie).

Two main roads ran across the mountains. The 'New Road' ran from Pirna on the Elbe, and entered Bohemia at Peterswalde (Petrovice). The road then ran south to Nollendorf (Naklerov), before dropping to the plains between Tetschen and Kulm.

The 'old road' ran further west, to Furstenwalde, just inside Germany, and then followed a steep route down to the plains around Teplitz.

When Wittgenstein realised what was happening he ordered his troops to retreat down the New Road towards Peterswalde, and by the end of 9 October his troops were beginning to emerge on the plains. Schwarzenberg ordered a more general retreat, calling Klenau and Lichtenstein back from the Chemnitz and Freiberg roads, and ordering his Austrian troops east of the Elbe to cross back to the west bank. The concentration point was at Dux, west of Teplitz.

On the French side Lefebrve-Desnoettes' Guard Division, two divisions from St Cyr's XIV Corps and Pajol's cavalry ended the day at Furstenwalde. St Cyr's third division was at Breitenau, just under four miles to the north/ northeast. The Guard was also near by, and had drive some Allied troops out of Oelsen, another mile to the east. Napoleon's HQ was at Leibstadt, seven miles to the north of Furstenwalde. Lobau's I Corps and Victor's II Corps were also in the area.

By 10am on 10 September XIV Corps was on the Geiersberg, just above the battlefield of Kulm, where Vandamme's corps had been defeated at the end of August. Below him he could see the Russian and Prussian contigents of the Army of Bohemia hurrying to get into position.

At first glance Napoleon appeared to have gained exactly what he had been hoping for – a chance to defeat an isolated part of one of the Allied armies, but the reality was more complex. His artillery chief, General Drouot, spent much of the day attempting to get his artillery down the road from the mountains onto the plain, but by the end of the day reported that this route wasn't practical. The 43rd Division of St. Cyr's corps was already moving down the road, but some of its artillery had already run into problems on the way.

Napoleon also had to worry about the situation at his back. Macdonald's defeat at the Katzbach meant that Blücher was free to push west from Silesia into Saxony. Ney's defeat at Dennewitz (6 September 1813), at the start of a possible advance on Berlin, meant that Napoleon's northern flank was vulnerable to attack by Bernadotte's Army of the North.

With all of this in mind Napoleon decided not to risk descending into the plains to attack the Russians and Prussians. St Cyr believed that this was a mistake, and later wrote of his astonishment that Napoleon wasn't willing to risk such a minor descent, when in earlier years he had been willing to cross the Alps. St Cyr's viewpoint was rather limited – Napoleon was aware that a single line of descent was also a single line of ascent – if anything went wrong while he was down on the plains, it would have been very easy for the Allies to block his route back to Saxony, at which point his entire position in Germany would have collapsed.

St Cyr was ordered to remain in place in the mountains, and make it look as if he was still planning an attack. Victor and Lobau also remained in the area, Lobau on St. Cyr's left and Victor on his right. Napoleon then left the front and ended the day at Breitenau, where he was forced to sleep in the parish priest's house. He then returned to Dresden to try and restore the situation in the north.

On 11 September the Allies were still expected to be attacked. When nothing happened they carried out a few limited attacks on the French position at the foot of the Geiersberg. The first Austrian troops began to arrive towards the evening, and the brief chance to catch part of the Army of Bohemia in isolation had gone.

This didn’t end the fighting on this front. On 14 September the Allies pushed the French out of Nollendorf (Combat of Nollendorf). Napoleon returned to the front, and pushed the Allies back (Combat of Berggiesshübel, 14 September 1813) and Peterswalde (16 September 1813). He even advanced onto the plains, taking advantage of the better 'New Road', and advanced towards Kulm (combat of Dolnitz (17 September 1813), but this was only a reconnaissance in force, and on the following day Napoleon decided to withdraw from the Bohemian mountains.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 June 2017), Combat of Geiersberg, 10 September 1813 (Saxony) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/combat_geiersberg.html

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