Siege of Torgau, 8 October 1813-10 January 1814

The siege of Torgau (8 October 1813-10 January 1814) was one of a series of sieges that saw isolated French garrisons across Germany and Poland slowly forced to surrender in the aftermath of Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig (16-19 October 1813).

Torgau was a fortified city that defended a bridge across the Elbe. The main part of the city was on the left bank (west bank at this point). The city was defended by a strong line of fortifications, with seven bastions. A wooden bridge crossed the Elbe to a bridgehead on the right bank, which was protected by a floodable ditch and three bastions. There were also two forts to the north-east (Fort Zinna and Fort Mahla).

At the start of 1813 King Frederick August of Saxony made his country neutral. General Thielmann, the Saxon commander at Torgau was ordered to refuse to allow access to any foreign troops. The first to arrive were the Prussians and Russians, advancing into Saxony in the spring of 1813, in what they believed was the pursuit of a largely broken Napoleon.

As so often happened, the Allies had underestimated Napoleon. He managed to raise a new army, and in the spring of 1813 advanced into Saxony. The allies were defeated at Lützen, to the south-west of Leipzig, and retreated east across the Elbe. Napoleon occupied Dresden, and bullied the King of Saxony into joining the French side. At the same time Durutte's division from Reynier's corps was sent to Torgau.

Durutte arrived outside Torgau on 7 May, but Thielmann stuck to his orders and refused to allow the French entry. Napoleon ordered Reynier to begin work on a bridge over the Elbe above Torgau, so that his troops could take part in the campaign east of the river, but this wouldn't be needed. Napoleon's pressure convinced the King to end his neutrality. Thielmann was ordered to allow the French into Torgau, and to join his forces to theirs. Thielmann obeyed his orders, but his sympathies lay with the Allies, and on 10 May, once he had done his duty he changed sides and joined the Allied army.

For most of the rest of the Spring and Autumn campaigns Torgau remained in the French area of operations, but that began to chance in September. Marshal Ney, who had been given command of the last of several French attempts to capture Berlin, suffered an embarrassing defeat at Dennewitz (6 September), while operating north of the Elbe. In the aftermath of this defeat the Allies slowly moved up to the Elbe, and a Prussian corps of observation was posted opposite Torgau.

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

On 14 September Louis Marie Jacques Amalric, comte de Narbonne-Lara (generally known as Narbonne), was appointed as Governor of Torgau.

On 19 October the Saxon General Ryssel was given command of a Saxon Division, and in the aftermath of the battle of Leipzig was ordered to blockade Torgau. On 23 October General Tauenzien arrived to support him. However during October the Allies only placed a corps of observation outside Torgau, on the right bank of the Elbe. This allowed the French to send out one or two columns each day to gather supplies.

The Prussians had occupied the village of Kreschau, within artillery range of the fortifications on the left bank. General Brun was ordered to attack this place, caught the garrison by surprise and took them prisoners

On 1 November the Allies crossed to the left bank in more force. On 3 November General Brun had to fight on his daily reconnaissance, and on 4 November General Durrieu struggled against stronger Allied forces. After that the garrison remained inside the walls. The siege works were opened on 23 November. A parallel was opened on 27 November opposite Fort Zinna, one of the key points in the fortifications, and two mortar batteries were completed on 28 November. After that the city was bombarded every night. Durrieu and 300 men spent two weeks inside Fort Zinna in an attempt to defend it,

On 17 November 1813 Narbonne died, and was replaced by General Dutaillis.

On 28 November an armistice was agreed, in order to allow the negotiation of terms for a surrender. These negotiations failed after Dutaillis demanded a simple evacuation. Hostilities resumed on 6 December, but Dutaillis was in a weak position. The Allies captured the ruins of Fort Zinna, and by late December he didn’t have enough men fit to man the defences. On 26 December he agreed to surrender on 12 January 1814. Only 7,200 men from the garrison survived to become prisoners of war. Of the original 25,000 men, 13,500 had been lost to disease. Another 2,400 men were left in the hospitals after the surrender.

Just as at Dresden, the French had surrendered on terms that allowed them to return to France, but these were then repudiated by the Allied high command, and the survivors became prisoners of war at Leipzig.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 August 2017), Siege of Torgau, 8 October 1813-10 January 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_torgau.html

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