Battle of DresdenDeath of General
MoreauRetreat of the alliesCheck of Vandamme's corpsVandamme
taken prisonerReversesThe Emperor is forced to alter his original
plansFortune ceases to favour us.
ON the 27th of August the Emperor commenced the attack by
his right wing, where, as I have already observed, all the cavalry was
stationed. He outflanked the extreme left of the Austrians ; and, following the
line of circumvallation formed by the enemy's immense army, he engaged with
superior forces each of its parts, without the enormous masses by which they
might have been aided putting themselves in motion. The sky had been cloudy for
some time; and, as good fortune ordained, a storm came on, during which the
rain fell in torrents, so that the firing of the musketry was ineffectual.
Taking advantage of this circumstance, we charged the enemy's masses with our
cavalry, which consisted almost entirely of very young troops. They broke the
masses, and made as many prisoners as were ever taken in our most glorious
In this engagement General Moreau, who followed the Emperor
Alexander, had both his legs carried away by a cannon-ball. It has been alleged
that this circumstance took place while the general was carrying an order from
the Emperor of Russia ; but as far as I have heard every version of the story
differs from another.
It is not true that the death of General Moreau threw the
enemy's army into disorder ; that event merely thwarted a part of the plans of
the Emperor of Russia, who soon adopted another design in lieu of that which
had caused General Moreau to be summoned to him.
We took advantage of the storm to extend our line and to
take a position, which not only outflanked the enemy's left, but moreover
enabled us to bring the whole of our line round on his rear, so that he was
obliged to change his position. His innumerable columns were thus thrown into
disorder. They mistook the movement which we compelled them to make for a
retreat, which certainly appeared unavoidable owing to the reverses they had
The roads, at all times bad in this country, had become
impassable. The cross roads in particular had suffered dreadfully from the
rain. The enemy's different columns were too far distant from the defile of
Peterswald, of which we were masters, and they were so closely pursued by our
cavalry, that they had no way of re-entering Bohemia except by miserable
defiles hitherto but little frequented. The allies lost an immense quantity of
cannon and waggons, and a considerable number of troops. We calculated that we
had made thirty-two or thirty-three thousand prisoners. Hitherto all went on
When the enemy's army commenced its retreat, the corps
composing its right were so distant from the defiles of Bohemia, that had they
endeavoured to reach them, they must have fallen into the hands of our cavalry,
which already spread along the whole of the enemy's army, and extended behind
his left. But they were near enough to the defile of Pirna, so that the general
by whom they were commanded very reasonably directed them to retire on that
point. However, only two of the corps reached their destination. The first was
composed of Russians, under the command of General Osterman-Tolstoi, who
occupied the enemy's extreme right; the second was composed of Prussians under
the command of General Kleist, and was on the left of the former corps. The
Emperor, observing the retrograde movement of the enemy, rightly conjectured
that a good portion of his force, that is to say his right, could not enter
Bohemia except by Peterswald. He accordingly ordered the following move meet.
His extreme left, as has already been mentioned, consisted of Vandamme's corps.
He had on his right Marshal Saint-Cyr, and the latter had on his right Marshal
Marmont, who rested on Dresden. These three corps had the Elbe in their rear,
and the road from Pirna to Dresden before them.
The Emperor ordered these three columns to march by their
left, taking the Pirna road. By this means General Vandamme was in advance. He
was followed by Marshal Saint-Cyr, and Marshal Marmont formed the rear.
|The head of this column could not reach the
defile of Peterswald until after it had been passed by the Russian corps of
General Tolstoi. But General Vandamme, not doubting that he would be followed
by Saint-Cyr and Marmont, entered the defile without hesitation, and pursued
the corps of the Russian general. Unfortunately, in thus descending into
Bohemia, he did not take the precaution of guarding the defile of Peterswald
which he left in his rear. He relied on the march of Saint-Cyr and Marmont,
whom he said he had warned of the movement he intended to make in advance. But
it matters not who was in fault on this occasion ; the fact is, that Vandamme
was not supported, and that the defile being thus left open, the corps of
General Kleist, which followed that of General Osterman, passed, without being
aware of the circumstance*, between the corps of Marshal Saint-Cyr and General
Vandamme. The firing of cannon was soon heard. General Vandamme had engaged
with General Osterman, and, in the heat of the action, he saw some troops
debouch in his rear, which he at first took for the corps of Marshal Saint-Cyr;
but they soon began to attack him. Though unable to account for this, he
prepared to defend himself both in front and in his rear, by which he was
weakened on all points at once. The spirit of these young troops was not equal
to so difficult a situation. Vandamme vainly formed them into a square.
|* This fact was attested
to me by general officers in 1822.
It was penetrated, and he lost the whole of his artillery.
The enemy made between seven and eight thousand prisoners, among whom was
Vandamme himself. The rest of the corps being dispersed, gained the banks of
the Elbe by passing through the woods, and rejoined the army.
The other corps marched as rapidly as possible in the
direction of General Vandamme's cannonade; but they did not arrive until after
his defeat; and thus the Prussian corps of General Kleist, which ought to have
been taken, completed the dispersion of Vandamme's corps. This disaster would
not have taken place if, instead of descending into Bohemia, General Vandamme
had remained in the defile of Peterswald, where he might have intercepted the
Prussians; or if, after having made his movement, General Saint-Cyr had come to
take his place.
When this event was communicated to the Emperor he was at
Dresden, suffering from a violent cholic, which had been brought on by the cold
rain, to which he had been exposed during the whole of the battle of the 27th.
The intelligence vexed him; but the misfortune was without remedy. He ordered
his aide-de-camp, Count Lobau, to take the command of the wreck of Vandamme's
corps. Between fifteen and twenty thousand men were collected: they were
rearmed and equipped; and in a short time the troops recovered from the
depression of spirits which their disaster had occasioned. It would have
produced but little effect on the rest of the campaign had it not been for two
events which speedily followed it.
The battle of Dresden had been attended by such astonishing
results, that the Emperor determined on following them up, as far as the vast
plan on which the operations of the allies was founded would permit him. The
enormous masses of the enemy's troops returned to Bohemia by roads, naturally
bad, and rendered almost impassable by the state of the weather. They must
inevitably have been thrown into disorder; and while this immense multitude was
being rallied and newly formed, the Emperor would have had the start in all his
Previously to Vandamme's disaster, the Emperor himself
intended to have marched by the Pirna road with the corps of that general,
together with those of Saint-Cyr and Marmont ; and the whole were to have been
followed by the guard. By this means he would have arrived with the greater
portion of the army at some point in the interior of Bohemia long before the
junction of the enemy's columns. Besides, he would naturally have come into
communication with Marshal Macdonald's corps, which had remained on the Bober.
Had this movement succeeded it would soon have been followed by a victory, more
brilliant than any the Emperor had hitherto gained ; and his enemies would have
experienced a defeat, the more decisive in proportion as their numbers rendered
them less movable. But the time which we lost in reorganising Vandamme's corps
was turned to good account by the enemy.
Fortune ceased to favour us. Marshal Macdonald, who had
received orders to debouch from the Bober, and to pass that river, experienced
a check still more serious than that of Vandamme. He was obliged to retire in
disorder, after losing a considerable number of troops, and a vast quantity of
Marshal Oudinot was ordered to march on Berlin. That city
was covered by the corps of General Bulow, which had just been rejoined by the
Swedes, commanded by Bernadotte.
Marshal Oudinot had with him the corps of Generals Bertrand
and Reynier (the latter commanded the Saxons): he had also some other troops ;
and his corps altogether exceeded eighty thousand men. He marched nearly to
Potsdam. General Reynier, who formed the head of a column, fell in with the
enemy, and attacked him, it is said, rather precipitately, wishing to act
independently of his general-in-chief, a practice which had become too common
in the army. But, at all events, it is certain that Marshal Oudinot might and
ought to have arrived sooner on the field of battle. It was his duty to have
prevented General Reynier from engaging alone, or he ought to have supported
him by his other corps when once he was engaged. Instead of that he remained
passive, and Reynier fought alone with his Saxons against the whole of Bulow's
corps. His troops, finding themselves thus inhumanly sacrificed, without any
efforts being made to support them, soon fell back, and took to flight. Their
general tried to rally them, and an attempt was made to engage Bertrand's
troops ; but the impulse was given, and utter confusion soon prevailed. Marshal
Oudinot sustained considerable losses in every way, and hastily retreated on
the Elbe, in the direction of Torgau. He did not halt until he came under the
very guns of the fortress.
This fatal event, which occurred at the same time as Marshal
Macdonald's disaster, totally deranged the Emperor's plans. Instead of
endeavouring to profit by the victory of the 27th, he was obliged to think of
defending the right bank of the Elbe.
The Emperor repaired the losses of Marshal Oudinot by adding
to his remaining force some of the troops of Marshal Ney, who was in the
vicinity of Wittemberg. Ney took the command of the whole corps thus newly
organised. His army had not wholly recovered from its late stroke of
ill-fortune. He made a movement in advance, which corresponded with that which
the Emperor was making on the Bober, whither he had proceeded with the best
portion of the army to repair the check sustained by Marshal Macdonald.
If these two movements had proved successful, the natural
consequence would have been, that the chief part of the allied forces who were
in Bohemia would have been obliged to return to Silesia, for the purpose of
opposing the Emperor. But fate ordained otherwise.
Affairs were proceeding well on the Bober, where the Emperor
himself was present, when a new misfortune, which befel Marshal Ney, once more
occasioned a change of plan.
Marshal Ney, yielding to the ardour of his courage, marched
straightforward to a considerable distance. In the course of his movement he
was attacked in front, as well as on his left flank, which was charged by
Bulow's Prussians. Bulow broke Ney's line of operations, and threw him into
such disorder, that his whole army hastily came back upon the Elbe, which it
had but just quitted. Ney's loss was now considerably greater than before. This
event brought the Emperor back upon Dresden, and obliged him to relinquish all
his plans of operation on the right bank of the Elbe, in order to concentrate
his troops on the left bank. He was still master of the fortresses along the
course of that river, and he hoped to adopt some new method of ameliorating a
state of things, which this succession of unfortunate accidents rendered most
grievous. His situation was similar to that of Frederick the Great in his last
campaign: but he was less fortunate than that great king ; because, where
Napoleon was not personally present, nothing but disasters ensued ; while
Frederick had some generals who knew how to gain battles.
The enemy's army had now recovered its spirit, which
improved at every partial reverse we sustained. The Emperor had no more troops
than those who were now collected around him, and they began to suffer the want
of provisions. The scarcity increased in proportion as the circle of ground
occupied by the army became more and more contracted.