Since 1806 writers and intellectuals such as Johann Philipp Palm, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Ernst Moritz Arndt, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and Theodor Körner had been criticising the Napoleonic occupation of Germany. They advocated limitations to the dynastic princes of Germany and a joint effort by all Germans to eject the French. From 1810 Arndt and Jahn asked high-ranking figures in Prussian society again and again to prepare such an uprising. Jahn himself organised the German League and made a major contribution to the founding of the Lützow Free Corps. These forerunners took part in the outbreak of hostilities in Germany, both by serving in the armed forces and by backing the Coalition forces through their writings.
Even before the German Campaign, there had been uprisings against the French troops occupying Germany – these had broken out from 1806 onwards in Hesse and in 1809 in the Tyrolean Rebellion. These uprisings intensified in the same year under Wilhelm von Dörnberg, the initiator and commander-in-chief of the Hessian uprising, and Major Ferdinand von Schill.
After the devastating defeat of Napoleon's Grande Armée in Russia in 1812, Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg – the general in command of the Grande Armée's German auxiliaries (Hilfskorps) – declared a ceasefire with the Russians on 30 December 1812 via the Convention of Tauroggen. This was the decisive factor in the outbreak of the German Campaign the following year.
On 17 March 1813 – the day Alexander I of Russia arrived in the Hoflager of Frederick William III of Prussia – Prussia declared war on France. On 20 March 1813 the Schlesische privilegierte Zeitung newspaper published Frederick's speech entitled An Mein Volk, delivered on 17 March and calling for a war of liberation. In addition to newly formed Prussian units such as the Landwehr and Landsturm, the initial fighting was undertaken by volunteers such as German volunteer troops and Jäger and Free Corps (such as the Lützow Free Corps) and the soldiers of Russia and (from summer 1813 onwards) Sweden under Crown Prince Charles John (the former French marshal Bernadotte) and Austria under field marshal Schwarzenberg. Already busy with maintaining naval supremacy and fighting the Peninsular War, Great Britain did not take any direct part in the German campaign, though it sent subsidies to support it.
The Convention of Tauroggen became the starting-point of Prussia's regeneration. As the news of the destruction of the Grande Armée spread, and the appearance of countless stragglers convinced the Prussian people of the reality of the disaster, the spirit generated by years of French domination burst out. For the moment the king and his ministers were placed in a position of the greatest anxiety, for they knew the resources of France and the boundless versatility of their arch-enemy far too well to imagine that the end of their sufferings was yet in sight. To disavow the acts and desires of the army and of the secret societies for defence with which all north Germany was honeycombed would be to imperil the very existence of the monarchy, whilst an attack on the wreck of the Grand Army meant the certainty of a terrible retribution from the new armies now rapidly forming on the Rhine.
But the Russians and the soldiers were resolved to continue the campaign, and working in collusion they put pressure on the not unwilling representatives of the civil power to facilitate the supply and equipment of such troops as were still in the field; they could not refuse food and shelter to their starving countrymen or their loyal allies, and thus by degrees the French garrisons scattered about the country either found themselves surrounded or were compelled to retire to avoid that fate. Thus it happened that the viceroy of Italy felt himself compelled to depart from the positive injunctions of Napoleon to hold on at all costs to his advanced position at Posen, where about 14,000 men had gradually rallied around him, and to withdraw step by step to Magdeburg, where he met reinforcements and commanded the whole course of the lower Elbe.
Meanwhile Napoleon in Paris had been organizing a fresh army for the reconquest of Prussia. Thanks to his having compelled his allies to fight his battles for him, he had not as yet drawn very heavily on the fighting resources of France, the actual percentage of men taken by the conscriptions during the years since 1806 being actually lower than that in force in continental armies of to-day. He had also created in 1811–1812 a new National Guard, organized in "cohorts" to distinguish it from the regular army, and for home defence only, and these by a skilful appeal to their patriotism and judicious pressure applied through the prefects, became a useful reservoir of half-trained men for new battalions of the active army. Levies were also made with rigorous severity in the states of the Rhine Confederation, and even Italy was called on for fresh sacrifices. In this manner by the end of March upwards of 200,000 men were moving towards the Elbe, and in the first fortnight of April they were duly concentrated in the angle formed by the Elbe and Saale, threatening on the one hand Berlin, on the other Dresden and the east.
The Coalition allies, aware of the gradual strengthening of their enemy's forces but themselves as yet unable to put more than 200,000 in the field, had left a small corps of observation opposite Magdeburg and along the Elbe to give timely notice of an advance towards Berlin; and with the bulk of their forces had taken up a position about Dresden, whence they had determined to march down the course of the Elbe and roll up the French from right to left. Both armies were very indifferently supplied with information, as both were without any reliable regular cavalry capable of piercing the screen of outposts with which each endeavoured to conceal his disposition, and Napoleon, operating in a most unfriendly country, suffered more in this respect than his adversaries.
On 25 April Napoleon reached Erfurt and assumed the chief command. On this day his troops stood in the following positions. Prince Eugène, with Lauriston's, Macdonald's and Regnier's corps, on the lower Saale, Marshal Ney in front of Weimar, holding the defile of Kösen; the Imperial Guard at Erfurt, Marshal Marmont at Gotha, General Bertrand at Saalfeld, and Marshal Oudinot at Coburg, and during the next few days the whole were set in motion towards Merseburg and Leipzig, in the now stereotyped Napoleonic order, a strong advanced guard of all arms leading, the remainder—about two-thirds of the whole—following as "masse de manœuvre", this time, owing to the cover afforded by the Elbe on the left, to the right rear of the advanced guard.
Meanwhile the Russians and Prussians had concentrated all available men and were moving on an almost parallel line, but somewhat to the south of the direction taken by the French. On 1 May, Napoleon and the advanced guard entered Lützen. Russian General Wittgenstein, who now commanded the Coalition allies in place of General Kutusov, hearing of his approach, had decided to attack the French advanced guard, which he took to be their whole force, on its right flank, and during the morning had drawn together the bulk of his forces on his right in the vicinity of Gross-Görschen and Kaya.
About 09:00 on 2 May Wittgenstein began an attack on the French advance guard in Lützen, whilst the remainder of his army was directed against Napoleon's right and rear. Just as the latter were moving off the heads of the French main body suddenly appeared, and at 11:00 Napoleon,then standing near the Gustavus Adolphus Monument on the field of Lützen, heard the roar of a heavy cannonade to his right rear. He realized the situation in a moment, galloped to the new scene of action, and at once grouped his forces for decisive action—the gift in which he was supreme. Leaving the leading troops to repulse as best they might the furious attack of both Russians and Prussians, and caring little whether they lost ground, he rapidly organized for his own control a battle-reserve. At length when both sides were exhausted by their efforts he sent forward nearly a hundred guns which tore asunder by their case-shot fire the enemy's line and marched his reserve right through the gap. Had he possessed an adequate cavalry force the victory would have been decisive. As it was, the Coalition allies made good their retreat and the French were too exhausted for infantry pursuit.
In the opinion of the military historian Frederic Maude writing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th Edition (1911) perhaps no battle better exemplifies the inherent strength of Napoleon's strategy, and in none was his grasp of the battlefield more brilliantly displayed, for, as he fully recognized, "These Prussians have at last learnt something—they are no longer the wooden toys of Frederick the Great", and, on the other hand, the relative inferiority of his own men as compared with his veterans of Austerlitz called for far more individual effort than on any previous day. He was everywhere, encouraging and compelling his men—it is a legend in the French army that the persuasion even of the imperial boot was used upon some of his reluctant conscripts, and in the result his system was fully justified, as it triumphed even against a great tactical surprise.
As soon as possible the army pressed on in pursuit, Ney being sent across the Elbe to turn the position of the Coalition allies at Dresden. This threat forced the latter to evacuate the town and retire over the Elbe, after blowing up the stone bridge across the river. Napoleon entered the town hard on their heels, but the broken bridge caused a delay of four days, there being no pontoon trains with the army. Ultimately on 18 May the march was renewed, but the Coalition allies had continued their retreat in leisurely fashion, picking up reinforcements by the way. Arrived at the line of the Spree, they took up and fortified a very formidable position about Bautzen. Here, on 20 May, they were attacked, and after a two days battle dislodged by Napoleon; but the weakness of the French cavalry conditioned both the form of the attack, which was less effective than usual, and the results of the victory, which were extremely meagre.
The Coalition allies broke off the action at their own time and retired in such good order that Napoleon failed to capture a single trophy as proof of his victory. The enemy's escape annoyed him greatly, the absence of captured guns and prisoners reminded him too much of his Russian experiences, and he redoubled his demands on his corps commanders for greater vigour in the pursuit. This led the latter to push on without due regard to tactical precautions, and Blücher took advantage of their carelessness when at the Battle of Haynau (26 May), with some twenty squadrons of Landwehr cavalry, he surprised, rode over and almost destroyed Maison's division. The material loss inflicted on the French was not very great, but its effect in raising the morale of the raw Prussian cavalry and increasing their confidence in their old commander was, enormous.
Still the Coalition allies continued their retreat and the French were unable to bring them to action. In view of the doubtful attitude of Austria, Napoleon became alarmed at the gradual lengthening of his lines of communication and opened negotiations. The enemy, having everything to gain and nothing to lose thereby, agreed finally to a six weeks suspension of arms under the terms of the Truce of Pläswitz. In the opinion of the military historian Frederic Maude (1911), this was perhaps the gravest military error of Napoleon's whole career, and his excuse for it, want of adequate cavalry, is the strongest testimony as to the value of that arm.
As soon as a suspension of arms (to 15 August) had been agreed to, Napoleon hastened to withdraw his troops from the dangerous position they occupied with reference to the passes leading over the mountains from Bohemia, for he entertained no doubt now that Austria was also to be considered as an enemy. Finally he decided to group his corps round Gölitz and Bautzen whence they could either meet the enemy advancing from Breslau or fall on his flank over the mountains if they attempted to force their way into Saxony by the valley of the Elbe. This latter manoeuvre depended, however, on his maintenance of Dresden, and to this end he sent the I Corps up the Elbe to Pirna and Königstein to cover the fortifications of Dresden itself. His instructions on this point deserve the closest study, for he foresaw the inevitable attraction which a complete entrenched camp would exercise even upon himself, and, therefore, limited his engineers to the construction of a strong bridge head on the right bank and a continuous enceinte, broken only by gaps for counter attack, around the town itself.
Then Napoleon turned his attention to the plan for the coming campaign. Seeing clearly that his want of an efficient cavalry precluded all ideas of a resolute offensive in his old style, he determined to limit himself to a defence of the line of the Elbe, making only dashes of a few days duration at any target the enemy might present.
Reinforcements had been coming up without ceasing and at the beginning of August Napoleon calculated that he would have 300,000 men available about Bautzen and 100,000 along the Elbe from Hamburg via Magdeburg to Torgau. With the latter he determined to strike the first blow, by a concentric advance on Berlin (which he calculated he would reach on the 4th or 5th day), the movement being continued thence to extricate the French garrisons in Küstrin, Stettin and Danzig. The moral effect, he promised himself, would be prodigious, and there was neither room nor food for these 100,000 elsewhere.
Towards the close of the armistice Napoleon learned the general situation of the Coalition allies. The crown prince of Sweden (Bernadotte), with his Swedes and various Prussian levies, 135,000 in all, lay in and around Berlin and Stettin; and knowing his former marshal well, Napoleon considered Oudinot a match for him. Blücher with about 95,000 Russians and Prussians was about Breslau, and Schwarzenberg, with nearly 180,000 Austrians and Russians, lay in Bohemia. In his position at Bautzen he felt himself equal to all his enemy's combinations.
The advance towards Berlin began punctually with the expiration of the armistice. However Napoleon, in command of the main French army, waited to see more clearly his adversaries plans. At length becoming impatient he advanced a portion of his army towards Blücher, who fell back to draw him into a trap. Then the news reached Napoleon that Schwarzenberg was pressing down the valley of the Elbe, and, leaving Macdonald to observe Blücher, he hurried back to Bautzen to dispose his troops to cross the Bohemian mountains in the general direction of Königstein, a blow which must have had decisive results. But the news from Dresden was so alarming that at the last moment he changed his mind, and sending Vandamme alone over the mountains, he hurried with his whole army to the threatened point. This march remains one of the most extraordinary in history, for the bulk of his forces moved, mainly in mass and across country, 90 miles (140 km) in 72 hours, entering Dresden on the morning of 27 August, only a few hours before the attack of the Coalition allies commenced.
Dresden was the last great victory of the First Empire. By noon on 27 August the Austrians and Russians were completely beaten and in full retreat, the French pressing hard behind them, but meanwhile Napoleon himself again succumbed to one of his unaccountable attacks of apparent intellectual paralysis. He seemed unaware of the vital importance of the moment, crouched shivering over a bivouac fire, and finally rode back to Dresden, leaving no specific orders for the further pursuit.
The Coalition allies, however, continued to retreat, and unfortunately for the French, Vandamme, with his single corps and unsupported, issued out of the mountains on their flank, threw himself across their line of retreat near Kulm, and was completely overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers (Battle of Kulm, 29 August). In spite of this misfortune, Napoleon could claim a brilliant success for himself, but almost at the same moment news reached him that Oudinot had been severely defeated at the Battle of Grossbeeren (23 August) near Berlin by Bernadotte as had Macdonald at the Battle of Katzbach (26 August) by Blücher.
During the next two days Napoleon examined his situation and dictated a series of notes which have been a puzzle to every strategical thinker ever since. In these he seems suddenly to have cut adrift from every principle the truth of which he had himself so brilliantly demonstrated, in them he considers plans based on hypothesis, not knowledge, and on the importance of geographical points without reference to the enemy's field army.
From these reveries he was at length awakened by news which indicated that the consequences of Macdonald's defeat had been far more serious to the morale of that command than he had imagined. He immediately rode over to establish order, and his manner and violence were so improper that Caulaincourt had the greatest difficulty in concealing the scandal.
Blücher, however, hearing of Napoleon's arrival, at once retreated and Napoleon followed, thus uncovering the passes over the Bohemian mountains, a fact of which Schwarzenberg was quick to take advantage. Learning of his approach, Napoleon again withdrew to Bautzen.
Then hearing that the Austrians had counter-marched and were again moving towards Dresden, Napoleon hastened back there, concentrated as many men as could conveniently be handled, and advanced beyond Pirna and Königstein to meet him. But the Austrians had no intention of attacking him, for time was now working on their side and, leaving his men to starve in the exhausted district, Napoleon again returned to Dresden, where for the rest of the month he remained in an extraordinary state of vacillation. On 4 October he again drew up a review of the situation, in which he apparently contemplated giving up his communications with France and wintering in and around Dresden, though at the same time he is aware of the distress amongst his men for want of food.
In the meanwhile Blücher, Schwarzenberg and Bernadotte were working round his flanks. Ney, who had joined Oudinot after Grossbeeren, had been defeated at the Battle of Dennewitz (6 September), the victory, won by Prussian troops solely, giving the greatest encouragement to the enemy. Suddenly Napoleon's plans are again reviewed and completely changed. Calling up St Cyr, whom he had already warned to remain at Dresden with his command, he decides to fall back towards Erfurt, and go into winter quarters between that place and Magdeburg, pointing out that Dresden was of no use to him as a base and that if he does have a battle, he had much better have St Cyr and his men with him than at Dresden.
On 7 October Napoleon drew up a final plan, in which one again recognizes the old commander, and this he immediately proceeded to put into execution, for he was now quite aware of the danger threatening his line of retreat from both Blücher and Schwarzenberg and the North Army; yet only a few hours afterwards the portion of the order relating to St Cyr and Lobau was cancelled and the two were finally left behind at Dresden. From the 10 to 13 October Napoleon lay at Düben, again a prey to the most extraordinary irresolution, but on that day he thought he saw his opportunity. Blücher was reported near Wittenberg, and Schwarzenberg was moving slowly round to the south of Leipzig. The North Army under Bernadotte, unknown to Napoleon, lay on Blücher's left around Halle.
Napoleon decided to throw the bulk of his force on Blücher, and, having routed him, turn south on Schwarzenberg and sever his communications with Bohemia. His concentration was effected with his usual sureness and celerity, but whilst the French moved on Wittenberg, Blücher was marching to his right, indifferent to his communications as all Prussia lay behind him.
This move on 14 October brought him into touch with Bernadotte, and now a single march forward of all three armies would have absolutely isolated Napoleon from France; but Bernadotte's nerve failed him, for on hearing of Napoleon's threat against Wittenberg he decided to retreat northward, and not all the persuasions of Blücher and Gneisenau could move him. Thus if the French movement momentarily ended in a blow in the air, it was indirectly the cause of their ultimate salvation.
On the 15 October Napoleon concentrated his forces to the east of Leipzig, with only a weak detachment to the west, and in the evening the Coalition allies were prepared to attack him. Schwarzenberg, with 180,000 men available at once and 60,000 on the following day; Blücher had about 60,000, but Bernadotte now could not arrive before 18 October.
Napoleon prepared to throw the bulk of his force upon Schwarzenberg and massed his troops south-east of the town, whilst Schwarzenberg marched concentrically against him down the valley of the Elster and Pleisse, the mass of his troops on the right bank of the latter and a strong column under Giulay on the left working round to join Blücher on the north. The fighting which followed was most obstinate, but the Austrians failed to make any impression on the French positions, and indeed Giulay felt himself compelled to withdraw to his former position. On the other hand, Blücher carried the village of Möckern and came within a mile of the gates of the town. During the 17th there was only indecisive skirmishing, Schwarzenberg waiting for his reinforcements coming up by the Dresden road, Blücher for Bernadotte to come in on his left, and by some extraordinary oversight Giulay was brought closer in to the Austrian centre, thus opening for the French their line of retreat towards Erfurt, and no information of this movement appears to have been conveyed to Blücher. Napoleon when he became aware of the movement, sent the IV Corps to Lindenau to keep the road open.
On the 18 October the fighting was resumed and by about noon Bernadotte came up and closed the gap to the north-east of the town between Blücher and the Austrians. At 14:00 the Saxons, who had remained faithful to Napoleon longer than his other German allies, went over to the enemy. All hope of saving the battle had now to be given up, but the French covered their retreat obstinately and by daybreak next morning one-half of the army was already filing out along the road to Erfurt which had so fortunately for the French been left for them.
It took Blücher time to extricate his troops from the confusion into which the battle had thrown them, and the garrison of Leipzig and the troops left on the right bank of the Elster still resisted obstinately—hence no direct pursuit could be initiated and the French, still upwards of 100,000 strong, marching rapidly, soon gained distance enough to be reformed. Blücher followed by parallel and inferior roads on their northern flank, but Schwarzenberg knowing that the Bavarians also had forsaken Napoleon and were marching under Wrede, 50,000 strong, to intercept his retreat, followed in a most leisurely fashion. Blücher did not succeed in overtaking the French, but the latter, near Hanau, found their way barred by Wrede with 50,000 men and over 100 guns in a strong position.
To this fresh emergency Napoleon and his army responded in most brilliant fashion. As at Krasnoi in 1812, they went straight for their enemy and after one of the most brilliant series of artillery movements in history, directed by General Drouot, they marched right over their enemy, practically destroying his whole force. Henceforward their march was unmolested, and they reached Mainz on 5 November.
When the last of the French troops had crossed to the western bank of the Rhine, divided counsels made their appearance at the headquarters of the Coalition allies. Every one was weary of the war, and many felt that it would be unwise to push Napoleon and the French nation to extremes. Hence a prolonged halt arose, utilized by the troops in renewing their equipment and so forth, but ultimately the Young German party, led by Blücher and the principal fighting men of the army, triumphed, and early in 1814 the eastern Coalition allies invaded France from east.
At the same time Wellington invaded France over the Pyrenees. Leaving Marshals Soult and Suchet to defend south-west France, Napoleon fought and lost a campaign in north-east France, that ended with the occupation of Paris, the abdication of Napoleon, his exile to Elbe, and the Bourbon Restoration under King Louis XVIII.
The campaign ended the 'French period' (Franzosenzeit) in Germany and fostered a new sense of German unity and nationalism. The German Confederation, formed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, was a precursor to the modern German nation state, which was, however, only realized more than half a century later under Prussian leadership. The popular image of the campaign in Germany was shaped by the cultural memory of its veterans, especially the many students who volunteered to fight in the Lützow Free Corps and other units who later rose to high positions in the military and political spheres. A new boom in remembrance of the war occurred in 1913, on the centenary of its outbreak.