The military career of a great Prussian commander during the Napoleonic Wars
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher was born in Rostock in 1742 and began his military career in 1758 as a hussar in the Swedish Army. He was captured by the Prussians in 1760 and joined the Prussian Army but was forced to resign for insubordination. A farmer until 1786, he returned to the army rising in rank to lieutenant-general in 1801. Today, Blücher is remembered for his cooperation with the Duke of Wellington during 'The Hundred Days' campaign in 1815, which resulted in the allied victory at Waterloo and the final downfall of Napoleon, who never had a more implacable foe than Blücher. He pressed on with unrelenting energy despite his advancing years, through many campaigns and battles and undaunted in his resolution despite suffering numerous military setbacks. The turn of the tide came in 1813 at Leipzig, 'The Battle of the Nations', where at last an army under his command prevailed. After the campaign of 1814 in North-eastern France, Blücher favoured blowing up the Jena Bridge to punish Paris for the sufferings of his homeland. The First Empire of the French had fallen, but the following year Field-Marshal Blücher was again at hand to administer the coup de grace in Belgium. He died in 1819 aged 76 years.
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It was nearly nine on the morning of the 19th before the French wholly abandoned the suburbs of Leipzig; by ten all the various forces of the allies had advanced for the last storm on the city itself. There was a short lull, for word was passed round that the Tsar Alexander had granted a general cessation of hostilities for half an hour, having received a deputation from the King of Saxony recommending the city to the mercy of the besiegers. The Saxon king’s emissary, Colonel von Ryssel, offered to surrender Leipzig on condition that the troops be allowed to withdraw; and, armed with authority to spare this city should the French soldiers retire and the Saxons lay down their arms, General Toll and Colonel von Natzmer were despatched to confer personally with King Frederick Augustus.
It would be impossible to conceive of a more ridiculous role than that played by His Majesty of Saxony at this most critical juncture. When Toll and Natzmer appeared at his quarters, they were met with the surprising announcement that His Majesty was busy and could not see them. Insisting on an audience they found the king carefully arrayed in his full-dress uniform, but not by any means for their benefit. After despatching von Ryssel with the offer to surrender he had received word that Napoleon, before leaving the city, desired a farewell interview, which had then taken place. The king now told the emissaries of the allies—as if no such suggestion had ever come from himself at all—that the matter of the sparing of the city must be discussed with the French governor, and that even his own troops could not be ordered to lay down their arms because they were responsible not to him but to the French emperor.
The explanation of the whole matter was, that in his last interview. Napoleon, with consummate audacity, had fooled the Saxon king to the top of his bent. The latter finally confessed to Toll that, when he had despatched von Ryssel with the offer to surrender, he had done so in the belief that his august ally, the emperor, considered that all was lost. Napoleon in person, however, had just informed him that he was leaving Leipzig merely for the purpose of manoeuvring in the open field, and would return in a day or two and relieve the city!
Toll and Natzmer seem really to have made the attempt to find the French governor; but long before he could be reached, the storm on the city had begun and the outer defences had crumbled. Blücher had had one of the hardest tasks, a bridge by which he was obliged to pass being strongly guarded. A Leipzig citizen, (Hussell), has recorded that the greater number of the bombs that actually fell in the city came from the direction of the Hallescher Thor.
The fighting was proceeding vigorously, and a detachment of Blücher’s troops had made its way round to the right until already in contact with Napoleon’s line of retreat, when suddenly, above all the cannonading and musketry was heard the sound of a terrific explosion—a worthy climax to the greatest battle that had ever taken place between nations.
The Elster bridge, Napoleon’s only chance of retreat, had been utterly wrecked in the very path of some 20,000 of the French who still remained on the Leipzig side. A whole barge full of gunpowder had, sometime previously, been placed under one of the arches; at the moment of the appearance of the detachment just mentioned as having been sent round to the right by Blücher a subaltern was in command with orders “to blow up the bridge when the enemy should appear for the purpose of taking it.” A more responsible officer would doubtless have found means to hold in check Blücher’s small detachment until the remnant of the French could have crossed; but only too literally did the subaltern obey his orders.
The scene that now ensued was one of the cruellest, most horrible, and most dramatic that has ever occurred in the course of all history. Those of the retreating army who were further in front were struck by the debris of the wrecked bridge and upon them rained the sundered limbs and the torn flesh of men and horses. Hundreds of those behind sprang into the water from the bridge, hundreds more dashed in from the river’s slimy bank. Among them was Prince Poniatowski, who had commanded a regiment of Poles and had committed deeds of valour worthy of heroes of antiquity.
Scales like these at the Elster bridge make one wonder if humanity will never grow wise, will never learn to settle its disputes by some method that does not mean the greatest conceivable suffering to the greatest number. Here in the Elster were sights of unspeakable horror: human dead piled so high that heaps of them projected above the surface of the water with heads, legs, and arms inextricably mingled. And within a circumference of nearly ten miles there was scarcely a spot from which a corpse could not be seen. In and around Leipzig some ninety thousand men had fallen, dead or wounded; and of the wounded an enormous proportion were to die. Bodies, stripped bare by marauders, lay in great naked heaps, pecked at and gnawed at by beast and bird.
It was long before progress could be made with the work of burial, for the inhabitants of the outlying districts had fled in all directions, the army was obliged to march on, and the inhabitants of Leipzig itself, at first at least, seemed as though in a lethargy. Rapidly, as may be imagined the very air grew pestilential. In order to facilitate matters great carts went through the streets of Leipzig and were soon filled high with the harvest of those who had died in the houses. From the windows above corpses were thrown down; and it was too much to expect that in all cases the last breath should be awaited. But if, in the sickening mass, arms or legs were seen to move there was usually someone sufficiently merciful to club them into quietude.