Rain having rendered small arms fire impossible, Saxon infantry (left) use musket butts
and bayonets to defend the churchyard at Großbeeren against a Prussian onslaught.
The first major battle of the Leipzig campaign. Grossbeeren lies about 10 miles south of Berlin. Marshal Oudinot commander of the French Army of Berlin had been ordered to quickly take Berlin and to disarm and scatter its militia, destroying the city if it resisted. To do this Oudinot had three corps, his own plus Bertrand and Reynier's (Including Saxons) and a force of cavalry (9,000 strong) totaling about 70,000 men and 216 guns.
Unfortunately Napoleon had underestimated his enemy and Oudinot's forces were not strong enough to take Berlin either in quantity or quality being made up largely of raw recruits. Against them were about 98,000 Prussians defending their own homes. Legend has it that the crown Prince of Sweden, the former Marshal Bernadotte wanted to retreat and leave Berlin to the French but evidence from the time shows this to be untrue.
Prussian General von Bülow, Crown Prince of Sweden Charles John, & French Marshal Oudinot
Oudinot continued his master's mistake and believed the Prussians to be much weaker than they really were and poor intelligence meant that on the morning of 23rd August his troops blundered into the Prussian forces and a scattered battle began as the French started to engage. Heavy rain added to the confusion and made firing difficult, soon the Prussians took the offensive although with clumsy frontal assaults rather than attacking the French flanks.
The battle ended after the final French column encountered Prussian Lifeguard Hussars about 8pm and a confused cavalry battle took place in the dark. The next day the French continued to retreat having lost 3,000 men and 13 guns to the Prussians 1,000 causalities. Although a small battle it was the Prussians first victory over the French since 1806 and it raised morale for the upcoming battles.
Aftermath: Unknown to both Napoleon and Oudinot at the time, the strategy played right into the Coalition's hands. In accordance with their Trachenberg Plan (formulated during the truce) they would avoid any large, main engagement with Napoleon himself until after they had gathered overwhelming strength and weakened the Emperor by defeating his marshals in separate, smaller battles.
The defeat at Großbeeren, combined with continued ill health, had shaken Oudinot's confidence, and he continued the general retreat to Wittenberg. Napoleon was furious with Oudinot, not so much for his defeat, but for his withdrawal to Wittenberg instead of back to Luckau. He fumed, "It is truly difficult to have fewer brains than the Duke of Reggio!". Napoleon then appointed Marshal Michel Ney to lead a second drive on Berlin with the same three, now reduced and demoralized, corps and the ailing Oudinot as Ney's subordinate. The result would be the Battle of Dennewitz.
Further Reading and Resources:
The Battle of Gross Beeren 23 August 1813 by Martin Gibson
Nafziger Order of Battle
Campaign Booklet from Westfalia Miniatures
Memorial tower in Großbeeren
Note: This the first in a series of posts covering the post armistice battles of the 1813 Campaign in Germany. This is the main time frame and OOBs that our project is based on. Out of completeness, I may cover the spring battles next year.
Next up is the beginning of another series of posts covering the basics of Napoleonic miniature wargaming.