Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Campaign of 1813

Just as soon as the disaster in Russia became fully known, Alexander's prediction was partly justified, for some of the German states abandoned Napoleon to join the Sixth Coalition, and turned upon him to avenge their losses. Prussia, which he had so humiliated, made truly heroic sacrifices to arm against him, the women selling even their fine hair and wedding rings to increase the war fund. Thus, in 1813, Napoleon found himself seriously threatened; but, still faithful to his old tactics, he determined to strike the first blow instead of waiting to be attacked. With French regiments composed of mere boys,—for he had been obliged to antedate the usual conscriptions,—and with the troops supplied by such German states as still remained loyal to him, he defeated the Russians and Prussians in the hard-fought battles of Lutzen and Bautzen. These successes, however, he so greatly exaggerated to reassure the French, that people began to use the expression "as false as the bulletin," as a mild substitute for the word "lie." Moreover, these triumphs in Germany were more than offset by severe losses in Spain, whence the French were driven by Wellington, who threatened even to invade southern France.

Deeming the opportunity favorable, the Emperor of Austria sent his prime minister Metternich to Dresden, to persuade Napoleon to make peace. But the conditions offered were so humiliating to the French emperor's pride, that he indignantly refused them, and when Metternich gravely reminded him that a continuation of the war would probably cost the lives of some 200,000 men, he made the brutal reply, "What do I care for 200,000 lives?" His worst offense, however, consisted in asking Metternich ironically how much the English were paying him to talk thus. This insult Metternich never forgot, and he duly avenged it, although keen enough to realize that there was, after all, considerable truth in the statement Napoleon then made: "Your sovereigns, born on the throne, may be beaten twenty times and reenter their capitals. I cannot, because I am a soldier who has risen from the ranks. My domination will not survive the day when I shall cease to be strong, and consequently feared."

It was after this momentous interview, and only because Napoleon obstinately refused to make peace, that his father-in-law joined the Coalition. Among its other supporters, by this time, were Bernadotte, Napoleon's old lieutenant, and Moreau, who had conspired against the First Consul and had since been an exile.

While the allied armies were constantly growing larger, Napoleon still won the battle of Dresden, where Moreau was slain; but he was at last badly defeated in the three days' "Battle of the Nations," at Leipzig (October, 1813). In this battle, Napoleon's forces were less than half as large as those of his opponents, and, besides, some of his German allies deserted and joined the foe, in the midst of the fight. The retreat after the battle of Leipzig also proved most disastrous, for, owing to some mistake, a bridge was blown up before all the army could cross, and many were thus cut off and lost, a brave Polish prince (Poniatowski) perishing in the attempt to swim across the river.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The battle of Leipzig is considered one of the decisive battles of the world, because it put an end to the French domination of Europe. Thereafter all the German states, no longer subject to Napoleon, banded against him, eager and ready to join Prussia and take their revenge by invading France. In this patriotic German uprising, Jerome—who had already once been dethroned and reinstated—lost forever the kingdom of Westphalia. The Germans, flushed with their recent triumph, hotly pursued the fleeing French, greeting with joy the "German Rhine," which, as their national song, "The Watch on the Rhine," declares, they meant henceforth to guard faithfully from the stranger's tread.