The Voelkerschlachtdenkmal, or the Battle of the Nations Monument, is massive and imposing and can be seen from a long ways off. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there, but now I have to say that it’s one of those things that you can’t leave Leipzig without seeing. Not only because of the history packed inside the small museum at the base of the monument, but also because of the view you get from the top. Once you climb the five hundred steps (or take the elevator to the last flight) you’re rewarded with an amazing view of the city in all directions. While many people remember Waterloo as Napoleon’s grand defeat they often forget about the Battle of Leipzig’s significance. I’m here to give you a quick little run down on what happened in October 1813.
The Duke of Wellington, a British General of the time, once said that describing a battle is like describing a ball: everyone who attends a ball has a different memory of the event, some happy, some disappointing, and how, in the swirl of music and ball gowns and flirtations, could anyone hope to make a coherent account of exactly what happened? The Battle of the Nations was the turning point for the French Emperor in his 20 year long war against the world. After his disastrous retreat from Russia, Napoleon made his stand in the German city of Leipzig to protect his vital supply lines. When the French met the combined forces of Prussia, Austria, Russia, and Sweden, it was the single largest engagement of the entire war, with Napoleon’s Grande Armee numbering in the 180,000, and the Allies bringing nearly 300,000 men.
It’s easier to describe the battle in three acts, as if it were a play. The First Act starts with repeated attacks on Napoleon’s army, but the battered and beaten Frenchmen hold on after relentless assaults. Neither side is able to gain a decisive hold on the battle during the first few days, and all that is really accomplished is mounting casualties for both sides.
The Second Act, perhaps the most famous of the three, is the actual Battle of Leipzig. The Allied Armies encircle the beleaguered French and begin their assault. It doesn’t help that the Saxon army defects from Napoleon’s side just as the final Prussian attack commences. In the end, it’s the sheer weight of Allied numbers that carries them to victory. It’s the first time since 1806 that the Prussians have beaten the French in the open field.
Then comes the Final Act. The rain-soaked blunder of the withdrawal by Napoleon’s Army is met with disaster after disaster, including the premature destruction of a bridge that kills thousands of Frenchmen and strands thousands more, leaving them at the mercy of the Allied forces. The finale ends several months later, when the world’s conqueror abdicates to the Coalition, ending the long and bloody war for now.
The Museum’s diorama of the Battle of Leipzig rendered me a drooling fool. Someday I hope to make one myself. The miniature scene of the Battle shows Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, the Immortals of the French Army , marching into battle against the vast Prussian Army. The Immortals were few in number but widely considered the finest infantry in the world, while the Prussians were largely untrained but enthusiastic men who made up for their lack of skill with overwhelming numbers. The diorama is beautifully done, and someone who knows nothing of the battle can still get a sense of the scale and desperation of this fight from a quick glance. One can almost hear the great crash of Napoleon’s artillery, or the crescendo of musketry as the two sides line up to pour fire into each other. The scene is accompanied by fake smoke rising from the formations and the shattered town in the middle , which give a sense of the chaos that came with battle in those times.
The model is supplemented by enough relics from the Napoleonic Wars to make a history buff like myself giddy. Seeing the golden helmets of the French Cuirassier and the uniforms of the Prussian Jaegers was something I’d only dreamt of, yet here they were right in front of me. It’s different when you see history before you from than when you read about it. Until then, I’d only had vague ideas of what these things might have looked like.
Now that you’ve got a little background about the Battle of the Nations, make your way out to the little town of Leipzig to experience it yourself.