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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon:
The War of the Sixth Coalition 1813-1814
The year 1813 began with much uncertainty. Napoleon’s Prussian allies trapped in Russia had mutinied in December declaring their neutrality. Murat and the remnants of the Grande Armée wintering in Konigsburg were forced to retreat to Posen and then Magdeburg for lack of supplies. In fact all of Prince Eugene’s garrisons in Prussia were suffering as cooperation in acquiring foodstuffs was diminishing. Russian forces moved westward in pursuit of the retreating French, most of the territory of the Duchy of Warsaw was retaken. The Austrians who had been holding Warsaw were secretly ordered to withdraw without giving battle in anticipation of their crumbling alliance with the French.
By February anti-French sentiment had grown so strong in Prussia that Frederick William entered a secret pact with the Russians to liberate his country. About a week later the Russians marched into Berlin without much of a fight. In mid-March Prussia declared war on France and a joint Prussian Russian force took Hamburg. Although the capture of Berlin was almost a bloodless affair, it was of great symbolic importance not just as the Prussian capital but because it counterbalanced Napoleon’s humiliating entry in 1806.
Many ordinary Frenchmen rallied to the cause of liberty when their revolution broke out for they saw it as a rare opportunity to finally destroy the oppressive system that kept them in their place. This revolutionary fervor was powerful, allowing even inexperienced troops to defend France against the coalitions trying to restore the old world order. Napoleon was able to seize upon this revolutionary spirit to keep the ranks of his armies filled over numerous bloody campaigns. Many solders felt they were not just defending France but on a mission to spread their ideals. This all would change as it became more about Napoleon’s nationalistic urges and the quest for empire.
Prussia did not feel at all liberated by Napoleon’s occupation of their kingdom. All resistance to French control was brutally suppressed. When Prussians rose up against occupation, it wasn’t like the previous coalition wars; this was a war of national liberation that had the urgency of a religious crusade. While they were not fighting for the same ideals that spurred the French Revolution, the uprising generated the same amount of commitment. These nationalistic urges were still strong a hundred years later and make themselves felt on postcards of that time. This conflict is still referred to as the Liberation War in Germany today.
Note: While the campaign of 1813 is usually referred to as the Liberation War, some call the entire Franco-Prussian struggle between 1808and 1815 the Liberation Wars.
The purpose of the German School Association in Vienna was to promote pan-Germanic solidarity. They built and staffed private schools since 1880 with a curriculum that stressed Germanic ideals. They also produced a lot of propaganda which eventually took the form of charity cards that were printed in great number by Joseph Eberle. Most of these cards promote some aspect of German culture from composers to romantic landscapes, and even some that reference the Liberation Wars.
Most Napoleonic postcards reproduce artwork created during Napoleon’s reign or from the decades that followed. This generally gives these cards artistic sensibilities that were no longer concurrent with those in place when the postcards were produced. A notable exception is a piece by the Swiss symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler. In 1909 he painted a wall mural at the University of Jena, Departure of the Jena Students 1813 to commemorate the outbreak of the War of Liberation. Its modernist feel is meant to force the viewer to contemplate the German Empires current preparations for war in relation to this heroic moment from its past. Likewise the postcard reproduction of it becomes more potent as propaganda because the message is more direct.
As the Prussians began organizing a revolt, Napoleon was quickly raising a new army, and by April he was moving to rejoin the remnants of the old Grande Armeé left back in Prussia to break up the forces rallying against him. In his way were the Russians now under the command of General Wittgenstein, and the Prussians under General von Blucher. Though the Prussians had reorganized their army and replaced socially placed commanders with professional officers, Napoleon’s mastery of the battlefield won him an impressive victory in May at the Battle of Lutzen. Much less impressive was the Battle of Bautzen where the Prusso-Russian army was pushed back but Marshall Ney failed to trap the retreating Allied army after multiple attempts.
As Napoleon continued to advanced he sent a corps to fortify the important bridgehead across the Elbe at Dresden, which would hinder Allied movements. The French garrison was then attacked by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian forces; but instead of overwhelming the city their hesitation allowed Napoleon to arrive with reinforcements and push them back. Even though Napoleon had secured another victory, both sides had taken tremendous casualties in the campaign and needed to replenish their forces. An armistice was then agreed upon in June.
The publishers of most nations produced regimental postcards that honored specific military units. They were often filled with traditional military symbols, and usually depicted some heroic episode from the regiment’s past. There was no precise format and these compositions varied widely from publisher to publisher. By 1813 the reorganization of the Prussian army had established a number of regiments whose history would extend into the age of postcards. Many regimental German cards in turn would harken back to this mythical time of liberation.
In the early 20th century many postcard sets were created of Napoleon as real photo postcards, which were often hand colored. Though usually based on historic events or at least long told tales, they are not meant to convey history as much as the Napoleonic mystique. These images tend to be highly posed studio shots based on simple narratives. To the modern eye they appear quite awkward.
Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher was a veteran cavalry officer of the Seven Years Wars. He had risen to the rank of general while leading the Red Hussars during the campaigns against the French Revolutionary Army in the Netherlands. He commanded Prussian cavalry at the Battle of Auerstadt during the War of the Forth Coalition, but he Prussian defeat and his fervent anti-French rhetoric led to his downfall. When the Sixth Coalition rose up against Napoleon in 1813, Blucher was given command of the Army of Silesia, and he would play a pivotal role in the remaining campaigns against Napoleons. His image naturally appears on many postcards related to the Battles of Leipzig and Waterloo, but he is also commonly found on German made cards relating to the Liberation Wars. Blucher was well known for his aggressiveness being nicknamed Marshal Forwards, and this aggressive stance is often captured on postcards.
This peace did not last long; Austria turning on its old enemy declared war on France in August. A Swedish army under Napoleon’s former Marshal now Crown Prince Bernadette was already holding Berlin. Austria with her Russian and Prussian allies formed the Army of Bohemia under the command of the Price of Schwarzenberg, and then advanced on Dresden. The attack on the city was beaten off with the arrival of Napoleon with fresh troops but there was no strategic outcome. General Vandamme tried to follow up on this victory and began the encirclement of the Austrian forces. Left unsupported, it was he that was encircled when Prussian and Russian troops arrived, which led to the destruction of his Corps at the Battle of Kulm.
Once the Leipzig campaign began, a number of battles of varying importance were fought throughout August but none of these were too insignificant to find their way onto German postcards. This is because subjects were not chosen for postcard production for their historic military value as much as for contemporary propaganda value. The Battle of Grossbeeren is one such example in which a French army under Marshal Oudinot attempted to take Berlin. He unexpectedly met up with a larger Prussian army and was forced to retreat after a very disorganized battle. It is basically remembered as the first Prussian victory over the French in the Liberation War. The battle was an important morale booster back then, and the postcard is meant to fill Germans with the same sense of patriotism.
The Prussians under the command of General Blucher had earlier defeated a portion of the French army under Marshal Macdonald at Katzbach, and now that Napoleon moving against him, he avoided battle. Marshal Ney then launched an offensive against Berlin but he was defeated by Bernadotte’s army at Dennewitz. This led Bavaria and Saxony to drop out of the Confederation of the Rhine and join the Allies. Instead of marching on Berlin as planned, Napoleon withdrew the bulk of his forces behind the Elbe River to lessen his supply problems.
By concentrating his army at Leipzig in October, Napoleon hoped to destroy the Allied armies one by one, first falling on the Army of Bohemia. The Prussian army under Blucher however was unexpectedly approaching. Napoleon had made an effort to cut the Prussians supply lines to Berlin but Blucher tired of retreating just pressed forward. Napoleon needed time to finish assembling his scattered army and assigned Murat the task of holding the Allies at bay. After placing artillery on high ground, French and Polish cavalry battled all day on muddy ground in seesaw attacks. The Battle of Liebertwolkwitz was the largest cavalry battle to be fought in Europe, but it ended in a draw.
The engagement at Liebertwolkwitz bought the French some time but they had to fall back behind the incomplete defenses of Leipzig. Napoleon managed to beat off successive Prussian and Austria attacks but more Allied troops arrived over the next two days. When Bernadette’s army came on to the field the attack was renewed. While too many independent commands led to costly uncoordinated assaults, the French were worn down by attrition and eventually forced to retreat. Despite Blucher’s efforts to surround Napoleon’s army, he managed to escape after suffering great losses. The Bavarians made one last attempt to cut off Napoleon’s escape but they were defeated at the Battle of Hanau, and the French army was back across the Rhine by November.
The French retreat from Leipzig was precarious. While the Allies had failed to completely envelope Napoleon’s flanks and trap him, the only escape route open was across the Elster River over the Lindenau Bridge. Events had unfolded too rapidly to prepare an alternative route; and now it was a race to get across this structure and then destroy it to prevent the Allies from following. For the most part things went well. Napoleon got safely across with most of his army, but as the defense shrunk, fighting broke out on the city’s streets causing the bridge to be blown prematurely. The battle would end in chaotic city fighting with those trapped, which slowed the allied pursuit. Many postcards capture this event, perhaps more than the main battle. Perhaps it is because it has symbolic value that satisfies many customers. It can be seen as Napoleon escaping his enemies once more or as the turning point that leads to his inevitable defeat. It might also have to do with its drama that can be tied to a specific event.
Not all postcards depicting the last moments of the Battle of the Nations are ambiguous in their meaning. Some show the speedy flight of Napoleon from Leipzig in unflattering terms, escaping without all of his army. Most Napoleonic postcards depict the drama of battle without editorial content, whether it is a grand panorama or combat between two soldiers. They tend to only play up the romance and heroics of war even when working as political propaganda. Images of a flawed Napoleon are rare, though they begin to appear with representations of the Russian campaign in 1812. The problem facing many artists and publishers was how to unfavorably render enemy leaders without challenging broader notions of authority.
Although Tadeusz Korpal graduated from the Academy in Cracow, he found himself serving in the Polish Legion during the First World War before he could put his skills into practice. By 1915 ill health forced him out of the infantry but he continued to serve by creating propaganda. In the postwar years he moved to Paris to continue his studies in art and began to paint a number of works related to Polish history. A number of these Napoleonic related paintings would be reproduced on Polish postcards. His nationalistic tendencies would run him afoul with the German Gestapo in 1939 and with Communist authorities after World War Two.
One of Korpal’s better known works is his portrayal of Prince Jozef Poniatowski, who was the nephew of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, commander in chief of the Polish Army in the Duchy of Warsaw, and since 1813 Marshal of France. He had a long and distinguished military career that came to an end at the Battle of the Nations. While covering the French retreat he was badly wounded and drowned while trying to cross the Elster.
Oskar Merté largely worked as a painter and illustrator focused on equestrian themes through which he found work with Flying Sheets and the German Cavalry Newspaper. After assisting Franz Roubaud Alexeyevich created the battle panorama of Sevastopol, Merté became more interested in military themes. While most postcards reproduce his renderings of horses and other animals, historic scenes depicting Prussian participation in the Napoleonic Wars can also be found. He would also paint contemporary battle scenes during World War One.
Though the Battle at Leipzig or the Battle of the Nations as it was also known was the largest battle fought in Europe up to that time, it is not so well known largely because it has been overshadowed by other events that carry more mythic value with them. The exception was in the German Empire where the battle came to be seen as the beginning of the liberation of the German people and the fuel from which their Empire would be born. A huge memorial was placed on the battlefield to commemorate its 100th anniversary, which opened in 1913 after fifteen years of construction. It is designed to be a tribute to the unity of the German people, which created a localized myth that was also celebrated by the publication of many postcards. Though one of the tallest monuments in Europe, it is its mythic associations that have provided its popularity. Despite its service as a nationalist symbol to the Nazis, the Russians decided not to destroy the monument once it fell within their occupied zone at the end of World War Two because it also represented a mythic German-Russian alliance.
While there are scores of postcards depicting the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, there are also many photo-based and artist drawn cards of its massive statuary. Some adorn its outer shell but it is the massive statues of its inner crypt depicting fallen warriors and the guards of the dead that are the most compelling. They mirror German national myths rather than represent the soldiers who fought in this battle. Sculpted by Christian Behrens and Franz Metzer, these colossus look much more fictional on postcards than like anything to be found in reality. An exceptional and popular set of these cards reproduce the wood engravings of artist Bruno Heroux.
While most military postcards stress the battles of Napoleon, some depict smaller incidents of these campaigns as well. Mighty armies cross rivers, generals look over maps, and soldiers rest at bivouac. There was apparently an audience for anything dealing with this era though some publishers still managed to add some drama into an otherwise ordinary scene. One example is the burning of the Saxon town of Bischofswerde that destroyed much of its medieval center while Napoleon’s troops were camped there. While the fire in the background insinuates some catastrophic event, only the title separates this card from others scenes of soldiers around campfires.
Carl Theodor Körner was a poet and playwright of some renown, but his real claim to fame came in 1813 after he joined the paramilitary Lutzow Free Corps in the Prussian uprising against Napoleon. His cavalry unit severely harassed the French army and he was eventually singled out to be killed. After he fell in battle but shortly before his death he penned the highly patriotic Schwertlied (Sword Song). His poem would later be set to music by both Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert, which brought it much fame. A series of postcards were published, each carrying a stanza of this poem and a generic scene from the Napoleonic wars. Other publishers also presented scenes from his life and numerous portraits to the point that he is the best represented individual from this era nest to Napoleon.
After Austria’s defeat in the War of the Third Coalition, it was forced to cede the Kingdom of Naples to France in 1806. Napoleon first gave Naples to his brother Joseph Bonaparte, but after he was made King of Spain, the Kingdom of Naples was passed down to Field Marshall Joachim Murat who was also Napoleon’s brother-in-law. Murat continued to fight alongside Napoleon until his defeat at Leipzig. To save his Crown he negotiated a separate peace with the Austrians in January 1814 in which he agreed to switch sides to join the Allies.
Unable to trap Napoleon after his disastrous defeat at Leipzig, the Allies found themselves too short of supplies to cross the Rhine. Wary of invading, the Coalition then offered Napoleon a conditional peace that would make the de facto Alps and the Rhine the new borders of France. The offer seemed generous for by November 1813 the Netherlands were in revolt, the Confederation of the Rhine had been dissolved, and only a few large French garrisoned cities in Prussia and Poland held out. Napoleon believing he could still find victory over his opponents used these talks as a delaying action while he raised a new army. By the end of December his time had run out; the Allies would not go into winter quarters but resume the attack.
On New Year’s Day 1814, Blucher's Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine near Koblenz invading France. The event has huge symbolic value as the turning of the tides with the invaded now invading their former oppressor. German publishers did not only reproduce the historic paintings that capture this event on large quantities of postcards, a number of illustrators made newer versions of these pivotal events.
By January 1814 the Allies had coordinated their offensive; Bernadotte’s army was moving south through the Netherlands, while the Austrians under Schwarzenberg were crossing the Alps. Blucher’s Prussians were already in France headed toward Nancy. By the end of the month they were in close contact with each other when Napoleon struck to prevent them from joining. Blucher’s fast moving army had overextended itself, only to find itself halted by a series of defeats and forced to retreat after the Battle of Vauchamps.
With Blucher in retreat, Napoleon was then able to turn on Schwarzenbrg’s army who was now retreating toward the Seine. The Austrians put up a defense at Montereau, but as French artillery drove them from the town the retreat turned into a route. Scenes with Napoleon personally aiming the guns at this battle became a popular theme that was later picked up on postcards.
While Napoleon did not achieve his initial goals, by working off of interior lines he managed to deliver a series of defeats on all three Allied armies by March. The pressure from being pressed by multiple Allied armies seems to have brought out the best of Napoleon’s skills as a general. Both sides had become less reluctant to engage in battle, Napoleon out of desperation, and the Allies from overconfidence. These French victories slowed the Allies down and sometimes pushed superior forces back as at Reims, but Napoleon could not halt their overall momentum. Blucher in particular had his eyes on Paris and would not halt.
The Battle of Craonne was one of the Allied defeats that came in March 1814. After delivering a serious blow to the Prussian and Russian forces under Blucher, Napoleon turned his attention to the oncoming Austrians under Schwarzenberg. Blucher however recovered faster than expected, but when he threatened Napoleon’s rear he was pushed back over the Aisne River. Both then tried to outmaneuver the other but neither managed to move fast enough to gain any advantage. What is notable about the postcard above that marks the one hundredth anniversary of this battle celebrated in 1914 is how ordinary it is. Even though a great world war would erupt only four months latter, there is no propaganda contained within that gives any hint of rising tensions. While this early Franco-Prussian conflict would be reflected in postcards published during World War One, the messages found on prewar cards are rather subdued as no one foresaw the turmoil to come.
After Allied victories at Arcis-sur-Aube and La Fere-Champenoise they pressed on toward the outskirts of Paris. While Napoleon was distracted by Allied cavalry, his brother Joseph was left to defend Paris from the Russian-Prussian army under the command of Barclay that had reached the city’s gates at the end of March. Tired from years of war there was no mass uprising against the invaders. After one day of fierce fighting, Napoleon’s Minister Talleyrand gladly surrendered the city. While the Prussians wanted to take revenge on the city, the presence of Czar Alexander had a moderating effect and Paris was spared.
Upon hearing that Paris had fallen, Napoleon ordered a counterattack to retake Paris but his Marshals refused to obey. Deciding it was time to bring peace to France, Field Marshal Ney was sent to Napoleon as a spokesman for the revolt to convince him it was time to abdicate the throne. The Treaty of Fontainebleau that was signed in April formalized Napoleon’s departure. As compensation for the loss of his empire he was granted the island principality of Elba. As Napoleon was sent into exile, the Treaty of Paris made Louis XVIII the new Emperor of Bourbon France in May. For his help in facilitating Napoleon’s removal, Marshal Ney was allowed to keep his position in the French Army that was now serving the new King. Napoleon bidding his marshals adieux was a popular postcard theme and it exists in many forms.
The Battle of the Nations was such a monumental event that is has distracted from the many other battles of this war that followed. While few are household names today, many involved Prussian forces under the command of General Blucher, and they were seen in Germany in the early years of postcard production as victories leading to their liberation. The Napoleonic postcards printed in Germany tend to capture the events of the War of the Sixth Coalition more often than those from other campaigns, and they tend to refer to the events of 1813 as the War of Liberation. Anton Hoffman is best known as an illustrator of equestrian and military scenes dating from World War One, but he also provided images of battle scenes from this period for a large set of Napoleonic charity cards benefiting war orphans.
During World War One a fairly large number of illustrators evoked the Liberation War on postcards. It may have only been natural to do so since the anniversary fell the same time the Great War opened, but the need to make associations with this earlier conflict was probably the greater driving force behind it. While there a plenty of cards that reference specific events, others just refer to the Liberation War as a whole, asking Germans not to forget the sacrifices of the past.
Ernst Kutzer worked as a military illustrator in Vienna during the Great War, and many of his images wound up on postcards. Many of these depicted contemporary events, but he also produced a very large set of charity cards dedicated to the events of the Liberation Wars fought between 1808 and 1815.
Richard Knotell was a military painter of high regard. He would capture many contemporary scenes of combat from World War One, but he also produced cards in a similar style depicting historic conflicts that included the Liberation Wars for a number of different publishers. He also illustrated another outstanding set of cards printed in dutone that represent small episodes of the Liberation Wars including the plight of ordinary civilians in their ravaged homeland.
Av Roessler illustrated a large set of postcards for the Club for Germans Living Abroad (Verein das Deusthrum im Ausland E.V.). These cards depicted the Prussian army engaged in fighting the French from 1813 to the prelude of Waterloo at Belle-Alliance in 1815.
A large set of official postcards were printed by Hartung & Co. to mark the 100th anniversary of the Liberation War in 1913. They depict soldiers in uniform and various historic scenes in and around Hamburg. There were a number of different series based on the work of different artists such as Van Der Reyth and the engravings of the Suhr brothers.
Swiss Unification 1814
After the French Revolution, armies of the new republic began to encroach on the Swiss cantons, and by 1798 they had completely overrun them. The cantons were then united into the Helvetic Republic but the loss of traditional liberties at the hands of a centralized government caused much resentment among the populous. Even after revolts were put down by the French this new republic remained unstable. In 1803 Napoleon reestablished the somewhat autonomous Swiss Confederation in the Act of Mediation to help remedy the unrest but this eventually devolved into civil war. When the Congress of Vienna began meeting in 1814 they discussed establishing a truly independent and permanently neutral Swiss State, but they were only able to achieve results the following year after final Napoleon’s abdication.
Although the cantons were first united under Napoleon, few Swiss wished to commemorate these years of foreign domination. Swiss unification is usually regarded as taking place afterwards, but even here many regard the 1814 date rather than 1815 as being of greater importance, and the centennial celebration of Swiss Unification was celebrated in 1914. A set of official postcards were issued for the occasion.
Congress of Vienna 1814
After Napoleon’s abdication a congress gathered in Vienna to redraw the map of Europe. Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain had all the seats though Talleyrand would eventually negotiate a spot for France. All the Allies except for Russia wanted an Independent Duchy of Warsaw (Poland) but Czar Alexander insisted it remain under his control with Saxony delivered to Prussia. Despite strong opposition he got his way simply because these territories were then under the occupation of large Russian armies that no one wished to challenge. Russia was also allowed to keep Finland, and Prussia was additionally given parts of the Duchy of Warsaw including Danzig (Gdansk), Swedish Pomerania, and the Rhineland. Austria regained control over Tirol as well as lands around Venetia and Ragusa. The Dutch lost territory; parts of the West Indies to Britain, and Ceylon and Cape Colony to Spain. In compensation a greater United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created. Spain also kept Malta and Heligoland. The Papal States would revert to the control of the Pope.