Thursday, 27 February 2014

Review: Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813

Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813
Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 by Michael V. Leggiere

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fine account of the 1813 campaigns in Saxony with a focus on the role of Prussian general Von Bülow. This is an interesting perspective as Bülow’s career in 1813 touches on several crucial episodes in the Prussian revival of that year.

He first played an important role during the three months between the return of Napoleon’s shattered army from Russia in December 1812 and the Prussian shift of alliance from France to Russia in March 1813. It shows that apart from walking a tight political rope between French demands for action, insubordination to his own king and challenges from Russian frienemies and Prussian revivalists, he maintained his freedom of action while building up his own untrained force. Leggiere holds that the Prussian army was the prime mover driving king Friedrich Wilhelm into the alliance and that it remained the driving force behind the campaigns against Napoleon in the next two years.

Next, Bülow was tasked with the defence of Berlin during the spring campaign. This gives a nice assessment of the Prussian ability to defend the capital and the amount of prestige invested in holding it. Elaborate plans for a system of inundations around the town were marred by lack of water and offered no help in practice. It also shows the central place Berlin held in Napoleon’s long term plans. On the other hand, the fact that he never led a force to occupy it in person and the resources he put at the disposal of his underlings suggests that it wasn’t a primary goal. A feeble attempt by Oudinot in May was stopped by Bülow at Luckau.

During the armistice Bülow took the responsibility for the reorganisation and final completion of the Kurmark Landwehr. The armistice provided a crucial breathing space that ensured the Landwehr was an effective combat force in the autumn. This is a very interesting episode illustrating the high water mark of the reform movement in Prussian military and political affairs and the challenges of building up an army in an impoverished state. Although the Landwehr had been envisaged by the reformers as a separate institution to the regular army, the generals’ involvement in its organisation and training ensured that the two forces merged and that the ideals of a people’s army and a nationalist force were subjected to conservative and monarchical considerations.

With the resumption of hostilities Bülow was again tasked with the defence of Berlin but now in a multinational army under the orders of Crown Prince John Charles of Sweden, formerly known as Marshal Bernadotte. Bülow, not an easy man to work with himself, suffered from Bernadotte’s single minded pursuit of Swedish and private objectives at the cost of allied cooperation and success. At the battles of Gross Beeren and Dennewitz the Prussians essentially fought the French thrusts towards the capital by themselves with the Swedish and Russian elements of the army watching from a distance.

Towards the end of the book the focus of action shifts away from Berlin but Bülow once again plays an important part in the final day’s fighting at the battle of Leipzig. Meanwhile, the fraught relationship with Bernadotte reaches new lows, and it is easy to see that this would affect Bülow´s operations in the Low Countries in late 1813 and 1814.

Bülow’s difficult relationships with about every other allied commander show that personality played as much of a role in generalship on the allied side as between Napoleon’s marshals. It also affected his performance in 1815. On the other hand, Leggiere shows that the general was not a conservative doctrinarian but an intelligent man of experience with a principal distrust of the reform faction in the army, who developed as good a working relationship with his reformist chief of staff Boyen as Blücher reached with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

Leggiere’s great achievement is to weave all these elements into an engaging narrative that adds much to the classic accounts of the 1813 campaign.

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  1. Thanks for this review. As someone relatively new to the Napoleonic period, I find these campaign histories a good way to get bite-sized pieces of knowledge, rather than studying battles in isolation.

  2. Hi Michael,

    There's not too much detail on battles in this book. But the overall strategy and the interplay with politics is done really well.


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