Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

Back to this blog’s original focus: Napoleonics! My reading about this era has focused mainly on the Waterloo campaign, the Peninsula War (1808 to 1813) and the Austrian campaign of 1809. I have dabbled in other campaigns: Napoleon in Italy 1796/7, Suvarov’s campaign 1799, Marengo 1800, Austerlitz 1805, and Russia 1812. That left a huge gap: the epic Central European campaigns of 1813 (and to a lesser extent the battles in France in 1814). I thought I needed to do something about this, saw an offer on George Nafziger’s three books on the subject, and bought them.

I started the first book, on Lutzen and Bautzen, last year, read the second, centring on the battle of Dresden, during lockdown, and have now finished the third, centring on Leipzig. I have very mixed feelings about the whole experience.

Captain Nafziger is well-known amongst wargamers for his intricate research whose main output is orders of battle for many encounters in Napoleonic and other wars, where he went much deeper than the usual British and French sources. He has also ventured into wider military history, with an account of the 1812 campaign, which I have, and others which I haven’t). Unfortunately his ability to ferret out and absorb multiple sources does not make him a great historian, and this series of books doesn’t show him at his best. His prose is leaden. His editorial choices are rather strange. No detail about which unit was to the left or right of another unit is too small for him to note down, but swathes of more strategic information get left out. His accounts include strings of place names, many of which do not appear on the (usually) sparse maps, and little geographical context is offered. It really is very hard to understand what is going on. The result is that I’m still pretty confused about how the earlier campaign, resulting in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, unfolded and why things happened as they did. The other books are generally a bit better, but still very hard going. Occasionally there do seem to errors. I found one case of what looked like the same episode being repeated. There are almost no eye-witness quotations to provide context and atmosphere (though in some ways this is a relief: some modern historians give too many undigested eye-witness accounts, and not enough interpretation).

Occasionally Captain Nafziger’s method works. His account of the prelude to Liepzig, the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, is much clearer than the two versions I had previously read (one by Digby Smith). but mostly it is thoroughly confusing. How accurate is all of this? I suspect him of giving too much credence to French accounts of their own prowess, though he does try to be objective. At Bautzen he describes dreadful execution done by French batteries firing across the river. And yet it was very hard to tally these with what he describes as happening to the Allied troops at the other end (which has a single horse battery being forced to retreat, if I remember correctly). There were other cases where praise for the conduct of French commanders is made for achievements that look quite modest. Where French sources are the main ones available, such as for many of the sieges a the end of the book, the accounts are very lopsided.

There is a lack of strategic commentary. Where he provides it, it reads more like thinking aloud than properly-developed argument. Overall there is a very 19th century feel to his commentary. In this era commentators (including military theorists) felt that Napoleon’s early campaigns (from 1796 to 1805 in particular), with their rapid manoeuvre and decisive battles were the epitome of good generalship, and the standard to which all military leaders should aspire. So they are continually critical of Napoleon’s more “lethargic” later campaigns, and have a good laugh at the floundering grand tactical leadership of the Allies. But war was changing, with massed armies, deficient training and stretched officer cadres. You had to fight wars differently. I suspect many of Napoleon’s “errors” can be explained by such considerations, which, for example, did not allow him to expose the logistical centre of Dresden. And, there is a plausible interpretation of the the Allies’ second campaign, masterminded by the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg, as being one of the most brilliant of the era. There is a more modern flavour to these campaigns, compared to the more 18th Century earlier campaigns. It reminds me rather of the classic comparison of the generalship of Lee and grant in the American Civil War: one seems to look forward and the other back.

What are the takeaways? First I was right about 1813: this is in many ways the pinnacle of the Napoleonic Wars. In a wargamers’ terms (let’s dance lightly over the pain and suffering) this is very rich source of action – with the two sides remarkably well-matched. The sheer scale of it is clearly one of the big problems the author faced in his account. I might very well like to compare this work unfavourably with such masterpieces as Rory Muir’s book on Salamanca, or Eric Gill’s trilogy on the 1809 campaign – but these were much smaller affairs. It is very strange that these epic battles in 1813 are so weakly covered by English-language historians. Captain Nafziger is to be congratulated on taking such a challenge on. The level of detail in this book will make it a useful resource. But I badly need to read a more strategic account to get a clearer idea of what was happening (there are a couple around).

Incidentally, something rather interesting does emerge from wading through the mass of detail: it is how well the Austrians performed, right up to leadership level. I would go as far as to suggest that they were the most aggressive of the troops in the alliance in the second campaign (they were the freshest of the combatants, so this should to be too surprising). This is a far cry from the standard English language account which suggests that they performed poorly because their heart wasn’t in it. Indeed Austrian and Prussian leadership at corps level seems to be every bit as good as that of Napoleon’s veterans, and often better.

There are some mysteries to me that these books throw up, and which my further reading will address. The first is to get some kind of coherent narrative around the first campaign. I don’t buy the standard account that Napoleon outwitted the Allies and had them on the ropes when the armistice was agreed. After all, why then did Napoleon agree to the armistice? There is surely a strategic narrative that tells a rather different tale. Second is why did the Allies accept battle at Dresden when they realised that Napoleon was there in strength, especially when their deployment was so flawed? Third, was Napoleon really so close to crushing the Army of Bohemia after the Allied calamity of Dresden? And finally how close was Napoleon really to achieving victory against the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig?

That last needs to be explored in a wargame. I really don’t understand why this part of the battle isn’t attempted more often by wargamers. It’s big, but so is Borodino. And it has everything – Guard units and cuirassiers aplenty on both sides, and lots of drama. There are lots and lots of other wargames ideas to be found in these books (though I in many cases these will require the finding of much better maps). There are a couple of very interesting smaller battles that caught my eye too.

Conclusion. 1813 is where I need to be directing my future energies on Napoleonic wargames, following the realisation of my Ligny project for 1815.

1 thought on “Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

  1. All of the Napoleonic campaigns hold interest, but I agree with you, 1813 is the epitome; huge armies, all the main combatants present, loads of interesting units.
    I think the ‘usual’ understanding of the armistice is that Napoleon needed and wanted it to get more troops (esp. cavalry), the allies to re-group, also get more troops and to bring in the Austrians. The key was that Napoleon lost the diplomatic war when the latter occurred. It was a matter of time from then…
    Thanks for your useful and honest review. I have these three, but have not done more than flick through them so far. I’m going back to the beginning with my reading of the era, so it will be a while before I get to 1813 again!
    Regards, James

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.