Wars of Liberation

Blücher's army crossing the Rhine, 1813
Blücher's army crossing the Rhine, 1813

Continental system and beginning resistance

Since Napoleon could not conquer England, he intended to fight her by economic mean, and decreed the Continental system. No country was allowed to trade with England, no harbor was allowed to let English ships moor. At first, these measures hit England’s economy, but then English tradesmen found new markets for their merchandises in their colonies. Eventually, the continental system rather strengthened England as a naval and trading power, whereas people on the continent suffered.

Still Napoleon was far more powerful, but resistance gradually grew. The Spaniards waged a guerilla war against French occupation. Only after long negotiations did Napoleon get military assistance from the Confederation of the Rhine. In Prussia and other German states, there was at first only little resistance.

But the pressure of Napoleon’s dominance made patriotism grow, the word “my country” (in German Vaterland, fatherland) became meaningful. Yet, patriotism did not go against tolerance and cosmopolitanism, loving one’s own country and culture included respect for other cultures. This is what great men of that time stood for, for instance Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Brothers Grimm. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm did not only collect German fairy tales, but legends from all over the world, had them translated and published them all together.

The disaster in Moscow

The Continental System finally led to a breakup between the Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon, and Napoleon took up arms again. On June 23, 1812 the enormous Grande Armée of 650,000 men crossed the Njemen River. Among them were about 270,000 Frenchmen and many soldiers from Prussia, Austria and the Confederation of the Rhine. The Grande Armée defeated the Russians in the bloody Battle of Borodino in September 1812 and shortly after captured Moscow. But the city was abandoned, and the same night the Russians burned it down. With victory out of sight and all supplies and quarters gone up in flames, Napoleon finally ordered retreat.

But it was too late; the Grande Armée got into the Russian winter and was again and again attacked by Cossacks. With the last bit of strength, the soldiers fought their way through enemy lines. Among the Frenchmen, only 18,000 survived, and of 500 soldiers from the Duchy of Berg, only 190 came back alive. General Yorck, commander of the Prussian regiments in the Grande Armée and a Prussian patriot, signed a truce with the Russian General Diebitsch, without the King’s authorization (Convention of Tauroggen of December 30, 1812).

Hunger and Poverty in Berg

Although the Grand Duchy of Berg had close economic ties to France, Napoleon accepted its decline for the sake of his continental system. The Rhine was the customs border, also goods from Berg were classified as “hostile”. The French authorities taxed them so high that Berg was de facto cut off from the French and Dutch markets. Soon the economy had reached a lot, people impoverished, hunger and poverty spread. The mandatory service in Napoleon’s army strained the people so much that in it came to open opposition against further recruitment in January 1813.

Wars of Liberation

King Frederick William III decreed general conscription and called all men to defend their country against Napoleon, the soldiers fighting in the regular army as well as everyone else who could bear a weapon. A wave of enthusiasm and dedication went through the lands, and many volunteered. New military forces came into being. Men not serving in the regular army joined forces in the Landwehr (defense of the country) regiments and marched with the regular regiments into combat. Another new unit was the Landsturm, a militia. They remained at home to defend their towns and villages.

Volunteers came together in Free Corps (voluntary forces), among them the famous Lützow Free Corps in their black-red-golden uniforms. Men from all over Prussia and the German states fought with him, among them the poet Joseph von Eichendorff. Later these colors became a symbol of freedom and national unity, and eventually the flag of the democratic Germany.

In summer 1813, Prussia, England, Sweden, Austria and Bavaria stood against Napoleon. In the Battle of Leipzig on October 16-19, 1813, also the “Battle of the Nations”, they defeated Napoleon’s army. The Emperor had to withdraw, and the Confederation of the Rhine fell apart.

Landsturm vom Siebengebirge

The Prussian army pursuit the Frenche. The Prussian Major von Boltenstern and his troops came to Königswinter and were met with enthusiasm. On November 10, 1813, the people from Königswinter and other villages formed the militia “Landsturm vom Siebengebirge”. 3,000 armed men protected the right bank of the Rhine River from Bad Honnef to the conjunction of the rivers Rhine and Sieg.

In New Year’s night 1813/14, Prussian troops under field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher crossed the Rhine at Caub, Palatinate. Cologne was still occupied by the French. On January 3, 1814, the Prussian troops under von Boltenstern and 150 volunteers from the region set out to re-conquer the city. But the attack failed and von Boltenstern lost his life. The same day, Prussian troops and Landsturm men attacked from the Island of Nonnenwerth the French troops on the left side of the Rhine. Josef Genger of the Landsturm died in combat. A memorial on the Drachenfels, the Landsturmdenkmal, reminds us of both, von Boltenstern and Genger.

On January 14, 1814, the French had to withdraw from the Rhine frontier and from Cologne. In March 1814, the left bank was re-conquered. On March 31, 1814, the Allies finally entered Paris. Napoleon had to abdicate and go into exile on the island of Elba. The Bourbon monarchy was restored.

Waterloo and Congress of Vienna

Statesmen from all over Europe convened in the Congress of Vienna to reorganize Europe. But soon rivalries between the Allies arose, and they were at the verge of taking up arms against each other. Suddenly alarming news reached them. On March 1, 1815, Napoleon and some hundred followers had landed in Southern France. Many people hailed him, and troops that should have fought him had defected and joined him. Quickly the allies found an agreement and signed the last act on June 9, 1815, some days before the battle of Waterloo.

One last time Napoleon defeated the Prussian Army. Some days later, at Waterloo, the united Prussian and English armies under the command of Wellington and Blücher defeated him for good. Napoleon had to abdicate a second time and was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Here, he died in 1821.

After the victory over Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna compensated Prussia for her lost territories. The whole of the Rhineland, Westphalia, and some other territories fell to Prussia. The German states remained and grouped together into a loose “German Federation” (1815-1866). The Congress also reestablished the old feudal order. And yet, the hopes for democracy and national unity remained alive.

French Revolution and Napoleon (1789-1815)
British-American War (1812-1815)

The photos are from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.