Siege of Hamburg
May 1813 to 27 May 1814
Napoleonic Guide's Suggested
Napoleon Bonaparte retreated
from Germany he wanted to
hold the strong fortress of Hamburg for as long as possible.
achieve this he selected his loyal and most able marshal,
Louis Davout, to take the
city and deal harshly with the leading citizens and soldiers
who had recently declared themselves against France.
ordered Davout to shoot the offenders, confiscate their
properties and money, as well as fining the entire city
almost 50 million francs in reparations.
and facing large Allied armies, Davout needed as much cooperation
as he could get from the local population and so walked
a tightrope of diplomacy - contrary to his reputation as
a speak-his-mind soldier - and achieved the emperor's aims
without alienating the citizenry.
He took it upon himself to take reparations from the Bank
of Hamburg - which caused him trouble later on. The marshal
also forcibly expelled 25,000 civilians from the city during
the course of the siege.
seems he may even have announced the death penalty for officers
and civic leaders and then allowed them time to escape so
he wouldn't have to shoot them!
the situation settled down, Davout had his XIII Corps -
30,000 fit troops (another 10,000 were sick in hospital)
- strengthen the city's defences and draw in food and supplies.
aim was to have enough to last 30,000 men and 5000 horses
for up to eight months. He issued warnings that a siege
was imminent and told the population to ensure it could
feed itself for a year or leave the city.
the beginning of November his last line of retreat was cut
and he was effectively isolated for the remainder of the
ensure he would not have to undergo the shame of surrender,
Davout meticulously worked on improving the fortifications
and razed districts of Hamburg to ensure his 350 cannons
had a clear field of fire.
his initial thoughts were to keep the population on-side,
when hostilities broke out Davout refused to have anything
interfere with his military task.
he expelled upwards of 25,000 civilians he explained he
had kept them in the city up until the last minute in the
hope that the enemy did not attack the fortress.
December the Allied army was at its peak and some 120,000
men surrounded Hamburg.
city's formidable defences were almost worth an army on
their own and the former French marshal - now Swedish Crown
Prince - Jean-Baptiste
Bernadotte found a reason to excuse his 60,000 Swedes
and Germans from the imminent assault. He had no wish to
throw his army away against the walls, particularly when
the defenders were led by the never-beaten Davout.
remaining Allied force - mainly Russians under General Bennigsen
- were not so easily deterred, although
it wasn't until 9 February that the first major move against
Hamburg was made.
heavy fighting achieved little for the attackers as wherever
the lines began to weaken Davout would appear in person
with a mobile reserve of men and guns to bolster defences.
During the course of the siege these units were to time
and again thwart the Allied offensives.
received a severely blooded nose, Bennigsen waited until
17 February before trying again and once more was beaten
third major assault - this time at night - started on 27
February, but the
ever-vigilant Davout used flares to help his gunners light
their fields of fire and they did murderous work against
to attack the city a fourth time, Bennigsen settled in for
25 April Davout was informed that Napoleon had abdicated
but, being cut off from all news, wanted to verify it for
days later instructions from the new French government arrived
but made no mention of the former emperor. This gave Davout
a major problem as he seemed unsure of whether to take it
as the truth, or would he be betraying Napoleon by accepting
a rival government?
he was convinced and so immediately affirmed his loyalty
to the new power in France, Louis XVIII.
27 May the first units of the unbowed XIII Corps marched
out of the city with their weapons and possessions and returned
to France. Davout lost some 11,000 men during the year-long
siege and most of those were due to sickness and disease.
his arrival in France Davout was told not to travel to Paris,
but stay at his own home at Savigny-sur-Orge. Opponents
had accused the marshal of not being loyal to the new king,
despite the fact he had sworn allegiance as soon as it was
confirmed Bonaparte was gone, and of stealing the money
from the Bank of Hamburg, an allegation that went against
character and had no evidence supporting it.
of the allegations were even taken to the point of formal
charges, although the slurs against Davout muddied his reputation,
particularly in Germany where he was hated.
Hamburg, the Iron Marshal conducted a perfect defence -
one of the last victories of Napoleonic France.