Siege of Hamburg

30 May 1813 to 27 May 1814

The Napoleonic Guide's Suggested Tours

As Napoleon Bonaparte retreated from Germany he wanted to hold the strong fortress of Hamburg for as long as possible.

To 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.

Napoleon ordered Davout to shoot the offenders, confiscate their properties and money, as well as fining the entire city almost 50 million francs in reparations.

Isolated 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.

It 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!

Once 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.

His 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.

At the beginning of November his last line of retreat was cut and he was effectively isolated for the remainder of the war.

To 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.

While his initial thoughts were to keep the population on-side, when hostilities broke out Davout refused to have anything interfere with his military task.

When 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.

In December the Allied army was at its peak and some 120,000 men surrounded Hamburg.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Having received a severely blooded nose, Bennigsen waited until 17 February before trying again and once more was beaten back.

A 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 the Russians.

Unwilling to attack the city a fourth time, Bennigsen settled in for a siege.

On 25 April Davout was informed that Napoleon had abdicated but, being cut off from all news, wanted to verify it for himself.

Five 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?

Eventually he was convinced and so immediately affirmed his loyalty to the new power in France, Louis XVIII.

On 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.

On 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.

None 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.

At Hamburg, the Iron Marshal conducted a perfect defence - one of the last victories of Napoleonic France.



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