Leopold left Erfurt and went back to Coburg. Four years later Napoleon summoned the princes of the German Confederation to Dresden. He was preparing to invade Russia. Leopold, now twenty-one years old, decided not to attend. Technically his loyalties were divided. He was a citizen in Napoleon’s empire, but he was an officer in the Tsar’s army. Yet while his conscience was telling him his loyalties lay with Russia, his common sense was to wait and see what happened.
Common sense prevailed. Leopold went to Italy and waited. The French army reached Moscow and then retreated from its ruins. By the time it crossed the border, it had been almost annihilated by the Russian winter and relentless Cossacks.
On 28 February 1813, when the Russian and Prussian leaders met at Kalish to form alliance against Napoleon, Leopold was there. When he reported for duty, he was given the real rank of colonel and attached to the staff of the Imperial Guard.
In his first battle, the allies’ defeat at Lutzen, Leopold commanded a brigade of cavalry. It may still have been an honorary command, with other officers making the decisions, but in the Russian army, which was notorious in those days for the ineptitude of its officers, it was not difficult for an able man to get noticed. Three weeks later, at Bautzen, Leopold took charge of the brigade himself. He led it out in front of the advancing French and covered the allied retreat into Silesia.
After that Leopold was a cavalry commander. He played a key role in the victory at Kulm, where he was decorated in the field with the Cross of St George. He led a charge at the great battle of Leipzig and was decorated again, this time with the Cross of Maria Theresa. At the end of the campaign, he led the Russian heavy cavalry on its westward advance from Switzerland towards Paris, engaging the enemy at Brienne, Fere-Champenoise and Bellville.
On 31 March 1814, riding at the head of his cuirassiers, and wearing the well-earned insignia of a Lieutenant-General, Leopold escorted the Tsar of Russia and the King of Prussia into the French capital.
[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]