Frederick the Great and War III

Leuthen was the extremest example of Friedrich’s oblique-order attack and also his most destructive victory. He lost 6,000 men, but the Austrians lost 10,000 in killed and wounded, besides 21,000 prisoners, and two weeks later Breslau surrendered, with 17,000 more. The effect was crushing, but it was not decisive, except locally and in a temporary manner, as to who should hold Silesia until the next campaign.

Austria was unable to get another army into the field until late in the following summer, but in the meanwhile the Russians, who had thus far been trying to assure themselves of the possession of East Prussia, pushed a column into the home counties as far as Frankfurt an der Oder, and Friedrich had to go fight it. He beat it at Zorndorf in a slaughtering battle in August, but by October the Austrians were on foot again, now under Daun, and at Hochkirch they beat the king.

They beat him in the way one would have least expected against so acute a commander, by leaving their watch fires burning while they made a night march and surprised him at dawn. That is, they caught him being careless. And in the following summer, 1759, a combined Austro-Russian army inflicted a paralyzing defeat on Friedrich at Kunersdorf, one in which he lost over 20,000 men–again through his own fault, for he sent his troops into action after two days without sleep, up a steep hill in broiling sun. “Will not some curst bullet strike me?” he cried afterward, and, “I believe everything is lost,” he wrote.

But he had done better than he thought and everything was not lost; neither after Hochkirch nor Kunersdorf did his enemies make any follow-up. They could not; they were too disorganized in terms of lost officers, mingling of regiments, breakdown of supply. They had no such solid basis as the Prussian army; when any of them lost a battle, that particular campaign was over, when they won, it merely went on.

A realization that their sole real asset was numerical penetrated allied minds in 1761, and they adopted a plan of campaign to make numbers count. There were to be three columns, one operating through Saxony under Daun, one through Silesia under the Austrian General Loudon, and a Russian column through Poland. Each was to deplete Friedrich’s resources by eating up the towns. He could maintain only one army large enough to deal with any of the three; whenever he turned against one, the others would keep moving stolidly toward Berlin.

This plan was modified by events. The Russians came slowly through northern Silesia. Daun also was slow, and when Friedrich turned against Loudon, the Austrian marshal thought he saw an opportunity to repeat the surprise of Hochkirch. He swung around toward the northwest of Friedrich’s position at Liegnitz while Loudon marched by a circuit to close him in from the northeast, with the Russians under General Czernicheff pushing up from behind.

But Daun did some careful scouting from the heights above Liegnitz, which not only slowed his march, but attracted Friedrich’s attention. On the night of August 14, 1761, the king turned the Austrians’ trick right around on them, leaving a group of campfires burning and making a fast march along the road Loudon was to occupy. Loudon reached it cross country in the morning; was received by musketry fire, and being already too deeply committed to get out without battle, fought one that cost him 10,000 men and eighty-one guns. Daun reached Friedrich’s former camp only just in time to see the column of smoke rising over the defeat to the north; his pursuit was not a success.

As for the Russians, Friedrich supplied a peasant with a message addressed to his brother, Prince Henri, who was facing them: “Austrians totally defeated today, now for the Russians. Do what we agreed upon.” The peasant was to let himself be taken by Czernicheff and give up the paper to save his own life. There is something peculiarly pleasing about these devices of Friedrich the king; they are so firmly rooted in understanding of the men he was dealing with and so unexpected. This one worked precisely according to prescription. Czernicheff, beset by nameless terrors, marched right away from the area of action and the Russians were next heard of besieging Kolberg on the Baltic coast, which would be more use to them than another victory over Friedrich, anyway.

Two of the three attacking columns were thus eliminated, for Loudon had been so badly knocked about as to be out of it. Friedrich spent some weeks maneuvering in Silesia, but was recalled by the news that Berlin had been taken. He rushed north with his army; it turned out not to be a serious occupation, but a handful of Cossack raiders and a wing of Austrian light cavalry, who dispersed at once. But it was now evident that something would have to be done about the Daun column, which had taken nearly all Saxony and established itself at Torgau, 64,000 strong. By whittling down garrisons Friedrich managed to assemble 45,000 men, and approached the place at the end of October.

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It was not Daun’s intention to fight, except as he had done at Kolin, long ago, on terms that would force the king to attack under every disadvantage. He chose his position very well for the purpose, along a certain Siptitz Hill that runs roughly westward from Torgau. Its southern edge was covered by a deep, wide, muddy brook, the Röhrgraben, a good military obstacle; all around the height were sparse forests of pine, growing out of sand. The lines were so good that Prince Henri had previously held them against this same Daun with much inferior forces, and the Austrians now had no less than 400 guns.

Friedrich moved up toward the installation from the south. It struck him at once that the place was unduly cramped for as many men as Austria had and offered poor opportunities for mounting a counterattack, and he determined to assault it from front and rear simultaneously. Ziethen, with nearly half the army, would take the southern side, across the brook; Friedrich himself would swing by a circuit through the woods in three columns, the outermost one of cavalry.

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The king marched fairly early; it was nearly two in the afternoon when Friedrich, leading the innermost column, reached the edge of the woods, just in time to hear the boom-boom of guns from the southward. To him this meant that Ziethen was already engaged; there was no sign yet of his second column or his third, but he immediately hurled 6,000 grenadiers straight at the Austrian position.

The trouble with any converging-column arrangement is that it is impossible for the commander of one wing to know precisely what is happening to the other. Ziethen’s engagement, in fact, was with some outposts of light troops, who had a few guns south of the Röhrgraben. These retired slowly eastward, in the Torgau direction, drawing the Prussians out of their true line of advance during hours, which caused Friedrich later to rate Ziethen roundly for his stupidity. But this was no help at the moment to the 6,000 grenadiers, who were met by the fire of nearly all the 400 Austrian cannon. Friedrich himself said he never saw anything like it; the Prussian artillery was smashed before it had a chance to load, the grenadiers were cut to pieces. Enough of them survived to reach the Austrian line for some deadly close work, but Daun brought up infantry, drove them out, and even tried a counterattack, which came to considerable grief in a heavy shower of rain. At the end of it not 600 of the 6,000 were left; it was three o’clock and the attack had failed.

Shortly later Friedrich’s second column arrived; there was a pause for reorganization, and at about three-thirty it and the remnants of the first attack went forward again. This was the hardest fighting of the day, along the northwest portion of Daun’s line; the Prussian infantry got in among the guns, and there was hot hand-to-hand work on Siptitz Hill, but Daun summoned his reserves from every quarter and after a long struggle drove the Prussians back again, the king himself wounded.

Not until four-thirty, with the sun down, was the coming of the cavalry, which had gone astray in the woods. Friedrich dauntlessly organized a third attack through gathering dark and smoke, cavalry and infantry together. This storm was at least a partial success: four whole regiments of Austrians were taken, with many of the guns; Daun’s whole left wing was reduced to a jelly-like consistency, and there was confusion all through his lines, but the thing could not be carried forward. Friedrich gave orders to bivouac on the field and try again next day if possible; Daun, himself wounded, sent off a courier of victory that caused all the windows of Vienna to be illuminated.

But at six, under a night grown wet and very cold, there was a sudden glare of red in the sky southward. It was Ziethen, free at last of his preoccupation with the Austrian light forces, trying to close the sound of the king’s guns, and he had taken the village of Siptitz, south of the Röhrgraben, and set the place afire. His men could not cross the stream through the blazing village, but an intelligent officer named Möllendorf found a bridge beyond it, and Ziethen poured through, up a saddle at the southwest angle of the ridge and down on the Austrians, his drums beating the Prussian march, muskets all in line blazing across the dark.

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There is a famous picture of Friedrich, wrapped in his cloak, chin on chest and stick across his knees, waiting in deepest discouragement for the dawn at Torgau. The dawn came before the day, it is said, in the person of Ziethen himself, to tell the king he had won after all, the Austrians were driven through Torgau with a loss of 10,000 men and most of their guns. Daun’s army was a wreck and the allied campaign with it.

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There was some bickering and some maneuvering the next year, with Friedrich on the defensive and neither Austrians nor Russians daring to besiege or attack; and early in 1762 the Tsarina Elizabeth died and Tsar Peter, her successor, made peace with Friedrich and sent a Russian corps to his help, while France could no longer pay subsidies to Austria, and Maria Theresa had to reduce her army to 20,000 men.

It may be put that Torgau ended it. It did not decide the war–probably the one battle that went furthest in that direction was Rossbach–but it decided that Austria could not carry the war to a successful conclusion. And in so doing it established in north Germany a new state and a new type of state, with a standing army, a centralized administration, officials who looked to the building of dams, canals, roads, bridges, internal communications, and who promoted agriculture and internal colonization. Before Friedrich the Great’s death he had settled 200,000 people on previously unoccupied lands; and the efficiency of his administration was such that the other nations of Europe were forced to imitate him if they wished to remain level in the complex game of the balance of power. “It appears,” he said once, “that God has created me, pack horses, Doric columns, and us kings generally to carry the burdens of the world in order that others may enjoy its fruits.” His ideal of peace was to have the government help every citizen; his ideal of war was not to have the civil population know that a war was going on. His seizure of Silesia was doubtless anything but moral; but when he made it stick on the field of battle, he forced the rest of Europe into a new sense of the responsibility of government.

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