Frederick the Great greets General Zieten after the Battle of Torgau.
Frederick’s first attempt to take the high ground at Torgau failed, but the arrival of General von Zieten’s troops ultimately enabled the Prussians to capture Suptitzer Heights.
In the meanwhile, the march of the three Prussian columns northward was going about as well as could be expected. In spite of the horsed-teams and men were having difficulty dragging the bigger ordnance over the slushy terrain and even the foot soldiers were finding it rough going. Holstein, who by then had reached his turn near Roitzach, inadvertently turned off onto the wrong lane, with the result that he was soon misdirected in the thick woods and lost. The king’s unorthodox scheme was already in trouble!
As for Daun, he had learned from his scattered detachments, including the survivors of St. Ignon’s command, just what was really going on out in the Dommitscher. An additional Austrian body of ten grenadier battalions, which were independent of Ried or St. Ignon, were at Weidenhain; Frederick was in the process of forming a battle line to charge them when St. Ignon’s command was located nearby. The force at Weidenhain needed only brief cannon fire to “persuade” them to march. The reason for deployment of these cavalry forces is touched upon from a modern perspective. The Austrian leader “respected Frederick’s mastery of tactical flanking movements through rough country” well enough that these horsemen constituted a substantial portion of the Austrian cavalry. Daun knew that for the Prussians to turn him out of the strong position he then held they would have to make massive assaults at close quarters. In that event, the superior tenacity of the Prussian troops might be counterbalanced by the sheer weight of numbers of the Austrians. Anyhow, the sounds of the Ried-St. Ignon incidents had alerted the marshal to the proximity of the enemy.
Daun knew from his scouts. Words to the effect: “the woods full of Prussians, thousands upon thousands heading northward.” By then, it must have been clear to the marshal just what Frederick really had in mind. Daun’s response was immediate. The crafty old man was at his very best in a purely defensive battle, and at Torgau he would have it no other way. First he ordered the army to make a full swing around from south to north, this maneuver placing 12 battalions fronting north and a half a dozen more formed facing west. This was in order to confront the Prussians coming from that direction. Whatever may have been his shortcomings as an offensive general, and they were many, Daun was right at home in entrenchments. Armed to the teeth, waiting for an enemy to attack him.
Lacy was now ordered from Losswig to draw out north-northwest to keep the new rear of the Austrian main army safe from whatever force might choose to strike at that side—namely, Ziethen. So what had been the Austrian advanced guard, Lacy and his formation, was now the new rearguard. Most importantly, the Austrians had to bring up every available gun to face to the north, for the old marshal was now certain that the main Prussian effort would erupt against that side of his works. The sum total of this artillery was some 275 pieces, directed by Major-General Ignaz Walther von Waldenau, including 50 6-pounder guns.
Frederick’s arsenal was no less impressive. He had 250 guns of some size, of which no fewer than “180 were twelve pounders and heavy howitzers.” Increasingly, Austrian prowess was proving equal to the task set before it. But at Torgau, the Austrian heavy guns faced a three-to-one inferiority in numbers (Daun had 58 such pieces). And all of this despite latter-day claims of “400 Austrian guns”; a dubious claim at best. Still, this was, all in all, one of the biggest concentrations of ordnance yet seen on any continent of any war up to that day.
Daun’s confidence in being able to turn back Frederick from his designs nevertheless did not prevent him from making advance preparations in case he should be defeated. The baggage train was ordered across the Elbe to stand under strong cavalry escort to wait out the battle and the bridges leading from the fortress over the Elbe were all kept securely guarded. The marshal had never been one to leave himself without an escape route in spite of a formidable position. Lookouts kept track of the thick wilderness watching for the Prussians to appear.
The latter had been delayed by the foul weather, so Frederick’s column did not clear the woods about Neiden until about 1300 hours. This was an hour later than planned. As usual, the Prussian infantry were having an easier time of it than the artillery. The delay was largely the result of a combination of inclement weather and narrow, sandy “roads” holding up the guns. Finally, an agitated Prussian king pushed ahead with his foot soldiers, leaving the ordnance to follow. Holstein encountered these problems, and proceeded at a surprisingly slow pace. His command was mounted after all, it must be remembered.
Kleist had arrived at Neiden at about 1200 hours, but after Frederick’s column emerged from the woods, there was no sign of either Hülsen or Holstein with their men. An additional Austrian force of dragoons and four battalions under General Carl Joseph Count Batthyáni had abandoned Elsnig and retired on Neiden when Kleist began to appear. Ironically, the position at Elsnig, if held, could have outflanked any Prussian move to attack Torgau Daun’s lines there. Frederick himself freely admitted in his History had the enemy “taken advantage of its ground[,] there certainly would have been no battle.”
Even at this stage there were no sounds which might indicate a battle raging on the southern side of the Austrian position, although from about noon, there had been some musketry audible from that direction. The Prussian king spoke in his History of what he called the “essential[ness] … that I and Ziethen should pierce the center of the hostile army at the same time.” He indicated that this needed to be done at the Septitz.
If the other two columns did not come up soon, he would soon have to launch an attack upon the enemy formations in front of him (which was now, although he had no way of knowing, Daun’s new front). Most of the Austrians were fully alert with their full attention centered upon Frederick’s lone formation of 8,000 men. Reports arrived from reconnaissance parties that the enemy’s baggage train had already been detected crossing the Elbe. Was Daun trying to withdraw from the field without a battle? Shortly the Prussian king came to the somber conclusion that he would have to attack, whether with one column or three. The intervening time had amounted to nearly an hour. So it was about 1400 hours when the bluecoats of Frederick’s single group began forming up for an assault.
About then, the king rode out to probe for a weak spot in the Austrian line where success appeared at least possible. The Austrian lines in front of him there curved at and about Zinna. It was precisely at this spot where Frederick had originally intended to go forward with his grenadiers. A large Austrian force of cavalry was clearly visible near Zinna. This force would be bound to interfere with the Prussian deployment, and there were only a few horse available with the king’s main column. However, the ground in that vicinity proved more difficult than had been thought. This in spite of the fact that a large portion of officers who had been with Prince Henry knew the terrain thereabouts quite well. The stagnant pools and ponds there were breaking up the ground and creating stumbling blocks over which the attackers would have a hard way to go, especially in the face of determined opposition. The difficulty of lugging the artillery pieces over this terrain was equally unenticing. That was just as well, for that end of Daun’s works was the new Austrian right, and well shielded by the army’s bigger guns. Frederick rode back, and led his men back into the woods. In the process, he passed them over the Röhrgraben Pond, then deployed the troops on the opposite side to face the Austrian left. The latter was drawn out behind a line of strong, prepared works, attackable only on the northern side there, with its front facing the woods through which Hülsen and Holstein would have to appear with their columns.
That aforementioned weak point lay on the northwest corner of Daun’s high walled encampment, fronting on Torgau and its supporting works. Here, Frederick decided, was to be the point where he put his blows in. The cannonade from the south was now growing ever louder, this factor only increased the king’s anxiety to launch his attack. Frederick decided to wait a little while longer on his subordinates, to see if they might possibly come up in time. He sent back adjutants to find and set them on the right course. Hülsen did not need help, he was merely held up by the combination of the foul weather and the rugged forest lands. But Holstein was definitely lost and needed found.
Nothing daunted, Frederick decided he could wait no longer. The grenadiers (seven battalions) were put into the first line, while Major-General Friedrich Ehrentreich von Ramin (25th Infantry) was in the second, and Kleist to act as auxiliary. This accomplished, he led his men out from behind the Röhrgraben across the Striebach past little brooks using bridges which the enemy had constructed to facilitate passage through the area. The Austrian guard forces at these bridges were obliged to flee when the bluecoats appeared suddenly before them in overwhelming number. The marching Prussian line now turned rightwards facing the Dommitscher, until that point having moved parallel with the front of Daun’s entrenchments. Once in the woods again, Frederick halted his men, forming the troops and the still struggling horsed-artillery teams for the imminent blow.
Daun’s artillery had been belching from the time the Prussians appeared about Neiden, and the deafening noise of crashing trees and intense shelling vibrated through the woods. Archenholtz relates that the cannonfire smashing down the big trees of the Dommitscher, the booming of the big guns, and the shrill of the wind, all combined with the screams of the wounded, was “like Doomsday.” He quoted the king as saying, “what an infernal Fire! Have you ever heard anything [like this.]” Such was the background against which the Prussians prepared to march against the entrenched, well-prepared main army. The wind was gusting through the Dommitscher, and prevailing ground conditions were wet and miserable. Undeterred, the Prussian line lurched forward against the waiting enemy and their powerful guns. It was about 1415 hours.
Frederick rode on horseback with his entourage between the first line and Ramin’s. Kleist’s hussars had galloped off left—eastwards of the front—and paused there, facing thousands of Austrian cavalry ranged before them. As for the lead grenadiers, they actually got to within about 800 yards of the enemy works before the deadly struggle really commenced. The three-pounder horsed-artillery came tearing across the Striebach and prepared to form on the left of the infantry. However, before the Prussian pieces could be fired or even readied they were blown away by the entrenched enemy guns, their attendants either killed or wounded. The weak artillery support for the king’s initial assault was thus crippled.
The Battle of Torgau had begun in deadly earnest. The grenadiers plunged forward into the heavy Austrian fire, whole groups at a time being mowed down by the merciless barrage. In the event, Austrian gunners changed to cannister shot to be more effective against infantry. Finally two lines reached the Austrian works and began butchering the whitecoats with such abandon that Daun was forced to pour a steady stream of reinforcements into the fray. The price for their charge had been heavy indeed. Of some 6,000 infantry, only about 1/3rd actually reached the enemy’s lines; the rest had been killed or wounded in the carnage.
An interesting human side to the king presented itself now. Two of the Old Dessauer’s grandsons were present at the battle. One by Frederick’s side, and the other leading in the first attack. The latter, Count Wilhelm Reichsgraf von Anhalt, fell killed while moving up; the king broke the news to his brother with unquestioned sincerity, “All is misfortune … your brother is killed.” For perhaps 45 minutes, the valiant Prussians faced and fought to a standstill an enemy who overwhelmingly outnumbered them, but the weight of numbers at last pressed them back and they retired to the rear, chased by the Austrian guns.
The Austrians regrouped, and part of Arenberg’s men rushed out to counterattack, thinking impetuously the battle was won. Wied’s and Puebla’s men now descended from the rise, and these men drove the wavering Prussians back into the woods. Kollowrat’s riders also joined the fray, but a bluecoat force of infantry plowed into the 21st Infantry of Baden-Durlach, forcing it to fall back. But Frederick had Ramin and his 1,200 men held back for just such a contingency; they flung back the overconfident foe and followed him back for a renewed attack upon the entrenchments. After a fierce struggle, Ramin was finally ejected as well. Under cover of his workings, however, the survivors of the first line (barely 600 men unwounded) managed to find shelter as well as a timely breathing spell in the Dommitscher. Nine of ten in the first wave had been killed or wounded, which gives the reader an idea of how fiercely the struggle had opened.
As for Daun, his lines had been bloodied but not broken by this first Prussian effort of the day, the army and artillery were still intact, and, as we shall discern, occupied with nothing except Frederick and his men. With the counterattack by Arenberg, Frederick knew Daun would not allow him to break off the struggle without an active pursuit. That “comforting” knowledge no doubt spurred him on to continue the attacks.
It had turned very unfavorable again, and a full snowstorm was raging. The heads of the second column of Hülsen appeared out of the woods about 1500 hours, followed by Lt.-Gen. Bülow (who was to be captured in this battle) with the main body of his men. With these relatively fresh reinforcements, stiffened by the survivors of the first stroke, Frederick renewed his attack for a second time in the same spot against a still thoroughly intact enemy, occupied as yet with nothing except Frederick and his dealings. Only about 9,000 men were attacking 60,000. This second assault was launched at about 1530 hours, the storm abating a bit by that point.
Supported by the few cavalry at the king’s disposal, namely Kleist’s, the Prussian infantry scrambled back upon the enemy works. The 30th Infantry, of Major-General Joachim Friedrich von Stutterheim, led the new stroke. It suffered very heavy losses in the process, and was hit on two sides by four regiments of Austrian cuirassiers. In fact, “almost all of the officers were wounded.” The 20th Infantry (Major-General Otto Ludwig von Stutterheim), suffered grievous losses as well. In this attack, and subsequent repulse, this valiant body lost 600 men. To the left, the 24th Infantry of General Goltz, had an even harder time of it. Daun’s reserves hit it full in the front, breaking momentum built up as the regiment broke in upon the Austrian lines. This forced the 24th back the way it had come; leaving 699 men and ten officers among the casualties. Just about the time all of this was developing, the Austrian marshal uttered his famous remark about Frederick, “throwing so many men away … [as] it will do him no good.” The new stroke silenced the Austrian cannon, and surmounted Daun’s lines, sending the whitecoats reeling back upon their inner works. For a time, the Prussians had possession of a portion of the Austrian works, and had captured a great many enemy guns. At once, crews began to spike the weapons so they could be of no further use. Now at last hopeful, Frederick thought that his victory had been attained; had Ziethen been attacking the other side of Daun’s massive works like he was supposed to do, that might have been the case.
Alas, Ziethen was not doing anything of the kind. Daun, thus unoccupied, called forward the reserve. This was held back at Grösswig (under the remnants of Ried); which, along with Sincère and his hastily-changed flank formations, at once went against the bluecoats with an overwhelming force. This new hammering forced the Prussians out of the Austrian works back the way they had earlier advanced from. Worse, Frederick had been wounded in the chest during the counterattack, but not seriously, and he was mounting his fourth horse since the start of the battle.
Frederick’s adjutant, von Berenhorst, remarked bitterly on the failure of the king to acknowledge the deed whereby he carried the fallen leader, knocked cold by a bullet, to safety in the midst of battle. The Austrian lines had been mauled, but Prussian casualties were very heavy, including 20 heavy guns knocked out of action. Berenhorst was reportedly repaid for his gallantry by a stinging renunciation from the reviving Prussian monarch to the affect, “Go do some real work, round up stragglers!”
The marshal, who had dashed up to the scene, had likewise been wounded in that last attack. A musket ball had torn off part of the skin of his left foot and penetrated. But the Austrian commander chose to conceal the wound with his army in such a lurch, showing him to be personally brave. He even managed to keep the wound a secret “until the blood was dripping from his boot.”
The second Prussian attack having been repelled, one must now wonder: What had Ziethen been up to all this time? All day long? Earlier that morning, as his men reached Klitschen—no enemy of note even troubling him—Ziethen turned his men on to the Butter-Strasse (or Butterstraβe) road. The turning movement was hardly complete when, on the edge of a small wooded area (place called the Röthe-Fuhrt) just ahead of him, the fiery hussar found a small Austrian party. Over two full battalions of the Warasdiner Croats, the 2nd Kaiser Hussars, and some light troops. This force had been put out in the woods to probe for Prussian movements on that side. Ziethen at once drove against the little force. The latter turned their ordnance (all two of them) upon the bluecoats, firing off some rounds and engaged the Prussians in their task for about an hour. Then the party beat a retreat. The Prussian commander then came to the unfortunate conclusion the enemy were before him in substantial number and unmasked his own guns, fired two whole salvoes and promptly ordered his surprised men into battle formation, pressing this insignificant body back upon Lacy’s lines.
By that point, Ziethen had forgotten all about the attack schedule and probably the plans laid out before him that morning. Instead of following up on these plans, the stubborn hussar merely drew his main body out facing Lacy’s formations across the Röhrgraben, and stood there for hours contesting his patience in exchanging gun salvoes with Lacy.
One disturbing incident occurred just about as soon as the Prussians emerged from the woods. One of the first Austrian rounds landed among Ziethen’s retinue, beheading a member of his staff. A horrified junior officer pointed this out; Ziethen’s curt response was, “He never knew; many more will go the same way before this day is done.” The hussar could casually remark on the cuirassier’s “easy” death. It happened that this incident took place about 1200 hours. About this time, the indomitable hussar apparently received some communication from the king, to which he could only reply: “Has he lost his senses?” Blumenthal, his biographer, more or less explains Ziethen’s odd behavior on the field of Torgau by not explaining it. Blumenthal tries to argue the direct march on Grosswig likely ordered by Frederick would have exposed his flank to Lacy’s attack and he thus took a “circuitous way.” This biographer, however, does not explain why it took Ziethen so long to actually make his attack.
Of course, it is always possible that the timing of the Ziethen stroke could have been moved.33 And, in all fairness, Lacy’s position extended the Austrian front facing Ziethen much farther than originally thought. However, there can be no denying that the hussar leader took the time to patiently form his men, the horse to the right beside a pond and the foot soldiers, in double lines, to the left under the Septitz. He rode around unconcerned before his prepared army, while the king was fighting hard off to his side.
Blumenthal explains Ziethen’s sluggishness by saying the old hussar encountered “several obstacles on the road.” Further, Ziethen’s “circuitous” route was explained by saying he did not wish to be “outflanked by Lacy.” This is unquestionably a mask to conceal his really poor performance at Torgau.
It had really been the sounds of this minor fight there that had led Frederick to launch his attack upon Daun with his own single column in the first place. Now, after two separate charges, the bluecoats of Frederick and Hülsen had fallen back once more. Their losses had been severe. The 8th Infantry, of Major-General Julius Dietrich von Queiss, for instance, had taken heavy losses. Of its complement of 1,300 men before Torgau, only 300 were left in the ranks afterwards. The second column had ended its stroke by 1620 hours. The results were much the same as at the first. The Austrian army of Daun had also suffered severe losses, and his battle lines had been somewhat disordered by the last stroke. But the latter still had the advantage on the battlefield, and the potent power of Frederick’s assault columns appeared to be all but broken. For the moment.
At about 1630 hours, Holstein finally arrived on the scene before the Austrian front. His van emerged on the near side of Zinna about ½ mile to the north of where Frederick and his battered men were. Instead of facing southward and moving in to join their comrades, the newcomers continued on to the east, towards Zinna and the Austrian works there. The Prussian commanders to the south took this to mean that Holstein was still following the original attack plan and apparently disregarding what had been—and was still—going on as something not of his concern. His men were on course towards the Elbe, and it did not appear he would stop them. Frederick, perceiving how things were going now, sent a rider to Holstein to halt his march, form into line, and, apparently, forgetting the now invalidated assault scheme, to go in against Daun’s right near Welsau and Zinna while the “remains” (the use of that word here being all too appropriate) of the king’s and Hülsen’s forces smashed their way into the Austrian center.