The Battle of Torgau III

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The Battle of Torgau III

Prussian cuirassiers in white uniforms charge the Austrian right flank late in the day.


The heavy fighting throughout the day had set parts of Suptitz on fire, but the inferno did not deter Frederick’s infantry from storming the village to help win the day. Painting by Gunter Dorn.

As Frederick said of Holstein, “with his usual phlegm, [he] had loitered behind on the march … [depriving the Prussians] for the first hour of the battle.” Of the 6,500 cavalry the king had among his three columns (minus Ziethen), Holstein was carrying all but 1,000 horse. The 5th Infantry of Ferdinand led this final attack by Hülsen against the faltering Austrian line. A portion of Holstein’s rearguard, the 8th Dragoons of Platen and Colonel Georg Ludwig von Dalwigg’s 12th Cuirassiers, broke off and charged, horses galloping, at the enemy crouching at Zinna. The latter hammered away at these units as well. It lost a standard, but took a flag and two cannon from the Austrians. The 1st Austrian of Kaiser and the 7th of Neipperg, were almost annihilated, either killed, wounded, or prisoners. All of the staff officers of the 12th Cuirassiers received the Pour-le-Merite and 500 thalers, along with the king’s gratitude. However, such valor had a heavy price! The unit “had lost more than half of its trained troopers.”

The 4th Cuirassiers of Schmettau attacked the 7th Dragoons of Batthyáni, smashing them, and, by joining up with the 5th Dragoons (of Lt.-Gen. Friedrich, hereditary Prince of Bayreuth), along with the 11th Dragoons (Lt.-Gen. Leopold Johann von Platen), as well as elements of the 12th Dragoons, moved towards the right. This latest stroke was aptly led by Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Ludwig, Count Finck von Finckenstein. This attack smashed into Arenberg’s men, hammering the 27th Austrian Infantry, which held the westernmost end of Daun’s line facing north. The 1st battalion of the Bayreuth Dragoons (Colonel Christoph Karl von Bülow) was at the front of a decisive charge against four Austrian regiments. Ten flags, and whole battalions, were taken. The remainder scattered, but the attackers could not stay.

A severe flank fire commenced from “fresh” Austrian units nearby, and Kollowrat battled the Prussians while reinforcements from General Löwenstein’s reserves pushed forward and gradually forced back this attack, although taking heavy losses in the process. After the battle, Frederick awarded the Bayreuth Dragoons with a grand total of eight Pour-le-Merites. Platen’s men took a standard and many prisoners, while also inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. It has been contented, probably correctly, that the horse would have done better still if it had pressed ahead with the pursuit instead of pausing to take prisoners and guns. In the event, most of the trapped Austrians were bagged, the rest probably slipping away only because of the enclosing darkness.

The 5th Cuirassiers (Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt), smashed into the 26th Austrian of Puebla and the 28th of Wied—these units being an integral part of Arenberg’s command before the lines near the undefended causeway—sending them reeling. In the process, the attackers took five guns and three flags. The king forwarded two Pour-le-Merites as well.

In front of Zinna, stood Buccow with his regiment. This Prussian attack broke through the weakened enemy line. The remainder of Daun’s men in this sector were sent scurrying to the rear, while the Austrian horsemen present there, coming up behind to the rescue so to speak, were put off balance for the moment. However, there was Austrian cavalry massed eastwards of the Prussian advance. They did not budge for the moment. This assemblage was under O’Donnell, about which more later. This allowed the Prussians to extricate themselves from the face of furious counterattacks mounted by Daun’s stiffening army, as we have observed.

On their flanks, the Austrian infantry were taken under fire and hammered by Holstein’s left, and the struggle there dissolved into intermittent skirmishing. Meanwhile, the third and final main assault had commenced. The 5th Dragoons crashed head-on into the Austrian center, with the foot soldiers coming on again as well. The whitecoats were able once more to mount a sustained fierce fire, but this time the grimly determined bluecoats were not to be stymied, and, surmounting the Austrian entrenched works, advanced straight into Daun’s camp. As the light of a short autumn day waned, there ensued a confused grisly struggle for possession of the field. This occurred just as those four Austrian regiments were enveloped.

The Austrians caught behind the line attempted to relieve some of the pressure on their front-line comrades, but they were unsuccessful. Frederick and Hülsen’s men had the western side of the Austrian works well in hand, but on the north Holstein had been held up by the boggy, sodden ground and had virtually been halted. He was just then exchanging fire with the enemy opposite. His part of the attack scheme as amended by the king had been ruined by the efforts of General Carl O’Donnell, who led a “counterattack” just then composed of the 4th and 25th Cuirassiers and the 19th Dragoons.

The situation could easily have been worse. O’Donnell had 80 squadrons of riders deployed between Zinna and the Elbe. He had a great numerical advantage, but only a limited effort resulted. Frederick, in his History, stated the reason that O’Donnell failed to launch a major attack was because of an 18-inch wide ditch separating him from the Prussians. This was, apparently, a major obstacle. At least, in the minds of the Austrian commanders. As it was, General Bülow, 50 officers and 2,000 men were taken captive by the Austrians. The king realized what it could have been. He even wrote “the battle would have been lost without recourse” had O’Donnell launched a full-scale effort. As it was, the Prussians were close to a major catastrophe. Most of Daun’s cavalry happened to be concentrated in this area, near the Zeitschken-Graben. The Austrian stroke drove off the Prussian horse on that end of the field.

Nevertheless, the mass of the whitecoats had had enough and were falling back in large numbers, although isolated pockets (which had been formed when the last Prussian assault outflanked some defenders) were still present even at the western end of the works. The Austrians thus trapped were still engaged with the bluecoats and striving, of course, to cut their way out of the thickening enemy web around them. More and more, the Prussian commanders were compelled to turn additional men to deal with those isolated pockets, virtually negating any attempt at pursuit of the reeling main body. The latter thus were enabled to pull back out of harm’s way, in much better shape than it may have under different circumstances. Still the Prussians knew that there was fight left in the Austrian mass and their own army was not yet in complete possession of the contested ground. And the call yet went out: “Where is Ziethen?”

Ziethen, by then at least, had realized belatedly his error. His subordinates, Saldern and Möllendorf, called on him to “do something” on the enemy. At the least, to move to the westward, where they knew they would be in closer proximity to the king’s men, to find out what was happening thereabouts. The Austrians had a major battery, not to mention a considerable body of men in support, on the Septitz. Part of this force consisted of the 50th Infantry (Harsch), and one battalion of Arenberg’s 21st Infantry. This was on the southern side of the Röhrgraben, but nevertheless geographically was seen to dominate a view of the battle, as well as being a key to the battlefield. Saldern and Möllendorf urged Ziethen not to squander their opportunity, but to march and attack the enemy there while some daylight yet remained.

Ziethen remained adamant, and so while the Prussians on the other side of Daun’s fortress expended themselves in costly (and largely unsuccessful) assaults all afternoon, the bluecoats on this side stood by futilely exchanging shots with the now much weakened Austrian force across the Röhrgraben. The sounds of the raging battle were quite distinct during most of this time, indicating that Frederick was making a hard effort to overcome the stubborn marshal in his high-walled fortress.

Ziethen must have known this, and yet, incredibly, he did nothing to aid his master until it was nearly too late to do so. By 1600 hours, darkness coming on, the sounds of the battle were abating, indicating the action was winding down. The wily old hussar, no rookie to the job of soldering, had exhibited a curious lack of concern and command of his men during this period. But now, with enveloping night upon him, he must have realized the battle was all but done. Like so many other details regarding Ziethen’s men on that strange day, historians are unsure what caused this sudden change of heart. It is not likely a pre-arranged time to strike, when it was evening. It is certainly possible that Ziethen decided to intervene on his own; but the likeliest explanation was that a communication of some sort had been received from the king. Perhaps the earlier intelligence alluded to by Blumenthal.

What an end to the battle. Thanks to Ziethen’s failure to intervene, what an end it probably was! He may now have come to his senses. At about 1600 hours, the old hussar shook part of his men into motion, veering towards the Septitz by the line of the river. He then detached Saldern to go with some 6,000 men (the 6th, 23rd, 15th, and 18th Infantry) to go strike at the enemy upon the Septitz. There flashes lighting up the gathering darkness were still to be viewed, sounds of firing were still audible. Ziethen deduced that Prussian forces were still engaged near there.

He hoped Saldern would ascertain what had happened. Behind Saldern, Tetternborn’s men waded the stream close by, coming to his support. General Grumkow’s Brigade (19th Infantry, 49th, Garrison 2nd, and 21st Infantry) sped across the causeway. But the Austrians were not entirely unprepared. The 47th Infantry (Harrach), Daun’s 59th and Sincère’s 54th fought a stubborn effort to turn back the newcomers. The upshot was, this initial blow failed to dislodge the Austrians. Ziethen’s men fell back momentarily and regrouped. The bluecoats then went back to the offensive. This stroke was successful, and, moreover, the enemy no longer had the means to launch a counterattack and no tangible forces (short of pulling men away from the vicinity of the king’s Prussians) to do so. Major-General Carl Christoph von Zeüner’s brigade, consisting of his own 1st Infantry, Syburg’s 13th, and the 18th Infantry of Friedrich Wilhelm, was close by. In the midst of this new blow, General Herberstein fell, mortally wounded.

Meanwhile, Frederick had left Hülsen in charge of getting the units still at hand into bivouac for the night and departed from the field for Elsnig. Here the Prussian leader, exhausted and thoroughly discouraged by the hours of carnage, intended to spend the night. He was of a mind to renew the battle on the morrow if the enemy did not draw back across the Elbe during the night. As for Daun, he had gone to Torgau to have his wound dressed and taken care of (about 1830 hours). He had probably left the scene about the same time as the Prussian king, if not before. He left Buccow in charge of the Austrian forces while he was absent.

At about 1800 hours, Saldern’s own 6th Infantry swept through the undefended causeway, and “between the sheep ponds.” Forcade’s 23rd Infantry sure had a time of it now. The commander on the spot, Colonel von Butzke, was lost, along with 365 men and 22 officers in what turned out to be the decisive stroke of the day. Major-General Möllendorf led his 15th Infantry to the causeway; his Third Battalion suffered severe losses, but also received a total of seven Pour-le-Merites. (The 18th Infantry alone received five more). It was, at least, a new lease on life for the Prussian effort to overthrow Marshal Daun at Torgau.

But the earliest stroke was anything but decisive. Tetternborn (about 1600 hours) coming up behind Saldern with his command (the 21st Infantry, 41st Infantry and 31st Infantry) pressed with difficulty into Septitz and got only as far as the Röhrgraben. Syburg’s 13th Infantry, was at the front of Zeüner’s men. It took heavy losses attacking the Austrians before it. Hülsen’s 21st Infantry promptly lent support. The 31st Infantry of Major-General Lestwitz covered Septitz from Austrian attempts to outflank it; a deed that caused it much grief and 200 casualties. Even General Neuwied’s 41st Infantry was savaged before the Septitz.

As for Saldern, he had attacked on Tetternborn’s left, striking and breaking across the Austrian positions near the Röhrgraben. Prussian casualties were severe enough doing this deed, but it would get worse. As the final shades of daylight flickered across the evening sky, Lacy brought his cannister spitting cannon to bear on the bluecoats. Daun, although no longer present on the field, sent word to Lacy to rush reinforcements to the Septitz to head off the new Prussian effort. The 20th Infantry (Alt-Colloredo), joined by the nearby 45th Infantry of Daun, was linked up with three grenadier battalions of Colonel Ferrari. DeLigne’s 38th Infantry was ordered forward on the double, all in an effort to stem the new Prussian effort. This brought Saldern and Tetternborn to a grinding halt. The Prussian line was soon all but riddled by the swathing Austrian force, and summarily forced back. General Wied, under the most fortunate circumstances near at hand, rallied the 47th and the 59th Infantry, and immediately attacked the enemy forces to the east of the Septitz. This initial stroke drove the Prussians from before them, but, after a spirited advance, Wied suddenly found himself and his men wedged in between Prussian forces. Not for long; a quick volley or two crashing into the Austrian line sent Wied reeling back.

Saldern’s stroke, nonetheless, smashed the Austrian fortifications on the Septitz, taking the Austrians “sheltered” there by surprise. After this desperate struggle, he compelled them to abandon their guns and retreat. The price was heavy. The 6th Infantry lost 338 men and eight officers. The wooden portion of the works was soon afire, and the now ejected occupants sped off to apparent safety. Their action in demolishing the works there did prevent Saldern (for a time) from shoving on across the Septitz to link up with Hülsen’s tired men. But Ziethen was not to be delayed for long now.

Ironically, at this stage of the battle, an errant Prussian artillery gunner fired a round which surely should have killed the indomitable old hussar. The aim was purely accidental, and Ziethen escaped serious injury when his horse bucked on the event. Ziethen was incensed; but “was satisfied with a severe reprimand [for the gunner].”

To the west of the Septitz, went the now familiar Butter-Strasse through the aforementioned pass between the Schäferai Height and the Septitz on its way to the little village of Schäferai. The pass continued on across the Röhrgraben by a solid bridge between two ponds—over which Ziethen should have probably moved that morning on his part of the attack scheme. As for Möllendorf, he had probed ahead with his men, and shortly returned with important intelligence that the bridge not only still existed but that it was crossable. It is likely that intelligence from Frederick, to the effect that a stronger “statement” needed to be made by Ziethen’s men, had reached the scene. Within a few moments, the bluecoats were hurrying along for the pass and its bridge, which had most curiously been neglected by the enemy. Now, however, the Austrians hastened to seal off this gap in their stance and so prevent the Prussians on the southern end of their camp from linking up with the decimated northern half. The 2nd Infantry (Erzerhzog Carl) and the 8th (Hildburghausen), led a hodgepodge of reinforcements that moved up to support the efforts of d’Ayasasa and Sincère.

But Möllendorf got there first, and when the enemy forces did appear, the Prussians were already across the bridge and forming a front on the far side. Now, once more, the firing became regular and quickly became general. The bridge, in question, was apparently very narrow. Blumenthal stated only three men abreast could move through it. The leading company of Major Lehmann had the “honor” of being the first through the passage. Two Austrian cannon were blocking the way and seemed about to dispute passage. Suddenly, a valiant Prussian, named Gulle, took matters into his own hands. He charged the Austrian gunners, killed one man and badly wounded another before he was overcome himself. Thus inspired, however, Lehmann’s men pushed forward, sending the faltering foe backwards. Gulle survived the war, despite being seriously wounded, and, at Blumenthal’s writing (circa 1797), was still among the living.

In the larger picture, Ziethen hastened to support Möllendorf, and a fierce contest raged for control of the now crucial bridgehead. Finally, the whitecoats, outnumbered and beaten, withdrew their tattered remnants. Meanwhile their comrades, both Austrian and Prussian, heard the sounds of the renewed engagement. This noise reached Hülsen; now that it was pitch-dark. He had been engaged beforehand in his duties of organizing the army for the night camp. He had ordered back the cavalry, some of which had pressed far to the east in their rapid, exciting pursuit of the fleeing Austrian mass, and called up the infantry. The bivouac was facing northeast, with the infantry on the southwest end under General Lestwitz. It was in this posture that the king’s army was deployed when the noise of the engagement announcing Ziethen’s presence reached them. At once Captain Gaudi, familiar to us since the Battle of Rossbach, sped to Hülsen to try to bring to the attention of the ranking officer of the need to prepare a renewed assault upon the enemy before him, this time tending towards the Septitz.

Hülsen’s inborn resistance to independent command has already been alluded to. Most of the regiments that had attacked Daun’s north works that day were shot up and disorganized by that point. But Lestwitz had rounded up roughly 1,000 fighting men; they could be called upon. Dohna’s 16th Infantry and the 9th Infantry (General Schenckendorff) were the least injured. Lestwitz, in a rare burst of enthusiasm by Hülsen, was ordered to march to the sounds of the renewed fight.

General Hülsen’s men, seeing the red conflagration raging on the southern horizon—which was, of course, the works on the Septitz on fire—and hearing loud cannonade and musketry from the same direction, moved out, Lestwitz leading the way with his scattered formations already referred to.

Reaching that rise, the newcomers battered at the enemy on the front of that line, and as they surged forward, they came up with the left wing of Ziethen and in contact with Möllendorf. Off to the left front of Möllendorf, on the overhang opposite to the Septitz, lay the key to the whole battlefield—the southwest corner of that rise. This was the most elevated point on the rise. If the Prussian cannon could be erected there, the Austrians might yet be swept back all the way to the walls of Torgau fortress itself. The height overhang the Röhrgraben on that side, where the struggle had begun for the pass, but on the western side it could be ascended easily enough, while its northern edge protruded into the spine of the Dommitscher; from the east to the west, and was the direction of the final scenes of the battle.

The Austrians were not about to give up without a struggle. Mercy’s 56th and the 12th of Botta-Botta had the unenviable task thrust upon them of confronting bluecoats appearing from two directions; Ziethen from the southeast and Hülsen from the northwest. The commander on the spot, General O’Kelly, continued to fall back to do battle with the force of General Hülsen, which appeared to be the most dangerous. O’Kelly crossed paths with a small Prussian battery, and, through the gathering mist, was having trouble making out a large body of riders. Unsure whether the newcomers were friendly or hostile, General O’Kelly pressed out a detachment which discovered the horsemen were the 14th Cuirassiers of O’Donnell. The Austrians charged forward, but a deafening roar from behind them told this body of men that the enemy was now directly in their rear. O’Donnell’s cuirassiers gradually gave way, allowing the Prussians the opportunity to occupy the greater part of the Septitz.

The Austrian army was certainly worn thin, many of their muskets warped from damage and the ammo about gone. The fire of the Austrian artillery sputtered out, largely for the same reason. It was entirely exhausted; guns and crews alike.

The Prussians themselves were not in much better shape. Their men were drained as well, company identity fuzzy at best, officers separated from their regiments and trying to find them. The Austrian 2nd Infantry, cut off from the remainder of the Austrian forces when Hülsen and Ziethen finally connected, was captured almost to a man, and other Austrian forces were nabbed.

During the course of the renewed action, however late it was, the Austrian chain-of-command had been upset, yet again. Buccow had been wounded early in the struggle (which did not prove fatal, but did end his service in the field, as it turned out), and O’Donnell took charge of the whitecoats. As for Hülsen, he at last arrived on the field. His led horses had all been shot, so the old man was forced to hitch a ride to the scene on the back of one of the horsed-artillery teams. “He planted himself on a cannon … [and was] dragged into the enemy fire.” O’Donnell, spurred on by the excited urgings of the wounded Marshal Daun at Torgau, scraped reinforcements together and shook them into motion on the way to the struggle at the Septitz.

But in the prevailing confusion, the much-needed reinforcements halted in the valley below the rise and stood there while the Septitz was irretrievably lost to the advancing Prussians. By then it was about 2000 hours, and the Austrian line had been ruptured beyond repair. For about an hour more, the Austrians were still making a shored up effort on the field. Then, from about 2100 hours, O’Donnell reluctantly began withdrawing the army on the orders of Daun. The latter had ordered the move in view of the deteriorating situation, and the marshal only ordered a halt in Torgau just long enough to prepare to march away across the Elbe as soon as it was feasible. The Battle of Torgau was over by then, although there was still some scattered firing on the field until past 2200 hours.

The Austrian army, at least that portion of it that was still in some semblance of order, fell out into a semi-circular formation just west of the walls of the Torgau fortress. This while the Prussian pursuers, pressing hard upon their heels, drew out in a similar posture. As the bluecoats positioned themselves, their foes—as quickly as was possible—were preparing to fly off to Dresden.

Daun had sent off Colonel Georg Sigmund Rothschütz to Vienna earlier touting the “victory,” and now a second was sent on the way with the news of a victory turned to defeat and a withdrawal upon Dresden. The marshal had left the field with the fortifications at least largely still in the hands of his army. O’Donnell and Lacy appeared bearing the bad news that the Prussians had overcome the position at long last. He had earlier discerned the news of the renewed fighting on the battlefield, so this could not have been a surprise. And, of course, he had given the orders to withdraw.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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