Rossbach

The outcome of the 90-minute battle was hardly in doubt.

Date: 5 November 1757.

Location: One mile north-west of Weissenfels (Route No, 71) to the west of the road to Halle.

War and campaign: The Seven Years’ War; German Campaign of 1757.

Object of the action: Frederick interposed his army between the French army and its objectives in Saxony.

Opposing sides: (a) Frederick the Great commanding the Prussian army, {b) Prince Saschen-Hildburghausen and Prince de Soubise leading a Franco-Imperial army.

Forces engaged: (a) Prussians: 27 battalions; 45 squadrons. Total: 20,000-22,000. (b) Allies: 62 battalions; 82 squadrons; approx. 80 guns. Total: 41,000.

Casualties: (a) 548 Prussians killed and wounded, (b) approx. 10,000 allies including many prisoners.

Result: The rout of the Franco-Imperialist army cleared Frederick’s western front at a critical period.

The Battle of Rossbach is perhaps Frederick the Great’s most famous action, and certainly one of the most complete victories that military history has to show. Years of aggression and faithlessness had brought their reward, and by the autumn of 1757, one year after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, King Frederick II of Prussia found himself surrounded by a ring of enemies. Austrians, French, Russians and Swedes were all closing in on Brandenburg, the heartland of the Prussian monarchy, and Frederick was compelled to adopt the desperate strategy of racing against each enemy in turn with a small mobile army. By this means he hoped to defeat his adversaries piecemeal, or at least prevent them from combining against him.

For long Frederick was denied the kind of action he desired. The most suitable target seemed to be the large but disorganised army of Frenchmen and south and west Germans which the Prince of Sachsen-Hildburghausen and the Prince de Soubise had led into Saxony against his western flank, but at the first Prussian lunge the allies recoiled out of reach, and Frederick had to march away at the news that an Austrian raiding corps was threatening Berlin. Although Frederick was too late to prevent the Austrians from exacting a fine from his capital, he heard that the allies had plucked up courage to resume the offensive, and were advancing once more towards Saxony, Frederick accordingly hurried back to meet them, and by 4 November the rival armies were facing each other near Rossbach.

In their usual muddled way, the allied commanders determined on a flanking movement around the southern end of the Prussian position-Soubise, in the hope of manoeuvring the enemy into a retreat, but Hildburghausen with the intention of crushing Frederick in a decisive battle. After hours of delay and confusion, the allied army set out at 11.30 on the morning of 5 November. The broad columns marched from the camp of Miicheln due south to Zeuchfeld, where they changed direction and struck east along a spur that stretched through Pettstadt towards Reichardtswerben. Down to the left they could see the southern edge of the Prussian camp at Rossbach, and behind the village the low hummocks of the Janus and Polzen Hills extending eastwards parallel to their own line of march. At about 2.30 in the afternoon the Prussians suddenly struck their tents, and marched out of sight behind the Janus Hill as if in retreat, an impression which was strengthened by the reports brought to the allied generals by the light cavalry scouts. At this Soubise was converted to Hildburghausen’s aggressive views, and the allies rushed recklessly on in an attempt to overtake and crush the enemy. There was no further attempt at reconnaissance: no arrangements for a proper deployment.

At first Frederick had paid no heed to the reports of the allied movements and, still quite unperturbed, he had sat down to lunch with his generals in his headquarters at Rossbach. One of the company, however, was the independently minded cavalry general Seydlitz, who quietly sent a warning to the army. It was entirely owing to the initiative of this subordinate that the horse and artillery were ready to move off as soon as Frederick realised his mistake. The King delivered the entire cavalry into the hand of Seydlitz, despite his lack of seniority, and gave him orders to march to the left and head off the enemy thrust to the rear. Seydlitz directed the march of his horse eastwards behind the screen of the heights, all the time gauging the progress of the opposing armies, then arranged his command in two lines behind the Polzen Hill. Although a powerful Prussian battery had already opened fire from the Janus Hill, Seydlitz kept his excited squadrons under perfect control, and waited until the foremost enemy troops had reached the stretch of land to the north of Reichardtswerben before he led the cavalry over the swell of land into the charge.

The cavalry corps at the head of the allied columns was taken unawares, and only 2 Austrian cuirassier regiments were able to deploy in any sort of order to meet the shock of the first Prussian line. The resistance of the Austrians gave time for a powerful reserve of French cavalry to lend a hand in the fight, but an inner core of ill-trained German regiments was already giving way when the Austrians and French were thrown back under the impact of Seydlitz’s second line. Seydlitz was cool-headed enough to be satisfied with his success, and reassembled his troopers in the hollows near Tagewerben to await a further opportunity. The rest of the Prussian army came into sight of the enemy over the top of the ridge, the left wing under Prince Henry hastening its march and wheeling around until the troops faced west. Some French regiments leading the allied infantry quickly recovered from their shock, and made a resolute advance against the Prussians with the bayonet. Just before the encounter the French discipline collapsed: firing broke out without order, and the troops turned in flight. Seydlitz launched a second charge from Tagewerben, which completed the allied rout, and all was over before Prince Henry’s infantry had time to deliver more than a few volleys.

The behaviour of a few units, notably the Swiss regiments of Diesbach and Planta, saved the honour of the allied army, but the rest of the troops broke up into disorganised mobs or gangs of marauders. Frederick could now spend his time more profitably elsewhere, and marched off to Silesia, where in the next month he would defeat the Austrians in a hardly less renowned victory at Leuthen. Nevertheless Rossbach stands alone as an example of the superiority of good leadership and high morale over mere weight of numbers, and is noteworthy as being the first occasion on which a Continental army was inspired to victory by a feeling that can be compared with nationalism in the modern sense.

Rossbach and German history

This ten-to-one ratio of lossesis extremely rare in 18th-century battles, magnifying the scale of the Prussian triumph. Frederick’s military reputation was restored after defeats earlier that year, and he went on to win another striking victory over the Austrians at Leuthen in Silesia that December. The two successes convinced Britain to continue its backing for Prussia, greatly contributing to Frederick’s survival during the subsequent five years of war. Austria abandoned its plans to recover Silesia and made peace on the basis of the pre-war status quo in February 1763.

The immediate military consequences were far less dramatic. Hildburghausen resigned, but the imperial army reassembled and fought on with some success until the end of 1762. Later writers largely ignored the divisive impact of the Seven Years War on German politics, using Rossbach as a symbol of Prussia’s allegedly superior political and military organization. In fact, over-confidence and inept leadership turned simple defeat into disaster. While Rossbach is celebrated for the Prussians’ disciplined movement, cavalry shock attacks and infantry firepower, it was the French who pointed to the future with their mixture of linear and column formations. All these elements were to be refined by Napoleon and contribute to Prussia’s own disaster at Jena in 1806

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