Prussian Fortresses in the Swedish and Russian campaigns of the Seven Years War

The fall of fortress Kolberg in 1761 (Seven Years’ War) to Russian troops

Siege of Kolberg 1760

Between 1721 and the opening of the Seven Years War, Swedish military prowess had fallen almost as far as that of France. ‘They were brave once’, said the Russian commander Saltykov, ‘but now their time is past’ (Montalembert, 1777, 11,62). Their military spirit inevitably suffered from the way Count Rosen maladministered the army, and from the bitter arguments among the politicians. Their engineers could still build imposing fortresses, and men like Major Rook and the generals Carlsberg and Virgin could still propose ‘systems’ of interest and originality, but the Swedish means of waging offensive fortress warfare had declined considerably since the days of Charles XII. Arms and equipment were antiquated, and the siege artillery was notably cumbersome by the standards of the second half of the eighteenth century.

Nowhere were the operations of the Seven Years War more repetitious and circumscribed than in Swedish and Prussian Pomerania. Campaigning was mostly confined to Swedish forays from the bridgehead fortress of Stralsund against the line of the Peene and its small strongholds at Demmin, Anklam and Peenemiinde. These works were almost always lost again when the Strelasund froze over with the coming of winter, for the Swedes had to hasten back to Stralsund and the offshore island of Rügen to prevent the Prussians from getting there first by marching across the ice.

There was no chance whatsoever that the Swedes would fulfil their part in the strategy that was sketched out for them by the French staff officer Marc-Rene Montalembert, who urged that ‘the Swedish and Russian armies will accomplish nothing useful for the common cause until they have taken the town of Stettin’ (March 1759, ibid., II, I I). This was a powerful Prussian fortress on the lower Oder, which effectively blocked the way from Swedish Pomerania to the Russians operating on the east side of the Oder. As for the Russians, they claimed that any siege of Stettin would require ‘200,000 men and more artillery than Russia and Sweden can possibly furnish’ (31 August 1759, ibid., II, 62). Perhaps also the Russians perceived that Montalembert deliberately wished them to waste their time and strength in this enormous operation, for by now the French lived in fear of the westward advance of Russia.

The Austrians, however, still looked to the Russians for positive help. Founded by Peter the Great, the Russian engineering corps had been reorganised by Field-Marshal Münnich in the 1730S, and by the time of the Seven Years War it comprised the very respectable total of 1,302 officers and men. Unfortunately, nearly all of these people were inextricably committed to civil engineering and topographical projects, leaving the Russians bereft of technical expertise when they came to attack fortresses.

The chief burden of Russian sieges therefore rested upon the gunners, not the engineers. The Saxon officer Tielke wrote from direct experience that:

the Russians differ from all other nations, in their method of carrying on sieges – instead of first opening trenches to cover themselves from the enemy’s fire, and making batteries with strong parapets for the cannon and mortars, they advance as near as possible up to the town, bring up their artillery without covering it in the least, and after they have cannonaded and bombarded the town about forty-eight hours, they begin to break ground and make regular trenches and batteries. They think that this method inspires the assailants with courage, at the same time as it intimidates the defenders, and may possibly induce these latter to surrender. Both officers and soldiers are on these occasions equally exposed to fire. (Tielke, 1788, II, 133)

Since the Russians conducted their battles and sieges in a nearly identical fashion, the Master-General of the Ordnance, the brilliant and wayward Petr Shuvalov, embarked on a search for a universal general-purpose artillery piece. The result was a curious long-barrelled howitzer called the ‘unicorn’, which fired an explosive shell to a considerable distance but with no great accuracy. In 1758, after the futile cannonade of Küstrin, General Fermor complained that he would rather have more of the conventional siege artillery instead, but Shuvalov was adamant in defence of his ‘unicorns’, claiming that

although their bombs are not especially weighty, they travel with such speed, and along such a flat trajectory that, according to the experiments we have conducted here, they penetrate seven feet into an earthen rampart, and produce a large crater when they burst. (Maslovskii, 1888-93, I, 331-2)

The Russian operations in the Seven Years War fall into two clearly defined phases. The first objective was to reduce the Prussian enclave of East Prussia, which was isolated on the Baltic coast and surrounded by Polish territory on every landward side. The small defending army was beaten in the open field in 1757, and although the Russians fell back to winter quarters, they came on again in January 1758 and occupied the capital of Konigsberg.

The Russians could now embark on the second stage of their war. By taking East Prussia they had opened the way to the River Vistula (Weichsel), which gave them a shield for the conquered lands and a start-line for the advance into Brandenburg. The Prussian heartland was ultimately saved by five strongholds. First of all the works at Kolberg offered the Prussians a base for partisan-type warfare in eastern Pomerania, and denied the Russians the use of the only sizeable harbour on the 150-mile stretch of sandy coast between Danzig and the mouth of the Oder. The lure of Kolberg repeatedly induced the Russians to weaken their army to form siege corps, and they finally reduced the place only in December 1761, after months of blockade and siege. The other four fortresses, the Oder strongholds of Stettin, Kustrin, Breslau and Glogau, managed to defy the Russians for the rest of the war. In 1759 and again in the summer of 1760 the Russians and a powerful corps of Austrians joined forces on the Oder, but the generals could not summon up the energy or the resources to attack the quartet of Prussian fortresses. This was why

they [the Russians] were never able to establish themselves in winter quarters. It never crossed their minds to secure themselves supplies or points d’appui on the Oder, and so they always had to march back to quarters behind the Vistula. These retreats deprived them of the fruits of the campaigns they had just fought, and of all the advantages they had gained. By the same token they experienced considerable delays in opening their next campaigns, and every time they had to re-do everything from the beginning. (Silva, 1778, 41)

Frederick’s field army, the other prop of the Prussian monarchy, was, however, reduced to a parlous state, and without its support the fortress would certainly have fallen in a couple of campaigns. Old Fritz was saved in the nick of time by the death of Empress Elizabeth of Russia on 5 January 1762, which brought in its train the collapse of the anti-Prussian coalition

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