At Borna, Frederick the Great and his staff develop their battle plan, as illustrated by Hugo Ungewitter
To the Prussians’ disbelief, their infantry could calmly dress their lines after their march and advance almost unnoticed. Drawing up in line, their first volley caused the startled Württembergers to break and flee. Five minutes later a second volley dispersed the Bavarians. In barely fifteen minutes Lorraine’s left flank had vanished. Some 12,000 men were in headlong retreat. Denuded of cavalry, Charles of Lorraine’s flank was rapidly reinforced by infantry from the right but the confusion and disorder were total and by the time the Austrian cavalry arrived it was too late. The Austrian cavalry commander Joseph Lucchesi was killed and panic set in. The village of Leuthen became a mass of Austrian infantry struggling to form coherent lines. In less than three hours it was over. Entire Austrian regiments surrendered en masse. Victory was absolute. The Austrian losses, including prisoners, exceeded 21,000, a third of Lorraine’s entire army.
Frederick was determined to engage the Austrians in a major battle. He clearly understood the significance of the Austrian victories at Schweidnitz and Breslau, and, as he later openly admitted, he was prepared to gamble everything on the outcome of this confrontation. He had to attack the Austrians and expel them from Silesia before the onset of winter `at any cost,’ for otherwise he would have to resign himself `to losing this province forever.’ In short he appreciated that the Austrians had effectively achieved their strategic objective, and, unless he could by some miracle reverse this success, he understood that the war was lost. He was therefore prepared to risk the kind of attack on a numerically superior foe from which he had shrunk at Zittau in August and which had cost him Kolin in June. Though he typically exaggerated the numerical superiority of the Austrians by telling his officers they faced a force three times as large, the army he gathered at Parchwitz was formidable. By 1 December, as the king himself reported, it had reached between 39,000 and 40,000 men. What is more, almost all were meticulously drilled native sons drafted through the notorious Prussian `canton’ system – the cream of the Prussian army – still confidently revelling in the success of Rossbach. The force had more than the usual reserves of ammunition and disposed of 10 enormous twelve-pounder fortress cannons in addition to 61 pieces of heavy artillery. Frederick’s apologists have made much of his `heroic nobility’ in the days leading up to the battle. Quite uncharacteristically he seemed for once solicitous of his men, ordered extra rations and tried to show a common touch. On 3 December he summoned his officers and delivered his famous `Parschwitz Address,’ in which, after asserting that as king he really did not need to do so, he attempted to justify why he had to `conquer or die.’ Even for once deigning to speak in German rather than his usual French, he confessed that defeat would mean the war was lost. With theatrical bathos he tried to suggest that this conflict was about the preservation of hearth and home, and the defence of their `wives and children!’ Rather than allow this melodramatic royal performance to add to the Frederician myth, a sober assessment must judge it as a measure of the king’s apprehension and anxiety. In reality the only thing that this war was about was his self-esteem. Frederick had made the rape and retention of Silesia his life’s raison d’etre, on which his posthumous reputation would be made or unmade. He repeatedly asserted that he did not want to survive defeat, and on this occasion, too, he made explicit provisions on how his corpse should be handled should he not survive the battle. Now, in this desperate situation, as he later confessed, he had `to resort to anything one could think of’ to give his va banque gamble some chance of success.
Frederick had assumed that the Austrians would man August Wilhelm Bevern’s old defensive positions east of the Lohe, and that he would have to attack them there. In fact the main Austrian army had already advanced to the Weistritz immediately after the capture of Breslau. The forces at the disposal of Charles were certainly larger than Frederick’s, but not overwhelmingly so. The Austrians and their German allies counted some 50,000-55,000 men and 65 pieces of heavy artillery, but some of the regiments from the smaller German principalities – particularly those from Württemberg – were notoriously unreliable. Emperor Francis even warned his brother never to put these contingents into a vulnerable sector of the battle line, and in the event a good two thirds of them were in fact to desert. On 2 December the Austrian high command held its council of war in a chateau in the town of Lissa, on the west bank of the Weistritz. The official report of this meeting, like the announced final results of an imperial or papal election, proclaimed that the decision reached was unanimous. In fact there was bitter disagreement over the strategy to be employed. Leopold von Daun, supported by General Johann Baptist (Giambaptista) Serbelloni and several other officers, strongly urged setting up a strong defensive position on the east bank of the Weistritz, and awaiting Frederick’s attack as they had done at Kolin. Charles had other ideas, and asserted his command prerogative to push them through against the advice of Daun and other officers. Stung by the accusations of incompetence over the course of the 1757 campaign, and overconfident in his numerical superiority, he chose what has been aptly called the `brainless’ manoeuvre of crossing the river. Resistance to this idea must have been strong, as Charles’ main supporter, General Lucchesi, declared immediately after the meeting that it cost him more effort to push through the idea of attacking Frederick `than it will cost us to defeat him.’
Apparently still uncertain where Frederick’s army actually was, Charles hoped to manoeuvre the Prussians out of Silesia and have the luxury of having the time and place of the battle of his own choosing. On 3 December the Austrian field bakery with a small escort force of hussars and Croatian irregulars was sent ahead on the main road that led from Breslau to Liegnitz with instructions to establish themselves at Neumarkt in advance of the main army. The next day Frederick approached from the north and ordered an immediate assault on Neumarkt. The field bakery with 80,000 portions of bread as well as a few hundred Croats was captured without much ado; the hussars escaped back to the Austrian lines, confirming exactly where Frederick was. Why under these startling new circumstances Charles chose not to order a retreat across the Weistritz in order to establish a better position remains a mystery. Instead he strung his forces out a few kilometres west of Lissa in a not particularly strongly positioned 10-kilometre long line astride the main Breslau road, stretching from the villages of Nippern (Mrozow) and Guckerwitz (Kuklice) north of the road, through the town of Frobelwitz (Wroblowice) on the road itself, to the villages of Leuthen (Lutynia) and Sagaschütz (Zakrzyce) south of the road. Lucchesi’s cavalry anchored the Austrian right between Nippern and Guckerwitz, while Ferenc Lípot Nadasdy’s was stationed on the left, south of Leuthen. The unreliable Württembergers and other Imperial troops were also stationed on the extreme left near Sagaschütz, which would appear to be a clear indication that Charles did not expect an attack on that wing.
On the morning of 5 December Charles ordered the army battle-ready along this line one hour before daybreak. It was no mystery to the Austrians that Frederick’s favourite tactical offensive device – indeed, one employed with almost predictable monotony – was to try to turn the enemy’s flank, and as the Prussian army approached along the Breslau road from the west Charles watched anxiously for signs of a flanking manoeuvre from his command post in a windmill just north of Leuthen. The initial confrontation took place early in the morning as the Prussian advance guard of cavalry units encountered Austrian and Saxon screening cavalry under the Saxon Lieutenant-General Georg Ludwig Nostitz, about 5 kilometres west of Frobelwitz near the town of Borne (Zrodga). As the Prussians swept the Austro-Saxon horse before them, the columns of the main army approached and came into view. After assessing the Austrian position, Frederick decided to feign an attack on the Austrian centre and right by having some contingents continue the march along the main road in the direction of Frobelwitz. From the Austrian side the initial Prussian advance on their centre and right seemed to herald a flanking attack from the north. No sooner had Lucchesi, who commanded that sector, noticed this movement than he began sending frantic messages to Charles demanding that the infantry reserve be moved to the north as quickly as possible. Daun and the French military attaché, General Antoine Marie Montazet de Malvin, desperately urged Charles not to commit the reserves, but Lucchesi’s repeated pleas were given greater credence than Daun’s caution. Charles accordingly committed the entire infantry reserve under Carl Raimund Arenberg and a substantial portion of the cavalry under Serbelloni to his right wing, where they took up positions around the town of Nippern. Once he noticed this shift in the Austrian lines Frederick could, with considerable satisfaction, implement the actual plan of an attack on the Austrian left. Around 11.00 a. m. the bulk of the Prussian force, accompanied by cavalry and artillery, began its flanking manoeuvre with a sharp turn to the south. From the Austrian vantage point, however, the Prussian columns seemed suddenly to disappear.
Since this undetected flanking manoeuvre was to be the key to the Prussian success that day, it is important to ask how it was possible. Many apologists seeking to enhance Frederick’s reputation as a brilliant tactician point to the fact that the Prussian army held its fall manoeuvres in precisely that part of Silesia, and that it was the king’s keen awareness of the ground that made him realise that the Prussians could effect this `ingenious’ march undetected by taking advantage of depressions in the undulating country- side. 66 Against this view was Frederick’s own subsequent incredulity that the flanking manoeuvre had been undetected by the Austrians. After the war he had the movement repeated by riders carrying flags, while he himself took up Charles’s position at the windmill near Leuthen. In the event, the riders could not be seen by the king any more than the Prussian columns could be seen by the Austrian high command that December day. It would appear, therefore, that Frederick did not count on complete surprise on the Austrian left. Rather, having seen the bulk of the Austrian reserves committed to their right, a good two hours’ march from the left flank at Sagaschütz, he was calculating that, with the superior speed for which his troops had been mercilessly drilled, he could arrive on the Austrian left and roll up the flank before the Austrian reserves could effectively come into play. That the battle would have had the same result without the surprise effect on the Austrian left, however, is highly unlikely. If the battle of Leuthen was the greatest battlefield triumph of the Prussians in the entire Seven Years War, Frederick’s tactical calculations were thus not the sole or even primary explanation.
By 1.00 p. m. the Prussian columns under General Karl Heinrich von Wedel had reached the Austrian left south of Sagaschütz and deployed into battle formation. After a brief resistance, the Württemberg units facing them collapsed, and a roll-up of the exposed flank commenced. Nadasdy, in command of the cavalry on the left flank, saw the danger almost immediately, and sent several desperate messages to high command. Unconvinced that this was now the main Prussian thrust, however, Charles ignored Nadasdy’s appeals and failed to react. Nadasdy desperately attempted two counter-attacks against the right flank of the Prussian battle line, but the overwhelming local manpower superiority of the Prussians, supported by Hans Joachim von Ziethen’s cavalry and the heavy artillery, won the upper hand. As the Austrians were thus pushed back into the town of Leuthen in a dense mass, in places up to 100 men deep, they became easy targets for the Prussian artillery, the twelve-pounder fortress cannons taking a particularly heavy toll. Only now did Charles recognise the danger, and he desperately tried to form a new east-west defensive line centred on the town of Leuthen. The reserves standing at Nippern were hastily recalled, but they had to cover 6 kilometres on the run, leaving their artillery behind, and could not arrive in time to affect the outcome of the decisive mid-afternoon action in and around Leuthen itself. Here a fierce hand-to-hand struggle took place, in which the Prussian Third Guard Battalion particularly distinguished itself. The Austrian defenders were decimated and ejected from Leuthen. Lucchesi, meanwhile, desperately tried to salvage a situation for which he had been partially responsible. His cavalry units swept down from their position north of Guckerwitz with the intention of hitting the left flank of the Prussian line at Leuthen. This could conceivably have turned the tide of the battle. Unfortunately for Lucchesi the Prussian reserve cavalry under Lieutenant-General Georg Wilhelm von Driesen was holding position about 3 kilometres west of Leuthen, and in his attempt to attack the Prussian line Lucchesi exposed his own flank. Driesen, on his own initiative, immediately took advantage of this opening and routed the Austrian horse. Lucchesi himself was mortally wounded in the action. Daun attempted to make one more stand on the hillock north of Leuthen, where he gathered the reserves and artillery still available to him. The Prussian advance was brought temporarily to a halt, but now without cavalry support the Austrian line could not hold despite the suicidal heroism of some of its regiments (the regiment of Baden-Durlach, for example, was reduced to 9 men). Daun himself was wounded as well. By 7.00 p. m. the battered remnants of the Austrian army had fled east across the Weistritz.
Well past 10.00 p. m. that evening Charles and Daun assessed the disaster in the village of Neukirch just west of Breslau and determined it was impossible to make another stand outside the city. Charles `trembled’ at the thought of what another determined Prussian assault could do, and retreat to winter quarters in Bohemia was seen as the only option. By any measure the results were catastrophic. Despite the complete triumph of the Prussians, it had in fact not been a one-sided battle like Rossbach: the Prussians counted over 6,300 battlefield casualties, the Austrians over 9,000. But a much more devastating loss for the Austrians was the 12,000 prisoners of war captured during and after the battle, which meant that the engagement cost them a third of their army. Unfortunately Charles compounded this calamity by his decision to leave an inadequately sup- plied and equipped garrison of 11,000 men, as well as 6,000 wounded, in Breslau while the rest of the army, covered by a rearguard under Serbelloni, retreated to Bohemia. They crossed the frontier on 20 December and on that same day the Breslau garrison capitulated to the Prussians. Eight days later the garrison at Liegnitz also capitulated, though its garrison of 3,400 men was allowed to withdraw with honour to Bohemia.