Hochkirch, Saxony, 1758 Part II

The battle of Hochkirch, october 14,1758, during the Seven-Yars War between Austria and Prussia, between Empress Maria Theresia and King Friedrich II, over the possession of Silesia and Saxony. Canvas

October 10, the Prussian convoy reached Bautzen, and the Prussians at once rose and moved towards the villages and hills that Retzow was still holding in the distance. Retzow had kept his men positioned about Weissenberg since the first of the month, more than 11 miles from Bautzen to the east on the road. Frederick’s supply train made use of that road for its travel. During the march, a force of Daun’s irregulars—hovering about in substantial numbers—fell on it and the baggage just as they got past the defile at Jenkowitz, October 11.

The defenders drove off the attackers, but the harrying continued through the march; this attack was what led Frederick to suspect that a large portion of the enemy’s army, perhaps even Daun himself, lay ahead of his line-of-march now. The latter had already begun entrenching his army, spreading his men from Nostitz south-southwest to the Czernabog Heights—a position perhaps two miles long from end to end, although considerably thick. Daun put his headquarters at Kittlitz, with the usual screen of strong parties far out ahead of the army to give advance warning of the enemy’s maneuvers.

The latter pressed on, Frederick pausing at the high knoll where Hochkirch was, from there the country below out towards Zittau and Kittlitz, far and wide, was visible for miles. There, afar in the distance, and perfectly visible spread out for miles through the valleys/low terrain toward the Czernabog, in the manner stated, he discerned Daun’s large army. He was evidently intending to dispute the passage of the Prussians. Frederick was equally resolved to get the foe out of the way, so seeing what was obviously the entire Austrian field army in Saxony/Silesia present in front of his line of advance must have been an unpleasant surprise to him.

But the Prussian king could also be stubborn in his own right, and taking a rather rash course (in the light of hindsight), he ordered his army to halt right where it was and encamp. The rise of Hochkirch, which rose southward of that village, lay in a valley facing the Czernabog, up on Rodewitz and Kotitz. The army was positioned commencing at the last two places, the southern side standing refused as a wing at Meschwitz, just about a mile from Daun’s lines. This was in a precariously bad posture and quite indefensible without the Stromberg, which Retzow had forgotten to occupy.

Frederick’s adjutant, Gustav Ludwig von der Marwitz, was ordered to mark out a campsite within the position, but this gentleman must have known better than that; he made remonstrance, but in vain. At last, he refused to do so altogether, upon which he was placed under arrest. Marwitz’s only crime in this case appears to have been making use of his good sense. In his place, the king’s faithful (but dense) Koppel was appointed. Marwitz seems justified for refusing to carry out a bad order, not wishing to expose his army to the defeat that he normally did his duties without question.

Koppel made off with a party of men to the job he had been assigned by default. The enemy acknowledged his presence with wildly over aimed cannon fire. Yet, for all the responsibility that must be put upon Frederick’s shoulders for the disaster about to ensue, part of the blame must rightly be ascribed to Retzow. (As soon as the king learned of Retzow’s failure to take the Stromberg, he had him placed under arrest.) The importance of that rise is immediately evident. The sharp hill rose like a tall blade of grass out of the country between the Löbau Water and Kotitz, capped by a plateau well above the other rises around Hochkirch and its neighborhood. Frederick, realizing at once that he must have the Stromberg or his position would be indefensible, gave orders that it was to be taken at dawn the morning of October 11. Archenholtz, who was present at the battle, concurs that, without the Stromberg, the “Prussian encampment was untenable.”

During the course of the night, however, Daun sent troops to get hold of it, anticipating the Prussian maneuver. Even before darkness parties were already there, but additional men made it more secure. At dawn, a detachment of Prussians tried to carry out the king’s instructions, from General August Wilhelm von Braun and Major-General August Gottlieb von Bornstedt’s (Infantry 20th) quarters, but found the enemy (under Arenberg), too strongly posted to be dislodged. When the fog finally burned off, the light Prussian force struck about 1100 hours. The “assault,” such as it was, inevitably miscarried, and the arrival of enemy reinforcements was enough: the Bluecoats retired. Daun’s objective had been achieved. Henceforth, his army was left in indisputable possession of the rise, and the marshal promptly had strong batteries placed atop the dominating rise.

Previously, the king had believed that his foe was preparing to retreat into Bohemia/Moravia, but after the Stromberg debâcle, he decided to try other means, as Daun’s intentions of barring him from Silesia were crystal clear. Again it was an attack, engineered as usual toward a flank, in this case the Austrian right wing. The latter must be driven in, opening the Görlitz road.

The Battle of Hochkirch

Once this was accomplished, the road would again be clear all the way into Silesia. The enemy’s retention of the Stromberg meant it was quite apparent that the current position of the army was untenable. Determining not to prolong his stay under these circumstances any longer than necessary, Frederick decided to march on his new errand against Daun on October 14, and only then because a marching date sooner was impossible; due, in part, to the scattered posts of the men he could not arrange it before then.

In the Austrian sphere, Daun was having council with Laudon. That fiery subordinate told his commander that the enemy had chosen a dangerously exposed position, which, in combination with their inferior numbers (more than two-to-one against), they could not hope to hold successfully. Here, he said, was the perfect opportunity to take in flank, surround and maybe bag the whole Prussian army under its king at one masterful stroke. Daun did finally consent to take the offensive, but only under cover of night and only if the strictest secrecy were maintained so that the Prussians would not be tipped off to what was afoot.

During this period, Frederick actually helped his foe out by an uncharacteristic carelessness concerning guard posts and absolutely failed to send out reconnaissance parties in sufficient strength to detect distant enemy measures. Ironically, this was just when such precautions were much needed. General Lacy accompanied Daun, Serbelloni and a small party of Austrian officers who were out scouting the terrain surrounding the Prussian camp one night shortly afterwards when the entourage came under the fire of a Prussian outpost. Musket fire rang out, and Serbelloni got a hand severely wounded while making light of the largely inaccurate enemy fire. This incident did not prevent the Austrian marshal and his accompaniment of officers from riding out to reconnoiter the ground in front of and around Frederick’s position every evening so that very quickly the Austrians knew the lay of the land better than round their own encampment.

In the Prussian camp, the king found he needed Retzow far more back in command than under arrest, and so the “wayward” man was restored to his command. The damage already inflicted at the Stromberg could not be so readily dealt with. But Retzow again assumed charge of the Prussian left flank across at Weissenberg. The latter force, now about 11,000 strong (nine battalions), was quite out of supporting range from the remainder of the Prussian army. A glance at the maps of the battle will render this last statement to the reader all too plainly.

The ground thereabouts where a battle was about to be fought deserves an examination; in order to see just how far the combination of Retzow’s failure and the king’s rashness had taken his Prussians now. The place from which the battle received its name stood at the northern exit of the rises from the Czernabog. Here, spread out along the tip of the mountain down the northern side, lay the village. Its rise was taller than any near it except for the sharp Stromberg off to the right. From the valley below where the main Prussian army was stretched out, Hochkirch was conspicuously visible. The recently (1717) constructed village church/churchyard were at the zenith of the hill on this end near the southern exit of Hochkirch, which was on a sort of plateau there. The road to Löbau ran through the village, a detour there branched off to Reichenbach. The rolling ground was terminated to the left of Hochkirch, and separated from the Czernabog by the intervening heights; but deployed along the northwest extremity Laudon with 3,000 men (mostly Croats) lay hidden in the hollows there. Ziethen was opposite at Meschwitz, separated by the branch tributary from Laudon. Daun had pushed the latter forward, to be in as close proximity as he could get, and his force lay immobile in concealment. The Prussians were oblivious to his presence. Laudon’s Austrian command post was at Wuischke, at the lower end of the tributary. The remainder of the terrain there was cut up by numerous tributaries and overhanging rises, all leading back towards the Spree near Bautzen.

The two armies lay in the following posture from October 11 to the 13: Frederick’s, his center about Rodewitz (the headquarters), Rammuritz, on to the neighborhood of Kotitz and Laskau. In front of the latter, a battery—of 20 12-pounders and six lighter guns, so 2/3rds of heavy-caliber—had been emplaced, with guard forces of three battalions of grenadiers on both flanks, this work ending forward of the pond adjacent to Kotitz. To the west, Prussian posts were scattered from the all-important defile at Dresha on to near Hochkirch. The king’s headquarters was about two miles from Hochkirch, Dresha itself about a mile northwest of Rodewitz. The Prussian right, under Keith, was positioned from Hochkirch south and from Sornssig to the W. Two free corps, those of Colonel Angelelli (FB 4) and J. A. K. Du Verger (FB8), were about half a mile from Hochkirch. These latter were expected to act as advanced post for the Prussians in that direction, and to serve up pickets as well. However, this position was isolated and virtually valueless for viewing the thick woods.

A second, albeit, smaller battery (of a strength of about 20 guns), was in place atop Sornssig Height, which was the next beside Hochkirch’s rise to the south. The pickets and outposts of Frederick’s men were stationed in the woods only as far as the lower hills and Jauernick; the rest of the dense forests on the side of the center and right being heavily patrolled by (and under the control of) the Austrians. It goes almost without saying that the Kuppritzer-Berg, higher than the surrounding ground, was of decisive importance. The dense undergrowth of bushes and trees ran from the end of Hochkirch straightway to Brietendorf and even beyond. Within this cramped ground, the king was in ignorance of the enemy scouting parties that might be hovering about. If they appeared, he counted on the batteries taking care of them. This was a nearly fatal mistake.

The whole extent of the army in fact, excluding Retzow, still over four miles away near Weissenberg, was nearly five miles long; not including Ziethen’s cavalry or the pickets. This was far too lengthy for an army only as large as Frederick’s. Within this position, the strength of the Prussians was estimated at a bare 27,000 men; including Retzow, the army with the king was about 38,000 men all told. This army was composed of the following: 20,000 infantry (in 35 battalions); 10,000 cavalry (in 73 squadrons); light troops, and an artillery train of approximately 200 guns.

Most of the Prussian guns were positioned south and southwest of Hochkirch, in country facing Daun’s army in closest proximity. But the posts held were far too extensive for Frederick to hope to successfully hold in a battle against the larger army at Daun’s command. Daun’s headquarters were at Kittlitz, on the road facing Weissenberg, which joined just before this route crossed the branch to Retzow’s neighborhood on the other side. On the extreme right, a large battery and force lay on the Stromberg—about five miles distant from the formidable Prussian battery at Rodewitz—the line extending to the rises southeast and round in a concave to the northwest, under Arenberg, who had some 20,000 men with him. There were six regiments. He had been placed to separate the two Prussian forces: those of Frederick and of Retzow. In addition, he was to seal off the approaches to the Görlitz-Löbau road from that end, should the foe attempt to sneak through or outflank the Austrians there. On Arenberg’s left, were 40,000 men under the direct supervision of the marshal. The latter body stretched across the hollows and hills in front of Kittlitz, and constituted the big Austrian center. In elaborate and strong works that Daun had, true to his natural inclination, ordered constructed almost the moment of his arrival in that locale.

The center was positioned from the Nostitz bank of the Löbau Water, far behind Jauernick, the last considerable village before the Czernabog. The Austrian army was holding a position some seven miles long, not including Laudon. Daun’s men, when drawn together in a “proper” form, could cover (with a single line five ranks deep) a distance of more than three miles. In contrast, Frederick’s, if put in similar posture, could cover a little more than 1 1⁄2 miles. As for Laudon, he had extensive parties of Croats flung out into the thick woods just short of the Prussian posts at Hochkirch, his force being mostly horsemen. To the rear of the main army a little more than eight miles to the east on Reichenbach, Daun had taken the necessary precaution of placing a reserve consisting of 23,000 men under Baden-Durlach which had a double duty: while providing the needed reserves if necessary he was to bar the road to Görlitz should the enemy contrive to make it to his position. From Kittlitz to Löbau was a scant two miles, although some 20 from Zittau.

The distances between the opposing armies at Hochkirch were alarming. The pickets were very near, not more than ½ mile really separated them. With the enemy in such superior strength and holding better positions to boot, Frederick’s subordinates tried in vain to talk him into breaking camp and either go forward or back but not to stay immobile. Keith, for example, bluntly told the king: “If the Austrians leave us quiet in a position like this, they deserve the hangman” Frederick replied, with a confident swagger familiar to readers of his history, “It is to be hoped that the enemy fears us more than the rope.”

In the low hollow below Hochkirch the opposing pickets were only cut off by the intervening ravine. Archenholtz, for one, thought the king encamped so close as “a mark of contempt and disregard of their [Austrian] forces.” The Austrian pickets were stronger, meant to conceal the impending stroke.

Frederick had been making his plans to march. On October 12, he rode over to Weissenberg to discuss the plan he had drawn up with Retzow, under which the latter was to move on the morning of October 14, crossing over to and joining the Prussian left. Then the whole army was to move upon Baden-Durlach’s position, and get him shoved out of the way (in much the same fashion that had been used so effectively against Laudon at Bischofswerda). Following this a speedy march was to be made, with the Görlitz road now exposed, straight into Silesia. As it happened, the king planned for this maneuver to begin under cover of darkness on October 14–15, so that his men could be at Reichenbach and Schöps (a little hamlet northwest of Weissenberg) by dawn, before Marshal Daun could do anything about it.

By then the main Austrian army would not have a prayer of being able to move to aid Baden-Durlach before his lines could be compromised. Frederick, after explaining his plan to his subordinate, gave Retzow the appropriate orders then rode on to survey the ground thereabouts, after which he returned to his main camp. The maneuver was originally scheduled for the night of October 13–14, but Frederick had been forced to delay it for 24 hours in part because the wagons could not be brought forward from Bautzen in time. On this same October 12, Laudon and Daun had discussed the surprise stroke they had planned. The crux of this plan was the following (assuming the Prussians would be caught flat-footed in the early dawn): the Austrians, in their various groups, would cut off and hopefully hack to pieces the surprised Prussian army.

Just after nightfall on October 13, Daun himself—with the best troops of the army—was to push off through the woods south of Wuischke. These the Prussians could not scout properly because Laudon and his men controlled them. In any case, the marshal was to lead the men through the undergrowth until they reached the edge of the Prussian right in front of Hochkirch Height, near Sornssig, then attack the foe in the pre-dawn. The march of this main force was to steer south, then veer towards Steindörfel, Waditz and the Prussian right. Once there, the troops were to wait until the steeple clock in Hochkirch Churchyard announced 0500 hours before going forward.

Around the Prussian camp, the rest of the army was to draw out and wait until the enemy’s right had already been overrun before the Prussian posts before each section were struck. The entire army was thus to be brought to bear after all, so the plan was certainly not stretching goals. The desired end was within reach. Daun’s own contribution to the scheme is uncertain, but this was the first battle he ever precipitated. It was also, sadly for the Austrians, the only time the marshal would pull off such a slick maneuver upon Frederick. To cover his intentions from the enemy, Daun ordered large clumps of the forest cut down and new lines of abatis/entrenchments built, so giving Frederick the impression he was merely digging in all the more and thus had no plans for anything beyond pure defense. The woods had already been noticeably thinned by ceaseless activity in preparing the already formidable Austrian front. In the end, Daun was able to fool the foe completely.

Frederick appeared almost lulled into sleep. Meanwhile, the marshal’s men took to the woods with axes in hand to cut down literally hundreds of trees, in the immediate vicinity of the Prussian center and right. By the next day, October 13, all was prepared. As the short autumn day waned, the pace quickened noticeably within the Austrian lines, as if they were preparing for some maneuver or expedition. Frederick perceived this although he would not admit it, perhaps believing Daun was preparing for one of his customary retirements, perhaps on Zittau. The king had mounted patrols, pickets scattered round the edge of the thick curtain of trees nearby, but he was convinced, no doubt from past experience, that Daun would never mount an attack, especially against an army led by himself.

After darkness fell on October 13, Daun gathered his picked force of near 40,000 men and led them off through the woods on their appointed course. Behind them, the Austrians had left the campfires burning, an old ploy designed to give the impression they were still there. Officers made their presence known, shouting out orders to units that could no longer hear them. The sounds of cutting timber continued to reverberate. There were “workers [who] spent the whole night felling trees … [while they] called out to each other and sang.”

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