The Battle of Zorndorf I

Cossacks burn Zorndorf

On August 20, the king’s Prussians arrived at the gates of Frankfurt-on-Oder; Fermor was out by Cüstrin with his army. The bluecoats initially moved to Tschicherzig. Frederick reached it on August 16, but Dohna was still out of the vicinity busy in his dealings with the Russians. The grueling pace under the hot summer sun had cost the army many heat-stricken deaths, and the rest of the troops were worn out from the fast pace. They needed a little rest and the king received intelligence that there were no Russians south of the Warta. There was no way to link up with Dohna at Tschicherzig, so the royal force sent intelligence that the junction could be made at Gorgast. Dohna had marched from Frankfurt-on-Oder in August 13. A timely force of four battalions, along with 16 squadrons of cavalry, all under General Schorlemer, bound for Cüstrin. It was considered essential for the new troops to get there as soon as possible.

Frederick lodged for the night of August 20–21 in a suburb house—in Lebus—close to the Russian array across the river. Dohna had kept to the western bank of the Oder (at Gorgast, where he arrived on August 16). Until the coming of the king, Dohna, plus of course the garrison of Cüstrin (under Commandant Colonel Christoph Ernst Schack von Wittenau), plus the dark, murky waters of the wide Oder River had been the only cover for the Prussian capital against the Russians. The danger to Berlin now seemed to lessen.

On August 21, Frederick rode out to Gorgast so as to discern what the enemy were up to. The king made off early (about 0200 hours) with only a few staff officers and escorts in attendance, leaving his army to follow at slower step. Had the Prussian waited a while, there might not have been need for a battle.

The threat of action should have been enough, but that required time. And time was really the one commodity in the shortest supply. Every day counted. Besides, Frederick’s opinion of the fighting skills of the Russians was low, and he must have expected a rather easy time of the whole matter. Frederick was determined to do battle with Fermor to get the threat to Brandenburg neutralized from the direction of the east for that year. August 21 was spent in bringing the army up towards Gorgast, so that by the early morning on August 22 about 36,000 Prussians were encamped in and about Manschnow.

Frederick commented on the neat condition of the latter’s men (who had been largely dormant for a while) in comparing them to his own troops, ragged and dusty from very recent adventures, who were shabby by comparison. The Prussians who had been concentrated there were the sum total of nearly every available fighting man between Berlin and the Oder. The composition of that force was the following: 38 battalions of infantry (25,000 men); 83 squadrons of cavalry (10,500 men); and 194 artillery pieces, of which a high percentage (117) were classified as heavy ordnance. To head his horsemen, the king again had the services of Seydlitz, who had returned at the start of the campaign recovered from his wound sustained at Rossbach. But Frederick’s favored cavalry leader had been whoring with loose women and had contracted syphilis, which made his wounds heal slowly.

At Frederick’s command (and with urgency) a particular Russian redoubt—at the village of Schaumberg, a couple of miles downstream—was shelled so ferociously as to destroy it. Simultaneously, he ordered that boats be collected above Cüstrin so that the army might cross the Oder there. The king had already ordered Lt-General Kanitz with two regiments of infantry and the pontoon train forward there to construct a pontoon bridge there. Kanitz received some greatly appreciated assistance from local peasants.

The bombardment of Fermor’s works was meant to give him the impression that it was at Schaumberg where Frederick intended to cross the river. It was at the village of Alt-Güstibiese where the king really planned to break the barrier of the Oder. The marked redoubt was accordingly plastered, and Fermor at once concentrated his army close-by, while the Prussians, under cover of darkness (night of August 22–23) rose and moved on Alt-Güstibiese, where Kanitz had been busy. The march of not quite 20 miles was accomplished without a hitch, and about 1230 hours on August 23, as the Russians stood waiting near Schaumberg, the Prussian van—with the king himself at the head—crossed the Oder by pontoons and filed through the streets of Alt-Güstibiese, followed quickly by the remainder of the army. All except for the Prussian baggage train, which was left on the eastern bank, to be placed under Hordt and his Free Battalion #9.

Frederick, directly upon crossing the Oder, made for the knoll of Alt-Güstibiese and was there greeted by the poor populace of the place, who kissed his hands and even the lining of his coat. He was so moved when he perceived the pitiful sight he wept. After the Prussians marched from Alt-Güstibiese, they moved some ten miles to the east on Gross-Kammin. At the hamlet of Klossow, halt to rest and set up an encampment was called, and Frederick’s army paused there. The troops were spread out in their tents towards Neu-Damm, where they were to make for on the morrow. Once there, the king intended to send his army across the bridge there over the Mutzel and prepare to sweep the enemy’s army into the very water barrier it counted upon for its defense.

Fermor was unaware of any of these proceedings. At the very time that Frederick’s men began crossing the Oder, Fermor was waiting near Cüstrin, expecting the appearance of the Prussians near there.

Meanwhile, the Siege of Cüstrin had been brief. About 0200 hours on August 15, Stoffelne’s detachment, some 5,000 strong, moved forward upon the fortress; from Gross-Kammin, the Russians reached the walls of Cüstrin through the thick woods intersecting the Landsberg road. There was no hint of resistance until the village of Tamsel. As the green-clad Russians neared the latter, Prussian outposts under General Ruesch (which had been put out to probe for the enemy) opened fire upon the advancing Russians, believing them apparently to be nothing more than Cossacks. The Cossacks were sneaking around to outflank the defenders. The Prussians were speedily disillusioned by these measures.

Stoffelne easily overwhelmed the outposts almost before they knew what hit them. The main Prussian line was anchored on two local cemeteries; reasonably strong obstacles. Stoffelne silenced a Prussian battery in front and drove the bluecoats back from the cemeteries. He then veered his advance towards the right, and very shortly reached the Oder at the northern side of Cüstrin. Here batteries (made up of his 20 guns), were set to prepare to bombard the fortress, while the garrison made ready to defend it. At about 2100 hours on August 15, the shelling of Cüstrin commenced, Stoffelne’s artillery started belching exploding howitzer shells and incendiary bombs towards both the fortress and the town. After three well-placed incendiary rounds, one shot landed in a magazine with straw surrounding it and caught fire. The garrison made a useless attempt to save the place, handicapped by a lack of skilled firefighters not to mention the Russians to worry about, but soon the town was blazing out of control. Even some of the garrison, many of whom were deserters or prisoners-of-war, took the opportunity to break into the town and loot. The whole incident was most unfortunate for all concerned, and especially so for the poor souls who had sought their refuge and stored their worldly goods in Cüstrin “when the Russians entered the Prussian territories and … [were thus] reduced from opulent fortunes, to beggary.” Stored powder in the magazines exploded with a violent fury, burying many who had sought refuge in the numerous caverns under the town.

Cüstrin was ruined, “excepting the school, the garrison, church, and the main guardhouse.” In the pre-dawn hours of June 16, the garrison of the fortress of Cüstrin hastily constructed two redoubts to help bolster the barrier to the Russians. Nevertheless, Manteuffel took up a position near Neu-Damm, which prevented the enemy from crossing the Oder. Early on the morning of August 16, Cüstrin’s guns opened upon the besiegers. The Russian response was really only half-hearted. August 17, Stoffelne summoned the fortress to surrender. The garrison commander replied he would defend Cüstrin “to the last man.”

The Russians were hampered by their lack of siege guns, and Shuvalov’s unicorns proved really ineffective against the walls of the fortress. Worse, the solid shells of the field guns were in short supply. They would be needed for battle, and could be used only sparingly against Cüstrin. Nevertheless, Stoffelne’s move caused Dohna to move to Reitwein to join up with Manteuffel. On August 20, Cüstrin’s garrison, which realized the little suburb was actually shielding the enemy’s siege lines, took the disturbing decision to burn down this suburb, called the Kutze Vorstadt.

The populace fled across the Oder to Gorgast, leaving the town a burning wreck. Much material was lost and a small baby was killed. The bridge over the river caught on fire and burned up. Indeed, Fermor was not even aware of where the Prussians had vanished to, although the Cossacks were out trying to find out. Late on August 23, the Russian commander got the first real intelligence of where the enemy were. The irregulars brought in word the king and his men had already breached the Oder and were racing towards the Mutzel. It was plain Frederick was advancing straight on the Russian army to force a battle. Fermor, as soon as he realized what was afoot, took immediate measures to prepare his army for the trial that was coming. Stoffelne had returned to the main army, abandoning the Siege of Cüstrin.

The Russian army was pushed into bivouac posture in the thick woods near the Mutzel (the Drewitz Woods of the Zaberngrund); this being the most readily defensible spot in the region now occupied by the Russians. The army completed this maneuver late on August 24. Beyond precautions like these, Fermor, unsure of just what the Prussian strength he was opposing, remained almost in a self-induced “fog.” “The generals were left in ignorance of his intentions.” The heavy baggage had already been put out of harm’s way, as we have seen. Fermor had brought the kitchen paraphernalia and the army paymaster part of the train to be with his main force.

At the same time, Frederick was busy himself. His army was on the road towards the Mutzel, specifically, the hamlets of Quartzchen and Darmutzel. He did not intend to make passage at the places ahead, but to merely destroy the wooden bridges thereabouts so Fermor would not be able to escape across them. The work was quickly accomplished. The sun was stifling and wearing on the Prussians. Having rendered the lower Mutzel bridgeless, the king turned his marching troops towards Neu-Damm, the real crossing point, and the one infantry bridge in the region. Evening of August 24, the bluecoats reached their destination, and the bridge at the mill there. They were five good miles from Fermor’s Russians.

A prompt advance was made by the advanced guard to prevent the enemy from taking effective countermeasures. The army, once the initial crossing was secured, would make transit throughout the night. The Prussians now took a brief pause, lasting only until 0300 hours on August 25. Frederick took the opportunity to grab some sleep. He napped in a little room at the Neu-Damm, and was awakened about midnight on August 24–25 by his faithful attendants. When the over optimistic king saw his generals that fateful morning, he is reputed to have said, “My congratulations, [Gentlemen!] We have won the battle!”10 About 0300, the crossing commenced. The infantry, artillery teams and cavalry were able to pass the Mutzel without difficulty. With the crossing wrapped up, the bridge was torn down behind them. The king was guided through the thick woods by a local forestry official named Zollnar. He then donned his sword and made ready for what would be a long day for himself and his army. Fermor’s scouts had finally informed him that Frederick’s army had seized the Neu-Damm Bridge and were rolling across the last water barrier between it and the Russians. He knew that Frederick could be looked for on the morrow and the Russian army was shifted into a new position to compensate as much as possible for the changed situation. A deserter from the Prussian army told Fermor the king intended to attack from the direction of Batzlow and Wilkersdorf. Fermor, unfortunately, did not heed the information. He still seemed to expect a Prussian attack from the north, and, to compound the error, Fermor dispatched forces to make sure the Mutzel was bridgeless.

The Prussians had been astride Fermor’s lines-of-communication ever since they had penetrated the Oder and there was really little choice left to the foe but to fight it out. Fermor’s men were short of provisions, Frederick holding the Oder meant no supplies could be expected from that direction and no hope of reinforcements was on the horizon. At Fermor’s back, loomed the vast expanses of Poland, much of it barren.

Fermor, minus the detachment in Pomerania, had an army of about 52,000 men with him. The composition of this force was the following: 55 battalions of infantry (approximately 36,308 men); 21 squadrons of cavalry (3,382 men); the irregulars and an artillery train of 136 guns. The numerical superiority of Fermor’s army to Frederick’s was about as pronounced as, say Prince Charles’ superior numbers over the Prussians at Leuthen. Frederick had the considerable advantage of well-trained and prepared troops well suited for the heavy fighting that was about to occur. In contrast, the Russians, despite their dogged determination and a stubborn, unbending will, simply were not skilled enough to hope to overcome the finest soldiers in the world at the time and led by the arguably greatest tactician of modern history.

The battle was more than half-won by the bluecoats before the first shots were ever fired. But if Frederick found this enemy to be less capable in genuine military skill, the Russians were by far the most determined foes that the king would ever meet on a field of battle. As for Fermor, once he perceived the Prussians had outflanked the position, he realized there were two alternatives: (1) Either march out and fight it out with Frederick in the open; (2) Stay put in the back country where he was and be forced out by starvation to either surrender or else flee like whipped pups towards Poland, if the Prussians allowed that.

Some explanation of the country there in which the battle was about to be fought is needed at this point. Zorndorf was the most important village in the vicinity; the place from which the battle received its name was about four miles on the northward side of Cüstrin, some 30 miles from Landsberg and about nine from Klein-Kammin. Zorndorf lay about the center of the tract of ground between the Warta River and the Mutzel, the nature of the countryside there being covered in some spots with thick woods and morasses but was elsewhere sufficiently fertile to grow crops on. The scene was a clearing near-by, perhaps three miles long by five miles wide. About Tamsel, the woods became thicker, specifically between Drewitz-Heath and Klein-Kammin. Zorndorf sat on a knoll perhaps 100 feet above the Oder; from there to all directions, the ground fell away to lower reaches near the swamps. There was no other significant higher ground in the region, and here Fermor finally chose to put his army on.

Away to the western end of the region, the nature of the country changed from wet swamps and great woods to three stagnant, murky pools, each branching towards the Mutzel. The ground inside of each pool rose a large hollow of ground, well-worn by the waters. That closest to the river was known as the Zaberngrund, the second as the Galgen Hollow; both would play important roles in the battle.

Generally, the lower, more western, ground consisted largely of swamps, the eastern country was of a drier nature, more suited to human habitation. The battle, almost naturally, would be fought in the latter tracts. Fermor decided that it would be better to fight it out with Frederick in the open. So he marched from the thick woods into the cleared country near Zorndorf, where he intended to draw out his men for battle. This was against the advice of Prince Charles of Saxony, who rather wisely suggested that the army should post itself in the elevated country near Gross-Kammin. Fermor seems to have been receptive to the idea of putting his post thereabouts, however in the event, he “merely deposited the main baggage [close-by] … [putting] the army into a potentially disastrous position.” This was a major mistake. A post on higher ground would have raised the already difficult task confronting Frederick to almost superhuman proportions. Fortunately, for the Prussians, there was no attempt to do so.

The Russians were arranged in three great—but irregular—squares which, because of the generally broken condition and uneven ground, were really out of range and almost incapable of rendering support to each other. Fermor’s western (right) flank was deployed on the Zaberngrund, the center lay about Quartzchen, with the narrow left anchored about the hamlet of Zicher. His whole army, except as usual for the Cossacks, thus was drawn out on the squares. Rumyantsev, still blissfully unaware of what had been transpiring, was now cut off from the main body of the army.

Frederick’s men had succeeded in capturing a few Cossacks, just before crossing the Mutzel, which made him even more confident of success in battle with the Russians. He was convinced that these eastern peoples lacked the ingredients to be good soldiers, an opinion not shared by Marshal Keith, who did his best to convince the king Fermor’s army would give a good account of itself.

The Prussian infantry had crossed the Mutzel near Damschue Mühle, the cavalry passing by a log bridge at Kersten in the vicinity of Neu Damm. From there, the range to the nearest hostile troops was about three miles near Zicher. But the king had no intention of striking Fermor on that side in any case, and his actual plan was to attack and roll up the enemy’s right on Zaberngrund, applying the entire effort on that point. Once an assault was opened upon the opposite side of their lines, the enemy, if defeated, would be forced back upon the nearly impassable Mutzel. This would trap him between that river and Frederick’s army; Fermor must then have surrendered or else faced annihilation. On the other side of the coin, if Frederick’s men were beaten, they could easily retreat to Cüstrin fortress, just a short distance to the south. As one author observed about the Russians, they had to have their baggage/supply train as they consumed “far more provisions than one [fighting army] more than twice as strong.”

No battle was required, for the Russian baggage at Klein-Kammin was vulnerable. A Prussian stroke upon that train would have compelled Fermor to retreat without battle. Inexplicably, the king did nothing about the enemy’s baggage, and the guard force was left undisturbed. Surprisingly enough, Frederick disdained a thorough reconnaissance by cavalry just before his troops moved out. A recon was considered a given before a major battle. By a military leader of the caliber of Frederick the Great it might be a gross mistake not to do one. On the other hand, the king argues in his History of the Seven Years’ War he had no other choice than to seek a battle as soon as possible as he had other irons in the fire.

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