Hemmed in by the Meitzel River at its back, the Russian Army had no way to retreat if the battle went badly. Meanwhile, the Prussians mounted an attack on the Russian right.
At about 0300 hours, the Prussians rose and pressed off moving westward—the cavalry closest to the enemy array, while the infantry followed in parallel marching lines. The direction of this maneuver made it appear as if Frederick was heading for Tamsel, but, just short of that place, the troops turned and headed directly towards the enemy. No doubt it was a beautiful formation.
Fermor had been busy observing the bluecoats since they had emerged from the woods, needless to say with intense interest. The Russian commander until then had been unaware of where his foe intended for. The Russian front originally had been facing north, as the Prussian stroke was expected from that direction. By then it was approximately 0600 hours, long past dawn. But seeing the Prussians sweeping on by without motion that might indicate an assault, Fermor finally discerned his enemy’s aim. He made measures to accommodate the changed circumstances, and swung round to face the south. This took a while to accomplish, while the Prussians continued to prepare. Time by that point was about 0730 hours.
Fermor had spun round and was in the process of deploying his men into the great squares. His whole force was in this gigantic posture; the army stretched from one end to the other some two miles in length, by about one mile in width. This would be the Russians’ first test with Frederick himself, although Gross-Jägersdorf had been fought with the Prussians the previous year.
The Prussians approached behind the hamlets thereabouts: by Wilkersdorf, Zorndorf, and Gross-Kammin. About 0800 hours Frederick’s army was standing in the clearing in front of Fermor’s men. Hussar parties, peeling off from the main body, rode out to deal with any units of Cossacks on the loose; this group headed towards the right of the Prussian army to hold a position from that end. In spite of the Prussian measures, the Cossacks were indeed active. Brave individual Cossacks even dared to ride up and taunt the Prussian soldiers with carbine fire, then made off. But there was to be no firing from the Prussians anyway; Frederick had ordered the soldiers to withhold their fire so as to not alert the Russians to their position.
This was a bleak period in the history of mankind. The Russian irregulars, on the approach of the king’s army, committed a number of atrocities, which have really blackened the history of this war. At Gross Kammin and at Blumberg, wayward irregulars sacked and burned the towns, and killed a great number of civilians. The victims included women with children, and the nefarious deeds were not confined to the living. Graves were violated, and the vagabonds “stript [sic] the bodies of General Schladerndorf [sic] and General Ruitz.”
The hussar screen, some 15 squadrons strong, was making things difficult for the Cossacks. The latter made no appreciable progress against the foe, and they quickly lost heart and decided to get away while the getting was good. As a send-off, they set fire to Zorndorf before they made off. Ironically, the smoke from that burning village (the wind, although blowing only slightly, carried right into Fermor’s face) served to conceal the mobile Prussians from the sight of the enemy. It was said Zorndorf was burned so the Prussian king “might not cover his motions.” However, Frederick’s men held off on driving the Prussian ammunition carts through the streets of Zorndorf. This was obviously for the possible detrimental effects. Still, this no doubt upset Fermor’s thinking, and contributed to the outcome of the battle.
Frederick at the same time rode forward from the main army, to see what state the Zaberngrund was in. Accompanied by staff officers, the king only got as far as Batzlow—at the edge of the woods. A plethora of Cossack activity precluded his further journey, and Frederick returned to the army for the critical maneuvers. He found the ravine too deep, rendering it impractical to attack the western square of Fermor’s army over this ground. The muddy and marshy condition of the terrain precluded passage of any body of organized troops but cavalry. Finally, at about Wilkersdorf, the king found his vantage point. At this spot, not quite a mile from the Russian mass, he studied the enemy and the ground thoroughly to see how to bring about its ruin.
After a brief investigation of the ground forward of the Russians, the king finally chose the enemy’s right as the most favorable of the great squares to strike, on the southwest end of the position. The monarch then passed back to the army and ordered the men to form rank for battle. He anchored (for the moment) his left behind the still burning village of Zorndorf. On this flank, his troops were to commence the battle with an infantry assault upon Fermor’s right. For this task, the infantry was halted and formed into attack order, while Seydlitz galloped off to the left rear to take up behind the foot soldiers with his squadrons. General Dohna had charge of the Prussian right; between the Stein-Busch and the far end of Zorndorf, he deployed Infantry Regiments 14th, 27th, 18th, 25th, 23rd, 40th, and 49th. The left, under General Kanitz, consisted of Infantry 11th, 7th, 22nd, 46th, 16th, 37th, one battalion each of 2nd/4th, supported by Dragoon regiments 6th, 7th, and 8th. This wing was placed to the left of Zorndorf, and at the end of the Zaberngrund; in the second line stood the center—which was to act in concert with the left by attacking the Russian positions facing Landsberg—while the right held a front at Wilkersdorf.
After his regrouping and countermarching, Fermor placed his troops as follows: the main army was newly designated as the Russian right, made up most of the strength of the Russian army; Browne’s Observation Corps became the Russian left, reaching to Zicher. Towards the Zicherer Heide beyond Zicher, General Demikow led a group of horsemen, including the Horvat Hussars, and the Cossacks, that would eventually take a prominent role in the proceedings.
The Prussian plan of attack was to hammer the Russian right square with heavy artillery fire to soften up the resistance, and then launch a sudden blow against it. This stroke was to be carried out by Manteuffel (at the head of the advanced guard) using the best troops of the Prussian army. The right was to do nothing during this assault, merely stand and draw the enemy’s attention, as well as feed in more troops as they were required further down the line. Colonel Moller’s heavy Prussian artillery (of 18- and 24-pounders) was pushed to high ground just north of Zorndorf (20 pieces northwest of Zorndorf, another battery of 40 just north of the ruined place). About 0900 hours, the batteries opened. Initial range was too far. The shot could not inflict much damage, so the guns were moved 600 paces closer. The batteries then started to belch grapeshot at close range into close packed Russian formations. The results were devastating.
A. T. Bolotov related that one particular cannon shot killed or wounded 48 Russian grenadiers. This pummeling inflicted major casualties before the actual man-to-man fighting started, but the Russian nerve kept men in the open formation when dispersal to cover, such as it was, would have been better. Russian artillery response was less effective, in part because of the greater dispersal of the Prussian army. For two hours, the exchange continued. The less trained Russian gun crews also had to fire uphill, against an enemy who certainly knew how to wage a successful artillery duel. The Russians had much less success in this respect than on the day of Gross-Jägersdorf in 1757.
Some of the Russians really had a desire to “see the show.” “The cannon shot were screaming ceaselessly through the air … [and] many of our soldiers climbed the trees to get a better view of the action.” Seydlitz, for his part, had 36 squadrons of cavalry in position at the end of the left, on the west end of the Zaberngrund, while Colonel Wackenitz was holding a second group of 20 squadrons as a reserve behind Kanitz.
After the initial deployment had ended, the Prussians (eight battalions, six of them grenadier units) of Manteuffel at the left of the front started forward just past the western end of Zorndorf (at about 1100 hours) towards the Russians, each battalion following the first marched forward a little to their right rear in the oblique order. They passed the still smoldering village on the opposite— right—side. Eyewitness accounts of the Prussian advance give keen insight into the fact that war, is, indeed, waged by men of flesh and blood on both sides. Pastor Täge, a recent arrival in Fermor’s ranks, described the imminent attack of the Prussians “their weapons flashed in the sun, and the spectacle was frightening. Never since in the course of my long life have I heard that tune (Ich bin ja, Heer, in deiner Macht!; [“Now Lord, I am in thy keeping!”] without [recourse to] … the utmost emotion.” When the Prussians made their appearance, one of the regimental bands was marching right along, playing that hymnal with all the enthusiasm of a parade ground. Frederick himself seemed momentarily enthralled by the music and audibly repeated it to those nearby and to himself. It is a pity that such a tranquil tune and mood would be forever associated with one of the most bitterly contested battles of the 18th century.
In the event, the thick smoke from the bombardments and the fire at Zorndorf hung thickly about the ground. The front separated, and a gap was created in the Prussian front as it drew upon Fermor’s square. This would have proven disastrous for Frederick had it not been for Seydlitz. The Russians seeing (or, more likely, hearing) the progress of the enemy’s advance, opened up a terrific fire upon them at the distance of some 40 paces. The Battle of Zorndorf had commenced. Now, as a backdrop of battle, some of the Russian supply wagons, their supply of powder responding to intense heat, were blowing up, adding further noise to a roar that reverberated in the windows of buildings all over the area.
The mobile horse-artillery and guns were rushed forward, and two, which had taken up position at opposite ends of the Zaberngrund beforehand, opened a heavy fire. This was pointed to strike the extreme southwest corner of Fermor’s lines, the target of the infantry assault. The Russian batteries, it just so happened, had been massed at this spot, but their operators did not reply with like determination. They lacked the accuracy and skill of their opponents. The Prussian batteries quickly gained the upper hand.
In the meanwhile, the advancing troops had drawn within range, and a most sanguinary struggle was at once taken up. Prussian losses were immediately telling, at least one in three were killed or wounded in this early going. Unfortunately for the king’s men, the attack was in danger of being turned back due to the ever widening rift developing among the bluecoats.
The interior of the Russian army was already a whirl of confusion: the thickly packed ranks of infantry were being swathed by the accurate Prussian cannister fire—casualties were particularly heavy among the Russian 1st and 3rd Grenadiers—but the soldiers still offered a strong front to the attackers. The horses of the supply wagons and lighter baggage, tied up on the outmost edge of the square, had been frightened by the increasingly noisier sounds of battle and were threatening to bolt, while from the outside of the formations, Prussian infantry poured steady, swift and deliberate volleys of musketry fire right into the ranks of the Russians at closer range. Had Fermor’s men been Austrians, Frederick might reasonably have expected preparations to retire from the enemy. But the dogged determination of the Russians, in spite of their shortcomings as military material, more than provided capable resistance to the best army in the world at the time. Not to suggest the Russian soldiers were less than brave. But the soldiers could only be as proficient as their officers, very few of whom during this period were capable. Frederick was certainly impressed and realized that Keith’s analysis of Russian determination was indeed correct.
Manteuffel went marching at the enemy unsupported, for the troops following his, Kanitz’s left, had lost sight of the advanced guard in the prevailing clouds of smoke and dust. They had instead entered a struggle farther down the line; Kanitz’s men, crashing through the Stein Busch, had been become disordered in passing it. By 1115 hours, Kanitz was already out of direct support of Manteuffel. Moreover, as his men had stretched out to cover as much front as possible, this meant no troops were available to support Manteuffel’s effort.
Not all the blame for this incident can be put on Kanitz’s shoulders. The king’s directives to him appear to have been vague, as suggested by the fact that he allowed the forces of Manteuffel to get so far ahead. Kanitz himself was apparently more concerned with keeping touch with Dohna than in following Manteuffel. The carpeting of the Russian lines by Prussian artillery had unaccountably ignored the forces in front of Kanitz. These forces, Butyrskii’s, Suzdalskii’s, and Kegsggolmskii Infantry units, quickly made their presence known. Manteuffel was having a hard way to go from a bitter bayonet charge at close range from the 3rd and 1st Russian Grenadiers. It was about this point when Frederick apparently ordered Seydlitz to charge the Russians to break their momentum. Seydlitz ignored the order, forestalling until he felt the moment was right. When another order arrived from an exasperated Frederick telling Seydlitz to charge or it would be his head, the indomitable cavalryman replied through an ADC, “Tell the king that my head shall be at his service after the action, if he will only allow me to make use of it meantime in his interest.”
The gap was yawning ever wider. Worse still, Kanitz’s 2nd Infantry failed to keep abreast of the Zaberngrund and gave the Russian horse the opportunity to form a charge front. Being without reinforcements, Manteuffel, after a heavy fight with the far more numerous Russians, pulled back “hastily” from before Fermor’s men, his forward line wavering in the midst of the battle under a counterattack from 14 squadrons of Russian horse. Tobolskii’s Dragoons, supported by Novotroitskii’s Cuirassiers, plus Kargopolskii’s Mounted Grenadiers, led the blow on horseback. The 2nd Prussian Infantry of Kanitz was savaged; it lost some 844 men and 20 officers during the course of the battle. The Russians continued to pour it on until the charge of Seydlitz shortly afterwards. Manteuffel’s “withdrawal” soon became a hasty retreat and threatened to become a rout.
While this was taking place, the Prussian left was in the fire along most of the front. It looked like a repeat of the attack at Kolin. The horrified sight of his shattered left wing streaming past him awakened in the king a sense of urgency. He jumped from his horse and, grabbing the colors of the 46th Infantry, tried to rally it. But the panic was too great and the king was finally left with just one battalion (1150 hours) between him and the surging Russian horse. Frederick was probably saved by the timely arrival of Marschall’s horsemen, three full Dragoon regiments, led by the myopic-sighted Prince Moritz of Anhalt-Dessau.
The Prussian horse rode through the ranks of their fleeing comrades and crashed straight into the advancing enemy. The Russian horse, stunned by this new development, reeled back upon their supporting cast of infantry. Thus was thwarted an attack that could have been devastating to the Prussians. Moreover, the stroke by Anhalt-Dessau made the Russians insensible to Seydlitz’s nearby cavalry, which was still uncommitted.
Fermor’s commanders, the smoke having largely dissipated, sighted the hole in the Prussian front, and came barreling out in great strength, plunging into the rift using both cavalry, which we have already looked at, and the infantry. This attack seems to have taken place more or less spontaneously. On the Russian right the men of the Shlyushelburgskii, Chernigovskii, and Rostovskii Infantry regiments suddenly erupted on the faltering Prussians before them (1145 hours). With no military order to attack (apparently), the rear line of Fermor’s right unaccountably took the forces in attack formation as hostile and opened fire right into their backs. Even worse, the hasty advance had gone no more than 300 paces when the Prussian horse countercharged. Already unsteady from having their own comrades shoot at them, the Russian foot soldiers now had to face the vaunted Prussian cavalry.
Along other parts of the front local Russian counterattacks drove towards the Prussian formations. The forces which had driven into and broken through the gap turned and outflanked the Prussians, forcing them to fall back. As they surged forward, Fermor’s men overran a Prussian battery at the Fuchsberg, capturing 26 guns. In the meantime, the quick-witted Seydlitz, seeing the debâcle taking place, took matters to his own—with the echoes of repeated orders—and, decided that he had to do something to remedy the crisis facing the Prussian infantry. He took his entire cavalry, some 5,000 horsemen, and threaded his way over the Zaberngrund towards the Russian right flank.
Frederick, seeing Manteuffel falling back and the attack line being hard-pressed, sent instructions to Seydlitz to charge Fermor’s advancing troops on his right. The Prussian cavalry charge, with Seydlitz leading the first wave and Wackenitz the second, went crashing head-on into the surging enemy mass and threw the greencoated Russians back into their square, the Prussians following hot on their heels (1155 hours).
A confused fight proceeded on that side of Fermor’s front; the Prussian horsemen hacking up the Russians without mercy. (Quarter was neither given nor asked for in this particular fight.) Johann Archenholtz, among others, said the king, in his thirst for revenge “gave orders for no quarter.” This does not seem likely. Frederick was an eighteenth-century “humanist” at heart; to give such deliberate instructions just does not fit the image. Ziethen’s 2nd Hussars particularly distinguished themselves here; they smashed through Gaugraven’s faltering horse. Any cohesion the Russians on this side had left immediately dissolved, as Seydlitz’s full weight made itself felt.
The valiant Prussian horse did not break off pursuit until they reached fresh enemy formations at the Galgen-Grund. As one source offered, “The enemy being much more numerous, it [i.e., the Russian horse] was obliged to give way.” That was putting it lightly! To make matters worse, some of the panicked Russians fled to the safety of the Zicher Woods, while still others took full advantage of the overall confusion to break into liquor cases from the supply train. The Russian army always seemed to keep plenty of spirits on hand, even during campaign. With a desperate battle in full engagement, almost whole units proceeded to drink themselves into a drunken stupor. Officers who thought they could rally such troops were speedily disillusioned. Some of the unfortunates who had the temerity to order their men to do their duty were instead shot dead by the swine. While this was taking place, the Prussian infantry took the opportunity to reform and reorganize. Shortly, scattered infantry units pushed back into the action. The Russian right was in ruins, Fermor had been wounded and was taken from the field, either before or just after this charge. At this stage, the remnants of the army’s cavalry were sheltered at Kutzdorf, where the horsemen attempted to ford the Mutzel. They could not get across as the river’s current was far too swift and no bridge was to be had near at hand. Meanwhile, the slaughter on the right continued unabated.