Kunersdorf 1759 Part I


Frederick, once he had decided to march to the Oder, was swift about it. August 3, 1959 admitting he had failed to intercept Laudon, he pushed on towards Müllrose (within 12 miles of Frankfurt). Here he gave Wedell instructions to move what remained of his army to that village. Wedell made a genuine effort to comply with these orders, all right, and the result was all of the Prussians in the immediate vicinity were soon concentrated thereabouts. The army which Soltikov had brought from the other end of Poland was very strong in infantry, but the cavalry was weak; Laudon’s arrival helped change that.

The Russians were also busy. July 29 was a notable day for Frankfurt-on-Oder. For some time, there had been rumors of the impending advent of the Russians upon the city, and on that particular morning word spread through the place that the enemy was finally coming over from Crossen. Within Frankfurt, the defenses were insignificant. There was no regular garrison and the only defense force was a local body of some 400 militiamen raised rather hastily from the outskirts of the city under the command of Major Friedrich Wilhelm von Arnhim. As best it might, Frankfurt prepared itself. On the morning of July 30, a large force of Russians made their appearance on the eastern side of the Oder near the Oder-Damm. The grreencoats at once sent word to lower the city’s drawbridge, which led across to the western side and which Arnhim had pulled up on their arrival, and surrender. Arnhim was quick to realize that while Frankfurt’s walls protected it on the western, northern, and southern sides—also topped by heights—only the eastern side was really defensible.

He was stubborn, estimating the enemy force at about a thousand men, though they were in fact six times as numerous, and answered with a defiant “No!” to the Russian demand. Near 1100 hours, the Russians loosened a firebomb to show they were in earnest. At some point, the Prussian must have also realized the strength of the Russians present thereabouts. Arnhim now ordered his men to prepare to depart, as any resistance to the enemy, in addition to the futility, would entail risking heavy damage to the place.

Simultaneously, Arnhim ordered two field pieces under his control to go to the far northern gate in case the foe should move while Arnhim was preparing to leave. The Prussian commander was heading for Cüstrin, if the Russians allowed him to go that far. Some time later a second summons to surrender arrived, with the same reply as before. Then a third summons was likewise refused. Seeing their efforts to bully the garrison were in vain, the Russians sent word that another refusal would leave no option but shower Frankfurt from a prepared battery with incendiary shells. This time, the city fathers agreed to accept the enemy’s terms, but stubborn Arnhim (a valiant Prussian officer to the end) would not permit the drawbridge to be lowered nor any sign of surrender to take place.

The Russian guns then let off a single incendiary shell which landed near the churchyard, but Arnhim would not yield yet. The latter did offer to remove his garrison if the greencoats offered Free Withdrawal. But the Russians, in their turn, refused to do this. At this rude reply, and with his preparations complete, Arnhim pulled up his command and made off towards Lebus, taking the precaution of delaying the entrance of the Russians into Frankfurt. The enemy set off in pursuit of Arnhim, and caught up with him about halfway to Cüstrin. Arnhim drew out his men and fought hard, but at length resistance was overcome and he and his men were returned to Frankfurt in chains, Arnhim himself having suffered a serious wound.

Within a few days, Laudon and his force arrived, marching through the streets of the city and ordering up provisions for his tired men. Hadik had indeed turned back with his provision wagons, and Laudon’s men were virtually starving. Soltikov, who had been rather expecting the Austrians to bring supplies, summarily ordered Laudon to retire to Guben with his men. No real junction between the armies had, in fact, taken place.

Soltikov’s army, after the fall of Frankfurt, had been deployed on rises westward of the Oder, opposite the Jüdenberg Hill mainly, momentarily anticipating the advent of Frederick’s army. The Russians, in spite of superior numbers, were aware that they were no mean match for the great Prussian king. Fermor and possibly even Soltikov must have feared the results of such a confrontation. Fermor remembered Zorndorf all too well, and the news that Laudon’s men brought of Frederick’s attempts to intercept their march meant that he could be expected shortly.

The Russians promptly began entrenching, building high palisades/works complimented by strong batteries. The allies aimed to move out of Frankfurt, leaving just a small garrison, and come near the Oder to take post on the sandhills of the Kunersdorf Heights, eastwards from the Oder-Damm. For the moment, the allies kept to Frankfurt.

Wedell, meanwhile, had reached Müllrose about August 5, after which Frederick marched his forces to Frankfurt, finally arriving near there on August 7. Between Wulkow and Lebus, he made his army an encampment. Early on the following morning, the Prussian monarch pushed out a body of hussars towards Frankfurt to feel out the position of the enemy. Apparently the arrival of the king had not been noted by the allies. A surprising revelation. Indeed, a party of Austrian and Russian officers were just sitting down to dinner at the Fischer’s Mühle—on the western facing side of the Frankfurt bridges—when a local boy working at the millwork scrambled in with news that Prussian hussars, (led, in fact, by the king, although this was not suspected), were approaching.

The startled officers leaped to horse, and rode off at full gallop towards Frankfurt, where they flashed the news. The following day, August 9, Frederick received word that a great victory had been won by Ferdinand over the French at Minden, effectively ending the French threat for the rest of the campaign. His local reconnaissance of the enemy’s lines revealed that they were then encamped with the Oder at their backs and a ready retreat available by three pontoon bridges across the river (not to mention the main Frankfurt Town Bridge) in case of defeat. The king also noted a disparity in numbers of the contending antagonists: even with Wedell, he had no more than 40,000 men, while the allies totaled some 90,000 between them.

Plainly, an attack with those long odds was tantamount to disaster. So Frederick now ordered Finck with his 10,000 men or so to join him. This left Berlin to its own defenses and Saxony would practically have no Prussian forces present. With this juncture, the monarch was determined to get on with the necessary preliminary of crossing the Oder. He had decided not to cross at Lebus, as had originally been planned, but at Reitwein (some ten miles away) and proceed with the business at hand. Finck’s arrival was expected within a few days, and in the interim Frederick pressed preparations for the move, discreetly so as not to alarm the enemy.

Soltikov anticipated that the king would strike from the west side of the Oder, so he made his preparations with that view in mind. The Russians, along with Laudon, recrossed the Oder, leaving only a small garrison in Frankfurt. Soltikov took post on the rises near Kunersdorf, as planned, while Laudon was deployed nearer to the Oder behind him. The greencoats had put their heavy baggage on an island in the Oder—which was connected by pontoon bridges to the mainland where Soltikov was hastily readying to meet the Prussian whirlwind. In case of defeat, the Russians were not going to take any chances of being cut off from home. Soltikov, fearing for the safety of his baggage, detailed a force to cover it.

August 10, right on time, Finck reached Reitwein, while earlier in the day Frederick had arrived nearby. The bluecoats were even then erecting some bridges to cross the river. This work had of necessity been low-key, but the night after the junction the bridges were finished, and the army promptly began crossing in two columns, the foot soldiers/artillery there and the cavalry a short way off. By 0400 hours on August 11, the entire army was over, and the enemy still did not know of it. Soltikov unaccountably allowed the Prussians to break the barrier of the Oder River.

The Prussians now were near Göritz. Here Wunsch was left with skeleton forces to hold the bridges and the baggage train safe. The rest of the army moved southward, aiming at Bischof-Sëe and Leissow (which were within two miles of Kunersdorf itself). The morning sun rose up bright, there was little or no wind blowing across the sand dunes, and forced marches soon brought the men to the verge of exhaustion. To make matters worse, there had been no time for food that morning nor for sleep the last few nights. By 1300 hours, Frederick’s men reached their destination, by which time the troops were so weary that it was an open question if they could continue the trek. So the decision was made to encamp on the spot for the rest of the day and to move against the enemy’s camp on the morrow. Finck, with the vanguard, was ordered to bivouac where he was, his left leaning on a small pond thereabouts; the remainder of the army camped in two lines, the right on Leissow—with the cavalry posted to the rear in a patch of forest thereabouts.

Soon after his men were in place, the king took the opportunity to reconnoiter the enemy’s position. Ahead of him, straight facing the road to Kunersdorf, lay the village and Trettin Hill, which he rode out towards. Reaching there, Frederick mounted the rise and looked southward. Stretched out between Jüdenberg and Mühlberg, he noticed the whole Russian army, some 70,000 strong, with the front facing north. Off behind it, the king discerned Laudon encamped in a position that appeared to be wholly isolated from Soltikov, but might be capable of rendering support if necessary. The terrain there, he judged, at best to be marshy and not sure footed by any means. Cavalry was of little use, and neither were the big guns likely to be of tangible use in this ground. These considerations were important, for it had largely been through the efforts of Seydlitz and his cavalry (who was also present here) that had in the past gained the victory for the Prussians just when defeat appeared to be certain. If the artillery could not be brought into play at short range, it followed they could not blast at the entrenchments that the enemy had prepared to face the Prussian attack.

In front of the allied camp, intersecting between it and the Prussians, ran a small tributary of the Oder, the meandering Hühner-Fleiss. Running across this stream was the Trettin road leading to Kühgraben, a branch road from which led directly through Kunersdorf and on to Reppen. A little to the east of this road was the Walkberg; on the right looking north was the Klosterberg, to the southwest not quite a mile was the Kleiner-Spitzberg, which effectively dominated the approaches to Kunersdorf. Mühlberg lay at the extreme end of the Kunersdorf position and the Oder-Damm. The whole allied camp was about four miles in extent, but it was far too narrow—only about a mile wide—to allow much maneuvering room in which to shift their forces as the Prussians attacked. The ground was largely bushy and oozy bogs. To the east, but most especially to the south, a thick clump of woods arose, through which visibility could not have been good. But the ground was generally flat and level, except what was made up of the mounds thereabouts, largely sand dunes to the east and liable to be blown about by the wind.

Frederick, on viewing the allied camp, observed that Laudon was deployed then in a position which seemed to be isolated from the Russians. The Austrians were encamped in the west of the great marsh which protected the allied left flank, behind a scrubby post which to all appearances, from the Prussian lines at least, to be sufficiently cut off from Soltikov as to give no cause for worry. A local peasant who had brought the king water on that hot summer afternoon, and who knew the terrain in question, thought so, as did one of Frederick’s own officers (Major Linden), who was supposed to be familiar with the area. But the actual event turned out to be much otherwise, as we shall see.

Shortly after his reconnaissance was completed, Frederick rode back to his encampment, and spent the evening hours working out his plan-of-battle. The crux of his plan relied upon one of two alternatives he believed the enemy could take: (1) That of the allies remaining quiet where they were and await a battle; (2) That of the enemy attempting to retire upon Reppen. With numbers and position so clearly in their favor, the second possibility was really unlikely.

Late in the night (August 11–12), however, there was some smoke and flame visible on the southern horizon, which turned out to be the village of Kunersdorf on fire, having been deliberately set by the Russians. There was much speculation about the meaning of this event in the Prussian camp.

The allies, knowing that the foe had passed Göritz and Bischof-Sëe, made preparations for an attack. With no blow coming from the direction of Reppen, the front was reversed (as at Zorndorf, but this time with far more thoroughness); so the Russian left was now anchored on the Mühlberg, the army now past burnt Kunersdorf. Why was it burned? As a structure it would have proven a sizeable military obstacle to Frederick’s men, being in front of the Kuh-grund and all. Now only the stone churchyard and church remained. This could have been a distinct barrier to the bluecoats. Nevertheless, as best they might, the allies made ready to receive the stroke they knew was inevitable on the morrow. As for Soltikov’s most pressing worry, he did not wish to be cut off from his main communication center at Frankfurt, barely four miles to the southwest.

By 0300 hours on August 12, the Prussian army was aroused and standing in marching order. The march order was given and the men lurched off; the heads of their two columns pointed eastward, towards Reppen, and the woods there. At the lead was Seydlitz with his cavalry, his command was included in the column to be brought into battle as the left flank, while Eugene of Württemberg followed with the second to act as right wing in conjunction with Finck. The latter had been ordered to keep his bivouac posture near the Hühner-Fleiss, and decoy the enemy while the rest of the army made the swing for battle.

The king betook himself to the woods to encourage the troops with some more of that earthy, unassuming attitude he was well noted for. When his very tired men marched past him in the thick forest paths, he saluted them with a morning greeting, then is reputed to have said, “A good plate of beans would be nice just now, wouldn’t it?” What other high-born European monarch of the day would have done the same?

Finck could dispose of some 12,000 men for his task, with three infantry regiments (the 37th, the 38th, and the 55th Infantry) supported by strong batteries. He was ordered by Frederick to maintain the illusion that the main attack was to fall upon the Russians from the north. (A move which the king thought was impractical. It would have been better to attack from the north). This since the Russian lines were the strongest just where the attack was planned. The king discovered as much when it was already too late. Nevertheless, he was to go out as soon as it was daylight to scout the enemy’s lines but not to get involved in any serious fighting until the rest of the army could be brought into action. Wunsch was simultaneously ordered to move from Göritz to recapture Frankfurt.

While Finck and his peers were carrying out instructions, an enemy battery opened up on them. But the shots fell wide of the mark, and the Prussian generals ignored the fire. The Cossacks, as usual, were very active. They set fire to the little hamlets of Reipzig and Schwetigg (the latter about a mile south of the Russian baggage), but that was the extent of their effectiveness. The main Prussian columns in passing through the thick woods and over unstable, oozy ground—no doubt this made the lugging of the big guns difficult—were very slow with their advance. It was only after unanticipated delays that Frederick finally reached the Hühner-Fleiss and deployed his army on the Klosterberg, and Walkberg (opposite to the Mühlberg), setting up his batteries on the mounds to act as a counter to the Russian guns. By then it was nearly 0800 hours, and a large proportion of the attack force had taken the wrong turn in the woods and thick underbrush; they were still marching up. Thanks, in part, to the king’s miscalculation, the horsed teams lugging the big Prussian guns and the heads of the columns had to reshuffle in the woods. The bluecoats were just not ready.

By that time, Seydlitz and the first column were on the spot but Eugene was a little behind time. The Russians, scanning the front of their position, shortly before this noticed the movements in the thick woods and sped off the inevitable Cossack scouts. This produced a round or two from Finck’s guns, or perhaps from Frederick’s, but the gunners were quickly silenced by the king. The Russians still discerned Finck as the only plainly visible enemy, and believed him to be the main attack force. The men in the woods were thought to be scouting parties. That was until the main Prussian army appeared so unexpectedly out of the woods.

The composition of this force was the following: 13,000 cavalry in 95 squadrons; 36,900 infantry in 53 battalions; and a large quantity of ordnance, including 160 heavy guns and 126 battalion guns. A total force of roughly 50,000 men of all ranks. The Russian force consisted of 68 battalions of infantry (about 42,000 men); 36 cavalry squadrons (about 7,000 of the Cossacks and hussars, more than 4,600 line cavalry); and 200 guns, a total of approximately 61,000 men, when we factor in the gunners, engineers, and the staff; the Austrians had 18 battalions of infantry; 35 squadrons of cavalry; and 48 guns; a total of approximately 18,523 men. About 80,000 allied troops were involved in the battle. They were superior in number to their foe, in infantry and artillery, although there was near parity in cavalry between the two sides. But the Prussian squadrons were not the same vaunted troopers as they had been the year before at Zorndorf, and not nearly as well trained or equipped.

The Russian right was led on this day by General Demikow, while Fermor and Major-General Nikita Petrovich Villebois were to his side. Rumyantsev was commanding the all-important Russian center. The left was under Lt.-Gen. Prince Aleksandr Mikhailovich Golitsyn.

1759-08-12 – Battle of Kunersdorf