Kunersdorf 1759 Part II

Battle of Kunersdorf, Alexander Kotzebue

The Battle

A little more than an hour after their appearance from the thick woods, the Prussian main body stood ranked for battle and had the batteries set up. Finck had been waiting for the signal to attack since first light, and his gunners were waiting with their pieces. At about 1130 hours, the Prussians opened up from the guns on the Walkberg. The Russian batteries on the Mühlberg, which contained some 72 guns, replied as quickly as they could. The Battle of Kunersdorf had begun. Finck’s ordnance from the northward started a bombardment of the Muhlberg from that end.

Frederick’s batteries on the Walkberg held only about 60 guns,4 but they diligently kept up a steady shelling of the enemy from the southern side. The Prussian batteries were actually strung out in three batteries, about which more later. Although the bombardment and counter-bombardment was steady and methodical, the range precluded any major damage to either side. But the Prussians were helped out by an enemy blunder.

The Russian batteries had been built facing the field below and beyond to the shoulder of the hillocks, instead of towards the view of the great hollow they were supposed to defend. As for the opposite wing, the Russian left, as Soltikov’s chief side, boasted a 100 gun complement, almost an embarrassment of riches.

At about 1200 hours, Frederick sent the advanced force of the nine battalions (some 4,300 men) on the Walkberg forward to storm the Mühlberg. The latter was manned by the First Grenadiers, flanked by the Third Musketeers and the Fifth Musketeers. The bluecoats advanced into the hollow. The fire of the enemy batteries intensified as the Prussians came in closer, but the Prussian officers tried to steady their men in the “shelter” of the hollow before the blow fell. This shelling was far too inaccurate to hinder the move. The attackers were largely shielded by the terrain, until they reached the clearing.

The bluecoats reached the edge of the Mühlberg—within 110 feet of the Russian guns on the slope—before they were greeted by a withering enemy fire. The Prussians did not falter, in fact they pressed ever forward. The four lead battalions slashed forward, in an advanced formation. At point-blank range, the bluecoats loosed a crashing volley of musketry straight into the Russian artillerists and their supporting troops. These men were already shaken by heavy bombardment. The latter were swept back here, the greencoats abandoning their guns and works. Prussian cavalry were hit now. In a few minutes of heavy fighting, the 2nd Cuirassiers (Prince Henry) lost 206 men.

In the event, there were new reinforcements of Russians coming forward. Belosersk was disordered by the press of the first line and forced back, carrying the Nizhegorodv Grenadiers. By 1215 hours, the Prussians had nevertheless laid hold of the Mühlberg, the retreating Russians (of the observation corps of Golitsyn) falling back upon Kunersdorf itself—confusion now spreading through Soltikov’s army. Had the mass of the Prussian horse not been “trapped” behind the Prussian left, it might have been far worse for the greencoats. As it was, many of the Russians did not offer organized resistance and were slaughtered by the scores. Five large regiments were decimated. By 1300 hours, the left had been defeated and driven back on Kunersdorf, only small, mostly disorganized groups of Russians remained where the front had once stood, now broken and separated, capable of only token resistance. There was a bright spot. Soltikov, taking control of the faltering situation, sped 12 crack companies (led by General Campitelli) of Austrian grenadiers to Rumyantsev’s support.

Once more the crack unit of Baden-Baden appears in these annals. This solid unit stood firm despite Lt-Colonel Waldegg’s wound and even the unpleasantness of some of the Russians mistaking Waldegg’s men for the Prussians and taking them under fire. Horace St. Paul reports the unit had 64 officers wounded, although no mention is made of total casualties. Nevertheless, Baden-Baden helped bring the Prussian progress to a standstill. In addition, a timely force of Austrian grenadiers led by Major Joseph De Vins, struck at the enemy force now trying to stabilize its hold on the Mühlberg.

It was precisely at this moment that Frederick had determined to launch a pincer attack on the allied lines. The rearmost forces, under Eugene, were supposed to have advanced at this time straight against the Russians from the south, while the right wing did the same from the north, to stiffen Finck’s effort at the west. Together, they were to snuff out the foe. The right van, which had just stormed the Mühlberg, was where it was intended, but the left, which had just entered the fray and was in the process of driving the enemy from the walls of the Kunersdorf churchyard, was critically behind schedule. At the present, it had no troops capable of helping the other pincer arms, except for a couple of formations from the van. Finck, from his side, was also experiencing problems as his attack was held up by the intricacies of the terrain not to mention a couple of narrow bridges crossing the Hühner-Fleiss, hard going for the artillery teams.

The Prussians did their best. Krockow’s 2nd Dragoons smashed against Trettin Hill and the Jewish churchyard. The attacks were costly. Fully two-thirds of the unit were wiped out. 484 men, 51officers. The 6th Dragoons (of Schorlemer) lost 234 men and 18 officers in this bid.

The Kleist Hussars, normally a solid, reliable cadre, along with the 8th Dragoons, crashed straight into a mass of milling Russian horse. The Prussian effort was repelled, but when the massed allied cavalry tried to take advantage of the moment by following up, they were shredded by the timely squadrons of Seydlitz. This was accomplished in spite of the intricacies of the ground, cut up by numerous ponds and swamps. Seydlitz led an enthusiastic attack by hussars. In fact, the indomitable officer was over enthusiastic, for his charge insensibly tended into the fire of some Russian infantry. The bluecoats now recoiled. Nor were the cavalry units alone that suffered. Dohna’s 16th Infantry lost 550 men and 16 officers. Hülsen’s 21st in attacking the Kühgrund lost 783 men and 25 of its officers.

These factors seriously delayed the crucial timetable attack plan. Nevertheless, the left struggled to offer aid quickly as possible, but was impeded by the heavy woods about Kunersdorf. Heinrich’s 43rd Infantry led the left round the Klosterburg against the Backergrund. When at last the Prussians reached the clearing to the southeast of Kunersdorf, they found what had been little suspected. The ground in front there was bisected by great marshes, pools, and little lakelets, stagnant most if not all of them. Two morasses were even running within the confines of Kunersdorf village itself. The only way across these bodies of water were small tracts on either side, which necessitated breaking the order of march and then reforming once past the obstacles. This threw the left wing into a critical delay between the approach and the actual support. The artillery blasted away at the bluecoats, inflicting heavy losses. The 43rd overthrew the Russians on the Mühlberg, but the advance stalled out at the Kühgrund. In this one regiment, “550 men were lost.” It was not alone, by any means. A neighboring unit, Ferdinand’s 5th Infantry, advancing right beside it, was pounded before the Kühgrund, losing 91 dead and 244 wounded in a few minutes. Even the hard-used 7th Infantry could not escape further damage. Its grenadiers reportedly had 200 wounded and 117 killed of their number. The local terrain also fragmented the Prussian line, so Frederick compensated by choosing to attack what was now obviously the enemy’s right.

At the moment, the confusion spreading through the Russian army was widespread, but enemy guns which had been taken could not be used because there was no ammunition for them. This was important. From the Mühlberg, a few well-placed hits might have inflicted enormous casualties and confusion in the serried ranks of the Russian left. Instead, Frederick ordered up four of the light Prussian guns to the Mühlberg—from where they plastered the foe as best they could, while the 12-horse artillery teams struggled to lug the 60 heavy guns to their support. For more than a mile there, Soltikov’s army might have been decimated, but the delays of the teams getting forward the big artillery proved to be fatal to the king’s plan.

Frederick, meanwhile, had sent off a courier with premature news of “victory” to an anxious Berlin, although the enterprise was now slipping from his grasp. Soltikov had his army formed for a pitched battle, this side facing eastwards, while the king renewed his stroke upon the front of the enemy’s mass. There was now still greater pressure on the Russians as Finck, at last emerging from the difficult geography of the Hühner-Fleiss, attacked uphill (with eight full battalions) against the new Russian left, about 1535 hours. At length, the Russian lines were broken again, and the disordered men fell back upon the Jüdenberg, losing Kunersdorf and the Küh-grund in the process. A second courier was soon on his way to the capital, with more encouraging word of the progress of the battle. In the second attack, the bluecoats had captured 108 more guns and had inflicted terrible losses upon the foe. But their army was taking heavy losses as well. And they were handicapped by a narrow front over which to operate. In fact, the whole space for battle this day was quite narrow.

A little before this time—about 1500 hours or so—Laudon had extricated his men from the “isolated” peninsula to the side of the Russian position and ranked them quickly on Soltikov’s flank, though they had yet to be engaged. How had Laudon accomplished this? Well, Frederick’s assumption the Austrians were in a post from which they could not readily leave failed to take into account a causeway that had been constructed to connect Laudon and Soltikov. Through this route lay easy access. Here again was a classic example of a major blunder on the part of the Prussian reconnaissance. We have observed errors before; at Prague, at Kolin, and at Hochkirch, but they pale by comparison with that of Kunersdorf.

Laudon had 18,000 men, fresh and as yet uncommitted, while Frederick’s men were all but exhausted by the almost herculean task they had taken on. But the Russians had been dealt a major blow. Now Finck, Seydlitz and the generals protested to the king that the army should disengage, since the enemy had clearly been defeated. They would almost certainly withdraw during the night, and, besides, the army needed rest. Moreover “Wunsch … [reported] that the enemy were actually beginning to cross the river.” Failing a retreat by the battered enemy, the battle could always be renewed next morning with refreshed men. This was wise and appropriate counsel, and should in retrospect have been heeded. Sadly, impatient Frederick did not listen, and insisted on continuing the battle to whip the enemy, now. He called for the left, and ordered it forward upon the Russian battery on the Grosser-Spitzberg—which happened to be one of the strongest posts in the enemy’s front—the high battery to the south and some distance ahead of Soltikov’s right. It was under the command of Rumyantsev, with the Vologdskii Infantry regiment right on the spot, along with 16 more large Russian regiments in close support behind. Rumyantsev’s guns opened a terrible fire upon the Prussians as they emerged from behind the ponds in front of Kunersdorf and were forming up to attack.

Prussian artillery was hastily put together in a cluster behind the village of Kunersdorf, which was flanked by two batteries, at the Blanken-Sëe and the Dorf-Sëe, although the king was not prepared to put all of his eggs in one artillery basket. Nevertheless, the Prussian batteries went to work trying to overpower the allied batteries on the Grosser Spitzberg.

When at last the latter were ready, the bluecoats moved up to attack. They were pounded by the searing artillery fire and, unable to complete their task, they stalled out. The 47th Infantry (Major-General Christoph Heinrich von Grabow) had 600 losses. This stroke did knock the Russian Apcheronski Infantry for a loop, and the Rostovoski Infantry were likewise sucked into the vortex of the Prussian attack and badly used. Apcheronski was later honored because it continued to hold back the enemy “while standing, ‘knee deep in blood.’” Frederick now ordered forward the artillery, but the crews could not get the big guns up past the mud and the wagons sank up to their axles when this was tried. Worse, Seydlitz was wounded at that critical moment by a shot which tore away part of his right hand. The Prussians were thus deprived of the services of one of their best cavalry officers at a crucial stage. Seydlitz had to relinquish command to Platen and was taken off the field to have his wound tended to.

Frederick lost his head and commanded that the cavalry itself charge the foe’s battery on the Grosser-Spitzberg. Platen contested the order, in vain. He jumped to horse at last and galloped with his cavalry around the southern side of Kunersdorf. The charging, storming troopers made a hopeless effort. After a fine beginning, they were cut to ribbons by the merciless fire. The 5th Cuirassiers (Friedrich Wilhelm Prince of Prussia und Markgraf of Brandenburg-Schwedt) lost 170 men here. Kyau’s 12th Cuirassiers lost 260 more. Whole squadrons seemed to fall, and the rest were cut into little groups, not able to move forward. The leading unit, the 6th Dragoons of Schorlemer, was hit so savagely it was virtually wiped out on the spot. Even worse, this splendid effort had carried the bulk of the horsed formations past the west side of the ponds, and this exposed their flank to thousands of as yet unengaged enemy cavalry. Soon the magnificent squadrons had been shattered, falling back beyond the pools at Kunersdorf. Here they got steadied and were ranked again.

Following this repulse, which incidentally proved to be the turning point of the battle, the Prussian infantry, reforming again and again, attacked the enemy’s position on the Grosser-Spitzberg repeatedly, but again futilely. The 37th Infantry (Lt.-Gen. August Wilhelm von Braun) was utterly annihilated in the effort; 992 men and 16 officers went down here. The king himself dashed out to lead two attacks by the 35th Infantry, in which he had two horses shot dead under him and was in the process of mounting a third when a stray shot struck the poor animal in the neck and it fell to the ground, nearly on top of Frederick. He was snatched up by two of his adjutants. A bullet had smashed a snuff box in his heavy coat, saving Frederick’s life. Still, he reportedly grabbed a flag and uttered “I must do my duty here like any other!” Pragmatically, the 35th would, in the end, be the last Prussian unit off the field.

Although their leader was safe, the Prussians could make no further gains, holding instead tenaciously to the captured works in their hands, too exhausted to even retreat it would appear. This is not surprising.

The Allies were in similar shape. Their cavalry was truly heterogeneous, as the main thrust of the cavalry units were the 6th Dragoons and the Löwenstein riders of the 31st Austrian. Two units which were truly magnificent units, fully equal to the magnificent squadrons of Seydlitz. They were even stiffened by stubborn Russian cavalry, of inferior quality, but eager to demonstrate their worthiness as well. This mounted attack helped out the greencoats, who were being hard pressed. As for the valiant Apcheronski regiment and its neighbors, two fine Russian units—the Pskov and the Vologda Infantry—they lent their aid and momentarily helped check the stubborn Prussian advance. Then, near 1700 hours, the valiant king finally drove in his part of the front, temporarily. Soltikov responded the only way he knew how: with more reinforcements. Again, the newcomers (Kozen and Vyborg, joined by Pfern) contrived to move from the Russian right. This new body blunted the Prussian advance.

The fresh Austrian infantry/cavalry swooped down upon the recoiling Prussians, forcing them to gang together to form a defense. All of this, it must be remembered, took place along a relatively narrow front, allowing precious little room for maneuvering. The reformed Russians now joined the fray; together the allies drove the enemy mass before them, back to the Küh-grund, from Kunersdorf, back the way they had come. As it worked out, the Küh-grund and vicinity was to prove a strong “trap.” The Prussian cavalry were ridden down by the surging allied cavalry. Frederick rallied his men, trying to reverse the tide of battle. Finck was still attacking from the Hühner-Fleiss, to no avail, now the king ordered the horsemen to disengage and ride around to the Mühlberg to aid Finck there. Eugene led some support forces to the scene, to the eastern end then west before they finally turned to face south directly at the enemy. The bluecoats here intended a decisive stroke to roll up Soltikov, but the men had scattered when they marched off, quickly dispersing.

Eugene was badly wounded trying to extricate himself from the carnage. When he returned, Frederick ordered Puttkammer and his hussars to the task. But that commander was killed and his stroke ended much the same as the first. After this latest assault had miscarried, the Russian infantry, now directly before the Küh-grund, struck forward and retook the line. They remanned the batteries at once, while Frederick reacted by sending orders to retake those guns. A large force of bluecoats advanced then to within some 50 yards of the Russian lines and halted there, exchanging volleys of musketry with the latter for about ¼ of an hour. It was past 1730 hours. A few Prussians even made it to the crest of the nearby hillocks, but unfortunately they lacked either the physical or numerical stamina to recapture the Küh-grund and the disputed vicinity. Kanitz’ 2nd Infantry, pounded so fiercely by these same Russians at Zorndorf, suffered more. Some 472 men and nine officers fell all told on this day.

Seeing the Prussian attack stalled, Laudon took the chance to launch his still largely intact forces from behind the Grosser-Spitzberg to complete the overthrow of the Prussian army. By then it was about 1800 hours, and the sun was dipping low in the western sky. As soon as the bluecoats got a view of the surging Austrian force, they were suddenly gripped by panic. The army dissolved into a mass of running men in a matter of minutes, the troops forsaking their weapons and equipment as they did so. However, not all of the men fled. One small force planted itself on the Walkberg to guard the retreat. Elsewhere, isolated groups still put up a bold front. Lestwitz’s 31st lost 431 men on this retreat. But, for the most part, the army had been converted into a confused, milling mass of fugitives with only one thought pressing in mind: to retire to the rear and away from the enemy as fast as they could. Indeed, seldom in military history has a battle been so completely lost by an organized army in such a short space of time.

The press of the Prussian retreat was towards the north to the shelter of the ground beyond. The remnants of Schorlemer’s command strove to cover the retreat, but were forthwith driven into the swamps nearby. This exposed the retreating mass, which were ridden down and bagged by the thousands in their flight towards Zolow and the Hühner-Fleiss at Faulen-Bräcke and Stroh-Bräcke. Still, a great number of the bluecoats managed to take refuge in the churchyard at Trettin, where they briefly thought about rallying. Any such thoughts were put to bed by the impetuous Austrian cavalry of Kalnolky’s Hussars, aided by the nearby 11th Hussars. A vigorous attack, led by the dismounted horsemen, drove the already shaken Prussians from the village. This left them no choice but to abandon what artillery they had managed to drag to a sunken road forward of Trettin. Even by foot rescue was difficult, for the final tally was some 650 bluecoats taken. This really put paid to the matter of providing any meaningful resistance to the allied pursuit. In the event, “he [Frederick] demanded more of his men than they could bear.”

The king himself was in the midst of the rout. He seemed to be stupefied by what he saw. Frederick galloped about, shouting, “Children, don’t forsake your King, don’t leave me in this pinch!” and “will none of these blasted balls hit me, then!?!” However, his attempts to rally his men were as useless as they were brave. A panicked army must be like an angry mob, not really aware of what is happening about and deaf to the voice of reason. Frederick was on the point of being surrounded by the enemy troopers when he shouted out “Prittwitz, I am lost!” The latter dashed up, along with an adjutant. The adjutant grabbed his horse’s bridle, and led the king and his horse off at a gallop from the field, while Prittwitz with his command battled the pursuing Cossacks to a standstill.

That evening, the agitated Prussian king took shelter at Reitwein while Wunsch, who had been left at the bridge to prevent the escape of the enemy, waited until most of the scattered fugitives had gathered at Öetscher and Goritz before he closed up the bridge. Both to anticipate the enemy from moving across the Oder and to prevent a possible wholesale desertion of the demoralized men. Wunsch had earlier marched to Frankfurt in the afternoon; he attacked and seized the town bridges. Then the understanding man blew them up.

The firing on the battlefield gradually died down and the tortured Battle of Kunersdorf ended. Thus was the curtain brought down upon the drama of the worst defeat that Frederick would ever suffer on a field of battle. His men, during the course of the night, were slowly reassembled. Wunsch was summoned by the victors to surrender; the request was refused, of course, though on the morning of August 13 Wunsch withdrew, destroying the crossing points behind him, with no interference. The night before the king had written a letter to his old tutor, von Finckenstein, in Berlin, explaining the defeat: “I attacked the enemy today at 11. Pushed them back to the Jewish churchyard near Frankfort. All the troops were engaged, and did wonders, but the cemetery cost us a prodigious number. Our troops were thrown into confusion, I rallied them thrice; at length I thought myself about to be taken captive, and had to abandon the field of battle. My clothes were riddled by balls, I had two horses shot from under me; it is my misfortune that I am still alive. Our loss is very considerable; of an army of 48,000 men, I have not 3,000. At this moment, all are in flight and I am no longer master of my troops. You in Berlin will do well to think of your safety.” As a postscript, he added, “I have no more resources left, and I will tell you no lies: I think that we are lost! I shall not survive the downfall of my country, Farewell, Frederic.”

There, sitting in a peasant hut amidst the wounded and the dying, the melancholic Frederick decided to turn over the command of his army, or what remained of it, to Finck. He told the latter this was only because of illness, when he had recovered he would resume command. Reluctantly, the king wrote out the order:

“The General [Finck] gets a hard commission. The luckless army such as this I hand him is no longer in a condition to fight the Russians, Hadek [Hadik] will probably press on to Berlin, Laudon perhaps, too, if the general [Finck] goes after they both, Soltikov [read the Russians] will take him in the rear, if he stops on the Oder, he will get Hadek this side. But I think that if Laudon tri for Berlin he could attack and beat him on the way, this iffit go well, would put a good face on misfortune and hold things. Time gained is very much in these desperate circumstances. The news from Torgau and Dresden, Coller my secretary will send him; he must keep my brother, Prince Henry, whom I appoint Generalissimo, informed of everything; to make good the misfortune completely is impossible, but my brother’s orders must be obeyed; the army must swear allegiance to my nephew [Prince Frederick Wilhelm]. This is all the advice, in these unhappy circumstances, I am in a condition to give. Had I still had resources left, I would have stayed by them. Frederic.”

Next day, August 13, the king felt a little cheerier, now that the army had some 23,000 men, but Finck was in “active” command of this force (a duty it appears he never actually assumed). Frederick sent off a letter to the commandant in Dresden, our old friend Schmettau, to surrender if good terms were offered to him were he to be besieged by the enemy. After a few days’ further rest, August 15, Frederick departed from Reitwein, hearing the encouraging news that the Russians were encamping to the south of Kunersdorf. Not a single one of Soltikov’s men had dared to recross the Oder to the western bank after the battle. The king had again taken heart, resuming command of the reorganizing army (August 16). He promptly sent for Kleist and his hussars to join him from Pomerania. This move left the Swedes free to march into Prussian Pomerania, which they did in a rather lethargic manner.

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