The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part I

Background

Two conflicts formed the bookends, so to say, of the fourteenth century in Prussia. The first, which began in the first decade of the century, was the order’s acquisition of West Prussia, originally known as Pomerellia. This was a vital territory in several senses: its eastern border was the Vistula River, so that any hostile power possessing Pomerellia could interrupt the vital traffic up and down stream; its people and warriors were an important resource for the Prussian economy (especially the city of Danzig) and the order’s war machine; and French, Burgundian, and German crusaders were able to travel to Prussia safely via Brandenburg, Neumark, and Pomerellia whenever the preferred route across Great Poland was closed. The Polish kings and the Polish Church, however, viewed the acquisition of Pomerellia by war and purchase as nothing less than theft. As far as they were concerned, no matter what Pomerellia’s past or ethnic composition was, it was a Polish land, as the payment of Peter’s Pence to the pope proved – no German state paid this tax, but the Polish lands did; and the patriots missed no opportunity to bemoan the loss of this province.

The second conflict, which concluded at the very end of the century, was over Samogitia. The Teutonic Knights saw this territory partly as a land bridge to Livonia that would permit year-round communication with their northern possessions, and partly as the heart of pagan resistance to conversion. Lithuanian grand princes, whose authority was seldom recognised by the Samogitians, fought hard to retain it as a part of their national patrimony.

Surprisingly, the Teutonic Knights had managed to make peace both with Poland (the Peace of Kalish, 1343) and Lithuania (the Peace of Sallinwerder, 1398). Two Lithuanians, Jagiełło of Poland and Vytautas of Lithuania, even assisted in ending Samogitian resistance to the order in return for its aid in expeditions against Moscow and the Tatars.

This era of co-operation came to an end in 1409, after an insurrection in Samogitia. The Teutonic Knights had reasons to believe that Vytautas had encouraged the rebels, and that behind Vytautas was the sly hand of Jagiełło. Their usually cautious diplomacy, however, was now in the hands of a brash new grand master, Ulrich von Jungingen, who was not only relatively young but seemed to believe that his military order had lost sight of its original purpose – to fight pagans. By that he understood Samogitians and their allies, not distant Rus’ians, Tatars, pirates, or Turks. He saw the immediate enemies right at hand: Poland and Lithuania.

The grand master’s haughty demands that the Poles and Lithuanians cease providing aid to the Samogitian rebels provoked cries for war in both nations. But it was not yet clear that hotheads in Poland would move to action the more cautious mass of nobles and clergy who remained in awe of the Teutonic Knights’ military reputation.

The Changing Balance of Power

The membership of the Teutonic Knights, and especially the grand master’s council, were confident of their ability to intimidate Polish nobles, Lithuanian boyars, and the prelates of both nations, no matter that the patriotic ire of powerful groups had been raised by Grand Master Ulrich’s actions in 1409. They believed that the Polish and Lithuanian rulers had too many distractions to make common cause against them; moreover, they believed too that Vytautas and Jagiełło mistrusted one another too much to cooperate militarily – everyone knew the story of their feud’s origin and their many subsequent reconciliations and falling-outs – and their nobles and churchmen were, like their counterparts in the West, difficult to lead. Also, since Jagiełło and Vytautas had never yet tried to bring their armies into the heart of Prussia, it seemed unlikely that they would do more than launch attacks at widely separated points, probably in Samogitia and West Prussia, perhaps Culm. The grand master could meet these attacks by using local resources defensively against the less dangerous threats and concentrating his mobile forces against the main army, which would probably invade West Prussia.

In addition, everyone was aware that Jagiełło and Vytautas had a permanent problem to their east, where Tatars were always a danger, and to the south, where Sigismund could raise levies in his Hungarian, Bohemian, and Silesian lands and invade Poland at short notice. Lastly, almost every German knight believed that Polish nobles might be willing to fight in defence of their homeland but would be reluctant to approve raising troops for offensive warfare; it was axiomatic that the Polish prelates and knights would talk bravely but nevertheless refuse to approve funds for war or to authorise calling out the feudal levy. That miscalculation was founded on a well-proven rule, that the Poles had long mistrusted Jagiełło almost as much as did Vytautas and the Teutonic Order. However, time changes all things, and Jagiełło’s relationship with his subjects had changed over the decade he had been king; they had learned to trust him more; they had become accustomed to him. He may not have produced a son yet, but there was a daughter, significantly named Jadwiga for her mother, who would inherit the throne some day. The Poles were more confident now that Jagiełło was their king, not simply a Lithuanian prince out for the main chance.

This changed attitude displayed itself in December 1409, when Nicholas Traba, a future archbishop of Gniezno, took part in the secret meeting of Jagiełło and Vytautas at Brest to make plans for war. Their subsequent diplomatic offensive won Duke Johan of Masovia as an ally, though not Duke Ziemowit IV, who remained neutral, nor the dukes of Pomerania, who became allies of the Teutonic Order. Most importantly, the people of Poland and Lithuania were prepared psychologically for the great conflict to come.

Even those few Germans who thought that Jagiełło might fight did not expect a great battle to come about as a result of the bluster, the embargo, or the grand master’s raid into Masovia and Great Poland. First of all, large battles were a rare phenomenon – the risks were too great and the financial rewards too few, especially when compared to the security of raiding lands defended only by half-armed peasants or demanding ransom from burghers. Secondly, except for sporadic conflicts such as that in 1409 there had been peace between Poland and Prussia for seven decades now, and since the Samogitian issue had been resolved in the Treaties of Sallinwerder (1398) and Racianz (1404), why should there be war with Lithuania? Few living Germans or Prussians could remember the last significant Polish or Lithuanian invasion. A border raid from Great Poland or on some less well-protected frontier area of East Prussia was likely, after which another truce would be signed. On the principal issue, Samogitia, surely the Lithuanians in 1410, like the Poles in 1409, would back down?

Similarly, it was unlikely that the grand master would invade Poland again. Once the Poles had reinforced their border fortresses the grand master could not expect another series of easy victories without considerable help from crusaders; and it was unlikely that large numbers of volunteers would come to Prussia to participate in the invasion of a Christian kingdom, though a good number of German and Bohemian mercenaries would travel east if financial incentives were added to the usual chivalric attractions. An invasion of Lithuania was completely out of the question; no grand master had ever sent a major force east unless he was certain that the Poles would refrain from raiding Prussia as soon as the garrisons rode into the wilderness – and such co-operation was very doubtful now. Lastly, the issues at stake did not seem to be of sufficient importance for any ruler to justify the risk of hazarding a pitched battle. That was the reason that, although the rival popes in Rome and Avignon and the rival emperors, Wenceslas of Bohemia and Ruprecht of the Palatinate, took some notice of the escalating tension throughout 1409 and 1410, their efforts at reconciliation were minimal; extraordinary measures did not seem merited for a distant conflict over inconsequential lands and personal vanities.

Western Europeans took little notice of Prussia because they had much more important concerns of their own to deal with – the Council of Pisa, which was supposed to end the Great Schism in the Church,31 but which seemed to be doing little more than complicate an already difficult situation; the continuing northward advance of the Turks, who were marching out of the Balkans into the Steiermark and Croatia to threaten the lands of the Cilly family (who were related by marriage to both King Jagiełło and King Sigismund of Hungary) and thus open the way across the Alpine mountain barriers into Austria and Italy; and the war between Burgundy and France, which occupied so many families that had once sent crusaders to Prussia. Yet a great battle did occur on 15 July 1410, on a field between the villages of Tannenberg and Grunwald (Grünfelde).

This battle at Tannenberg/Grunwald/Żalgris – as Germans, Poles, and Lithuanians respectively call it – has assumed a prominence that exaggerates its real significance. The history of north central Europe was not suddenly transformed by this one battle. Changes in the balance of power were well under way before the battle was fought, and those changes were so fundamental that one can hardly imagine a greatly different world today if the battle had not taken place. The kingdom of Poland was already on the rise, and the day of the military orders had passed. It is not likely that the Teutonic Knights could have maintained political or military equality with a nation as populous, creative, wealthy, and energetic as Poland; moreover, since Poland was a multi-ethnic state and this was the fifteenth century, not the twenty-first, there would have been few, if any, changes in the ethnic composition of Prussia had those lands come into the immediate possession of the Polish crown. Within a year of the great battle the Teutonic Knights were able to defend themselves again and expel the Poles and Lithuanians from their territories. Nevertheless, the battle was so costly to the order in men and material that subsequent grand masters were never again able to regain the power or prestige their predecessors had enjoyed. For the Teutonic Knights the road led downhill from that day on, until the Thirteen Years’ War (1453 – 66) brought complete disaster. Therefore, although the battle of Tannenberg may not be the decisive moment in the history of medieval Prussia, it was the start of a rapid and progressively steeper decline.

In the final analysis, Tannenberg was important because it was a highly dramatic event that lent itself to endless retelling, and, rightly or wrongly, the fortunes of entire peoples could be easily related to it.

Political Manoeuvring

Not even the participants had anticipated anything like the battle that did occur. Although there had been bad feelings between the grand masters and the Lithuanian cousins for decades, the military conflict that began in August 1409 was not beyond a compromise settlement. There was international pressure applied by the popes individually to arrange just such a compromise peace, so that Christendom could stand united in its efforts to restore unity in the Church and drive back the Turks from the borders of Austria and Hungary, or at least stem their raids to collect slaves and booty.

Foremost of the secular rulers seeking to forestall the conflict was Wenceslas of Bohemia. Though widely repudiated as Holy Roman emperor by his German subjects, he sent representatives in 1409 to mediate the quarrel. They brought Ulrich von Jungingen and King Jagiełło together on 4 October for five days of talks that resulted in a truce until St John’s Day (24 June) the following year. This sign of reconciliation made many hope that further compromises could be reached. The most important article in the truce agreement authorised Wenceslas to propose fair terms for a permanent peace settlement. His proposal was to be presented before Lent, a date that allowed additional negotiations to take place before the truce expired. The critical months, however, were those before Lent, when Ulrich von Jungingen and Jagiełło each sought to sway the notoriously fickle monarch in his own favour.

The grand master had a short history of the Samogitian crusade prepared, a document that depicted the Lithuanians as undependable turncoats who had violated their promises to the Poles in 1386 and to the Germans in 1398; moreover, it claimed that those Lithuanians who were indeed Christians were, in fact, members of the heretic Russian Orthodox faith, and that the Samogitians were complete pagans who had not allowed a single baptism in the past five years. Not relying on letters alone, the grand master sent an imposing delegation to Hungary. Those representatives signed an alliance with King Sigismund in December and agreed to pay him 40,000 Gulden for his assistance. Sigismund, in turn, honoured his guests by asking them to be godfathers to his newly born daughter, Elisabeth. From Hungary the delegates went to Bohemia to present final arguments before Wenceslas rendered his decision on 8 February 1410.

The core of the Bohemian peace proposal was to return to the status quo ante bellum. Those were hardly terms likely to please Vytautas and Jagiełło, especially since the Lithuanian complaints were ignored and the Poles were admonished to abstain from any and all aid to the Samogitian ‘non-Christians’. Wenceslas warned that he would attack whichever party refused to honour the treaty he proposed – a conventional threat without much substance to it. The Teutonic Knights had won a total victory, right down to confirmation of their right to possess West Prussia and the Neumark. In fact it was too thorough a victory, too one-sided. There was never any possibility of persuading the king of Poland to accept the mediator’s terms.

The time for the order’s celebration was short. Polish diplomats remained in Prague for a month, arguing vainly that the terms of the peace treaty were unfair, until Wenceslas finally lost his temper and threatened to make war on Poland himself. The Poles departed, certain that war with the Teutonic Knights, at least, would follow; perhaps there would be a gigantic conflict with all their western neighbours as well. Jagiełło, who read Wenceslas’ personality more accurately, was less intimidated: he rejected all proposals for further negotiations, and when Wenceslas summoned him to a conference in Breslau in May, he left the emperor and the Teutonic Knights waiting in vain for Polish representatives, who had already announced that they would not come

The Raising of Armies

The armies began to gather. When ready, Jagiełło summoned Vytautas to join him in Masovia. Until recently that had required a journey through a dense, swampy wilderness. However, thanks to the opening of the trade route along the Narew River it was now possible for Vytautas to bring his men to the desired location near Płock without undue difficulties. The bulk of the royal forces remained on the western bank of the Vistula, but Jagiełło sent Polish knights to the other bank to hold the fords for Vytautas, and more troops were coming in daily. By mid-June the king had at his disposal a force of more than 30,000 cavalry and infantry (18,000 Polish knights and squires, with a few thousand foot soldiers; some Bohemian and Moravian mercenaries; 11,000 Lithuanian, Rus’ian, and Tatar cavalry, a formidable contingent from Moldavia led by its prince, Alexander the Good, and some Samogitians).

Grand Master Ulrich had raised a huge force too, perhaps 20,000 strong. Since Jungingen had allowed the Livonian master to conclude a truce with Vytautas, however, none of those excellent knights were able to join him; in any case, the northern knights were not enthusiastic about the war, and although the Livonian master sent word to Vytautas immediately that the truce would expire at the end of the grace period, he would not send troops to Prussia or attack Lithuania’s vulnerable northern lands until that time had passed. Moreover, since Jungingen could raise only about 10,000 cavalry in Prussia the rest of his warriors were ‘pilgrims’ and mercenaries. Sigismund had sent two prominent nobles with 200 knights, and Wenceslas had allowed the grand master to hire a large number of his famed Bohemian warriors.

The numbers for both armies are very inexact, with estimates varying from half the totals given above to almost astronomical figures. In all cases, however, the proportion of troops in the armies remained about the same: three to two in favour of the Polish king and the Lithuanian grand prince. But the grand master had a compensating advantage in equipment and organisation, and especially in having nearby fortresses for supplies and refuge; and since, as far as he knew, the enemy forces had not yet joined, he believed that he could fight them one at a time. A few of Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ commanders had served together in earlier campaigns, some against the Tatars, some against the crusaders; nevertheless, their army was composed of troops so diverse that maintaining cohesion would be difficult. Jungingen had a larger number of disciplined knights who were accustomed to fighting as units, but he also had levies of secular knights and crusaders who were prey to fits of enthusiasm and panic; he was also fighting on the defensive, better able to fall back on prepared positions and more informed about roads, tracks, and what obstacles were passable. The odds were fairly nearly equal.

An order chronicler, an anonymous contemporary continuing the earlier work by Johann von Posilge, described the preliminaries of the battle in vivid detail, thereby giving useful insights into the attitude the crusaders held toward their opponents:

[King Jagiełło] gathered the Tatars, Russians, Lithuanians, and Samogitians against Christendom . . . So the king met with the non-Christians and with Vytautas, who came through Masovia to aid him, and with the duchess . . . [T]here was so large an army that it is impossible to describe, and it crossed from Płock toward the land of Prussia. At Thorn were the important counts of Gora and Stiborzie, whom the king of Hungary had sent especially to Prussia to negotiate the issues and controversies between the order and Poland; but they could do nothing about the matter and finally departed from the king, who followed his evil and divisive will to injure Christendom. He was not satisfied with the evil men of the pagans and Poles, but he had hired many mercenaries from Bohemia, Moravia, and all kinds of knights and men-at-arms, who against all honour and goodness and honesty went with heathendom against the Christians to ravage the lands of Prussia.

One hardly expects a balanced judgement from chroniclers, but the accusations of hiring mercenaries certainly strikes the modern reader as odd, since the Teutonic Knights were doing the same thing. Men of the Middle Ages, like many today, hated passionately, often acted impulsively, and reasoned irrationally. Yet they were capable of behaving very logically too. The leaders of the armies soon gave proof that they were men of their era, acting as they did alternately with cool reason and hot temper. Reason predominated at the outset of the campaign.

The Hungarian count palatine and the voivode of Transylvania mentioned in the passage above returned south hurriedly to collect troops on the southern border of Poland. Their threat was unconvincing, however; consequently they had no effect on the campaign at all. Sigismund, as was his wont, had promised more than he was willing to deliver; he did nothing beyond allowing the grand master to hire mercenaries, though he was in northern Hungary at the time and could have raised a large force quickly.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part II

The Invasion of Prussia

The strategies of the two commanders contrasted greatly. The grand master divided his forces in the traditional manner between East and West Prussia, awaiting invasions at widely scattered points and relying on his scouts to determine the greatest threats, his intention being to concentrate his forces quickly wherever necessary to drive back the invaders. Jagiełło, however, planned to concentrate the Lithuanian and Polish armies into one huge body, an unusual tactic. Although adopted from time to time in the Hundred Years’ War, it was more common among the Mongols and Turks – enemies the Poles and Lithuanians had fought often. The Teutonic Knights did the same during their Reisen into Samogitia, but those had been much smaller armies.

In this phase of the campaign Jagiełło’s generalship was exemplary. As soon as he heard that Vytautas had crossed the Narew River he ordered his men to build a 450-metre pontoon bridge over the Vistula River. Within three days he had brought the main royal host to the east bank, then dismantled the bridge for future use. By 30 June his men had joined Vytautas. On 2 July the entire force began to move north. The king had thus far cleverly avoided the grand master’s efforts to block his way north and even kept his crossing of the Vistula a secret until the imperial peace envoys informed Jungingen. Even then the grand master failed to credit the report, so sure was he that the main attack would come on the west bank of the Vistula and be conducted by only the Polish forces.

When Jungingen obtained confirmation of the envoys’ story he hurriedly crossed the great river with his army and sought a place where he could intercept the enemy in the southern forest and lake region, before Lithuanian and Polish foragers could fan out among the rich villages of the settled areas in the river valleys. His plan was still purely defensive – to use his enemies’ numbers against them, anticipating that they would exhaust their food and fodder more swiftly than his own well-supplied forces. The foe had not yet trod Prussian ground.

The grand master had left 3,000 men under Heinrich von Plauen at Schwetz (Swiecie) on the Vistula, to protect West Prussia from a surprise invasion in case the Poles managed to elude him again and then strike downriver into the richest parts of Prussia before he could cross the river again. Plauen was a respected but minor officer, suitable for a responsible defensive post but not seen as a battlefield leader. Jungingen wanted to have his most valuable officers with him, to offer sound advice and provide examples of wisdom, courage, and chivalry. Jungingen was relatively young, and a bit hot-headed, but all his training advised him to err on the side of caution until battle was joined. Daring was a virtue in the face of the enemy, but not before.

Jagiełło, too, was a careful general. Throughout his entire career he had avoided risks. No story exists of his ever having put his life in danger or led horsemen in a wild charge against a formidable enemy. Yet neither was there the slightest hint of cowardice. Societal norms were changing. Everyone acknowledged the responsibility of the commander to remain alive; everyone accepted the fact that the commander should guide the fortunes of his army rather than seek fame in personal combat.

Consequently it was no surprise that the king’s advance toward enemy territory was slow. His caution was understandable. After all, he could not be certain that his ruse had worked; and he had great respect for Jungingen’s military skills. Without doubt, he worried that he would stumble into an ambush and give the crossbearers their greatest victory ever. He must have been half-relieved when his scouts reported that the crusaders had taken up a defensive position at a crossing of the Dzewa (Drewenz, Drweça) River. At least he knew where Jungingen was, waiting at the Masovian border. On the other hand, the news that the grand master’s position was very strong could not have been welcome.

So far each commander had moved cautiously toward the other. Jagiełło and Jungingen alike feared simple tactical errors, such as being caught by nightfall far from a suitable camping place, or having to pass through areas suitable for ambush or blockade; in addition, they had to provide protection for their transport, reserve horses, and herds of cattle. Although each commander was experienced in directing men in war, these armies were larger than either had brought into battle previously, and the larger the forces, the more danger there was of error, of misunderstanding orders, and of panic.

Judged by those criteria, both commanders deserve high marks for bringing their armies into striking distance of each other without having made serious blunders. Both armies were well-supplied, ready to fight, and confident of a good chance for victory; the officers all knew their opponents well, were familiar with the countryside and the weather, and in full command of the available technology. The resemblance of some formations to armed mobs was offset by martial traditions, individual unit drill, and widespread experience in local wars. Neither army was handicapped by dissensions in command, quarrels among units, unusual prevalence of illness, or excessive anxiety about the impending combat – these problems existed, but they were probably shared equally and were not serious enough to merit mention in contemporary accounts. In short, there were no excuses for failure.

For the Teutonic Knights, each commander, each officer, each knight was as ready for combat as could reasonably be expected. All that remained uncertain was how the battle would begin, how individuals would react, and how the affair would unfold – for those are unknowns always present in warfare. Though many individuals had participated in raids and sieges, few had personal experience in a pitched battle between large armies. Some crusaders may have gained sad experience at Nicopolis in 1396, and some of their opponents may have survived Vytautas’ 1399 disaster on the Vorskla in the Ukraine against the Tatars, but those would be the only ones who knew what to expect when tens of thousands of combatants came together for a few minutes of intense struggle. Only they knew first-hand that warfare on this scale was chaos beyond imagination, with commanders unable to contact more than a few units, with movement limited by the sheer numbers of men and animals on the field, with the senses overwhelmed by noise, smoke from fires and cannon, and dust stirred up by the horses, the body’s natural dehydration worsened by excitement-induced thirst, and exhaustion from stress and exertion. This led to an irrational eagerness for any escape from the tension – either flight or immersion in combat. Aside from that small number of experienced knights there was only the practice field and small-scale warfare in Samogitia, the campaign in Gotland, and the 1409 invasion of Poland. Those provided good military experience, but there had not been a set-piece combat between the Teutonic Knights and the Lithuanians for forty years, or between the Teutonic Knights and the Poles for almost eighty. Throughout all of Europe, in fact, there had been many campaigns, but few battles. For both veterans and neophytes there was consolation in storytelling, boasting, prayer, and drinking.

The Lithuanians were more experienced, but only in the more open warfare on the steppes and in the forests of Rus’. Riding small horses and wearing light Rus’ian armour, they were not well equipped for close combat with Western knights on large chargers, but they were equal to their enemy in pride and their confidence in their commander. Memory of Vytautas’ disaster on the Vorskla had been dimmed by subsequent victorious campaigns against Smolensk, Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow. Between 1406 and 1408 Vytautas had led armies against his son-in-law, Basil of Moscow, three times, once reaching the Kremlin and at last forcing him to accept a peace treaty that restored the 1399 frontiers. Vytautas’ strength was in his cavalry’s ability to go across country that defensive forces might consider impassable; his weakness was that lightly-equipped horsemen could not survive a charge by heavy warhorses bearing well-armoured knights – he counted on his Tatar scouts to prevent such an event happening by surprise.

The mounted Polish forces were more numerous and better equipped for a pitched battle with the Germans, but they lacked confidence in their ability to stand up to the Teutonic Knights. The contemporary Polish historian Długosz complained about their unreliability, their lust for booty, and their tendency to panic. Most Polish knights – at least 75% – sacrificed armour for speed and endurance, but they were not as ‘oriental’ as the Lithuanians. In this they hardly differed from the majority of the order’s forces, light cavalry suitable to local conditions. Of the rest, many Polish knights wore plate armour and preferred the crossbow to the spear, just as did many of the Teutonic Knights’ heavy cavalry. The weakness lay in training and experience: many Polish knights were weekend warriors, landlords and young men; they were non-professionals who knew that they were up against the best trained and equipped troops in Christendom. Although some of them had served under the king previously, he seems to have drawn more troops from the north for this campaign than from the south; and it was the southern knights who had served with him in Galicia and Sandomir. Jagiełło could have called up more knights, but he could not have found room for them at the campsites, much less fed them. The masses of almost untrained peasant militia were much easier to manage; their noble lords could assume they would feed themselves and they could sleep outside no matter what the weather was. While the peasants’ usefulness in battle was small – at best they could divert the enemy for a short while, allowing the cavalry time to regroup or to retreat – they were good at pillaging the countryside, thereby helping feed the army, and the smoke of villages they set afire might confuse the enemy as to where the main strength of the royal host lay.

The size of Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ armies must have created serious problems for the rear columns. By the time thousands of horses had ridden along the roads, the mud in low-lying places must have been positively liquid, making marching difficult and pulling carts almost impossible; moreover, the larger any body of men and the more exhausted they became the more likely they were to give in to inexplicable panic. Scouting reports were unreliable; there were too many woods, streams, and enemy patrols. Nevertheless, the king, no matter how exhausted, nervous, or unsure he and his military advisors might be, had to avoid giving any impression of indecisiveness or fear; he had to appear calm at all times. Jagiełło’s dour personality lent itself to this role. A non-drinker, he was sober at all times, and his demeanour was that of total self-control. His love of hunting had prepared him well for the hours on horseback and feeling at home in the deepest woods; he would have regarded the lightly inhabited forests of Dobrin and Płock as tame stuff indeed. Vytautas was the perfect foil; he was the energetic and inspirational leader who was everywhere at once, at home among warriors and disdainful of supposed hardships. No common soldier could complain that their commanders did not understand the warrior’s life or the dangers of the forest, or that they did not share the tribulations of life on the march.

This need to appear to be in command was itself a danger – any army on the march can be held up at a ford or a narrow place between lakes and swamps, even if no enemy is present. The commander has to give some order, any order, even if it’s only ‘sit down’, rather than seem to be unable to make a decision. Such circumstances, compounded by exhaustion, thirst, or anxiety, often resulted in hurriedly issued orders to attack or retreat that the men are unable to carry out effectively. In short, circumstances might limit the royal options to bad ones, and the perceived need for haste might cause the king to select the worst of those available. Jagiełło was certainly aware of all this, for he was an experienced campaigner. However, for many years his strength had lain in persuading his foes to retreat ahead of overwhelming numbers, or in besieging strongholds; his goal had always been to prepare the way for diplomacy. Now he was leading a gigantic army to a confrontation with a hitherto invincible foe, to fight, if the enemy commander so chose, a pitched battle in hostile territory.

Jagiełło seemed to have been checked at the Dzewa River before he could cross into Prussia. He was unwilling to attempt to force a crossing at the only nearby ford in the face of a strongly-entrenched enemy; he would not find it easy to move eastward and upstream – while the headwaters of the Dzewa presented no significant obstacle to his advance, the countryside there had once been thickly forested, and important remnants of the ancient wilderness still remained. Most importantly, although the Teutonic Knights had used the century of peace to establish many settlements in the rolling countryside, the roads connecting the villages were narrow and winding. There were too many hills and swamps for roads to proceed from point to point, and strangers could easily lose their sense of direction in the dense woods. The villagers were fleeing into fortified refuges or the forest. Although many of the inhabitants spoke Polish (immigrants not being subject to linguistic tests in those days), they were loyal to the Teutonic Order, and none wanted to fall into the hands of Vytautas’ flying squadrons – especially not the terrifying Tatars – which were trying to locate the defensive forces and find a way around them. Making peasants give information or serve as guides was part of warfare. Burning villages marked the progress of the scouting units. Though this could hardly have been seen easily by the two armies confronting one another at the ford, they might well have been aware of the rising columns of smoke.

However, terrorising the countryside, burning, and pillaging was a far cry from the battle tactics that the Poles had become accustomed to; the long era of peace had softened the sensibilities of these amateur warriors. Polish knights were soon complaining to Jagiełło about their allies’ behaviour – Tatars hauling women into their tents and then raping them repeatedly, killing peasants who spoke Polish, treating captives inhumanely – until the king finally ordered the prisoners released and admonished the steppe horsemen to avoid such cruel practices in the future. This restraint was not in his best interests – the king’s best hope for making Jungingen weaken his position was to wreak such destruction on nearby rural communities that the grand master would feel compelled to send troops to protect them. However, within a short time Jagiełło and Vytautas saw that Jungingen was too good a commander to disperse his forces at such a critical moment.

The king must have been frustrated, yet he was unwilling either to allow his campaign to end from empty bellies or send his men to be slaughtered on some obscure river bank. While it was not clear that he could move eastward through the woods and swamps and around the incredibly complicated system of lakes without being easily blocked by the grand master, then forced to fight at a disadvantage, that seemed his only hope. This was, after all, the grand master’s home ground, and surely the Teutonic Knights would have seen to the building of some roads. If so, however, why were they not using them now to harass the Polish rear?

Jungingen, for his part, does not seem to have worried about a Polish flanking manoeuvre. Teutonic Knights from nearby convents had hunted for recreation in these woods; hence they were familiar with every village, field, and forest; they knew well how the many long, narrow, twisting lakes would limit the options available to invading armies. Polish and Lithuanian scouts had been active for days, looking for paths through the surrounding woods, and they had yet to find one. The assurance of such local residents as had undoubtedly agreed to act as guides and scouts for the Teutonic Knights, that the roads were not suitable for the use of any large army, may have given Jungingen more confidence in his superior strategic position than was warranted.

This confidence was misplaced, however. When the Lithuanian scouts reported that they had found some roads leading toward Osterode that could be used – if the army moved before the Germans learned what was planned – the king and grand prince acted on the information quickly.

Jagiełło consulted with his inner council, then gave orders to prepare for a secret, swift march eastward and north around Jungingen’s fortified position. He assigned each unit its place in the order of march and instructed everyone to obey the two guides who knew the country. The royal trumpeter would give the signals in the morning; until then no one was to make any movement or noise that might betray his plans prematurely. Unless his army could get a start of many hours, the stratagem was hopeless. Meanwhile, he sent a herald to make another effort at a peaceful settlement of the matter. Quite likely this was a deceptive manoeuvre to persuade the grand master that the king was in a desperate situation, but it might also have been a pro forma means of persuading the peace commissioners that he was truly desirous of ending the war without further bloodshed. It is hard to imagine what terms Jungingen might have considered acceptable in this situation, but the grand master nevertheless called a meeting of his officers; with one exception, they preferred war to further negotiations.

Jagiełło’s actions may well have increased the grand master’s overconfidence in the superiority of his situation. Certainly, when Jungingen’s scouts saw the Polish camp empty, they assumed that the king was withdrawing. The Germans crossed the river on swiftly erected pontoon bridges and set out in pursuit, knowing that there is nothing easier to destroy than an army on the retreat. However, when the scouts saw that the Poles and Lithuanians were moving north-east in two columns, working their way in a wide arc around their flank, Jungingen had to reconsider his plans. If his men continued following the enemy units, they would not be able to stop Vytautas’ Tatars from torching countless villages; worse, they might find themselves trailing the enemy through deep forests or fall into an ambush at some ford with nothing but desolated lands and wilderness at their rear. Therefore the grand master changed the direction of his advance in order to get ahead of the enemy columns. In fact the speed at which Jungingen’s army moved almost caused it to overshoot the Polish and Lithuanian line of march. Meanwhile, the Polish scouts had completely lost contact with the Germans and were surprised when they found Jungingen once again blocking the roads north.

Jagiełło, in luring the German forces east, away from their strong fortresses in Culm, was moving his own army far from safe refuges, too; moreover, he had divided his forces, sending the Lithuanians east and north of the road used by the Poles. Should the grand master somehow attack his forces by surprise, especially before they could reunite, Jagiełło might suffer an irreversible disaster. Because many Poles still considered him a Lithuanian under the skin, Jagiełło was placing his crown at risk in seeking battle under such conditions. This was something that Ulrich von Jungingen surely understood – a victory over the Polish and Lithuanian armies could ruin his order’s ancient enemies now and forever.

Seven Years’ War: Swedes Launch Their Last Offensive I

Major-General Wilhelm Sebastian von Belling’s campaign Pomerania in 1761 against the Swedes.

At the Northern Front, the Campaign 1761 had been a more involved one than usual, for the most part. The Prussian posts at the start of the campaign were: at Anklam, stood Major Alexander Friedrich Knobelsdorf, with three companies; at Demmin, Lieutenant Colonel Golz was present with I. Battalion of Hordt; at Reubnitz, stood Captain Thilling with a squadron of horse. During the opening course of this campaign, a reinforcement of about 6,000 men were dispatched to join the Swedish forces already facing the bluecoats. In the last week of June, General Lantinghausen, fed up with the frustrations of field charge of the Swedish arms, threw up his command in favor of General Ehrensvard. The new formations were being assimilated meanwhile into the existing army in Swedish Pomerania. The strengthened force, gaining confidence, began to press Belling back although Henry had sent a detachment to the aid of Belling. In the latter part of the campaign, Belling and General Stutterheim were able not only to hold their own but did finally compel the intruders to retire back into their home regions in Swedish Pomerania.

At the commencement of the campaign, Belling was careful to keep his limited forces of Prussians (approximately 3,000 strong) deployed where they could do the most good. A single squadron of the Belling Hussars, led by Captain von Thilling, was put up at Reubnitz, while Knobelsdorf was at Anklam, and other forces at Demmin.

Ehrensvard forthwith ordered his forces divided into three full columns, to advance. The general himself, taking some 4,000 Swedes (including about 600 hussars), marched past Loitz, detaching in the process a roving vanguard, led by Lt.-Col. Hierta, which barged into the retreating Free Corps of Hordt over by Kleitzer-Mühle. The bluecoats could not stand firm, and they promptly fell back, leaving behind some 165 men as prisoners. Belling responded by deploying his forces to shield his two supply depots. About the same time, General Lybecker led a body of men over the Trebel, where the force joined up with Hessenstein and moved on Vurchen. An isolated charge was unleashed which rode down Lybecker’s forward most elements but was subsequently checked by the main body of the Swedish force (July 20). Meanwhile, Ehrensvard ordered a concentration at Demmin of his forces, while simultaneously he began to threaten the pivotal Prussian arsenal at Malchin. Belling reacted to the Swedish marches by almost insensibly tending towards Nauendorf. Early on July 28, with little fanfare, the bluecoats crashed into the enemy lines over by Breest and Spantekow.

Ehrensvard forthwith pulled back, while a second, separate Prussian effort was launched from Stettin over by Űecker. But the Swedes held the line, and Belling withdrew as July closed out over by Friedland. July 30, the Swedes tried to break across the Tollense River near Breest and Friedland. Although these attempts were repelled, a more successful effort affected a crossing at Klempenow, but a bluecoat force under Knobelsdorf’s direction took cover at a nearby farm and opened such a bitter fire upon the local enemy they were finally compelled to withdraw.

The next day, Belling moved through the Kavelpasse, where he immediately encountered a Swedish force of about 150 horse under Major Schwartze. An initial Swedish success led to a furious counterattack, following which Belling withdrew as was his want upon Friedland, then to Bartow (August 2). The Swedes under General Hessenstein, ensconced about Demmin, reacted to the near encroachment in short order. They pressed off, on August 5, in three distinct files, one on Sedenbollentin, under the charge of Hessenstein himself, one under Lt.-Col. Wrangle through Breest, and a small force of horse at the town of Brook. Meanwhile, General Carpelan with another body of men was kept back at Bartow.

For his part, Belling did his best to sow confusion in the rear of the main enemy force. A Prussian cavalry troop of some 200 riders rode down part of Carpelan’s encampment, but could then progress no farther. After a short but furious altercation, Belling withdrew again on to Friedland, while Hessenstein and Ehrensvard drew back on Schwanbeck in the immediate neighborhood.

Over in the Russian sphere of influence, there was no dearth of activity either. As the campaign wore on, the final drama of events on the Eastern Front were inexorably winding down towards a finish. Twice before during the course of this long war the port city of Colberg had been besieged, and now it was to be again. In mid–1761, Colberg was still in Prussian hands, but the Russian Command had ordered General Gottlob Curt Heinrich Graf von Tottleben, to take the place by siege. He was opposed by Werner (with some 5,000 men), joined by Eugene of Württemberg’s 12,000 men, while Commandant Heyde was still leading a garrison in Colberg (some 2,000 bluecoats) itself. But the attention of the bluecoats in general, and of Frederick, was centered in Silesia where the king was keeping his main force. So little was actually allowed for Colberg, although it was important, for, if the fortress should fall into Russian hands, Russian armies could then winter on the Baltic Sea coast rather than having to fall back into Poland.

Meanwhile, when Totleben’s spying was finally discovered, the command of the greencoat forces in Pomerania fell to Lt.-Gen. Peter Rumyantsev. His approach was informed to Prussian scouts when the Russians reached Cöslin on June 22, although they took great pains to proceed to their business slowly. The truce of Werner and Totleben expired on May 12, and the bluecoats immediately began earnest preparations for what was to come. Rumyantsev spent considerable time at Cöslin “consolidating” his position and it was not until August 19 that he deigned occupy Belgard—giving the Russians the control of the Persante River, and thus allowing preliminary operations for another try at Colberg.

With Belling taking up post at Friedland, the bluecoats strove to consolidate their forces in response to the enemy. Knobelsdorf, from Bartow, took a mere 48 hours or so to cover over 70 miles of hard terrain territory to arrive at Friedland. In the first of August, the Belling Hussars there were under Major von Hoendorf and Captain von Rüllman. Then, before daylight on August 6, Belling, with some 2,300 men, including 1,200 cavalry, suddenly erupted against the Swedish block force holding the river crossing at Röpenackerpasse. Belling’s Johnny-on-the-spot, Knobelsdorf, stormed forward against the Swedish lines, but an energetic counterattack mounted chiefly by the Västgöta Cuirassiers, along with two full units of infantry, loosened the Prussian stranglehold on the bridge thereabouts in very short order. Belling once again retired after this on Friedland.

Belling was not able to stand pat, for a large Swedish force launched a major effort at get at the Prussian magazine of Malchin. Leaving only a handful of men to hold all of Friedland, Belling moved as dexterously as possible to cover Malchin from the enemy’s encroachments. But the Swedes had vanished, so the bluecoat horse sped off in pursuit of the Swedish Majors Plathen and Schwartze and their Swedish force. The Swedes turned on their pursuers at Kentzlin (August 8), and promptly checked Belling’s “enthusiasm” for the whole business. Losses in this venture were two dead, ten wounded, one captured for the bluecoats, while the Swedish loss was 13 killed, 40 wounded, and 11 captured. The latter retired upon Friedland once more, and, responding to an increase in the enemy force opposed to him, proceeded to strip down, and then cart away, their two major supply depots, both at Treptow and at Malchin, in anticipation of a renewed Swedish offensive.

A resurgent Swedish force of some 16,000 men now concentrated in front of the bluecoats. Early on August 12, General Hessenstein (at the head of about 3,800 men) marched from Siedenbollentin aiming for Colpin via Neubrandenburg. Pausing thereabouts, he rested his men while Ehrensvard centralized his forces in preparation for a major offensive to be mounted against the Prussian positions.

Keeping his forces together out to Boldekau, the general unleashed Hessenstein for Woldegk, while Meijerfelt’s small force made straight for the little bluecoat force guarding Friedland. A smaller force of the light cavalry swarmed around Belling. The latter, disdaining a nearby enemy post, galloped towards Hessenstein’s men over by the Kavelpasse. The bluecoats struck hard, by Röhlau (August 14), riding down the Swedes and taking 85 captives. Hessenstein reeled back, while Belling, startled by the “speed” of the enemy advance on Finkenbrück, galloped out to intercept the new effort. The Swedish Plathen fell back on Anklam (August 17), while, on the same day, Ehrensvard marched a force which wrestled away Neubrandenburg from the foe.

The Swedish General Stackelberg assumed a central position hard about Klein-Teetzleben. Swedish outposts detected Belling’s approach, and Stackelberg fell back immediately without hesitation to a position hard by Neubrandenburg (August 21, 1761).

The situation before the Swedes continued to unfold as well. The Prussians wasted no time in going over to the offensive. August 31, 1761 Major Zülow attacked the Swedes at the Tollense River crossing at Klempenow, but was thrown back abruptly. The reinforcements allowed a new attack to be mounted by Major Stojenthy, but the foe was able to turn back this new effort also.

General Stutterheim would not be denied, and laid down an artillery covering fire opposite to the Swedish position hard-by, while Belling took a side detour, broke across the Tollense (September 2), and seized Klempenow.

The Swedes fell back on Boldekow, while Belling’s men consolidated their hold upon Breest and Klempenow. The bluecoats were destined not to remain undisturbed for long, for Ehrensvard, after a hasty preparation, tried to accost the Prussians at Klempenow, under the charge of Captain Hullessen (September 4). Crohnjelm, who was in command of the Swedish force, launched a furious, but short-lived, attack, which failed to turn the bluecoats out of their lines. Ehrensvard then withdrew as was his want, detaching General Carpelan to hold a base position beside the Tollense River.

The general progression of the Prussians was hedging back upon Stettin, but the Swedish military was mostly content to leave their foe alone at that stage. General Stutterheim, however, was not satisfied to let matters stand pat. He burst out to Bargensdorf, but, hard-by Kueblankh, was the extent of his march just then. Bevern, still keeping in Stettin, pressed off a force on Wollin, trying to sabotage the Swedish link from the island to the mainland. Early the following morning, Belling overthrew an enemy force led by Hessenstein, hard-by Jatzkhe. This blunted the Swedes from that immediate vicinity.

However, Ehrensvard was resolved to hazard holding on to Wollin as well as the links to the positions in Swedish Pomerania. The presence of Stutterheim’s Prussians over by Pasewalk and Woldegk really negated any meaningful Swedish offensive in the whole region. So Ehrensvard stayed put, but did dispatch Major-General Fredrik Vilhelm von Hessenstein with a force of some 2,100 men to join up with the Swedish force at Wollin.

Meanwhile, General Stutterheim fell back upon Stettin, which action immediately relinquished the offensive to the reenergized Swedes. A Swedish force under General Lybecker pressed off eastward, while a second assembly of Swedes under Major-General Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten also marched, bound for Ferdinandshof. This conglomerate of some 14,000 men constituted the last major Swedish offensive of the Seven Years’ War. And, we might add, one of the few of the entire war.

September 17, Lybecker’s men rolled into open country hard-by Kosabroma. Belling and his hussars, being very close at hand, did not waste time. They attacked and routed the Swedish horse which clung on the flanks and in front of Lybecker’s foot soldiers. The initial Prussian blow drove the Swedes back into nearby wooded terrain, but the emergency deployment of artillery and the subsequent shelling helped check the ardor of the bluecoats. A force of the Prussian hussars under Major Zülow struck at the Swedish flanks, but the onset of nightfall and Lybecker’s men managing to stand their ground brought the tussle to an end without clear result. The upshot was, Belling moved off during the night, and the only Prussian force left in front of Lybecker’s Swedes was a small force under Lt.-Col. Golz.

This development enabled Lybecker to advance once more, while Belling belatedly made his way over near Rothemühl. The progress of General Sprengtporten on Ferdinandshof had flushed out Knobelsdorf’s small force, which had been deployed thereabouts. The latter conducted a fighting retreat and fell away with his band to Rothemühl as well. Belling barged into Neuenzond, with the Swedes of the Skaraborgs Infantry making themselves to home between Rothemühl and Friedrichshagen.

Belling sent scouts, which judiciously felt out the enemy position over by Rothemühl and returned with word that the Swedes were in fact well prepared for action. Belling did little more at this point than to deploy his guns and start lobbing shells in the direction of the enemy. Lybecker had resumed his march, pressing Golz and trying to figure out the strength of the Prussian force just in front of him. It was indeed fortuitous that Lybecker, acting under the mistaken belief he had Belling’s whole force confronting him, instead of just a part, pulled up short and waited. The Swedes of Sprengtporten emerged from Ferdinandshof just before noon, making their way down the road through Friedrichshagen, where they encountered some light Prussian resistance.

Lybecker, for his part, had been content to engage in mere small arms’ fire with Golz, but Belling was savagely attacked by Sprengtporten before he hardly had time to react. But, the grenadiers of Ingersleben nevertheless attacked the Swedes head-on, piercing the enemy’s front and moving so rapidly forward through the Swedish ranks they outpaced their supporters, and were quickly surrounded by the foe. This was a devastating development. In heavy fighting, Ingersleben was forced finally to recoil, although the Swedish pursuit was quickly checked by the hussars of Belling.

At that stage, Belling, with Sprengtporten moving in and Lybecker behind still being “contained” by Golz, withdrew as was his want on Taschenberg. The two Swedish processions forthwith joined up near Schönhausen with very little fanfare, and retired forthwith upon Woldegk. Swedish losses at Rothemühl amounted to some 150 men, while the Prussians lost closer to 500 men of all arms.

After an interval of just a few days, the Swedes resumed their offensive. September 23, General Sprengtporten moved on Taschenberg, driving out an enemy hussar force across the Űecker on to Rollwitz and thereabouts. Knobelsdorf spun back on Űckermunde with patrols reaching over on Torgelow. This left a vacuum of sorts, into which the Swedes were only too eager to proceed.

The foe wasted no time in sending raiding parties to raise contributions from the region round about. There were no further meaningful engagements on the Northern Front until the Russians sent raiding parties of their own into the Űeckermark province and the vicinity of Stettin. The Prussians reacted by reinforcing the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern over in Stettin, while their Swedish enemy was himself being strengthened to renew once more its advance into Prussian territory—early October 1761.

Ehrensvard was building up to renew his lumbering advance into Prussian Pomerania. October 15, his Swedish force emerged from behind the Peene, while the bluecoats reacted conservatively. The two sides had a brief interlude of military inactivity, although the Swedes on water continued to maneuver about. In early November, Swedish ships brought reinforcements from Finland and from their homeland, in a desperate bid to inflict a defeat upon the enemy before the depths of winter could interfere. November 22, several Swedish vessels appeared on the Peene River and the reinforcements, meanwhile, were being assimilated into the rest of the Swedish formations.

Thus far, the weather had been comparatively mild, but this situation abruptly did an about face. In the first few weeks of December, the temperatures plunged, and the Peene tried to freeze over. This forced the Swedish ships to make for Stralsund instead. The Swedes also suddenly seemed to lose all interest in campaigning, but it did not take long at all for Belling to try to take advantage of the enemy inactivity and the poor weather conditions, like the heavy snowfall. Belling, in spite of the elements, split up his command, sending Knobelsdorf over to Tessin, while I. Battalion of Hordt was unbuckled upon Gnöien. Meanwhile, Ehrensvard pulled his forces out of Demmin, which was then promptly occupied by the Prussians, while the latter also did their best to secure Anklam as well.

The weather continued to deteriorate, but Belling moved out. On December 10, the main Prussian force reached Gnöien. There was now a concerted effort put forth to drive the Swedes back into their own territory. After dark the next day, Belling’s men accosted the Swedish position at Volksdorf astride the Peene River. The next morning, December 12, 1761 the bluecoats hitched into Neuhringen. But the province of Mecklenburg was largely evacuated by the Swedes, and so Belling pulled back from the incursion and moved off in the direction of Demmin and Meyerkrebs.

But the interlude here was very brief, for before twenty-four hours had elapsed, Belling was at it again. His Prussians pushed off, bound for Rustow and Randow, pressing the enemy in his path into precipitate retreat. But not all of the Swedes were in a defensive frame of mind. General Meijerfelt performed almost a diversionary raid upon the bluecoats ensconced in Anklam, but the foray was limited to taking only a handful of prisoners. The Prussian force, on the other hand, continued to progress in its endeavors, and, December 16, Belling’s men pressed on to Loitz, but hard by Langenfelde, the Swedish commander Carpelan was discovered and compelled to retreat, which move uncovered Jarmen. Belling at once pressed on that place. Knobelsdorf, for his part, attacked an enemy force at Gutzkow (December 20), while still other Prussians were making a camp at Remplin.

All of these moves combined to betray the vulnerability of Mecklenburg to any Prussian encroachment. Of course Prussian raiders were being sent to pilfer as much in the way of men and material as they could to help out the Prussian war effort. The upshot was, Ehrensvard sure heard “it” from a very agitated Duke of Mecklenburg, who had some trouble understanding how the recently reinforced Swedish army could allow Belling to run rough shod all over the province, while, at the same time, the Swedes themselves were snug behind the Peene—although perhaps not warm and snug. Ehrensvard had little choice but to respond to the entreaty, dispatching General Meijerfelt with a force over the Peene, putting in an appearance back in Mecklenburg, while General Sprengtporten took up the banner as well, marching on Dargun and Malchin, near where his men arrived on December 22.

The Swedes were determined to snare Malchin and worked up a rather involved assault scheme to accomplish this feat. Sprengtporten’s grenadiers thundered into action on the western end of Malchin by the Wargentiner Gate. This particular column was initially repulsed by the defenders under the charge of Golz, but the Skaraborg Infantry and the rest of the column striking against the Kahldener Gate ruptured the Prussian defenses, forcing the bluecoats to abandon Malchin forthwith. Belling sent his hussars to check General Sprengtporten’s pursuit, although the latter did venture on to Basedow. The Swedes appeared on the point of coming back to life offensively in this early winter when all was altered abruptly once more by Prince Eugene of Württemberg and the timely arrival of his force back in front of the Swedes after Colberg had capitulated to the Russians.

Seven Years’ War: Swedes Launch Their Last Offensive II

From Stettin, Eugene’s force made by Pasewalk aiming to recover Malchin. It was a decision by the bluecoats to try to regain the place before winter deepened. The sudden advent of the army of Prince Eugene, even badly used as it was by then, threw consternation into the minds of the Swedish commanders opposite to all of this. December 30, Eugene’s men arrived at Treptow, news of which was immediately communicated to Sprengtporten. The Swedish commander weighed in on the notion of actually hitching back into Swedish Pomerania, but Belling sent the ever faithful Major Zülow with a detachment of approximately 400 men galloping on to Neukahlden, which move severed the road over by Dargun and isolated the command of General Sprengtporten. Belling forthwith was instructed by Prince Eugene to bring his force over to Treptow. With the bluecoats thus linked up in the region, the scheme was hurriedly worked up to take Malchin back from the enemy and, simultaneously if at all possible, to hack Sprengtporten’s force to pieces.

In order to turn Sprengtporten’s men out of the lines round about Malchin, Prince Eugene realized he would have to split up his own force in order to approach Malchin from different directions simultaneously. Eugene assumed chief command of the main column of the bluecoats himself, while Belling would lean upon Malchin with his own independent force at about the same time.

Before the bluecoats launched their attack, Prince Eugene summoned General Sprengtporten to surrender Malchin. When this offer was snubbed outright, a Prussian attack was launched that made some progress but when darkness intervened, the enemy still held Malchin (December 31). The next morning, January 1, 1762, another charge by the Prussians inflicted losses, but failed to turn their determined enemy out of their lines. Ehrensvard, learning of the latest developments at the front, was inspired to send a reinforcement of about 3,000 men, commanded by Lt.-Col. Carnal, to proceed at once towards Malchin to join up with Sprengtporten. As for Belling, he had Major von Knobelsdorf (January 1) with 200 infantry and 150 hussars posted towards Dargun. Belling pressed over at his best pace to face Carnal’s Swedes, which had been deployed hard about Neu Kahlden. The bluecoats in the meanwhile arrived on a rise overlooking Carnal’s force, unlimbering some artillery to start shelling the Swedish positions.

Carnal unleashed his men, who promptly attacked Belling’s pressed men, forcing the Prussians to recoil from their post. The latter lost some 200 men in this altercation, while the Swedes had 31 killed and 102 wounded. Belling wasted no time in falling back towards Eugene’s force, which move left Malchin firmly in Swedish hands. The bluecoats finally proceeded to into winter quarters right after this, in the same positions they had held at the start of the campaign, while the Swedes retired behind the Peene and Trebel Rivers, by which moves they evacuated Mecklenburg, no doubt against their intentions. The operations on the Northern Front in the Seven Years’ War closed with this, for the death of Czarina Elizabeth soon after and the consequent desertion of Russia from active fighting in the war was Sweden’s signal to do the same.

Meanwhile, the operations on the Western Front had been somewhat slower paced in 1761 than in 1760. Preliminary operations to secure a firmer foothold for the French having proven unsuccessful, they resolved to redouble their efforts. Madame Pompadour now had two armies organized and set against Ferdinand. The latter could dispose of some 95,000 men for the new campaign. Broglie was still in command of the French forces in the field, but Soubise had been elevated, largely through his influence with the Pompadour, to be his Co-Commander. This may have helped soothe some hard feelings, but with Choiseul still in overall command, left much confusion about who commanded what. Nevertheless, there were 160,000 French troops ready to take to the field for Campaign 1761.

Ferdinand’s task was to guard Lippstadt from the enemy, and he would have found this enterprise far more difficult than he did had the French chosen to keep their two armies operating as separate entities. Fortunately, Soubise and Broglie moved to join up, their rendezvous being accomplished at Soest on July 6 while their opponents remained idle west of Soubise’s camp at Vellinghausen. The position that Ferdinand held there fronted eastwards to the left of that town while the center was near the Ahse River and the right hugged below it. The latter flank was shielded behind marshy patches of ground and a tributary in front, but almost exposed from certain directions. The allies had their base at Hamm, a village where the Ahse and Lippe Rivers joined. The French had determined to attack Ferdinand’s forces in his position thereabouts, but problems between Broglie and Soubise about a firm timetable for this assault caused the enterprise to be delayed several times.

But, by mid–July, French outparties were probing near the enemy camp; on July 15, Broglie at last ordered a march up to charge the allied camp. Heavy reconnaissance followed, about 1800 hours a deliberate strike was launched upon Ferdinand’s post by the French in strength. Quickly responding, the Marquis of Granby ordered his men to form up, while Broglie, lunging forward under the cover of a heavy cannonade, struck again and again in futile blows. The last of these attempts was beaten back by about 2200 hours. About 130,000 French troops had participated in this phase of the Battle of Vellinghausen, although this figure did not include the troops of Soubise (which were quite out of effective range behind the proceedings).

Although he was denied the reinforcements that might have proven decisive, Broglie was grimly determined to destroy Ferdinand’s force if the opportunity presented itself. Accordingly, renewed assaults were launched at about 0400 hours, July 16, but Prince Ferdinand had strengthened his left wing from the right of his lines (that is, the one facing Soubise) and again forced back the French in heavy fighting. And, while Broglie’s men battered themselves against a strengthened allied wall of troops, Soubise did nothing but launch a feeble attack upon the enemy left with a small party; this was quickly repulsed with the loss of 24 men. Near 1000 hours, seeing signs the enemy was faltering at last, Ferdinand’s cavalry burst forth and drove the discouraged Broglie from the field with a loss of 5,000 men (almost 50 percent of them being prisoners). The allies lost some 2,000 men in the battle.

The ensuing episode shows the inherent dangers of trying to put two generals in charge at the same time in field command. For a vigorous debate arose soon after over whom was responsible for Vellinghausen: Soubise or Broglie. The influence of the Soubise faction was greater, which eclipsed Broglie, easing him right out of the picture. The intrigue itself dated from before Vellinghausen, but the provided a catalyst to end Broglie’s command. The incident shows French military objectives, which should have been sacrosanct to the conduct of the war, played second fiddle to politics and intrigue. Soubise retired into Westphalia, marching and maneuvering weakly to threaten one allied post after another, but actually accomplishing very little for the French cause. As for Broglie, he retrieved Wolfenbüttel, but then lost it again in the course of a few days; he then retired unceremoniously into winter quarters. Then Broglie, by far the most capable French commander of this war in a long time, was replaced in sole command of the French field armies by the almost incompetent Soubise. The latter proceeded to finish out the war with equal ineptness.

In Saxony, the opponents went into winter quarters, while back in Silesia, the Prussian king, shocked by the news of the fall of Schweidnitz to Laudon, in early October moved to Strehlen, where he again took up a defensive position covering Breslau and Neisse. By this point, the winter was in full force, so Frederick (October 5) took up in Strehlen for the off-season. He then repaired to Breslau to spend the winter (December 9). Before this, however, there occurred a rather curious incident involving the Prussian monarch, a kidnaping plot and one Baron Heinrich Gottlob Freiherr von Warkotsch.

This Baron Warkotsch had been a captain years before in the Austrian army and it was clear they still had his sympathies. Nevertheless, the king appears to have regarded the baron with some favor, allowing him to visit his headquarters, “dine at the royal table” and apparently even foregoing the extraction of men and equipment from Warkotsch’s extensive holdings to support the Prussian war effort. This makes the baron’s treason all the odder.

Nor was the attempted betrayal a sudden impulse of sorts. In summer, when the king was at Schönbrunn, night of August 15, he happened to be sleeping in one of Warkotsch’s rooms. This room opened on a secret passage and hidden staircase, by which the Austrians might have nabbed, or even murdered, Frederick, which was obviously Warkotsch’s intentions at the time (as he did not hesitate to employ the ominous sounding phrase “dead or alive”). However, the last minute arrival of a body of Ziethen’s command, which had changed its accommodations at the last moment, in the vicinity gave the baron a case of fortuitous cold feet. In short, the conspirators planned to “seize the king when he should come forth unattended, and convey him to the Austrian camp.”

Forward to the late autumn. Now the fortunes of war and his many trials had led the king back to Silesia, this time to the little village of Wöischnitz (near Strehlen, the temporary headquarters of the king), where Frederick had an escort of 30 grenadiers. Warkotsch planned to carry out his dastardly conspiracy under the cover of darkness, even though a large division of bluecoats (some 6,000 men all told) was close by the headquarters.

Warkotsch conceived of a plot to set the thick woods round about Strehlen and vicinity on fire, which in the confusion of the moment should enable Colonel Wallis to accost the king and make straightway for Laudon’s headquarters. For his treacherous conduct in delivering up the royal head, the baron was supposed to receive the princely sum of 100,000 florins. As Archenholtz points out, Warkotsch, to act with such perfidious conduct, had to believe that Prussia was going to lose the war, and thus control of Silesia. The extent to which the Austrian government was involved in the plot is not precisely known, but the large size of the “reward” sure gives one pause. It was 100,000 florins (which was roughly $600,000 in equivalent U.S. dollars in 2000, according to Duffy’s rate of exchange). It is certain that Warkotsch proceeded to inform Laudon that Frederick’s temporary headquarters at Strehlen had few guards and he could be easily taken captive. Now why Laudon did not try the deed with his large army rather than work out a rather involved plot is hard to explain.

The particulars are the following. Warkotsch was in communication with a certain man named Schmidt in Siebenhuben; the pair kept in touch through the baron’s faithful servant, Matthias Kappel. An Austrian party was prepared in Heinreichau under Colonel Wallis to affect the capture of the king when the time came. Fortunately for the bluecoats, on November 30, Kappel, instead of delivering Warkotsch’s note to the little Austrian waiting party, took it instead to a local Catholic priest named Gerlach. To his credit, this poor parish priest sent Kappel to the person of the king himself to deliver the acid letter. Thus the scheme was exposed. As soon as Warkotsch heard the jig was up, he took refuge in the same room occupied formerly by the king, and when a Prussian officer entered to place him under arrest, the baron used the hidden stairway to affect his escape. Schmidt also managed to flee. Later, when the baron returned to try to claim some of his money and valuables, his “friends” in his escort helped themselves to it instead. Subsequently, Warkotsch fled to Hungary and implored Maria Theresa to send him a stipend; she eventually “rewarded” him with an annual 300 florins for his maintenance. He was even given a “new identity,” one Count Löbenstein. The upshot was, Baron Warkotsch and Schmidt were both burned in effigy and the Prussians confiscated all of their properties.

Laudon went into winter hibernation from Lusatia, although, with the fortress Schweidnitz in his hands, for him it had been a profitable campaign. None of the warring parties suspected great fundamental changes which would alter the political considerations for the new year of 1762.

England, now involved in a new war with Spain (declared January 2, 1762), was yearning to be set free from the Prussian alliance, and had cast Pitt out of office, replacing him with Lord Bute. It did not take long for big upheavals in policy.

Bute offered Frederick a subsidy only on the condition that the Prussian seek to make peace with Austria through negotiation (in fact, Bute was already haggling with the French to bring war between France and England to an end). Although it is not within our confines to examine Europe’s political climate at this time in depth, there are two developments we need to look at more closely: (1) The defection of Great Britain from the Prussian alliance, and (2) The long anticipated death of the Empress Elizabeth and the consequent defection of Russia from the Allied cause.

The first was directly related to the removal of Pitt from office. With Pitt out of the equation, Frederick’s Prussia had few friends left in high office in London and even the Prussian representatives in London joined in the crescendo for their master to make some concessions to Count Kaunitz and the allies in order to get the war over with. As for Frederick, he was still holding fast to the line, and even hoping that at least a part of Saxony might be left to him at the peace. However, with his only important ally actively negotiating with the French, the king faced dismal prospects.

Part of the reason for the English decision to try to come to terms with the French involved soaring losses by Great Britain of its merchant vessels to swarming French privateers. The total loss of English trading vessels in 1760 had been over 300, “and in 1761 at over eight hundred, three times that of the French.” Obviously, it would not be long before losses of this magnitude would become unsustainable.

By the end of 1761, the bluecoat armies no longer had possession of Saxony and held only Breslau, Neisse, and some other strips even in Silesia (the rest was by then controlled by the Austrians and Russians). The Swedes and Russians held much of Pomerania and East Prussia had been long been before sacrificed on the twin alters of necessity and reluctant acceptance. The Prussian army had been reduced to most desperate straits, thanks to the combination of the severed money subsidy from the English and reduced territory from which to draw new recruits. There would only be some 60,000 men for the new campaign: about 30,000 with the king himself, Prince Henry with 25,000 in what little remained of Saxony, and the remaining 5,000 or so confronting the Swedes and Russians in the area of Pomerania.

Frederick was on the brink of the abyss. He rightly felt that nothing short of a miracle could stave off the defeat and the next campaign must surely be the finale. Then, out of the blue, the “miracle” happened. In late 1761, the ailing Czarina Elizabeth collapsed and—on December 29—died. In the end, Elizabeth was deserted by a number of her courtiers, who looked past the dying Czarina and fixed their gaze upon the Prussophile, the man who would be Peter III. This included even Vorontsov, a childhood friend of the woman’s, who abandoned her abruptly. The upshot was, gone was one of Frederick’s most irreconcilable foes. Her nephew, Peter, became the new Czar; he, it must be remembered, was an ardent admirer of the Prussian king and all things Prussian. This Peter III at once recalled Buturlin with his army from the front and Poland and immediately informed the British representative he wished to negotiate peace with Frederick.

Peter was child-like, rather a simpleton, but at this crucial moment, he became the Prussian monarch’s best friend on the political scene. Peter cheerfully handed back to the Prussians all of the conquests that had been bought dearly with Russian blood, including Colberg and East Prussia, and immediately ordered his armies to cease and desist from fighting Prussians. This although the two countries did not actually sign a formal peace until May 15, 1762, in the Treaty of St. Petersburg. Sweden took the opportunity to close out its wholly unfortunate little war with Prussia as well; subsequently, the two powers signed a Treaty of Hamburg (May 22, 1762), which resulted in no territorial changes. The whole character of the war had changed; in one fell swoop.

The defection of the two northern powers significantly altered the coming Campaign 1762 from those that had gone before. For the first time, Frederick did not have to bother with sending troops to a Northern or Eastern Front; he was free to concentrate against the French and the Austrians, who, besides the Imperialist army, were the last of the field armies confronting the Prussians.

To operate against Frederick in Silesia, was Marshal Daun, who had, due entirely to the reductions in the field armies because of finances, only 80,000 men with him. Frederick faced the new year with the comfort that peace was on the way as both sides were exhausted and tired of the fighting. With new revenue from the reclaimed provinces swelling his treasury, the king again had a large army. Nearly 120,000 men strong, of which 70,000 would be with Frederick’s army, Prince Henry would have 40,000 more in Saxony, and a reserve of 10,000 men.

1761 Colberg I

At Colberg 1761, the Swedish and Russian enemy’s interminable delay had given the defenders time to prepare their positions. Eugene of Württemberg had erected great entrenchments between the fortress and the enemy, now distant only some eight miles from Colberg. The defenders had also constructed a second wall round the first, but, although the landward defenses were being capably handled, the approaches from the seaside had been curiously neglected to a large degree. This is rather odd, as the Swedish and Russian fleets had controlled the Baltic ever since the defeat of the little Prussian squadron in 1759. And so it went.

Lt.-Gen. Peter Rumyantsev’s Russian force encountered a small Prussian force over by Belgard under cover of the darkness of June 14–15. A short attack was met by a blistering fire from the bluecoats, who were not prone to leave their post. The Russians fell back, but the timely arrival of reinforcements caused the attackers to be unleashed a second and then a third time. Over the course of the surprisingly vigorous little skirmish, the Russian force gradually built-up to over 700 strong.

This detail finally muscled the bluecoats back, and Rumyantsev’s progress continued. The first inkling Eugene of Württemberg had of the newly arriving Russian force was at the village of Varckmin, where one of his outposts was surprised and overwhelmed by a force of Russian Cossacks.

Rumyantsev’s force gradually linked up with the established detachment of Totleben. This rendezvous immediately formed a formidable core of greencoats in Eastern Pomerania. This body most directly threatened the bluecoat hold on Colberg. Rumyantsev promptly forwarded a note to General Jacob Albrecht von Langtinghausen, with the Swedes over in Western Pomerania, which suggested that the Swedes and the Russians should work together with a united purpose. A nice concept, indeed. Nothing came out of this, though, for Langtinghausen accountably declined to lend any assistance to the greencoats. There is no doubt this was due to the various flaws under which the Swedish army during this period always operated in the field: weak provision arrangements; poor supplies; no engineering and/or bridging equipment, etc.

Rumyantsev’s position was still further complicated, almost compromised, by the treachery of Colonel Gottlob Heinrich Friedrich Totleben, which was finally betrayed to the general light of day through a courier of the latter’s, Sabatko. Totleben was ordered home, and Buturlin dispatched some reinforcements from camps at Posen to help strengthen Rumyantsev with as much brevity as possible. The newcomers totaled a little over 4,000 strong, under General Nieviadomskii. The overall quality of this latter force was only marginal for the most part, but joining all of the Russian forces in the region together did provide a potent strike force to wield in the name of the Empress, nearly 18,000 strong.

Still, Rumyantsev did not deign proceed with a siege of Colberg itself until he had the support of the naval forces. This in the form of a powerful little Russian fleet, under the charge of Admiral Polanski, hailing out of Danzig (July 11–12). The ensemble numbered 23 warships and 44 transport/support ships carrying nearly 8,000 men, 42 guns, and ample stores of provisions of all kinds. The Russians were making their best effort to seize Colberg from its Prussian garrison. This included making sure that Rumyantsev’s men had everything they required to seize Colberg from the foe.

Polanski put his cargo and passengers ashore at and about Rügenwalde at the end of July, and the section of men brought by water advanced to form a juncture with Rumyantsev’s soldiers; which had, of course, advanced themselves by land.

August 17, six Russian ships-of-war arrived off the port, three had moved in towards Colberg and shelled some of the men working outside of the fortress on the entrenchments, with no more than nil success. But one thing was clear: the seaward approaches were now open to the Allied fleets. By August 24, the two allies had an impressive 54 ships anchored offshore, 42 of these being frigates, the rest Sail-of-the-Line. That evening a bombardment was commenced against the Prussian works from the ships’ batteries and the long-range land guns of Rumyantsev. It was an awesome display of power all right (for the total number of shells spent numbered over 3,000), but in truth the damage actually inflicted was likely minimal at best, and certainly nowhere near commensurate with the effort expended. A prolonged effort did serve to keep the garrison always on the alert and thus off-balance around the clock. So there was a psychological aspect to it all.

Meanwhile, Rumyantsev began creeping closer against the enemy works. August 18, after a questionable degree of preparation, Rumyantsev’s men, divided into two separate formations to expedite movement, pressed from Nosowko and Massow towards the enemy lines over near Colberg. Colonel Drewitz and his dragoons pointed the way in this latest endeavor. Colonel Bibkoff, at the moment, rolled towards Wyganowoff, while, at the van of the second column, Colonel Gruzdavtsiev moved on Körlin. Prussian resistance to this enterprise was spotty at best, so the greencoats were able to wrestle Körlin and Belgard away from their foe by August 19. Two days after, Russian spotters made it to Degow. Prussian resistance to the intruders gradually stiffened at this point, and the Russians, while pausing for a moment or two at Stockau, now resolved to put Colberg under yet another siege.

Rumyantsev was nonplused; by September 4, he had Eugene’s entrenched encampment under siege and was starting to shell Colberg from big ordnance on his end of the line. On September 5, shelling very early in the morning commenced. A total of “236 shells were lobbed at Colberg; 62 [of which] landed and exploded there.” About September 11, word filtered through to the garrison that Bevern (from Stettin) had gathered a force to move to Colberg’s relief and that this formation was already on its way. Learning that the newcomers were scheduled to be at Treptow on September 13, preparations were put in place to meet them. The Duke of Württemberg decided to send one of his best to the rescue, Werner with his 6th Hussars—one of the largest cavalry units, boasting 1,500 men and 120 non-commissioned officers. Under cover of the night of September 11–12, Werner pressed a small force towards Treptow. The last time that Werner had been unleashed against the rear of the Russian army, during the previous year’s campaign, he had brought their siege of Colberg to utter ruin. For a time, it looked like he might be able to do a repeat performance. But only for a while this go round.

Once joined with the new arrivals, Werner planned to attack one of Rumyantsev’s entrenched works—which had been prepared on that side of the line. On September 12, his Prussians reached Treptow, but unfortunately the enemy were waiting for Werner; at dawn, his men were suddenly attacked by the Russians as they were decamping. The bluecoats made a good show of the matter, but Werner was captured while leading a charge in which his horse was shot from under him. However, with the greencoats “distracted” by Werner, the incoming convoy and reinforcements got rerouted and so successfully—and belatedly—reached Colberg. But the loss of Werner was still a serious blow to his country.

In the meantime, Swedish General Stackelberg and his force, deployed about Neubrandenburg, had outposts in close proximity to the bluecoats of Belling. Prussian scouts overran the forward posts, very early on August 22. This served to alert the Swedes of the nearness of Belling’s men. The Swedish Plathen now embarked upon a timely attack which pressed against Belling. Initially, the Prussian horse thereabouts faltered, but this actually proved to be more of a trap than anything else. In the event, a prolonged advance by the onrushing cavalry came crashing to an abrupt halt when they met a solid wall of prepared Prussian infantry, backed up by gunners with well-sited batteries. The resulting effect was immediate.

As the combined fire of the bluecoat infantry and artillery shredded the formation of the startled Swedish riders, the reformed Prussian hussars slammed into the by now wavering enemy cavalry, sending them reeling. It was over in mere minutes. For some 50 casualties, Belling had cost the enemy some 300 casualties and inflicted yet another severe check upon the Swedish designs for a prolonged offensive.

With the threat of a Swedish advance temporarily nullified, Belling withdrew on Woldekg, while Ehrensvard continued a program to slowly build up his forces on the Northern Front to make any renewed offensive effort more viable. Meanwhile, having been reinforced from Stettin, Belling descended again upon Neubrandenburg (August 28), but found it evacuated by the enemy. Next, pursuing Stackelberg, the Prussians moved on Treptow, but the Swedes were too well dug in to attack thereabouts.

Belling, with his options basically reduced to one until he could receive reinforcements, withdrew posthaste to Teetzleben (August 29), but the arrival of the new formations of Stutterheim, getting to the scene of action on September 1, fundamentally shifted the bluecoats over into launching a counteroffensive against Ehrensvard’s forces. This effectively surrendered the initiative to the Prussians for the balance of the main campaign.

The Russians, for their part, were not prepared to let up before Colberg. Encouraged by the success of his force in capturing Werner, Rumyantsev on September 19 suddenly attacked the most accessible of the Prussian works (known as the Green Redoubt) about 0200 hours. The surprise stroke was at first successful, the Russians carrying the redoubt initially, but a determined counterattack at length repelled the intruders with the loss of 3,000 men of all arms, including some 800 dead. The Prussians lost 71 dead, 281 wounded, and 187 prisoners. This repulse induced the Russians to give up trying to take Colberg by a direct assault. Events beyond Colberg impacted the proceedings. After the adventure at Gotsyn, General Platen had detached Thadden to take the captured booty and the prisoners, not to mention the wounded, back to the Prussian lines.

Platen had unbuckled the busy Ruesch Hussars to proceed as quickly as possible to Posen, under the charge of Colonel von Naczimsky, to overturn the Russian supply arrangements thereabouts as completely as possible. The enemy reaction had been low key, although a Russian force under Major-General Gustav Berg was alerted to the possible arrival of Platen’s force hard about Driesen. When that scenario failed to materialize, Russian scouts probed for and finally located Platen’s men—between Neustadt and Landsberg (September 19). Berg sent a force of some 250 men under Suvarov to Landsberg (September 21). By this time, the bluecoats of Platen had ridden to Birnhaum and had even detected the movements of the enemy force towards Czerpowa. Platen finally entered Landsberg on September 22 with little fanfare, and, after a brief altercation with Suvarov’s men, and with no practical way to wreak further havoc upon the Russian supply lines, sped off for Colberg. Berg tried to launch a pursuit, but could not catch up with the wily Platen. Platen was able to throttle the enemy pursuit before he reached Arenswalde (September 26).

So, meanwhile, the defenders of Colberg received an unexpected, but timely, reinforcement. September 27, General Platen marched to join Eugene of Württemberg, raising Prussian strength to 15,000 men; although Buturlin similarly stiffened the besiegers with reinforcements (under the command of Dolgoruki), bringing them to 40,000 men. With the campaign in Silesia having gone sour again, Buturlin brought his main force to be in closer proximity to the fortress/port.

As soon as he reached the area, Buturlin reiterated the belief that Colberg could not be taken by direct assault, even though the task may have been manageable with the large influx of Russian troops in the vicinity occasioned by Buturlin. There was just no chance from a psychological perspective. With his army low on provisions and the expedition to Silesia a snub, the Russian commander turned about and, on November 2, headed for home.

It was a decision for which Buturlin would face tough scrutiny from an upset Elizabeth, who fired off a testy communiqué to the marshal. She and her court, upon receiving word of Buturlin’s backward hitch, wrote him “that the news of your retreat has caused us more sorrow than the loss of a battle would have done.” Elizabeth followed up, not mincing words, by ordering the marshal to march towards Berlin without delay and perforce levy a large contribution to help defray the campaign costs for the Russian army in this campaign, while, at the same time, seeking out an engagement with the enemy, should they threaten to intervene. As it turned out, Buturlin did not pounce upon the Prussian capital, but continued his progression back into Poland; basically ignoring the by now dying Empress. Rumyantsev was left with his force to finish the job before Colberg. An additional force of 15,000 Russians under Fermor was left to keep the roads from Stettin to Colberg closed and to prevent a repetition of the reinforcements just sent from Bevern at Stettin.

As for Platen, he continued to operate in the area beyond Colberg, riding into and decimating a Russian detachment at Cörlin (September 30), after which the Prussian commander made for Spie and Colberg. The enemy, not oblivious to his march, made a futile effort to bar Platen from the port, but the latter, yet again, was just too fast moving to be intercepted.

Frederick, far away near Strehlen in Silesia, ordered Bevern to prepare additional troops to be sent to the relief of Colberg. Could the blocked roads be opened, though? Prussian attempts to do just that read like an exercise in futility. October 13, “Green” Kleist and his dragoons tried to break through, but got repulsed. With this situation very bleak, the bluecoats forthwith dispatched Platen to try to bring some supplies in for Colberg.

General Platen had a full 42 squadrons of horse with just eight full battalions of infantry with him. He pressed off from Prettmin (about 0700 hours on October 17), with about 4,000 men. Prettmin was right near Spie, where General Knobloch was in charge of a small detachment. Platen, as was usual with the man’s character, made quick work of a march. His men rolled into Gollnow on October 18, and by the next day they were at Schwentdehagen.

Lt.-Col. Courbière was unleashed (October 20) with his force consisting of the Free Battalion Courbière, the Grenadier Battalion 28/32 of Arnhim, the III./ Belling Hussars, along with the apparently tireless Ruesch Hussars, and six pieces of ordnance, including one 7-pounder howitzer; a total of some 1,350 men. Courbière immediately proceeded with his mission. He was instructed to probe at the enemy positions in the immediate vicinity and to do all in his power to gather badly needed supplies for the hard-pressed garrison of Colberg. His men pushed across the Wolczenica River, and immediately occupied Zarnglaff.

The greencoats were close by in strength, over by Naugard, around 5,000 strong, including about 3,500 horse, led by General Berg. This generous allotment of cavalry allowed for a number of reconnaissance parties. It did not take long for the presence of Courbière’s Prussians to be discovered, and Berg drew up a scheme to deal with the intruders.

Early the next morning, the Russians pushed off, heading for a showdown in short order with Courbière. The latter sent off word to Platen that he needed some help against the much more numerous greencoats of Berg. The warning was correct, but it was far too late to send a rescue. The Russian wave advanced and in a very short fight, lasting less than 3/4 of an hour, compelled the bluecoats to lay down their arms, except for a small force of about 400 cavalry which did manage to wiggle free from the enemy’s grasp.

Platen, moving out from Colberg again, attempted in his own right to break up enemy concentrations from his side, while Kleist and General Thadden endeavored to do the same from the opposite end. Both attempts were unsuccessful. The Russians were making an effort to bag the whole of Platen’s corps. They were simply too inadequate to corner Platen. His troopers slipped past the greencoats through the Kautrek Forest, and rolled into Gollnow, despite their foe’s best efforts. Reinforced by a detachment under our old friend Fermor, Berg attacked and wrestled Gollnow from the unpleasantly startled Prussians. The bluecoats, nothing daunted, then marched, and countermarched, up and back the country roads and lanes north and northeast of Stettin, with no real chance to break through the enemy web by now encasing Colberg. These were the last undertakings at sending in supplies and reinforcements, and they were all abject failures, in spite of every well-intentioned goal having been made in advance, Eugene rose and, moving rapidly around and through the country between his lines and Rumyantsev’s, managed to evade the Russians by a series of skillful maneuvers.

The Russians, for their part, were making progress as well. Dolgoruki came rolling across the Persante (October 20), following which, his men occupied Gammin. Meanwhile, the Prussians were also settling in. Knobloch had pulled his forces back to consolidate at the vantage point of Treptow. While this was going on, Russian scouting parties laid hold of Przecmin and Sellno; at the latter, small bluecoat patrols in the area roamed around, while more significant bodies of Prussians were present just across the Persante.

The greencoat forces of General Brandt, deployed to Sellno to provide an anchor of sorts for their arms in that vicinity, could work in conjunction with Dolgoruki. Knobloch was left at Treptow, near where an enemy force appeared just after dusk on October 21, issuing from Gammin and vicinity. Prussian scouts calmly—and promptly—informed General Knobloch about the arrival of the Russian forces, and, nearly simultaneously, of the appearance of another greencoat detachment, hailing from Gabin. Before another 24 hours had elapsed, Rumyantsev himself was standing before Treptow, preparing, if necessary, to put the place and thus Knobloch’s command under siege.

1761 Colberg II

The capture of the Prussian fortress of Kolberg on 16 December 1761 (Third Silesian War/Seven Years’ War) by Russian troops

Treptow was dotted with few real obstacles, like its low “walls” and gates, but did boast a river abutting on every side but the West. The Russian scheme was actually rather basic; this involved deploying batteries on the various banks of the Rega River in order to pound the bluecoats into finally beating la chamade. The result of this was quickly demonstrated in clear display. Afternoon of October 25, General Knobloch, having failed in the meantime to secure “free withdrawal” for his men, was left no choice but to surrender as the Russian artillery by then had nearly decimated Treptow. Their ordnance consisted on this occasion of three of Shuvalov’s 40-pound unicorn guns, and two 12-pounders of the Shuvalov unicorns. The Prussians lost 1,445 men and 65 officers, although possibly a few might have slipped away down the road to Greiffenberg—where a Russian guard force under Renekampf was standing post to prevent the bluecoats from escaping by that way. The bluecoats were now in a world of trouble, for the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern at Stettin could no longer be in direct touch with the increasingly pressed garrison of Colberg.

Simultaneously, the king sent Platen orders to proceed towards the Prussian capital via Stargard and Pyritz. At the latter, Platen was confronted by a Russian force which sought to seal him off, this while sending scouts out to probe for near-by signs of the foe. Platen, in his turn, was not idle, either. But he could only do so much with the forces at his disposal.

Meanwhile, back at Colberg, the situation and the overall prospects were growing even more dim. Provisions of all kinds were running at critically low levels, including ammunition for the defender’s weapons, as well as foodstuffs. It did not take long for Prince Eugene to determine he had to break out and, at the least, try to save his corps. In the best case scenario, he could bring in badly needed supplies for Colberg and possibly rescue the garrison under Heyde and the inhabitants. First things first.

Platen, temporarily paused at Pyritz, was joined by a reinforcement under General Schenckendorff which had been sent from the king’s army to help, consisting of approximately 4,000 infantry with a handful of cavalry to reconnoiter and clear the way. This influx raised the manpower available to Platen at nearly 10,000 once more (November 9). Before a further twenty-four hours had elapsed, the latter had moved to Arenswalde, and thereabouts took up a temporary post to prepare to move at the enemy web encasing Colberg. At the latter place, conditions were very grave; one account says the horses were receiving only half a bundle of straw per day, and, to supply the dearth of wood to heat with, several of Colberg’s houses were torn down and used as fuel for fires. And the provisions were critically short. Surely this was the chief reason why Eugene and Platen resolved to hazard all by operating beyond Colberg. The presence of their men and horses within the walls could not materially aid Colberg’s defense more than if they were operating beyond the town’s gates, besides which they would use up the limited provisions that much sooner. But the roaming Prussian detachments had delayed the Russian onslaught upon Colberg. And the delay in capturing Colberg really did the Russians little good, since by now it would be too late to send in supplies via the port for Buturlin’s army with winter coming on anyway.

Nevertheless, Prince Eugene, knowing full well he must do something immediately, hesitated no longer. Under cover of the dark of the night of November 13–14, he prepared his men to march, hopefully without tipping off the enemy as to what was occurring. Only a minimal force was to be left to hold Colberg’s defenses, including pickets to man their posts until the last minute to maintain “normalcy.” Just about daylight the next morning, Eugene’s men pressed off, moving down the road towards Colberger Deep, as covertly as possible, while Prussian engineers went ahead to put down a pontoon bridge across the Rega River. To the Prussians, getting away by boat was almost forlorn. Within Colberg, only ten fishing boats and seven 6-man craft were available, unquestionably inadequate to any break by water. Besides which the overland trip was no picnic. It took 11⁄2 days for the bluecoat column to traverse the distance to the Colberg Deep; this was directly on the Baltic coast near Camp See (west of Colberg by about 61⁄2 miles).

While this was unfolding, Platen’s forward elements rolled into Naugard (November 14), near which his bluecoats encountered and forced back the leading elements of General Berg’s command; the latter reeled back promptly upon Freienwalde with little fuss. Next day, Platen’s men overlapped Greiffenberg, probing where to link up with Prince Eugene. Platen had the first inkling of Eugene’s march from locals at Koldemanz, but the Greiffenberg post was much more advantageous. At the latter spot, the Russians had deployed a force of some 4,000 men (including nearly a thousand, well-mounted cavalry) under Jakovlev to take refuge in the nearby fortified camp. Prussian artillery raked the position all right, but Platen and Schenckendorff did not linger long enough in the vicinity, for orders arrived about the same time for General Platen—from Prince Eugene—to swing over to Plathe, where the two Prussian forces were looking to join forces.

November 16, Platen finally rendezvoused with Prince Eugene’s men, and, by the next day, the bluecoats were holding fast to Greiffenberg, while the Russians abruptly appeared with determination. Berg’s force unleashed artillery fire upon the Greiffenberg post, but did not launch a full-blown attack.

Eugene, after linking up with Platen, had some 14,500 men at his disposal, including nearly 3,000 horse. The harried commander backed away towards Stettin, reaching Falkenburg (November 18), while one of his patrols got into a losing altercation with one of Berg’s patrols. The main body of the latter by then was at Zabrowo.

But, while the drama continued to unfold in the area beyond the walls of Colberg, Rumyantsev would not allow himself to be deterred from his primary mission of wrestling the Colberg compound away from its desperate Prussian garrison. Russian flying parties nipped at the Prussian positions. Meanwhile, Prince Eugene occupied his time with trying to affect either a supply and/or a rescue of the people still stranded within Colberg. To help head off any such attempt, Russian general Brandt took up a blocking position astride the Persante River opposite to Colberg leaning over at Spie, with other greencoat forces round about, including Jakovlev now taking up post at Colberger Deep (as we have observed), and Berg taking vantage himself at Lepnin.

Other forces were deployed in a number of posts. General Olac had a force of men hard-by Poblat, while Dolgoruki himself took post at Gross Jestin, facing the enemy close by. It did not take long for the concentration of force to make its presence felt. Early on November 26, a Prussian detachment stationed at Fierhof was suddenly attacked by a Russian force under Shetniev. A bloody tussle ensued, without clear decision. Platen and Prince Eugene did all that they could to prevent the overall situation from unraveling, even as the odds against them continued to lengthen. For the Prussian forces beyond the immediate confines of Colberg itself, the priorities were different. The Russian emphasis was in taking Colberg, while that of the bluecoats was to do all they could to successfully relieve the place if at all possible. With that express purpose in mind, Eugene and Platen rolled into Neugarten, where they awaited the arrival of a long-anticipated supply convoy from Stettin.

The total of wagons was nearly a thousand in this train, but there had been the feel of utter desperation about the whole matter of the provision convoy. Prince Eugene kept the train, upon its arrival, overnight at Treptow, where scouts kept a look out for signs of the enemy. Daylight of December 11, Eugene’s men pushed off from the relative security of Treptow, hopefully bound for the relief of Colberg. The movement was to be expedited by the use of two columns, one under Prince Eugene and the second charged to General Schenckendorff. Both of the groups had a plethora of cavalry, and these were kept busy scouting for Russian block forces. The Prussians were moving forward in two separate columns.

Proceeding from Glansee, through Drenow, the first was led by Prince Eugene, with Platen’s cavalry running interference. The second procession, under the charge of General Schenckendorff, progressed by Zamow, and Zorben to pause. Platen’s cavalry screen, including both the Malachowski Hussars and the Ruesch Hussars, along with the 7th Dragoons (Plettenburg), was confronted hard about Neumühl on the Kreyerbach, where a Russian block force under General Berg, some 5,000 strong, was posted. Prussian scouts reported a sizeable enemy force at hand, but Eugene quickly decided to await the arrival of Schenckendorff’s caravan. As for Berg, he initially thought of standing fast, but then thought better of the idea when his lookouts reported on the imminent arrival of the second Prussian column, which would mean overwhelming numbers. With this development, General Berg fell back without hesitation upon Spie and Nehmer.

While the Russians resolved to stand their ground, Berg sent a courier galloping to General Rumyantsev, stating that Berg required some assistance against a body of bluecoats that had just arrived on the scene. Eugene, with his full force by then at hand, had some 12,500 infantry and about 2,600 cavalry, forthwith moved on Spie. At the latter, Eugene planned to have his rescue force of men and wagons rupture the barrier of the Spiebach.

Prussian patrols took up post on rises overlooking Prettmin, behind which Platen in particular tried to press the Prussian wagon train to Sellno to bring in much needed provisions for Colberg. Freshly falling snow would make the effort that much more difficult. Patrols were launched over towards Garin, where Prince Eugene assumed Rumyantsev and his main body of greencoats were still present thereabouts. Surveyors returned with word there was visible evidence of the main Russian army thereabouts. Eugene was, for the moment, blissfully unaware of a large Russian relief column which was about to embark on a rescue of Berg’s men. In the meanwhile, the latter were deployed in as long a line of battle as practical between Spie and Nehmer. Jakovlev was unleashed, while a large greencoat reserve was posted for good measure about Sellno.

Events opened with a prolonged artillery exchange, during which Schenckendorff’s men erupted against an enemy force ensconced hard about the Green Redoubt; at the latter, Captain Stackelberg led some 550 Russians with a modest artillery accompaniment. The initial Prussian attack against the Green Redoubt, although pressed with some degree of determination, was a failure, as the bluecoats were harshly repulsed from the equally determined Russians. Another strike, this time launched from two Prussian forces, was more furious. The 25th Infantry (Ramin) led the fierce onslaught, straight at the Green Redoubt, being led by Colonel Kalckreuth, at a charge, probably startling at least some of the Russian defenders in the process, as their lines were enveloped and surrounded by the Prussians. However, the fury of the charge was somewhat blunted by inadequate numbers; at Spie, for instance, the 10th Dragoons (Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Ludwig, Count Finck von Finckenstein) numbered a bare 200 riders or less. Nevertheless, the bluecoats pressed forward their advantage, with the 16th Infantry of Dohna unloading its fire from the left flank into the greencoats at the redoubt. Stackelberg’s men broke in a few minutes, flying from their lines straight into the Werner Hussars and the 7th Dragoons (Plettenburg) who promptly bagged the captain and 272 of his men as captives.

But the sojourn at the Green Redoubt by the bluecoats was fated to be brief indeed. Rumyantsev’s reinforcements of a full corps of Russian troops appeared almost immediately after making its way from the rises by Prettmin. The newly arriving greencoats set up their artillery, and unleashed such a fire upon Prince Eugene’s men that the latter soon recoiled from the confines of the hard-won redoubt and fell back. Russian Cossacks struck at Drenow, where the 29/31 Grenadier Battalion under Captain Krahne, was doing its best to cover the retreat of the bluecoats. Prussian reinforcements arrived, compelling the enemy to retire, leaving the way of retreat for Prince Eugene’s forces open. This ended the last serious relief effort of Colberg and its hard pressed garrison. Eugene issued orders for his relief force to retreat; his mission a failure. Prussian losses at Spie had amounted to approximately 58 killed, and 563 wounded. The Plettenburg Dragoons alone suffered the loss of one officer, 136 men, and 154 horses. Russian losses at Spie amounted to approximately 399 men.

The siege of Colberg continued unabated. By late on November 15, 1761 the greencoats holding positions before the port were apprised of the departure of Prince Eugene’s forces, which substantially reduced the total number of men available to defend Colberg. Conversely, this greatly increased the options at Rumyantsev’s disposal, as he tried his best to close out a successful siege of Colberg. The seriousness of the persecution of that endeavor was displayed by the appointment of an energetic engineer, Colonel Gerbel, who, as expected, promptly pressed matters further.

Russian ordnance was almost immediately unleashed on the Wolfsberg (November 17), while vigorous infantry assaults carried part of Colberg’s extensive redoubts. Following this, additional Russian batteries were deployed in part of those same bastions, which only put more pressure upon the hard-pressed garrison. As these latter batteries proceeded to ply their deadly trade, additional guns were sited and put to work joining the crescendo. November 19, two Prussian supply ships tried to slip into Colberg, but the greencoats intercepted what would turn out to be one of the last of the many attempts to secure at least some relief for the embattled defenders of the place. Through all of this, Rumyantsev’s heavy guns continued to pummel the defensive posts.

Under cover of darkness on November 20–21, Russians laborers set up and sited another battery, this one of five 12-pounder guns, near the Sankt Nicolaus Church overlooking the Persante River. Russian forces were now comfortably ensconced in the Münde Gate region near Colberg. November 21, Commandant Heyde dispatched a task force to demolish the nearby bridge. It may have been about this same time when a combination of a rather generous supply of French brandy (of all things) and desperate men combined to rear an opportunistic head. The garrison of Colberg had a great quantity of the precious liquid; which they did not want falling into Russian hands. So the staff were allowed to imbibe, in “moderation.” Despite the attempts to moderate its use, many of the Prussian soldiers, trying to steel their resolve against the dual edged sword of the bitter cold weather and meager rations, so indulged in the ready provision of the brandy “they swallowed every drop, quite a number drinking themselves to death [in the process].” Meanwhile, the fire from the six different batteries that the greencoats were utilizing here continued only with some periods of pause. The Prussian position grew increasingly desperate as a result.

As for the greencoats, they continued to make satisfactory progress towards finishing the affair with success. Patrols drove the bluecoats from the Laufgraben (November 22). Later that same day, Chief Engineer Gerbel received very specific instructions from Rumyantsev to seize the aforementioned church, hard by which the attackers were only too glad to erect yet another battery, consisting of three of the lighter 6-pounder guns, which were more effective here because of their vantage point.

Russian engineers, within the space of twenty-four hours, had another larger battery erected at a new redoubt facing the glacis of Colberg. This latter had two howitzers, with an additional four 12-pounder guns. Russian artillery intensified their efforts, as a fire more intense than ever was being directed at Colberg. As a result, many of the structures within the port town were either damaged or destroyed. After a most vigorous shelling, Rumyantsev, mindful of the ever growing lateness of the campaigning season, as well as possible rescue attempts, tried to secure the surrender of the city. Under a flag of truce, he sent in Captain Bockhe with an offer to parley for the purposes of securing Colberg’s fall. But Commandant Heyde turned out to be more resilient than expected. He refused to be party to any negotiations that surrendered Colberg to the Russians.

As a result, the shelling was resumed, while the greencoats stormed the Geldern, forcing the Prussians to recoil from yet another of their bastions. But time was still pressing. On December 1, Rumyantsev once more summoned Colberg’s garrison, without result. Left with little choice but to try to hasten the conclusion of the siege, the highly stressed Gerbel supervised the building of a much larger battery, this one from the glacis over to the Münde works, which took a full five days to complete. The entity housed 22 guns, all ready to go. The chief advantage of this newest battery was its close proximity to the intended target.

The bluecoats were trying their best to retain control of Colberg, principally by sending in supply ships to make a desperate try to bring in provisions. Yet again, the ever vigilant coastal patrols nabbed the supply ships, while the Prussians’ worst fears about the fate of Eugene’s enterprise were confirmed on December 12 (after the desperate affair at Spie), when locals informed the bluecoats in Colberg that there would be no relief overland either. That night, intense cold gripped the region, utterly freezing the rivers and increasing the misery for Heyde’s men. The commander and his force were nearing the end of their rope. Heyde had no choice in the end. On the next day, he sent word to the enemy he was ready to negotiate a peace. Captain Bockhe forthwith returned to Colberg along with Major von Schladen and Lieutenant von Tiez, bringing with them, in 28 separate points,31 the Russian demands.

Meanwhile, Eugene had been reduced to extremities, as Commandant Heyde’s guns were almost out of ammunition and his garrison was teetering on the brink of starvation. But immediately Rumyantsev occupied Eugene’s entrenched camp, while the latter, unfortunately, while succeeding in linking up with Platen, could no longer get through the Russian lines into Colberg.

Heyde’s men, in desperation, poured water on the walls of the fortress to make them freeze in the cold weather. The besiegers again tried to take the place by storm, but once more, the Russians failed to break the determination of the besieged. Heyde, in fact, snubbed all of Rumyantsev’s offers of surrender terms. Russian attacks continued to engage the attentions of the garrison as much as possible. In fact, these assaults were large scale affairs. In fierce fighting, just from December 11 through the 13, the bluecoats suffered the following casualties: 164 men and three officers killed; 306 men wounded; 786 captured.

Friedrich II. Eugen von Württemberg (1732-1797)

Frederick, meanwhile, had ordered Eugene to make another try at breaking through the Russian lines, not that this was impractical. December 6, Eugene marched; gliding through the thick woods, he reappeared a week later. A successful, surprise, assault carried a single redoubt, defended by a force of 500 men, but then Eugene, finding the enemy thoroughly entrenched between Colberg and his relief force, was forced to retire (December 12–13). Eugene lost 102 men from the bitter elements on this particular march. Learning to his chagrin that Eugene was departing, along with the last hope to save Colberg, Commandant Heyde, with his men out of provisions and prospects dim, surrendered Colberg to the enemy—on December 16. Heyde and his entire garrison became P.O.W.s. Total Prussian losses were: 1,221 men and 13 officers among the infantry; and 111 officers and men and 111 horses. Following this triumph, the greencoats immediately settled into their winter quarters. Greencoat forces spread out all the way from Neu Stettin, to Rügenwalde, Belgard, on over to Cöslin. This capturing of Colberg was the Russian equivalent of the Austrian storming of Schweidnitz and was by far the most important accomplishment of the Russians not only during this campaign but probably the entire war. It was also destined to be of almost no lasting value at all to the victors. For circumstances entirely beyond the scope of Colberg itself.

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Franco-Prussian War 1870: High Command

Helmuth von Moltke

Planning and organization were other Prussian strengths not conspicuous in the French army. General Helmuth von Moltke’s great general staff in Berlin was a European phenomenon. Comprised of sixty rigorously prepared officers, the best and the brightest of the Prussian Kriegsakademie, the Prussian general staff was famed for the precision and accuracy of its intelligence and war-planning. Moltke also greatly improved the fighting effectiveness of the Prussian army in the years after his appointment as staff chief in 1857. To facilitate mobilization, he discarded the army’s extraterritorial organization, which had scattered Prussia’s 330 infantry battalions across the kingdom as a police force, and put it on a territorial footing instead, with each battalion permanently garrisoned in one of ten corps districts, seventeen after 1866. To facilitate deployments, he diverted military spending from fortresses to railways and steadily brought even private railway companies under military control. In practice, this meant that state and private railways were constructed in militarily useful regions and provided with rolling stock, platforms, and sidings suitable for large troop movements. Moltke was among the first European generals to entrust his entire correspondence to the electric telegraph, cutting notification times and, in two instances, the Danish War of 1864 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, synchronizing the opening moves from his office in Berlin. In an age when most field commanders felt chained by the telegraph (“there is nothing worse than campaigning with a wire in your back,” an Austrian general had famously complained in 1859), Moltke at once recognized the potential of the telegraph to coordinate vast “encirclement battles” or Kesselschlachten by multiple pincers.

All of these theoretical and technical innovations combined in Prussian war-planning. Whereas the Austrians had struggled to devise a plan of campaign for their war with the Prussians in 1866, Moltke had promptly implemented one drawn up well before the war, rushing his army along three rail lines to envelop the slow-mobilizing Austrians at Koniggratz. In a post-war analysis of the Prussian victory, Austrian Field Marshal Heinrich Hess asserted that Moltke had revolutionized warfare: “Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time . . . and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.” To ready Prussia for a war with France, Moltke dispatched teams of Prussian general staff officers to France in the years after 1860; travelling in mufti, they studied France’s eastern forts, mapped Alsace and Lorraine, calculated the food stocks of every town and district in northeastern France, and made useful contacts. Major Alfred von Waldersee, Moltke’s attache in Paris, cultivated the pretty mistress of Napoleon III’s principal aide-de-camp, who provided the Prussian general staff with much useful information on the French army. Using this material in addition to studies of his own, Moltke was able to prepare a stunningly effective plan of attack against France, finding Napoleon III’s weak spots and pivoting around his strongholds. By 1869, the Prussian war plan was complete: The Prussians would rush along five rail lines in three groups to “seek the enemy main force, find it and attack it.”

The French, alas, had nothing to compare with Prussia’s military organization or general staff. Although Niel’s Military Law of 1868 had ordained a shift to a Prussian-style territorial system to tighten the regular army and give the gardes mobiles some structure to adhere to, the transformation was only beginning in 1870. This left France with an inefficient extraterritorial system in which staffs and regiments were shunted around the country every two or three years. The war ministry deliberately practiced this nonendivisionnement or “non-divisioning” of the army to make it a “school of the nation” that would imbue provincial lads with a sense of patriotism by rotating them around their splendid country, from the Alps to the Atlantic, from the Loire to the Pyrenees, or, in the by no means atypical case of the 92nd Infantry Regiment in 1870, from Poitiers to Sidi-bel-Abbes. This extraterritorial system, whatever its social merits, made wartime mobilizations exceedingly complex. Troops had to be returned to their depots to assemble and equip and corps d’armee ‘ – the skeleton of any modern army – had to be lumped together from staffs and divisions that were presumptive at best. Whereas Prussian corps existed as permanent territorial units that had only to be reinforced with local reservists in wartime, every French attempt to create a formation as large as a corps was an adventure, hence the celebrated complaint of a French brigadier in August 1870: “Suis arrive a Belfort; pas trouve ma brigade; pas trouve general de division; que dois-je faire? Sais pas ou sont mes regiments .” (“I have arrived at Belfort; can’t find my brigade; can’t find my divisional commander; what should I do? I don’t even know where my regiments are.”)

Railways were another organizational tool neglected by the French general staff. Whereas Moltke’s staff had a railroad section that synchronized troop movements and maintained the German railways in wartime, the French entered the war of 1870 with a skein of public and private rail companies, all of which burdened the others with mountains of paperwork every time a load of men or material was transferred from one line to another. Marshal Niel did assemble a commission in July 1869 to militarize the French railroads and rush the critical line from Verdun to Metz to completion, but died a month later. His successor, General Edmond Leboeuf, dissolved the commission and left the Verdun-Metz line unfinished under pressure from the Ministry of Public Works. Niel’s efforts to infuse the French army with Moltke’s studiousness also failed. In Prussia, every garrison contained a military society that met to hear lectures and discuss military innovations; in 1868-69 Niel organized conferences regimentaires ‘ to perform the same function; the seminars fizzled, most French officers sharing Marshal Bazaine’s view that “solid footing and a good eye” (bon pied, bon oeil ) were the only important attributes for an officer.

It was significant that what half-hearted initiatives there were in France did not emanate from the general staff, which, in contrast to Moltke’s Generalstab, was a seniority-ridden backwater. Although entrance to the French ecole d’application or staff college was as brutally competitive as any graduate school in France, officers could rest on their oars once placed in the general staff’s immutable pecking order. Top graduates took the best jobs in Paris and slouched through them for life, delegating most of their functions to civilian bureaucrats in the war ministry; less fortunate officers whiled away the years in provincial garrisons or overseas, laughingly dismissed as “casanieres” (“convalescents”) by their more vigorous regimental colleagues, who rotated past them every two or three years. With the brilliant example of Prussia before him, Niel tried mightily to correct the problem, insisting that staff promotions be “at the choice of the emperor” (au choix) rather than by seniority. Though he did finally secure the right to promote au choix, he was foiled by the emperor’s unerring ability to promote the wrong sort of people and the dogged resistance of the French regiments, which deplored what one officer called Niel’s “expansionist tendencies” and frequently refused to accept graduates of the staff college on the grounds that they were “outsiders” unversed in regimental traditions.

Amid this sniping and confusion, French planning, mapping, and wargaming were utterly neglected. Indeed when France went to war with Austria in 1859 to “free Italy from the Alps to the Adriatic, the etat-major found itself with no maps of any part of that vast theater. When General Louis Jarras was assigned to the general staff in 1867 at the height of the Luxembourg crisis, he discovered that the staff’s only maps of Germany were on an all but useless 1:320,000 scale, four times the scale of Prussian maps of France. Jarras’s crude fix – he cut the maps into sections, photographed them, and blew them up to yield a larger scale – was stopped by Niel himself, who decided that it would be cheaper simply to provide French officers with an allowance to purchase road maps in bookshops. When Marshal Achille Bazaine took command of the French III Corps at Nancy, hard by the German border, in 1868, he asked to see maps of his new district and was told that none existed. His requests to Paris for maps were never answered.

In 1869, the French army’s own newspaper criticized this lack of even basic competency and the tendency toward “paper-pushing” and “bureaucratic servility” in the French general staff. Much of the problem stemmed from a lack of strong leadership. Moltke’s powerful position did not even exist in the French army, rather the general staff was a subordinate unit of the war ministry. Niel was an intelligent, reform-minded minister, but overwhelmed by his administrative responsibilities. In 1869, Napoleon III did briefly consider converting Niel into a Prussian-style general staff chief, but then Niel died on the operating table after a bungled gallstone surgery. By 1870, France still had no general staff chief, rather the emperor – the nominal commander-in-chief – communicated with the army through his chief adjutant, General Barthelemy Lebrun (whose mistress provided the Prussian embassy with much useful military intelligence), and his war minister, first Marshal Niel, then General Edmond Leboeuf. At least as worrisome as the lack of a general staff chief was the lack of war plans. At the climax of the French-instigated July crisis in 1870, the chief of the depot de guerre in Paris asked the new French war minister – General Leboeuf – which topographical maps would be needed for the coming campaign. To this, Leboeuf replied, “As the emperor still has no plan of campaign, choose whichever regions you judge suitable.” In the event, no war plan was ever devised, vastly compounding the confusion of the French mobilization.

The Battle of Lobositz I

Austrian- Hungarian Soldiers

Field Marshall Maximilian von Browne, the commander of the Austro-Hungarian army at the Battle of Lobositz 1st October 1756 in the Seven Years War

A thick mist lay over the plain of Lobositz from the dawn on October 1, hiding the daylight, as well as the enemy, from Frederick’s view. The veil extended up the hills and thoroughly covered the ground. Most of what would become a battlefield that day was shrouded. The Prussian king could just make out the outline of the village of Lobositz in the distance, though little else. This time it was not caused by Frederick’s well-known myopia, but the weather.

Reconnaissance parties were dispatched out, off towards the Lobosch Hill, where scattered groups of enemy light parties (some 2,000 Croats and grenadiers all told)4 could be barely discerned occupying the vineyards in front of—and on—the rise. These vineyards were intertwined with small stone walls, only a few feet high, with a limited view. But the handy structures would provide some shelter for the troops positioned there. In addition, the rocky condition of the ground provided some cover.

Browne deployed his forces to keep the backs of his men to the Homolka, where the Austrian horse was packed to the extent the marshal dared. Behind the front line, Browne had only the hussars of Lt.-Gen. Andreas Hadik Graf von Futal and the Baranyáy Hussars to help the forward troops in case Frederick’s cavalry struck.

About 0515 hours, the king, in the company of Marshal Keith, Duke of Bevern, and Prince Augustus Wilhelm, rode up closer to check on the enemy. Little could be identified even in this nearer view, although it appeared nothing was stirring in the enemy’s camp. But even while the entourage met with Lt.-Gen. Karl Christian Graf von Schmettau in the forward posts, scouts reported an undetermined number of the enemy close by. The king’s party returned to the main camp, and tried to piece together what the opposition might be up to. What was really going on beneath that mask of fog? There was some basis for believing the main Austrian force had retired during the night, and had left only a small screening force to delay the bluecoats.

About 0600 hours, Frederick took another look. Below, nearer to Lobositz, he could now make out small bodies of troops, probably hussars, through the haze.6 After that, Frederick began deploying his army to be better prepared for any eventuality on the part of Browne. Early on, the big guns of both sides apparently began to fire intermittently. Ulrich Bräker, a Swiss “volunteer” in the Prussian service, wrote of the “thunder of the cannon” from about 0600 hours on.

Artillery would play an important role in this first European battle of the biggest war the world had yet seen. Frederick could dispose of approximately 17,500 infantry in 25 battalions, 10,500 horse in 59 squadrons, a small force of about 300 hussars, and 97 guns. In the space between the Lobosch and the Homolka, in rather cramped surroundings, the Prussian van deployed, while to the right on the Homolka itself (about 1,038 feet above the valley below), in a second group, the king put part of his infantry. Among the latter were some of Schwerin’s command, Major-General August Friedrich von Itzenplitz’s 13th Infantry and Winterfeldt’s men with some 12 guns. Most of the army was deployed to the left of the Homolka along the Lobosch (which itself rose more than a quarter of a mile above the valley floor below). The first order of business here was to drive away those active enemy parties planted thereabouts.

As the Prussian scouting forces drew nearer, an intermittent fire was opened on them from the men crouched behind the wall. Frederick’s hopes for an easy victory were squashed instantly and for all. This much was clear: The enemy held the rise; it would be necessary to wrestle it from Browne as a condition to secure victory.

About 0700 hours, the army moved to the attack. The Prussian artillery of Colonel Karl Friedrich von Moller went straightway to work, a sustained effort this time, with some effect. Austrian guns, all set to go, replied with an intensity that belied the “calm” autumn morning. The reverberation of the guns was soon unnerving many a seasoned veteran. Some of the Austrian Croats promptly bolted to the rear, and even the experienced Browne could never remember hearing the like.

As the Prussian regiments marched up, each battalion moving to the leftwards before making an oblique turn, they came under a sustained, accurate fire. Bevern’s 7th and the 17thof Major-General Heinrich von Manteuffel were sucked into the vortex of the developing action that was drawn against the Croats, supported by the 27th Infantry of Lt.-Gen. Franz Ulrich von Kleist. This included the contribution from five or six cannon which had been set up before Lobositz and were shooting quite energetically the whole time. The latter found their range rather quickly.

This hammering put the Prussians at a disadvantage. The 13th Infantry of Major-General von Itzenplitz, where Bräker was in the ranks, was one of those now in harm’s way. “Big chunks of hot metal went flying over our heads, throwing up clots of earth and plucking men from the ranks.”

The response was in kind, until the head of the Lobosch was filled with Prussians and light Austrian parties (mostly Pandours) blasting away quite energetically at each other. While this was taking place, the Prussian right, bent back and placed on and near the Homolka, was yet to be in the fire. In the plain below, the Prussian cavalry formed up, and a small body of horse (including the Bayreuth Dragoons) was held in readiness to the south of the Homolka. On the left, where Manteuffel and company were springing on the Lobosch, the intensity of the fight was growing.

General Quadt had been charged off, under the direction of the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern, to strike from the Prussian right against the light hussars at the foothills in his immediate front. Quadt knew the business at hand, and he plunged right in. In the course of this struggle, the general was shot when a ricocheting round exploded nearby. The intensity of the blow knocked Quadt backwards from his horse with a mortal wound. This was among the factors limiting the Prussian success here.

Another factor was the unanticipated Austrian preparation for the fight. Browne, on his part, had a slight edge in numbers, with some 26,500 infantry in 15 regiments, plus four Croat battalions, 7,500 cavalry in 12 cavalry regiments, and 94 guns. This slight numerical superiority on the part of the Austrians was offset by the superior training of the bluecoats. And the latter, under their King Frederick, had never yet been beaten on a battlefield.

Now the general prospects among the Prussian rank-and-file for victory were good for the most part. There were exceptions. Among the latter, the Swiss soldier Ulrich Bräker, already mentioned, has left an interesting account of the battle.

Meanwhile, the battle was fully involved. After a slight scuffle, the tandem team of Manteuffel and Prince Moritz finally cleared the lower reaches to the Lobosch. The enemy, stooped behind the stone walls, could not maintain a steady fire and they were forced back towards Lobositz and the Morellen-Bach stream. Though the ground in front of the rise was secure, the Prussians could not advance farther due to the terrain’s difficulties and the possible nearness of the main Austrian army. Both of these problems were aggravated by the murky, thick fog. And, of course, the Croats still held the hill itself.

Nevertheless, the annoying fire on the Prussian left continued, when the mist momentarily thinned. The king then (about 0800 hours) perceived an enemy body of cavalry, which he took to be about ten squadrons, perhaps 1,500 riders, forward of his own center cavalry. The enemy were busy maneuvering about in what appeared to be a shaky sidled formation.

Frederick took this force, along with those driven from the Lobosch, to be Browne’s rearguard. As it turned out, this was O’Donnell’s advance guard, consisting of 12 grenadier companies and six squadrons of dragoons, which Browne was energetically pushing reinforcements up to join. The king assumed the enemy had left these forces to slow down a pursuit and shield their rear from attack while they stole a march around the bluecoats to Schandau to get the Saxons out of Pirna. Probably with the intention of forestalling such a move, Augustus Wilhelm told the king he needed to get troops into the valley right away. They simply had to figure out what the enemy were up to. So Frederick ordered forward 20 cavalry squadrons—under the bright Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Kyau—to charge the enemy horse. Once done with that task, this force was to pursue Browne, assuming the charge was successful. By then, the Homolka and the Lobosch were basking in the sun, but that aggravating haze was still enveloping the valley, still causing hesitation.

Kyau immediately expressed a concern the fog may hold more than the king imagined, but was ordered to his business anyway. He informed Frederick he had reason to believe a sizeable enemy force was present at Sullowitz, although obey the order he did.

This force, with two guns to go ahead to shell the enemy’s position, charged downhill into the Austrian horse, routing and chasing it back into the mist just about 0830 hours. Major-General Nikolaus Andreas von Katzler’s 11th Cuirassiers got the ball rolling, slamming hard into the Austrian Cordova Cuirassiers opposite to him. This blow spread much confusion, but Katzler was temporarily lost in the bargain and his unit lost 82 men in a short firefight. Katzler went down at the very start of the action. Undoubtedly, what kept his unit going was the press of the other Prussian forces, who were advancing up fast behind it.

The Austrians should have been in desperate straits just about this point. But as soon as they alighted in the mist, the Prussian riders encountered thick masses of enemy artillery fire (to the left of the charging horsemen). These latter opened a most murderous fire, inflicting heavy losses, and compelling the Prussian horse to recoil.

Nor was the job left to the artillery alone. From the vicinity of Sullowitz, two full regiments of Austrian cavalry, under General Count Joseph Luchessi, sprang forward to outflank the new intruders. These were the 29th Cuirassiers and the 33rd Cuirassiers. This move was made possible only because the valiant Guard de Corps (13th Cuirassiers, Colonel Hans August von Blumenthal) unaccountably failed to strike at Sullowitz, bristling at that moment with Austrian bayonets. Nonetheless, the oversight was soon corrected by Colonel Blumenthal himself, at a terrible personal price.

He charged forward straight into the fray. Shortly, the colonel’s horse was set down, rather forcefully, by a nearby exploding cannon shot. This left Blumenthal in an awful predicament; he was exposed without a horse and knocked around in the midst of the enemy. Within a few moments, Blumenthal received a number of serious cuts from the enemy’s sabers. A couple of his men rescued the colonel before the enraged Austrians could finish the job; the effort proved futile, as he died of his wounds soon after.

Meanwhile, Blumenthal’s men continued their valiant effort. The focus of the 13th’s charge shifted directly to the left of the obstacle. Blumenthal’s neighbor, the 5th (Bayreuth) Dragoons, disdaining the danger, plunged headlong into the firefight. Their effort forced back the Austrian horse, saving the Prussian left.

A little to the west, two additional regiments strove to strengthen the Austrian line along the Morellen-Bach towards Lockwitz. These latter were the 29th and the 33rd Cuirassiers, heavy cavalry, led by Prince Löwenstein. Löwenstein was needed there. The Prussian horse certainly had the capacity to cause Browne’s defeat. This was a threat too great to ignore. The progress of the first attack had been blunted, but largely from the much more effective artillery fire.

Löwenstein’s horse went right to work. When the former appeared, the Prussian cavalry had already completed its business. The ride up had been long, the artillery fire devastating, and the horses themselves were suffering from a shortage of fodder. So the bluecoats were paused, taking in a well-deserved breather, when the enemy was suddenly upon them. As the progress of Löwenstein’s charge naturally carried the attack past the confines of the Morellen-Bach, the Prussians made a break for it. Some of the Prussian troopers were trapped in the marsh. The Austrian pursuit did not break off until most of the Prussian horse was “sheltering” under the Prussian batteries. Bräker, as an witness to the panorama, now saw riderless horses, some even dragging their entrails, dotting the disturbing scene. The stunned units finally got steadied again at the bottom of the Lobosch.

In this same firefight, the valiant Austrian general of horse, Lt.-Gen. Alois Count Radicati, was mortally wounded, suffering a severed leg from a cannonball. Frederick, who had been watching from above, saw the vapor clear away to reveal the whole Austrian army stretched out in the valley below, instead of just Browne’s rearguard like he originally thought. Kyau had been right all along.

Then the king saw the survivors of the first wave and the rest of the cavalry forming up to charge again, and sent off an order to hold off the second charge. Too late, the reinforced cavalry (more than 10,000 strong, with eight squadrons of cuirassiers and eight of dragoons) glided back into the thinning mist about 1130 hours, sweeping the enemy back once more. The sight must have been awe-inspiring: Europe had not seen such masses of cavalry engaged in battle like this in half a century. Unperturbed, the Austrian guns renewed their pounding. In spite of it all, the Prussian cavalry charge made steady forward progress. The Austrian 1st Dragoons (Erzherzog Joseph) received the full brunt of this new Prussian attack. It was overwhelmed. With the range narrowing, with every boom of the guns, men seemed to be torn from the ranks. Nonetheless, on the bluecoats pressed, the finest troops the age had to offer.

There was an inevitable price to pay for such heroics. The 2nd Cuirassiers of Prince Wilhelm’s cavalry was at the very front of this charge. It lost 10 officers and 127 of its men in a few furious moments of heavy, unforgiving fighting. The 5th Cuirassiers, its immediate neighbor here, lost 10 officers and 128 men, including the commander, Major-General David Hans Christoph von Lüderitz. An exploding cannon shot detonated nearby, killing that unfortunate man instantly. The tale was much the same for Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Rochow’s 8th Cuirassiers; fully 146 men and officers were laid low in this stroke. Even Colonel Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, the future favorite cavalry master, was involved in the sanguinary struggle.

The cavalry came upon a ditch of some ten feet, but they lunged across the obstacle and charged ever farther into the mist. Right away, however, their progress was stopped dead by a swampy brook. It was the Morellen-Bach Water. Circumstances were dire for a time. One observer wrote candidly of the Prussian host “many horses were too weak to struggle up the high bank” from the valley below. So the valiant Prussian effort disintegrated in passing the swamp, as many men were unable to make even the initial attack. The Prussians’ progress halted, the Austrians turned more cannon upon them (the battery near Lobositz), flanked on one side by the grenadiers and on the other by the 20th (Lt.-Gen. Graf Colloredo), with the 36th of Browne.

Now for the first time, many of the bluecoats realized the enemy were not the same old foe they had been used to dealing with. Moreover, even the Austrian weapons had been improved in the interim. Their soldiers now had iron ramrods. The effect was to greatly facilitate their rate of fire. Most disturbing, that vast increase in effectiveness was being abundantly demonstrated to those forces just then engaged in attacking Browne’s lines. With this, the bluecoats did an about-face, drawing back out of range.

Not all made it. A number of Prussian horsemen entered the bog in their retreat and could not free themselves. The 9th Cuirassiers of Prince Johann von Schöinach-Karolath and the 1st Hussars (Michael von Szekely) were flung, valiantly, into the path. With their horses fatigued from the two melées, some troops had to be extricated. This generally meant leaving the poor equine companion to its fate. Colonel Seydlitz, for one, had to be “fished” out of the bog. As soon as the badly shaken cavalry units returned, Frederick had them posted to the rear of the Lobosch, out of harm’s way. Their losses had been enormous. The horses themselves were bone-tired. They had been working all day although “having had neither fodder nor water for thirty hours.”