The stunning speed with which Napoleon overthrew the much-vaunted Prussian army in the fall of 1806 was dramatic, even by the standards this great captain set. Following on from his decisive defeat of the Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz in December 1805, Napoleon now established himself as master of central Europe with the Jena- Auerstädt campaign, ending attempts by Russia to play a significant role in European affairs for several years.
Since the Treaty of Basle of 1795, Prussia had maintained a policy of neutrality with France, but the incessant expansion of the Napoleonic Empire caused friction in government circles in Berlin and led to increasing calls for war with France. The war party in Prussia grew in influence.
When war broke out between Britain and France in 1803, General Adolphe Mortier occupied Hanover and disbanded its army. Prussia, supposedly the defender of north Germany, did not oppose this act. Effectively, the Treaty of Basle had ceased to have force. King Frederick William III did everything he could to avoid giving Napoleon cause for a confrontation and ignored suggestions that he should mobilize a corps of observation. When the War of the Third Coalition of Austria, Russia, Britain, and Sweden began in 1805, Napoleon sought to ensure Prussia’s neutrality by offering it Hanover. Frederick William was tempted but rejected this offer, as Napoleon made recognition of his conquests in Italy a prerequisite. Russia also put pressure on Frederick William, demanding the right of passage through Prussian territory for its forces. Caught in the middle, part of the Prussian army was mobilized that September.
Hardly had this mobilization begun when a French corps under Marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte violated Prussian neutrality. This corps marched from Hanover southward through the Prussian enclave of Ansbach on 3 October, looting and pillaging as it went. This caused considerable outrage in Prussia and led to calls for war. The Russians were finally allowed passage through Prussian territory. Around 180,000 Prussian troops were placed on a war footing.
Napoleon needed to act quickly, and act quickly he did. His rapid maneuvers caused an Austrian force in southwest Germany under Feldmarschalleutnant Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich to capitulate at Ulm. While Prussia was trying to negotiate an armed peace, the French moved on Vienna. By the Treaty of Potsdam, concluded on 3 November, the Prussians agreed to enter the war with an army of 180,000 men, including contingents from Saxony and Hesse, should Napoleon refuse to make peace within four weeks of the departure from Berlin of the Prussian envoy Christian Graf von Haugwitz. Napoleon kept him at arm’s length until after his victory at Austerlitz on 2 December. The strategic situation now having been so fundamentally changed, Haugwitz agreed to an exchange of territory with Napoleon, ceding the Prussian possessions of Ansbach, Cleves (Kleve), and Neuchatel (a Prussian enclave in Switzerland) in return for Hanover. But peace had come at a price. The acquisition of Hanover led Prussia into a dispute with Britain, its only potential ally in Europe now. Prussia was now isolated.
Seeing his chance, Napoleon started to goad Prussia into war. Joachim Murat, a French marshal and the Grand Duke of Berg, seized Prussian territory at Verden and Essen, in western Germany. French troops massed in Berg, threatening Prussia. Napoleon had suggested that Prussia should form a North German Confederation, but he then prevented it from carrying this out. Having induced Frederick William to accept Hanover, Napoleon then commenced peace negotiations with Britain, offering to return this territory. He did so without Prussia’s knowledge, but the Prussian ambassador in Paris discovered it. This was the final provocation and the immediate cause for war.
Despite the gravity of the situation and the obvious, growing threat from France, Prussia entered this war ill prepared, and it lacked unity both in the government and in the higher command of the army. Frederick William did not have the strength of character or the authoritative demeanor necessary to impose his will on the arguing generals and politicians. The constant bickering hampered all operations. Nevertheless, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, irritated by the failure of his negotiations with Napoleon, promised to help, but his forces were far away. Britain too offered aid but moved slowly. Sweden declared its support but could do little. All that joined Prussia immediately was a contingent from Hesse and the reluctant Saxon army.
On 9 August 1806 the Prussian forces were ordered to mobilize. They entered this conflict with great expectations. Although the army had not been to war for ten years, its leaders had observed the development of warfare in the ensuing campaigns and had introduced a number of reforms. However, these attempts at modernization were underfunded and achieved less than was necessary. Napoleon’s army had been fully trained at the camp at Boulogne, and its veteran cadres were flushed with the great victories of 1805. Napoleon’s well-honed forces faced the army Europe respected above all others. The stage was set for the forthcoming War of the Fourth Coalition.
Strategically and politically, Prussia’s position was not straightforward. France was one of Europe’s most populous countries at this time, with a population of nearly 30 million. Prussia had the resources of only 8.7 million people, 2.5 million of whom were Poles, many of whom had only become Prussian subjects through the recent partitions of their country. Russia’s support was essential, but Russia was considered an unreliable ally. There were rumors it was discussing peace with Napoleon, but these rumors were quashed on 3 September when a report arrived in Paris that Alexander had rejected Napoleon’s overtures. As a result, Napoleon now refused to remove his troops from southern Germany and began his preparations for war.
The Prussians feared Napoleon would strike first. France’s occupation of the left bank of the Rhine left General Gebhard von Blücher’s men in Westphalia out on a limb. The fate of Mack’s Austrians the previous year must have been fresh in everybody’s minds. Plans were made to withdraw Blücher’s men over the river Elbe, but this would have left the Hessians in an exposed position and caused the Saxons consternation. Blücher also considered that his Westphalians would be reluctant to leave their home area, and he feared many would desert. Instead, the Prussians decided to concentrate to the fore, furthest away from the Russians. This would exacerbate the general strategic weakness of their position.
The Prussians raised a field army of seven corps of varying strengths: the Westphalian, the Hanoverian, the Magdeburg, the 1st Reserve, the Silesian, the West Prussian, and the Pomeranian. The fortresses of Magdeburg, Hamlin, and Nienburg were placed in a state of defense. To increase the mobility of the army, much of the heavier artillery pieces were left behind and the baggage train was reduced to a minimum. However, these measures were taken too far, for large parts of the army ran out of ammunition. The East Prussians were not mobilized, as they were needed to keep an eye on the Russians.
After some deliberations, the main part of the Prussian forces, around 65,000 men, were placed under the command of Charles, Duke of Brunswick, while Friedrich Ludwig Fürst Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen (known as Hohenlohe) was given command of a Prusso-Saxon corps of around 45,000 men. A corps of 34,000 men was left to cover Westphalia and Hesse, and 18,000 West Prussians were left in reserve. Brunswick and Hohenlohe were deployed facing Napoleon’s forces concentrating in southern Germany.
On 26 September 1806 Prussia sent an ultimatum demanding the immediate withdrawal of the French armies across the Rhine and Napoleon’s assent to the formation of the promised North German Confederation under Prussian leadership. Napoleon did not bother to respond, so on 8 October Prussia declared war. Napoleon was better prepared for this eventuality, having kept the Grande Armée in Germany for that very purpose. He concentrated his 180,000 men on the river Main, determined to strike at Berlin before help could arrive from Russia.
Napoleon was now assembling his IV (under Marshal Nicolas Soult), VI (under Marshal Michel Ney), and VII (under Marshal Pierre-François-Charles Augereau) Corps in Franconia. On 3 October Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps arrived in Bamberg and Marshal François Lefebvre’s V Corps was moving to join them. The Prussians moved into Saxony to meet them. Napoleon’s plan was simply to locate and destroy the Prussians before any assistance from the Russians could arrive. An advance from southern Germany on Berlin would isolate the Prussians in the west, forcing them to withdraw.
The Prussians, only 145,000 strong, decided to seek victory alone rather than fall back toward the east and await the arrival of the tsar’s forces. The difference in numbers was not in itself decisive, but there is only one thing worse than dividing one’s army into two before the enemy, and that is dividing it into three, which is precisely what the Prussians did. Frederick William had not been able to get Brunswick to collaborate with Hohenlohe, so each was allowed to take the measures he considered appropriate. A third force of 15,000 men under General Ernst Friedrich Wilhelm von Rüchel was also formed. They faced 180,000 of Napoleon’s veterans under a unified command. The resulting confusion diminished the chances of a successful outcome.
Napoleon now moved into Saxony marching in three columns. Soult (IV Corps) led the right column, about 40,000 men strong, with Ney (VI Corps) and the Bavarian contingent following him. It moved via Hof on Plauen. Bernadotte (I Corps) led the center column, about 70,000 men, with Davout (III Corps), much of the Reserve Cavalry, and the Imperial Guard following him. They moved from Kronach in the direction of Schleiz. The V Corps, now under Marshal Jean Lannes, led the left column, about 50,000 men, followed by Augereau (VII Corps). They moved toward Saalfeld and crossed the frontier on 8 October.
Fortunately for Napoleon, the Prussians had neglected to block the passages through the Thüringian Forest. The Grande Armée’s three columns formed into a bataillon carré (battalion square), which would allow it to counter any offensive actions from the Prussians. The column attacked would simply fight a delaying action, falling back if necessary, allowing the remaining columns to swing into action against the Prussian flank. That day ended with Lannes’s column moving toward Saalfeld and Soult’s moving toward Hof. Matters were going well for Napoleon. The unity of command and the greater experience of recent warfare gave the French a considerable advantage.
The lack of a single command and of a clear objective hindered Prussian countermoves. The first sign of what was to come took place at Saalfeld on 10 October. Here, Lannes overwhelmed and defeated an exposed Prusso-Saxon force of around 8,000 men under the youthful and impetuous Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was killed in action. This body of men was the vanguard of Hohenlohe’s corps. It had been outnumbered 2 to 1 in this combat, so the result was to be expected. However, the death of the popular prince at the hands of a French hussar caused consternation in both the army and the nation. The frictions between the Prussians and the Saxons increased. The rot began to set in.
Expecting the Prussians to fall back on Gera to cover Leipzig, Napoleon marched north in the hope of catching the Prussian corps individually. His cavalry patrols located the main Prussian force further to the north or west, not to the northeast. No Prussians were sighted in Gera or on the river Elster. Napoleon concluded that the Prussians were to the west and would offer battle around Erfurt, so he ordered his columns to wheel to the left.
Brunswick declined to hold the line of the river Saale. Hohenlohe fell back on Jena, while Brunswick advanced on Weimar. Bernadotte wheeled toward the center column, while Davout passed through Naumburg. By taking this crossing at the river Unstrut, the French had cut off the Prussians’ intended line of retreat and their communication with Berlin. Their council of war now decided to fall back on Leipzig via Auerstädt, the Kösen Pass, Freyburg, and Merseburg. Hohenlohe was ordered to protect the flank of the main body, occupying the village of Kapellendorf, halfway between Weimar and Jena.
Not expecting to face the Prussians in battle for a few days yet, Napoleon reacted quickly to news of sightings of their actual positions and movements. Believing the main body of the Prussians was on the far side of Jena, he decided to strike, calling in the support of parts of the right column to join the left and center.
The battles of Jena and Auerstädt were confused affairs. At Auerstädt, Brunswick, with 50,000 men, bumped into Davout’s force of 27,000 men blocking his line of retreat. Davout’s successful defense of Hassenhausen is legendary. He repelled Brunswick, who was mortally wounded, leaving his men leaderless.
Napoleon met what he considered the main Prussian force at Jena. He started the affair with around 55,000 men against Hohenlohe’s 40,000 Prusso-Saxon corps. Another 40,000 men had joined Napoleon by noon, and weight of numbers told. Rüchel’s force of 15,000 men arrived too late to play much of a part other than to get caught up in the confusion of retreat. Although driven back in disorder, the Prussians had not disgraced themselves, but Napoleon pursued with vigor, turning the retreat into a rout. Napoleon considered that his victory at Jena had expunged the stain of the French defeat at Rossbach during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
This painting of Pierre Vafflard (1777-1837) shows the removal of Rossbach columns by the French, four days after the battle of Jena. The symbol is one that cannot be clearer: Napoleon avenged the defeat that Frederick II of Prussia had inflicted on the army from Louis XV to this meme place 49 years earlier. One of the two columns will be taken to Paris.
The destruction of the Prussian forces in these twin battles caused considerable demoralization. While certain battalions and squadrons did everything possible to hold together, the army no longer had a leader to reverse its fortunes. What made matters worse was that the great fortresses that might have checked the French advance and given the field army a chance to rally and reorganize capitulated without so much as firing a shot. Spandau, Stettin, Küstrin, and Magdeburg surrendered, breaking Prussia’s back. On 25 October the French entered Berlin.
The painter Charles Meynier represents, four years after the events, Napoleon’s entry into Berlin, October 27, 1806. Surrounded by Chasseurs of his guard and followed by his marshals, the Emperor passes under the triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate. The crowd displays very various emotions from pain to curiosity and admiration. No resistance is registered. The real awakening of the Prussian patriotic feeling will occur several years later.
Three days later, the remnants of Hohenlohe’s force, 10,000 men, capitulated at Prenzlau. The only force that had shown much spirit was one that gravitated toward Blücher. It fought its way to the Baltic coast before being forced to surrender at Rackau near Lübeck on 7 November. Only East Prussia and some fortresses along the Baltic coast now held out against Napoleon.
Prussia was now utterly broken. The losses the Prussians suffered in the two battles are difficult to determine exactly. However, the Prussians lost around 10,000 killed or wounded at Jena, along with 15,000 prisoners, 34 colors, and 120 guns, against a loss to Napoleon of around 5,000 men. At Auerstädt, the Prussian losses were around 15,000 dead and wounded, 3,000 prisoners, and 115 guns, while the French lost 7,000 dead and wounded. After the whirlwind pursuit, the Prussians no longer had an army and had lost control of all their territory west of the Oder River.
Immediately after the Battle of Jena, Napoleon had demanded the cession of all Prussian territory west of the Elbe River. However, after the ignominious capitulation of so many key fortresses, he further demanded that Prussia accept French occupation of all Prussian territory up to the Vistula River and that all uncaptured fortresses should surrender. Frederick William refused these terms and fell back into East Prussia, hoping to secure the help of Russia.
The Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (Friedrich August) III who had supported the Prussians previously, now submitted to Napoleon. In return, he was made king of Saxony as Frederick Augustus I and joined the Confederation of the Rhine.
Napoleon now entered East Prussia, having gained a large number of Polish recruits by promising the restoration of their country’s independence. He besieged the important fortress of Danzig (now Gdansk) at the mouth of the Vistula. It held out until 24 May 1807. The Pomeranian fortress of Kolberg under General August von Gneisenau successfully resisted until the end of the war.
In the Battle of Eylau of 8 February 1807 Napoleon lost 35,000 of his veterans in a bloody stalemate with a Russian army under General Levin Bennigsen, supported by a corps of Prussians. The relatively easy victories of Napoleon’s earlier campaigns were not to be repeated. The Allies undertook to continue the war by the Treaty of Bartenstein of 26 April. However, Prussia was too weak to do much, Britain was committed to various colonial adventures, and Sweden hardly got involved. As Austria remained neutral, Napoleon now concentrated on dealing with Russia. His victory over Bennigsen at Friedland on 14 June ended the military phase of the war. It was concluded with the Treaty of Tilsit of 9 July 1807.
Napoleon took the opportunity of reducing the nation that had once been his greatest threat to the status of a second-rate power. Prussia lost all its territory west of the Elbe, which was included in a new Kingdom of Westphalia with Napoleon’s brother Jérome Bonaparte as king. Much of its Polish territories were included in the new Duchy of Warsaw under the king of Saxony. Prussian ports were closed to British commerce, extending the Continental System established by the Berlin Decrees of 21 November 1806. The tsar could have argued for more lenient treatment for Prussia, but secret clauses to the treaty allowed Russia to gain territory at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. That compensated for Napoleon’s gains in central Europe.
This peace settlement was payment to Prussia for its pursuit of a policy of neutrality with France. For over ten years, Prussia had allowed the burden of the defense of Germany to fall on Austria’s shoulders. Even then, it was not too late to change this. Had Prussia wholeheartedly committed itself to supporting Austria and Russia in 1805, then Napoleon’s empire may well have ended then. Even in 1806 Russia was considered a potential enemy, so an inappropriate strategy of an aggressive defense was implemented, allowing Napoleon to strike first, quickly and decisively. Prussia played into Napoleon’s hands and paid the price.
The Treaty of Tilsit marked the zenith of Napoleon’s power. Russia and France had effectively divided the continent of Europe between them. Only Britain, master of the seas, remained opposed to Napoleon. As a result of its folly, Prussia was to suffer several years of humiliation and was not to resume its opposition to France until 1813.
The Kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia, with its capital at Berlin, was a central European state, part of whose territories were included in the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of Brandenburg was a prince elector of the empire. As well as the core provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania, East Prussia, and Silesia, the king of Prussia also ruled over enclaves in western Germany and acquired substantial gains during the Partitions of Poland toward the end of the eighteenth century. Ruled by the House of Hohenzollern, Prussia had risen from relative obscurity in the early eighteenth century to become a great power, thanks largely to the wars of conquest undertaken by Frederick the Great. This increase in status put Prussia in the position of being a rival to Austria for hegemony in Germany.
Prussia’s population in 1795 was around 8.5 million inhabitants, including 2.5 million Poles. Following the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807, Prussia was left with around 5 million inhabitants. Territorial gains after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 increased this to about 10.3 million. The population was largely rural; the capital and principal city, Berlin, had about 172,000 inhabitants. The economy was largely agrarian based; some three-quarters of the population were farmers. Prussia was devastated by the costs of the war and the indemnity demanded by the French after the defeat in 1806. The national debt increased from 55 million taler in 1806 to 206 million taler in 1816.
The territorial gains made in western Germany in 1815 changed Prussia’s strategic position in Europe, taking it from being a central European power with an eye toward the East to one leaning more to the West. As well as sharing a border with Russia and Austria, Prussia now had a common frontier with France. The new territories in the Rhineland were economically more advanced and rich in natural resources but did not enjoy a territorial link with the main part of Prussia to the east. The settlement made in Vienna in 1815 determined the pattern of European politics for the coming hundred years.
Although Prussia enjoyed considerably fewer resources than its larger neighbors, it was nevertheless one of Europe’s great powers and able to raise substantial military forces when required. The Prussian Army had a good reputation for its effectiveness on the field of battle, its professionalism, especially of its officer corps, and its aggressive spirit. Other armies copied its methods. Despite that, the Prussian Army suffered the most devastating defeat of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the campaign of 1806.
Prussia committed substantial forces to the earlier campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars. An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded France in the fall of 1792. It took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun before being halted at Valmy on 20 September. Prussian forces fought in the Rhineland for the next three years, acquitting themselves well against the invading French, with their light forces performing particularly well. The costs of this war drained the Prussian economy, and because there were easier pickings in the East, the Prussians withdrew from the war with the Treaty of Basle in 1795. This separate peace with France began a decade of Prussian isolation that ended with the catastrophe of 1806.
The Prussian Army did mobilize its forces toward the end of 1805, but the planned intervention in the War of the Third Coalition did not come to fruition because Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz on 2 December preempted this. Having conquered Austria and thrown Russia’s army out of central Europe, Napoleon next turned his attention to Prussia. He goaded Prussia into a war in unfavorable circumstances in the fall of 1806, the Prussian army suffered a severe defeat at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt on 14 October, and any chance of continuing the war vanished in the wake of the highly effective pursuit undertaken by Napoleon’s forces and the capitulation of several important fortresses. The Treaty of Tilsit concluded the following summer reduced Prussia to a second-rate power subservient to Napoleon’s wishes.
The years that followed were marked by economic devastation caused by the reparations demanded by Napoleon and the costs of supplying an army of occupation. Patriots such as Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg, Heinrich Freiherr vom Stein, Gebhard von Blücher, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and August von Gneisenau plotted and conspired against the French. Secret societies prepared the country’s intellectuals both mentally and physically for an uprising.
The unrest became apparent in 1809, with a regiment of hussars commanded by Ferdinand von Schill staging an uprising in support of the Austrians, who were now at war with France. Frederick William III considered it untimely to risk all for a confrontation with Napoleon and did what was necessary to suppress the discontent. A group of dissatisfied officers, including Karl von Clausewitz, left the army in protest in 1812, when a contingent of 20,000 Prussians marched under the command of General Johann von Yorck with Napoleon into Russia. Fortunately for the Prussians, they were allocated to the left wing of the Grande Armée, so they did not suffer the fate of the main body on its retreat from Moscow. Yorck allowed his corps to become separated from the French at the end of 1812 and withdrew it from the war with Russia with the Convention of Tauroggen (28 December 1812). This act of rebellion sparked the uprising in northern Germany that developed into what became known as the War of Liberation.
Having signed an alliance with Russia at Kalisch on 28 February 1813, Prussia went to war with France a month later. Although outnumbered by Napoleon’s forces, the Prusso-Russian army acquitted itself well in the spring campaign of 1813, fighting the battles of Lützen and Bautzen. Joined by Austria that fall, the Allies were overwhelmingly victorious at Leipzig in October. With Napoleon now driven out of Germany, the Allies pressed on to Paris in the spring of 1814. An army of Russians and Prussians under Blücher played a significant part in these events, fighting battles such as Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Craonne, Laon, and Vauchamps.
In 1815 the lion’s share of the fighting was to fall on the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, which fought three battles in a whirlwind campaign, at Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo, before blazing its way to Paris, taking a number of French fortresses in its path. Appropriately, it was Blücher’s Prussians that first entered Paris in 1815, marking the end of the Napoleonic era.
Austrian Chancellor Prince Anton Wenzel Kaunitz had already seen the possibilities and his presence earlier in Paris gave him the opportunity to soften up the French court further, not least through contact with the influential mistress of the French King, Madame de Pompadour. Here Kaunitz deployed flattery, opening a correspondence between the French Marchioness and his own Empress which so indulged the Frenchwoman that she became the most ardent supporter of an Austro-French alliance. From the beginning Maria Theresa fully supported Kaunitz’s vision of a dramatic ‘Renversement des alliances’.
Recalled to Vienna, Kaunitz pursued his policy with vigour. He worked hard to lull London into believing the ancient alliance was solid while inflaming tensions wherever possible between Prussia and England. Gradually London began to suspect Austrian intentions but Kaunitz still managed to temporise. In order to secure France, Kaunitz had to break with England but he dare not do this without having assured himself of France’s support. The negotiations on troop numbers in the Netherlands proved fertile ground for spinning things out. As the Duke of Newcastle had pointed out, the Austrian Netherlands was ‘a kind of common country’ shared by Austria, Britain and the Dutch. It was also London’s commercial door to the Continent.
In 1755 matters came to a head and the Empress listed her grievances against the English court and the maritime powers, noting that she ‘has never had the satisfaction of seeing her allies do justice to her principles’. Further, she responded to London’s claims that England had spent so much blood and treasure to support the House of Austria by pointing out: ‘to those efforts England owes its present greatness, riches and liberty’.
London’s statesmen began to realise something was moving and peremptorily demanded a guarantee of military aid to Hanover in the event of French aggression, to ‘display the real intentions of the court of Vienna’. Kaunitz simply referred them to the Empress’s note, knowing full well that this would provoke the King of England to turn to Prussia and thus assist further the rupture between Berlin and Paris.
The nurturing of an alliance with France was only the keystone of Kaunitz’s new diplomatic architecture. He intended to secure more allies to destroy the King in Prussia. To this end his negotiations with Russia promised parts of Prussia and Pomerania to the Empress Elizabeth in return for a Russian army descending on Frederick. In another set of negotiations, part of Pomerania was vouchsafed to Sweden in return for a Swedish army crossing the Prussian frontier. Saxony, the arch-enemy of Prussia, would also join in the war.
Kaunitz at this stage could not know if this deadly constellation would prove fatal for Prussia or even guarantee the return of Silesia but if this remarkable diplomatic revolution could be achieved he realised that the war which would follow from it would annihilate Frederick’s armies and, if not utterly destroy his country of barely five million, it would almost certainly prevent Prussia from menacing Austria and indeed Europe for a hundred years. From his sleepy baroque castle in Moravia, from which avenues lined with fruit trees spread out for miles in the direction of Vienna, Kaunitz polished and worked on his plan.
These negotiations were conducted with great secrecy. At a suitable moment, and with the Empress’s backing, Kaunitz summoned the Council of State to announce his plans to the ministers and the Emperor. Maria Theresa feigned ignorance of the entire stratagem, aware that Kaunitz’s proposal was not only brilliantly unorthodox but likely to incur considerable disapproval. Once again Maria Theresa was supporting wholeheartedly a gifted man whose intellectual vision was infinitely greater than her own. Her judgement of character as in the case of Van Swieten was, however, faultless: Kaunitz was the diplomatic genius of the age.
When the day came for Kaunitz to propose his plan, he had barely announced his intentions when the Emperor, Maria Theresa’s husband Francis Stephen, rising up with great emotion brought his fist firmly down on the table and exclaimed, ‘Such an unnatural alliance is impracticable and shall never take place.’ The monarch instantly left the room. This was not a promising beginning but Maria Theresa was nothing if not mistress in her own house and she encouraged Kaunitz to proceed with the details in Francis’s absence. After affecting much interest, the Empress resolved to bring her husband round and spoke with such enthusiasm for Kaunitz’s plans that no minister dared to contradict them.
In the event London panicked and signed a treaty with Prussia in January affording Maria Theresa the moral high ground of accusing England of ‘abandoning the old system’ first with this new Convention of Westminster. On 13 May 1756 she expressed her disappointment with England to the British envoy. Not by one breath did she admit that two weeks earlier at Versailles Austria and France had signed their own treaty whereby Austria promised to defend French dominions in Europe (though maintaining neutrality towards England), while France was to aid Austria without any exception. France and Austria, enemies for three hundred years now found themselves, to their own astonishment, placed in close proximity and all the rules of political calculation hitherto held as immutable were at one stroke demolished. In modern parlance Kaunitz and Maria Theresa had really thought ‘outside the box’.
Not that it should be imagined Prussia was to be an innocent victim in all this. Frederick had already admitted ‘I very much should like to tear Bohemia away from her’ and he envisaged a renewal of hostilities that would destroy Habsburg hegemony once and for all. Prussia would take Bohemia, Bavaria would revive her claims to Upper Austria and Tyrol, France would dismember the Netherlands and Sardinia would absorb Lombardy.
Fortunately for Austria, Frederick, whatever his talents, possessed none of the gifts of Kaunitz. The King in Prussia soon realised that the Convention of Westminster was a fatal diplomatic blunder that had bought him neither time nor a credible ally on the mainland of Europe. England could not help Prussia against the deadly alliance that was threatening to encircle Frederick. There was no naval dimension to renewed campaigning in Silesia and not even any British troops to create a distraction.
Only a preventative war launched with rapidity could possibly stave off the fatal constellation gathering around his country and thus Frederick, like Germany in 1914, was to launch a quick assault on a neighbour, in this case Saxony, in the hope of seizing the initiative in a multi-front war. Frederick saw that Austria had not completed her preparations and so determined to fight a limited campaign to knock out his most implacable foe. With Vienna humbled, the coalition against him would fall apart. Demanding an unambivalent statement of Habsburg intentions, he received as he expected an utterly unsatisfactory response. Maria Theresa simply replied: ‘In the present crisis I deem it necessary to take measures for the security of myself and my allies which tend to the prejudice of no one.’ Austria had no intention of violating any treaty but neither would she bind herself by any promise which might prevent her acting ‘as circumstances required’.
This was all Frederick needed. The Prussian Canton system of conscription efficiently and rapidly brought Frederick’s army up to about 150,000 men. Speed and aggression were the watchwords of this force and its supreme commander. Meticulous planning was another quality. The destruction of Saxony was to be accompanied by a merciless but premeditated pillaging of its resources to support the Prussian war effort. Of the country’s 6 million thaler annual revenue 5 million were to be sequestered for the Prussian military machine. This annual ‘tribute’ alone would secure the survival of the Prussian economy and represented a third of the total of the Prussian war effort. The Prussian army moved swiftly at the end of August 1756 to occupy Dresden and bottle up the Saxon army in the fortress of Pirna. In a matter of days the Kingdom of Saxony was looted and systematically stripped of her wealth.
Frederick’s personal responsibility for the destruction and exploitation that followed was immense. His vindictiveness was unlimited towards those who had crossed him and he appears to have taken great delight in ordering the Prussian Freikorps’ detonation of the Saxon statesman, Count Brühl’s schloss, with the proviso of course that it should appear that he knew nothing of the pillage. Even the British representative at Frederick’s court commented after the wanton sacking of Hubertsburg castle that these actions demonstrated ‘a meanness that I am really ashamed to narrate’.
The Prussian irruption into Saxony was the price Maria Theresa appeared willing to pay to maintain the moral high ground and show up Frederick as an unambiguous aggressor and breaker of treaties. But Frederick, who had published his own manifestos of half-truths and dubious history, was uninterested in such niceties. He pushed on into Bohemia hoping to compel the Saxons in Pirna to give up any hope of relief, capturing Teschen and Aussig an der Elbe (Dečin and Usti nad Labem in modern Czech) along the north-western Bohemian frontier. To counter this audacious move was an Austrian army of 32,465 troops supported by a corps of some 22,000 under Piccolomini, all of them under the newly promoted Field Marshal Maximilian Ulysses Browne.
Browne’s task was initially to relieve Pirna but Frederick’s blitzkrieg made the defence of Bohemia his first priority. A plan was devised to check and hold the Prussians in an engagement while relief to the Saxons was organised through the difficult but picturesque terrain of the mountains of ‘Saxon Switzerland’ via a ‘flying column’. On 1 October 1756, Browne skilfully deployed a force of Croatian irregulars on the tangled slopes of the volcanic Lobosch hill. Behind this was the right flank of his army but most of his troops were cunningly concealed behind the marshy banks of the Morellen stream. The Prussian King fell for the trap. Believing the Croats were simply the rearguard of an army moving away from him he ordered the Duke of Bevern to clear the hill and thus enable the rest of the Austrian army to be attacked in the flank.
The Battle of Lobositz that ensued was to remain a bitter memory for Frederick for the rest of his life. As Bevern advanced to drive the Croats from their positions, he was met by a murderous rapid fire from skirmishers in concealed positions, which brought his infantry to a standstill. If this was not enough to do more than irritate Frederick, he was suddenly given a vivid example of the progress made with Liechtenstein’s artillery reforms. As Frederick ordered his cavalry to chase what he thought was a retreating Austrian cavalry division, the Austrian horsemen led their Prussian pursuers directly on to the guns of the Habsburg batteries drawn up behind the Morellen stream. These opened fire with case at 300 paces with devastating effect. The Prussian horse was cut down in a matter of seconds and soon fled in utter disorder. It could not be rallied, even when Frederick ordered his own infantry to fire at them to prevent them throwing his entire centre into disarray.
A second cavalry charge fared little better and as the fog cleared around midday Frederick became demoralised. He was aware that his heavy cavalry had ceased to exist as an effective fighting arm so he promptly removed himself from the battlefield, leaving Field Marshal Keith to save what could be saved. The Croats were now being supported by regular Austrian units under Lacy and the Prussian infantry attack stalled and began to waver. But at this moment, as so often in warfare, the fate of individuals decided the day. Lacy was wounded and carried from the battle, with a dispiriting effect on his troops. Keith seeing the Austrian offensive falter organised a vigorous counter-attack and began rolling up the Austrian infantry. Browne seeing his advance guard in difficulties ordered them to withdraw, covering it with the main part of his force, which effectively halted any attempt by the Prussians at pursuit and brought the battle to an end. Prussian casualties were noticeably higher than the Austrian losses, which were computed at 2,873. Keith had saved the day for Frederick and his army was in undisputed possession of the battlefield once Bevern had driven out the remaining Croats, but it had been at a terrible cost.
As an officer attached to Frederick noted:
On this occasion Frederick did not come up against the same kind of Austrians he had beaten in four battles in a row. He was not dealing with people like Neipperg or the blustering Prince Charles of Lorraine. He faced Browne who had grown grey in the service and whose talent and experience had raised him to one of the heroes of his time. He faced an artillery which Prince Liechtenstein had brought to perfection at his own expense. He faced an army which during ten years of peace had attained a greater mastery of the arts of war.
Meanwhile Browne stole away with 9,000 men through the wooded hills on the left bank of the Elbe and in a series of impressive forced marches, unheard of in an Austrian army of five years earlier, arrived opposite the Saxon troops. But these were too demoralised to provide any opportunities to rally and they consistently failed to communicate with Browne, forcing him to return to Bohemia. Shortly after this the Saxons surrendered to the Prussians, giving Austro-Saxon cooperation a very poor name.
Frederick had hoped to establish his winter quarters but the Battle of Lobositz despite the Frederician propaganda had in fact been a draw. Browne now commanded the country around Frederick’s forces and used his irregular troops to harry and plunder Prussian lines of communication so that the King in Prussia had little choice but to withdraw his army back to Saxony for the winter. The Austrian army had certainly not failed its first test.
The Saxon army on the other hand met a fate which was considered highly innovative for the time. It was simply incorporated into the Prussian army. Only the officers were allowed the ‘choice’ between swearing loyalty to Prussia and incarceration. This step, heartless, bold and cynical, caused protests even in Prussia. Frederick saw them off with the comment: ‘I take pride in being original.’ In fact, from a practical point of view, it would turn out to be a grave error. The Saxons proved notoriously unreliable in battle fighting for their Prussian masters. More than two-thirds deserted while the incorporation of a nation’s entire fighting force into new uniforms, oaths and drills under Prussian command was rightly and widely seen at the time as sinister proof of Prussian expansionary tendencies.
Moreover, in France any lingering sympathy for Frederick was strongly dissipated by his behaviour in Saxony. The Dauphin after all was married to the daughter of the Elector. But Frederick was like many cruel cynics utterly oblivious to the effects of his behaviour. Nowhere was this to have more devastating consequences for him than with regard to Russia. Lulled by the wildly over-optimistic reports of the incompetent and boorish British envoy Charles Hanbury Williams, Frederick was encouraged to think that bribing the Russian minister Bestuzhev would secure Russian neutrality. On Hanbury’s advice he ordered the transfer of the payment and even denuded his units in East Prussia, so convinced was he by the Englishman’s dispatches. On Christmas Day the news, an unwelcome Christmas present, arrived. The payment notwithstanding, Russia was preparing to put an army of 100,000 into the field against Prussia the following spring.
Frederick invades Bohemia again
Again Frederick was persuaded that Bohemia was the key to his strategy. He had to seize the initiative and commit his entire army to nothing less than a four-pronged invasion of Bohemia to deliver, in his words, the ‘Grand Coup’. On 18 April 1757 this formidable invasion force crossed the frontier at four points, causing panic and consternation throughout Bohemia. The ‘final reckoning’ between the two pre-eminent dynasties of the German speaking lands was at hand.
After some debate, one Austrian army under Charles of Lorraine fell back on Prague to await the arrival of another, under Daun. So concerned was Kaunitz at the turn of events and disagreements between Lorraine and his brilliant subordinate Ulysses Browne that he set off with his personal physician from Vienna to Prague to instil some sense of coherence into Austrian strategy, which seemed to be crumbling before Prussia’s blitzkrieg. But Kaunitz left too late. On 6 May two Prussian armies effected their conjunction and now were marching on Prague to face an outnumbered foe.
Lorraine and Browne would have to fight alone without Daun. They drew up their troops east of Prague where today the heavily built up suburb of ŽiŽkov runs along raised ground. Frederick ordered his infantry to shoulder muskets to speed up their march and outflank the two Austrian lines but Browne immediately spotted the movement and deployed his second line in a 90-degree shift to confront the Prussians, opening fire on the massed Prussian infantry still in the act of deployment. Several Prussian regiments were completely overwhelmed and the Saxon regiments broke and fled. As Field Marshal Schwerin attempted to rally his infantry he fell in a hail of musket balls from the Austrian line which, in parade ground drill, was advancing and halting to fire a volley every fifty seconds. The Austrian artillery meanwhile had come into action and was rapidly depleting the Prussian infantry who were bogged down in soft wet ground.
At this point it looked as if the Prussians would be thrown back. Frederick once again fled the battlefield, blaming stomach cramps and fearing the worst, but Browne fell from his horse wounded by a cannonball and the Austrian attack faltered. The Prussian cavalry led by Ziethen’s ‘new’ Hussars showed that there was not much difference in quality between the imitation and the real thing. Striking the Austrian cavalry in the flank, the Prussians scattered their opponents and opened a gap in the angle between the Austrian infantry’s original and new lines. The crisis of the battle had arrived and Charles of Lorraine fainted at this moment with chest pains and had to be carried from the field. The Austrian attack ground to a halt and by mid-afternoon, faced with a weakening front, the regimental commanders chose to conduct a fighting withdrawal into the city, covered by cavalry. Thanks to the near-suicidal rearguard action of the Austrian cavalry somehow the army avoided annihilation and retreated successfully behind the walls of the city. Once again the Prussians had won but their casualties were higher than the Austrians’ (14,400 compared to the Austrians’ 13,400, of whom nearly 5,000 were prisoners).
Frederick, recovering from his brief panic, was confident that the Siege of Prague would be completed before any Austrian reinforcements could arrive and he interpreted the news of Kaunitz leaving Vienna as a sure sign that the Austrian Chancellor was coming to negotiate personally with him. Despite his extravagant powers of self-deception, Frederick was not utterly negligent, and he dispatched a screen of 25,000 men under Bevern to watch for any Austrian relief force.
On 7 May the relief force and its commander Daun were greeted by a fanfare announcing Kaunitz’s arrival. The two men had great confidence in each other and agreed a strategy to relieve Lorraine in Prague by retreating first to Kolín where forces could be gathered to give Daun the capacity to engage the Prussians on his own terms. Kaunitz would return to Vienna immediately to organise the reinforcements. Both men were critical of the sluggish concentration of Lorraine’s early movements and realised that the next weeks could decide the fate of their monarchy.
Kaunitz arrived back in Vienna on the morning of 11 May and went straight in his muddied boots to the Empress, brushing past the near-apoplectic protests of the Court Chamberlain, Khevenhueller who was, like so many of his family, unimpressed by any departure from official protocol. The Konferenz ‘in mixtis‘ of privy councillors and War Cabinet members cooled their heels while Kaunitz spent two hours with Maria Theresa apprising her of the details of the reverse at Prague and the urgent need to reinforce Daun.
The Chancellor drew up an 18-point plan to reinforce Daun, which was rapidly endorsed by the Empress and thus implemented without further delay. Within two weeks Daun’s force numbered more than 50,000 men and 156 guns. By the end of the first week of June he could even risk taking the offensive, and orders to this effect were dispatched from Vienna.
Having provided us with Clausewitz, Germany supplied an antidote in the guise of Wilhelm Stieber (1818–92). Not from Prussia himself, Stieber was born in Merseburg, Saxony, and had an English mother named Daisy who claimed descent from Oliver Cromwell. In 1820 the family moved to Berlin where his father held a position in the church. Naturally enough, Stieber was also expected to enter the church and so his father paid for him to study theology at Berlin University. While there he became interested in the case of a young Swedish janitor who had been accused of burglary. In those days anyone could defend an accused person in court. So, believing him innocent, Stieber took up the case and won the Swede’s acquittal.
This first taste of legal process opened Stieber to the possibility of a future outside the church. While his father continued to subsidize his studies, Stieber secretly began taking courses in law, public finance and administration. When Stieber eventually revealed his preference for a career in law, his father all but disowned him. Stieber was thrown out of the family home and his funds were cut off. This was a pivotal moment in the young man’s career. To continue with his studies, Stieber needed an income.
This necessity led him to work as a secretary to the criminal court and Berlin Police Department. Through this vocation Stieber was introduced to the work of Berlin police inspectors, who occasionally took him on arrests. He was immediately hooked on criminal investigation, so, after graduating as a junior barrister in 1844, Stieber applied for and was granted a place as a Berlin police inspector. He was quickly given a chance to impress. The Minister of the Interior asked for Stieber to be sent undercover into Silesia to conduct an investigation into an alleged ‘workers’ conspiracy’. Posing as a landscape artist named Schmidt, he quickly identified the ringleaders of the so-called ‘Silesian Weavers’ Uprising’ (4–6 June 1844) and under orders from Berlin had them rounded up and arrested.
However, it was during the riots of 1848 – the year of revolutions – when Stieber really came to the fore. With Berlin on the verge of rebellion, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV (ruled 1840–61) rode out onto the streets of the capital in an attempt to calm his subjects. He was quickly surrounded by an unruly mob and appeared in danger of being pushed from his mount. There are many different versions of what happened next, but Stieber’s memoirs recall how he seized a banner from one of the protestors and stood in front of the king’s horse, making a path through the crowd for him to pass. Shouting ‘The King is on your side – Make way for your King!’ Stieber managed to get the king back to the palace gates where the guards carried him to safety. In some accounts Stieber is said to have arranged the whole thing as a stunt to gain popularity with the king. Stieber claims the man he saved was in fact an actor posing as the Prussian monarch. Whatever the truth, the event certainly brought Stieber into the spotlight. When in November 1850 the notorious revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel was sprung from jail, a section known as the ‘Criminal Police’ was formed with cross-district jurisdiction – Stieber was its commander.
More significant was the king’s approval of Stieber’s assignment to monitor German communists attending the international industrial exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in October 1851. Stieber travelled to London again using the alias of Schmidt, but this time posing as a newspaper editor covering the exhibition. Enjoying the right to freedom of speech and assembly in the liberal British capital, a German newspaper editor named Karl Marx had been organizing an ‘International Communist League’. Stieber went to visit Marx, claiming to be carrying family news to a fictitious colleague, Friedrich Herzog, who was believed to be a member of the Communist League. Unsurprisingly, Marx had never heard of Herzog and unwisely told Stieber to consult with a German named Dietz who held records of the communist movement.
Before Stieber went looking for Dietz he chatted to Marx for a while. Talking of his own background, he told Marx he had studied medicine and was editor of a Berlin medical publication. On learning he had a medical background, Marx asked Stieber if he knew a good cure for haemorrhoids. He went on to say that it would be impossible for him to sit and write except for a medication made up by Dietz, himself a former apothecary. Confirming this was the same Dietz holding the League’s records, a plan hatched in Stieber’s mind. Bidding farewell to Marx he went to Dietz’s address, but not before forging Marx’s signature on a note reading: ‘Please bring me some medication and the files at once.’ Posing as a physician named Dr Schmidt, Stieber duped Dietz into handing over four volumes of information on the Communist League’s activities across the globe.
From London Stieber travelled to Paris where the communists appeared strongest and best organized. A few days after arriving, a man turned up in his apartment calling himself Cherval. He was a communist and had been sent to retrieve the stolen records. When Stieber refused to hand them over, Cherval drew a dagger and attacked him. Knocking his assailant unconscious with a chair, Stieber handcuffed him and interrogated him. Cherval was in fact a German who had adopted a French name on arriving in the country. Stieber promised to drop the charges relating to his attack if Cherval would spill the beans on his co-conspirators. The communist obliged and a number of significant arrests were made.
Returning to Germany, Stieber’s information led to yet more members of the Communist League being arrested. In reward for his efforts, in January 1853 Stieber was made director of the Security Division at Berlin. Thereafter he embarked on a number of police-related cases which are outside the scope of this study except in one respect. Through his investigations he became fascinated with the world of high-class prostitutes and their rich clientele, who were often high-ranking officers and members of government. He quickly realized that these men would be extremely vulnerable if the prostitutes were agents of a foreign power:
To my amazement, I discovered that among the prostitutes who frequented these brothels, there were actually many who had acquired a certain amount of education through their constant association with their highly-placed visitors, so they could recite lines by Virgil and Horace and often commanded an entire catalogue of legal and military concepts; and to my horror, found among them women who appeared to have been predestined to become spies… Some of them had already made a regular business out of enticing intimate, compromising information out of married men in the highest reaches of society and then extorting large sums of money from them by threatening to reveal these secrets to their wives.
Thinking it best to have these women on his side, to win them over Stieber helped establish a ‘Prostitutes Recovery Fund’. The whole vice trade became much more regulated and in return for his favour, prostitutes began to supply Stieber’s officers with information relating to crimes. Before long they had became the best police spies in the city.
Everything was going well for Stieber until 1857, when the king was declared insane after suffering a brain tumour. The throne passed to a regent, the king’s liberal-minded brother Wilhelm. With his royal protector out of the picture, Stieber’s many enemies had him imprisoned and ransacked his apartments looking for documents that might compromise their own positions. Unfortunately for them Stieber escaped from his cell and rescued the documents, which he knew would save his neck. Arguing his case in public through the newspapers, Stieber claimed that to accuse him of wrongdoing was to accuse the king himself. His accusers quickly drew a line under the business and Stieber was largely exonerated, albeit left without an appointment and put on half pay.
Continuing his work against communists and anarchists, Stieber went to St Petersburg. With him he took his dossiers on Russian revolutionaries working abroad in London and Paris. Arriving at a time when the Russian secret services were at an embryonic stage, Stieber was asked for advice on dealing with radicals living abroad. Stieber’s solution was to track down ex-pat Russian criminals, forgers and blackmailers and, in return for immunity from prosecution, these would be paid to spy on the radicals.
But Prussia was never far from Stieber’s mind. His rehabilitation came when in 1863 he uncovered a plot to assassinate the newly appointed Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck (1815–98). He was introduced to Bismarck by August Brass, founder of the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, who recommended him despite his unpopularity. The plot may have been a ruse on Stieber’s part, but Bismarck took it seriously enough. An assassination attempt was indeed attempted by a Russian revolutionary named Bakunin, but with the benefit of hindsight it does appear a somewhat stage-managed affair. Bakunin ended up shooting a dummy of Bismarck, and Stieber’s men were miraculously right on hand to arrest him. Charges were not pressed against the Russian, who was quietly slipped out of Prussia never to return. Stunt or not, Bismarck was impressed and from that moment, Stieber became his chief problem-solver.
Bismarck set a special mission for Stieber, one far more important than any he had thus far attempted. Bismarck’s greatest legacy would be the unification of the independent German states into a single political entity – Germany. However, at the time these independent German states looked to Austria for leadership rather than Prussia. Before any unification could take place, there would have to be a showdown with Austria. Bismarck wanted Stieber to observe and report upon Austria’s military preparedness.
The most commonly told story about Stieber is that, following Bismarck’s request, he went into Austria disguised as a harmless pedlar. By day he rode from village to village selling religious statuettes; at night he frequented inns, discretely selling pornographic cartoons to drinkers. Months later, having toured the country and built up maps of the military defences and stores, he returned to Berlin to make his report. So accurate were his findings that Bismarck and General von Moltke were able to confidently plan a lightning campaign which saw Austria defeated in seven weeks.
The story is a good yarn and is perhaps based on some elements of truth. However, it grossly over simplifies the true scale of Stieber’s operations and downplays his true genius, which was the organization of intelligence gathering. After asking him to spy on Austria, Bismarck gave Stieber ten days to formulate a plan for establishing a network of spies there. Undaunted by the scale of the task, Stieber applied the same patient methodology common in police detective work to military espionage.
Through analyzing past methods, Stieber realized that traditional methods of espionage had produced only limited results. Amateur spies did not have the technical knowledge to collect intelligence of real relevance. Also, in previous wars only small numbers of spies had been employed, making it easier for enemy counter-espionage services to concentrate their resources and pick them up or to feed them false intelligence. Stieber wanted to flood Austria with an ‘army’ of observers, draining police resources to the point where surveillance became unfeasible. If a single agent was caught they would know almost nothing about the other spies and even if several were caught they would have so little idea of the grand scheme of things that the damage would be negligible.
Austria would be divided into districts, each with a ‘home base’ set up and controlled by a ‘resident spy’. To avoid suspicion, ‘resident spies’ would not be foreigners, but natives of the district. Their districts would also be quite small so they would not have to make any unusual travel which might be noticed. Their first duty would be to recruit a network of informers throughout their assigned district and collect their reports. These reports would be sent to a central headquarters in Prussia where they would be assessed. Always kept up to date, the processed data would be passed on to the appropriate political or military authorities, enabling them to respond accordingly. However, when very important information came in from the resident spies, special agents would be sent into Austria to investigate it further. With the groundwork already done by resident spies, the job of these special agents would be much easier.
Wherever possible Stieber wanted the ‘resident spies’ to be recruited from among local journalists. If this was not possible, then the resident spy was to attempt to at least use journalists among his informants. While generals in the Crimean and American Civil Wars had been frustrated by the interference of the press, Stieber had recognized how powerful journalists were becoming and how they had a right to ask questions without causing suspicion. Through their profession they would have already made contacts in government and military circles – contacts that were like a tap waiting to be turned on. But why would normally reputable journalists spy for Prussia? Stieber knew that the weak point of most journalists was that they were always short of cash.
Bismarck approved of the plan and went one step further, allowing Stieber to form a Press Bureau. The king had already expressed concern how the London-based Reuter’s Telegraph Company had a monopoly on the news and as such controlled public opinion. He wanted a Prussian news service and so Stieber entered the perhaps yet murkier world of news management.
The observation service began in Austria under cover of ‘press activities’. One immediate problem was in funding the rapidly growing network of spies. In solving this issue, Bismarck proved himself as wily as Stieber, telling him to recruit captured forgers and counterfeiters from Berlin prisons. They were careful not to print so much Austrian money the economy would be destabilized, but just enough for funding never to be a problem.
With Austrian counter-espionage duties handed over to inept, retired police officers, Stieber’s agents were able to uncover a great deal of important facts, namely:
• Austria also desired a united Germany, with a federation of states and them at the head. They believed this was achievable partly because most of the independent German states were, like them, Catholic, while Prussia was largely Protestant.
• Austria did not expect a war and was totally unprepared for one.
• The Austrian people were against war.
• Austria would take two weeks longer than Prussia to mobilize its armies.
• Austrian weapons were outdated and no match for the new Prussian ‘needle guns’.
Armed with these facts, Bismarck asked Stieber to stir up the Austrian population by spreading false stories in the Austrian press. The idea was to make the Austrian government so unpopular at home that it provoked them into declaring war on Prussia. At the same time, Bismarck asked Stieber to stir up trouble among the many different ethnic groups in the Austrian empire. Stieber hired 800 agitators from among Czech and Slovak dissidents who would start uprisings in Hungary, Dalmatia and Moravia should war be declared. He also made plans for a ‘Hungarian Freedom Legion’ made up of Austrian army deserters who would attempt to break Hungary away from Austria.
With war looming, Bismarck ordered Stieber to shut down his intelligence service in Austria so that there would be no clues that Prussia had spied on Austria in peacetime.5 Stieber’s concluding report to Bismarck included the allegation that Austrian emperor Franz Joseph had begun using a double on public occasions because of his fear of assassination. Additionally, two of the emperor’s closest advisors were highly paid Prussian agents and his wife was in love with an 18-year-old stable groom, while many members of his court had become opium addicts.
On 23 June 1866, ten days before the outbreak of the war, Stieber was placed in charge of protecting the king, Bismarck and the supreme Prussian headquarters on campaign, ensuring its safe movement through occupied terrain. To this end he formed a ‘Secret Field Police’ which accompanied headquarters through the war.
Although Stieber’s intelligence went a good way to deciding to go ahead with the war, it perhaps proved less effective during the actual conflict. The Austrians, Stieber noted, showed unexpected resolve and the Hungarian uprising was quickly quashed. If anything, the victory over the Austrians at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866 was more due to the superiority and rapid-fire of the new Prussian rifles than any great intelligence coup. At the end of the war, although Stieber was officially appointed a ‘privy councillor’, his failure to raise a Hungarian rebellion greatly rankled him.
The bitter tinge left after failure in Hungary would not fester for long, as Stieber was given even greater scope to build on his successes and failures during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). After defeating Austria, Bismarck decided upon the need for war against France and asked Stieber to spy on the country, primarily to warn of any French first strike. Bismarck told Stieber that money would be no object this time, as he had secretly confiscated funds from the Kingdom of Hanover, one of a number of smaller states incorporated into Prussia’s German empire, or Reich. Euphemistically dubbed the ‘funds of the Central News Bureau’, the use of the Hanoverian money meant that the costs of Stieber’s operations would not appear on the official Prussian defence budget and therefore his entire operation would remain secret from everyone.
In November 1869 Bismarck sent Stieber to Paris and had him investigate the new French Chassepot rifle and the much-dreaded mitrailleuse – an early form of machine gun. Stieber quickly learned the Chassepot rifle worked on the same principles as the Prussian needle gun and did not constitute as much a leap in technology as the French were boasting. The same applied to the mitrailleuse, which appeared to have been based on existing models dating back several decades. The mitrailleuse, Stieber reported, required a crew of three who could attain a rate of fire in the region of 1,000 rounds in three minutes with 66 per cent accuracy at 1,000 paces. However, the gun was prone to jamming and there was a high rate of misfire with its cartridges. Stieber also had serious doubts about its effectiveness against moving targets. His report concluded that the Prussians should fear it less than had previously been supposed.
While in Paris, this time posing as a journalist named Schmidt, Stieber began setting up a network of spies across France. Helping him with this task were several of the best agents from the war with Austria. Although Stieber knew that the easiest way to recruit spies was through the use of blackmail, he found this type of spy to be the least reliable. Instead he targeted officers and officials who needed large sums of money to pay off gambling debts and those who had been passed over for promotion, dismissed or otherwise disgraced. By making a systematic investigation into the finances of people with access to sensitive information, Stieber was able to draw up a list of those most in need of cash. He then arranged for them to receive a loan through a Hanoverian banking house with irresistible terms of credit. Once they accepted the terms of the loan agreement, they were well and truly in Stieber’s pocket.
Through these means, perhaps the most important piece of intelligence Stieber gained was that French troops were scattered round the globe defending the colonies or protecting the Papal States from the Italians. If France went to war, it would take time to recall these soldiers. Stieber predicted it would take France two full weeks to mobilize just 100,000 men against Germany. Bismarck told Stieber his information represented an ‘invitation to the German soldier’s boot.’
Stieber returned to Berlin, where his records office received thousands of dossiers on Frenchmen who might, with the right inducements, betray their homeland. Investigating other prominent people, Stieber began to build up detailed pictures of their lives, colleagues, wives, mistresses, secretaries, friends, house servants, recruiting as many as possible as spies. Stieber’s agents in Berlin also pored over lists of military and civil service promotions, always on the alert for those passed over time and time again. Once a potentially disgruntled candidate was identified, Stieber would send one of his undercover agents to recruit him.
Several of the major espionage coups were performed by an agent Stieber identified only by the initials ‘FM’. This agent reputedly made contact with and recruited a group of elite spies, all high-ranking opponents of the reign of French emperor Napoleon III. Stieber gave FM a free hand in running these spies and was rewarded with faith in the agent’s abilities when FM gained a copy of the French army’s deployment plans in the event of a war with Prussia. Having learned the location of these plans, FM obtained them by posing as a decorator and bluffing his way into the War Ministry with a ladder and a tin of paint. Once in the room, FM set up his tools and made a copy of plans in between decorating the walls.
The infiltration of agents into France proved much easier than with Austria. The operation was so successful even Stieber was surprised how many Frenchmen appeared willing to pass secrets to Prussia. He realized that these Frenchmen did not view their actions as treasonous, but saw themselves as liberators speeding up the end of an unpopular imperial regime. He boasted that even with agents in every significant military and political office in France, not a single one was discovered.
When hostilities commenced on 17 July 1870 Stieber took a very active role in the war and was given greater authority and more resources than during the Austro-Prussian War – including French-speaking officers. Bismarck again asked him to create a ‘field security police force’ to protect the king and his advisors. Added to this would be his duty to provide the German army with information on the enemy, to counteract the threat of enemy spies and to supervise what we might now call ‘embedded reporters’ – journalists travelling with the army. Stieber was also responsible for the supervision of postal traffic, which gave him a means to practise censorship.
A typical day for Stieber would begin with the arrival of couriers with reports and questions for him to answer. He could not neglect the news management of the war – press publications had to be supervised and foreign journalists provided with stories portraying the Prussian cause in a sympathetic light. Letters had to be checked and censored so as not to spread alarm at home, and all personally addressed mail arriving for the king, Bismarck and others had to be opened, looking for bombs or poison. During the night, or very early in the morning, reports from secret agents in the field would arrive, forcing Stieber to survive on an average of just two hours’ sleep a night with whatever he could snatch during the day. Twice a week he met with the king who asked for a summary of reports from agents in enemy territory. These reports were usually evaluated by comparing them with reports in the French press – other agents sending the French newspapers for Stieber’s scrutiny. Lastly, as suspected enemy spies were picked up, Stieber would interrogate them.
As the Prussian military juggernaut rolled into France, something of Stieber’s ruthless character is revealed in a letter to his ‘dear good wife’ dated 18 August 1870. In it he explained how French partisans were dealt with by the Prussian army:
Yesterday a French peasant fired on a wagon carrying Prussian wounded. But the joker was unsuccessful: two of the wounded still had good legs; they rushed into the house from where the shot had come and took the lad. They hung him from a rope suspended under his arms and slowly fired 34 times until he was dead. He was left there the whole day as an example.
Stieber began to use his spies to observe enemy troop movements. French soldiers, the spies reported, were extremely confident and expected a swift victory, so much so that their generals had not issued them with French maps, only ones of Germany. Spies were established in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons and Orléans, with others kept nearby so that Stieber could send them to where they were most required.
Stieber had a spy on Marshal MacMahon’s staff, who reported the French move to raise the siege of Metz. This information allowed Prussians under von Moltke to set a trap, which when sprung saw the French shut up in the fortress of Sedan. Here Stieber’s agents related the incredible news that Emperor Napoleon III was trapped inside the fortress with his soldiers. The French emperor was forced to surrender on 2 September along with 104,000 men. While Napoleon III went into exile in Britain, the Prussian king headed for Versailles to await the surrender of Paris, which was put under siege on 19 September.
Arriving at Versailles on 5 October a large crowd of ‘idle folk’ came out to meet the Prussian king, having been rounded up by Stieber. Among the onlookers were several curious foreigners, but the majority were Prussian secret police agents. From that time on, Prussian agents multiplied in the town with extraordinary abundance. Bismarck’s quarters were placed under strict guard, with police agents patrolling the street night and day. Stieber oversaw the surveillance of the town and began arbitrary and brutal arrests using the secret police. His officers and spies were notorious, searching and maltreating even the most upstanding of Versailles’ citizens.
On 13 and 14 October Stieber made detailed enquiries into the organization of the French police. His intention was to incorporate French police sergeants into the Prussian police with their wearing an armband in Prussian colours. Although the police sergeants did collaborate, they insisted on wearing armbands in the French tricolour for identification. Better assistance came from the local prostitutes Stieber protected in return for information. Stieber asked the prostitutes to inform on Prussian soldiers as much as on their French clientele.
Throughout their stay in Versailles the abuses continued. One of Stieber’s most trusted men, Lieutenant Zernicki, caused a scene when he asked the mayor of Versailles for 11lb (5kg) of candles to be taken to Stieber’s quarters at 3 Boulevard du Roi. When the candles did not arrive, Zernicki went to the town hall and threatened to put the mayor and the rest of the municipal council in prison. When one of the councillors asked Zernicki who he thought he was, the Prussian drew his sabre and called in some guards. Two of the councillors were seized and dragged off and were only saved when the local French commander went directly to Bismarck. Although Zernicki was told to keep clear of the town hall in future, he was soon promoted to captain for his activities in Versailles.
During the siege of Paris, Stieber faced and thwarted French attempts at aerial espionage. French balloons leaving the city had to be stopped because they were carrying messages to unoccupied parts of the country. For example, one balloon, the Galilée, was brought down by troopers of the Prussian 14th Hussars. Onboard were found 924lb (420kg) of letters and newspapers from the besieged city. The balloon’s aeronautes were taken to prison and then sent to Prussia to face a court martial. Because the balloons traversed the Prussian forward posts, the occupants were deemed technically to be spies and thus faced the death penalty. When dealing with balloons, Stieber found the newly invented Krupp anti-balloon cannon a double-edged sword. The guns proved so effective the balloonists were now almost always killed and were thus unavailable for interrogation. Later, when carrier pigeons replaced the balloons, the Germans sent hunting hawks after them and many messages were retrieved from round the necks of dead birds.
More decisive was Stieber’s investigation on secret communications between Versailles and Paris. His spies tracked down an extensive system of underground passages, which were being used to supply Paris with food. Every night up to 300 wagons passed through these tunnels with their wheels wrapped in cloth to prevent them making a noise. This discovery explained spy reports from inside the city that Paris had ample provisions for a siege. Stieber reported his findings to Bismarck, also pointing out that morale at home was plummeting because of the stalemate. With no end to the siege in sight, the order was given to open fire and bombard Paris. Until then the Prussians had refrained from indiscriminate firing on the city, but when they did results were almost instantaneous. After 5 January Prussian heavy-calibre artillery fired 10,000 shells into the city, destroying over 200 buildings. Stieber’s spies in the city reported that the storehouses had burned and people were killing cats and dogs for meat – they even reported the establishment of a rat market.
On the night of 23/24 January, Stieber’s agents inside Paris reported that a high-ranking person was coming out to negotiate. Stieber galloped back to his quarters and made arrangements to host the expected negotiations. After disguising his agents in civilian clothes, he prepared overnight lodgings for the French. ‘We lit a good fire,’ he wrote, ‘prepared two beds and, as the French believed that, like Versailles, we were dying of hunger, I did everything possible to procure some good food, desserts, pastries and so on.’ When the vice-president, Jules Favre, arrived at Stieber’s lodgings to spend the night, he had his agents watch him through the night, spying on Favre through a hole in the wall.
On 26 January an armistice was signed with very stiff conditions for the Parisians. Their forces had to disarm, abandon their fortifications and make a payment of 200 million francs within two weeks. When the Prussians entered the city, Stieber took French hostages whom he made walk ahead of the soldiers as ‘human shields’. Worse was to follow for France. On 1 March the treaty of Bordeaux was ratified, with France agreeing to pay a levy of 5 billion francs, and giving Alsace and parts of Lorraine to Germany. It was a disastrous conclusion to the war, which ultimately paved the way for further conflicts in the 20th century.
On 6 March the business was over. Stieber handed police matters back over to the French authorities and set out for home. For his much underrated part in the campaign Stieber received the Iron Cross. Schulmeister would have understood his pride in receiving it. On 17 March Stieber arrived in Berlin with the emperor and continued to manage the ‘Central News Bureau’. Although his attention was primarily fixed on the Social Democrat movement, he nonetheless expanded his espionage networks at home and abroad. As word of Stieber’s activities began to come to light after the Franco-Prussian War, so began the popular fear of ‘the German spy menace’.
The German secret service leading up to and during WWI was described by one of the most successful Allied spies during the war – a Netherlands-based businessman named Charles Lucieto. He considered the espionage system established by Germany as ‘gigantic’. Based in the Thiergarten in Berlin, the service consisted of three separate branches: political, naval and military.
The political branch was directly attached to the kaiser’s cabinet and was broken down into sections, each dealing with a single country. As its name implies, the function of the political branch was to gather intelligence on the political world that might be used to the profit of the Reich. The directors of this service had direct access to the kaiser, who maintained a lively interest in affairs of espionage. Its agents were the elite, usually drawn from the military and naval branches. Although it included members of the nobility, agents originated from all classes and sometimes even the criminal world. Agents were expected to obey selflessly and punctually and if for any reason the agent was ‘scorched’ – that is to say exposed – he could count on no official protection or acknowledgement. Because of this, such agents were paid extremely well from a ‘Black Chest’ for which the directors of the service were never called to account.
The intelligence arm of the Imperial German Navy was composed of four separate sections, including an Intelligence Branch, which was responsible for running agents and making reconnaissances. It also contained a Military-Political Branch, a Foreign Navies Branch and an Observation and Cryptanalytic Service, which, as the importance of radio interception became realized in the run-up to the First World War, grew into a large 458-man organization based in Neumünster.
The military branch of the secret service came under the direct supervision of the secretary of war and was responsible for supplying all military intelligence required by the German general staff. The service was divided into sub-divisions, each possessing both civilian and military agents. The agents were themselves divided into three classes.
The ‘Directors of Operations in foreign lands’ were the highest type of spy. Often retired officers, these were able to speak several languages fluently and were educated in technical and military matters, including topography, fortification and strategy. The Directors of Operations were expected to go after key enemy personnel, using blackmail to obtain the secrets desired by the general staff. In addition they were to supervise ‘Resident Agents’, corroborating and evaluating their reports, and maintaining contact through messenger spies, who ferried questionnaires and responses to and from the directors.
Separate from them were the ‘agents charged with special missions’. On entering the secret service, these agents were given a crash course of technical and engineering training by officers of the general staff. Once they had passed a stringent examination the agents were given posts in German embassies abroad. Independent from other spies, they were given great freedom to carry out their mission as they saw fit. The information they collected was encoded and sent to Berlin either with the diplomatic mail or by the embassy’s military attaché.
The ‘Resident Agents’ were the most numerous type of secret agent employed by the Germans. They were German nationals placed at the head of businesses or were self-employed and thus free to go off without attracting the attention either of friends or employers. Their commercial enterprises served as ‘cloaks’ for their espionage operations. Their businesses were often subsidized by the German secret service, which, by means of bogus business deals, was able to make payments to the spy. Although the intelligence they brought in was generally of low-grade importance, the sheer scale of it ensured the German military was kept informed of troop movements, fortification building and so on.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Stieber is said to have flooded France with such resident spies, with at least 15,000 operating there before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The first wave came in the guise of farm hands who began purchasing land and setting themselves up as farmers in their own right, by preference situated in the regions along the German border. More spies arrived as domestic servants, school teachers, professors and travelling salesmen. With money provided by the general staff, Stieber bought into the hotel industry, ensuring the largest and most prestigious international hotels were in German hands. Attracting a clientele of politicians, diplomats, generals and other members from the cream of society, German agents posing as hotel workers or prostitutes were in a prime position to overhear, steal or copy their secrets.
Stieber was behind the much publicized disgrace of the four-times French Minister of War, General de Cissey (1810–82). The general had been captured during the Franco-Prussian War and taken to Hamburg, where, although a prisoner of war, he enjoyed considerable day-to-day freedom. While captive, de Cissey took a German lover, the Baroness de Kaulla. After being repatriated at the end of the war, de Cissey became minister of war. A short time later Mademoiselle de Kaulla arrived in Paris to reignite the love affair. Unknown to the general, the baroness was working for and receiving funds from Stieber, who was very interested in de Cissey’s plans for restructuring the French army.
The matter came to a head in 1880 when the radical newspaper Le Petit Parisien accused de Cissey – now a senator – of communicating information to the Germans through his mistress, who they exposed as a spy. Although the editors were convicted of criminal libel and charges of treason could not be proved, it was shown that de Cissey had misappropriated the secret funds of his ministry and he was forced to resign. The great irony in this affair was that de Cissey had been the prime mover in creating a special section to counter German espionage and prevent a surprise attack.
One of Stieber’s most notorious achievements was the ‘Green House’, a high-class bordello in Berlin. Stieber staffed the ‘resort’ with police agents who monitored their patrons, drawn as they were only from ‘people of consequence’. Pandering to every imaginable vice, depravity and perversion, patrons were only admitted by invitation. However, these gratifications came at a price. Stieber would keep a file on each patron and when a favour was required, he would blackmail them by threatening to reveal their indiscretions.
A rare blip came late in Stieber’s remarkable career and involved a journalist. It concerned the news management of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 – a conference set up to agree the balance of power in the Balkans. The topics of debate were delicate and Bismarck wanted to keep them out of the newspapers. Not to be thwarted, the editor of The Times, John Delane, sent his Paris correspondent, Henri de Blowitz, to cover the story. Despite the presence of Stieber’s agents, who kept everyone under surveillance, a series of detailed ‘scoops’ began appearing in The Times. They began with the first day’s agenda and finished when a full copy of the agreement (the Treaty of Berlin) was published in The Times, almost as it was being signed.
Although Blowitz was suspected from the start, the secret police could not find any evidence of him meeting with anyone present at the debate. The truth did not come out until Blowitz’s memoirs were published in 1903. Before the conference opened, the journalist made an arrangement with one of the clerical staff. This ‘mole’ would write reports of the day’s proceedings and conceal them in the lining of his hat. He was then to hang the hat on a hat rack in the Kaiserhof Hotel. Blowitz – wearing an identical hat – would simply walk in, hang up his hat, dine and afterwards pick up the other hat on leaving.
Having succeeded where Pinkerton failed, by making the shift from police detective to military intelligence gatherer, Stieber must be viewed as one of the great spymasters in history. However, like so many other practitioners of the secret services, Stieber has been to a large degree demonized both at home and abroad. Despite his successes and although he was decorated many times, Stieber was an embarrassment to the Prussian military establishment. As early as 1867 von Moltke had established a rival intelligence bureau of his own. Many recognize in him the beginnings of the Nazi police state and more still have compared him to the propagandist Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945). He is routinely portrayed as a deviant and proverbial Bogeyman. The distaste he routinely inspires led one author to describe his rise to prominence as being ‘like some mushroom growth, up the backstairs of fashionable Berlin.’ When Stieber died, stricken by arthritis in 1892, his funeral, they say, was very well attended – not from well-wishers, but by people who wanted to make sure he was really dead.
In the interim, the king laid plans to attack Laudon and, driving him from the road in from Bautzen, to shove him back towards his allies. He had to possess this route for two reasons: (1) It would put the main army astride the road to Görlitz, and thus into Silesia; (2) Perhaps less importantly, it would open access into Zittau from Bautzen, breaking Daun’s lines-of-supply and communication with the interior of the Austrian Empire. This would bring Daun out swinging for a battle. Frederick knew that Daun would have to fight such a battle, or else retreat.
Frankly, Christoph was not at all sure of the intentions of the enemy opposite him, namely Retzow. It was decided that a reconnaissance of the area in question was in order. He galloped to Kleinröhrsdorf with a small body of men early on September 16. In a misty morning, with Prussian scouts all about, Baden-Durlach admitted he was unable to see what the enemy had in mind or even make out their strength. Without clear, certain intelligence, he was very reluctant to act. So the movement, which might have really aided the allied cause, was called off.
This whole episode is eye-opening. The timidity of some of the allied commanders in this war was often remarkable, and often quite crippling to their war effort. A strong contrast to the often head-strong men employed by Frederick in this same capacity.
The noteworthy Laudon was an exception to this rule.3 He demonstrated an uncanny ability to generally give a little better than he got in his encounters with the Prussians. Besides, Daun was not about to leave Laudon to his fate. The Prussians kept cavalry patrols out to counteract the irascible commander. Daun made sure reinforcements were prepared and sent to Laudon in case the king decided to try something.
This reinforcement was under our old friend Bülow, who had already demonstrated a knack for effectual command of a semi-independent nature. The Prussians, as was their consummate skill, chose to try one flank of Laudon’s to put in their stroke. Laudon’s left was at Fischbach, with his right at Röhrsdorf. On his far left, Laudon kept Wied with a force of Croats to cover the approaches to the Dresden road. Other forces were sent out to warn the Austrian commander in case Frederick might try something.
Just after midnight on September 16, alert scouts brought word to Török that suspicious movements were occurring near Copitz. Török strengthened his patrols towards Lohmen, and tried to keep abreast of developments. Suddenly, about 0700 hours, Retzow struck at Laudon. This initial charge was finally beaten back after great effort, but Frederick’s main body appeared then at Fischbach. Laudon shoved the Croats, led by Brentano, into an attack against the king’s advanced guard. It quickly became apparent that Frederick had too strong a force to provide a successful defense against. So he withdrew his men to Kappellendorf; here he quickly took refuge. About 1000 hours, the Prussians were cognizant of the movement, which brought Laudon closer to Daun’s main army. Laudon, for sure, had suffered a reverse, but, although the roar of Prussian batteries continued until late afternoon, the Prussian follow-up was most effectually snuffed out.
Daun was still inclined to keep to his posts, he was fully aware that Frederick was not quite strong enough to attack his main body in its present position. The play for time was actually a stand-off, but the weather was worsening by the day and it was an open question how much longer the armies could keep the fields. As for Laudon and the outlying detachments, they were still staying close to the main body as well.
The Prussians were not inclined towards timidity even before Stolpen. Retzow brought his force into Fischbach, while the king, with his goal of gaining the road to Bischofswerda temporarily on hold, returned to camp. He now awaited Daun and Daun was just stalling for time. Likely the marshal wanted to withdraw into Bohemia, but he remained cognizant of the weakness of Zweibrücken’s army. The latter would not be able to stand alone against the Prussians. This stand of Daun’s was almost unfathomable in Vienna. There the general view was that Daun, with the best army Austria had to put in the field, should be able to accomplish something of note during the campaign. All of this while some of the high command were castigating Daun for allowing the Prussian king, with smaller forces, to “harass and hem in the bigger [Allied] armies.” Additionally, the deteriorating state of the autumn weather precluded major operations for about a week and a half.
Frederick was now in a better position than he had seen for a while, but he had Daun’s big army to contend with. Prince Henry was charged off to keep track of Zweibrücken’s men. There was a wild rumor that Hadik was attempting to outflank Henry’s army, although what was actually happening was the Imperialists were trying to solve their supply difficulties. Nevertheless, Henry ordered Knobloch off with two regiments of infantry, a force of horse and Belling’s Hussars. This force almost immediately ran into, and subsequently captured, one of Zweibrücken’s supply convoys. The result was a virtual guarantee the Imperialists were going to stand pat on the defense.
The consternation of the allies worked in Daun’s favor. Among the allies, Hadik (probably the most capable of the Imperialist generals) was determined to do what he could to get a favorable return. Hadik deployed his troops to prepare for an enemy appearance. Kleefeld’s men were put down at Naundorf, other detachments took up at Freiberg (Colonel Joseph von Kamanrony) and at Burkersdorf (Ujházy). Hadik put his main force at Dittersdorf. These various positions were exposed to interference from Prince Henry. Prussian patrols gradually increased towards Freiberg. Knobloch’s forward elements crashed into Imperialist posts at Niederbobritzsch, and the direct result was tipping off the Imperialists there was a general offensive starting soon against them from Henry. Zweibrücken realized the Prussian intentions were to roll over allied posts at Freiberg. This caused Hadik to take matters into his own hands. The supply situation demanded that they act to head off the Prussian threat to their lines-of-communication.
Hadik rose and moved on Freiberg, unsure if Prince Henry were bringing back his whole army. If so, this could be a real problem for Hadik had just 600 men in his force. Meanwhile, the Belling Hussars had been unleashed to wreak havoc. In the wee hours of the morning of September 25, Kleefeld’s outposts received a nasty surprise when they were attacked by the Prussian riders. Without infantry support, however, it was clear the hussars could not stay. They fell back stubbornly to Sadisdorf. Kleefeld’s lines suffered no ill effects, and the enemy had retired. However, intelligence reports had Prussian patrols drawing close to Chemnitz. Hadik’s measured response was to strengthen patrols in that direction. Ujházy was unbuckled directly on to the town. A Prussian occupation force holding Chemnitz was present. They were loath to leave without “persuasion.” After some street fighting, the bluecoats finally retreated. However, Ujházy, with bigger fish to fry, simply left a garrison at Chemnitz and returned to his old post.
Meanwhile, Hadik was being reinforced (to about 12,000 men) with a view to conducting operations independently of the indolent marshal. With his troop strength growing, Hadik’s reconnaissance forces fanned out between the Mulde and the Saale. It was now anticipated that the Prussians would make their appearance somewhere in that general area. Simultaneously, Kleefeld’s men also moved forward. It was a most alarming state of affairs. Renewed supply problems now haunted Daun, and for the Imperialists, they had become a way of life in this campaign.
Winter was drawing close and it was becoming a concern of the allies as to where to plan for winter quarters. Daun’s strange inactivity could not help but seem to tip the balance of maneuver straight into the Prussian camp. To try to regain something of this lost opportunity, Daun was good enough to send one of his staff, the capable Major-General Johann Anton von Tillier, to discuss viable options with Zweibrücken. Daun had been busy again cooking up another plan for dealing with the situation. Baden-Durlach was to take a picked force of 8,000 men to press off for Görlitz, where he was to join up with Vehla. There they were to await the arrival of some support troops that Zweibrücken was to send to supplement the men Daun had earmarked for his new plan.
September 24, right on time, Baden-Durlach shoved off, from Nieder-Putzkau. If time was of the essence, however, this fact seems to have escaped the commander’s thinking. It took the greater part of four days for him to get to Löbau, still well short of Görlitz. Then, instead of pushing on, Baden-Durlach unaccountably called a halt at Löbau.
Things might have remained at this status quo but Frederick threw a monkey wrench into the whole works by suddenly going back on the offensive. Daun had a back-up in the form of Fermor’s Russians and had received firm promises of commitments of these troops. Once Zorndorf did not pan out to Fermor’s liking, the Russian commander and his legions more or less just faded from the scene. In the end, it may have had little to do with Zweibrücken’s decision to pull out completely from the plan. The latter had little faith in the scheme’s chances.
If that was not bad enough, the choice of leaders for this movement was not a good one. Hadik, the best man for the job, was not available to be spared. He was needed right where he was. Then, the capper, when Zweibrücken balked, Daun’s beleaguered plan was really in trouble. Zweibrücken also desired Daun to move from his side to attack Prince Henry; if the latter were rooted out, then Frederick’s position would be totally compromised. The Prussian king simply acted first.
On September 26 (1400 hours) the main Prussian force marched from Schönfeld, to form link with Retzow. Keith hitched to Arnsdorf, which Retzow had moved out from. The next day, Retzow and Frederick joined up at Rammenau. The Prussians all of a sudden had the initiative in their hands. Then, adding insult to injury, although DeVille intensified the effort against Neisse, he was making no headway. This put paid to Daun’s plan.
While Daun was anchored to his post at Stolpen, Laudon moved up on Bischofswerda. Frederick was a little surprised by this move. The king was going to make the same maneuver, except Laudon beat him to the punch. Evening of September 27, a strong Prussian recon was carried out near Schönbrunn. This really worried Daun. Enough so Daun was looking to reinforce Laudon immediately. With this view in mind, a large portion of the reserve under the Marquis d’Ayufe was pushed out to Bischofswerda. Meanwhile, some of Laudon’s men were involved in some skirmishing with Prussian detachments. This was developing the presence of the main Prussian army, which Laudon knew was very close. It was essential for the Prussians to get Laudon rooted out before they could proceed on with further business. This was clear to all concerned, including Marshal Keith, who had recovered quite nicely from his recent illness.
With this specific task in mind, early on September 28 the Prussians attacked the posts of Laudon rather forcefully. The marching troops were judiciously separated to make an attack easier to mount. Two of the columns roared against Laudon at Burka and Bischofswerda. An additional body of men railed against Laudon’s rear. In view of Laudon’s readjusted position, Daun felt it was essential to maintain communication with Laudon. Accordingly, General Baron O’Kelley von Gallagh und Tywoly, was pushed out to Drebnitz. The latter was packing enough of a force to form a link to Laudon. However, it is worth noting Daun never intended for Laudon to stay isolated at any time. As for Laudon (who finally retired to Nieder Putzkau after his clash with the king), he kept close to d’Ayufe’s men. It had been the latter’s effort, namely a fast paced move to join Laudon, that had kept his force safe when the enemy suddenly erupted. Laudon was able to extricate his men about 0400 hours with the loss of eight men captured.
Of course, the advantage was already starting to shift noticeably towards the Prussian side. This was a most disturbing state of affairs, as Daun was quick to point out in a parlous letter to Maria Theresa. Daun was so brash as to tell his Empress he dared not risk his army in any movements since the realm had no further resources at the moment. And the marshal rather surprisingly admitted although the Austrians clearly possessed the advantage of superior numbers, “he [Frederick] has many other advantages which offset this [one].” Which begs the question, “What other advantages?” Well, the Prussian standard, although much weakened by the war, remained one of the best in the world, and there was still marked reluctance to engage the bluecoats in battle on the part of some Imperial units.
Nevertheless, many in Vienna were decidedly displeased with the marshal’s “performance.” There were others who wondered aloud why the main Austrian army and the Imperialists, who had between them a great numerical superiority, could not work actively against Frederick. Kaunitz, among many, did not support the passive state of affairs that Daun encouraged.
Meanwhile, back with the Prussians, Retzow was assigned the role of advanced guard, and the rest of the army was to follow in his tracks in a few days’ time. Retzow promptly took to his duty, reaching Bautzen (October 1), driving off some of Daun’s Croat parties which had been deployed there. He punctually put in the supply wagons before advancing upon Hochkirch. Following this, the general paused with his men, and waited for the scheduled arrival of Frederick; the latter was to be up with the main body soon.
The one detail Retzow had overlooked and/or forgotten, in this confusing state of affairs, was to occupy the Stromberg. In the space of a few weeks, the “failure” of Retzow would have a big impact. Now we must clarify ourselves. Prince Henry often considered it a Frederician trait to heap the backs of others with his own shortcomings. “All his [Frederick’s] life,” wrote Henry, “he blamed his errors … [on others, i.e.] his generals.” Besides, the orders to Retzow do not appear to have been terribly specific. Still, this one oversight was to result in a severe rebuke for the Prussian king and his men. This evening, Retzow could gloat over a job well done, considering the horde of enemies hovering about. He routinely pushed over into Weissenberg and vicinity, and there his troops were when Frederick, with Daun (more or less as usual) not far behind, marched on Hochkirch in about a week.
It was the ardent desire of Vienna that Daun should stay as close to Zweibrücken’s force as possible while still tending to the other duties he had at hand. A hitch by the Imperialists back into the German Reich would be seen—and rightly so—in a very negative way. Vienna also, in this case needlessly, reminded the marshal of his obligations to the Russians. They had once required a detachment to join them, but Zorndorf had changed all of that.
Meanwhile as September lengthened into October, a short Prussian pause was required to get some supply entanglements ironed out. Scouts reported to Laudon that suspicious activities were afoot. This presaged a major offensive was imminent from the Prussians. When he was informed of this, Daun did what he usually did: rather than try to act decisively, he called a council-of-war while the army was still at Stolpen. Daun was only too aware of the continuing slack state of Swedish arms, and of the chronic tardiness of the Russians. Maria Theresa told him he would have to take the offensive himself to go to the aid of these allies, although the exact opposite situation should have ensued. Vienna would not hear of staying in camp at Stolpen in order to help cover Zweibrücken’s exposed posts near Pirna.
Indeed, Daun, hearing that Laudon by retreating had left the road to Bautzen open, quickly realized that his erstwhile impregnable camp at Stolpen would now have to be abandoned, for Frederick had but to turn south and sweep down upon Zittau, capturing the heavy baggage, magazines/provisions there in one stroke. To retire from Stolpen and move to get ahead so he could intercept the Prussians, just in case they did happen to be aiming for Zittau, had thus become Daun’s first priority. Secondly, if it could be accomplished, Daun intended to swing in front of Frederick and block his march on Silesia. Indeed, the last should have been the first priority in this business.
Even cautious Daun realized there was no other alternative; if he stayed immobile at Stolpen his already discontented soldiers would starve and there would be no ammunition for the guns and muskets. Besides, despite orders to the contrary, the marshal really wanted to be away from the Imperialists. The latter were an unfavorable influence on the whole Austrian army. Even Maria Theresa had to agree with that unfortunate summation.
Daun’s councils-of-war took time. Two such needless discussions were called, which served only to waste precious time. It was, therefore, four days after Retzow had already reached Bautzen before the Austrian army (October 5) finally pushed off. Covered by rainy, soaking weather and in pitch darkness, Daun’s discouraged men staggered along on the road through the Oberottendorf Woods to Neustadt and Löbau, south of Bautzen, and with both Frederick’s army and the Elbe to the rear. The Austrian move commenced at 1500 hours, with Laudon’s capable hands leading the van. Hours after, with the sun set, in three columns, Daun’s main army wound off, leaving their tents standing to deceive the Prussians. The Austrians were able to reach a long valley at Neukirch before dawn was breaking.
The Prussians did not bother Daun’s men beyond deploying two dragoon regiments with several infantry units, to harass the move. The Austrians of Colonel Count Merode, with little fanfare, attacked and drove off the intruders at Neider-Putzkau. In the event, “One Prussian battalion was totally destroyed.” The Austrians lost 327 men in the spirited proceeding. Before the morning was much used up, the Austrians were filing through the streets of Löbau and passing to Kittlitz, beyond which Daun carefully deployed. In one march, he had stolen some of Frederick’s thunder, not to mention that the Austrians were once again ahead of the king, between him and the route to Zittau. This time it was with the main army, not just Laudon. Daun could thus be rapid indeed when provisioning his men and keeping them supplied depended on swiftness. Speaking of Laudon, on October 7, he moved with purpose on Kleinpostwitz and Schirgiswalde. Daun posted his reserve under Baden-Durlach, meanwhile, between Reichenbach and Arnsdorf.
Within the lines that Daun now occupied, he could dispose of roughly 80,000 men: 50,000 of which were infantry; 28,000 cavalry; the balance made up of light parties and the artillery teams, the latter responsible for 340 guns. The main Austrian army, by itself, was superior in all respects numerically speaking, and, as a plus, Daun could boast the army had just won its last hurdle with Frederick, at Domstadl.
Frederick, after haggling along with his troops, sent back word to Dresden to have a second (and larger) convoy made ready for him and sent forward. He arrived at Bautzen on October 8, determined now definitely to march into Silesia, as the only viable option to Saxony. The following day, the king moved on Rodewitz. Bautzen was to be held in great force. Retzow grasped the Weissenberg locale while the getting was good, and Marshal Keith finally put in a belated appearance.16 Frederick would be compelled to wait, however, at his present location until the new supply train came in. As for the marshal, his new posts were in much better respects than the old accommodations at Stolpen. Frederick’s camp at Rodewitz and Bautzen offered him interior lines to move on the Oder, or, barring that, a retrograde movement on the Saxon capital. In the worst case scenario, the king would be able to, not only retain Dresden from the enemy, but also to drive them for the year entirely from Saxony. In the end that was precisely the result. This was a situation guaranteeing the displeasure of Maria Theresa’s allies. The French openly voiced their attitude at court, implying they would not have fought on past 1757 if not for the Austrians. King Augustus, from his locale in Warsaw, railed against what he perceived as virtual abandonment to the Prussians of his realm by an Austrian force so clearly superior in numbers. “Surely more could have been done,” thought the allies collectively.
As for Saxony itself, the war being waged over so much of its territory left little breathing space for more normal routines, such as planting/harvesting crops. All of the contending armies had drawn at least some of their supplies locally from Saxon farmers. The Prussians generally “misappropriated” what they needed, but the allies did their best to “buy” what they required. Usually, this would involve some form of paper exchange. Sometimes actual cash was given, but the usual method was to give out what amounted to an I.O.U. which could then, supposedly, be exchanged at a later time for cash or other favors. It does not take a great stretch of imagination to wonder how some farmers felt about their so-called “allies” arriving to clean out their crops. Could they trust the Austrians and Imperialists any further than their enemy, the Prussians? To his credit, Daun made a legitimate effort to curb the involuntary withdrawal of farm produce by his troops. Several guilty individuals were hanged for their parts in such deeds. Daun made sure that the executions were carried out in prominent locations, in order to help discourage such malefactors.
Whether Frederick had guessed at this stage that Daun would pull an about face and sweep ahead to block his march is unknown. In any event, he intended to remain at Bautzen and about just until the expected convoy could come forward, and then start for Silesia immediately afterwards.
The Hochkirch-Löbau road led to both Zittau, to which Daun would be only too happy to bar the way to, as well as towards Silesia. Frederick planned to use this fact to keep the enemy off balance and guessing as to where he intended to strike. Indeed, the king would find the normally cautious and slow Daun blocking the road ahead. Here the latter did pull a surprise, but Daun a week hence had an even bigger surprise up his sleeve.
October 10, the Prussian convoy reached Bautzen, and the Prussians at once rose and moved towards the villages and hills that Retzow was still holding in the distance. Retzow had kept his men positioned about Weissenberg since the first of the month, more than 11 miles from Bautzen to the east on the road. Frederick’s supply train made use of that road for its travel. During the march, a force of Daun’s irregulars—hovering about in substantial numbers—fell on it and the baggage just as they got past the defile at Jenkowitz, October 11.
The defenders drove off the attackers, but the harrying continued through the march; this attack was what led Frederick to suspect that a large portion of the enemy’s army, perhaps even Daun himself, lay ahead of his line-of-march now. The latter had already begun entrenching his army, spreading his men from Nostitz south-southwest to the Czernabog Heights—a position perhaps two miles long from end to end, although considerably thick. Daun put his headquarters at Kittlitz, with the usual screen of strong parties far out ahead of the army to give advance warning of the enemy’s maneuvers.
The latter pressed on, Frederick pausing at the high knoll where Hochkirch was, from there the country below out towards Zittau and Kittlitz, far and wide, was visible for miles. There, afar in the distance, and perfectly visible spread out for miles through the valleys/low terrain toward the Czernabog, in the manner stated, he discerned Daun’s large army. He was evidently intending to dispute the passage of the Prussians. Frederick was equally resolved to get the foe out of the way, so seeing what was obviously the entire Austrian field army in Saxony/Silesia present in front of his line of advance must have been an unpleasant surprise to him.
But the Prussian king could also be stubborn in his own right, and taking a rather rash course (in the light of hindsight), he ordered his army to halt right where it was and encamp. The rise of Hochkirch, which rose southward of that village, lay in a valley facing the Czernabog, up on Rodewitz and Kotitz. The army was positioned commencing at the last two places, the southern side standing refused as a wing at Meschwitz, just about a mile from Daun’s lines. This was in a precariously bad posture and quite indefensible without the Stromberg, which Retzow had forgotten to occupy.
Frederick’s adjutant, Gustav Ludwig von der Marwitz, was ordered to mark out a campsite within the position, but this gentleman must have known better than that; he made remonstrance, but in vain. At last, he refused to do so altogether, upon which he was placed under arrest. Marwitz’s only crime in this case appears to have been making use of his good sense. In his place, the king’s faithful (but dense) Koppel was appointed. Marwitz seems justified for refusing to carry out a bad order, not wishing to expose his army to the defeat that he normally did his duties without question.
Koppel made off with a party of men to the job he had been assigned by default. The enemy acknowledged his presence with wildly over aimed cannon fire. Yet, for all the responsibility that must be put upon Frederick’s shoulders for the disaster about to ensue, part of the blame must rightly be ascribed to Retzow. (As soon as the king learned of Retzow’s failure to take the Stromberg, he had him placed under arrest.) The importance of that rise is immediately evident. The sharp hill rose like a tall blade of grass out of the country between the Löbau Water and Kotitz, capped by a plateau well above the other rises around Hochkirch and its neighborhood. Frederick, realizing at once that he must have the Stromberg or his position would be indefensible, gave orders that it was to be taken at dawn the morning of October 11. Archenholtz, who was present at the battle, concurs that, without the Stromberg, the “Prussian encampment was untenable.”
During the course of the night, however, Daun sent troops to get hold of it, anticipating the Prussian maneuver. Even before darkness parties were already there, but additional men made it more secure. At dawn, a detachment of Prussians tried to carry out the king’s instructions, from General August Wilhelm von Braun and Major-General August Gottlieb von Bornstedt’s (Infantry 20th) quarters, but found the enemy (under Arenberg), too strongly posted to be dislodged. When the fog finally burned off, the light Prussian force struck about 1100 hours. The “assault,” such as it was, inevitably miscarried, and the arrival of enemy reinforcements was enough: the Bluecoats retired. Daun’s objective had been achieved. Henceforth, his army was left in indisputable possession of the rise, and the marshal promptly had strong batteries placed atop the dominating rise.
Previously, the king had believed that his foe was preparing to retreat into Bohemia/Moravia, but after the Stromberg debâcle, he decided to try other means, as Daun’s intentions of barring him from Silesia were crystal clear. Again it was an attack, engineered as usual toward a flank, in this case the Austrian right wing. The latter must be driven in, opening the Görlitz road.
The Battle of Hochkirch
Once this was accomplished, the road would again be clear all the way into Silesia. The enemy’s retention of the Stromberg meant it was quite apparent that the current position of the army was untenable. Determining not to prolong his stay under these circumstances any longer than necessary, Frederick decided to march on his new errand against Daun on October 14, and only then because a marching date sooner was impossible; due, in part, to the scattered posts of the men he could not arrange it before then.
In the Austrian sphere, Daun was having council with Laudon. That fiery subordinate told his commander that the enemy had chosen a dangerously exposed position, which, in combination with their inferior numbers (more than two-to-one against), they could not hope to hold successfully. Here, he said, was the perfect opportunity to take in flank, surround and maybe bag the whole Prussian army under its king at one masterful stroke. Daun did finally consent to take the offensive, but only under cover of night and only if the strictest secrecy were maintained so that the Prussians would not be tipped off to what was afoot.
During this period, Frederick actually helped his foe out by an uncharacteristic carelessness concerning guard posts and absolutely failed to send out reconnaissance parties in sufficient strength to detect distant enemy measures. Ironically, this was just when such precautions were much needed. General Lacy accompanied Daun, Serbelloni and a small party of Austrian officers who were out scouting the terrain surrounding the Prussian camp one night shortly afterwards when the entourage came under the fire of a Prussian outpost. Musket fire rang out, and Serbelloni got a hand severely wounded while making light of the largely inaccurate enemy fire. This incident did not prevent the Austrian marshal and his accompaniment of officers from riding out to reconnoiter the ground in front of and around Frederick’s position every evening so that very quickly the Austrians knew the lay of the land better than round their own encampment.
In the Prussian camp, the king found he needed Retzow far more back in command than under arrest, and so the “wayward” man was restored to his command. The damage already inflicted at the Stromberg could not be so readily dealt with. But Retzow again assumed charge of the Prussian left flank across at Weissenberg. The latter force, now about 11,000 strong (nine battalions), was quite out of supporting range from the remainder of the Prussian army. A glance at the maps of the battle will render this last statement to the reader all too plainly.
The ground thereabouts where a battle was about to be fought deserves an examination; in order to see just how far the combination of Retzow’s failure and the king’s rashness had taken his Prussians now. The place from which the battle received its name stood at the northern exit of the rises from the Czernabog. Here, spread out along the tip of the mountain down the northern side, lay the village. Its rise was taller than any near it except for the sharp Stromberg off to the right. From the valley below where the main Prussian army was stretched out, Hochkirch was conspicuously visible. The recently (1717) constructed village church/churchyard were at the zenith of the hill on this end near the southern exit of Hochkirch, which was on a sort of plateau there. The road to Löbau ran through the village, a detour there branched off to Reichenbach. The rolling ground was terminated to the left of Hochkirch, and separated from the Czernabog by the intervening heights; but deployed along the northwest extremity Laudon with 3,000 men (mostly Croats) lay hidden in the hollows there. Ziethen was opposite at Meschwitz, separated by the branch tributary from Laudon. Daun had pushed the latter forward, to be in as close proximity as he could get, and his force lay immobile in concealment. The Prussians were oblivious to his presence. Laudon’s Austrian command post was at Wuischke, at the lower end of the tributary. The remainder of the terrain there was cut up by numerous tributaries and overhanging rises, all leading back towards the Spree near Bautzen.
The two armies lay in the following posture from October 11 to the 13: Frederick’s, his center about Rodewitz (the headquarters), Rammuritz, on to the neighborhood of Kotitz and Laskau. In front of the latter, a battery—of 20 12-pounders and six lighter guns, so 2/3rds of heavy-caliber—had been emplaced, with guard forces of three battalions of grenadiers on both flanks, this work ending forward of the pond adjacent to Kotitz. To the west, Prussian posts were scattered from the all-important defile at Dresha on to near Hochkirch. The king’s headquarters was about two miles from Hochkirch, Dresha itself about a mile northwest of Rodewitz. The Prussian right, under Keith, was positioned from Hochkirch south and from Sornssig to the W. Two free corps, those of Colonel Angelelli (FB 4) and J. A. K. Du Verger (FB8), were about half a mile from Hochkirch. These latter were expected to act as advanced post for the Prussians in that direction, and to serve up pickets as well. However, this position was isolated and virtually valueless for viewing the thick woods.
A second, albeit, smaller battery (of a strength of about 20 guns), was in place atop Sornssig Height, which was the next beside Hochkirch’s rise to the south. The pickets and outposts of Frederick’s men were stationed in the woods only as far as the lower hills and Jauernick; the rest of the dense forests on the side of the center and right being heavily patrolled by (and under the control of) the Austrians. It goes almost without saying that the Kuppritzer-Berg, higher than the surrounding ground, was of decisive importance. The dense undergrowth of bushes and trees ran from the end of Hochkirch straightway to Brietendorf and even beyond. Within this cramped ground, the king was in ignorance of the enemy scouting parties that might be hovering about. If they appeared, he counted on the batteries taking care of them. This was a nearly fatal mistake.
The whole extent of the army in fact, excluding Retzow, still over four miles away near Weissenberg, was nearly five miles long; not including Ziethen’s cavalry or the pickets. This was far too lengthy for an army only as large as Frederick’s. Within this position, the strength of the Prussians was estimated at a bare 27,000 men; including Retzow, the army with the king was about 38,000 men all told. This army was composed of the following: 20,000 infantry (in 35 battalions); 10,000 cavalry (in 73 squadrons); light troops, and an artillery train of approximately 200 guns.
Most of the Prussian guns were positioned south and southwest of Hochkirch, in country facing Daun’s army in closest proximity. But the posts held were far too extensive for Frederick to hope to successfully hold in a battle against the larger army at Daun’s command. Daun’s headquarters were at Kittlitz, on the road facing Weissenberg, which joined just before this route crossed the branch to Retzow’s neighborhood on the other side. On the extreme right, a large battery and force lay on the Stromberg—about five miles distant from the formidable Prussian battery at Rodewitz—the line extending to the rises southeast and round in a concave to the northwest, under Arenberg, who had some 20,000 men with him. There were six regiments. He had been placed to separate the two Prussian forces: those of Frederick and of Retzow. In addition, he was to seal off the approaches to the Görlitz-Löbau road from that end, should the foe attempt to sneak through or outflank the Austrians there. On Arenberg’s left, were 40,000 men under the direct supervision of the marshal. The latter body stretched across the hollows and hills in front of Kittlitz, and constituted the big Austrian center. In elaborate and strong works that Daun had, true to his natural inclination, ordered constructed almost the moment of his arrival in that locale.
The center was positioned from the Nostitz bank of the Löbau Water, far behind Jauernick, the last considerable village before the Czernabog. The Austrian army was holding a position some seven miles long, not including Laudon. Daun’s men, when drawn together in a “proper” form, could cover (with a single line five ranks deep) a distance of more than three miles. In contrast, Frederick’s, if put in similar posture, could cover a little more than 1 1⁄2 miles. As for Laudon, he had extensive parties of Croats flung out into the thick woods just short of the Prussian posts at Hochkirch, his force being mostly horsemen. To the rear of the main army a little more than eight miles to the east on Reichenbach, Daun had taken the necessary precaution of placing a reserve consisting of 23,000 men under Baden-Durlach which had a double duty: while providing the needed reserves if necessary he was to bar the road to Görlitz should the enemy contrive to make it to his position. From Kittlitz to Löbau was a scant two miles, although some 20 from Zittau.
The distances between the opposing armies at Hochkirch were alarming. The pickets were very near, not more than ½ mile really separated them. With the enemy in such superior strength and holding better positions to boot, Frederick’s subordinates tried in vain to talk him into breaking camp and either go forward or back but not to stay immobile. Keith, for example, bluntly told the king: “If the Austrians leave us quiet in a position like this, they deserve the hangman” Frederick replied, with a confident swagger familiar to readers of his history, “It is to be hoped that the enemy fears us more than the rope.”
In the low hollow below Hochkirch the opposing pickets were only cut off by the intervening ravine. Archenholtz, for one, thought the king encamped so close as “a mark of contempt and disregard of their [Austrian] forces.” The Austrian pickets were stronger, meant to conceal the impending stroke.
Frederick had been making his plans to march. On October 12, he rode over to Weissenberg to discuss the plan he had drawn up with Retzow, under which the latter was to move on the morning of October 14, crossing over to and joining the Prussian left. Then the whole army was to move upon Baden-Durlach’s position, and get him shoved out of the way (in much the same fashion that had been used so effectively against Laudon at Bischofswerda). Following this a speedy march was to be made, with the Görlitz road now exposed, straight into Silesia. As it happened, the king planned for this maneuver to begin under cover of darkness on October 14–15, so that his men could be at Reichenbach and Schöps (a little hamlet northwest of Weissenberg) by dawn, before Marshal Daun could do anything about it.
By then the main Austrian army would not have a prayer of being able to move to aid Baden-Durlach before his lines could be compromised. Frederick, after explaining his plan to his subordinate, gave Retzow the appropriate orders then rode on to survey the ground thereabouts, after which he returned to his main camp. The maneuver was originally scheduled for the night of October 13–14, but Frederick had been forced to delay it for 24 hours in part because the wagons could not be brought forward from Bautzen in time. On this same October 12, Laudon and Daun had discussed the surprise stroke they had planned. The crux of this plan was the following (assuming the Prussians would be caught flat-footed in the early dawn): the Austrians, in their various groups, would cut off and hopefully hack to pieces the surprised Prussian army.
Just after nightfall on October 13, Daun himself—with the best troops of the army—was to push off through the woods south of Wuischke. These the Prussians could not scout properly because Laudon and his men controlled them. In any case, the marshal was to lead the men through the undergrowth until they reached the edge of the Prussian right in front of Hochkirch Height, near Sornssig, then attack the foe in the pre-dawn. The march of this main force was to steer south, then veer towards Steindörfel, Waditz and the Prussian right. Once there, the troops were to wait until the steeple clock in Hochkirch Churchyard announced 0500 hours before going forward.
Around the Prussian camp, the rest of the army was to draw out and wait until the enemy’s right had already been overrun before the Prussian posts before each section were struck. The entire army was thus to be brought to bear after all, so the plan was certainly not stretching goals. The desired end was within reach. Daun’s own contribution to the scheme is uncertain, but this was the first battle he ever precipitated. It was also, sadly for the Austrians, the only time the marshal would pull off such a slick maneuver upon Frederick. To cover his intentions from the enemy, Daun ordered large clumps of the forest cut down and new lines of abatis/entrenchments built, so giving Frederick the impression he was merely digging in all the more and thus had no plans for anything beyond pure defense. The woods had already been noticeably thinned by ceaseless activity in preparing the already formidable Austrian front. In the end, Daun was able to fool the foe completely.
Frederick appeared almost lulled into sleep. Meanwhile, the marshal’s men took to the woods with axes in hand to cut down literally hundreds of trees, in the immediate vicinity of the Prussian center and right. By the next day, October 13, all was prepared. As the short autumn day waned, the pace quickened noticeably within the Austrian lines, as if they were preparing for some maneuver or expedition. Frederick perceived this although he would not admit it, perhaps believing Daun was preparing for one of his customary retirements, perhaps on Zittau. The king had mounted patrols, pickets scattered round the edge of the thick curtain of trees nearby, but he was convinced, no doubt from past experience, that Daun would never mount an attack, especially against an army led by himself.
After darkness fell on October 13, Daun gathered his picked force of near 40,000 men and led them off through the woods on their appointed course. Behind them, the Austrians had left the campfires burning, an old ploy designed to give the impression they were still there. Officers made their presence known, shouting out orders to units that could no longer hear them. The sounds of cutting timber continued to reverberate. There were “workers [who] spent the whole night felling trees … [while they] called out to each other and sang.”
In the meantime, the main column reached its destination—the jumping off point before the Prussian camp—without interference. Laudon, over by Wuischke, was also moving into attack position. Here the marshal’s men stood in three varying columns of troops, waiting for sound of the bell announcing 0500 hours. On his end of the Austrian formation, Arenberg took his men past the Stromberg towards Laskau, where the bluecoats had their big battery on the left of Rodewitz. The muzzles were aiming into the woods, in case the Austrians should try something. Arenberg was waiting for his cue. This would be when he had evidence (either visual or otherwise) that Daun’s main body had already overwhelmed the Prussian right between Hochkirch and the battery. Plenty of such evidence would be forthcoming.
Between these bodies, with support from auxiliary forces—these to apply pressure all along the Prussian camp—there was a good chance of overwhelming the foe. The attack was calculated to hit when it was least expected, adding to its effectiveness. The auxiliary forces were meant to annoy, divert, and confuse the Prussians to keep them off balance. The design for the small columns was necessitated by the thick woods and the geographic position, which would have made utilizing the entire army as a single unit impracticable.
General O’Donnell was to lead such an auxiliary mission in the rear of the Prussian position north of Hochkirch itself; his command (like Laudon’s) consisted largely of cavalry, 20 squadrons of horse and only two regiments of infantry. O’Donnell’s command consisted of: 36th and 38th Infantry; 19th Dragoons, 4th and 33rd Cuirassiers and the old command of Luchessi, now led by Lt.-Gen. Buccow. Next in line was Laudon’s men and then Daun’s. To the right of the latter, again more to annoy than to attack, a force of 600 infantry, supported by the 1st and 38th Dragoons under Wiese, next to Field-Marshal Colloredo with the 7th, 26th, one battalion of the 57th Infantry, as well as the Mainz regiment supported by the 12th Cuirassiers, was to attack. Arenberg was next in line, and north of him stood Buccow with 37 squadrons of cavalry. He had the unique distinction of leading an all cavalry assault column in the impending action.
The main pressure had to be exerted by Daun/Laudon against the Prussian positions in and about Hochkirch. Here depended the whole success or failure of the proposal. Far to the rear, Baden-Durlach, responding to orders, was moving up to do battle with Retzow out beyond the water near Weissenberg. The army was waiting only for the jump off.
In contrast, the greater portion of the Prussian army was still in bivouac, the men little suspecting the unpleasant surprise which the enemy was preparing for them. In the thick woods amid the formidable undergrowth, the way was now sufficiently clear to provide no obstacle to the attackers. The Prussians had suspicions, but nothing more.
Before the hour of 0500 on that fateful morning, October 14, Daun’s men reached their assigned attack points. A number of Austrian “deserters” made their way to the Prussian forward posts and were admitted to the lines. When the time came, they accessed weapons and started firing at their new “friends.” These men had a tough job. The main body was to strike and roll over the Prussian posts between the big battery and Hochkirch, just where the enemy’s army was at its strongest in terms of terrain and the additional man-made obstacles. On the left, the troops of Laudon were preparing to pounce upon Ziethen’s unsuspecting cavalry (he had three battalions, 15 squadrons, holding the westernmost end of the Prussian line). As for Arenberg, he was poised before the Prussian left, anchored between Kotitz and Laskau.
In spite of the surprise which the Austrians pulled off, there was nothing that could be called a rout. This fact is directly attributable to the tough training that these soldiers of Prussia were subjected to to make them fierce in battle. The looked for thrashing might have been expected in a lesser army, but Frederick’s men, though brought out prematurely in a morning surprise, formed and fought a pitched battle, with more order than could have been expected under the circumstances. Perhaps the conditions were better than many histories of the battle have implied. Certainly there had been deserters from Daun bringing in reports that the Austrians were moving, and we have already observed the hussars had put out the alarm.
The artillery teams of the battery in front of Hochkirch had gone to post about 0300 hours that morning, waiting for the usual demonstration of enemy outparties. Generally for about a week, the enemy had been sending Croats/Pandours out to harass the bluecoats. Elsewhere in the predawn, there were still pickets, outparties, and mounted sentinels about, so that when the battle began the Prussians at first believed it was merely the usual demonstration. The horses of the Prussian cavalry stood saddled through the night, waiting for the horsemen. Seydlitz apparently “bypassed” the king’s directive by unsaddling his horses and then shortly after countermanded the order. This was a violation of Frederick’s stand down order. On the southward end of the big battery and right flank stood the duly vigilant guard forces. Under such circumstances, the Prussian army could hardly have been caught napping (if readers will pardon the pun).
Meanwhile, out in the thick woods, several men who were less than enthusiastic about the Austrian cause picked this very dark night on which to desert. As the rank-and-file soldiers were not privy to the attack scheme, these men could provide little help beyond telling the Prussians the army was on the move.
When the appointed time drew near, the king’s men thought there might not be the usual showing at all. Then some men from Angelelli’s Free Corps, catching the foe at a glimpse advancing through the woods, opened a rapid, deliberate musket fire upon them, which precipitated the opening of the battle. A confused struggle broke out then and there, and raged on in the thick brush for ½ hour or more, the Prussian outparties all the while being gradually forced to give ground under the weight of numbers from their forward positions. This fight was assumed back at camp to be nothing more than the usual, but instead of tapering off after a time, the clash became more intense and got closer.
The artillery teams stationed south of Hochkirch turned their guns towards the southern end of the outworks and fired, concluding obviously if the enemy were in strength then they would have artillery to reply with. Receiving no reply, the batteries were then swung round at the direction of the fighting. They were taken under fire and promptly overrun by Laudon’s advancing troops, who had come forward upon their rear from Meschwitz and Waditz. One of our great contemporary historians, Georg Tempelhof, present near the Great Battery, managed to get off about “fifteen rounds before I received a blow that knocked me senseless.” Daun was simultaneously sweeping in from the front. Shortly the entire section of the Prussian line there was in enemy hands, and some of the bluecoats had yet to realize that a battle was raging at all.
The Austrians now burst through the undergrowth on all sides of the camp, and a confused, mostly hand-to-hand struggle was quickly taken up. The Prussians, at last awake, made a fierce, determined resistance, but finding themselves on the southern end all but surrounded by the far more numerous Austrians, they had to pull back. This extrication was accomplished only with the use of the bayonet, and the troops paused a short distance to their rear. Ziethen, by now mounted and ready, charged the surging Austrian formations, broke some, and before they could retreat, killed a great many of the enemy. But Ziethen’s stamina could not stay, and he likewise drew back. The cavalry, to their credit, did do their best here. The earlier Prussian debâcle at Kolin, in sharp contrast, had seen the Prussian horse very ineffective.
At length, the Austrians, although they did indeed have to earn their success the hard way, aided by superior numbers, pressed the thinning Prussian line back upon the battery, which they finally took. The grenadiers of Wangen and Heyden were unable to stem the relentless Austrian advance. Heyden led grenadiers from the brave 19th and the 25th infantry, along with Wangen’s men. These two units, in direct support of the battery, fought very hard, some of it in hand-to-hand combat, before yielding to the inevitable. A counterattack drove them back out, though Daun, coming up with overwhelming reinforcements, again pressed the foe back and retook his prize. The battery changed hands many more times before the whitecoats, in irresistible mass, were finally able to push Frederick’s men beyond reach and that important post was irretrievably lost to them.
Meanwhile, Major Simon von Langen, with the 2nd battalion of the 19th Infantry (General Karl Friedrich Albrecht of Brandenburg-Schwedt), seeing the general tide of the fight edging back upon Hochkirch, flung himself and his men into the place and took post in the Church/Churchyard, strengthening it as quickly as he could combat the enemy. His arrival was fortuitous for Lieutenant von der Marwitz, originally commanding a squad at the churchyard. Marwitz, desperately wounded in the chest, continued to exercise command until Langen’s arrival. The stroke against Hochkirch had indeed been a surprise. Marwitz was captured and subsequently died in captivity.
Saldern’s 15th Infantry, on the Pommritz Heights, lost heavily in killed/wounded and prisoners. 618 men, plus 13 officers, “fell.” Other units were in deep trouble as well. A thick fog had formed and the dawn was breaking in dense darkness. Hochkirch itself was soon on fire, whether started deliberately by the Prussians or however ignited is not clear, which lit up the battle now raging about it. The attackers poured into the village, through the narrow streets, quickly overlapping the barricaded defenders. Langen’s men fired obstinately against the Austrians who charged the churchyard wall, while other Prussian forces outside recoiled and regrouped to come on again and retake Hochkirch. The enemy kept pouring in new troops, reaching a strength of seven full regiments.
The king tried to reassure his troops that the sound of the fight was a mere Croat exercise, but Captain Karl Ludwig von Troschke’s intelligence that the redoubt south of Hochkirch was already in enemy hands and their advance was pressing on relentlessly took him aback. About then, one of 23rd Infantry (Forcade’s) battalions launched an unsupported attack, but after an initial burst, it had to beat a hasty retreat when the Austrians threatened to overlap it. Langen kept his men steady and riddled those white-uniformed opponents with heavy musketry. Nevertheless, the Austrians soon had burning Hochkirch cleared of Prussians round the churchyard, then redoubled their effort to seize it as well. The converging Austrian blows naturally forced masses of Prussian troops into the narrow streets of Hochkirch. This included men outside of Langen’s command area, although, with graphic detail, the streets were said to be running in rivers of blood. The crowding was so bad that the bodies of the dead were still held in their upright postures.
Steady concentrated fire swathed the attacking line, but the intruders, nothing daunted, kept exerting pressure against Langen’s position. Langen might have done more had his ammunition been more plentiful (remember the Prussian army was not expecting the surprise attack). But with the men down to a few rounds apiece in many cases, he had no option but to order his troops to abandon their hotly contested post and cut their way through the thickly-packed ranks of Daun’s men, who had advanced, kicking and clawing for every yard, past the place. A few of the Prussians from the churchyard did indeed make it back to their own lines, clearing the way largely with the bayonet. But the greater majority were killed in a hopeless struggle with an enemy too numerous to beat, and there and then got cut down; Major Langen, a fine Prussian officer with a potential for a great future, being mortally wounded himself—going down with 11 distinct wounds.
Frederick had his suspicions, meanwhile, but so dark was the dawn and so thick the fog that even Keith, who was present on that side, was not aware of the intensity of the fight. For fully an hour, while the action escalated into a full-fledged battle, Keith and all concerned there hastened to find out what was really going on. Most of the army was by then aware that an unusually severe struggle was raging on the southern end of the camp, but just how involved was the struggle was not known. By 0600 hours, the Prussians had been forced to give up Hochkirch, but strong reinforcements from the as yet unengaged center and left were reaching the sight. These revitalized the surprised and fought out defenders, and made possible tough counterattacks which forced Daun to fall back at some points momentarily.
Retzow’s 6th Infantry lost 335 men in one of these counterattacks west of Hochkirch, with its participating neighbors, the 20th of Bornstedt and Wedell’s 26th, lost 500 men, respectively. Von Geist was mortally wounded in a counterattack trying to retake the big battery. Meyernick’s 26th Infantry was attacked by Austrian cavalry, and then launched an attack northwest of Hochkirch. The regiment had suffered severely; only 150 men survived to cut their way through the surging Austrian mass. The cavalry had its share as well. Baron Schönaich’s 6th Cuirassiers, in a devastating counterattack, hacked up the Austrian 44th Infantry, taking 500 prisoners and a standard.
Ziethen ordered Major-General Krockow to lead these horsemen into an attack against the milling Austrian mass to the south of Hochkirch. Krockow’s 2nd Dragoons stayed put north of Rodewitz. Krockow told the troopers around him that “we must show what kind of people we are.” The Schönaich unit did, as we have observed. The valiant Krockow was mortally wounded in the attack. The foe was just as hard-pressed. The Austrian 44th Infantry (Clerici) was badly used, although it did receive honor as the first Austrian regiment to overrun the battery at Hochkirch. Then Ziethen’s hussars, losing Major Seelen to a battle injury—he had to be taken from the field—were struck by a decisive cavalry charge led by Lacy. The latter, leading three companies of mounted grenadiers, pushed hard against the Prussian flank. Laudon joined in an attack against Ziethen’s faltering command, pressing his Croats from the left against a Prussian line that was beginning to fragment, opening gaps between individual formations that rendered the entire line vulnerable.
Major-General Bredow’s 9th Cuirassiers blunted the advance of O’Donnell’s surging cavalry, forcing it to fall back from the edge of Hochkirch. Pennavaire’s 11th Cuirassiers rolled over O’Donnell’s left, taking three standards. Colonel Wackenitz’s 13th Cuirassiers beat back an Austrian attempt to surround Hochkirch.
The constantly growing Austrian foe would not be denied momentum for long, and they compelled the bluecoats in their turn to retreat. In the far right, Laudon tried again and again to make his way into the Prussian rear, but Ziethen would have none of it. The action between these forces was ferocious. Elsewhere, Keith, getting the sense of what was going on at last, came hurrying forward, toward the battery under Hochkirch. By then, it was Daun’s, though not for long. Keith brought with him whatever bodies of troops could be hastily gathered. Upon awakening, Keith was already apprised of the desperate situation of the battery. He pushed the Kannacker regiment to the front and rode with it, bringing every man he could find.
He knew, whatever else, that battery would have to be retaken, and held if there was to be any hope of gaining the victory. His last words of encouragement for the king read like a story out of a novel. He had a report issued that he would hold out to the last man, and, on a more personal note, “I doubt whether we … [will meet] again.” Keith’s men shoved the enemy out of the battery, but was immediately attacked by a powerful mass of Daun’s surging troops and had to draw back a little, his men paused at that point and waited for aid from other quarters.
Keith had ordered Itzenplitz’ 6th Infantry (about 0600 hours) to retake Hochkirch, behind which he urged up General Kannacker’s 30th Infantry to its support. It would lose half of its men at Hochkirch. At length, the punishing fire from the Austrian guns forced Itzenplitz to fall back upon the supporters, while the Preussen regiment penetrated the village and even reached the churchyard, where Langen was still fighting it out at that moment. After a long wait, and not receiving any direct assistance, Keith had to draw off and leave the battery in the hands of the enemy—for good this time. The Prussian advance, though valiant, was futile. It constituted a patchwork attack rather than an orderly stroke. Keith’s hastily contrived force could hardly hope to sustain itself against an Austrian line that bathed it with concentrated, crashing volleys.
He shoved the Austrians who opposed his retreat out of the way with the bayonet, having been wounded himself twice in the right chest and surrounded by a great number of his dead and wounded men. His groom, John Tebaye, witnessed Keith receive a mortal wound. Keith fell dead right into Tebaye’s arms, who was quickly carried among the retreating mass of Prussians towards the rear. When he did manage to return later to collect Keith’s body for decent funeral, he found all of Hochkirch (even the churchyard, where Langen’s valiant resistance was done) humming with the enemy. He could not reach the site, but the Austrians themselves discovered and buried Keith with honor, General Lacy being prominent in these proceedings. “[Keith] was buried with all the honors of war.”
Meanwhile, Frederick, hearing news that Keith had been repulsed by an enemy who were advancing with unconquerable force, for the first time finally realized just how serious the situation was. He had already dispatched troops to the right to help Keith and his struggling men When word arrived that Keith had been killed, the king ordered Prince Franz of Brunswick and Moritz to take their men and move at once to support the right wing forces engaging the enemy near Hochkirch. Charles of Brandenburg-Schwedt then sped off as well, and the king himself leaped to horse and galloped off to see to the matter himself. The attention of both armies was turning that way. The Prussian infantry packed into Hochkirch’s streets were being frittered away in useless close range fighting and needed a change of direction. Frederick, being the general that he was, realized this as soon as he reached the scene.
The reinforcements from the Prussian center had just approached Hochkirch when the 26-year-old Franz, at the outskirts, had his head sheared off by a cannon shot. His men, jumped as they swept forward, were brought to a grinding halt by concentrated Austrian fire, then, hit by strong enemy formations, they were soon stalling out with heavy casualties. Now a heavy fire fight was opened between the three regiments of Prussians that the king brought forward and the Austrian defenders. In spite of his efforts to press home the attack, Frederick simply could not get the advance going again. The Austrians, forming a front line facing west against the king, more than held their own.
Prince Moritz rode almost directly into the Austrian lines, mistaking the enemy for friendly troops, due to the darkness and his myopic vision. His troops had just been repulsed badly in their attack and were falling back. Moritz, realizing his error, turned and rode off after them, but not before he received a painful wound for his trouble. He was riding a little while after on the road to Bautzen, and was picked up by enemy irregulars before he could receive medical attention.
On the field, Frederick’s hastily assembled units (mostly Wedell’s 26th Infantry), escorted by the king himself, came riding along into the thick of the fighting, with his men at double pace behind. As he steadied the faltering 26th, his horse was shot from under him, seriously enough so that he would have to mount a new charger, after which, he rode on, leaving Hochkirch to the left, but found on reaching the gap the fog clearing off, the enemy massed in huge force in front of the tributary. Laudon finally dislodged Ziethen with heavy pressure, and the Austrians now anchored solidly on Steindörfel, the Bautzen road and Waditz. An Austrian cannon shot exploded close to the king here; he and his entourage were showered with rock and dirt.
Keith’s counterattack came about 0630 hours, but the arrival of Austrian reinforcements (led by Lacy) stemmed the Prussian advance and the battery was left in Austrian hands. That battery was plastering away now at its former owners. There was no option left on this side. Frederick knew he must retire.
The Prussian right had been thoroughly driven in, Ziethen had fallen back and Laudon was now in his place. Everywhere, the king’s troops were facing superior enemy forces. Frederick turned and rode back towards the Prussian center, ordering his men to reform into a closer, more compact body to answer the Austrian blows. The 5th Infantry of Saldern, joining with fragments of additional nearby regiments, formed a patchwork rearguard. This body formed a semi-circle between the Rodewitz road and the Czernabog. Saldern was still being pelted by Austrian cannon. The capable Saldern inspired confidence with his bearing at a moment when others seemed about to lose their’s. Archenholtz says Saldern’s valiant efforts prevented the enemy from taking full advantage of the situation.
This battle position was formed between 0700–0800 hours, so in only a few hours of fighting the Prussian right had been defeated. Major Möllendorf was ordered to the Dresha Height, to occupy it before Arenberg had the opportunity to do so. The king was quick to realize that the dominating rise, above the village, stream and pass, was essential and had to be held against the foe if the position were to be maintained. Möllendorf moved as hastily as he could to the task he had been ordered, and did indeed grab the Dresha Pass before the enemy. Meanwhile, Ziethen, by now having reorganized his troopers, moved his squadrons to the mounds of ground above Kumschütz, Canitz and vicinity, with his front facing Bautzen and Jenkowitz (towards which was the only line of retreat), Kumschütz being at the other end of the rises.
Frederick sent orders to Retzow, still near Weissenberg and not yet committed to serious engagement, to march hastily to join the main body. Retzow had not been entirely ignored, for Baden-Durlach, advancing lethargically from Reichenbach, drew out against him in long lines and actually made a weak attack at about 0730 hours. This was the weakest effort of the whole battle, but even so it did seriously delay the needed reinforcements that Retzow could provide until it was finally dealt with. Even before the attack on the Prussian left, the assault against the right finally ended. None too soon!
Laudon remained dormant after mauling Ziethen—it could have been that he had orders from Daun not to proceed further. The main force of the Austrians, perceiving the crucial position at Dresha occupied by the foe, pushed out to take the key to the battle there on that side.
This assault was supposed to have been launched with cavalry, but seeing the post there well secure, the horsemen withdrew without a blow. Daylight was increasing and the whole field-of-battle becoming visible for the first time. For the rest of the battle, Daun assumed a characteristic static pose on the rises near and at the battery with Laudon opposite; both of these commanders spent the time reshuffling their forces, which had become confused in the sudden attacks. The battle there was winding down, just as the fight for the Prussian center was developing. Arenberg launched his troops in a general attack against the thoroughly awake troops of the Prussian center. His stroke was made in broad daylight, with the bluecoats waiting on him. The Austrian subordinate had been instructed to remain stationary and wait until the action near Hochkirch was over, and only then go forward.
He carried out his orders, but the result was that his attack line quickly bogged down and could go nowhere. With little success to show for heavy losses, Arenberg wisely halted his attack to await the progress of the battle elsewhere. Nearer to the main force, Lacy, Wiese and their men made attacks against the Prussian center from the road/stream in front of Laskau (here the terrain sloped downward as soon as one passed the creek).
Nowhere, though, could the Austrians make any further significant gains, and their losses were negating what progress they were making. It was 0800, and the Battle of Hochkirch was entering its third hour. Frederick’s army was holding post, in spite of heavy losses and spreading confusion. The Prussian king was preparing to retreat through the Dresha Pass, and Doberschütz, for he knew that the battle was lost. But first the enemy’s clutching advance would have to be blunted. The Prussians were now too weak numerically to sally out against the superior Austrian force and so were forced to receive the foe in the manner they chose. In short, Frederick could not, without endangering the safety of his entire army, take advantage of any mistakes the enemy might make. This factor, in combination with the larger numbers of the Austrians, were the major advantages for the Austrians on this day.
The Austrian attacks were concentrated mostly in front—against the final major battery in Prussian hands, at Rodewitz—now the key to the Prussian center. Arenberg, seeing the powerful enemy battery taken now, was preparing to renew his attack when Retzow’s advance (led by General Duke Eugene of Württemberg), four battalions and 15 full squadrons, at last made its presence felt. Retzow had finally escaped from Baden-Durlach’s pinning attack. Eugene headed at once across the brook near Weissenberg and on to the vicinity of Dresha, crossing the stream and shortly reaching Belgern (here he detached a small party to hold that end of the battery) then swung to face the enemy there. His maneuver was crucial.
The little battery formed a salient between the stream and the forces at Kotitz, near where Arenberg was positioned. The latter took the newcomers under fire, and prepared for a fight, but repented as soon as Retzow himself appeared with the main body of his troops. By the time the latter appeared, the sun was up and shining brightly, making long shadows across the battlefield. The time was about 1000 hours. Upon the arrival of his still relatively fresh left wing, Frederick, knowing that there was no sense in subjecting his beaten army to further torture, ordered an immediate withdrawal through the Dresha Pass on Doberschütz. The last Austrian strokes were weaker, indicating that Daun’s men were tiring as well. The armies had been at it for more than five hours by then, so this was certainly understandable. The Prussians disengaged, Arenberg drew back, and the rest was anticlimactic. The firing gradually ceased, and the Battle of Hochkirch was effectively over. It was just past 1015 hours.
Frederick ordered the retreat to Klein-Kammin (some 4 1⁄2 miles northwest of the field). The army made an orderly withdrawal to a position there, preferring that to a general retreat in the full sense of the word. Möllendorf and Retzow played the parts of watchdogs to guard the retreat of the rest of the army. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow for the old veterans, many of whom had never known defeat—apart from Kolin, where the army was by no means decisively beaten. Lt.-Col. Saldern had been instrumental in his efforts allowing time for the extrication. As for Retzow, his efforts at the close of the battle allowed him to be “again taken into the royal favor.” Saldern’s experience really paid off at a critical juncture. He had a mere five battalions and he skillfully maneuvered his troopers by anticipating the shelling of the Austrian guns. “By means of this expedient, Saldern accomplished his withdrawal by zig-zag movements.” Saldern knew it would take a few minutes to resight the guns.
The king himself was in a state of virtual shock. Mentally, he was haunted by the knowledge that he was largely responsible for the disaster. The regiment of Wedell, panicked by the view of Prinz Franz’s decapitation, had been personally rallied by his Majesty. Now the subaltern Bareswich approached Frederick, in company with 30 soldiers from the 26th Infantry. He presented three enemy colors to the great leader, whose sash was turned by the blood from his beloved mount. His coat tattered, the Order of the Black Eagle ripped away, and general exhausted statements to General Retzow’s son, an aide-de-camp, that he “regret the number of brave men who have died … [at Hochkirch]” leave a very human impression of a troubled man. Also, unlike the defeat at Kolin, which was more like a battle started that turned sour due to unanticipated problems, that of Hochkirch was out of control from the beginning.
Daun’s army, looking around from its positions on the hills more than 5 1⁄2 miles long, inexplicably chose not to interfere with this movement, but was a mere passive spectator to the march. Daun spent the time reforming and reorganizing his men, allowing a golden opportunity to do something really significant against the enemy. His passivity negated the victory. He allowed Frederick to sneak away, just when he had him. As the king freely admitted in his History of the war, “Daun … did not appear to have gained success.” None of this prevented the marshal from informing Vienna of his “great victory.” Daun, about 1100 hours, sent one of his adjutants, Major von Rothschütz, speeding towards the Austrian capital with the news. Indeed, a pursuit right there would either have thrown the Prussian army into a disorganized retreat or else forced it to fight under circumstances so unfavorable that the issue would be hardly in doubt. Lest we forget, another defeat must have uncovered both Silesia and Saxony to reconquest.
It was not to be. Between Kreckwitz on one side and toward Belgern and the stream on the other, Ziethen and some cavalry were shielding the line-of-retreat, the movement being brought off without a hitch. The bluecoats reached their destination easily, and particularly worthy of note was that Seydlitz, although not having had a distinguished day at the battle, at the head of his horse—108 squadrons—covered the movement on Doberschütz.
Daun stayed in camp with his army only a little longer. Shortly the force, which had fought so fiercely for the battlefield, gave it up and retired back on the lines at Kittlitz and Reichenbach. Readers will note this is the opposite of what Daun should have done. He left only a detachment to hold the tortured field.
Thus closed the narrative of the Battle of Hochkirch. It was to be the last victory of Daun over the Prussians led by their king in battle, although he would win a decisive action against General Finck at Maxen a year after. This encounter was a hard-fought battle, but Hochkirch had none of Zorndorf in it. The losses the two armies suffered were the following: Frederick lost approximately 5,381 men/119 officers (5,490 of all ranks) killed or captured; 4,060 wounded/missing; total, 9,450 men, or over ¼ of his manpower. This loss was certainly terrible, as any loss involving human life always is, but nowhere near what could have been expected under the circumstances. In material, Prussian losses were 101 guns (nearly all lost in the two batteries at Hochkirch and Rodewitz), as well as most of their tents and camp equipage.
One of the biggest, most immediate consequence to the king was the loss of Field Marshal Keith. Keith was another of the ilk of men who were like General Winterfeldt, the king’s confidant up until his death in 1757. The body of Marshal Keith was at first gathered up unrecognized among the dead of the Battle of Hochkirch, although Daun and Lacy both recognized the corpse later. Marshal Daun expressed great sorrow over the demise of Keith. The Austrian high command had him buried with full military honors. The Prussian king, on his side, grieved as much as he dared under the desperate circumstances. In 1759, at the order of Frederick, Keith’s remains were belatedly exhumed and brought back to Prussia. He was buried, again with great sorrow, in the Potsdam Garrison churchyard. The fortunes of war had been grim for both sides. The whitecoats suffered a grievous loss on their side as well. The eldest son of Marshal Browne, Colonel Joseph Browne, was killed in this Hochkirch battle. This episode helps cast light upon the large number of Irish officers who frequently served in the armies of Maria Theresa, often in high command situations. What a contrast with the Prussian service! Most of the higher-ranking bluecoat officers, with the exception of men like Keith, were German-born.
Daun’s losses were surprisingly greater. He had about 90,000 men present, and had 5,939 killed/wounded (325 officers and 5,614 rank-and-file), with about a thousand prisoners, and, most shockingly, over 2,500 deserters who left the ranks during the march through the thick woods, making for an aggregate total of 9,500 men, or ⅛ of his force. No doubt a great many of the latter made their way to the Prussian camps, where their stories of large troop movements in the woods had met a mixed reaction before the battle even broke forth.