The Prusso-German Revolution in Military Affairs, 1840–1871 Part I

The term “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) became decidedly fashionable in the course of the 1990s. It lies at the heart of debates within the Pentagon over future strategy and has gained increasing prominence in Washington’s byzantine budgetary and procurement struggles. Yet few works throw light on the concept’s past, help situate it or the phenomena it claims to describe within a sophisticated historical framework, or offer much guidance in understanding the potential magnitude and direction of future changes in warfare.

From colonial times Americans have sought force multipliers against an unforgiving physical environment. The man who masters the machine, Hank Morgan rather than John Henry, is a dominant archetype. The Western hero combines moral force and technical proficiency: righteousness sustained by a six-gun in expert hands. The heady visions of supremacy through technology found throughout U.S. policy and military–professional literature through the 1990s and beyond derive both their substance and their persuasiveness from this underlying cultural predisposition.

American analysts have in consequence defined revolutions in military affairs as technological-organizational asymmetries between combatants, usually embracing three distinct but interrelated areas. The first and most obvious is straight-line improvement in the capacity to destroy targets. Second is an “information edge” generated through exponential and synergistic increases in the ability to collect, process, and distribute information. The third decisive aspect of the American-style RMA is the provision of doctrines, skills, and force structures necessary to optimize the potential of new materiel. The fate of French armor in 1940 and of the Arab air forces in 1967 demonstrates the uselessness of hardware without appropriate concepts for its use and competent personnel effectively organized to implement those concepts.

The Prussian army from the 1840s onward provides an almost classic model of technological innovation that acted as catalyst for radical changes in tactics, operations, military organization, and state policy. Those changes in turn allowed Prussia between 1866 and 1871 to alter the very structure of the European state system. The “Prussian RMA” thus fits neatly – at first glance – into the American conceptual framework. But it also entails a stern warning: within twenty-five years all other European great powers except Britain had adopted its chief technological and organizational features and had nullified any asymmetric German advantage. Above all, the other powers also had a strategic answer to the “semi-hegemonial” great power that German violence had created in their midst: defensive alliances to blunt the offensive power of the swift “German sword.” The collision in 1914 between the conceptual, technological, and organizational traditions founded in the Prussian RMA and the resistance of Germany’s belatedly but similarly equipped neighbors produced a cataclysm: a four-and-a-half-year Weltkrieg – on the pattern of the U.S. Civil War – that ended in German defeat.


Revolutions in military affairs are most likely to occur in peacetime through the efforts of armed forces that perceive themselves as laggards under the existing rules of the game. It was not accidental that in the early 1980s the Soviets began addressing their future prospects in an arms race driven by technologies they could not match without denying the essence of their regime.4 Prussia in the decades after 1815 faced a similar riddle. But it involved personnel rather than materiel.

The staggering successes of the French revolutionary armies make the decision by Europe’s generals and politicians after 1815 to “reprofessionalize” their armed forces appear anomalous. The common explanation for Britain’s continuing pattern of long-service enlistment and the use by France, Russia, and Austria of troops conscripted for periods from five to twenty-five years is political. Rulers ostensibly prized soldiers so recruited for their dynastic and regimental loyalties, their relative lack of susceptibility to radical ideas, and their willingness to shoot down adherents of those ideas when duly ordered.

That interpretation is only partially valid. The French military system that had called the tune for Europe from 1793 to 1815 had depended heavily on mass. It had also shown a disconcerting tendency to outgrow its nervous system. Even under the emperor’s hand, the conscript masses of Borodino or Leipzig had proved significantly less effective than the relatively lean striking forces of Lodi, Marengo, and Austerlitz. In the post-Waterloo era, a wide range of military figures who included some of Napoleon’s own marshals advocated a return to smaller forces susceptible to precise control: quality rather than quantity. The increasingly demanding tasks of nineteenth-century warfare on a battlefield ever more swept by fire demanded men who had served long enough to become thoroughly proficient.

That was the pattern established in the armies of the great powers and defended by most contemporary military theorists. It was in that context that Prussia after 1815 found itself in the position of a short-money player in a table-stakes game. Even before Napoleon crushed the Frederician army at Jena and Auerstädt, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had argued for fundamental changes in the relationship between army and society, an “alliance between government and people” that would allow Prussia to remain a great power. The reformers’ initial aim of creating citizen-soldiers swiftly evolved into the notion that military service was the essence of citizenship itself. The years in uniform, whether in war or peace, became the defining element of a man’s public identity.

The resulting mass army depended heavily on popular enthusiasm; it passed the test of war in 1813–15. But the possessor of such a force risked inheriting Napoleonic France’s position as an objective threat to European order. That position Prussia had neither the will nor the capacity to sustain. After 1815 Prussia was concerned instead with maintaining and aggrandizing itself within the stable continental and regional environment created by the Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation. Its national strategy in these years depended on what would now be called crisis management: modest initiatives employing a mixture of negotiation and compromise, underwritten by the credible threat of controlled force for limited objectives.

Prussia’s economy in any case could not support the kind of army that post-Napoleonic France developed: a force ready for war from a standing start, emphasizing quality, yet large enough to give its possessor great-power status. The Prussian army depended on men recalled from civilian life. It had divided the kingdom into military districts, each responsible for mobilizing a wartime army corps. In its final Biedermeyer form each corps consisted of two divisions, each division of two brigades, and each brigade of two regiments. But only one of the regiments was an active army formation, and its peacetime strength even on paper was little over half its wartime establishment. The Landwehr, a citizen militia improvised in 1813 and placed on an equal footing with line units by the army’s fundamental law, the Wehrgesetz of 1814, provided the remaining regiment.

That structure, similar to if more drastic than the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam “roundout” system, made it virtually impossible for Prussia to wage anything save general war. Even active regiments required large infusions of reservists in order to take the field. Far more significant for operational purposes, Prussia’s military organization assumed, indeed required, the equal efficiency of the active and Landwehr formations: their missions were identical. But the natural increase in the population after 1815 combined with cuts in the military budget made impossible the financing of a full term of active service for every able-bodied man except at the expense of basic requirements such as barracks, uniforms, and weapons, and the reconstructed network of fortresses deemed vital to Prussia’s security. The army therefore ended up with a system analogous to the Selective Service machinery employed in the United States from Korea through Vietnam. The principle of universal military obligation enshrined in the Wehrgesetz remained a principle; in practice the army frequently reduced its three-year term of service, assigned more and more untrained conscripts to the Landwehr, and left an ever-larger segment of the male population untapped.

The resulting “Landwehr recruits” were often worse than useless. Post-1815 experience showed that the army’s drillmasters could teach a mass of several hundred men the rudiments of company drill in a few weeks if they worked the recruits to exhaustion. The recruits might also receive some sense of group identity and of the meaning of military order. But they were destined to remain ignorant of skirmishing, fieldcraft, marksmanship, and the other essential skills that modern war and the Prussian drill regulations demanded.

The Landwehr’s creators had expected that popular enthusiasm would ensure participation in its drills and exercises. But in the long peace after Waterloo the Landwehr lost its novelty. Socially or martially ambitious young men no longer sought its commissions. No public eager to watch the show and buy drinks afterward for its brave defenders attended its drills. The civic zeal the reformers had postulated as the basis of the Prussian military system proved difficult to sustain within a political system that even in 1813–15 had never abandoned its deep suspicion of public enthusiasm.

By the 1840s Prussia thus had the worst of both worlds. The state’s international position called for a front-loaded army able to deter potential rivals and to undertake swift and decisive operations for clearly defined objectives, yet the institutional legacy of the reform movement was a ponderous blunt instrument ill-suited to policy wars of any sort. Moreover, the reliability and efficiency of that instrument were open to serious doubt.

The revolutions of 1848 and subsequent lesser crises evidenced sullen compliance rather than patriotic eagerness among the reservists and Landwehr men summoned to active duty. Discontent tended to be personal rather than principled. Family men in their thirties, forced to abandon farm, shop, or profession for a long-discarded uniform, were likely to feel anything but happy when cheered on their way to glory by bachelors ten years younger who had been omitted from the call-up list. Prussia’s semi-willing warriors hardly seemed the raw material of glorious victory in future conflicts.

One possible solution involved using technology as a force multiplier. The impact of industrialization frequently appalled Prussia’s officer corps, which long remained suspicious of the social, political, and environmental consequences of the factory system and uncertain of the appropriate degree of state involvement in the process of economic development. The vitalist heritage of the French Revolution and of the military reform movement – the emphasis on enthusiasm and willpower as the key to victory – also limited the army’s eagerness to exploit new technologies.

The artillery, a logical focus for innovation, improved by stages. The cast-steel breech-loading rifles that Alfred Krupp developed and the army adopted in 1859 represented an incremental rather than an exponential improvement. Early cast steel was not self-evidently superior to the traditional bronze. Nor, in an era of fixed gun carriages, did breech-loading offer a significant increase in artillery firepower. By the time a cannon was hauled back into firing position after recoil, a reasonably efficient gun crew could have it reloaded from either end. And like all continental armies in the 1850s, the Prussians were uncertain whether the definitive field gun of the future would be a long-ranged rifle or a large-caliber smoothbore best able to fire shell, shrapnel, and canister at short and medium ranges: the Napoleon of Civil War fame. Until after 1866 Prussian field batteries were armed with both types of gun in a fifty-fifty ratio.

The Prussian RMA instead began with the rearmament of the infantry.15 So many stories surround the breech-loading needle-gun that it has been long forgotten that the rifle was designed around its cartridge. The percussion caps that replaced flints in the first quarter of the nineteenth century had a nasty habit of spraying fulminate and metal fragments into the shooter’s face when struck by the musket hammer. A German gunsmith, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, proposed instead to insert the explosive into the base of the bullet itself and detonate it with a firing pin long enough to drive through cartridge paper and gunpowder.

Dreyse originally used this early approximation of a safety cartridge in a muzzle-loading smoothbore that the Prussian army adopted in small numbers in 1833. These first needle-guns were dangerous to load: premature discharges were inevitable when ramming a paper cartridge onto a firing pin. Powder gases rapidly corroded the firing pin, and replacing a broken pin was difficult. The obvious answer was to develop a breech-loading mechanism. Sporting weapons had been employing such systems for years, but existing designs were too fragile or complex for military use.

What kept Dreyse going was connections. Regimental officers were interested in the potential of his design, and – above all – the Crown Prince, the future King Frederick William IV, and his brother Prince William directly supported Dreyse’s efforts. Without that personal element and the institutional momentum that the adoption of a few hundred of Dreyse’s original muzzle-loaders had created, the needle-gun might well have been no more than a footnote to military history like its American contemporary, the Hall rifle. Instead, Dreyse was able by 1836 to offer a working model of a breech-loader for consideration – a breech-loader with a rifled barrel.

For four years the army tested the rifle for accuracy, reliability, and durability under all possible conditions. One of the needle-gun’s advocates declared that with 60,000 men armed with this weapon, the king of Prussia would be able to determine his frontiers unilaterally. The official testing commission praised the rifle as a gift of providence and recommended that it be kept secret until “a great historical moment.” The 60,000 needleguns ordered on 4 December 1840 were stored in arsenals until enough were available for the whole army or until a major emergency – whichever came first.

Dreyse’s breech-loader combined a rate of fire higher than that of a smoothbore musket with the accuracy of a rifle. Its user could reload and fire lying down – no small advantage for skirmishers. Breech-loading also eliminated the danger of ramming charges on top of one another in case of a misfire, and soldiers no longer had to have a certain number of teeth in a certain position to bite the cartridges. Yet doubts persisted. In the Prussian army, rifles had been long-range, precision weapons used by an elite corps of specialists: the Jäger. Over decades they had developed their own version of what has been called a “gravel-belly” mentality. The Jäger wanted a rifle that could hit small targets at a thousand paces and more. Yet the front-to-back combustion of the needle-gun’s cartridge confined its effective range to seven hundred paces at best. It also produced an irregular trajectory that lowered the range scores of even the best marksmen. For the rest of the Prussian infantry, the extraordinary demands it placed on fire discipline were the primary stumbling-block to the needle-gun’s acceptance. Fear of introducing a weapon because it uses too much ammunition is an easy target for ridicule. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, many combat-arms officers have come to regard logistics as a religious experience: prayer into the radio causes supplies to appear from heaven! But under mid-nineteenth-century conditions it was difficult if not impossible to refill even cartridge boxes in battle. The needle-gun’s ease of operation seemed to invite an automatic reflex of loading and pulling the trigger that could end in terrified flight when an empty cartridge box recalled the shooter to reality.

The revolutions of 1848 forced the army to move from theory to practice: the storming of the Berlin Arsenal on 15 June put a number of Prussia’s carefully guarded secret weapons into rebel hands. The army then issued them to units assigned to counterinsurgency operations, and the needle-gun repeatedly proved its worth both in street fighting and the open field. Its virtues were moral as well as material: even inexperienced troops armed with the new rifle were firmly convinced of its superiority, and by extension of their own. In 1851 the government ordered that Dreyse’s breech-loaders be used to fill all future requirements for infantry small arms.

The limited operations of 1848–49 highlighted the importance of training. Men carrying needle-guns did in fact tend to open fire at excessive ranges and fire off their ammunition almost randomly. The new rifle’s firepower also highlighted a problem already of deep concern to the Prussian army: the conduct of the tactical offensive in the face of modern weapons such as the shell-firing cannon and the Minié rifles sighted to a thousand yards that Europe’s armies began introducing in the 1850s.

The resulting exponential expansion of killing zones and killing power, demonstrated in the Crimea in 1854 and northern Italy in 1859, jolted the Prussian army in a way essentially different from its counterparts. All available evidence indicated that Prussia’s active regiments, to say nothing of the Landwehr, were probably incapable of sophisticated tactical movements, especially in the early stages of a war. Skirmishing against modern rifles might well prove wholly beyond the skills of reservists and especially of Landwehr troops. Avoiding long firefights and coming to close quarters with the enemy as rapidly as possible seemed the wave of the future or at least the most promising option.

Yet the popular lack of enthusiasm for military service mentioned earlier was an unspoken argument against the practical prospects of headlong attacks. Prussians committed to such an operation were likely to be neither well-trained nor well-disciplined. They might indeed charge like hell out of temporary exaltation. But no one could predict the direction and duration of their movement or assume that many of them would live long enough to run away. Nor could the Prussian army base its doctrine and training on defensive tactics. In principle it was clearly preferable to maneuver the enemy into attacking. But in practice, Prussia’s infantry would in the end have to advance against modern firepower. The question was not whether it could advance, but how to do so without crippling losses, and how to convince the troops to attack for a second or third time.

The Prussian army tested skirmish lines organized into small squads under the direct control of a noncommissioned officer. The 250-man company column increasingly replaced the massed battalion during field exercises. The army expected companies to make up in flexibility and firepower what they lacked in mass. But all these innovations highlighted a structural problem. The army’s trainers faced persistent difficulties in implementing the new methods. Fire discipline, unit cohesion, and battlefield control remained deficient. Through the 1850s critics – by no means all of them anonymous reactionaries – wondered whether breech-loading rifles might not be leading Prussia down a blind alley to military disaster. The Prussian army’s annual exercises, never a showpiece, became an embarrassing joke. A French observer declared one performance so bad as to compromise the whole profession of arms.

Clearly the needle-gun by itself could not serve as the fulcrum of military revolution. A possible alternative involved developing innovations that offered strategic and operational opportunities rather than tactical ones. Railroads had made their first appearance in Prussia in the early 1830s. Their promoters, men like Friedrich Harkort and Ludolf Camphausen, had argued for the military potential of steam transportation. The army’s initial reaction was more positive than often recognized. But planners and commentators nevertheless feared that railroads might facilitate enemy invasion, and warned against neglecting the construction of a paved highway network in favor of a new and untried innovation. The limited carrying capacity of early railroads also sharply restricted their ability to move troops and materiel except in token amounts. As late as 1836, a pamphlet accurately demonstrated that a full-strength Prussian corps on foot could cover in sixteen days a distance that would require twenty by rail. Nor were railroads without potentially serious consequences for state policy. Hermann von Boyen, the reform era hero reappointed as war minister in 1841, believed firmly that the widespread use of railroads might make mobilization plans dangerously rigid and mechanical. The army could find itself wrongly concentrated and the state forced into war through railroad time-tables.

Despite growing military pressure for nationalizing or subsidizing the railroads, or at least for requiring private companies to conform to military requirements in particular cases, commercial factors largely determined Prussia’s routes and track systems. Even the Ostbahn, built after 1848 at government expense to cover the six hundred kilometers from Berlin to the Russian border, served economic and political rather than strategic purposes. Nevertheless the growth of track mileage and the steady improvement of rails and rolling stock on the private lines significantly enhanced the military potential of the railroad. During the revolution of 1848 the railroads allowed the army to deploy swiftly mobile reaction forces of a few battalions to actual or potential trouble spots. In the spring of 1850 Moltke, then chief of staff of the Rhineland-based VIII Corps, used local railroads in field exercises. In May 1850, when steadily worsening relations with Austria led Prussia to order mobilization, the army recalled almost half a million men to the colors in the expectation that the railroads would move them to the frontier.

Prussia had intended a classic exercise in deterrence: a show of force that would convince Austria to modify its position rather than escalate. The result wavered between tragedy and farce. No significant plans for using the railroads existed. Loading and scheduling was haphazard, and frequently separated equipment and the units to which it belonged. Men, animals, and supplies piled up at loading centers and shuttled randomly from station to station. Food, water, and sanitary facilities were all lacking. Prussian chaos contrasted sharply with Austria’s relatively troublefree movement of 25,000 men into Bohemia by rail within less than four weeks – an achievement long-forgotten but legitimately described as “the birth hour of modern military transportation.” In the aftermath of the 1850 fiasco the Prussian general staff began to develop systems for the large-scale transport of men and supplies by rail. But the thrust of expert opinion still perceived the railroad as a defensive tool through which to reinforce threatened sectors and maintain communications between the fortresses deemed vital to Prussia’s security. Railroads only became part of an RMA in 1857, when Helmuth von Moltke became chief of staff.

Along with an increasing number of his contemporaries, Moltke had drawn three conclusions about railroads. Their effective use for military purposes required detailed planning of a scope, and on a scale, unprecedented in Prussian history. The temptation to bring the largest forces to the largest railroad junctions posed logistical risks as well. The horse transport connecting railroad-fed supply dumps with the cartridge boxes, haversacks, and nosebags of units at the front limited the force that could be supplied by a single major road to 30,000 or so men. Nor did an army a hundred thousand strong really march: it inched across country, using every possible dirt track and cowpath to move the food and forage on which it depended. Finally – a point frequently overlooked by contemporary RMA enthusiasts – machinery made its own laws. Appeals to patriotism and threats of punishment alike were futile in the face of broken axles or hotboxes, and tracks leading to operationally undesirable destinations.

These factors in combination made calculation and preparation the keys to the successful use of railroads in war. The Prussian army of the late 1850s was hardly capable of managing its mobilization and concentration through a Teutonic counterpart to France’s national tradition of genial improvisation, the “système D”; Prussia needed every initial advantage that its best brains could secure. The general staff had existed in embryo even before the war of 1806. But no one had a clear idea of its functions or its authority. After Waterloo the army formalized its structure, but its spheres of influence and control remained limited. Mapmaking, war-gaming, and historical research were the everyday stuff of general staff routine; the institution only developed into its modern form in response to railroad technology.


The Prusso-German Revolution in Military Affairs, 1840–1871 Part II

The battle of Königgrätz on 3 July was the needle-gun’s apogee.

Dreyse needle gun, model 1862.

The general staff started down the technocratic road by reconfiguring one of its principal departments to deal with mobilization, and creating a railroad section. Planning thenceforth depended on machines. Mobilization orders went out by telegraph, reducing notification time from five days to one. Formations were to remain intact: each train would carry a battalion, squadron, or battery from initial loading point to final destination. Loading and unloading boxcars became part of the army’s training schedule. As early as the summer of 1859, V Prussian Corps completed a practice mobilization in twenty-nine days – no small feat given its location in Posen, an eastern province that lacked a developed communications network. Prussian railroads passed their first major administrative test in 1864, against Denmark, when they successfully moved most of an expeditionary force to Schleswig-Holstein, supplied it there, and brought it home after victory.

The challenges of 1866 were more complicated. Prussia fought the Seven Weeks’ War in widely separated theaters, Bohemia and central Germany. Austria began its mobilization and concentration weeks before Prussia. French intervention was a significant possibility. But Prussia held the trump cards: five railroad lines leading to the main theater of war. Moltke and his subordinates used those lines to move the bulk of the army to Bohemia in less than a month and to supply three separate maneuver armies as they moved forward to concentrate on the battlefield at Königgrätz on 3 July.

Events in 1870 followed a similar pattern. As late as 1867 the army of the new North German Confederation required over a month to concentrate in the West for a projected war with France. By 1870 a constantly updated movement plan had cut that time to twenty days. When implemented at the outbreak of war it functioned so smoothly that Albrecht von Roon, the minister of war, jovially complained he had too little to do! Swift and well-organized strategic concentration gave Prussia’s forces a decisive initial edge over a French army that in its own way was at least as modern as its enemy.

The Prussian army’s adaptation to the railroad is an example of what has become known as the “Boyd cycle” – the ability to analyze, decide, and act faster than an opponent. Moltke succeeded twice in presenting Prussia’s adversaries with innovations to which they could not adapt in time to prevent Prussia from setting the rules of the conflict. The Austrians had expected to win their wars on the battlefield, and had correspondingly limited strategic research and development. They had spent on fortresses money not wasted on pensions and sinecures for a bloated officer corps and an inefficient military administration. France had more rolling stock and more double-tracked lines than the North German Confederation. Its trains were faster and its loading facilities larger. Extensive government involvement in railroad construction had ensured a much higher degree of concern for strategic considerations than in Prussia. What was absent was a concept for the effective use of these advantages.

The French had been committed since the 1820s to making war from a standing start, and prefigured the German and Japanese armed forces of the Second World War in regarding logistics and administration as the concern of bureaucrats rather than warriors. France and Austria were the defining military powers of mid-century Europe, and their inability to anticipate or counter Prussia’s unique approach to railroad warfare suggests the nature and magnitude of the Prussian RMA.


By 1860 the technological components of an RMA were clearly present in the Prussian army. The railroad could move troops and supplies exponentially faster and in exponentially greater mass than any land transportation system in human history. The breech-loading rapid-firing, medium-ranged needle-gun had far more in common with the modern assault rifle than with the smoothbores it replaced or the Minies that were its contemporaries. But as yet these innovations remained within a traditional framework. Prussia’s revolution in military affairs moved to its second stage only when Moltke began developing new strategic and operational concepts and Roon began changing the army’s institutional structures in order to maximize the potential of the new hardware.

Two factors influenced Moltke’s perspective on strategic planning. He recognized Prussia’s need for short, decisive conflicts. That was hardly an original insight: it dated back at least to Frederick the Great. Carl von Clausewitz had argued as early as the 1820s that limited war was not a degenerate cousin of the Kantian ideal of “absolute war” illustrated in the wars of the Revolution and Empire. It was rather a valid form in its own right: violence that expressed rather than replaced diplomacy.

An approach to strategy focused on control and limitation was particularly congenial to a military system that since the first decade of the century had stressed the importance of education. After 1815 the Prussian War Academy had become the chief point of entry to high command. Between Waterloo and Königgrätz the war ministry and the general staff developed as organizations whose main purpose was the taming of Bellona: organizing the most efficient use of Prussia’s limited resources for the greatest number of contingencies without destabilizing the society that the army existed to serve.

Moltke was convinced that the swift decision Prussia required was most likely in a war’s early stages. It was best achieved by seizing the initiative and forcing opponents to react to Prussian moves. But the battlefield itself offered increasingly limited prospects for decision, particularly given the nature of the Prussian army. The flank attacks and encircling movements that Moltke perceived as the best counters to modern firepower were tactically demanding. Napoleon had repeatedly demonstrated the use of operational maneuver, but an army on the Prussian model was not likely to match the skills of Napoleon’s veterans – or even of their French and Austrian contemporaries. Maneuver must therefore begin before the war started: envelopment was a strategic problem.

Railroads were decisive in the execution of this concept. Prussia lay without natural frontiers in the midst of powerful and potentially hostile neighbors: time was all-important. Railroads could buy time. They could counterbalance geography. They made possible a new approach to concentration by deploying forces simultaneously to widely separated areas outside the projected theater of operations, then moving them forward into enemy territory. Moltke’s offensive approach owed as much to track layout as to strategic principle. Existing commercial lines were ill-suited to counter invasion: no enemy would be obliging enough to direct his advance against Prussia’s major railroad junctions.

Moltke’s planning blended neatly with the views of Otto von Bismarck, who became Prussia’s prime minister in 1862. Historians have frequently and legitimately described Bismarck as Europe’s last cabinet warrior. However willing to use the solvents of liberalism and nationalism, however extreme his rhetoric, Prussia’s minister-president recognized that wars end with negotiation. He insisted on keeping that option always open. Less familiar, and less generally accepted, is Moltke’s adherence to a similar principle. Moltke insisted that military considerations must determine the conduct of war, and clashed frequently and bitterly with Bismarck in 1866 and 1870–71. But he also held the firm belief that after victory, the soldier must yield to the statesman.

Institutionalizing Prussia’s RMA also involved matching soldiers to weapons and tactics. In 1858, before his appointment as war minister, Roon had presented a memorandum calling for a New Model Prussian Army that combined the traditional Prussian virtues: low cost and high fighting power. This apparent squaring of the circle involved converting most existing Landwehr formations into active army units and filling their ranks by increasing the numbers conscripted. The annual call-up would rise from 40,000 conscripts to somewhat over 60,000. This was still fewer than half the men theoretically available, but increasing the conscription rate from 26 to 40 percent would make the draft something less than the random process perceived by those subject to it. Roon set the term of service at three years in the active army beginning at age twenty, with four more as a reservist assigned to bring the line units to field strength upon mobilization. Only after completing those seven years would the troops, by then in their late twenties, pass into a Landwehr whose primary mission was to provide occupation and garrison units.

In 1859 the new soldier-king, Wilhelm I, gave Roon the chance to implement his recommendations. Supporters said that relieving the Landwehr of first-line operational missions it clearly could no longer perform did no more than place the burdens of war where they rightfully belonged: on those who were youngest, fittest, and least encumbered by civilian responsibilities. The army described the third year of active service as necessary to polish the marksmanship, fire discipline, and prompt response to changing conditions that were the essence of the modern soldier – particularly one carrying a breech-loading rifle and expected to fight in small formations and dispersed skirmish lines. Critics shrank from the cost, and also argued that the purpose of the third year of service was merely to indoctrinate the young with militarist and conservative principles. Advocates of the additional year agreed that two years were more than enough to inculcate the fundamentals of drill – Moltke himself said that task required less than two months. But for the army two years was a second-best solution, acceptable only as a final price for ending the struggle with parliament. Reduced training time would cost blood when the cannon next sounded, and Prussia’s soldiers were not mercenaries. They were the sons of the state, and their lives were precious.

Contemporaries and historians so universally dismissed that position as window-dressing for the underlying goal of inculcating “corpse-obedience” (Kadavergehorsam) in conscripts that it is worth emphasizing the relative absence of such an argument from the professional literature on Roon’s proposed reforms. Negative evidence is always questionable, but it is reasonable to speculate on whether the possible social implications of the longer term of active service represented a kind of afterthought, a secondary consideration intended to appeal to conservative circles by no means universally pleased with reforms that included among their consequences an officer corps that would have to expand beyond the limits of the aristocracy’s capacity to provide lieutenants – and to a king whose intransigence on the three-year issue had increased with time.

As for the officer corps, the reformers argued that amateurs could no longer command on the modern battlefield. Particularly at company level, where most Landwehr officers were concentrated, skill in minor tactics, an eye for terrain, and the ability to act on one’s own initiative were required complements to courage and enthusiasm. With the best will in the world, no one could acquire those qualities on weekends. They demanded full-time commitment and what later generations came to call professionalism.

The intense debate over the proposal triggered the lengthy constitutional crisis that brought Bismarck to power, and has tended to obscure the fact that the Prussian parliament scarcely challenged the reforms themselves. The Jacobin notion of a necessary link between citizenship and military service influenced the Liberals of varying stripes who dominated the Prussian lower house. They also shared in a German nationalism that had long singled out Prussia to play the decisive role in the unification of Germany, a mission for which it required a powerful army. The status of the Landtehr and the three-year term of active service, which dominated political debate and the newspapers, were mere stalking-horses. The ultimate issue was who was to be master: whether crown or parliament would control the force emerging from the reorganization that began in 1860 and continued even after parliament refused funding. The Liberals, confident that they would prevail, were correspondingly willing to give the soldiers room to knot the noose for their own eventual hanging.

Roon’s reforms neither triggered revolution in Prussia nor upset Europe’s balance of power. The army’s peacetime establishment increased by over 65,000 officers and men to a total of 211,000. Its war strength, however, grew more modestly, from 335,000 to 368,000 – hardly enough to trip alarms elsewhere on the continent. In fact the expansion initially seemed likely to make an unsatisfactory situation worse. In the maneuvers of 1861, for example, senior officers continued to employ mass formations in frontal attacks while conspicuously ignoring terrain features and maneuver tactics. Despite a “rocket” from no less a personage than the Crown Prince, the same officers were making the same mistakes two years later.

But at regimental level the army was beginning to learn how to use its rifles and respond to enemy firepower. The expeditionary force sent to Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 departed in a cloud of rhetoric about bayonet charges and hand-to-hand combat. In practice, Prussian officers from commanding general Prince Frederick Charles downward observed the employment of shock tactics by their Austrian allies and concluded that they were a recipe for disaster – or at least for unacceptable casualties. The Prussians preferred to give the Danes a chance to come to them. And time and again the needle-gun, even in the hands of confused or disorganized troops, turned Danish charges into target practice.

Tactical weaknesses remained. The combination of company columns and skirmish lines was difficult to control in the attack – so difficult that some officers continued to advocate battalion-sized close-order formations. The thrust of opinion within the army, however, accepted the argument that training and discipline could compensate for the dispersal that rifled weapons made necessary. The army had in fact little choice. Prussia’s Liberals had by no means given up the struggle for control of the state. Instead they were waiting for Bismarck, Roon and Moltke to create the kind of disaster that would force the government to abandon its authoritarian stand or risk destruction. Prussia’s military professionals had staked their position in Prussian society and their state’s international position on their ability to develop a conscript army able to win a modern war without bleeding Prussia white.

The year 1866 was both test and turning point for the Second Era of Reform. Against an Austrian army committed to massed bayonet charges in close order, senior officers such as Frederick Charles suggested that officers dismount and troops lie down, meet the Austrians with five or six well-aimed volleys, then counterattack anything still standing. From the first days of the decisive campaign in Bohemia these apparently simple suggestions paved the way to victory. At Podol on 26 June a single Prussian company fired 5,700 rounds, an average of twenty-two per man, in thirty-three minutes during an encounter battle that cost the Austrians 1,000 of the 3,000 men they sent into action. Prussian casualties amounted to 130. The next day at Nachod the Prussian V Corps engaged the Austrian VI Corps in another contest of “target against marksman.” For a loss of less than 1,200 V Corps inflicted over 5,600 casualties, including many who surrendered rather than risk trying to withdraw under the Prussian rifles. On 28 June another Austrian corps lost 5,500 men in futile attacks against inferior Prussian forces around the village of Skalitz. And when Prussian infantry attacked or counterattacked, the poorly trained Austrians consistently fired too high or too slowly to stop the skirmish lines and company columns that came forward like clouds of hornets.

Ludwig von Benedek, commanding the Austrian Northern Army, was so shocked by casualties as high as 50 percent in some regiments that he issued an order forbidding infantry attacks without artillery preparation. Prussian riflery repeatedly turned back the vaunted Austrian columns with ease. Prussian troops took hundreds of prisoners shocked into incoherence by the hail of bullets from the needle-gun. Tales of victory spread from regiment to regiment. Morale soared.

The battle of Königgrätz on 3 July was the needle-gun’s apogee. In the center a series of Austrian attacks into Prussian-occupied woods created a smoke-shrouded inferno with no flanks or rear, a contest of ramrods and bayonets against rifle bolts. Prussian units dissolved into groups of men commanded by anyone who set an example. But the conscripts, both active soldiers and reservists, trusted their officers and their rifles. From first to last, the Austrians committed forty-nine battalions to the fight in this sector. The needle-gun, in the hands of desperate men, destroyed or disorganized twenty-eight of them. Austrian officers managed to rally thirteen more, but the survivors were so badly shaken that they were virtually useless. A single Prussian division, twelve battalions strong, had done most of the damage.

The Austrians had focused their attention so firmly on their center that they failed to detect an even greater threat from the north until far too late. About 2:30 P.M. elements of the Prussian Second Army struck the Habsburg flank with an impetus little if at all inferior to that of Stonewall Jackson’s corps at Chancellorsville. But mass was less important than surprise; Prussian companies took advantage of standing grain, broken ground, and smoke-thickened mist to mow the Austrians down in windrows. Prussian rifle fire rendered Austrian artillery positions untenable within minutes. Prussian companies did not bother to form square before opening fire to smash Austrian cavalry charges. The Austrians once more mounted counterattack after desperate counterattack. But the Prussians held their ground and worked their rifle bolts until the surviving Austrians finally abandoned the field.


In the immediate aftermath of Königgrätz, journalists and observers on both sides proclaimed the needle-gun as the key to Prussian victory. Ironically the Prussian army was quick to disagree – at least for public consumption. The victorious army of 1866 was at once a major symbol of Prussia’s military virtues and a major integrating element of the new North German Confederation. A good way to reconcile to Prussian methods and discipline the territories annexed to Prussia after the war and the states of the new North German Confederation was to stress the worth of their populations as soldiers. The government’s presentation of the victorious army of 1866 as the rightful heir to the “people’s uprising” of 1813–15 against Napoleon, recruited from citizens in uniform doing their patriotic duty, eased the Prussian parliament’s acceptance of Bismarck’s offer to end the constitutional crisis.

Prussia’s men rather than their weapons thus received the credit for victory. Military considerations also influenced a post-1866 shift in focus away from hardware. Moltke’s emphasis on concentrating in the face of the enemy – “march divided, fight united” – required an army consisting of units that were essentially equal in quality. It was impossible to be certain beforehand which troops would face the greatest strain or play the decisive role; even Napoleon had not always used his Guard to best advantage. Moreover, the army of the post-1866 North German Confederation possessed a first-line war strength of over 550,000, plus another 400,000 garrison troops, reservists and Landwehr. Instead of the nine corps of the Prussian army of 1866, it had thirteen plus an independent division. That expansion was far larger than the original increase of 1860, and demanded a corresponding emphasis on common doctrine and training methods at all levels from general staff to rifle company.

Above all, the window created by Prussia’s most obvious technical advantage was beginning to close. Dreyse’s rifle was twenty-five years old, its basic design a decade older. New developments on both sides of the Atlantic eclipsed it. French arsenals were beginning to produce the Chassepot, a paper-cartridge breech-loader more reliable and longer-ranged than its Prussian counterpart, and the American Civil War had given metallic cartridges an extended field test. Prussia had reaped the advantages of being first in the field. Now it suffered the inevitable consequence: obsolescence. The needle-gun’s decisive contribution to victory in 1866 was irrelevant to the future challenges facing the Prussian army; resting on past laurels had proved fatal in 1806. Prussia’s next opponent would obviously hardly be as willing as the Austrians to present mass formations as targets for the breech-loader or to pit bayonet charges against rapid fire.

The campaign of 1866 had also clearly demonstrated the problem of maintaining control of skirmish lines and company columns. Prussian officers were fully aware of the high levels of straggling and shirking that accompanied their looser formations; only Austrian weaknesses in skirmishing and marksmanship had prevented them from taking full advantage. What would be the result against an enemy that regarded the rifle as something more than an inferior pike and was skilled in open-order combat – as were the French?

Between 1866 and 1870 both drill regulations and maneuver practice assumed the use of close-order formations in the attack. At the same time regimental officers put greater emphasis than ever on fire discipline, on controlling skirmish lines, and on indoctrinating men to push forward independently should they lose contact with their units. Terrain exercises absorbed more and more training time at the expense of close-order drill. But proponents of columns and skirmishers, close formations and open order alike believed that morale, training, and discipline were more important than weapons. Prussian fighting spirit and Prussian tactical skill would carry the day even against breech-loaders. In Moltke’s words, “superiority is no longer to be sought in the weapon, but in the hand that wields it.”

These tendencies reflected a fact indicated by the strength figures given earlier and often overlooked in accounts stressing Prussia’s mid-century development of a mass army. Roon and Moltke were primarily concerned with quality, not numbers. Superior strength fell into the “nice to have” category. But in contrast to their successors in 1914, they had no intention of creating large numbers of second-line formations for field use. The North German Confederation expected to wage and win its wars with its active units.

The events of 1870–71 justified that assumption. The French army took the field with a tactical doctrine that almost exactly replicated Prussia’s in 1866: meeting attacks with massed rapid fire, then counterattacking. Time and again in the war’s early weeks Prussian commanders obliged, sending their men forward in head-down frontal assaults. At Wörth a single charge cost more men than the entire army had lost at Königgrätz. At St. Privat the Prussian Guard suffered 30 percent casualties in an advance in columns up an open hillside – the longest mile in the Guard’s history. But Prussian officers learned swiftly. Mass and élan gave way to flexible formations supported with concentrated artillery fire. Prussian casualties dropped significantly. Soon one French field army had surrendered, another was hopelessly besieged, and Napoleon Ill’s empire yielded to revolution – a dire portent for the loser of any future war, and the culmination of an RMA that had began over a third of a century earlier with an experimental musket cartridge.

The Prussian revolution in military affairs proved short-lived. By the mid-1870s “railroads and rifles” were the heart of every major continental army. Prussia’s rivals likewise imitated – without quite replicating – the general staff system. Universal short-term conscription became the dominant form of military service. That process was not mere imitation. It reflected the existence of a common European Mentalität, a common mindset generating similar approaches to common problems: in this case the challenge of maximizing military effectiveness under the new rules that Prussia had established. In the decades that stretched toward 1914, Europe’s armies became increasingly symmetrical – recruited alike, trained alike, commanded alike. Innovations, whether in armament, doctrine, or organization, were incremental rather than fundamental. That pattern persisted through the First World War and into the 1930s. Not until May 1940 did asymmetrical forces again contend for the mastery of Europe. But for a brief period in the 1860s, Prussia changed the face of European war and the balance of power of a continent.

The Battle of Torgau I

Frederick’s victories at Leuthen and Rossbach early in the Seven Years War established his reputation as one of the greatest military commanders of his era.

Field Marshal Leopold Joseph Count von Daun and Lt. Gen. Franz Moritz Count von Lacy

We left Daun and Frederick facing each other at Torgau. An explanation of the camp and lines that Daun occupied there is needed at this stage before the narrative is related of the ensuing battle. Torgau then stood on the high western side of the Elbe River, connected to the opposite bank by a strong, town bridge. Not one to be undercautious, however, Daun had had constructed three more bridges over which his army might retreat if attacked and beaten by the enemy.

The main Austrian camp went north then northwest of Torgau, with the crux of the post at Zinna, Grosswig, and Welsau. At the southern-most side, the lines were fronted and in rough parallel to the Röhrgraben. The latter was bisected by a high stubby knoll which rose up about a mile from where the Elbe and the Röhrgraben joined. It ascended in thin layers, on top of each other, until it formed a height, which dropped down to various small ponds and pools. These dominated the western and southern approaches to Torgau to the opposite end. The rise was blunt-backed, dotted (indeed nearly filled) with vineyards composing a total square area of, say, five miles.

It was low on the western end, north, and east as well, but grew a larger knoll on the southern side. This rise, called by name the Septitz Height, was the basis of Daun’s position around and about Torgau. Within the entrenchments created on the crown of the Septitz and beyond, the strength was formidable. This part of the line was a supplement to the works which Prince Henry had built while there. The marshal had arranged and rearranged his men to prepare for the imminent attack. Daun at first stood with his army fronting southward, to directly oppose Frederick at Schilda, while the latter wrestled with the problem of how to carry out an assault upon the Austrian entrenched camp with any hope of success. One big advantage in favor of the Prussians, which under other circumstances would have been much otherwise, was the massed number of Daun’s men.

There were some 65,000 Austrians within the works, which did not even reckon the men with Zweibrücken; the palisaded-lines of Torgau were not sufficiently large to accommodate all of these troops with any degree of comfort. The position was thus cramped, so Frederick moved to come up with a plan of action that would take advantage of that fact. ‘Desperate situations call for desperate solutions,’ so says an old expression. The plan that the Prussian king finally did decide upon was, indeed, desperate. Yet he kept the outline of the scheme to himself, daring to reveal it to no one, not even his staff officers, until he had it worked out.

In the face of an enemy who already outnumbered him, Frederick’s scheme called for a simultaneous attack to be launched upon opposite sides of the enemy position, carried out with the Prussian army divided into two sections. The king himself was to lead one part of the men through the woods to attack Daun’s rear, while the other was to strike Daun’s works at his front. The thing was possible, if the timing could be worked out, and if Daun did not interfere with deployment of the attackers.

Thus resolved upon his gamble, Frederick called his commanders together that very night (November 2–3) and informed them of the greater part of the program, although he kept the all-important frontal attack portion secret. Historians still dispute the purpose of the Ziethen column as well as Ziethen’s part in the scheme. Frederick said that there was “a most favorable circumstance [regarding the Austrian camp] … [by which by] attacking their center from the front and rear it would be subjected to crossfire.” Whether this was to be an integral cog of a movement designed to force Daun against the Elbe working in conjunction with the king’s forces or merely a red herring to lure Daun’s attention from the main stroke is a matter of conjecture. It goes without saying that the Prussian king had been in desperate straits in the matter of commanders, not only with regard to Ziethen, but also Hülsen and Holstein.

The independent-minded military commanders were a very rare commodity during the later periods of the Seven Years’ War. None of the three named subordinates were gifted sufficiently to carry out semi-independent operations without specific instructions. These would need to be detailed in the extreme for the most part. An additional factor was the prolongation of the war, which had only served to take away most of those few commanders that were qualified. For instance, there was more at stake than fraternal attachment in the king’s desire to retain the services of Prince Henry for the army; good commanders were becoming very scarce by 1760 in the kingdom.

Earlier, Ziethen himself had ridden out on November 2, on a potentially decisive purpose: the intention of probing the enemy’s post. There was never any doubt that a battle would be required to close out the campaign. Frederick was taking no chances. On this particular occasion, the valiant hussar got himself surrounded by an Austrian squad. Without hesitation, he drew his sword (the only recorded time while the war was going on he drew it in earnest anger), and cut his way through the enemy troopers to safety. Ziethen apparently was so “enthusiastic” in the use of his sword that his aide, Captain Fahrenholz, had real trouble cleaning up the weapon. It is most surprising to report that the valiant hussar had no other occasion to use his sword in battle during the long war (which, of course, was also a measure of the methods of war at that time).

As for the king’s speech, he pulled no punches. He said he was tired of the fighting, his generals probably were to, so ending the war the next day could be accomplished by “smashing Daun’s army and throwing the pieces into the Elbe River.” At this council-of-war, little was discussed beyond the outline of the plan. Frederick did not ask for the opinions of his subordinates; he merely told them what was to be done, and how.

The underlying weakness of the calculation lay in the fact that it required the close cooperation of two widely separated bodies of troops. Insofar as the columns had to make two dangerous maneuvers across the front and flanks of the enemy in order to be in a position to launch their blows. In that era, there were no radios, or signal corps to expedite communication, and, since the Austrians and allies held the highest ground around in that region, there was no point of vantage from which Frederick could direct the two-pronged attack from. The thickly wooded Dommitscher Forest would have precluded such a view anyhow. Under these troubling conditions, no concrete “zero” hour was set, although the part of the army striking the allied front was to be pinning down Daun’s attention from about noon. Frederick’s force was then to go into action on the opposite end of Daun’s camp.

There was another problem. Who was to lead the men entrusted to the frontal attack column? Frederick looked over the available commanders and finally selected Ziethen, the youngest of the Prussian major generals, but who had commanded a wing at Liegnitz as we have seen with great success. Nonetheless, Ziethen was wholly a cavalry officer who knew very little of the infantry, its form of march and attack, and thoroughly even less than that. The second column, to which Ziethen (almost by default it would appear) had been given command, would inevitably have to include both horse and foot soldiers, some 7,000 of the former and approximately 11,000 of the latter.

The old hussar had commanded flank forces at Breslau, and, of course, at Liegnitz, but he had never before been entrusted with an independent command before this experience. There were bound to be repercussions to the king’s decision on this point. Really, though, he had little choice at this late stage of the war.

Daun, for his part, must have been confident that the high-walls of Torgau fortress, supplemented by some of the best artillery in the Austrian Empire, could do the job. The ordnance was led by Lt.-Gen. Franz Ulrich, a most competent officer. Ulrich’s batteries could prove crucial in their fire efficiency. This might serve to arrest even the bold Prussian monarch and his designs upon Saxony. The marshal was grimly resolved to hang on to Torgau, and in fact as stated he had been ordered to keep it, even at cost of battle. Even Vienna was adamant on this point. October 26, Maria Theresa’s instructions reached Daun; he was to retreat no further categorically short of a major defeat.

The Austrian army was formidable in its deployment. Lacy’s men, who numbered 20,000 men, were posted to the rear of the great Torgau Pond, and held the left of the main army; O’Donnell led three regiments of cavalry on his right between Zinna and the pond. This was the south end of the army. On the all-important Septitz, Daun had the 21st Infantry of Arenberg and the 5th Infantry. This spot was without a doubt the key to the whole battlefield, and the Austrian command knew it.

The forces of Lt.-Gen. Johann Jacob Herberstein held the center of the camp, with Lt.-Gen. Wied on the extreme right. At the front of the whole army, General Löwenstein on the left deployed opposite to Wied; with Sincère and Buccow holding on to the main portion just north of Zinna. The Austrian posts were all well-chosen, and entrenched. Such was the situation with regard to the main Austrian army with Daun. With the dawn on November 3, would come the contest for arms.

Frederick’s forces were on the march at about 0615 hours. The king’s own forces were to swing well northward of their current position in three main (and one auxiliary) columns. Each one had its own designated route to take, in order to traverse the thick woods. Ideally, all three formations were planned to arrive before the marshal’s rear nearly simultaneously. The auxiliary column had the sole task of safeguarding the Prussian baggage on the march, although irregular cavalry raids were looked for. Colonel Christian von Möhring, with 25 squadrons of horse and one battalion (from the 2nd Infantry of Kanitz), had this duty. Enemy scouts were bound to be around.

The entire Prussian army, which included Ziethen’s men, was at first kept together, but at the point where the road split from Torgau to Eilenburg/Doberschütz, the army was systematically broken up into two distinct bodies. The men drew apart near Langen-Reithenbach and Probsthayn; Ziethen moved his men up the road to Aldenhain, bypassing that place instead and gaining the Mockrchora road into Torgau. As the men marched out, Frederick then—and only then—took Ziethen with him and rode out in a carriage towards the battle posts. There he finally revealed the whole plan to the valiant hussar, especially stressing the all-important role that Ziethen was to play and how to execute it. The king’s instructions were likely clear and to the point.

The “instructions” are given in Carlyle, but remain a matter of conjecture. Ziethen’s orders can be ascertained to a certain extent by his actions of the coming evening, but it is plain that the intimate details of the march and its function, having been oral only, are long lost. One source has stated, “we know nothing for certain about the nature of Ziethen’s task.” He evidently told Ziethen to veer to the right, until he reached Klitschen. At that point, apparently, he was to move up the Butter-Strasse to Schäferei, near the northwest end of the Septitz, and go in from that side upon the enemy works dotting the height.

Had Ziethen heeded the counsel his leader, he possibly would have avoided a lot of the trouble that was in store for the bluecoats. We will soon see his actual response. It is worth adding that Ziethen was largely ignorant of the country through which he would be passing. However, some of the very same units that had helped defend Torgau earlier in the year from Daun in Prince Henry’s command were to now attack portions of the entrenched works prepared originally by Prince Henry’s men.

Frederick’s force punctually sub-divided into the three columns: under Hülsen; Holstein, and Markgraf Karl, although the king himself quickly, decisively, assumed charge of the third column. The last had the majority of the men. This caravan drove past Mockrchora towards Weidendam, crashing through the thick Dommitscher Forest close to the Austrian position. The hike was about 12 miles in extent, or nearly twice the distance that Ziethen’s men would be covering in their march. Beyond Weidendam, Frederick intended to swerve to the east and then south near Neiden. There he was to cross the Striebach River and begin attacking Daun’s right beyond the Septitz as soon as he should hear the sounds of firing to indicate that Ziethen was striking at the front of Daun’s array on the rises. The king’s column consisted of Kleist’s hussars and infantry support. Some 25 battalions and 50 twelve-pounder cannon, plus 10 squadrons of Ziethen, 1,000 of Kleist, in all, about 16,500 men. Kessel says 15,700 infantry and 1,000 cavalry.

The day had already started off badly. At the first crack of dawn, heavy clouds began spilling their contents upon the Prussians, making the ground in some spots almost slushy and turning the ground white, but the prevailing cool temperatures prevented the ground from turning to mud. Still, the rate of march under the circumstances was hardly two miles per hour. It was also very windy, and some hail and sleet, mixed with snow, was seen as the morning wore on. The 2nd and the 3rd columns were under the command of Hülsen and Holstein, respectively. Hülsen marched his procession past Mockrchora, past Wildenhain, roughly on a parallel course with the king’s column. Hülsen had some 6,300 men with him, composed of 24 battalions of infantry with 20 field guns. He broke off at about Wildschütz and Nieder Oberaunheim, with every intention of arriving before the enemy position about the same time as Frederick, although there was no direct contact between the two columns because of the thick forest.

At Weidenhain, the king’s inquiry of a local directed him, not towards Neiden, but a far more circuitous route to Elsnig, over by Drögnitz. In the thick woods, Frederick’s and Hülsen’s men actually crossed each other, creating some confusion. In the event, Hülsen had to shift his troops to an unoccupied route. Ironically, an engineer officer from the latter “who knew every road and bypass” was with the king’s procession. Apparently, this officer was not consulted about proper routes to take.

As for Holstein, his column was composed almost entirely of cavalry (38 squadrons—some 5,500 men—and 2,000 infantry from four battalions and ten guns), so he marched the farthest away from Daun, as his men were nearly all mounted. Starting late from Schönma, he swept up towards Doberschütz, crossing the road there and veering past the little place of Roitzach near Elsnig. Once there, he turned south for his stroke. Holstein, too, was instructed to time his appearance forward of Daun’s rear lines so as to arrive with Frederick’s and Hülsen’s men. That, at any event, was the plan.

The march of these three formations would take them well to the north of the Septitz, leaving it miles on their right, then, of course, the turning movement before beginning the attack. As stated, there had been no previously arranged time for the battle to actually commence on that side. The wind would bring the report of Ziethen’s effort on the opposite end of the Austrian mass. As for the Prussian baggage train, it was to halt near Roitzach under guard (from Möhring’s force, as we have observed) and await the end of the battle in relative security.

Meanwhile, Marshal Daun, early that morning, knew that an attack was impending. Looking out towards the southeast, the Austrian’s field glasses had been scanning. They espied a large force of bluecoats—actually Ziethen’s men—moving into attack position. The marshal promptly ordered off Lacy to keep his eye on developments in front there. A handful of detachments had been thrown out into the thick Dommitscher Forest to watch the woods and keep the Austrian command posted of any Prussian movements therein. Two hit “pay dirt,” so to speak. One, under General Ried, consisted of the 32nd Hussars, the Dragoons of the Austrian Staff, and the 66th (Croat) Infantry. This force was out probing in the undergrowth just ahead of Frederick’s column north of Mockrehna when the latter was sighted (about 1145 hours). Ried unlimbered his guns, and fired at the Prussians, but ordered a withdrawal upon Torgau before the Prussian king could get close or the engagement had become general. Ried’s efforts saved the 12 companies of Major-General d’Ayasasa’s heavy cavalry, which were in the undergrowth nearby and forthwith retreated to Grosswig. D’Ayasasa’s precipitate retreat alerted the field marshal that Frederick was moving in a different direction than the South. The second detachment was not to be nearly as fortunate on this occasion.

General St. Ignon had his 31st Dragoons out deeper in the undergrowth north of Wildenhain towards Düben. He got into a rather spirited struggle with 800 of Kleist’s hussars, which he nearly battled to a draw. Unfortunately for him, his post was between Frederick’s and Hülsen’s columns, and so him and his command were sandwiched in by the enemy. After a hopeless attempt to extricate his command, in the face of heavy attacks by Ziethen’s 2nd Hussars (Major Hans Christoph Zedmar, leading the 2nd Hussars in the fight, fell in the struggle), St. Ignon was compelled to lay down his arms. A few of his men may indeed have escaped the trap, but most (some 400 men and 20 officers) were nabbed by the Prussians. A small body of the St. Ignon force actually did break out and rejoin the main Austrian army.

A nearby body of men under Colonel Ferrari, with the Bathanay Dragoons and some grenadiers on the northwest end of Elsnig facing Vogelgesang, discovered quite by accident that the bluecoats were at hand and promptly prepared to retreat. Deploying his guns, the valiant Italian had just enough time to lob a few shells at the enemy before pulling back on Neiden. This move was most certainly in response to the sudden appearance of the enemy, who had indeed emerged where not anticipated. Cogniazzo spoke of the firm Austrian belief that Neiden was beyond Frederick’s grasp.

Ried, according to the king’s History, apparently failed to inform St. Ignon that the bluecoats were so close-by and advancing. Ried was nearly five miles to the south-southwest from the latter, about two miles from Grösswig, in deep undergrowth. In retrospect, it is little wonder that St. Ignon was taken by surprise.

The Battle of Torgau II

Frederick the Great greets General Zieten after the Battle of Torgau.

Frederick’s first attempt to take the high ground at Torgau failed, but the arrival of General von Zieten’s troops ultimately enabled the Prussians to capture Suptitzer Heights.

In the meanwhile, the march of the three Prussian columns northward was going about as well as could be expected. In spite of the horsed-teams and men were having difficulty dragging the bigger ordnance over the slushy terrain and even the foot soldiers were finding it rough going. Holstein, who by then had reached his turn near Roitzach, inadvertently turned off onto the wrong lane, with the result that he was soon misdirected in the thick woods and lost. The king’s unorthodox scheme was already in trouble!

As for Daun, he had learned from his scattered detachments, including the survivors of St. Ignon’s command, just what was really going on out in the Dommitscher. An additional Austrian body of ten grenadier battalions, which were independent of Ried or St. Ignon, were at Weidenhain; Frederick was in the process of forming a battle line to charge them when St. Ignon’s command was located nearby. The force at Weidenhain needed only brief cannon fire to “persuade” them to march. The reason for deployment of these cavalry forces is touched upon from a modern perspective. The Austrian leader “respected Frederick’s mastery of tactical flanking movements through rough country” well enough that these horsemen constituted a substantial portion of the Austrian cavalry. Daun knew that for the Prussians to turn him out of the strong position he then held they would have to make massive assaults at close quarters. In that event, the superior tenacity of the Prussian troops might be counterbalanced by the sheer weight of numbers of the Austrians. Anyhow, the sounds of the Ried-St. Ignon incidents had alerted the marshal to the proximity of the enemy.

Daun knew from his scouts. Words to the effect: “the woods full of Prussians, thousands upon thousands heading northward.” By then, it must have been clear to the marshal just what Frederick really had in mind. Daun’s response was immediate. The crafty old man was at his very best in a purely defensive battle, and at Torgau he would have it no other way. First he ordered the army to make a full swing around from south to north, this maneuver placing 12 battalions fronting north and a half a dozen more formed facing west. This was in order to confront the Prussians coming from that direction. Whatever may have been his shortcomings as an offensive general, and they were many, Daun was right at home in entrenchments. Armed to the teeth, waiting for an enemy to attack him.

Lacy was now ordered from Losswig to draw out north-northwest to keep the new rear of the Austrian main army safe from whatever force might choose to strike at that side—namely, Ziethen. So what had been the Austrian advanced guard, Lacy and his formation, was now the new rearguard. Most importantly, the Austrians had to bring up every available gun to face to the north, for the old marshal was now certain that the main Prussian effort would erupt against that side of his works. The sum total of this artillery was some 275 pieces, directed by Major-General Ignaz Walther von Waldenau, including 50 6-pounder guns.

Frederick’s arsenal was no less impressive. He had 250 guns of some size, of which no fewer than “180 were twelve pounders and heavy howitzers.” Increasingly, Austrian prowess was proving equal to the task set before it. But at Torgau, the Austrian heavy guns faced a three-to-one inferiority in numbers (Daun had 58 such pieces). And all of this despite latter-day claims of “400 Austrian guns”; a dubious claim at best. Still, this was, all in all, one of the biggest concentrations of ordnance yet seen on any continent of any war up to that day.

Daun’s confidence in being able to turn back Frederick from his designs nevertheless did not prevent him from making advance preparations in case he should be defeated. The baggage train was ordered across the Elbe to stand under strong cavalry escort to wait out the battle and the bridges leading from the fortress over the Elbe were all kept securely guarded. The marshal had never been one to leave himself without an escape route in spite of a formidable position. Lookouts kept track of the thick wilderness watching for the Prussians to appear.

The latter had been delayed by the foul weather, so Frederick’s column did not clear the woods about Neiden until about 1300 hours. This was an hour later than planned. As usual, the Prussian infantry were having an easier time of it than the artillery. The delay was largely the result of a combination of inclement weather and narrow, sandy “roads” holding up the guns. Finally, an agitated Prussian king pushed ahead with his foot soldiers, leaving the ordnance to follow. Holstein encountered these problems, and proceeded at a surprisingly slow pace. His command was mounted after all, it must be remembered.

Kleist had arrived at Neiden at about 1200 hours, but after Frederick’s column emerged from the woods, there was no sign of either Hülsen or Holstein with their men. An additional Austrian force of dragoons and four battalions under General Carl Joseph Count Batthyáni had abandoned Elsnig and retired on Neiden when Kleist began to appear. Ironically, the position at Elsnig, if held, could have outflanked any Prussian move to attack Torgau Daun’s lines there. Frederick himself freely admitted in his History had the enemy “taken advantage of its ground[,] there certainly would have been no battle.”

Even at this stage there were no sounds which might indicate a battle raging on the southern side of the Austrian position, although from about noon, there had been some musketry audible from that direction. The Prussian king spoke in his History of what he called the “essential[ness] … that I and Ziethen should pierce the center of the hostile army at the same time.” He indicated that this needed to be done at the Septitz.

If the other two columns did not come up soon, he would soon have to launch an attack upon the enemy formations in front of him (which was now, although he had no way of knowing, Daun’s new front). Most of the Austrians were fully alert with their full attention centered upon Frederick’s lone formation of 8,000 men. Reports arrived from reconnaissance parties that the enemy’s baggage train had already been detected crossing the Elbe. Was Daun trying to withdraw from the field without a battle? Shortly the Prussian king came to the somber conclusion that he would have to attack, whether with one column or three. The intervening time had amounted to nearly an hour. So it was about 1400 hours when the bluecoats of Frederick’s single group began forming up for an assault.

About then, the king rode out to probe for a weak spot in the Austrian line where success appeared at least possible. The Austrian lines in front of him there curved at and about Zinna. It was precisely at this spot where Frederick had originally intended to go forward with his grenadiers. A large Austrian force of cavalry was clearly visible near Zinna. This force would be bound to interfere with the Prussian deployment, and there were only a few horse available with the king’s main column. However, the ground in that vicinity proved more difficult than had been thought. This in spite of the fact that a large portion of officers who had been with Prince Henry knew the terrain thereabouts quite well. The stagnant pools and ponds there were breaking up the ground and creating stumbling blocks over which the attackers would have a hard way to go, especially in the face of determined opposition. The difficulty of lugging the artillery pieces over this terrain was equally unenticing. That was just as well, for that end of Daun’s works was the new Austrian right, and well shielded by the army’s bigger guns. Frederick rode back, and led his men back into the woods. In the process, he passed them over the Röhrgraben Pond, then deployed the troops on the opposite side to face the Austrian left. The latter was drawn out behind a line of strong, prepared works, attackable only on the northern side there, with its front facing the woods through which Hülsen and Holstein would have to appear with their columns.

That aforementioned weak point lay on the northwest corner of Daun’s high walled encampment, fronting on Torgau and its supporting works. Here, Frederick decided, was to be the point where he put his blows in. The cannonade from the south was now growing ever louder, this factor only increased the king’s anxiety to launch his attack. Frederick decided to wait a little while longer on his subordinates, to see if they might possibly come up in time. He sent back adjutants to find and set them on the right course. Hülsen did not need help, he was merely held up by the combination of the foul weather and the rugged forest lands. But Holstein was definitely lost and needed found.

Nothing daunted, Frederick decided he could wait no longer. The grenadiers (seven battalions) were put into the first line, while Major-General Friedrich Ehrentreich von Ramin (25th Infantry) was in the second, and Kleist to act as auxiliary. This accomplished, he led his men out from behind the Röhrgraben across the Striebach past little brooks using bridges which the enemy had constructed to facilitate passage through the area. The Austrian guard forces at these bridges were obliged to flee when the bluecoats appeared suddenly before them in overwhelming number. The marching Prussian line now turned rightwards facing the Dommitscher, until that point having moved parallel with the front of Daun’s entrenchments. Once in the woods again, Frederick halted his men, forming the troops and the still struggling horsed-artillery teams for the imminent blow.

Daun’s artillery had been belching from the time the Prussians appeared about Neiden, and the deafening noise of crashing trees and intense shelling vibrated through the woods. Archenholtz relates that the cannonfire smashing down the big trees of the Dommitscher, the booming of the big guns, and the shrill of the wind, all combined with the screams of the wounded, was “like Doomsday.” He quoted the king as saying, “what an infernal Fire! Have you ever heard anything [like this.]” Such was the background against which the Prussians prepared to march against the entrenched, well-prepared main army. The wind was gusting through the Dommitscher, and prevailing ground conditions were wet and miserable. Undeterred, the Prussian line lurched forward against the waiting enemy and their powerful guns. It was about 1415 hours.

Frederick rode on horseback with his entourage between the first line and Ramin’s. Kleist’s hussars had galloped off left—eastwards of the front—and paused there, facing thousands of Austrian cavalry ranged before them. As for the lead grenadiers, they actually got to within about 800 yards of the enemy works before the deadly struggle really commenced. The three-pounder horsed-artillery came tearing across the Striebach and prepared to form on the left of the infantry. However, before the Prussian pieces could be fired or even readied they were blown away by the entrenched enemy guns, their attendants either killed or wounded. The weak artillery support for the king’s initial assault was thus crippled.

The Battle of Torgau had begun in deadly earnest. The grenadiers plunged forward into the heavy Austrian fire, whole groups at a time being mowed down by the merciless barrage. In the event, Austrian gunners changed to cannister shot to be more effective against infantry. Finally two lines reached the Austrian works and began butchering the whitecoats with such abandon that Daun was forced to pour a steady stream of reinforcements into the fray. The price for their charge had been heavy indeed. Of some 6,000 infantry, only about 1/3rd actually reached the enemy’s lines; the rest had been killed or wounded in the carnage.

An interesting human side to the king presented itself now. Two of the Old Dessauer’s grandsons were present at the battle. One by Frederick’s side, and the other leading in the first attack. The latter, Count Wilhelm Reichsgraf von Anhalt, fell killed while moving up; the king broke the news to his brother with unquestioned sincerity, “All is misfortune … your brother is killed.” For perhaps 45 minutes, the valiant Prussians faced and fought to a standstill an enemy who overwhelmingly outnumbered them, but the weight of numbers at last pressed them back and they retired to the rear, chased by the Austrian guns.

The Austrians regrouped, and part of Arenberg’s men rushed out to counterattack, thinking impetuously the battle was won. Wied’s and Puebla’s men now descended from the rise, and these men drove the wavering Prussians back into the woods. Kollowrat’s riders also joined the fray, but a bluecoat force of infantry plowed into the 21st Infantry of Baden-Durlach, forcing it to fall back. But Frederick had Ramin and his 1,200 men held back for just such a contingency; they flung back the overconfident foe and followed him back for a renewed attack upon the entrenchments. After a fierce struggle, Ramin was finally ejected as well. Under cover of his workings, however, the survivors of the first line (barely 600 men unwounded) managed to find shelter as well as a timely breathing spell in the Dommitscher. Nine of ten in the first wave had been killed or wounded, which gives the reader an idea of how fiercely the struggle had opened.

As for Daun, his lines had been bloodied but not broken by this first Prussian effort of the day, the army and artillery were still intact, and, as we shall discern, occupied with nothing except Frederick and his men. With the counterattack by Arenberg, Frederick knew Daun would not allow him to break off the struggle without an active pursuit. That “comforting” knowledge no doubt spurred him on to continue the attacks.

It had turned very unfavorable again, and a full snowstorm was raging. The heads of the second column of Hülsen appeared out of the woods about 1500 hours, followed by Lt.-Gen. Bülow (who was to be captured in this battle) with the main body of his men. With these relatively fresh reinforcements, stiffened by the survivors of the first stroke, Frederick renewed his attack for a second time in the same spot against a still thoroughly intact enemy, occupied as yet with nothing except Frederick and his dealings. Only about 9,000 men were attacking 60,000. This second assault was launched at about 1530 hours, the storm abating a bit by that point.

Supported by the few cavalry at the king’s disposal, namely Kleist’s, the Prussian infantry scrambled back upon the enemy works. The 30th Infantry, of Major-General Joachim Friedrich von Stutterheim, led the new stroke. It suffered very heavy losses in the process, and was hit on two sides by four regiments of Austrian cuirassiers. In fact, “almost all of the officers were wounded.” The 20th Infantry (Major-General Otto Ludwig von Stutterheim), suffered grievous losses as well. In this attack, and subsequent repulse, this valiant body lost 600 men. To the left, the 24th Infantry of General Goltz, had an even harder time of it. Daun’s reserves hit it full in the front, breaking momentum built up as the regiment broke in upon the Austrian lines. This forced the 24th back the way it had come; leaving 699 men and ten officers among the casualties. Just about the time all of this was developing, the Austrian marshal uttered his famous remark about Frederick, “throwing so many men away … [as] it will do him no good.” The new stroke silenced the Austrian cannon, and surmounted Daun’s lines, sending the whitecoats reeling back upon their inner works. For a time, the Prussians had possession of a portion of the Austrian works, and had captured a great many enemy guns. At once, crews began to spike the weapons so they could be of no further use. Now at last hopeful, Frederick thought that his victory had been attained; had Ziethen been attacking the other side of Daun’s massive works like he was supposed to do, that might have been the case.

Alas, Ziethen was not doing anything of the kind. Daun, thus unoccupied, called forward the reserve. This was held back at Grösswig (under the remnants of Ried); which, along with Sincère and his hastily-changed flank formations, at once went against the bluecoats with an overwhelming force. This new hammering forced the Prussians out of the Austrian works back the way they had earlier advanced from. Worse, Frederick had been wounded in the chest during the counterattack, but not seriously, and he was mounting his fourth horse since the start of the battle.

Frederick’s adjutant, von Berenhorst, remarked bitterly on the failure of the king to acknowledge the deed whereby he carried the fallen leader, knocked cold by a bullet, to safety in the midst of battle. The Austrian lines had been mauled, but Prussian casualties were very heavy, including 20 heavy guns knocked out of action. Berenhorst was reportedly repaid for his gallantry by a stinging renunciation from the reviving Prussian monarch to the affect, “Go do some real work, round up stragglers!”

The marshal, who had dashed up to the scene, had likewise been wounded in that last attack. A musket ball had torn off part of the skin of his left foot and penetrated. But the Austrian commander chose to conceal the wound with his army in such a lurch, showing him to be personally brave. He even managed to keep the wound a secret “until the blood was dripping from his boot.”

The second Prussian attack having been repelled, one must now wonder: What had Ziethen been up to all this time? All day long? Earlier that morning, as his men reached Klitschen—no enemy of note even troubling him—Ziethen turned his men on to the Butter-Strasse (or Butterstraβe) road. The turning movement was hardly complete when, on the edge of a small wooded area (place called the Röthe-Fuhrt) just ahead of him, the fiery hussar found a small Austrian party. Over two full battalions of the Warasdiner Croats, the 2nd Kaiser Hussars, and some light troops. This force had been put out in the woods to probe for Prussian movements on that side. Ziethen at once drove against the little force. The latter turned their ordnance (all two of them) upon the bluecoats, firing off some rounds and engaged the Prussians in their task for about an hour. Then the party beat a retreat. The Prussian commander then came to the unfortunate conclusion the enemy were before him in substantial number and unmasked his own guns, fired two whole salvoes and promptly ordered his surprised men into battle formation, pressing this insignificant body back upon Lacy’s lines.

By that point, Ziethen had forgotten all about the attack schedule and probably the plans laid out before him that morning. Instead of following up on these plans, the stubborn hussar merely drew his main body out facing Lacy’s formations across the Röhrgraben, and stood there for hours contesting his patience in exchanging gun salvoes with Lacy.

One disturbing incident occurred just about as soon as the Prussians emerged from the woods. One of the first Austrian rounds landed among Ziethen’s retinue, beheading a member of his staff. A horrified junior officer pointed this out; Ziethen’s curt response was, “He never knew; many more will go the same way before this day is done.” The hussar could casually remark on the cuirassier’s “easy” death. It happened that this incident took place about 1200 hours. About this time, the indomitable hussar apparently received some communication from the king, to which he could only reply: “Has he lost his senses?” Blumenthal, his biographer, more or less explains Ziethen’s odd behavior on the field of Torgau by not explaining it. Blumenthal tries to argue the direct march on Grosswig likely ordered by Frederick would have exposed his flank to Lacy’s attack and he thus took a “circuitous way.” This biographer, however, does not explain why it took Ziethen so long to actually make his attack.

Of course, it is always possible that the timing of the Ziethen stroke could have been moved.33 And, in all fairness, Lacy’s position extended the Austrian front facing Ziethen much farther than originally thought. However, there can be no denying that the hussar leader took the time to patiently form his men, the horse to the right beside a pond and the foot soldiers, in double lines, to the left under the Septitz. He rode around unconcerned before his prepared army, while the king was fighting hard off to his side.

Blumenthal explains Ziethen’s sluggishness by saying the old hussar encountered “several obstacles on the road.” Further, Ziethen’s “circuitous” route was explained by saying he did not wish to be “outflanked by Lacy.” This is unquestionably a mask to conceal his really poor performance at Torgau.

It had really been the sounds of this minor fight there that had led Frederick to launch his attack upon Daun with his own single column in the first place. Now, after two separate charges, the bluecoats of Frederick and Hülsen had fallen back once more. Their losses had been severe. The 8th Infantry, of Major-General Julius Dietrich von Queiss, for instance, had taken heavy losses. Of its complement of 1,300 men before Torgau, only 300 were left in the ranks afterwards. The second column had ended its stroke by 1620 hours. The results were much the same as at the first. The Austrian army of Daun had also suffered severe losses, and his battle lines had been somewhat disordered by the last stroke. But the latter still had the advantage on the battlefield, and the potent power of Frederick’s assault columns appeared to be all but broken. For the moment.

At about 1630 hours, Holstein finally arrived on the scene before the Austrian front. His van emerged on the near side of Zinna about ½ mile to the north of where Frederick and his battered men were. Instead of facing southward and moving in to join their comrades, the newcomers continued on to the east, towards Zinna and the Austrian works there. The Prussian commanders to the south took this to mean that Holstein was still following the original attack plan and apparently disregarding what had been—and was still—going on as something not of his concern. His men were on course towards the Elbe, and it did not appear he would stop them. Frederick, perceiving how things were going now, sent a rider to Holstein to halt his march, form into line, and, apparently, forgetting the now invalidated assault scheme, to go in against Daun’s right near Welsau and Zinna while the “remains” (the use of that word here being all too appropriate) of the king’s and Hülsen’s forces smashed their way into the Austrian center.

The Battle of Torgau III

Prussian cuirassiers in white uniforms charge the Austrian right flank late in the day.


The heavy fighting throughout the day had set parts of Suptitz on fire, but the inferno did not deter Frederick’s infantry from storming the village to help win the day. Painting by Gunter Dorn.

As Frederick said of Holstein, “with his usual phlegm, [he] had loitered behind on the march … [depriving the Prussians] for the first hour of the battle.” Of the 6,500 cavalry the king had among his three columns (minus Ziethen), Holstein was carrying all but 1,000 horse. The 5th Infantry of Ferdinand led this final attack by Hülsen against the faltering Austrian line. A portion of Holstein’s rearguard, the 8th Dragoons of Platen and Colonel Georg Ludwig von Dalwigg’s 12th Cuirassiers, broke off and charged, horses galloping, at the enemy crouching at Zinna. The latter hammered away at these units as well. It lost a standard, but took a flag and two cannon from the Austrians. The 1st Austrian of Kaiser and the 7th of Neipperg, were almost annihilated, either killed, wounded, or prisoners. All of the staff officers of the 12th Cuirassiers received the Pour-le-Merite and 500 thalers, along with the king’s gratitude. However, such valor had a heavy price! The unit “had lost more than half of its trained troopers.”

The 4th Cuirassiers of Schmettau attacked the 7th Dragoons of Batthyáni, smashing them, and, by joining up with the 5th Dragoons (of Lt.-Gen. Friedrich, hereditary Prince of Bayreuth), along with the 11th Dragoons (Lt.-Gen. Leopold Johann von Platen), as well as elements of the 12th Dragoons, moved towards the right. This latest stroke was aptly led by Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Ludwig, Count Finck von Finckenstein. This attack smashed into Arenberg’s men, hammering the 27th Austrian Infantry, which held the westernmost end of Daun’s line facing north. The 1st battalion of the Bayreuth Dragoons (Colonel Christoph Karl von Bülow) was at the front of a decisive charge against four Austrian regiments. Ten flags, and whole battalions, were taken. The remainder scattered, but the attackers could not stay.

A severe flank fire commenced from “fresh” Austrian units nearby, and Kollowrat battled the Prussians while reinforcements from General Löwenstein’s reserves pushed forward and gradually forced back this attack, although taking heavy losses in the process. After the battle, Frederick awarded the Bayreuth Dragoons with a grand total of eight Pour-le-Merites. Platen’s men took a standard and many prisoners, while also inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. It has been contented, probably correctly, that the horse would have done better still if it had pressed ahead with the pursuit instead of pausing to take prisoners and guns. In the event, most of the trapped Austrians were bagged, the rest probably slipping away only because of the enclosing darkness.

The 5th Cuirassiers (Lt.-Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt), smashed into the 26th Austrian of Puebla and the 28th of Wied—these units being an integral part of Arenberg’s command before the lines near the undefended causeway—sending them reeling. In the process, the attackers took five guns and three flags. The king forwarded two Pour-le-Merites as well.

In front of Zinna, stood Buccow with his regiment. This Prussian attack broke through the weakened enemy line. The remainder of Daun’s men in this sector were sent scurrying to the rear, while the Austrian horsemen present there, coming up behind to the rescue so to speak, were put off balance for the moment. However, there was Austrian cavalry massed eastwards of the Prussian advance. They did not budge for the moment. This assemblage was under O’Donnell, about which more later. This allowed the Prussians to extricate themselves from the face of furious counterattacks mounted by Daun’s stiffening army, as we have observed.

On their flanks, the Austrian infantry were taken under fire and hammered by Holstein’s left, and the struggle there dissolved into intermittent skirmishing. Meanwhile, the third and final main assault had commenced. The 5th Dragoons crashed head-on into the Austrian center, with the foot soldiers coming on again as well. The whitecoats were able once more to mount a sustained fierce fire, but this time the grimly determined bluecoats were not to be stymied, and, surmounting the Austrian entrenched works, advanced straight into Daun’s camp. As the light of a short autumn day waned, there ensued a confused grisly struggle for possession of the field. This occurred just as those four Austrian regiments were enveloped.

The Austrians caught behind the line attempted to relieve some of the pressure on their front-line comrades, but they were unsuccessful. Frederick and Hülsen’s men had the western side of the Austrian works well in hand, but on the north Holstein had been held up by the boggy, sodden ground and had virtually been halted. He was just then exchanging fire with the enemy opposite. His part of the attack scheme as amended by the king had been ruined by the efforts of General Carl O’Donnell, who led a “counterattack” just then composed of the 4th and 25th Cuirassiers and the 19th Dragoons.

The situation could easily have been worse. O’Donnell had 80 squadrons of riders deployed between Zinna and the Elbe. He had a great numerical advantage, but only a limited effort resulted. Frederick, in his History, stated the reason that O’Donnell failed to launch a major attack was because of an 18-inch wide ditch separating him from the Prussians. This was, apparently, a major obstacle. At least, in the minds of the Austrian commanders. As it was, General Bülow, 50 officers and 2,000 men were taken captive by the Austrians. The king realized what it could have been. He even wrote “the battle would have been lost without recourse” had O’Donnell launched a full-scale effort. As it was, the Prussians were close to a major catastrophe. Most of Daun’s cavalry happened to be concentrated in this area, near the Zeitschken-Graben. The Austrian stroke drove off the Prussian horse on that end of the field.

Nevertheless, the mass of the whitecoats had had enough and were falling back in large numbers, although isolated pockets (which had been formed when the last Prussian assault outflanked some defenders) were still present even at the western end of the works. The Austrians thus trapped were still engaged with the bluecoats and striving, of course, to cut their way out of the thickening enemy web around them. More and more, the Prussian commanders were compelled to turn additional men to deal with those isolated pockets, virtually negating any attempt at pursuit of the reeling main body. The latter thus were enabled to pull back out of harm’s way, in much better shape than it may have under different circumstances. Still the Prussians knew that there was fight left in the Austrian mass and their own army was not yet in complete possession of the contested ground. And the call yet went out: “Where is Ziethen?”

Ziethen, by then at least, had realized belatedly his error. His subordinates, Saldern and Möllendorf, called on him to “do something” on the enemy. At the least, to move to the westward, where they knew they would be in closer proximity to the king’s men, to find out what was happening thereabouts. The Austrians had a major battery, not to mention a considerable body of men in support, on the Septitz. Part of this force consisted of the 50th Infantry (Harsch), and one battalion of Arenberg’s 21st Infantry. This was on the southern side of the Röhrgraben, but nevertheless geographically was seen to dominate a view of the battle, as well as being a key to the battlefield. Saldern and Möllendorf urged Ziethen not to squander their opportunity, but to march and attack the enemy there while some daylight yet remained.

Ziethen remained adamant, and so while the Prussians on the other side of Daun’s fortress expended themselves in costly (and largely unsuccessful) assaults all afternoon, the bluecoats on this side stood by futilely exchanging shots with the now much weakened Austrian force across the Röhrgraben. The sounds of the raging battle were quite distinct during most of this time, indicating that Frederick was making a hard effort to overcome the stubborn marshal in his high-walled fortress.

Ziethen must have known this, and yet, incredibly, he did nothing to aid his master until it was nearly too late to do so. By 1600 hours, darkness coming on, the sounds of the battle were abating, indicating the action was winding down. The wily old hussar, no rookie to the job of soldering, had exhibited a curious lack of concern and command of his men during this period. But now, with enveloping night upon him, he must have realized the battle was all but done. Like so many other details regarding Ziethen’s men on that strange day, historians are unsure what caused this sudden change of heart. It is not likely a pre-arranged time to strike, when it was evening. It is certainly possible that Ziethen decided to intervene on his own; but the likeliest explanation was that a communication of some sort had been received from the king. Perhaps the earlier intelligence alluded to by Blumenthal.

What an end to the battle. Thanks to Ziethen’s failure to intervene, what an end it probably was! He may now have come to his senses. At about 1600 hours, the old hussar shook part of his men into motion, veering towards the Septitz by the line of the river. He then detached Saldern to go with some 6,000 men (the 6th, 23rd, 15th, and 18th Infantry) to go strike at the enemy upon the Septitz. There flashes lighting up the gathering darkness were still to be viewed, sounds of firing were still audible. Ziethen deduced that Prussian forces were still engaged near there.

He hoped Saldern would ascertain what had happened. Behind Saldern, Tetternborn’s men waded the stream close by, coming to his support. General Grumkow’s Brigade (19th Infantry, 49th, Garrison 2nd, and 21st Infantry) sped across the causeway. But the Austrians were not entirely unprepared. The 47th Infantry (Harrach), Daun’s 59th and Sincère’s 54th fought a stubborn effort to turn back the newcomers. The upshot was, this initial blow failed to dislodge the Austrians. Ziethen’s men fell back momentarily and regrouped. The bluecoats then went back to the offensive. This stroke was successful, and, moreover, the enemy no longer had the means to launch a counterattack and no tangible forces (short of pulling men away from the vicinity of the king’s Prussians) to do so. Major-General Carl Christoph von Zeüner’s brigade, consisting of his own 1st Infantry, Syburg’s 13th, and the 18th Infantry of Friedrich Wilhelm, was close by. In the midst of this new blow, General Herberstein fell, mortally wounded.

Meanwhile, Frederick had left Hülsen in charge of getting the units still at hand into bivouac for the night and departed from the field for Elsnig. Here the Prussian leader, exhausted and thoroughly discouraged by the hours of carnage, intended to spend the night. He was of a mind to renew the battle on the morrow if the enemy did not draw back across the Elbe during the night. As for Daun, he had gone to Torgau to have his wound dressed and taken care of (about 1830 hours). He had probably left the scene about the same time as the Prussian king, if not before. He left Buccow in charge of the Austrian forces while he was absent.

At about 1800 hours, Saldern’s own 6th Infantry swept through the undefended causeway, and “between the sheep ponds.” Forcade’s 23rd Infantry sure had a time of it now. The commander on the spot, Colonel von Butzke, was lost, along with 365 men and 22 officers in what turned out to be the decisive stroke of the day. Major-General Möllendorf led his 15th Infantry to the causeway; his Third Battalion suffered severe losses, but also received a total of seven Pour-le-Merites. (The 18th Infantry alone received five more). It was, at least, a new lease on life for the Prussian effort to overthrow Marshal Daun at Torgau.

But the earliest stroke was anything but decisive. Tetternborn (about 1600 hours) coming up behind Saldern with his command (the 21st Infantry, 41st Infantry and 31st Infantry) pressed with difficulty into Septitz and got only as far as the Röhrgraben. Syburg’s 13th Infantry, was at the front of Zeüner’s men. It took heavy losses attacking the Austrians before it. Hülsen’s 21st Infantry promptly lent support. The 31st Infantry of Major-General Lestwitz covered Septitz from Austrian attempts to outflank it; a deed that caused it much grief and 200 casualties. Even General Neuwied’s 41st Infantry was savaged before the Septitz.

As for Saldern, he had attacked on Tetternborn’s left, striking and breaking across the Austrian positions near the Röhrgraben. Prussian casualties were severe enough doing this deed, but it would get worse. As the final shades of daylight flickered across the evening sky, Lacy brought his cannister spitting cannon to bear on the bluecoats. Daun, although no longer present on the field, sent word to Lacy to rush reinforcements to the Septitz to head off the new Prussian effort. The 20th Infantry (Alt-Colloredo), joined by the nearby 45th Infantry of Daun, was linked up with three grenadier battalions of Colonel Ferrari. DeLigne’s 38th Infantry was ordered forward on the double, all in an effort to stem the new Prussian effort. This brought Saldern and Tetternborn to a grinding halt. The Prussian line was soon all but riddled by the swathing Austrian force, and summarily forced back. General Wied, under the most fortunate circumstances near at hand, rallied the 47th and the 59th Infantry, and immediately attacked the enemy forces to the east of the Septitz. This initial stroke drove the Prussians from before them, but, after a spirited advance, Wied suddenly found himself and his men wedged in between Prussian forces. Not for long; a quick volley or two crashing into the Austrian line sent Wied reeling back.

Saldern’s stroke, nonetheless, smashed the Austrian fortifications on the Septitz, taking the Austrians “sheltered” there by surprise. After this desperate struggle, he compelled them to abandon their guns and retreat. The price was heavy. The 6th Infantry lost 338 men and eight officers. The wooden portion of the works was soon afire, and the now ejected occupants sped off to apparent safety. Their action in demolishing the works there did prevent Saldern (for a time) from shoving on across the Septitz to link up with Hülsen’s tired men. But Ziethen was not to be delayed for long now.

Ironically, at this stage of the battle, an errant Prussian artillery gunner fired a round which surely should have killed the indomitable old hussar. The aim was purely accidental, and Ziethen escaped serious injury when his horse bucked on the event. Ziethen was incensed; but “was satisfied with a severe reprimand [for the gunner].”

To the west of the Septitz, went the now familiar Butter-Strasse through the aforementioned pass between the Schäferai Height and the Septitz on its way to the little village of Schäferai. The pass continued on across the Röhrgraben by a solid bridge between two ponds—over which Ziethen should have probably moved that morning on his part of the attack scheme. As for Möllendorf, he had probed ahead with his men, and shortly returned with important intelligence that the bridge not only still existed but that it was crossable. It is likely that intelligence from Frederick, to the effect that a stronger “statement” needed to be made by Ziethen’s men, had reached the scene. Within a few moments, the bluecoats were hurrying along for the pass and its bridge, which had most curiously been neglected by the enemy. Now, however, the Austrians hastened to seal off this gap in their stance and so prevent the Prussians on the southern end of their camp from linking up with the decimated northern half. The 2nd Infantry (Erzerhzog Carl) and the 8th (Hildburghausen), led a hodgepodge of reinforcements that moved up to support the efforts of d’Ayasasa and Sincère.

But Möllendorf got there first, and when the enemy forces did appear, the Prussians were already across the bridge and forming a front on the far side. Now, once more, the firing became regular and quickly became general. The bridge, in question, was apparently very narrow. Blumenthal stated only three men abreast could move through it. The leading company of Major Lehmann had the “honor” of being the first through the passage. Two Austrian cannon were blocking the way and seemed about to dispute passage. Suddenly, a valiant Prussian, named Gulle, took matters into his own hands. He charged the Austrian gunners, killed one man and badly wounded another before he was overcome himself. Thus inspired, however, Lehmann’s men pushed forward, sending the faltering foe backwards. Gulle survived the war, despite being seriously wounded, and, at Blumenthal’s writing (circa 1797), was still among the living.

In the larger picture, Ziethen hastened to support Möllendorf, and a fierce contest raged for control of the now crucial bridgehead. Finally, the whitecoats, outnumbered and beaten, withdrew their tattered remnants. Meanwhile their comrades, both Austrian and Prussian, heard the sounds of the renewed engagement. This noise reached Hülsen; now that it was pitch-dark. He had been engaged beforehand in his duties of organizing the army for the night camp. He had ordered back the cavalry, some of which had pressed far to the east in their rapid, exciting pursuit of the fleeing Austrian mass, and called up the infantry. The bivouac was facing northeast, with the infantry on the southwest end under General Lestwitz. It was in this posture that the king’s army was deployed when the noise of the engagement announcing Ziethen’s presence reached them. At once Captain Gaudi, familiar to us since the Battle of Rossbach, sped to Hülsen to try to bring to the attention of the ranking officer of the need to prepare a renewed assault upon the enemy before him, this time tending towards the Septitz.

Hülsen’s inborn resistance to independent command has already been alluded to. Most of the regiments that had attacked Daun’s north works that day were shot up and disorganized by that point. But Lestwitz had rounded up roughly 1,000 fighting men; they could be called upon. Dohna’s 16th Infantry and the 9th Infantry (General Schenckendorff) were the least injured. Lestwitz, in a rare burst of enthusiasm by Hülsen, was ordered to march to the sounds of the renewed fight.

General Hülsen’s men, seeing the red conflagration raging on the southern horizon—which was, of course, the works on the Septitz on fire—and hearing loud cannonade and musketry from the same direction, moved out, Lestwitz leading the way with his scattered formations already referred to.

Reaching that rise, the newcomers battered at the enemy on the front of that line, and as they surged forward, they came up with the left wing of Ziethen and in contact with Möllendorf. Off to the left front of Möllendorf, on the overhang opposite to the Septitz, lay the key to the whole battlefield—the southwest corner of that rise. This was the most elevated point on the rise. If the Prussian cannon could be erected there, the Austrians might yet be swept back all the way to the walls of Torgau fortress itself. The height overhang the Röhrgraben on that side, where the struggle had begun for the pass, but on the western side it could be ascended easily enough, while its northern edge protruded into the spine of the Dommitscher; from the east to the west, and was the direction of the final scenes of the battle.

The Austrians were not about to give up without a struggle. Mercy’s 56th and the 12th of Botta-Botta had the unenviable task thrust upon them of confronting bluecoats appearing from two directions; Ziethen from the southeast and Hülsen from the northwest. The commander on the spot, General O’Kelly, continued to fall back to do battle with the force of General Hülsen, which appeared to be the most dangerous. O’Kelly crossed paths with a small Prussian battery, and, through the gathering mist, was having trouble making out a large body of riders. Unsure whether the newcomers were friendly or hostile, General O’Kelly pressed out a detachment which discovered the horsemen were the 14th Cuirassiers of O’Donnell. The Austrians charged forward, but a deafening roar from behind them told this body of men that the enemy was now directly in their rear. O’Donnell’s cuirassiers gradually gave way, allowing the Prussians the opportunity to occupy the greater part of the Septitz.

The Austrian army was certainly worn thin, many of their muskets warped from damage and the ammo about gone. The fire of the Austrian artillery sputtered out, largely for the same reason. It was entirely exhausted; guns and crews alike.

The Prussians themselves were not in much better shape. Their men were drained as well, company identity fuzzy at best, officers separated from their regiments and trying to find them. The Austrian 2nd Infantry, cut off from the remainder of the Austrian forces when Hülsen and Ziethen finally connected, was captured almost to a man, and other Austrian forces were nabbed.

During the course of the renewed action, however late it was, the Austrian chain-of-command had been upset, yet again. Buccow had been wounded early in the struggle (which did not prove fatal, but did end his service in the field, as it turned out), and O’Donnell took charge of the whitecoats. As for Hülsen, he at last arrived on the field. His led horses had all been shot, so the old man was forced to hitch a ride to the scene on the back of one of the horsed-artillery teams. “He planted himself on a cannon … [and was] dragged into the enemy fire.” O’Donnell, spurred on by the excited urgings of the wounded Marshal Daun at Torgau, scraped reinforcements together and shook them into motion on the way to the struggle at the Septitz.

But in the prevailing confusion, the much-needed reinforcements halted in the valley below the rise and stood there while the Septitz was irretrievably lost to the advancing Prussians. By then it was about 2000 hours, and the Austrian line had been ruptured beyond repair. For about an hour more, the Austrians were still making a shored up effort on the field. Then, from about 2100 hours, O’Donnell reluctantly began withdrawing the army on the orders of Daun. The latter had ordered the move in view of the deteriorating situation, and the marshal only ordered a halt in Torgau just long enough to prepare to march away across the Elbe as soon as it was feasible. The Battle of Torgau was over by then, although there was still some scattered firing on the field until past 2200 hours.

The Austrian army, at least that portion of it that was still in some semblance of order, fell out into a semi-circular formation just west of the walls of the Torgau fortress. This while the Prussian pursuers, pressing hard upon their heels, drew out in a similar posture. As the bluecoats positioned themselves, their foes—as quickly as was possible—were preparing to fly off to Dresden.

Daun had sent off Colonel Georg Sigmund Rothschütz to Vienna earlier touting the “victory,” and now a second was sent on the way with the news of a victory turned to defeat and a withdrawal upon Dresden. The marshal had left the field with the fortifications at least largely still in the hands of his army. O’Donnell and Lacy appeared bearing the bad news that the Prussians had overcome the position at long last. He had earlier discerned the news of the renewed fighting on the battlefield, so this could not have been a surprise. And, of course, he had given the orders to withdraw.

Combat at Gilly

Having finally reached Charleroi at 3pm, Vandamme’s troops had to file across the bridge and through the narrow, congested streets of the town. Other than the Guard, which Napoleon would be very loath to commit so early in the campaign, his was the first infantry formation to pass through Charleroi heading towards the east. Lefol’s division led the march and the young Lieutenant Lefol recalls,

After passing through Charleroi, we saw 150 to 200 disarmed Prussians that our soldiers looked at with interest. They were some of the prisoners made during the day by the 1st Hussars, commanded I think by General Clary, whose bravery had brought about this result.

Having despatched the 1st Hussars towards Brussels, the remainder of Pajol’s corps was directed along the main road towards Gilly and Sombreffe, towards which most of the Prussian defenders of Charleroi had retreated. Still awaiting the arrival of Vandamme, Napoleon also sent forward the division of the Young Guard, less the regiment sent up the Brussels road, to support him. General Ameil, with the 5th Hussars, acted as the advance guard, but had not gone far when he came under fire from the Prussian rearguard around Gilly. Biot, one of Pajol’s aides de camp wrote,

The 1st Hussars moved through the suburb of Gosselies; the rest of the cavalry followed the suburb of Gilly. This is bordered on each side, along its entire length, with an uninterrupted line of houses; it thus formed a very dangerous defile for cavalry.

We profited from the first suitable location to form closed column by regiment. Then General Ameil with the 5th Hussars was sent on reconnaissance to the exit of the suburb. There he was saluted by volleys of musketry and artillery fire; the enemy occupied a plateau under the fire of which the main road passed.

Pajol’s memoirs describe his actions and the Prussian position:

At first, Pajol pushed his scouts onto the different points of this position. The resistance that they encountered left him in no doubt that the enemy was determined to defend themselves there. Conforming to the emperor’s orders, Pajol stopped his troops and awaited some infantry. However, he did not cease to harass his enemies and skirmished along the whole line.

A little before 1pm, Grouchy appeared with Exelmans’ dragoons. He conducted his own reconnaissance of the enemy position and took command of the situation. He then had Pajol’s regiments massed on either side of the Namur road and took Exelmans’ cavalry to the right, in the direction of Châtelet. Not wanting to carry out an attack without infantry, he simply skirmished with the Prussian advance posts whilst awaiting the arrival of III Corps.

Pirch II profited from this time to complete his deployment and established his men a little to the rear of the junction of the roads to Fleurus via Campinaire and Namur, by Lambusart. His first line, composed of four battalions, stretched from the abbey of Soleilmont to close to Chatelineau, parallel to the road which ran between these two points; the battalion on the right held the Soleilmont abbey and was covered by abatis on the Fleurus road and as far as the Lobbes wood. The three other battalions deployed along the line and in front of the Trichehève wood, extending to the south of the Namur road. To their left, a regiment of dragoons observed the exits of Chatelineau and Châtelet. Finally their artillery was distributed along the Fleurus road and on the slopes, firing down onto the road exiting Gilly. In the second line, Pirch II had established three battalions astride the Namur road and at the entry to the Rondechamp wood; they occupied all the space between le chêne de Vescourt and the village of Rondechamp.

Colonel Count de Bloqueville, who was one of Grouchy’s aides de camp, later recounted the events in the run-up to the combat.

When the marshal had passed through Charleroi, he moved at the gallop along the road from Charleroi to Fleurus as far as the village of Gilly, where he saw a body of Prussians in position. Followed by a single aide de camp, he got as close as possible to the enemy who appeared to be about 20,000 strong. Then, protected by several clumps of trees which were spread along the edges of the small river which ran along a valley which separated the Prussians from Gilly, he explored the banks and returned to Gilly from where he sent his aide de camp Pont-Bellanger to the emperor to request permission to attack the Prussians and to request him to send some reinforcements, notably infantry, in order to carry out this attack.

Whilst waiting for a response from Napoleon, the marshal led General Exelmans’ dragoons round to the right as far as a mill where the horses would be able to cross the small river. From where they could cross, the marshal, profiting from the lay of the ground which did not allow the enemy to observe the movement of the dragoons, placed them so that they would be able, at the first signal, to outflank the Prussian left and charge their flank.

Whilst Grouchy conducted his reconnaissance, others were taking sensible precautions against a Prussian counter-attack. Chef d’escadron Biot tells us,

During our reconnaissance, a company of sapeurs was rushed to fortify the houses of the Gilly suburb that we were occupying. Infantry were deployed there as it arrived in order to resist the enemy in case they attempted to retake the suburb and throw us back on the bridge that our infantry and artillery continued to cross.

The emperor was obviously not impressed when he received Pont-Bellanger’s report; he no doubt felt that Grouchy should not have awaited orders, but immediately attacked Zieten and pushed on to Fleurus as he had been previously directed. He immediately set off for Gilly, annoyed at the holdup and determined to get the advance re-started. Before he left, he ordered Soult to write to Gérard to cross the river at Châtelet instead of Charleroi. This would have two advantages; firstly it would avoid congestion in Charleroi which was already holding up Vandamme’s march, and secondly, it would bring IV Corps onto the flank of the Prussian position; if he arrived early enough the Prussian rearguard might well be destroyed.

Letter from the major-général to Gérard 15 June, 3.30pm

  1. le comte Gérard, the emperor charges me to order you to move yourself and your corps to Châtelet where you are to cross the Sambre and advance following the road to Fleurus, the direction that the emperor is following at this moment with part of the army with the aim of attacking an enemy corps that has stopped in front of the wood of Lambusart. If this corps is still in position after you have crossed the Sambre, you are also to attack it. Let me know your positions and inform me if the 14th Cavalry division is with you; if so, you are to advance with it.

Napoleon arrived at Gilly at about 4.30pm and met up with Grouchy. His irritation is clear in his memoirs:

The corps of Vandamme and Grouchy were both at Gilly. Misled by false reports they wasted two hours without moving, in the belief that 200,000 Prussians were behind the woods and in front of Fleurus. I made a personal reconnaissance of the enemy and, judging that these woods were only occupied by two divisions of Zieten’s corps, consisting of between 18,000 and 20,000 men I forthwith gave the order to move forward.

In fact, all Vandamme’s troops were not yet fully up and Napoleon moved back to hasten their march. To the emperor’s frustration, the combat did not start until 6pm. Joining the troops as they prepared to launch their attack, Napoleon came across the 37th de ligne, one of whose officers reported,

… our divisions were massed on the plateau of Charleroi, where they waited for a time. Suddenly the emperor appeared on his horse in the middle of our columns. He addressed some words to the officer closest to him,

‘What regiment?’

‘Sire, the 37th’

‘Ah! Gauthier’s regiment? Your soldiers have poor greatcoats’

‘The Prussians have new ones’

‘They are there, go and take them!’

Pirch II’s brigade actually only consisted of a total of around 6,500 men in three regiments each of three battalions (the 6th and 28th Infantry Regiments and the 2nd Westphalian Landwehr), some cavalry from the corps cavalry reserve and an artillery battery. They had imposed on Grouchy and delayed his advance for several hours.

Some of Vandamme’s corps were committed as soon as they came forward. Lieutenant Lefol wrote, ‘Continuing our march, we encountered the enemy towards 6pm, and after taking part in a bloody combat where we lost many men … ‘ Pajol reported something similar: ‘The head of III Corps arrived in front of Pirch II’s positions towards 3pm. Vandamme attacked them immediately, but was unsuccessful.’

It appears that Vandamme, perhaps sensing the emperor’s frustration, launched Lefol’s division in a premature attack. Then, realising that a single division was insufficient for the task, was forced to wait until his whole corps came up. Pajol again:

He [Vandamme] was forced to wait for his whole corps to get forward and to combine his attacks with cavalry. Grouchy and Vandamme adopted the following deployment. Three infantry columns of infantry marched, one towards the Trichehève wood and the abbey of Soleilmont; another against the Prussian centre, following the Lambusart road; and the third against the Prussian left, turning Gilly. Exelmans’ dragoons went towards the Chatelineau mill to cross the stream at a ford and throw themselves, thanks to the cover of the ground which hid them from view, into the rear left of the Prussian position. Pajol’s cavalry marched to the left of Vandamme’s columns along the Fleurus road.

Informed of these deployments and of the attack which was about to be launched against Pirch II, Napoleon left Ney, to whom he had just given his orders and command of the left wing, and moved in all haste to Gilly. He arrived there towards 4.30pm. The attack was initiated by a violent artillery barrage aimed at the Prussian batteries. The infantry columns were then ordered forward.

This time, faced by a co-ordinated all-arms attack by superior forces, and with his flank threatened by Gérard, Pirch II chose this moment to order the retreat before they became decisively engaged. Thus it seems, Vandamme’s corps advanced but did not come into contact with the Prussians. General Berthezène reported: ‘The III Corps, having found the enemy had withdrawn, continued its march towards Fleurus and took position on the road a little in the rear of this small town.’ We cannot be sure who provided the three columns that Pajol speaks of; some accounts mention that one of them was made up of a regiment of the Young Guard and the others from Vandamme’s corps. Clearly, the whole of III Corps were not involved.

Napoleon, seeing that the Prussian infantry were escaping, hastened Vandamme’s advance, but he must have realised that infantry would not catch the retreating Prussians. He therefore turned to his aide-de-camp and former commander of the Guard Dragoons, General Letort, and ordered him to take the four service squadrons and to wipe out the Prussian battalions as they moved towards the entry to the woods behind them. At the same moment, Pajol launched his cavalry on Soleilmont to seize the defile into the wood of Fleurus and Exelmans’ dragoons swept onto the Prussian left from their covered position, scattering a small Prussian infantry force and forcing back the cavalry that was covering this flank. In his report on the action, Exelmans wrote to Grouchy:

I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that in the affair that took place yesterday under your eyes, General Vincent’s brigade had two officers and twenty dragoons wounded and seven killed. The brigade did its duty perfectly. Led by the brave General Vincent who combines a rare and great experience, firmness and sang-froid, I pray Your Excellency to ask the emperor for him to be made a higher grade in the legion d’honneur.

Colonel Briqueville (of the 20th) behaved very well, also the commander of the 1st Squadron; as this officer is very senior, I ask for the rank of major for him. [He then goes on to list the men he wants promoted/decorated, including ‘Grenadier Pissé (of the 20th Dragoons) who made twenty-seven prisoners.’]

The Prussian battalion positioned close to the Trichehève wood threw themselves into the trees. The two battalions to its left formed into square and marched towards the woods, stopping now and then to stand against Letort’s charges, supported by the Prussian cavalry. Letort moved forward to demand the square’s surrender; the battalions were from Berg, an old German state ally of the French, and perhaps he thought they may be prepared to change sides. However, the response was a shot that knocked him from his saddle. He died later in Charleroi.

One square became disordered, was broken, sabred and mostly destroyed (this was the fusilier battalion of the 28th), but the other managed to reach the safety of the Rondechamp wood, from which the three reserve battalions had already set off towards Lambusart. The right-hand battalion of the first line finally found protection behind the abatis that protected the Fleurus road and escaped into the wood, where it broke down into skirmishers and heavily engaged Pajol’s cavalry which was marching on the direct road from Gilly to Fleurus. Despite having imposed considerable delay on the French, Pirch II’s regiments suffered badly during this action. The fusiliers of the 28th lost 13 officers and 614 men; the fusilier battalion of the 6th lost a total of 216 killed wounded and missing.

The firing in the woods continued for a long time. The battered battalions of Pirch II’s brigade succeeded in reaching Lambusart where they were covered by Jagow’s 3rd Brigade, which had been in position there since 4pm. Despite the difficulties of the tracks and the enemy skirmish fire, Pajol’s regiments, after having taken a great number of prisoners, exited from the Fleurus woods sometime around 6.30pm, at about the same time as Exelmans’ dragoons left the Trichehève wood. At the sight of these two cavalry corps, Jagow and Pirch II retired from Lambusart to Fleurus. Satisfied with the results of the action at this point, Napoleon left with the Imperial Guard cavalry and returned to Charleroi where he could update himself on Ney’s situation and where he intended to pass the night.

In line with the emperor’s intentions and instructions, Grouchy left the corps of Pajol and Exelmans to continue the pursuit of the Prussians in the direction of Fleurus. Pajol, who was then marching with Subervie’s division on the direct route to Fleurus, passed close to the farm of Martinroux and launched Domon’s division to his left towards Wangenies along the Bonnaire road, whilst he advanced Soult’s division on his right towards Lambusart.

Biot described the difficulty of the ground for cavalry:

The road that we took to Lambusart is an elevated track, very narrow and bordered by woods on both sides. The enemy had made abatis out of trees across the road to slow our march as much as possible, for we were very close. His artillery sent us several balls from time to time, but to which we did not reply. An aide de camp to General Soult had his arm ripped off.

The scouts of these three divisions harassed the enemy rearguards but without being able to make any great impression on them. It required infantry to really interfere with the Prussian retreat. Pajol resolved to await Vandamme, who only reached the exits of the woods towards 7.30pm.

Grouchy had ordered Vandamme to continue to advance on Fleurus to support Pajol’s and Exelmans’ corps, but Vandamme, whose soldiers had been marching and fighting hard for more than twelve hours, refused, saying his men were exhausted. Grouchy was furious, but Vandamme had not been informed that he had been put under his command and that he should obey the marshal’s orders as commander of the right wing. He ordered his troops to bivouac. Lieutenant Lefol records: ‘Our division went into bivouac in a small wood between Charleroi and Fleurus, which had been previously occupied by the Prussians.’

Germany – 1813

Russian, Austrian, and Prussian troops in Leipzig.
Painting by Alexander Sauerweid.

The Treaty of Reichenbach between Austria, Russia and Prussia signed on 27 June set out the four minimal Austrian conditions and guaranteed that Austria would enter the war unless Napoleon had accepted them by the expiry of the armistice on 20 July. The allies made it clear to Metternich, however, that although they would enter negotiations on this basis they would only sign a peace if it included other terms which would end Napoleon’s domination of Germany and guarantee Prussian security. Relations between Austria and the allies reached their lowest ebb when Metternich returned from discussions with Napoleon in Dresden and imposed an extension of the armistice until 10 August. Some of the loudest denunciations of this extension came from Baron Stein. In his case the normal allied view that Austrian peace terms were inadequate was enhanced by fierce disagreement with Metternich about the war’s ultimate goals. Stein wanted a reborn and more united German confederation with a constitution guaranteeing civil and political rights. He appealed to German nationalist feeling to achieve this. Since April 1813, however, Stein’s influence with Alexander had been in decline as Germany failed to revolt against Napoleon and the allies’ need for Austrian assistance became more pressing. Now he attempted to strike back, claiming that Metternich was pulling the wool over allied eyes and that with half a million Russians, Prussians and Swedes ready to take the field against 360,000 enemy troops Austrian help was probably unnecessary anyway. Previously he had supported Nesselrode because the latter shared Stein’s view that Russia should commit herself wholeheartedly to the liberation of Germany from Napoleon. Now, however, he called Nesselrode Metternich’s dupe, a well-meaning but empty weakling.

In reality Nesselrode was right and Stein was wrong. The allies could not have driven Napoleon out of Germany without Austrian help. At the very moment when Stein was writing these denunciations Metternich was moving quietly to swing Austria towards the allied camp. With peace negotiations now in the offing, Metternich wrote to Francis II that it was essential that he and the emperor were in complete agreement as to future policy. The peace negotiations might have three outcomes. The two sides might agree terms, in which case Austria need only rejoice. Metternich did not need to spell out to Francis how unlikely this outcome was, since the Austrians were well aware how far apart the opposing sides were as regards acceptable peace terms. A second and somewhat likelier possibility was that Napoleon would accept the Austrian minimal terms and the allies would reject them. Metternich wrote that Austria could not determine in advance what to do in this event since to some extent it would depend on contexts and circumstances. Under no circumstances could it side with France, however, and the defeat or dissolution of the allied coalition would be a great threat to Austrian security. Armed neutrality might be a short-term option but it would be very difficult to sustain for any length of time and the only other alternative would be to join the allies.

Metternich’s memorandum concentrated, however, on the third and likeliest possibility, which was that Napoleon would reject the Austrian terms. In that case Metternich’s unequivocal advice was that Austria must declare war. He concluded his memorandum with a question: ‘Can I count on Your Majesty’s firmness in the event that Napoleon does not accept Austria’s conditions for peace? Is Your Majesty resolutely determined in that case to entrust a just cause to the decision of arms – both those of Austria and of the whole of the rest of united Europe?’

Francis responded that any decent man must desire stable and lasting peace and that this was all the more true for a sovereign like himself who bore responsibility for the well-being of ‘his good subjects’ and their ‘beautiful lands’. No greed for territory or other advantages could justify war. But he trusted Metternich’s judgement: ‘To a great extent I have you to thank for the present excellent political situation of my monarchy.’ Therefore he agreed with his foreign minister’s conclusions. In the event that Napoleon accepted Austria’s terms and the allies rejected them he would await Metternich’s advice. If Napoleon rejected the Austrian terms then the monarchy would declare war on France.

In the end therefore everything depended on Napoleon and he played into the allies’ hands. The French representatives at the Prague peace conference arrived late and without powers to negotiate terms. Nothing could have done more to confirm Austrian suspicions that Napoleon was merely playing for time and had no interest in peace. Not until two days before the armistice was due to expire did Napoleon make a serious diplomatic move. On 8 August Caulaincourt, one of the two French delegates to the peace conference, visited Metternich’s quarters to inquire what price Austria required to stay neutral or join the French camp. Not until the day after the armistice expired did the French provide Metternich with a response to the four minimal peace conditions set out by Austria. Napoleon agreed to abandon the Poles and hand over much of Illyria to Austria. He conceded nothing as regards the north German ports, rejected Prussian annexation of Danzig, and required compensation for the King of Saxony to make up for the fact that he had lost his position as Duke of Warsaw. These conditions would never have satisfied Metternich and by now it was in any case too late. Austria had closed the peace conference and now declared war on France.

Ever since August 1813 most historians, French ones included, have condemned Napoleon’s ineptitude in failing to use diplomacy to divide the allies and keep Austria neutral. Even the inadequate concessions presented to Metternich on 11 August might have made an impact on Francis II if put forward as a first move at the beginning of the peace conference. There was room to exploit differences in Austrian and Russo-Prussian war aims, as regards both German and Polish territories. If the peace conference could be extended to include Britain, Napoleon’s chances of sowing dissension must improve further. All the continental powers resented the fact that, while their territories had been occupied and ravaged, the United Kingdom had remained inviolate and become seemingly ever richer. They hoped to achieve territorial concessions by Napoleon in Europe in return for British willingness to hand back French colonies.

Nevertheless, even if Napoleon erred in not using diplomacy more skilfully to explore potential splits among his enemies, it is possible to understand his point of view in the summer of 1813. Refusal seriously to explore peace terms was much less obvious a blunder than his initial agreement to the armistice. The French monarch feared that once he began making concessions the allies would raise their demands. He was correct: the Russians and Prussians intended to do just this. The concessions he was being urged to make in north Germany might conceivably be acceptable in the context of a general peace which would include the return of French colonies, but Napoleon could hardly be expected to concede these territories in a continental peace and thereby find himself naked when he had to bargain later with the British.

A fundamental issue underlay all these peace negotiations. The allies, and indeed Austria, wanted to restore something approaching a balance of power in continental Europe. Napoleon was committed to French empire or at least hegemony. His defenders might plausibly assert that unless he preserved some version of French dominion on the continent he had lost his war with Britain and the vastly powerful maritime empire which it had created. Napoleon’s basic problem was that although the continental powers resented the British version of empire, the French version was a much more direct threat to their interests. No amount of clever diplomacy could alter this. The only way in which Napoleon could get the continental powers to accept his empire was by re-creating their terror of French military power, which the disaster of 1812 had undermined. This was not an impossible task in August 1813. Napoleon had good reason to believe that he could defeat the Russians, Prussians and Austrians because the chances were very evenly matched. This adds to the drama of the autumn 1813 campaign.

In numerical terms Napoleon’s forces were inferior to the allies but not greatly so. The Russian and Prussian official histories put allied numbers in Germany at the beginning of the autumn campaign at just over half a million. Napoleon himself reckoned in early August that he could put 400,000 men in the field, not counting Davout’s corps at Hamburg, which was subsequently able to detach 28,000 men from garrison duties for an offensive against Berlin. On 6 August his chief of staff reported 418,000 men in the ranks. Exact numbers available for action on the battlefield are impossible to calculate for either side: roughly speaking, however, in the first two months of the campaign Napoleon could put rather more than four men in the field to every five allies. It was fortunate for the allies that 57,000 French troops were facing Wellington in the Pyrenees and another small corps under Marshal Suchet was still attempting to hold Catalonia.

After two months the odds would shift somewhat towards the allies. The only reinforcements Napoleon could expect were Augereau’s small corps which was forming in Bavaria. There were dangers in moving Augereau forward, since this made it easier for Bavaria to switch sides, which is what happened in October. To some extent the Russians faced a similar dilemma in the Duchy of Warsaw, where Bennigsen’s Army of Poland was both a strategic reserve and an occupation force. In the Russian case, however, it was possible to move Lobanov-Rostovsky’s Reserve Army into the Duchy to replace Bennigsen’s 60,000 troops when they set off for Saxony. A steady flow of Austrian recruits also joined Schwarzenberg’s army in September and October. In addition, once one began looking beyond the 1813 campaign it was clear that Austria and Russia had greater reserves of untapped manpower than Napoleon, especially if he was forced to rely just on France’s own population. Napoleon’s best chance of defeating the allies would therefore come in the first two months of the autumn campaign. This thought is unlikely to have worried the French emperor. After all, most of his great victories had been won in less time than this.

They had been won by better soldiers than he commanded in August 1813, however. Above all, Napoleon remained very inferior to the allies in cavalry. His mounted arm had improved considerably during the armistice, chiefly in terms of numbers. Some good cavalry regiments subsequently arrived from Spain. The Guards cavalry was mostly competent, as were the Polish and some of the German regiments. But the bulk of Napoleon’s French cavalry was still well inferior to the Russian reserves formed by Kologrivov, not to speak of the veteran Russian cavalrymen. In addition, all sources agree that the cavalry was the best arm of the Austrian army. The situation as regards artillery was if anything the opposite. French equipment was much less cumbersome than Austrian guns and caissons. The Prussian artillery was so weak that the Russians had to second some of their own batteries to a number of Prussian divisions in order to give them sufficient firepower. The Prussian general staff history concluded that French artillery officers were usually more skilful than their allied counterparts. The main allied advantage as regards artillery was numerical. If they could concentrate their three field armies and Bennigsen’s Army of Poland on a single battlefield, the weight of their firepower should be overwhelming.

The majority of both the allied and the Napoleonic infantry were recruits, most of whom had never seen action before August 1813. The French conscripts were younger than their allied peers, but on the other hand many of them had experienced the spring campaign, which was true neither of the Austrians nor of the Prussian Landwehr. The Russian reserves were also going into action for the first time but at least in their case they had enjoyed plenty of time to train and were usually very tough and resilient. Above all, however, the Russian infantry contained more veterans than its French counterpart. This meant not just the men who had served throughout the 1812 and spring 1813 campaigns, but also many thousands of veterans who returned to their regiments during the armistice from hospitals and detached duties. Not surprisingly, the Guards contained exceptionally large number of veterans. The Guards regiments had not seen action in the spring 1813 campaign, and many of them had received drafts of veteran troops from regiments of the line.

Though his army was inferior to the allies in both numbers and quality, in other respects Napoleon enjoyed key advantages. As he himself pointed out to Count Bubna, Metternich’s envoy, interior lines combined with a clear chain of command and his own undisputed leadership were very valuable in themselves. When opposed to a coalition made up of equal great powers with diverse interests, and with armies deployed in a huge semicircle from Berlin in the north to Silesia in the east and Bohemia in the south, these advantages ought to be decisive. In his memoirs, Eugen of Württemberg wrote that in August 1813 he had been optimistic about allied victory but having discovered after the war how disunited and conflict-ridden the allied leadership had been he was now very surprised by ultimate allied success.

The allied commander-in-chief was the Austrian field-marshal, Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. Before 1813 Schwarzenberg had shown himself to be a skilful ambassador and a competent and courageous commander of a division. His record of commanding larger units had been less impressive. Nothing in his personality or career suggested that he was a match for Napoleon as the commander of a huge army. Schwarzenberg was a patient, tactful, kind and honourable man. He believed in the allied cause and served it unselfishly and to the best of his ability. A grand seigneur, he had the manners and the lack of personal ambition appropriate to his status. In the manner of an Eisenhower, he could absorb and defuse conflicts between the many ambitious and aggressive personalities over whom he exercised command. Of course, the aristocratic Schwarzenberg was fluent in French, the lingua franca of the allied high command. As commander-in-chief, however, he was hampered by his lack of confidence in his own military ability, his awe of Napoleon, and the immense difficulty of commanding a coalition army of equal great powers, two of whose sovereigns insisted on travelling with his headquarters and second-guessing his decisions. Though he often found Alexander very difficult to handle, Schwarzenberg on the whole liked him. He echoed the consensus that the Russian monarch was ‘good but weak’. Frederick William III on the contrary was ‘a coarse, churlish and insensitive person whom I dislike as much as I value the poor, valiant Prussians’.

For all his inadequacies, Schwarzenberg was the best man available for the post of commander-in-chief. The supreme commander had to be an Austrian, not a Russian. This reflected allied dependence on Austria in August 1813 as well as the fact that the largest allied army was deployed on Austrian territory. Even if the Austrians had been willing – which was far from the case – Alexander himself would never have accepted the job. Had he wished to be the supreme military commander, the position was his for the asking after Kutuzov’s death in April 1813. Some of his generals urged him to take personal command then but Alexander was far too lacking in confidence in his military abilities to agree. Instead he preferred to operate from behind the shoulder of the actual commander-in-chief, to the latter’s acute discomfort.

The emperor treated Schwarzenberg with more respect than he had Wittgenstein. At the beginning of the autumn campaign, for example, one even finds him telling Wittgenstein to obey Schwarzenberg’s orders when they conflicted with Alexander’s own commands. Quite soon, however, confidence in the supreme commander began to fade and old habits to some extent returned. Schwarzenberg quickly learned that the only way to guarantee that Russian commanders would actually execute his orders was to consult in advance the emperor’s representative at allied headquarters, Karl von Toll, and on any major matters to get Alexander’s own approval. Inevitably this delayed and blurred decision-making to a degree which could have proved fatal.

Consulting Alexander and Frederick William entailed listening to the opinions of their military advisers. In Alexander’s case this meant above all Barclay de Tolly, Diebitsch and Toll. Always inclined to trust foreign ‘military professors’, Alexander now found a partial substitute for Pfühl in Major-General Antoine de Jomini, one of the most respected military writers of the time, who had deserted from Napoleon’s army during the armistice. Alexander put even more trust in Napoleon’s old rival General Moreau, who had defeated the Austrians at Hohenlinden in 1800 and whom he had invited into his entourage from American exile. For Schwarzenberg and his Austrian staff officers it was bad enough having to listen to the allied monarchs and their Russian and Prussian generals. Having to defer to Moreau and Jomini was the final straw. The commander-in-chief wrote to his wife about the frustrations of being ‘surrounded by weaklings, fops of every sort, creators of eccentric schemes, intriguers, idiots, chatterers and fault-finders’. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky commented in his diary that allied decision-making was sometimes akin to the deliberations of a popular assembly, quite unlike the clear-cut system of command which had existed – in his rather idealized memory – at Kutuzov’s headquarters in 1812.

If Schwarzenberg’s power over the main army – the so-called Army of Bohemia – was conditional, it was almost non-existent as regards the two other allied armies. The Army of the North was commanded by Bernadotte and was deployed around Berlin. As the de facto sovereign of a large, independent country Bernadotte had to be given command of one of the armies and would be very difficult for any commander-in-chief to control. In so far as anyone at the main army headquarters could influence Bernadotte’s actions, it was Alexander to whom the Swedish crown prince to some extent deferred. In any case, the whole area between Schwarzenberg’s and Bernadotte’s armies was held by Napoleon, so messengers between the two headquarters generally made a huge detour to the east and took many days to shuttle back and forth. Even Schwarzenberg’s attempts to control General Blücher, the commander of the Army of Silesia, bore little fruit. By delay and by appealing to Alexander and Frederick William the Prussian general successfully resisted all the commander-in-chief’s many efforts to draw the Army of Silesia into Bohemia in order to cover the main army’s right flank. At least in the Army of Bohemia Schwarzenberg could give direct orders to the 120,000 men who formed its Austrian contingent. In the Army of Silesia and the Army of the North, however, there were no Austrian troops.