The Potsdam Giants was the Prussian infantry regiment No 6, composed of taller-than-average soldiers. The regiment was founded in 1675 and dissolved in 1806 after the Prussian defeat against Napoleon. Throughout the reign of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia (1688–1740) the unit was known as the “Potsdamer Riesengarde” (“giant guard of Potsdam”) in German, but the Prussian population quickly nicknamed them the “Lange Kerls” (“Long guys”).
Frederick William I from the house of Hohenzollern became King of Prussia in 1713.
Charles Darwin wrote that human beings, unlike livestock, had never been forcibly bred for select characteristics, ‘except in the well-known case of the Prussian grenadiers.’ To the amazement of fellow-rulers and trembling subjects alike, the Soldier-King (as Frederick was nicknamed) began to collect giant men as one would collect rare stamps. From all over Prussia he had his agents look for- and oftentimes kidnap- men suffering from gigantism. In striving to create his own personal soldier core of giants, the king instructed his subjects to immediately signal the authorities whenever they should become aware of exceptionally tall men in the vicinity. He also made clear to his political allies that they could keep their gifts of gold for themselves as long as they provided him now and then with fresh giants to fill up his stock. The strange and sinister request dripped down into every segment of Prussian society. Prussian teachers, eager to appease the morbid king, kept an eye out for tall children and promptly handed them over to him when they had the chance. Newborn babies, expected to grow unusually tall, were marked with a bright red scarf for identification purposes.
If someone was unfortunate enough to be over six feet tall and born in the Prussian sphere of influence (which was quite extensive at the time), he would sooner or later be noticed and assigned to the king’s private collection cabinet. Cautious parents, aware of the king’s eccentric cravings, made improvised shelters for their children to hide them from the ever watchful eyes of Frederick’s scouts- who feverishly roamed the land in search of specimens to satisfy his dark avocations. If the collection item-to-be happened to be well-to-do (or of noble descent himself) no expense was spared to acquire him- for the king reserved enormous amounts of cash just for the purchasing of giants. If one had the misfortune of being of modest means or descent, the conduct of the Prussian agents was altogether different: in this case they were given carte blanch to simply abduct the person in question, bring them before the Prussian king to be inspected, stamped with the royal seal and subsequently enslaved. It would sometimes occur that his agents were so eager in carrying out their assignment that their prey would not survive the brutal journey to the Prussian throne. This would always enrage the impatient king, and the agent in question could count on a swift reprimand for his negligence (usually on the unhappy end of a rifle). Some glitches aside, his collection grew steadily- and before long he managed to assemble his giants in a formidable ‘regiment’ which were regularly taken out on display when some befriended tyrant came to visit. But Frederick was not satisfied with merely collecting the giants to impress neighboring monarchs; Frederick took the whole thing to the next level.
According to Washington Monthly author David Wallace-Wells, ‘King Frederick’s obsession was more than mere schoolyard eugenics.’ Indeed it was. Frederick was not the man for silly pet projects or idle pleasures. He was a Prussian king and that means thoroughness in absolutely every respect. With an ambition that would put Marie Stopes to shame, he gathered from all over Europe the most impressive ‘samples’ and selected each and every one of them personally before sending them to his sub-level experimentation chambers. The most notorious of these experiments was the stretching of his grenadiers on a specially constructed rack in an attempt to make them taller than they already were. Frederick would sometimes preside over these racking sessions himself while enjoying his lunch at the same time. However absurd and cruel this method, it revealed the king’s unwavering ambitions regarding all things inhumane. One of the first to venture into the world of methodical eugenics, king Frederick encountered the same difficulties as his future counterparts. When it became apparent that this method resulted in the death of the giants instead of gaining even an inch in length, he ended the practice lest he run out of giants. But putting a halt to this racking practice could not prevent the giants from dying in alarming numbers, for many of them sought refuge in suicide. As only a German blueblood could devise, the king forced his rapidly shrinking collection to interbreed with equally tall women so as to build a future army of giants, which would be the envy of Europe’s upper-class. Here he actually attempted to breed a ‘new man’, and it is said that the city of Potsdam, lair of the Hohenzollerns, was littered with unusually tall men at the end of the 18th century as a result. It is sad, this tale of the Potsdam giants. They fell victim to the elite’s bloodthirsty appetite and unwittingly became one of the first to be sacrificed on the altar of eugenics.
“Napoleon on the field of Eylau” by Antoine-Jean Gros
The Battle of Eylau, 1807 – Situation Early, 8 February
The Battle of Eylau, 1807 – Situation About 1600, 8 February
Eylau has the dubious distinction of being one of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Some 200 years after the inconclusive event, it is difficult for historians to calculate the true scale of the losses incurred by the participants. One thing remains clear: The figures involved would not look out of place in the attrition rates for the soldiers of World War I. Modern scholars put a figure of 25,000 men on French casualties, approximately one man in three. The opposing Russians lost some 15,000 men, including a number of Prussians. One officer described it as “the bloodiest day, the most horrible butchery of men that had taken place since the beginning of the Revolutionary wars” (quoted in Haythornthwaite 2001, 56). The grueling combat, which saw the forces under Napoleon pitted against Russian troops under General Levin Bennigsen, is also noteworthy for a number of other reasons. It gave rise to one of the greatest cavalry charges in history (spearheaded by Marshal Joachim Murat); it was fought in some of the most atrocious weather conditions; and was one of the few occasions when the Emperor himself almost fell into the hands of his enemies.
Following an indecisive action at Jankovo, Napoleon, on 7 February 1807, with 30,000 men under his corps commanders Murat and Marshal Nicolas Soult, met the Russian army of 67,000 near the small village of Preussisch Eylau in Poland. The Russians drew up in a line running roughly from the north to the east behind the town. The French were drawn up from just northwest of the town down to the southeast. Hostilities began when, probably ignorant of the enemy’s presence, Napoleon’s own baggage train entered Eylau in search of cover for the night. Bitter street fighting ensued, accompanied by intense combat in the town graveyard. Eylau changed hands several times until Bennigsen conceded the place to the French and pulled back to a ridge behind the town, leaving around 4,000 casualties on each side. With French supply wagons lagging behind the army and the Russian supply system on the verge of collapse, both sides suffered from severe shortages of food. Worse still for Bennigsen, loss of the village forced his men to spend the night in subzero temperatures. During the evening 15,000 French reinforcements arrived, with an equal number again expected on the following day under Marshal Louis Davout. To the northwest stood a corps under Marshal Michel Ney, operating independently to keep the 9,000 Prussians under General Anton Wilhelm Lestocq from uniting with the Russians, but with orders to join the main body on the eighth.
The size of the respective armies during the second day’s fighting remains unknown, but it is estimated that though Napoleon was clearly outnumbered in the morning, the successive appearance of troops over the course of the day increased the strength of each side until they stood about equal-perhaps 75,000 men, but with Bennigsen enjoying a clear superiority in artillery: 460 guns to about 200 for Napoleon.
The French, occupying heights slightly north of the town and only 1,200 yards from the Russian positions, stood in expectation of a frontal attack. At about 8:00 A. M. the massed artillery of the Russians opened the battle with a bombardment that left the village of Eylau ablaze, but in concentrating their guns at relatively short range they exposed themselves to counterbattery fire from the French, whose accuracy soon began to tell. Amid a shrieking blizzard, Soult, supported by cavalry under General Antoine Lasalle, carried out a diversionary attack against the Russian right to deflect attention from the arrival of Davout from the southwest, where Napoleon hoped the decisive blow would be delivered. At about 9:00 A. M., however, Soult was beaten off by the stoic Russians, and General Louis Friant’s division (the advance guard of Davout’s corps) was effectively stalled by an attack at about the same time by a large body of Russian cavalry.
The stage was set for even more carnage. With both his flanks seriously threatened, Napoleon ordered the 9,000 men under Marshal Pierre Augereau, on the French right, to counterattack the Russian center, with a division under General Louis St. Hilaire in support. Augereau’s ill health and the atrocious weather conditions ensured that the attack ended in grisly chaos. The columns became separated, and Augereau’s men-advancing blindly and losing their way-ended up walking directly into the mouths of seventy massed Russian guns. A withering bombardment ensued, while the beleaguered French troops were also subjected to fire from their own artillery, whose gunners could not make out anything through the swirling snow. By 10:30-in under an hour-Augereau’s corps had all but been destroyed, with over 5,000 killed and wounded, Augereau included among the latter, and St. Hilaire’s men had been halted in their tracks.
Napoleon’s fortunes were taking a turn for the worse as General Dmitry Dokhturov’s reserve infantry corps pushed into Eylau on the heels of Augereau’s reeling formations. With the appearance of something on the order of 6,000 Russians in the town, the Emperor himself only narrowly avoided capture, thanks to the self-sacrifice of his escort, who lost heavily until relieved by the arrival of Imperial Guard infantry. Characteristic of the carnage of the day’s fighting was the fate of the French 14th Regiment of the Line: Finding itself completely encircled by the enemy, it refused to surrender and was consequently annihilated near the cemetery.
With the battle reaching a critical phase and with only one major formation still uncommitted, Napoleon ordered the 10,500 men of his reserve cavalry into the fray. Around noon, Murat deployed his eighty squadrons into two vast columns before launching them against the Russian center in a maneuver that has become almost legendary. It gave rise to the oft-quoted vignette in which General Louis Lepic exhorted his men as they waited for the charge with the rejoinder: “Heads up, by God! Those are bullets, not turds!” (quoted in Lachouque and Brown 1997, 88). With inexorable momentum, Murat’s massed horsemen smashed through Bennigsen’s infantry and rode over a seventy-gun battery before reforming, facing about, and returning to friendly lines as a single column through the wreckage left by their initial advance. The charge cost the French 1,500 men, but it brought the relief Napoleon’s infantry desperately needed, allowing him to restore order among his hard-pressed formations. Historians have pointed out that Murat’s feat validated the cavalry as an independent (and useful) fighting force in its own right rather than as a mere adjunct to the artillery or infantry.
While Lestocq’s Prussians had meanwhile arrived around 11:00 A. M. to bolster their beleaguered Russian allies, Davout’s corps was not far behind and by 1:00 P. M. was applying pressure against Bennigsen’s left, which had to shift its position by 45 degrees to maintain a solid front against ever-increasing numbers of French troops. Nevertheless, so determined was Russian resistance that despite the continuous increase of French troops on the field as the day wore on, they still found themselves unable to wrest ground from dogged Russian infantry who preferred to die where they stood.
Ney’s corps did not arrive until dusk, by which time the bulk of the fighting had ended. That night Bennigsen withdrew from the field, leaving Napoleon in possession of Eylau. Despite Napoleon’s subsequent claims in Le Moniteur, the government’s official newspaper, the battle was far from a great victory and is now generally viewed by historians as a costly draw at best, with losses estimated at 15,000 Russian casualties and as many as 25,000 French, whose exhausted state rendered pursuit impossible. Both sides, severely mauled, went back into winter quarters to recover from the bloodletting, but with the certain expectation of renewed fighting in the spring. Eylau’s significance cannot be underestimated because, as David Chandler points out (Chandler 1966, 551), it was one of the first occasions when the chinks in Napoleon’s considerable armor were exposed for all his contemporaries to see.
References and further reading Chandler, David. 1966. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan. Davidov, Denis. 1999. In the Service of the Tsar against Napoleon: The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806-1814. Trans. and ed. G Troubetzkoy. London: Greenhill. Haythornthwaite, Philip J. 2001. Die Hard: Famous Napoleonic Battles. London: Cassell. Lachouque, Henry, and Anne S. K. Brown. 1997. The Anatomy of Glory: Napoleon and His Guard-A Study in Leadership. London: Greenhill. Petre, F. Loraine. 1989. Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1807-07. London: Greenhill. Summerville, Christopher. 2005. Napoleon’s Polish Gamble: Eylau and Friedland, 1807. London: Leo Cooper.
Map of the second day’s fighting showing the charge of the French cavalry
Murat’s Cavalry charge at Eylau
With his centre almost broken, Napoléon resorted to ordering a massive charge by Murat’s 11,000-strong cavalry reserve — aside from the Guard, the last major unbloodied body of troops remaining to the French.
Thus began one of the greatest cavalry charges in history. Somewhat obscured by the weather, Murat’s squadrons charged through the Russian infantry around Eylau and then divided into two groups. The group on the right, Grouchy’s dragoons, charged into the flank of the Russian cavalry attacking St Hilaire’s division and scattered them completely. Now led by Murat himself the dragoons wheeled left against the Russian cavalry in the centre and, joined by d’Hautpoult’s cuirassier division drove the Russian cavalry back on their infantry. Fresh Russian cavalry forced Murat and the dragoons to retire, but d’Hautpoult’s cuirassiers broke through everything and the broken Russian were cut to pieces by fresh regiments of cuirassiers. D’Hautpoult then rode through the Russian guns chasing off or sabering the gunners and burst through the first line of Russian infantry trampling a battalion of infantry that attempted to stand. The cuirassiers forced their way through the second line of Russians and only after 2,500 yards did the charge finally expend its force in front of the Russian reserves. A second wave of cavalry consisting of the Guards and Grouchy’s dragoons now charged the Russians as they attempted to reform and also rode through both lines of infantry. Another group charged into the Russian infantry in the area where Augereau’s corps had made its stand. Not content with these heavy blows, the cavalry reformed, wheeled, and charged back again, finally retiring under the protection of the Guard cavalry. Murat had lost 1,000 to 1,500 well-trained troopers, but relieved the pressure on Augereau, Saint-Hilaire, and Soult paralyzing the Russians long enough to allow Davout to deploy in strength. Rarely had French cavalry played such a pivotal part in a battle. In part this was because, for the first time, Murat’s men were now mounted on the best cavalry horses in Europe, freshly requisitioned in the aftermath of the conquest of Prussia.
As Frederick William finally took possession of East Pomerania, his interest in the Baltic intensified. In 1654 Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated in favour of her cousin, Charles X. The new king showed every sign of emulating Gustavus Adolphus in his desire to make the Baltic a Swedish lake. The Elector was alerted to the prospect of another war between Sweden and Poland when Charles approached him with a demand for the towns of Pillau and Memel as the price of a Swedish-Brandenburg alliance (1654). Frederick William was reluctant to make quick concessions even to gain a powerful ally. He was wary of being drawn into another conflict which might result in the loss of his hard-won Westphalian gains; but more to the point, his instinct was to secure the maximum advantage from the situation by selling his military support to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, to protect his own position he turned to the Dutch Republic, whose vital trading interests would also be affected by Swedish occupation of the Baltic ports. A defensive treaty was concluded at The Hague in 1655, by which the Elector hoped to retain his independence.
However, within a matter of weeks Sweden’s armies swept across the plains of Poland, capturing all the leading cities. They then wheeled round against Polish Prussia, and after taking all the towns except Danzig, moved on to the duchy of Prussia. Backed into a corner at Königsberg, the Elector avoided battle to save his army and accepted the Swedish terms (1656). Charles X appeared to have brought Brandenburg-Prussia to heel. Ducal Prussia became a Swedish fief and Frederick William promised military and financial aid to his overlord, and the use of Pillau and Memel, along with half the port dues. As a modest reward to his new vassal, Charles allowed Frederick William to take the bishopric of Ermland, an enclave within East Prussia.
The Treaty of Königsberg (1656) exemplified the Elector’s dilemma. Armed neutrality was an obvious strategy for a second-class state, but there would be situations in which the ruler would be forced to take sides. By arming his state in order to sell its military capacity, he had to ask himself whether it was better to take the initiative and negotiate with the superior power in the hope of winning an ally’s prize. Or was it wiser to support the weaker of two major powers in the expectation that the aggressor would eventually be defeated by a hostile coalition? Over the years Frederick William turned to both these strategies and switched from one alliance to another. If he was flexible and inconsistent in his diplomatic and military strategies, he was unwavering in his overall objective, which was to enhance his possessions and the status of the dynasty he embodied. This impelled him to take every possible step to defend and consolidate his patrimony.
Later in 1656, as the Poles recovered much of their lost ground, the Elector found himself courted by both sides. But it was too early to desert Sweden, which still appeared the dominant power. In return for a promise of territorial booty in the west of Poland, he agreed by the Treaty of Marienburg (1656) to fight alongside the Swedes. Leading his army of 8,500 troops, Frederick William joined in the three-day battle of Warsaw, where he proved his military prowess. The victory caused Sweden’s enemies to reform. The Dutch fleet came to the defence of Danzig, the Russians took Ingria and Livonia and Ferdinand III sent help to John Casimir, the Polish king. Frederick William saw his chance to turn the diplomatic tables on his ally, Sweden. He had also clarified his war aims, for the war had already shown how elusive territorial gains and promises could be. But there was an important constitutional matter to be rectified: the Elector wanted to be freed permanently from Swedish and Polish suzerainty. In the Treaty of Labiau (1656) Charles X agreed to this demand and recognized Frederick William as the sovereign ruler of ducal Prussia. In addition, Sweden surrendered her claims to the customs dues levied in Prussian ports. With these concessions secured, a small Brandenburg force joined in Charles’s latest campaign against Poland (1657).
The hostilities in Poland, however, turned into an inconclusive guerilla campaign. When Denmark declared war against Sweden and Charles X decided to decamp from the mainland to concentrate on fighting his oldest enemy, Brandenburg returned to a state of armed neutrality. To conserve his army, Frederick William withdrew circumspectly into Prussia (1657). Sweden was now on the defensive against a coalition of powers and Frederick William no longer felt the need for the Swedish alliance. Charles X’s departure and Poland’s relative weakness gave him an opportunity to make further political capital. He expressed his readiness to come to terms with the Poles on the key condition which he had won from the Swedes at Labiau: recognition of his sovereignty in Prussia. As it happened, the Emperor had his own dynastic reasons for wanting to detach Brandenburg from the Swedish alliance. In the ensuing negotiations he put pressure on the Polish king to match the Swedish bid and accept Frederick William’s sovereign rights over ducal Prussia. In the Treaty of Wehlau (1657) John Casimir reluctantly made this substantial concession, and in return Brandenburg returned Ermland to Poland. Frederick William followed this triumph with a total turnabout when he agreed terms with the Austrian Emperor and the King of Denmark.
By 1658 the Nordic War was in its last phase. The fighting had concentrated on Denmark, where the spectacular gains made by Charles X in 1657 were partly countered by the armies of the anti-Swedish coalition, to which Frederick William contributed a Brandenburg force. The possibility of territorial gains at Sweden’s expense now opened up. At the head of 30,000 men, the Elector drove the Swedes from Schleswig and Holstein (1658) before turning his attention to Swedish Pomerania and the ports of Stralsund and Stettin in particular. Although Stettin withstood his attacks, by the end of 1659 Brandenburg forces were in control of most of Pomerania. In the event of peace, the Elector’s bargaining position against Sweden looked stronger than it had ever been. His main goal was Swedish Pomerania, which he had failed to achieve at Westphalia.
It was the intervention of another superior power which blocked Frederick William’s strategy. The French minister, Mazarin, was reluctant to see Sweden lose her prime position in the Baltic. Brandenburg’s allies in the anti-Swedish coalition- Poland, Denmark and the Austrian Emperor-had grown weary of the war, despite the fact that Sweden’s position was suddenly weakened by the death of Charles X (1660) and the advent of a regency for his 4-year-old son. However, Frederick William learned again the harsh reality of politics, that a second-rate power is unwise to abandon neutrality and fight alone. At the Peace of Oliva (1660) the Elector’s recent allies had no reason to support him against French diplomacy, which carried the day. He had to accept a compromise. He secured his first war aim, the recognition by all the signatories that he was the sovereign Duke of Prussia. But to his deep disappointment he had to withdraw his army from western Pomerania and accept Sweden’s possession of the Baltic province.
The countryside around Konitz simmered in the warm September sun. The fields were not planted. There were no rivers and few trees. An occasional, gentle rise in the landscape was all that interrupted the drab flatness of the area. Located in the Baltic province of West Prussia, far from the burgeoning cities and metropolises of industrializing Imperial Germany, Konitz offered the added attraction of its isolation. This was probably what appealed most to Prince Friedrich Karl, nephew of the old emperor and the empire’s first inspector general of the cavalry. Indeed, the prince, turning more irascible and peculiar with every year since the great Wars of Unification, did not like outsiders to observe his annual cavalry exercises.
Friedrich Karl stood atop a tall observation platform. Next to him were veteran cavalry generals just as enthusiastic as he was about the great impact that mounted warriors would have in a future war. For a week, two cavalry divisions had maneuvered against each other, roaming widely through the countryside around Konitz. Now, to hold down costs, just one division remained. The generals’ binoculars focused on a spot about a mile away, where 3000 Teutonic horsemen were drawn up for battle.
That day’s exercise was a tactical drill. The attackers would hit the enemy’s flank, engaging his squadrons and beating them back. Assigned the task of breaking through were the Third East Prussian and the Fifth West Prussian Cuirassiers, their breastplates gleaming gloriously in the late summer sunlight. A second strike wave of lesser strength, about 100 meters behind the first, consisted mainly of lighter cavalry, including the famous “Blücher” Hussars of the Fifth Pomeranian Regiment. Their job was to protect the flank and rear of the first wave or to hurl themselves forward if a rout of the enemy was imminent—or if the Cuirassiers failed. Two regiments of Uhlan lancers stood in reserve about 400 meters behind the Cuirassiers. Barely visible from the platform was a regiment not assigned to this attack.
When the order was given, the Cuirassiers moved forward at a trot. After a few hundred meters the pace quickened to a slow gallop as the squadrons performed a diagonal echelon maneuver and prepared for the final charge into the enemy line. At this point Friedrich Karl swung his binoculars back to the left to observe the dispositions of the Hussars, the Uhlans, and the flanking regiment. Indeed, one of the main goals of the exercise was to coordinate the movements of the three waves with nearby units to maximize the advantages of attacking in great strength. The frown on the prince’s face was indication enough that these formations were not showing proper initiative in supporting the attack. Further irritation followed when he noticed that the charging heavy cavalry had pulled up short, thinking, apparently, that it was just a drill.
Friedrich Karl’s final report attempted to derive lessons that would be useful in the next maneuvers—and in the next war. “Three-wave tactics” would be effective in battle,” he wrote, but the battlefield itself was no place to improvise them. These tactics had to be practiced in peacetime exercises that simulated actual battle conditions—including charges of cheering Cuirassiers ridden through to the end—until the commands and their execution became routine. Unfortunately, the German cavalry had little wartime experience with massed attacks. The result was that supporting and neighboring units were unclear and confused about their roles. The main goal of a successful charge was for the charging division to attract all nearby cavalry into the fray “like iron drawn to a magnet.” Only a “well-schooled” cavalry division with good leaders would be “the cutting edge that decides a battle.”
The great cavalry exercises at Konitz in September 1881 were the high-water mark of a remarkable revival in the fortunes of the German cavalry. The golden era of mounted warfare that Friedrich Karl and his professional entourage revered had lapsed into legend more than a century earlier. At Rossbach (1757), Leuthen (1757), and Zorndorf (1758), Prussian cavalry generals had led successive strike waves of Cuirassiers and Hussars that justified the confidence and faith of their great warrior monarch, Frederick II. This tradition crashed to the ground, however, during the Napoleonic wars, nor was the succeeding generation kind to Prussia’s horsemen. Industrialism brought not only rifled steel cannons with greater range and accuracy but also mass-produced infantry rifles; the Prussian “needle gun”; and the French chassepot, which fired much more rapidly than the old muskets. Consequently, the cavalry was assigned no major role in Prussia’s wars against Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866). The three Prussian armies that descended on Bohemia in the latter campaign deployed their cavalry in the rear. These units saw only limited action in the last hours of the great battle at Königgrätz.
The turnaround began during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Indeed, a new cavalry legend was born as Germany’s three armies marched west into Lorraine to engage Marshal François Bazaine’s Army of the Rhine near Metz. Bazaine seized the initiative on 16 August against the German Second Army of Friedrich Karl, attacking him at Mars-la-Tour before the German First and Third Armies could offer support. Outnumbered and pounded by superior French artillery, the Second Army was in a precarious position. Orders for an attack were therefore issued to General Bredow’s cavalry brigade, consisting of one regiment of Cuirassiers and one regiment of Uhlans. Charging in one unsupported wave, the roughly 800 riders overran enemy infantry and artillery positions, penetrating some 3,000 meters before they were forced to retreat. The “Death Ride of Mars-la-Tour” had cost Bredow 379 men and 400 horses, but he had purchased valuable time for the Second Army. There were altogether eight cavalry charges during the battle, pitting cavalry against infantry, artillery, and opposing cavalry. Deciding the day, in fact, was a great clash of about 6,000 German and French riders. Although Mars-la-Tour was a bloody draw, Bazaine fell back to defensive positions near Metz, where the Germans attacked with greater success 2 days later.
Frederick, once he had decided to march to the Oder, was swift about it. August 3, 1959 admitting he had failed to intercept Laudon, he pushed on towards Müllrose (within 12 miles of Frankfurt). Here he gave Wedell instructions to move what remained of his army to that village. Wedell made a genuine effort to comply with these orders, all right, and the result was all of the Prussians in the immediate vicinity were soon concentrated thereabouts. The army which Soltikov had brought from the other end of Poland was very strong in infantry, but the cavalry was weak; Laudon’s arrival helped change that.
The Russians were also busy. July 29 was a notable day for Frankfurt-on-Oder. For some time, there had been rumors of the impending advent of the Russians upon the city, and on that particular morning word spread through the place that the enemy was finally coming over from Crossen. Within Frankfurt, the defenses were insignificant. There was no regular garrison and the only defense force was a local body of some 400 militiamen raised rather hastily from the outskirts of the city under the command of Major Friedrich Wilhelm von Arnhim. As best it might, Frankfurt prepared itself. On the morning of July 30, a large force of Russians made their appearance on the eastern side of the Oder near the Oder-Damm. The grreencoats at once sent word to lower the city’s drawbridge, which led across to the western side and which Arnhim had pulled up on their arrival, and surrender. Arnhim was quick to realize that while Frankfurt’s walls protected it on the western, northern, and southern sides—also topped by heights—only the eastern side was really defensible.
He was stubborn, estimating the enemy force at about a thousand men, though they were in fact six times as numerous, and answered with a defiant “No!” to the Russian demand. Near 1100 hours, the Russians loosened a firebomb to show they were in earnest. At some point, the Prussian must have also realized the strength of the Russians present thereabouts. Arnhim now ordered his men to prepare to depart, as any resistance to the enemy, in addition to the futility, would entail risking heavy damage to the place.
Simultaneously, Arnhim ordered two field pieces under his control to go to the far northern gate in case the foe should move while Arnhim was preparing to leave. The Prussian commander was heading for Cüstrin, if the Russians allowed him to go that far. Some time later a second summons to surrender arrived, with the same reply as before. Then a third summons was likewise refused. Seeing their efforts to bully the garrison were in vain, the Russians sent word that another refusal would leave no option but shower Frankfurt from a prepared battery with incendiary shells. This time, the city fathers agreed to accept the enemy’s terms, but stubborn Arnhim (a valiant Prussian officer to the end) would not permit the drawbridge to be lowered nor any sign of surrender to take place.
The Russian guns then let off a single incendiary shell which landed near the churchyard, but Arnhim would not yield yet. The latter did offer to remove his garrison if the greencoats offered Free Withdrawal. But the Russians, in their turn, refused to do this. At this rude reply, and with his preparations complete, Arnhim pulled up his command and made off towards Lebus, taking the precaution of delaying the entrance of the Russians into Frankfurt. The enemy set off in pursuit of Arnhim, and caught up with him about halfway to Cüstrin. Arnhim drew out his men and fought hard, but at length resistance was overcome and he and his men were returned to Frankfurt in chains, Arnhim himself having suffered a serious wound.
Within a few days, Laudon and his force arrived, marching through the streets of the city and ordering up provisions for his tired men. Hadik had indeed turned back with his provision wagons, and Laudon’s men were virtually starving. Soltikov, who had been rather expecting the Austrians to bring supplies, summarily ordered Laudon to retire to Guben with his men. No real junction between the armies had, in fact, taken place.
Soltikov’s army, after the fall of Frankfurt, had been deployed on rises westward of the Oder, opposite the Jüdenberg Hill mainly, momentarily anticipating the advent of Frederick’s army. The Russians, in spite of superior numbers, were aware that they were no mean match for the great Prussian king. Fermor and possibly even Soltikov must have feared the results of such a confrontation. Fermor remembered Zorndorf all too well, and the news that Laudon’s men brought of Frederick’s attempts to intercept their march meant that he could be expected shortly.
The Russians promptly began entrenching, building high palisades/works complimented by strong batteries. The allies aimed to move out of Frankfurt, leaving just a small garrison, and come near the Oder to take post on the sandhills of the Kunersdorf Heights, eastwards from the Oder-Damm. For the moment, the allies kept to Frankfurt.
Wedell, meanwhile, had reached Müllrose about August 5, after which Frederick marched his forces to Frankfurt, finally arriving near there on August 7. Between Wulkow and Lebus, he made his army an encampment. Early on the following morning, the Prussian monarch pushed out a body of hussars towards Frankfurt to feel out the position of the enemy. Apparently the arrival of the king had not been noted by the allies. A surprising revelation. Indeed, a party of Austrian and Russian officers were just sitting down to dinner at the Fischer’s Mühle—on the western facing side of the Frankfurt bridges—when a local boy working at the millwork scrambled in with news that Prussian hussars, (led, in fact, by the king, although this was not suspected), were approaching.
The startled officers leaped to horse, and rode off at full gallop towards Frankfurt, where they flashed the news. The following day, August 9, Frederick received word that a great victory had been won by Ferdinand over the French at Minden, effectively ending the French threat for the rest of the campaign. His local reconnaissance of the enemy’s lines revealed that they were then encamped with the Oder at their backs and a ready retreat available by three pontoon bridges across the river (not to mention the main Frankfurt Town Bridge) in case of defeat. The king also noted a disparity in numbers of the contending antagonists: even with Wedell, he had no more than 40,000 men, while the allies totaled some 90,000 between them.
Plainly, an attack with those long odds was tantamount to disaster. So Frederick now ordered Finck with his 10,000 men or so to join him. This left Berlin to its own defenses and Saxony would practically have no Prussian forces present. With this juncture, the monarch was determined to get on with the necessary preliminary of crossing the Oder. He had decided not to cross at Lebus, as had originally been planned, but at Reitwein (some ten miles away) and proceed with the business at hand. Finck’s arrival was expected within a few days, and in the interim Frederick pressed preparations for the move, discreetly so as not to alarm the enemy.
Soltikov anticipated that the king would strike from the west side of the Oder, so he made his preparations with that view in mind. The Russians, along with Laudon, recrossed the Oder, leaving only a small garrison in Frankfurt. Soltikov took post on the rises near Kunersdorf, as planned, while Laudon was deployed nearer to the Oder behind him. The greencoats had put their heavy baggage on an island in the Oder—which was connected by pontoon bridges to the mainland where Soltikov was hastily readying to meet the Prussian whirlwind. In case of defeat, the Russians were not going to take any chances of being cut off from home. Soltikov, fearing for the safety of his baggage, detailed a force to cover it.
August 10, right on time, Finck reached Reitwein, while earlier in the day Frederick had arrived nearby. The bluecoats were even then erecting some bridges to cross the river. This work had of necessity been low-key, but the night after the junction the bridges were finished, and the army promptly began crossing in two columns, the foot soldiers/artillery there and the cavalry a short way off. By 0400 hours on August 11, the entire army was over, and the enemy still did not know of it. Soltikov unaccountably allowed the Prussians to break the barrier of the Oder River.
The Prussians now were near Göritz. Here Wunsch was left with skeleton forces to hold the bridges and the baggage train safe. The rest of the army moved southward, aiming at Bischof-Sëe and Leissow (which were within two miles of Kunersdorf itself). The morning sun rose up bright, there was little or no wind blowing across the sand dunes, and forced marches soon brought the men to the verge of exhaustion. To make matters worse, there had been no time for food that morning nor for sleep the last few nights. By 1300 hours, Frederick’s men reached their destination, by which time the troops were so weary that it was an open question if they could continue the trek. So the decision was made to encamp on the spot for the rest of the day and to move against the enemy’s camp on the morrow. Finck, with the vanguard, was ordered to bivouac where he was, his left leaning on a small pond thereabouts; the remainder of the army camped in two lines, the right on Leissow—with the cavalry posted to the rear in a patch of forest thereabouts.
Soon after his men were in place, the king took the opportunity to reconnoiter the enemy’s position. Ahead of him, straight facing the road to Kunersdorf, lay the village and Trettin Hill, which he rode out towards. Reaching there, Frederick mounted the rise and looked southward. Stretched out between Jüdenberg and Mühlberg, he noticed the whole Russian army, some 70,000 strong, with the front facing north. Off behind it, the king discerned Laudon encamped in a position that appeared to be wholly isolated from Soltikov, but might be capable of rendering support if necessary. The terrain there, he judged, at best to be marshy and not sure footed by any means. Cavalry was of little use, and neither were the big guns likely to be of tangible use in this ground. These considerations were important, for it had largely been through the efforts of Seydlitz and his cavalry (who was also present here) that had in the past gained the victory for the Prussians just when defeat appeared to be certain. If the artillery could not be brought into play at short range, it followed they could not blast at the entrenchments that the enemy had prepared to face the Prussian attack.
In front of the allied camp, intersecting between it and the Prussians, ran a small tributary of the Oder, the meandering Hühner-Fleiss. Running across this stream was the Trettin road leading to Kühgraben, a branch road from which led directly through Kunersdorf and on to Reppen. A little to the east of this road was the Walkberg; on the right looking north was the Klosterberg, to the southwest not quite a mile was the Kleiner-Spitzberg, which effectively dominated the approaches to Kunersdorf. Mühlberg lay at the extreme end of the Kunersdorf position and the Oder-Damm. The whole allied camp was about four miles in extent, but it was far too narrow—only about a mile wide—to allow much maneuvering room in which to shift their forces as the Prussians attacked. The ground was largely bushy and oozy bogs. To the east, but most especially to the south, a thick clump of woods arose, through which visibility could not have been good. But the ground was generally flat and level, except what was made up of the mounds thereabouts, largely sand dunes to the east and liable to be blown about by the wind.
Frederick, on viewing the allied camp, observed that Laudon was deployed then in a position which seemed to be isolated from the Russians. The Austrians were encamped in the west of the great marsh which protected the allied left flank, behind a scrubby post which to all appearances, from the Prussian lines at least, to be sufficiently cut off from Soltikov as to give no cause for worry. A local peasant who had brought the king water on that hot summer afternoon, and who knew the terrain in question, thought so, as did one of Frederick’s own officers (Major Linden), who was supposed to be familiar with the area. But the actual event turned out to be much otherwise, as we shall see.
Shortly after his reconnaissance was completed, Frederick rode back to his encampment, and spent the evening hours working out his plan-of-battle. The crux of his plan relied upon one of two alternatives he believed the enemy could take: (1) That of the allies remaining quiet where they were and await a battle; (2) That of the enemy attempting to retire upon Reppen. With numbers and position so clearly in their favor, the second possibility was really unlikely.
Late in the night (August 11–12), however, there was some smoke and flame visible on the southern horizon, which turned out to be the village of Kunersdorf on fire, having been deliberately set by the Russians. There was much speculation about the meaning of this event in the Prussian camp.
The allies, knowing that the foe had passed Göritz and Bischof-Sëe, made preparations for an attack. With no blow coming from the direction of Reppen, the front was reversed (as at Zorndorf, but this time with far more thoroughness); so the Russian left was now anchored on the Mühlberg, the army now past burnt Kunersdorf. Why was it burned? As a structure it would have proven a sizeable military obstacle to Frederick’s men, being in front of the Kuh-grund and all. Now only the stone churchyard and church remained. This could have been a distinct barrier to the bluecoats. Nevertheless, as best they might, the allies made ready to receive the stroke they knew was inevitable on the morrow. As for Soltikov’s most pressing worry, he did not wish to be cut off from his main communication center at Frankfurt, barely four miles to the southwest.
By 0300 hours on August 12, the Prussian army was aroused and standing in marching order. The march order was given and the men lurched off; the heads of their two columns pointed eastward, towards Reppen, and the woods there. At the lead was Seydlitz with his cavalry, his command was included in the column to be brought into battle as the left flank, while Eugene of Württemberg followed with the second to act as right wing in conjunction with Finck. The latter had been ordered to keep his bivouac posture near the Hühner-Fleiss, and decoy the enemy while the rest of the army made the swing for battle.
The king betook himself to the woods to encourage the troops with some more of that earthy, unassuming attitude he was well noted for. When his very tired men marched past him in the thick forest paths, he saluted them with a morning greeting, then is reputed to have said, “A good plate of beans would be nice just now, wouldn’t it?” What other high-born European monarch of the day would have done the same?
Finck could dispose of some 12,000 men for his task, with three infantry regiments (the 37th, the 38th, and the 55th Infantry) supported by strong batteries. He was ordered by Frederick to maintain the illusion that the main attack was to fall upon the Russians from the north. (A move which the king thought was impractical. It would have been better to attack from the north). This since the Russian lines were the strongest just where the attack was planned. The king discovered as much when it was already too late. Nevertheless, he was to go out as soon as it was daylight to scout the enemy’s lines but not to get involved in any serious fighting until the rest of the army could be brought into action. Wunsch was simultaneously ordered to move from Göritz to recapture Frankfurt.
While Finck and his peers were carrying out instructions, an enemy battery opened up on them. But the shots fell wide of the mark, and the Prussian generals ignored the fire. The Cossacks, as usual, were very active. They set fire to the little hamlets of Reipzig and Schwetigg (the latter about a mile south of the Russian baggage), but that was the extent of their effectiveness. The main Prussian columns in passing through the thick woods and over unstable, oozy ground—no doubt this made the lugging of the big guns difficult—were very slow with their advance. It was only after unanticipated delays that Frederick finally reached the Hühner-Fleiss and deployed his army on the Klosterberg, and Walkberg (opposite to the Mühlberg), setting up his batteries on the mounds to act as a counter to the Russian guns. By then it was nearly 0800 hours, and a large proportion of the attack force had taken the wrong turn in the woods and thick underbrush; they were still marching up. Thanks, in part, to the king’s miscalculation, the horsed teams lugging the big Prussian guns and the heads of the columns had to reshuffle in the woods. The bluecoats were just not ready.
By that time, Seydlitz and the first column were on the spot but Eugene was a little behind time. The Russians, scanning the front of their position, shortly before this noticed the movements in the thick woods and sped off the inevitable Cossack scouts. This produced a round or two from Finck’s guns, or perhaps from Frederick’s, but the gunners were quickly silenced by the king. The Russians still discerned Finck as the only plainly visible enemy, and believed him to be the main attack force. The men in the woods were thought to be scouting parties. That was until the main Prussian army appeared so unexpectedly out of the woods.
The composition of this force was the following: 13,000 cavalry in 95 squadrons; 36,900 infantry in 53 battalions; and a large quantity of ordnance, including 160 heavy guns and 126 battalion guns. A total force of roughly 50,000 men of all ranks. The Russian force consisted of 68 battalions of infantry (about 42,000 men); 36 cavalry squadrons (about 7,000 of the Cossacks and hussars, more than 4,600 line cavalry); and 200 guns, a total of approximately 61,000 men, when we factor in the gunners, engineers, and the staff; the Austrians had 18 battalions of infantry; 35 squadrons of cavalry; and 48 guns; a total of approximately 18,523 men. About 80,000 allied troops were involved in the battle. They were superior in number to their foe, in infantry and artillery, although there was near parity in cavalry between the two sides. But the Prussian squadrons were not the same vaunted troopers as they had been the year before at Zorndorf, and not nearly as well trained or equipped.
The Russian right was led on this day by General Demikow, while Fermor and Major-General Nikita Petrovich Villebois were to his side. Rumyantsev was commanding the all-important Russian center. The left was under Lt.-Gen. Prince Aleksandr Mikhailovich Golitsyn.
A little more than an hour after their appearance from the thick woods, the Prussian main body stood ranked for battle and had the batteries set up. Finck had been waiting for the signal to attack since first light, and his gunners were waiting with their pieces. At about 1130 hours, the Prussians opened up from the guns on the Walkberg. The Russian batteries on the Mühlberg, which contained some 72 guns, replied as quickly as they could. The Battle of Kunersdorf had begun. Finck’s ordnance from the northward started a bombardment of the Muhlberg from that end.
Frederick’s batteries on the Walkberg held only about 60 guns,4 but they diligently kept up a steady shelling of the enemy from the southern side. The Prussian batteries were actually strung out in three batteries, about which more later. Although the bombardment and counter-bombardment was steady and methodical, the range precluded any major damage to either side. But the Prussians were helped out by an enemy blunder.
The Russian batteries had been built facing the field below and beyond to the shoulder of the hillocks, instead of towards the view of the great hollow they were supposed to defend. As for the opposite wing, the Russian left, as Soltikov’s chief side, boasted a 100 gun complement, almost an embarrassment of riches.
At about 1200 hours, Frederick sent the advanced force of the nine battalions (some 4,300 men) on the Walkberg forward to storm the Mühlberg. The latter was manned by the First Grenadiers, flanked by the Third Musketeers and the Fifth Musketeers. The bluecoats advanced into the hollow. The fire of the enemy batteries intensified as the Prussians came in closer, but the Prussian officers tried to steady their men in the “shelter” of the hollow before the blow fell. This shelling was far too inaccurate to hinder the move. The attackers were largely shielded by the terrain, until they reached the clearing.
The bluecoats reached the edge of the Mühlberg—within 110 feet of the Russian guns on the slope—before they were greeted by a withering enemy fire. The Prussians did not falter, in fact they pressed ever forward. The four lead battalions slashed forward, in an advanced formation. At point-blank range, the bluecoats loosed a crashing volley of musketry straight into the Russian artillerists and their supporting troops. These men were already shaken by heavy bombardment. The latter were swept back here, the greencoats abandoning their guns and works. Prussian cavalry were hit now. In a few minutes of heavy fighting, the 2nd Cuirassiers (Prince Henry) lost 206 men.
In the event, there were new reinforcements of Russians coming forward. Belosersk was disordered by the press of the first line and forced back, carrying the Nizhegorodv Grenadiers. By 1215 hours, the Prussians had nevertheless laid hold of the Mühlberg, the retreating Russians (of the observation corps of Golitsyn) falling back upon Kunersdorf itself—confusion now spreading through Soltikov’s army. Had the mass of the Prussian horse not been “trapped” behind the Prussian left, it might have been far worse for the greencoats. As it was, many of the Russians did not offer organized resistance and were slaughtered by the scores. Five large regiments were decimated. By 1300 hours, the left had been defeated and driven back on Kunersdorf, only small, mostly disorganized groups of Russians remained where the front had once stood, now broken and separated, capable of only token resistance. There was a bright spot. Soltikov, taking control of the faltering situation, sped 12 crack companies (led by General Campitelli) of Austrian grenadiers to Rumyantsev’s support.
Once more the crack unit of Baden-Baden appears in these annals. This solid unit stood firm despite Lt-Colonel Waldegg’s wound and even the unpleasantness of some of the Russians mistaking Waldegg’s men for the Prussians and taking them under fire. Horace St. Paul reports the unit had 64 officers wounded, although no mention is made of total casualties. Nevertheless, Baden-Baden helped bring the Prussian progress to a standstill. In addition, a timely force of Austrian grenadiers led by Major Joseph De Vins, struck at the enemy force now trying to stabilize its hold on the Mühlberg.
It was precisely at this moment that Frederick had determined to launch a pincer attack on the allied lines. The rearmost forces, under Eugene, were supposed to have advanced at this time straight against the Russians from the south, while the right wing did the same from the north, to stiffen Finck’s effort at the west. Together, they were to snuff out the foe. The right van, which had just stormed the Mühlberg, was where it was intended, but the left, which had just entered the fray and was in the process of driving the enemy from the walls of the Kunersdorf churchyard, was critically behind schedule. At the present, it had no troops capable of helping the other pincer arms, except for a couple of formations from the van. Finck, from his side, was also experiencing problems as his attack was held up by the intricacies of the terrain not to mention a couple of narrow bridges crossing the Hühner-Fleiss, hard going for the artillery teams.
The Prussians did their best. Krockow’s 2nd Dragoons smashed against Trettin Hill and the Jewish churchyard. The attacks were costly. Fully two-thirds of the unit were wiped out. 484 men, 51officers. The 6th Dragoons (of Schorlemer) lost 234 men and 18 officers in this bid.
The Kleist Hussars, normally a solid, reliable cadre, along with the 8th Dragoons, crashed straight into a mass of milling Russian horse. The Prussian effort was repelled, but when the massed allied cavalry tried to take advantage of the moment by following up, they were shredded by the timely squadrons of Seydlitz. This was accomplished in spite of the intricacies of the ground, cut up by numerous ponds and swamps. Seydlitz led an enthusiastic attack by hussars. In fact, the indomitable officer was over enthusiastic, for his charge insensibly tended into the fire of some Russian infantry. The bluecoats now recoiled. Nor were the cavalry units alone that suffered. Dohna’s 16th Infantry lost 550 men and 16 officers. Hülsen’s 21st in attacking the Kühgrund lost 783 men and 25 of its officers.
These factors seriously delayed the crucial timetable attack plan. Nevertheless, the left struggled to offer aid quickly as possible, but was impeded by the heavy woods about Kunersdorf. Heinrich’s 43rd Infantry led the left round the Klosterburg against the Backergrund. When at last the Prussians reached the clearing to the southeast of Kunersdorf, they found what had been little suspected. The ground in front there was bisected by great marshes, pools, and little lakelets, stagnant most if not all of them. Two morasses were even running within the confines of Kunersdorf village itself. The only way across these bodies of water were small tracts on either side, which necessitated breaking the order of march and then reforming once past the obstacles. This threw the left wing into a critical delay between the approach and the actual support. The artillery blasted away at the bluecoats, inflicting heavy losses. The 43rd overthrew the Russians on the Mühlberg, but the advance stalled out at the Kühgrund. In this one regiment, “550 men were lost.” It was not alone, by any means. A neighboring unit, Ferdinand’s 5th Infantry, advancing right beside it, was pounded before the Kühgrund, losing 91 dead and 244 wounded in a few minutes. Even the hard-used 7th Infantry could not escape further damage. Its grenadiers reportedly had 200 wounded and 117 killed of their number. The local terrain also fragmented the Prussian line, so Frederick compensated by choosing to attack what was now obviously the enemy’s right.
At the moment, the confusion spreading through the Russian army was widespread, but enemy guns which had been taken could not be used because there was no ammunition for them. This was important. From the Mühlberg, a few well-placed hits might have inflicted enormous casualties and confusion in the serried ranks of the Russian left. Instead, Frederick ordered up four of the light Prussian guns to the Mühlberg—from where they plastered the foe as best they could, while the 12-horse artillery teams struggled to lug the 60 heavy guns to their support. For more than a mile there, Soltikov’s army might have been decimated, but the delays of the teams getting forward the big artillery proved to be fatal to the king’s plan.
Frederick, meanwhile, had sent off a courier with premature news of “victory” to an anxious Berlin, although the enterprise was now slipping from his grasp. Soltikov had his army formed for a pitched battle, this side facing eastwards, while the king renewed his stroke upon the front of the enemy’s mass. There was now still greater pressure on the Russians as Finck, at last emerging from the difficult geography of the Hühner-Fleiss, attacked uphill (with eight full battalions) against the new Russian left, about 1535 hours. At length, the Russian lines were broken again, and the disordered men fell back upon the Jüdenberg, losing Kunersdorf and the Küh-grund in the process. A second courier was soon on his way to the capital, with more encouraging word of the progress of the battle. In the second attack, the bluecoats had captured 108 more guns and had inflicted terrible losses upon the foe. But their army was taking heavy losses as well. And they were handicapped by a narrow front over which to operate. In fact, the whole space for battle this day was quite narrow.
A little before this time—about 1500 hours or so—Laudon had extricated his men from the “isolated” peninsula to the side of the Russian position and ranked them quickly on Soltikov’s flank, though they had yet to be engaged. How had Laudon accomplished this? Well, Frederick’s assumption the Austrians were in a post from which they could not readily leave failed to take into account a causeway that had been constructed to connect Laudon and Soltikov. Through this route lay easy access. Here again was a classic example of a major blunder on the part of the Prussian reconnaissance. We have observed errors before; at Prague, at Kolin, and at Hochkirch, but they pale by comparison with that of Kunersdorf.
Laudon had 18,000 men, fresh and as yet uncommitted, while Frederick’s men were all but exhausted by the almost herculean task they had taken on. But the Russians had been dealt a major blow. Now Finck, Seydlitz and the generals protested to the king that the army should disengage, since the enemy had clearly been defeated. They would almost certainly withdraw during the night, and, besides, the army needed rest. Moreover “Wunsch … [reported] that the enemy were actually beginning to cross the river.” Failing a retreat by the battered enemy, the battle could always be renewed next morning with refreshed men. This was wise and appropriate counsel, and should in retrospect have been heeded. Sadly, impatient Frederick did not listen, and insisted on continuing the battle to whip the enemy, now. He called for the left, and ordered it forward upon the Russian battery on the Grosser-Spitzberg—which happened to be one of the strongest posts in the enemy’s front—the high battery to the south and some distance ahead of Soltikov’s right. It was under the command of Rumyantsev, with the Vologdskii Infantry regiment right on the spot, along with 16 more large Russian regiments in close support behind. Rumyantsev’s guns opened a terrible fire upon the Prussians as they emerged from behind the ponds in front of Kunersdorf and were forming up to attack.
Prussian artillery was hastily put together in a cluster behind the village of Kunersdorf, which was flanked by two batteries, at the Blanken-Sëe and the Dorf-Sëe, although the king was not prepared to put all of his eggs in one artillery basket. Nevertheless, the Prussian batteries went to work trying to overpower the allied batteries on the Grosser Spitzberg.
When at last the latter were ready, the bluecoats moved up to attack. They were pounded by the searing artillery fire and, unable to complete their task, they stalled out. The 47th Infantry (Major-General Christoph Heinrich von Grabow) had 600 losses. This stroke did knock the Russian Apcheronski Infantry for a loop, and the Rostovoski Infantry were likewise sucked into the vortex of the Prussian attack and badly used. Apcheronski was later honored because it continued to hold back the enemy “while standing, ‘knee deep in blood.’” Frederick now ordered forward the artillery, but the crews could not get the big guns up past the mud and the wagons sank up to their axles when this was tried. Worse, Seydlitz was wounded at that critical moment by a shot which tore away part of his right hand. The Prussians were thus deprived of the services of one of their best cavalry officers at a crucial stage. Seydlitz had to relinquish command to Platen and was taken off the field to have his wound tended to.
Frederick lost his head and commanded that the cavalry itself charge the foe’s battery on the Grosser-Spitzberg. Platen contested the order, in vain. He jumped to horse at last and galloped with his cavalry around the southern side of Kunersdorf. The charging, storming troopers made a hopeless effort. After a fine beginning, they were cut to ribbons by the merciless fire. The 5th Cuirassiers (Friedrich Wilhelm Prince of Prussia und Markgraf of Brandenburg-Schwedt) lost 170 men here. Kyau’s 12th Cuirassiers lost 260 more. Whole squadrons seemed to fall, and the rest were cut into little groups, not able to move forward. The leading unit, the 6th Dragoons of Schorlemer, was hit so savagely it was virtually wiped out on the spot. Even worse, this splendid effort had carried the bulk of the horsed formations past the west side of the ponds, and this exposed their flank to thousands of as yet unengaged enemy cavalry. Soon the magnificent squadrons had been shattered, falling back beyond the pools at Kunersdorf. Here they got steadied and were ranked again.
Following this repulse, which incidentally proved to be the turning point of the battle, the Prussian infantry, reforming again and again, attacked the enemy’s position on the Grosser-Spitzberg repeatedly, but again futilely. The 37th Infantry (Lt.-Gen. August Wilhelm von Braun) was utterly annihilated in the effort; 992 men and 16 officers went down here. The king himself dashed out to lead two attacks by the 35th Infantry, in which he had two horses shot dead under him and was in the process of mounting a third when a stray shot struck the poor animal in the neck and it fell to the ground, nearly on top of Frederick. He was snatched up by two of his adjutants. A bullet had smashed a snuff box in his heavy coat, saving Frederick’s life. Still, he reportedly grabbed a flag and uttered “I must do my duty here like any other!” Pragmatically, the 35th would, in the end, be the last Prussian unit off the field.
Although their leader was safe, the Prussians could make no further gains, holding instead tenaciously to the captured works in their hands, too exhausted to even retreat it would appear. This is not surprising.
The Allies were in similar shape. Their cavalry was truly heterogeneous, as the main thrust of the cavalry units were the 6th Dragoons and the Löwenstein riders of the 31st Austrian. Two units which were truly magnificent units, fully equal to the magnificent squadrons of Seydlitz. They were even stiffened by stubborn Russian cavalry, of inferior quality, but eager to demonstrate their worthiness as well. This mounted attack helped out the greencoats, who were being hard pressed. As for the valiant Apcheronski regiment and its neighbors, two fine Russian units—the Pskov and the Vologda Infantry—they lent their aid and momentarily helped check the stubborn Prussian advance. Then, near 1700 hours, the valiant king finally drove in his part of the front, temporarily. Soltikov responded the only way he knew how: with more reinforcements. Again, the newcomers (Kozen and Vyborg, joined by Pfern) contrived to move from the Russian right. This new body blunted the Prussian advance.
The fresh Austrian infantry/cavalry swooped down upon the recoiling Prussians, forcing them to gang together to form a defense. All of this, it must be remembered, took place along a relatively narrow front, allowing precious little room for maneuvering. The reformed Russians now joined the fray; together the allies drove the enemy mass before them, back to the Küh-grund, from Kunersdorf, back the way they had come. As it worked out, the Küh-grund and vicinity was to prove a strong “trap.” The Prussian cavalry were ridden down by the surging allied cavalry. Frederick rallied his men, trying to reverse the tide of battle. Finck was still attacking from the Hühner-Fleiss, to no avail, now the king ordered the horsemen to disengage and ride around to the Mühlberg to aid Finck there. Eugene led some support forces to the scene, to the eastern end then west before they finally turned to face south directly at the enemy. The bluecoats here intended a decisive stroke to roll up Soltikov, but the men had scattered when they marched off, quickly dispersing.
Eugene was badly wounded trying to extricate himself from the carnage. When he returned, Frederick ordered Puttkammer and his hussars to the task. But that commander was killed and his stroke ended much the same as the first. After this latest assault had miscarried, the Russian infantry, now directly before the Küh-grund, struck forward and retook the line. They remanned the batteries at once, while Frederick reacted by sending orders to retake those guns. A large force of bluecoats advanced then to within some 50 yards of the Russian lines and halted there, exchanging volleys of musketry with the latter for about ¼ of an hour. It was past 1730 hours. A few Prussians even made it to the crest of the nearby hillocks, but unfortunately they lacked either the physical or numerical stamina to recapture the Küh-grund and the disputed vicinity. Kanitz’ 2nd Infantry, pounded so fiercely by these same Russians at Zorndorf, suffered more. Some 472 men and nine officers fell all told on this day.
Seeing the Prussian attack stalled, Laudon took the chance to launch his still largely intact forces from behind the Grosser-Spitzberg to complete the overthrow of the Prussian army. By then it was about 1800 hours, and the sun was dipping low in the western sky. As soon as the bluecoats got a view of the surging Austrian force, they were suddenly gripped by panic. The army dissolved into a mass of running men in a matter of minutes, the troops forsaking their weapons and equipment as they did so. However, not all of the men fled. One small force planted itself on the Walkberg to guard the retreat. Elsewhere, isolated groups still put up a bold front. Lestwitz’s 31st lost 431 men on this retreat. But, for the most part, the army had been converted into a confused, milling mass of fugitives with only one thought pressing in mind: to retire to the rear and away from the enemy as fast as they could. Indeed, seldom in military history has a battle been so completely lost by an organized army in such a short space of time.
The press of the Prussian retreat was towards the north to the shelter of the ground beyond. The remnants of Schorlemer’s command strove to cover the retreat, but were forthwith driven into the swamps nearby. This exposed the retreating mass, which were ridden down and bagged by the thousands in their flight towards Zolow and the Hühner-Fleiss at Faulen-Bräcke and Stroh-Bräcke. Still, a great number of the bluecoats managed to take refuge in the churchyard at Trettin, where they briefly thought about rallying. Any such thoughts were put to bed by the impetuous Austrian cavalry of Kalnolky’s Hussars, aided by the nearby 11th Hussars. A vigorous attack, led by the dismounted horsemen, drove the already shaken Prussians from the village. This left them no choice but to abandon what artillery they had managed to drag to a sunken road forward of Trettin. Even by foot rescue was difficult, for the final tally was some 650 bluecoats taken. This really put paid to the matter of providing any meaningful resistance to the allied pursuit. In the event, “he [Frederick] demanded more of his men than they could bear.”
The king himself was in the midst of the rout. He seemed to be stupefied by what he saw. Frederick galloped about, shouting, “Children, don’t forsake your King, don’t leave me in this pinch!” and “will none of these blasted balls hit me, then!?!” However, his attempts to rally his men were as useless as they were brave. A panicked army must be like an angry mob, not really aware of what is happening about and deaf to the voice of reason. Frederick was on the point of being surrounded by the enemy troopers when he shouted out “Prittwitz, I am lost!” The latter dashed up, along with an adjutant. The adjutant grabbed his horse’s bridle, and led the king and his horse off at a gallop from the field, while Prittwitz with his command battled the pursuing Cossacks to a standstill.
That evening, the agitated Prussian king took shelter at Reitwein while Wunsch, who had been left at the bridge to prevent the escape of the enemy, waited until most of the scattered fugitives had gathered at Öetscher and Goritz before he closed up the bridge. Both to anticipate the enemy from moving across the Oder and to prevent a possible wholesale desertion of the demoralized men. Wunsch had earlier marched to Frankfurt in the afternoon; he attacked and seized the town bridges. Then the understanding man blew them up.
The firing on the battlefield gradually died down and the tortured Battle of Kunersdorf ended. Thus was the curtain brought down upon the drama of the worst defeat that Frederick would ever suffer on a field of battle. His men, during the course of the night, were slowly reassembled. Wunsch was summoned by the victors to surrender; the request was refused, of course, though on the morning of August 13 Wunsch withdrew, destroying the crossing points behind him, with no interference. The night before the king had written a letter to his old tutor, von Finckenstein, in Berlin, explaining the defeat: “I attacked the enemy today at 11. Pushed them back to the Jewish churchyard near Frankfort. All the troops were engaged, and did wonders, but the cemetery cost us a prodigious number. Our troops were thrown into confusion, I rallied them thrice; at length I thought myself about to be taken captive, and had to abandon the field of battle. My clothes were riddled by balls, I had two horses shot from under me; it is my misfortune that I am still alive. Our loss is very considerable; of an army of 48,000 men, I have not 3,000. At this moment, all are in flight and I am no longer master of my troops. You in Berlin will do well to think of your safety.” As a postscript, he added, “I have no more resources left, and I will tell you no lies: I think that we are lost! I shall not survive the downfall of my country, Farewell, Frederic.”
There, sitting in a peasant hut amidst the wounded and the dying, the melancholic Frederick decided to turn over the command of his army, or what remained of it, to Finck. He told the latter this was only because of illness, when he had recovered he would resume command. Reluctantly, the king wrote out the order:
“The General [Finck] gets a hard commission. The luckless army such as this I hand him is no longer in a condition to fight the Russians, Hadek [Hadik] will probably press on to Berlin, Laudon perhaps, too, if the general [Finck] goes after they both, Soltikov [read the Russians] will take him in the rear, if he stops on the Oder, he will get Hadek this side. But I think that if Laudon tri for Berlin he could attack and beat him on the way, this iffit go well, would put a good face on misfortune and hold things. Time gained is very much in these desperate circumstances. The news from Torgau and Dresden, Coller my secretary will send him; he must keep my brother, Prince Henry, whom I appoint Generalissimo, informed of everything; to make good the misfortune completely is impossible, but my brother’s orders must be obeyed; the army must swear allegiance to my nephew [Prince Frederick Wilhelm]. This is all the advice, in these unhappy circumstances, I am in a condition to give. Had I still had resources left, I would have stayed by them. Frederic.”
Next day, August 13, the king felt a little cheerier, now that the army had some 23,000 men, but Finck was in “active” command of this force (a duty it appears he never actually assumed). Frederick sent off a letter to the commandant in Dresden, our old friend Schmettau, to surrender if good terms were offered to him were he to be besieged by the enemy. After a few days’ further rest, August 15, Frederick departed from Reitwein, hearing the encouraging news that the Russians were encamping to the south of Kunersdorf. Not a single one of Soltikov’s men had dared to recross the Oder to the western bank after the battle. The king had again taken heart, resuming command of the reorganizing army (August 16). He promptly sent for Kleist and his hussars to join him from Pomerania. This move left the Swedes free to march into Prussian Pomerania, which they did in a rather lethargic manner.
On August 20, the king’s Prussians arrived at the gates of Frankfurt-on-Oder; Fermor was out by Cüstrin with his army. The bluecoats initially moved to Tschicherzig. Frederick reached it on August 16, but Dohna was still out of the vicinity busy in his dealings with the Russians. The grueling pace under the hot summer sun had cost the army many heat-stricken deaths, and the rest of the troops were worn out from the fast pace. They needed a little rest and the king received intelligence that there were no Russians south of the Warta. There was no way to link up with Dohna at Tschicherzig, so the royal force sent intelligence that the junction could be made at Gorgast. Dohna had marched from Frankfurt-on-Oder in August 13. A timely force of four battalions, along with 16 squadrons of cavalry, all under General Schorlemer, bound for Cüstrin. It was considered essential for the new troops to get there as soon as possible.
Frederick lodged for the night of August 20–21 in a suburb house—in Lebus—close to the Russian array across the river. Dohna had kept to the western bank of the Oder (at Gorgast, where he arrived on August 16). Until the coming of the king, Dohna, plus of course the garrison of Cüstrin (under Commandant Colonel Christoph Ernst Schack von Wittenau), plus the dark, murky waters of the wide Oder River had been the only cover for the Prussian capital against the Russians. The danger to Berlin now seemed to lessen.
On August 21, Frederick rode out to Gorgast so as to discern what the enemy were up to. The king made off early (about 0200 hours) with only a few staff officers and escorts in attendance, leaving his army to follow at slower step. Had the Prussian waited a while, there might not have been need for a battle.
The threat of action should have been enough, but that required time. And time was really the one commodity in the shortest supply. Every day counted. Besides, Frederick’s opinion of the fighting skills of the Russians was low, and he must have expected a rather easy time of the whole matter. Frederick was determined to do battle with Fermor to get the threat to Brandenburg neutralized from the direction of the east for that year. August 21 was spent in bringing the army up towards Gorgast, so that by the early morning on August 22 about 36,000 Prussians were encamped in and about Manschnow.
Frederick commented on the neat condition of the latter’s men (who had been largely dormant for a while) in comparing them to his own troops, ragged and dusty from very recent adventures, who were shabby by comparison. The Prussians who had been concentrated there were the sum total of nearly every available fighting man between Berlin and the Oder. The composition of that force was the following: 38 battalions of infantry (25,000 men); 83 squadrons of cavalry (10,500 men); and 194 artillery pieces, of which a high percentage (117) were classified as heavy ordnance. To head his horsemen, the king again had the services of Seydlitz, who had returned at the start of the campaign recovered from his wound sustained at Rossbach. But Frederick’s favored cavalry leader had been whoring with loose women and had contracted syphilis, which made his wounds heal slowly.
At Frederick’s command (and with urgency) a particular Russian redoubt—at the village of Schaumberg, a couple of miles downstream—was shelled so ferociously as to destroy it. Simultaneously, he ordered that boats be collected above Cüstrin so that the army might cross the Oder there. The king had already ordered Lt-General Kanitz with two regiments of infantry and the pontoon train forward there to construct a pontoon bridge there. Kanitz received some greatly appreciated assistance from local peasants.
The bombardment of Fermor’s works was meant to give him the impression that it was at Schaumberg where Frederick intended to cross the river. It was at the village of Alt-Güstibiese where the king really planned to break the barrier of the Oder. The marked redoubt was accordingly plastered, and Fermor at once concentrated his army close-by, while the Prussians, under cover of darkness (night of August 22–23) rose and moved on Alt-Güstibiese, where Kanitz had been busy. The march of not quite 20 miles was accomplished without a hitch, and about 1230 hours on August 23, as the Russians stood waiting near Schaumberg, the Prussian van—with the king himself at the head—crossed the Oder by pontoons and filed through the streets of Alt-Güstibiese, followed quickly by the remainder of the army. All except for the Prussian baggage train, which was left on the eastern bank, to be placed under Hordt and his Free Battalion #9.
Frederick, directly upon crossing the Oder, made for the knoll of Alt-Güstibiese and was there greeted by the poor populace of the place, who kissed his hands and even the lining of his coat. He was so moved when he perceived the pitiful sight he wept. After the Prussians marched from Alt-Güstibiese, they moved some ten miles to the east on Gross-Kammin. At the hamlet of Klossow, halt to rest and set up an encampment was called, and Frederick’s army paused there. The troops were spread out in their tents towards Neu-Damm, where they were to make for on the morrow. Once there, the king intended to send his army across the bridge there over the Mutzel and prepare to sweep the enemy’s army into the very water barrier it counted upon for its defense.
Fermor was unaware of any of these proceedings. At the very time that Frederick’s men began crossing the Oder, Fermor was waiting near Cüstrin, expecting the appearance of the Prussians near there.
Meanwhile, the Siege of Cüstrin had been brief. About 0200 hours on August 15, Stoffelne’s detachment, some 5,000 strong, moved forward upon the fortress; from Gross-Kammin, the Russians reached the walls of Cüstrin through the thick woods intersecting the Landsberg road. There was no hint of resistance until the village of Tamsel. As the green-clad Russians neared the latter, Prussian outposts under General Ruesch (which had been put out to probe for the enemy) opened fire upon the advancing Russians, believing them apparently to be nothing more than Cossacks. The Cossacks were sneaking around to outflank the defenders. The Prussians were speedily disillusioned by these measures.
Stoffelne easily overwhelmed the outposts almost before they knew what hit them. The main Prussian line was anchored on two local cemeteries; reasonably strong obstacles. Stoffelne silenced a Prussian battery in front and drove the bluecoats back from the cemeteries. He then veered his advance towards the right, and very shortly reached the Oder at the northern side of Cüstrin. Here batteries (made up of his 20 guns), were set to prepare to bombard the fortress, while the garrison made ready to defend it. At about 2100 hours on August 15, the shelling of Cüstrin commenced, Stoffelne’s artillery started belching exploding howitzer shells and incendiary bombs towards both the fortress and the town. After three well-placed incendiary rounds, one shot landed in a magazine with straw surrounding it and caught fire. The garrison made a useless attempt to save the place, handicapped by a lack of skilled firefighters not to mention the Russians to worry about, but soon the town was blazing out of control. Even some of the garrison, many of whom were deserters or prisoners-of-war, took the opportunity to break into the town and loot. The whole incident was most unfortunate for all concerned, and especially so for the poor souls who had sought their refuge and stored their worldly goods in Cüstrin “when the Russians entered the Prussian territories and … [were thus] reduced from opulent fortunes, to beggary.” Stored powder in the magazines exploded with a violent fury, burying many who had sought refuge in the numerous caverns under the town.
Cüstrin was ruined, “excepting the school, the garrison, church, and the main guardhouse.” In the pre-dawn hours of June 16, the garrison of the fortress of Cüstrin hastily constructed two redoubts to help bolster the barrier to the Russians. Nevertheless, Manteuffel took up a position near Neu-Damm, which prevented the enemy from crossing the Oder. Early on the morning of August 16, Cüstrin’s guns opened upon the besiegers. The Russian response was really only half-hearted. August 17, Stoffelne summoned the fortress to surrender. The garrison commander replied he would defend Cüstrin “to the last man.”
The Russians were hampered by their lack of siege guns, and Shuvalov’s unicorns proved really ineffective against the walls of the fortress. Worse, the solid shells of the field guns were in short supply. They would be needed for battle, and could be used only sparingly against Cüstrin. Nevertheless, Stoffelne’s move caused Dohna to move to Reitwein to join up with Manteuffel. On August 20, Cüstrin’s garrison, which realized the little suburb was actually shielding the enemy’s siege lines, took the disturbing decision to burn down this suburb, called the Kutze Vorstadt.
The populace fled across the Oder to Gorgast, leaving the town a burning wreck. Much material was lost and a small baby was killed. The bridge over the river caught on fire and burned up. Indeed, Fermor was not even aware of where the Prussians had vanished to, although the Cossacks were out trying to find out. Late on August 23, the Russian commander got the first real intelligence of where the enemy were. The irregulars brought in word the king and his men had already breached the Oder and were racing towards the Mutzel. It was plain Frederick was advancing straight on the Russian army to force a battle. Fermor, as soon as he realized what was afoot, took immediate measures to prepare his army for the trial that was coming. Stoffelne had returned to the main army, abandoning the Siege of Cüstrin.
The Russian army was pushed into bivouac posture in the thick woods near the Mutzel (the Drewitz Woods of the Zaberngrund); this being the most readily defensible spot in the region now occupied by the Russians. The army completed this maneuver late on August 24. Beyond precautions like these, Fermor, unsure of just what the Prussian strength he was opposing, remained almost in a self-induced “fog.” “The generals were left in ignorance of his intentions.” The heavy baggage had already been put out of harm’s way, as we have seen. Fermor had brought the kitchen paraphernalia and the army paymaster part of the train to be with his main force.
At the same time, Frederick was busy himself. His army was on the road towards the Mutzel, specifically, the hamlets of Quartzchen and Darmutzel. He did not intend to make passage at the places ahead, but to merely destroy the wooden bridges thereabouts so Fermor would not be able to escape across them. The work was quickly accomplished. The sun was stifling and wearing on the Prussians. Having rendered the lower Mutzel bridgeless, the king turned his marching troops towards Neu-Damm, the real crossing point, and the one infantry bridge in the region. Evening of August 24, the bluecoats reached their destination, and the bridge at the mill there. They were five good miles from Fermor’s Russians.
A prompt advance was made by the advanced guard to prevent the enemy from taking effective countermeasures. The army, once the initial crossing was secured, would make transit throughout the night. The Prussians now took a brief pause, lasting only until 0300 hours on August 25. Frederick took the opportunity to grab some sleep. He napped in a little room at the Neu-Damm, and was awakened about midnight on August 24–25 by his faithful attendants. When the over optimistic king saw his generals that fateful morning, he is reputed to have said, “My congratulations, [Gentlemen!] We have won the battle!”10 About 0300, the crossing commenced. The infantry, artillery teams and cavalry were able to pass the Mutzel without difficulty. With the crossing wrapped up, the bridge was torn down behind them. The king was guided through the thick woods by a local forestry official named Zollnar. He then donned his sword and made ready for what would be a long day for himself and his army. Fermor’s scouts had finally informed him that Frederick’s army had seized the Neu-Damm Bridge and were rolling across the last water barrier between it and the Russians. He knew that Frederick could be looked for on the morrow and the Russian army was shifted into a new position to compensate as much as possible for the changed situation. A deserter from the Prussian army told Fermor the king intended to attack from the direction of Batzlow and Wilkersdorf. Fermor, unfortunately, did not heed the information. He still seemed to expect a Prussian attack from the north, and, to compound the error, Fermor dispatched forces to make sure the Mutzel was bridgeless.
The Prussians had been astride Fermor’s lines-of-communication ever since they had penetrated the Oder and there was really little choice left to the foe but to fight it out. Fermor’s men were short of provisions, Frederick holding the Oder meant no supplies could be expected from that direction and no hope of reinforcements was on the horizon. At Fermor’s back, loomed the vast expanses of Poland, much of it barren.
Fermor, minus the detachment in Pomerania, had an army of about 52,000 men with him. The composition of this force was the following: 55 battalions of infantry (approximately 36,308 men); 21 squadrons of cavalry (3,382 men); the irregulars and an artillery train of 136 guns. The numerical superiority of Fermor’s army to Frederick’s was about as pronounced as, say Prince Charles’ superior numbers over the Prussians at Leuthen. Frederick had the considerable advantage of well-trained and prepared troops well suited for the heavy fighting that was about to occur. In contrast, the Russians, despite their dogged determination and a stubborn, unbending will, simply were not skilled enough to hope to overcome the finest soldiers in the world at the time and led by the arguably greatest tactician of modern history.
The battle was more than half-won by the bluecoats before the first shots were ever fired. But if Frederick found this enemy to be less capable in genuine military skill, the Russians were by far the most determined foes that the king would ever meet on a field of battle. As for Fermor, once he perceived the Prussians had outflanked the position, he realized there were two alternatives: (1) Either march out and fight it out with Frederick in the open; (2) Stay put in the back country where he was and be forced out by starvation to either surrender or else flee like whipped pups towards Poland, if the Prussians allowed that.
Some explanation of the country there in which the battle was about to be fought is needed at this point. Zorndorf was the most important village in the vicinity; the place from which the battle received its name was about four miles on the northward side of Cüstrin, some 30 miles from Landsberg and about nine from Klein-Kammin. Zorndorf lay about the center of the tract of ground between the Warta River and the Mutzel, the nature of the countryside there being covered in some spots with thick woods and morasses but was elsewhere sufficiently fertile to grow crops on. The scene was a clearing near-by, perhaps three miles long by five miles wide. About Tamsel, the woods became thicker, specifically between Drewitz-Heath and Klein-Kammin. Zorndorf sat on a knoll perhaps 100 feet above the Oder; from there to all directions, the ground fell away to lower reaches near the swamps. There was no other significant higher ground in the region, and here Fermor finally chose to put his army on.
Away to the western end of the region, the nature of the country changed from wet swamps and great woods to three stagnant, murky pools, each branching towards the Mutzel. The ground inside of each pool rose a large hollow of ground, well-worn by the waters. That closest to the river was known as the Zaberngrund, the second as the Galgen Hollow; both would play important roles in the battle.
Generally, the lower, more western, ground consisted largely of swamps, the eastern country was of a drier nature, more suited to human habitation. The battle, almost naturally, would be fought in the latter tracts. Fermor decided that it would be better to fight it out with Frederick in the open. So he marched from the thick woods into the cleared country near Zorndorf, where he intended to draw out his men for battle. This was against the advice of Prince Charles of Saxony, who rather wisely suggested that the army should post itself in the elevated country near Gross-Kammin. Fermor seems to have been receptive to the idea of putting his post thereabouts, however in the event, he “merely deposited the main baggage [close-by] … [putting] the army into a potentially disastrous position.” This was a major mistake. A post on higher ground would have raised the already difficult task confronting Frederick to almost superhuman proportions. Fortunately, for the Prussians, there was no attempt to do so.
The Russians were arranged in three great—but irregular—squares which, because of the generally broken condition and uneven ground, were really out of range and almost incapable of rendering support to each other. Fermor’s western (right) flank was deployed on the Zaberngrund, the center lay about Quartzchen, with the narrow left anchored about the hamlet of Zicher. His whole army, except as usual for the Cossacks, thus was drawn out on the squares. Rumyantsev, still blissfully unaware of what had been transpiring, was now cut off from the main body of the army.
Frederick’s men had succeeded in capturing a few Cossacks, just before crossing the Mutzel, which made him even more confident of success in battle with the Russians. He was convinced that these eastern peoples lacked the ingredients to be good soldiers, an opinion not shared by Marshal Keith, who did his best to convince the king Fermor’s army would give a good account of itself.
The Prussian infantry had crossed the Mutzel near Damschue Mühle, the cavalry passing by a log bridge at Kersten in the vicinity of Neu Damm. From there, the range to the nearest hostile troops was about three miles near Zicher. But the king had no intention of striking Fermor on that side in any case, and his actual plan was to attack and roll up the enemy’s right on Zaberngrund, applying the entire effort on that point. Once an assault was opened upon the opposite side of their lines, the enemy, if defeated, would be forced back upon the nearly impassable Mutzel. This would trap him between that river and Frederick’s army; Fermor must then have surrendered or else faced annihilation. On the other side of the coin, if Frederick’s men were beaten, they could easily retreat to Cüstrin fortress, just a short distance to the south. As one author observed about the Russians, they had to have their baggage/supply train as they consumed “far more provisions than one [fighting army] more than twice as strong.”
No battle was required, for the Russian baggage at Klein-Kammin was vulnerable. A Prussian stroke upon that train would have compelled Fermor to retreat without battle. Inexplicably, the king did nothing about the enemy’s baggage, and the guard force was left undisturbed. Surprisingly enough, Frederick disdained a thorough reconnaissance by cavalry just before his troops moved out. A recon was considered a given before a major battle. By a military leader of the caliber of Frederick the Great it might be a gross mistake not to do one. On the other hand, the king argues in his History of the Seven Years’ War he had no other choice than to seek a battle as soon as possible as he had other irons in the fire.
Hemmed in by the Meitzel River at its back, the Russian Army had no way to retreat if the battle went badly. Meanwhile, the Prussians mounted an attack on the Russian right.
At about 0300 hours, the Prussians rose and pressed off moving westward—the cavalry closest to the enemy array, while the infantry followed in parallel marching lines. The direction of this maneuver made it appear as if Frederick was heading for Tamsel, but, just short of that place, the troops turned and headed directly towards the enemy. No doubt it was a beautiful formation.
Fermor had been busy observing the bluecoats since they had emerged from the woods, needless to say with intense interest. The Russian commander until then had been unaware of where his foe intended for. The Russian front originally had been facing north, as the Prussian stroke was expected from that direction. By then it was approximately 0600 hours, long past dawn. But seeing the Prussians sweeping on by without motion that might indicate an assault, Fermor finally discerned his enemy’s aim. He made measures to accommodate the changed circumstances, and swung round to face the south. This took a while to accomplish, while the Prussians continued to prepare. Time by that point was about 0730 hours.
Fermor had spun round and was in the process of deploying his men into the great squares. His whole force was in this gigantic posture; the army stretched from one end to the other some two miles in length, by about one mile in width. This would be the Russians’ first test with Frederick himself, although Gross-Jägersdorf had been fought with the Prussians the previous year.
The Prussians approached behind the hamlets thereabouts: by Wilkersdorf, Zorndorf, and Gross-Kammin. About 0800 hours Frederick’s army was standing in the clearing in front of Fermor’s men. Hussar parties, peeling off from the main body, rode out to deal with any units of Cossacks on the loose; this group headed towards the right of the Prussian army to hold a position from that end. In spite of the Prussian measures, the Cossacks were indeed active. Brave individual Cossacks even dared to ride up and taunt the Prussian soldiers with carbine fire, then made off. But there was to be no firing from the Prussians anyway; Frederick had ordered the soldiers to withhold their fire so as to not alert the Russians to their position.
This was a bleak period in the history of mankind. The Russian irregulars, on the approach of the king’s army, committed a number of atrocities, which have really blackened the history of this war. At Gross Kammin and at Blumberg, wayward irregulars sacked and burned the towns, and killed a great number of civilians. The victims included women with children, and the nefarious deeds were not confined to the living. Graves were violated, and the vagabonds “stript [sic] the bodies of General Schladerndorf [sic] and General Ruitz.”
The hussar screen, some 15 squadrons strong, was making things difficult for the Cossacks. The latter made no appreciable progress against the foe, and they quickly lost heart and decided to get away while the getting was good. As a send-off, they set fire to Zorndorf before they made off. Ironically, the smoke from that burning village (the wind, although blowing only slightly, carried right into Fermor’s face) served to conceal the mobile Prussians from the sight of the enemy. It was said Zorndorf was burned so the Prussian king “might not cover his motions.” However, Frederick’s men held off on driving the Prussian ammunition carts through the streets of Zorndorf. This was obviously for the possible detrimental effects. Still, this no doubt upset Fermor’s thinking, and contributed to the outcome of the battle.
Frederick at the same time rode forward from the main army, to see what state the Zaberngrund was in. Accompanied by staff officers, the king only got as far as Batzlow—at the edge of the woods. A plethora of Cossack activity precluded his further journey, and Frederick returned to the army for the critical maneuvers. He found the ravine too deep, rendering it impractical to attack the western square of Fermor’s army over this ground. The muddy and marshy condition of the terrain precluded passage of any body of organized troops but cavalry. Finally, at about Wilkersdorf, the king found his vantage point. At this spot, not quite a mile from the Russian mass, he studied the enemy and the ground thoroughly to see how to bring about its ruin.
After a brief investigation of the ground forward of the Russians, the king finally chose the enemy’s right as the most favorable of the great squares to strike, on the southwest end of the position. The monarch then passed back to the army and ordered the men to form rank for battle. He anchored (for the moment) his left behind the still burning village of Zorndorf. On this flank, his troops were to commence the battle with an infantry assault upon Fermor’s right. For this task, the infantry was halted and formed into attack order, while Seydlitz galloped off to the left rear to take up behind the foot soldiers with his squadrons. General Dohna had charge of the Prussian right; between the Stein-Busch and the far end of Zorndorf, he deployed Infantry Regiments 14th, 27th, 18th, 25th, 23rd, 40th, and 49th. The left, under General Kanitz, consisted of Infantry 11th, 7th, 22nd, 46th, 16th, 37th, one battalion each of 2nd/4th, supported by Dragoon regiments 6th, 7th, and 8th. This wing was placed to the left of Zorndorf, and at the end of the Zaberngrund; in the second line stood the center—which was to act in concert with the left by attacking the Russian positions facing Landsberg—while the right held a front at Wilkersdorf.
After his regrouping and countermarching, Fermor placed his troops as follows: the main army was newly designated as the Russian right, made up most of the strength of the Russian army; Browne’s Observation Corps became the Russian left, reaching to Zicher. Towards the Zicherer Heide beyond Zicher, General Demikow led a group of horsemen, including the Horvat Hussars, and the Cossacks, that would eventually take a prominent role in the proceedings.
The Prussian plan of attack was to hammer the Russian right square with heavy artillery fire to soften up the resistance, and then launch a sudden blow against it. This stroke was to be carried out by Manteuffel (at the head of the advanced guard) using the best troops of the Prussian army. The right was to do nothing during this assault, merely stand and draw the enemy’s attention, as well as feed in more troops as they were required further down the line. Colonel Moller’s heavy Prussian artillery (of 18- and 24-pounders) was pushed to high ground just north of Zorndorf (20 pieces northwest of Zorndorf, another battery of 40 just north of the ruined place). About 0900 hours, the batteries opened. Initial range was too far. The shot could not inflict much damage, so the guns were moved 600 paces closer. The batteries then started to belch grapeshot at close range into close packed Russian formations. The results were devastating.
A. T. Bolotov related that one particular cannon shot killed or wounded 48 Russian grenadiers. This pummeling inflicted major casualties before the actual man-to-man fighting started, but the Russian nerve kept men in the open formation when dispersal to cover, such as it was, would have been better. Russian artillery response was less effective, in part because of the greater dispersal of the Prussian army. For two hours, the exchange continued. The less trained Russian gun crews also had to fire uphill, against an enemy who certainly knew how to wage a successful artillery duel. The Russians had much less success in this respect than on the day of Gross-Jägersdorf in 1757.
Some of the Russians really had a desire to “see the show.” “The cannon shot were screaming ceaselessly through the air … [and] many of our soldiers climbed the trees to get a better view of the action.” Seydlitz, for his part, had 36 squadrons of cavalry in position at the end of the left, on the west end of the Zaberngrund, while Colonel Wackenitz was holding a second group of 20 squadrons as a reserve behind Kanitz.
After the initial deployment had ended, the Prussians (eight battalions, six of them grenadier units) of Manteuffel at the left of the front started forward just past the western end of Zorndorf (at about 1100 hours) towards the Russians, each battalion following the first marched forward a little to their right rear in the oblique order. They passed the still smoldering village on the opposite— right—side. Eyewitness accounts of the Prussian advance give keen insight into the fact that war, is, indeed, waged by men of flesh and blood on both sides. Pastor Täge, a recent arrival in Fermor’s ranks, described the imminent attack of the Prussians “their weapons flashed in the sun, and the spectacle was frightening. Never since in the course of my long life have I heard that tune (Ich bin ja, Heer, in deiner Macht!; [“Now Lord, I am in thy keeping!”] without [recourse to] … the utmost emotion.” When the Prussians made their appearance, one of the regimental bands was marching right along, playing that hymnal with all the enthusiasm of a parade ground. Frederick himself seemed momentarily enthralled by the music and audibly repeated it to those nearby and to himself. It is a pity that such a tranquil tune and mood would be forever associated with one of the most bitterly contested battles of the 18th century.
In the event, the thick smoke from the bombardments and the fire at Zorndorf hung thickly about the ground. The front separated, and a gap was created in the Prussian front as it drew upon Fermor’s square. This would have proven disastrous for Frederick had it not been for Seydlitz. The Russians seeing (or, more likely, hearing) the progress of the enemy’s advance, opened up a terrific fire upon them at the distance of some 40 paces. The Battle of Zorndorf had commenced. Now, as a backdrop of battle, some of the Russian supply wagons, their supply of powder responding to intense heat, were blowing up, adding further noise to a roar that reverberated in the windows of buildings all over the area.
The mobile horse-artillery and guns were rushed forward, and two, which had taken up position at opposite ends of the Zaberngrund beforehand, opened a heavy fire. This was pointed to strike the extreme southwest corner of Fermor’s lines, the target of the infantry assault. The Russian batteries, it just so happened, had been massed at this spot, but their operators did not reply with like determination. They lacked the accuracy and skill of their opponents. The Prussian batteries quickly gained the upper hand.
In the meanwhile, the advancing troops had drawn within range, and a most sanguinary struggle was at once taken up. Prussian losses were immediately telling, at least one in three were killed or wounded in this early going. Unfortunately for the king’s men, the attack was in danger of being turned back due to the ever widening rift developing among the bluecoats.
The interior of the Russian army was already a whirl of confusion: the thickly packed ranks of infantry were being swathed by the accurate Prussian cannister fire—casualties were particularly heavy among the Russian 1st and 3rd Grenadiers—but the soldiers still offered a strong front to the attackers. The horses of the supply wagons and lighter baggage, tied up on the outmost edge of the square, had been frightened by the increasingly noisier sounds of battle and were threatening to bolt, while from the outside of the formations, Prussian infantry poured steady, swift and deliberate volleys of musketry fire right into the ranks of the Russians at closer range. Had Fermor’s men been Austrians, Frederick might reasonably have expected preparations to retire from the enemy. But the dogged determination of the Russians, in spite of their shortcomings as military material, more than provided capable resistance to the best army in the world at the time. Not to suggest the Russian soldiers were less than brave. But the soldiers could only be as proficient as their officers, very few of whom during this period were capable. Frederick was certainly impressed and realized that Keith’s analysis of Russian determination was indeed correct.
Manteuffel went marching at the enemy unsupported, for the troops following his, Kanitz’s left, had lost sight of the advanced guard in the prevailing clouds of smoke and dust. They had instead entered a struggle farther down the line; Kanitz’s men, crashing through the Stein Busch, had been become disordered in passing it. By 1115 hours, Kanitz was already out of direct support of Manteuffel. Moreover, as his men had stretched out to cover as much front as possible, this meant no troops were available to support Manteuffel’s effort.
Not all the blame for this incident can be put on Kanitz’s shoulders. The king’s directives to him appear to have been vague, as suggested by the fact that he allowed the forces of Manteuffel to get so far ahead. Kanitz himself was apparently more concerned with keeping touch with Dohna than in following Manteuffel. The carpeting of the Russian lines by Prussian artillery had unaccountably ignored the forces in front of Kanitz. These forces, Butyrskii’s, Suzdalskii’s, and Kegsggolmskii Infantry units, quickly made their presence known. Manteuffel was having a hard way to go from a bitter bayonet charge at close range from the 3rd and 1st Russian Grenadiers. It was about this point when Frederick apparently ordered Seydlitz to charge the Russians to break their momentum. Seydlitz ignored the order, forestalling until he felt the moment was right. When another order arrived from an exasperated Frederick telling Seydlitz to charge or it would be his head, the indomitable cavalryman replied through an ADC, “Tell the king that my head shall be at his service after the action, if he will only allow me to make use of it meantime in his interest.”
The gap was yawning ever wider. Worse still, Kanitz’s 2nd Infantry failed to keep abreast of the Zaberngrund and gave the Russian horse the opportunity to form a charge front. Being without reinforcements, Manteuffel, after a heavy fight with the far more numerous Russians, pulled back “hastily” from before Fermor’s men, his forward line wavering in the midst of the battle under a counterattack from 14 squadrons of Russian horse. Tobolskii’s Dragoons, supported by Novotroitskii’s Cuirassiers, plus Kargopolskii’s Mounted Grenadiers, led the blow on horseback. The 2nd Prussian Infantry of Kanitz was savaged; it lost some 844 men and 20 officers during the course of the battle. The Russians continued to pour it on until the charge of Seydlitz shortly afterwards. Manteuffel’s “withdrawal” soon became a hasty retreat and threatened to become a rout.
While this was taking place, the Prussian left was in the fire along most of the front. It looked like a repeat of the attack at Kolin. The horrified sight of his shattered left wing streaming past him awakened in the king a sense of urgency. He jumped from his horse and, grabbing the colors of the 46th Infantry, tried to rally it. But the panic was too great and the king was finally left with just one battalion (1150 hours) between him and the surging Russian horse. Frederick was probably saved by the timely arrival of Marschall’s horsemen, three full Dragoon regiments, led by the myopic-sighted Prince Moritz of Anhalt-Dessau.
The Prussian horse rode through the ranks of their fleeing comrades and crashed straight into the advancing enemy. The Russian horse, stunned by this new development, reeled back upon their supporting cast of infantry. Thus was thwarted an attack that could have been devastating to the Prussians. Moreover, the stroke by Anhalt-Dessau made the Russians insensible to Seydlitz’s nearby cavalry, which was still uncommitted.
Fermor’s commanders, the smoke having largely dissipated, sighted the hole in the Prussian front, and came barreling out in great strength, plunging into the rift using both cavalry, which we have already looked at, and the infantry. This attack seems to have taken place more or less spontaneously. On the Russian right the men of the Shlyushelburgskii, Chernigovskii, and Rostovskii Infantry regiments suddenly erupted on the faltering Prussians before them (1145 hours). With no military order to attack (apparently), the rear line of Fermor’s right unaccountably took the forces in attack formation as hostile and opened fire right into their backs. Even worse, the hasty advance had gone no more than 300 paces when the Prussian horse countercharged. Already unsteady from having their own comrades shoot at them, the Russian foot soldiers now had to face the vaunted Prussian cavalry.
Along other parts of the front local Russian counterattacks drove towards the Prussian formations. The forces which had driven into and broken through the gap turned and outflanked the Prussians, forcing them to fall back. As they surged forward, Fermor’s men overran a Prussian battery at the Fuchsberg, capturing 26 guns. In the meantime, the quick-witted Seydlitz, seeing the debâcle taking place, took matters to his own—with the echoes of repeated orders—and, decided that he had to do something to remedy the crisis facing the Prussian infantry. He took his entire cavalry, some 5,000 horsemen, and threaded his way over the Zaberngrund towards the Russian right flank.
Frederick, seeing Manteuffel falling back and the attack line being hard-pressed, sent instructions to Seydlitz to charge Fermor’s advancing troops on his right. The Prussian cavalry charge, with Seydlitz leading the first wave and Wackenitz the second, went crashing head-on into the surging enemy mass and threw the greencoated Russians back into their square, the Prussians following hot on their heels (1155 hours).
A confused fight proceeded on that side of Fermor’s front; the Prussian horsemen hacking up the Russians without mercy. (Quarter was neither given nor asked for in this particular fight.) Johann Archenholtz, among others, said the king, in his thirst for revenge “gave orders for no quarter.” This does not seem likely. Frederick was an eighteenth-century “humanist” at heart; to give such deliberate instructions just does not fit the image. Ziethen’s 2nd Hussars particularly distinguished themselves here; they smashed through Gaugraven’s faltering horse. Any cohesion the Russians on this side had left immediately dissolved, as Seydlitz’s full weight made itself felt.
The valiant Prussian horse did not break off pursuit until they reached fresh enemy formations at the Galgen-Grund. As one source offered, “The enemy being much more numerous, it [i.e., the Russian horse] was obliged to give way.” That was putting it lightly! To make matters worse, some of the panicked Russians fled to the safety of the Zicher Woods, while still others took full advantage of the overall confusion to break into liquor cases from the supply train. The Russian army always seemed to keep plenty of spirits on hand, even during campaign. With a desperate battle in full engagement, almost whole units proceeded to drink themselves into a drunken stupor. Officers who thought they could rally such troops were speedily disillusioned. Some of the unfortunates who had the temerity to order their men to do their duty were instead shot dead by the swine. While this was taking place, the Prussian infantry took the opportunity to reform and reorganize. Shortly, scattered infantry units pushed back into the action. The Russian right was in ruins, Fermor had been wounded and was taken from the field, either before or just after this charge. At this stage, the remnants of the army’s cavalry were sheltered at Kutzdorf, where the horsemen attempted to ford the Mutzel. They could not get across as the river’s current was far too swift and no bridge was to be had near at hand. Meanwhile, the slaughter on the right continued unabated.