The Battle of Torgau I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Battle of Torgau II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Torgau III

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combat at Gilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What regiment?’

‘Sire, the 37th’

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

‘The Prussians have new ones’

‘They are there, go and take them!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biot described the difficulty of the ground for cavalry:

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

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

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

Germany – 1813

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Austro-Prussian War (1866)

Causes of the Austro-Prussian War (1866)

The Convention of Gastein of August 14, 1865, provided for joint Prussian and Austrian sovereignty over Schleswig and Holstein. Austria would administer Holstein, and Prussia would have charge of Schleswig. Lauenburg was awarded to Prussia outright in return for a payment of 2.5 million thalers. Austrian Schleswig was thus an enclave within Prussian territory.

Bismarck now skillfully worked to create tension between Prussia and Austria to bring about war. He was confident that Prussia could defeat Austria militarily, but he needed to secure the neutrality of the other major powers. Russia was still grateful to Bismarck for his actions in helping to put down the Polish revolt of 1863 and also wanted to see Austria humbled for having blocked its aspirations against the Ottoman Empire.

France was another matter, however. For centuries French interests had been served by a divided Germany. In October 1865, Bismarck met with French emperor Napoleon III at Biarritz and secured French neutrality by allowing Napoleon to believe that, following a Prussia victory, France would be allowed to annex Belgium and Luxembourg or receive other territorial compensation along the Rhine. On his part, Napoleon expected Austria to win the war or for it to be lengthy, as the last war between Prussia and Austria had lasted from 1756 to 1763. If protracted, France could enter the conflict late and dictate a settlement advantageous to itself.

Napoleon actually encouraged the war, urging Bismarck to take the Kingdom of Italy as an ally to tie down Austrian forces in the south and receive Venetia from Austria in compensation. Napoleon could thus gain credit with Italy as furthering Italian unification.

In November 1865 the Prussian government offered to buy Holstein outright from Austria in a cash settlement, as with Lauenburg. Vienna refused. This may have been Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I’s worst mistake, for had Vienna done so, this would have made it far more difficult for Bismarck to create war.

Italy was at first reluctant to ally with Prussia in fear that Prussia might lose. So anxious for war was Napoleon, however, that he guaranteed Italy Venetia no matter the outcome. On April 8, 1866, Prussia and Italy concluded an offensive alliance against Austria in which Italy insisted that the war had to occur within three months.

On June 12 with war between Prussia and Austria apparently inevitable, Austria concluded a secret treaty with France. In return for a pledge by Napoleon III to work to ensure Italian neutrality, Austria agreed to cede Venetia to France, which would then cede it to Italy, no matter the war’s outcome. In the event of an Austrian victory, Vienna would consult with Napoleon III on any major changes in Germany. Austria also made a verbal promise not to oppose the creation of a new French dominated state along the Rhine.

Bismarck now worked to create the war. Casting himself as a good liberal, he ordered the Prussian representative to the Diet of the German Confederation at Frankfurt to demand that the body be abolished and a new German political entity based on universal manhood suffrage be created without the participation of Austria. The thrust of this, of course, was to bring on war.

Both sides commenced military mobilization, and Austria foolishly allowed its governor of Holstein on June 6 to call its Diet into session to discuss the future of the duchy. Bismarck denounced this as contrary to the Convention of Gastein and ordered Prussian troops into the duchy. On June 14 on the motion of Austria, the Diet of the German Confederation at Frankfurt voted for war against Prussia for the latter’s invasion of Holstein. The vast majority of the German states, including Bavaria, Hanover, and Saxony, sided with Austria. Prussia declared this a violation of the federal constitution and also declared the German Confederation to be at an end.

Course of the Austro-Prussian War (1866)

Although the war also involved Italy, it is generally referred to as the Austro Prussian War or, for its duration, the Seven Weeks’ War. Bismarck intended it to be short. Fighting occurred in three theaters: Germany, Bohemia, and Italy.

Chief of the Prussian General Staff General von Moltke sought to make maximum use of the railroad and telegraph to strike quickly and catch his opponents by surprise. Austria, meanwhile, had done little to prepare for a two-front war that would involve Italy, which declared war on June 20.

With the south German states slow to mobilize, Moltke sent General Vogel von Falkenstein’s 40,000-man West Army against Hanover’s 19,000-man army under King George and General Alexander von Arentschildt before it could link up with the Bavarian Army. The West Army entered Hanover and converged on the Hanoverians at Langensalza (Bad Langensalza) from the south, west, and north.

Eager for glory, General Eduard Flies, commanding the southern Prussian force, disregarded Moltke’s orders and attacked prematurely on June 27 before the other Prussian forces could arrive. Flies’s men were badly mauled by the Hanoverians and were forced to withdraw in disorder. This victory went for naught, however, as the next day the other Prussian corps arrived, and on June 29 Hanoverian king George was forced to surrender at Nordhausen. The Prussians disarmed the Hanoverians and sent them home.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the German forces were moving southward against the Austrians, placed by intelligence reports concentrating northwest of Olmütz (present-day Olomouc in the Czech Republic). Moltke utilized the railroad to move and the telegraph to coordinate three separate Prussian armies. Prussian king Wilhelm I had nominal commands. The Army of the Elbe, under General Karl Herwarth von Bittenfeld, occupied Dresden in Saxony on June 19, then moved to join the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl to enter Bohemia via passes in the Erzgebirge and Riesengebirge during June 22-23. Meanwhile, the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich moved south through Silesia.

At Münchengrätz on June 28, the Army of the Elbe and the First Army joined to defeat retreating Saxon troops under Prince Albert and the Austrian I Corps under General Count Eduard Clam-Gallas. The Prussians suffered 341 casualties and inflicted some 2,000 (1,400 of them prisoners). There was also fighting at Burkersdorf, Rudersdorf, and Skalice (Skalitz).

Austrian General Ritter Ludwig August von Benedek commanded the Austria North Army and allied Saxon forces in Silesia. An incompetent strategist whose military experience was confined to Italy, he had never before commanded large numbers of troops. Meanwhile, the far more capable Field Marshal Archduke Friedrich Rudolf Albrecht was assigned command of Austrian forces in Italy, where the House of Habsburg was most likely to be victorious.

On July 2, Moltke learned that Benedek’s North Army was concentrating along the upper Elbe, north of Königgrätz (today Hradec Kralové). The Austrians were within striking distance of two of Moltke’s armies, Bittenfeld’s Army of the Elbe and Prince Friedrich Karl’s First Army. In numbers of men, the two sides were about equal. Moltke commanded about 221,000 men and 702 guns, while Benedek commanded some 206,000 men (184,000 Austrians and 22,000 Saxons) and 650 guns. The Prussians had a distinct advantage in small arms, however. Their Dreyse breech loading needle gun could fire six times as fast as the Austrian Lorenz muzzle-loader.

Moltke, who was in contact with all three of his advancing armies by telegraph, attempted a double envelopment. That night, however, the telegraph link with Crown Prince Friedrich’s Second Army broke down. Moltke nonetheless decided to proceed with the other two armies and sent a courier to ride the 20 miles to the crown prince to tell him to bring up his army as soon as possible.

Cavalry engagement at the battle of Königgrätz (Alexander von Bensa, 1866).

The ensuing Battle of Königgrätz (Hradec Kralové), also known as the Battle of Sadowa (Sadova), was the largest European land battle until World War I. The Army of the Elbe and the First Army at tacked in a pouring rain at dawn on July 3. Crowded onto too narrow a front, they thus were ideal targets for the Austrian artillery but were saved only by foolish Austrian bayonet counterattacks, which forestalled the artillery and brought little result. Nonetheless, by 11:00 a. m. the Austrians had blunted the Prussian attacks. Benedek might have won the day had he committed his cavalry, but he refused. At about 1:30 p. m., the Prussian Second Army at last arrived and fell on the Austrian northern line, quickly reversing the situation. Benedek ordered a retreat, covered by his artillery. Moltke did not pursue.

Austrian and Saxon losses were nearly five times those of Prussia. The Prussians sustained some 9,000 casualties (1,900 killed, 6,800 wounded, and 275 missing). Austrian and Saxon losses were roughly 44,000 (5,735 killed, 8,440 wounded, some 22,000 prisoners, and 7,925 missing). Austria also lost 116 guns. The battle was decisive. With its heavy losses, on July 22 Vienna had no choice but to agree to an armistice on Prussian terms.

To the south, the Italian strategic plan called for an invasion of Austrian Venetia along the Mincio and Po Rivers by 200,000 men and 370 guns, defended by Archduke Albrecht’s Austrian South Army, with only 75,000 men and 168 guns. The critical battle of the campaign occurred at the old battlefield of Custoza, southwest of Verona. In a major tactical blunder, Italian commander General Alfonso Ferrero di La Marmora, who was unaware of the South Army’s strength and dispositions, managed to get only 65,000 troops and 122 guns across the Mincio before they were confronted by virtually the entire Austrian South Army.

In the daylong Battle of Custoza on June 24, the Austrians defeated the Italians piecemeal, with the Austrian Light Cavalry Brigade playing the major role and the Italians driven back across the Mincio into Lombardy. Albrecht did not pursue. The Italians suffered 3,800 killed or wounded and 4,300 taken prisoner. Austrian casualties were 4,600 killed or wounded and 1,000 missing. Despite the outcome of the battle, on July 3 Napoleon III arranged the transfer of Venetia to France, then ceded it to Italy.

Given command of 10,000 men and a flotilla on Lake Garda, Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi fought a series of small, indecisive engagements with the Austrians during July 3-21. He was about to attack Trent when he was ordered to withdraw. Bismarck made it clear to the Italian government that it would not be allowed to se cure part of the Trentine Tyrol.

The only sea battle of the war was at Lissa in the Adriatic on July 20, between virtually the entire Italian and Austrian Na vies. Commanders proved important. The incompetent Admiral Count Carlo Pel lion di Persano commanded the Italians; capable young rear admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff had charge of the Austrian side. Persano sortied on July 15. He proceeded not to Pola, where the Austrian fleet was located, but against the Austrian island of Lissa. For two days the Italians bombarded Lissa with little effect. Persano was landing men there when informed of the Austrian approach. Tegetthoff had 21 ships, Persano 31. Each side had a half dozen ironclads. Tegetthoff immediately attacked and won the battle, with the Italians withdrawing. The Italians lost 2 ships; 4 others were badly damaged (1 of which subsequently sank). They also suffered 619 dead and 39 wounded. The Austrians had only several ships damaged and 38 men killed and 138 wounded. The Battle of Lissa was the first between oceangoing ironclad fleets at sea and the only major fleet encounter between ironclads in which the principal tactic was to ram the opposing vessel.

On July 5 a badly shaken Napoleon III had offered his good offices to end the war. Bismarck accepted on condition that the terms of peace were agreed to before any armistice was concluded. Napoleon, ill and his army unready to intervene, agreed to the Prussian terms imposed in the Preliminary Peace of Nikolsburg in southern Moravia on July 26. Prussia annexed the states of Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, and Nassau as well as the free city of Frankfurt. The German Confederation was abolished, and Austria was excluded from German affairs. Prussia then reorganized Germany north of the Main River into the North German Confederation under its leadership. The south German states of Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg remained independent. King William I wanted an indemnity, a parade in Vienna, and additional territory from Austria, but Bismarck set himself against this and won his point. Austria retained all its territory, and there was no indemnity. The August 23 Peace of Prague merely confirmed these terms.

The long struggle between Prussia and Austria for mastery in the Germanies, which began with the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740, was over. Prussia now dominated Germany.

Battle of Reichenbach

King Frederick the Great sent word to his post at Neisse to forward the guns and equipment thereabouts in preparation for his long anticipated siege of the enemy forces now shut up within the Schweidnitz Compound. He then moved his men forward to take up posts for this endeavor. Dittmannsdorf was made his headquarters, and the bluecoat army was put into a half-moon position southwest of the fortress—some ten miles off in the distance—between Seiferba and Juliansdorf. Marshal Daun was, as we know, at Tannhausen, another ten miles southwest and about 20 from Schweidnitz. The latter was now reduced to trying to come up with a plan of his own to foil the Prussian designs upon the fortress. His army was deployed from Donnerau and Gross-Giersdorf, through Tannhausen, leaning over on Falkenberg. The whitecoat right was entrusted to Marshal Lacy, who was by now engaged in some sniping back and forth with the Prussian general Wied.

In this position, the marshal made himself as secure as possible. Daun could not claim ignorance of the importance of keeping a tight grip upon Schweidnitz, if at all possible. July 25, Kaunitz wrote to the marshal a communication conveying the absolute urgency of keeping fast hold upon the Schweidnitz Fortress. The ambitious Frederick had to be denied the place. If the fortress fell, the Austrians would be driven out of Silesia. There would be no further means or forces at hand to prevent this from happening. In response, Daun ordered entrenchments erected to prevent the very aggressive Prussian king from attacking his main post. This seemed to preoccupy the marshal’s time rather than the more important task of trying to relieve Schweidnitz.

Meanwhile, Frederick drove forward with his preliminaries against the place with a great will. He appointed the finest of his officers in that sort of work, Tauentzein (memorable from his staunch defense of Breslau in an earlier time) to head up his siege forces. Tauentzein was given a force of men, about 12,000 strong (composed of 21 battalions and 20 squadrons), with great expectations being looked for. The batteries of Tauentzein were of 28 24-pounders, 50 12-pounders, 20 50-pounder mortars, and 12 7-pounder howitzers. That being stated, the king fully anticipated the fall of the fortress within a few short weeks. Then the confident Frederick could proceed to clear out Silesia of the enemy and then go help Prince Henry over in Saxony. As soon as the required equipment could come forward, Tauentzein at once set to his task. August 7, he had his first parallel dug, which commenced the siege. This first effort of the siege was some “nine hundred paces from the Jauernicker Fort” at northwest Schweidnitz. The king about this time recalled Bevern from out near Glogau to escort the supply trains coming in from Neisse against light parties of the enemy.

As for the Austrian garrison shut up in Schweidnitz, they at least had an abundance of provisions and supplies within the walls of the compound; in the short term. This could only help them in the defense of Schweidnitz. As for the Prussians engaged in besieging the place, they suffered to a great degree in the initial phases of the siege, especially in view of the very energetic garrison there, from the effectiveness of their own efforts to render Schweidnitz as impregnable as possible in the days when they had the fortress. The measures that their engineers had devised were thus turned against them by Guasco & Company.

In the event, the bluecoats opened (and maintained) a fierce bombardment of Schweidnitz, but Franz Guasco himself made a determined resistance with his own resources. He defended the fortress with a tenacity and vigilance that might, under different circumstances, have caused even Frederick to admire his efforts. While the besieging forces were laboring on their works, Guasco’s garrison tried their best to interrupt the enterprise. Guasco’s force, although handpicked, was largely composed of homogenous groups, none of which had enough members to establish even a unit identity. In fact, apparently language alone was a great barrier within the ranks of Schweidnitz’s garrison. A number of different tongues were understood by the defenders, which, in combination with the above factor, served even further to separate the men into little groupings. German was, of course, the major language used, but there were also French, Italian, Hungarian, Czech, even English, among the rest. Intrigue and cliqués could not help but thrive under these conditions. For example, Major-General Ernst Friedrich Giannini, the immediate commander of the Austrian field forces within the place, was at odds with Guasco. Giannini disliked the commandant intensely and made no secret of it. Worse, Guasco was fully aware that Giannini had shared several negative communications with Marshal Daun concerning the conduct of the siege.

Back to the unfolding events. A large part of the garrison, about 5,000 men, emerged from behind Schweidnitz’s walls and attacked the bluecoats very early in the siege (night of August 7–8). The assailants forced back the parties engaged in digging siege works around Schweidnitz. The effort, although valiant, was speedily contained. Tauentzein attempted to mine under the fortress, but Guasco employed an expert of his own, Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, and he spoiled this effort in the bud. Soon, however, hunger must force the issue, for the number of people sealed off in Schweidnitz itself meant that the food supply situation must speedily become downright critical. Simon Deodat Lefèbvre (Tauentzein’s engineer in this business) kept up the pace, while Marshal Daun stayed put right where he was, at Tannhausen, perfectly content not to interfere. His subordinates, Laudon, Lacy, Beck, were all deployed on the flanks and rear.

Lefebvre was a great believer in building both a rampart and a retaining wall on which to work overhead simultaneously. This design he would freely practice, with the Prussian king’s blessing, upon Schweidnitz. The future besieger of Schweidnitz had once penned a note to the conceiver of a device known as ‘globes,’ which could be planted to explode at critical points in tunnels, causing great damage. The correspondence was addressed to Bernhard Forest de Belidor, a French artillery/siege/mining warfare expert. The latter was decent enough to reply, giving Lefebvre some ‘pointers’ he could use later at the Siege of Schweidnitz in 1762.

Daun played the part of a thorn in Frederick’s side during these proceedings to perfection. But he could not afford to vacillate. Something which the powers that be back in Vienna had to be weary of. In short order, it became necessary to order the marshal to go relieve Schweidnitz, as Daun was in danger of “meandering.” August 10, the necessary instructions were sent to the marshal’s headquarters. It was imperative that some attempt or another be made to relieve the fortress. Austrian honor and the coming peace negotiations both demanded some satisfaction in this matter.

Daun now decided to attempt a maneuver to take some of the pressure off of Guasco. The bluecoats would have to be thrown off-balance, and supplies slipped in to shore up the faltering defenders of the fortress, particularly of ammunition. Unlike foodstuffs, there was a potential shortage in the supply of suitable shot and shell. One which could prove critical long before the food supply would ever become low. As usual, the marshal was to leave the main work of dealing with the Prussian threat to others; in this case, to Generals Beck and Lacy. The scheme was to outflank the enemy by a maneuver to round the Prussian lines in the south near Költschen and so gradually wiggle the Austrian formations up to Zobten and the rise thereabouts.

This would, of course, mean the immediate ruin to the bluecoat effort upon Schweidnitz. Beck and Lacy would start the effort upon the enemy nearby, at a rise called the Fiscaberg, where the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern (who had arrived from Neisse attended at a distance by Beck’s troopers) was in charge. This height, located near Reichenbach (about 12 miles southeast of Schweidnitz), had to be laid hold of before the Koltschen enterprise could begin.

The wheeling movement was very involved, and the only Prussian force that could bar the Austrian motion was a cavalry force of 38 squadrons under Prince Friedrich Eugene of Württemberg, deployed in and about Peterswaldau. Another block force, this one under General Werner, moved up to join his compatriots at Peterswaldau. The king would still need to keep the remaining forces of Daun busy over by Tannhausen and that region in the meanwhile. Just about the same time, the bluecoats were no doubt beginning to realize that their Oriental “allies” were going to be a No-Show in their long-projected (but never implemented) invasion of the Habsburg Empire.

As for General Beck, he and his force had been kept busy barring Moravia from the incursions of the Prussians. The Duke of Brunswick-Bevern had been consolidating his position in the hills to the south of Schweidnitz. These passes turned out to be critical for both sides, especially with the Prussian investment of Schweidnitz. General Beck, with a force of some 12,000 men at Zuckmantel, was Daun’s chief relief force in the area immediately by those hills. August 8, Beck was ordered to move from that locale in Moravia, to join up with the main Austrian army about Kloster-Kamenz.

Bevern endeavored to intercept his enemy over by Nimptsch, and by means of a night march, from Münsterberg, the previous night, in the late afternoon of August 13, the Prussians of Bevern took up post in and about Reichenbach, hard about Peilau in the process, they drove back a force from Beck’s rearguard that sought the very same ground for their camp at just about the same time. Prussian pickets pressed back the Johnnys-come-lately, and forthwith took up posts of their own at Pulzendorf and Ellgeuth. The effort paid off hadsomely. Bevern was able to bring 11 battalions and 25 squadrons to bear on the day of Reichenbach. The horse, under General Lentulus, were deployed over by the Fiscaberg. As for artillery, Bevern boasted a large force of guns, 28 heavy pieces and ten 7-pounder howitzers.

Now, suddenly, it was the turn of the bluecoats to be a thorn in Marshal Daun’s side, this in the form of Bevern and his men hard about Reichenbach. The events connected with this effort would lead directly to the aforementioned wheeling movement that would precipitate what was to be the last offensive operations of the Austrians of the war in Silesia.

So Daun ordered out Lacy to recover the rise, with Beck and Brentano, as usual, to play the roles of subordinates. Laudon was detached and sent with a body of some 20,000 men back towards the Warta to keep that area secure. Daun was to remain at Tannhausen with the main army to follow as soon as the Fiscaberg was taken. However, this last offensive effort undertaken by the Austrians in Silesia during the war, as usual, was a lot more plan than actual substance.

The whitecoat forces here totaled about 45,000 men. Of that total, some 25,000 men would constitute the main attack force, divided into 33 battalions and nine units of Austrian cavalry. Lacy reached the western end of the target rise shortly after dawn on August 16. He encamped within the vicinity of three nearby population centers (Upper-, Middle-, and Nether-Peilau) on the road to Gross Nossen, south of Reichenbach. Lacy was determined to recover the rise, and the Prussians were resolved to hang on to the height to thwart Daun’s efforts to upset the siege of Schweidnitz. The king, who was with Bevern, observed the newcomers for a time, while Lacy was busy feeling out the strength and the layout of the Prussian positions. On Lacy’s flank, Beck was positioned with his men, of 14 battalions, four cavalry regiments, and one hussar regiment (Brentano was with Lacy). Brentano boasted a force of eight battalions, four cavalry regiments, and two of the by now invaluable Croats. Now entered a modicum of deception on the part of the whitecoats. When Lacy, with nine battalions, deliberately showed his apparent intention to remain quiescent for a time (i.e., by pitching tents, cooking the men’s meals, etc.), Frederick took this view at face-value and just returned to his headquarters.

Beck’s march shortly afterwards escaped his notice (in fact his men were visible to the king’s sight but the latter apparently felt that Beck would likewise stay put). The Austrian plan was similar to that carried out by Frederick at Burkersdorf, turned in this case against the originator, with the exception that this effort was to be directed against an enemy on one rise only.

Beck’s command struck off through the thick woods, aiming to steal round and strike from the eastern side, while Lacy did his best to keep Bevern occupied on the western face. About 1700 hours, Lacy suddenly deployed his well-prepared, rested men in long lines to distract Bevern on the Fiscaberg, opening a spirited bombardment, in the meanwhile, towards the Prussian positions. Austrian cavalrymen endeavored to threaten Bevern, but he deployed riders of his own to deal with that incursion. Meanwhile, General Carl O’Donnell, with five small cavalry regiments, would act as a screen over by Nieder-Peilau against the Prussian cavalry force massed at Peterswaldau.

Lacy did not attack, he never intended to; as we have seen, his only function was to keep the enemy busy while Beck did his job. The latter’s march through intricate terrain was of necessity slow, in three individual columns, and it was long after Lacy showed his men when Beck finally got into position. The latter drove forward at once, but found the foe, complemented by swampy ground there and blockposts, ready for just such a maneuver. Prussian artillery opened up with a raking fire, under which Beck’s men became bogged down. In short order, the bluecoats occupying Dittmannsdorf and Kleutsch had been driven back.

Meanwhile, the force of General Beck, divided into three different groupings, moved out about 1430 hours. Beck’s left, of three cavalry regiments, deployed over towards Gnadenfrei, this to shield Beck’s main body from the irruptions on his left. Simbschen, meantime, in the immediate area advanced a body of infantry (and some of the jäger) to go take post in the churchyard at Oder-Peilau. From that point, they began peppering the bluecoats, which kept Bevern’s attention fixed to that vicinity while General Beck took his main force, led chiefly by the 21st Cavalry Regiment of Trautmannsdorf, on a swing round to the Girlsberg. At the latter, three regiments which were present erupted about 1750 hours. The Prussians in that post, at least initially, repulsed the first stroke, but a renewed attack was pressed home with rather more success. The bluecoats in that region, principally the 28/32 Grenadier Battalion, put up a tough resistance. Reinforcements of grenadiers promptly joined the ruckus, and, significantly, the opposing 35th Infantry of Prince Henry, suffered almost to a debilitating degree from the battle effort and had to retire. It had been visibly shaken in the drama of the moment.

In sum, the whitecoats could not fail to take advantage of the enemy’s retreat, the limited extent of it that was thereabouts, and Beck was soon at Girlsberg. There a flanking position was turned round to confront the enemy on the Fiscaberg. The Austrians set up ordnance of their own to shell the Prussian posts opposite to them. General Beck, quite naturally, assumed that both Lacy and Brentano would forthwith attack the foe in short order. The order to advance was given, but the Prussians before him, who were actually not engaged just then in any other fight, instead sharply repulsed Beck’s men when they were launched in a short while. As for General Brentano, his “attack” made little forward progress at all. The bombardment by the Prussian guns in the area where Brentano’s men were was sufficiently intense that the whitecoats could not get free from the ground about Nieder-Peilau, although O’Donnell’s cavalry sure did its part. There was more. Brentano’s men did unhitch their guns, over on the rise called the Sampertsberg. Brentano failed utterly to attack the foe with his infantry.

Subsequently, Beck’s attacks all miscarried, Bevern rushing reinforcements (a total of about 25 squadrons of fresh cavalry) to the scene from the still quiet western face, knowing what the enemy had really intended now. In the meanwhile, O’Donnell was making the most of the opportunity offered to him. The Austrian horse emerged into the streets of Nieder-Peilau late in the afternoon, about 1600 hours. The horse accompaniment of Brentano galloped over to join up, and the whitecoat cavalry now formed up in that immediate vicinity with much more on its collective mind than just screening the army from the incursions of Prussian cavalry.

At the appearance of their foe and the relatively weak cavalry screen, Bevern and Lentulus’s riders erupted into full bore action as quickly as they could. This charge was a drawn-out affair, participated in by not just Bevern’s horse, a composite grouping under Lt.-Col. Karl Philipp von Owstein (consisting of some 700 men), but also by the 13 squadrons that General Lentulus was bringing with him to the scene. The ensuing action was short-lived but sharp, and it was noticeable. The bluecoat riders sped past the Spittelberg and over by Sampertsberg. Initially, the fight favored the Prussians, but the support of the Austrian ordnance in the short run eventually forced Bevern’s and Lentulus’ riders to recoil. General O’Donnell was thus enabled to try to rally his shaken cavalry screen against this backdrop.

It was a good thing that O’Donnell was allowed a respite in which to rally his forces. This was very shortly, by about 1800 hours, to bear fruition with the reality that Brentano and Lacy had no real intention of attacking, Frederick turned his attention to the one Austrian force before him, small as it was, that was apparently in earnest. Accordingly, the king himself “riding the exceptionally fast white Cossack horse Caesar was in the lead,” bringing a force of Prussian cavalry galloping from Peterswaldau over the way to Reichenbach on a mission.

Prussian Horse Artillery, under Major von Anhalt, making a rare appearance in the war, then opened a punishing fire right into the soon serried ranks of the Austrian cavalry, emptying saddle after saddle as well as decimating the enemy’s horse.

The Prussian reinforcements moved quickly to the scene. To elaborate, a large part of the bluecoat force making its way towards Reichenbach was composed of foot soldiers, whose advent was of necessity to be slower. Three full regiments of the cuirassiers, including the 8th Cuirassiers of Seydlitz, galloped to the area as fast as their horses could carry them. The newcomers (about 1830 hours) rolled across the Hühn Bach, striking and rolling over the already shaken Austrian cavalry. Five Austrian battle flags were captured in this particular tussle.

While Bevern’s cavalry again took O’Donnell’s force under fire, Lentulus’ command (the Duke of Württemberg Dragoons, the Flanns Dragoons, and a hussar force) also reappeared, after a suitable interval. The latter sought at once to overwhelm the Austrian right, which pressed hard against the whitecoats, causing them much anxiety. Resistance was determined to be sure, but the efforts of General O’Donnell and of his cavalry screen were all in vain this time. The Prussian superiority in numbers here was just too compelling to resist. Added to all of this was the fact that the attack from the front and right flank simultaneously was threatening to squeeze the defenders like a vise, which did nothing but aggravate the situation. The Austrians soon reeled back towards Nieder-Peilau in short order. At the latter post, almost entirely within the confined spaces of the little town, stood the beleaguered infantry of General Brentano. The horse were simultaneously leaving the field in confusion. On the other hand, the foot soldiers, with more to shelter behind, and with plenty of cracks and crevices to fire from behind, immediately put the pursuing Prussian cavalry at a distinct disadvantage. The fire of the infantry thereabouts quickly brought the Prussian pursuit to a screeching halt.

All of this had to be visible to the eyes of Marshal Daun, who was, at that moment, hard by the village of Habensdorf. It must have been clear that Austrian efforts to secure a rescue route in to Schweidnitz were going up in literal smoke. Different riders coming and going throughout the course of the battle must have filled Daun and his entourage with some sense of uneasiness.

Frederick, by then, had also figured out what the whitecoats were doing. Earlier he had returned to his lines in the north, believing that Lacy had no intention of trying an attack on that day. Then, later, he heard the sounds of cannonading to the south near Reichenbach, although he was still hesitant to believe that the Austrians were stirring. When the firing failed to die down, the king hustled off reinforcements to go help Bevern. The forces dispatched raced to the aid of the bluecoats near to Reichenbach.

Bevern, in the meanwhile, proceeded to repel Beck’s best efforts, and Lacy unaccountably failed to give aid to his subordinate. Now word reached the scene that Frederick was after all coming to Bevern’s rescue, and Beck, seeing no gain for all his wasted labors here, drew back to Tannhausen, accompanied by the Lacy-Brentano force (Frederick sent horsemen on ahead to strike a blow against Lacy and deployed some horsed artillery to lob shells at the latter). General Andreas Panovsky’s Walloon Dragoons charged forward and brought the intruders up short in heavy fighting, but the extent of Frederick’s force convinced the Austrian commander that it was time to go. This was about 1900 hours. Lacy’s withdrawal ended the Battle of Reichenbach; which was actually more like a heavy skirmish by the standards of Zorndorf and Torgau.

But this was Daun’s last legitimate effort to rescue his trapped garrison in Schweidnitz from certain surrender. Guasco & Company were now left to their own paltry resources. The next morning, the joy fires of the foe told the disheartened Guasco all that he needed to know. He realized now that his position was nothing short of dire.

The losses of the two sides in the Battle of Reichenbach were the following: the Austrians lost 140 killed, 373 wounded, and 407 missing, a total of 920 men; the Prussian loss was 997 men from all causes. Marshal Daun, after celebrating the “victory” of Beck and reorganizing his army, fell back on Warta and the Silberberg. Reichenbach, which was claimed as a victory by both the Austrians and the Prussians, was the final battle of the war waged by the army under Frederick’s own command. In a war which seemed to be winding up in a stalemate, it is perhaps fitting that the final battle between the two major antagonists should be so considered. Now Prince Ferdinand and Prince Henry still had some unfinished business of their own. The Austrians were also still stirring, even after August 16. Marshal Daun sent a dispatch rider to Guasco’s lines. He had no recourse but to inform the latter that this last effort to save Schweidnitz was an utter failure, in spite of the “victory” of Reichenbach.

Guasco, as a result, was finally given free rein to seek an honorable surrender for Schweidnitz on the best terms available from the Prussians. From Warta, meanwhile, with one weary eye turned towards possible enemy pursuit, the marshal’s army commenced, one more time, to drift backwards. August 19, the Austrians withdrew in earnest, by Schafeneck, on to Neurode.

The king’s army followed up, placing detachments at and about Habendorf and Weiselsdorf. The only option left to Guasco at this point was to hold out as long as he was able to and could offer a reasonable defense. Frederick had resorted to mining under the Austrian defenses of Schweidnitz, but this turned out to be one of the king’s most neauseating, least-rewarding, occupations. He was neither good at it, nor did he have the patience to be able to practice it well. Lastly, conducting sieges were so rare an occurrence for the king, that he lacked practice as well. On the other hand, the successful siege/capture of Schweidnitz, even by the slow machinations of mining, would finally salt away the Prussian occupation of Silesia for themselves. In effect, achieving the main reason for war in the first place, especially in view of Maria Theresa’s efforts to regain Silesia from the beginning.