Battle of Langensalza

The Seven Weeks War in 1866 was chiefly fought between the armies of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Prussian army was by far the superior and its generals had planned the war down to the smallest detail, making sure that Austria-Hungary’s defeat was both rapid and total.

MOLTKE AS FIELD COMMANDER

On June 2 1866, with the approval of War Minister von Roon, the King issued a brief but momentous order. Until further notice, the Chief of the General Staff was authorized to issue orders directly to subordinate units in the Prussian Army, without the delay of getting the approval of either King or War Minister.

It was a substantial command, stretched in an arc more than 300 miles long, from the Neisse River on the east to the Aller River in the west. In central Silesia was Crown Prince Frederick William’s Second Army of about 115,000 men. Based on southern Brandenburg, and now sweeping through eastern Saxony, was the First Army, 93,000 strong, under Prince Frederick Charles. Farther west, marching south from Torgau on Dresden, was the Army of the Elbe, 48,000 men under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld. General Vogel von Falckenstein’s Western Army, about 50,000 men, was concentrated in Prussian Saxony.

Vogel von Falckenstein’s mission was to knock Hanover out of the war, to turn south to repeat the process against Hesse-Kassel, then to advance in a southeasterly direction to attract the attention of Bavaria (and incidentally of Hesse-Darmstadt, Baden, and Wurttemberg) away from the main theater of operations in Bohemia. The three main Prussian armies were meanwhile to advance into Bohemia, converging east of Prague, then to march eastward toward Olmiitz, the expected concentration center for General Benedek’s Austrian Army.

During the mobilization and preliminary operations Moltke remained in Berlin, tied to the telegraph, making certain that his dispositions were going according to plan. It was fortunate that he did because the irrepressible Chancellor again interjected himself into the military picture.

On June 19 Bismarck, without notifying either the King, Roon, or Moltke, sent a telegram direct to Vogel von Falckenstein, now in southern Hanover, suggesting that an advance southwestward to Frankfurt would prevent the concentration of the Confederation armies and “would easily lead to a second Rossbach.” Vogel von Falckenstein had just discovered that the Hanoverian Army was moving south toward Bavaria, and had begun pursuit. While pondering over this message from Bismarck, he lost contact with the Hanoverians on the twenty-second. Never having been sympathetic to the General Staff, and holding a grudge against Moltke since the Danish War, when Moltke had taken his place as Chief of Staff of the Field Army, Vogel decided to follow Bismarck’s advice. He began marching toward the southwest. Not surprisingly he did not bother to inform Moltke.

Moltke soon realized, however, that something was seriously wrong in the area of the Western Army. The Hanoverians, taking advantage of Vogel’s disappearance, were marching southward unopposed, across the western tip of Prussian Saxony, toward a possible junction with either the Bavarians or the Austrians. Moltke rushed several contingents of garrison troops to delay the Hanoverians, and peremptorily ordered Vogel to return to carry out his assigned mission. The result was a battle at Langensalza just north of Erfurt, on June 27, where General Alexander von Arentschildt’s Hanoverians sharply defeated Vogel von Falckenstein’s advance guard. Before the day was over, however, the remainder of Vogel’s Army reached the field, blocking further advance by the outnumbered Hanoverians. On June 29 blind King George V of Hanover surrendered his Army to Vogel.

BATTLE OF LANGENSALZA

Also called the Austro-Prussian War, this brief conflict was a key step in Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s (1815–98) campaign to establish Prussia as the preeminent German power, the nucleus around which a genuine German nation would coalesce. Prussia’s archrival for dominance was Austria, and Prussia attacked it vigorously. Aside from the war’s crucial political significance, it would prove a tactical milestone as well, as the first European war in which railroads played a major role. Prussia used its extensive rail network to maneuver and advance quickly. This immediately gained Prussia the advantage, and the general in chief, the brilliant Helmuth von Moltke (1800–91), never let the advantage slip. Second only to the Prussian railroads in tactical significance was firepower. Prussia had advanced artillery and breechloading small arms. The Austrians had older artillery and still labored with slow, muzzle-loaded rifled muskets. Of the war’s eight major battles, the Prussians suffered a reversal only at the first, Langensalza (June 27–29, 1866), and this at the hands of the Hanoverians, not the Austrians. Even so, the Hanoverian victory was a hollow one; that state’s king was forced to surrender in the face of an overwhelming Prussian concentration.

Hanover began in an excellent position as the Prussian attack happened to occur during Hanoverian summer exercises and their army was already mobilized. Realizing the vast size of the total Prussian force, King George directed his 19,000 man army under General Alexander von Arentschildt to quickly withdraw and march south to link up with Bavarian allies.4 Prussia pressed 40,000 total troops into Hanover, which then split into four detachments under Generals Falckenstein, Goeben, Flies, and Beyer. General von Falckenstein, recognizing the absence of an army to fight, marched unopposed into the Hanoverian capital, north of the marching Hanoverians. General Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian theater commander, also ordered Goeben to the north, and in turn deployed Beyer to the Hanoverians’ south and Flies, with 9,000 troops, quickly marched around to the west. This formed a box around the Hanoverian army with Prussia itself forming the Eastern side.

Moltke ordered Flies to hold fast and intercept Hanoverians trying to break through westward as Falckenstein’s force performed the main Prussian assault from the north. In direct defiance of his orders, General Flies gathered his detachment and directly attacked the Hanoverian army. Following a feint toward Thamsbruck to the North, the Prussian forces under Flies made a concentrated assault toward Merxleben. The much larger Hanoverian force and artillery fire drove them back toward the actual city of Langensalza. Having a force more than twice the Prussian detachment’s size, Arentschildt severely routed Flies’ troops, capturing more than 900 men.

Although the Hanoverians attained a decisive victory in the actual battle, the fighting halted their movement and allowed the other Prussian forces from the north and south to converge on the battle site. Out of options, King George and the Hanoverians pulled back to the East, further from their Bavarian allies. Pinned down against the Harz Mountains and out of options, King George surrendered in Nordhausen two days after the battle

The Battle of Langensalza was a near disaster in the Hanoverian campaign for the Prussians. It wiped out Flies’ detachment of troops and could have allowed an avenue of escape for the Hanoverian army. At the same time, this battle provided just enough time for the northern and southern Prussian contingents to link up at the battle site, which ultimately forced Hanoverian surrender.

Langensalza was an important aspect of the Austro-Prussian War as it led to a quick Prussian occupation of Hanover, both taking the Austrians by surprise and greatly weakening their position in the war. The Prussians also quickly overran Kassel and Saxony at the same time they were attacking Hanover. All together these small states could have contributed more than 100,000 good troops to Austria’s cause, but they were destroyed before they could unite and fight jointly. If the Hanoverians had successfully reached other allies on the Austrian’s side, the Austro-Prussian War may have gone very differently.

Another long lasting result of the Battle of Langensalza is the use of the “Red Cross” by medical personnel. Created by the First Geneva Convention in 1864, the Red Cross began an international humanitarian aid group. This organization, which would later greatly expand in size, was originally very small. Involving just thirty trained volunteer nurses from Gotha, the first actual combat mission of the Red Cross occurred on the Prussian side at Langensalza. Although Austria and Hanover were not involved at the time, in 1866 Prussia was a member of the Red Cross Convention. Prussian medical personnel worked on the battlefield wearing the sign of the Red Cross on their arms and providing critical aid to wounded soldiers. Their legacy continues today in the form of the International Red Cross.

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Frederick II and the Silesian Wars

Prussian Infantry of the Guard Regiment 15.

Prussian Hussar Regiment No.3 (Black or Death Hussars) Of Frederick II

Frederick II was deeply alarmed at this threat on his eastern frontier – he was well aware of Russian designs on East Prussia and always tended to overestimate Russian power. Desperate to alleviate the pressure on his eastern frontier, he entered into a curiously open-ended agreement with Britain, the Convention of Westminster of 16 January 1756. The British agreed to withdraw their offer of subsidies from the Russians and the two states decided to undertake joint defensive action in Germany in the event that France should attack Hanover. This was a hasty and ill-judged move on Frederick’s part. He did not take the trouble to consult his French allies, although he ought to have guessed that this unforeseen pact with France’s traditional enemy would infuriate the court at Versailles and drive the French into the arms of the Habsburgs. Frederick’s panic reflex of January 1756 exposed the weakness of a decision-making system that depended exclusively on the moods and perceptions of one man.

Prussia’s position now unravelled with perilous speed. The news of the Convention of Westminster sparked fury at the French court, and Louis XV responded by accepting the Austrian offer of a defensive alliance (the First Treaty of Versailles, 1 May 1756), under which each of the two parties was obliged to provide 24,000 troops to the other in the event of its coming under attack. The withdrawal of the British subsidy offer also enraged Elisabeth of Russia, who agreed in April 1756 to join in an anti-Prussian coalition. Over the next few months, it was the Russians who were the driving force towards war; while Maria Theresa took care to confine her preparations to relatively inconspicuous measures, the Russians made no effort to conceal their military build-up. Frederick now found himself encircled by a coalition of three powerful enemies whose joint offensive, he believed, would be launched in the spring of 1757. When the king demanded categorical assurances from Maria Theresa to the effect that she was not combining against him and had no intention of starting an offensive, her answers were ominously equivocal. Frederick now resolved to strike first, rather than waiting for his enemies to take the initiative. On 29 August 1756, Prussian troops invaded the Electorate of Saxony.

Here was another totally unexpected and profoundly shocking Prussian initiative, and the king was alone in deciding upon it. To a certain extent, the invasion was based upon a misapprehension of Saxon policy. Frederick believed (wrongly) that Saxony had joined the coalition against him and had his officers search the Saxon state papers (in vain) for documentary proof. But his action also served broader strategic objectives. In his Anti-Machiavel, published shortly after his accession to the throne, Frederick had delineated three types of ethically permissible war: the defensive war, the war to pursue just rights, and the ‘war of precaution’, in which a prince discovers that his enemies are preparing military action and decides to launch a pre-emptive strike so as not to forgo the advantages of opening hostilities on his own terms. The invasion of Saxony clearly fell into the third category. It allowed Frederick to start the war before his opponents had amassed the full strength of their forces. It provided him with control of a strategically sensitive area that would otherwise almost certainly have been used as a forward base – only eighty kilometres from Berlin – for enemy offensives. Saxony was also of considerable economic value; it was ruthlessly milked during the war, supplying more than one-third of Prussia’s entire military expenditure, though it is difficult to establish how heavily the issue of finance and resources weighed in Frederick’s calculations.

The invasion of Saxony might have been defensible in purely strategic terms, but its political impact was nothing short of disastrous. The anti-Prussian coalition acquired the momentum of self-righteous outrage. Russia had already put an offensive construction upon the alliance, but the French had not. They might well have remained neutral if Frederick had bided his time and become the victim of an unprovoked attack by either the Austrians or the Russians. Instead, France and Austria now contracted a Second Treaty of Versailles (1 May 1757) with an openly offensive character, in which France promised to supply 129,000 troops and 12 million livres each year until the recovery of Silesia had been accomplished (France was to be rewarded with control of Austrian Belgium). The Russians joined the offensive alliance with a further 80,000 troops (they planned to annex Polish Courland to Russia and compensate a Russian-controlled Poland with East Prussia); the territories of the Holy Roman Empire put forward an imperial army of 40,000 men; even the Swedes joined in, in the hope of grabbing back some or all of Pomerania.

This was not, in other words, just a war to decide the fate of Silesia. It was a war of partition, a war to decide the future of Prussia. Had the allies succeeded in their objectives, the Kingdom of Prussia would have ceased to exist. Shorn of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, along with the lesser territories claimed by various members of the imperial contingent, the Hohenzollern composite state would have returned to its primordial condition: that of a landlocked north German Electorate. This would have been in precise accordance with the plans of the key Austrian policy-makers, whose objective was, as Kaunitz crisply put it, ‘la réduction de la Maison de Brandebourg à son état primitif de petite puissance très secondaire’.

That Frederick should have prevailed against such a massive preponderance of forces appeared miraculous to contemporaries and still seems remarkable to us. How can it be explained? Clearly the Prussians enjoyed certain geographical advantages. Frederick’s control of Saxony gave him a compact territorial base (excluding East Prussia and the Westphalian principalities, of course) from which to launch operations. He was sheltered on the southern fringes of Silesia by the Sudeten mountains of northern Bohemia. His western flank was covered by the British-financed Army of Observation in Hanover; this sufficed to keep the French at bay for a time in that sector. For the four years 1758–61, Prussia received a hefty annual subsidy of £670,000(roughly 3,350,000 thalers) from the British government, a sufficient sum to cover about one-fifth of Prussian war expenditures. Frederick (who decided early on not to defend either East Prussia or the Westphalian territories) also enjoyed the advantage of internal defensive lines, while his enemies were operating (with the exception of Austria) at a great distance from home. Dispersed around the periphery of the main theatre of operations, the allies found it difficult to coordinate their movements effectively.

There was also, as in virtually all instances of coalition warfare, a problem of motivation and trust: Maria Theresa’s obsession with the destruction of the Prussian ‘monster’ was not shared by most of the other partners, who had more limited objectives. France’s concerns were focused primarily on the Atlantic conflict and French interest in the struggle with Prussia dwindled fast after the devastating Prussian victory at Rossbach (5 November 1757). Under a renegotiated Third Treaty of Versailles, signed in March 1759, the French cut their military and financial commitments to the coalition. As for the Swedes and the assorted German territories represented in the imperial army, they were in it for easy pickings and had little inclination to persevere with an exhausting war of attrition. The strongest link in the coalition was the Austro-Russian alliance, but here too there were problems. Neither wished to see the other benefit disproportionately from the conflict and, on at least one crucial occasion, this distrust translated into Austrian reluctance to commit forces to the consolidation of a Russian victory.

But this should not be taken to imply that Prussia’s ultimate success was in any sense a foregone conclusion. The Third Silesian War dragged on for seven years precisely because the issue proved so difficult to resolve militarily. There was no uninterrupted string of Prussian victories. This was a bitter struggle, in which success, for Prussia, meant surviving to fight another day. Many of the Prussian victories were narrowly won, costly in casualties and insufficiently decisive to shift the balance of forces engaged in the conflict definitively in Prussia’s favour. At the battle of Lobositz (1 October 1756), for example, the Prussians managed to gain tactical control of the battlefield, at heavy cost in men, but left the main body of the Austrian army unbroken. Much the same can be said of the battle of Liegnitz (15 August 1760) against the Austrians in Silesia; here Frederick accurately assessed enemy positions and moved quickly to strike at one of the two separated Austrian armies and disable it before the other could respond effectively. This initiative was successful, but left the Austrian forces in the area largely intact.

There were a number of battles in which Frederick’s intelligence and originality as a field commander were brilliantly in evidence. The single most impressive victory was at the battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757) against the French. Here 20,000 Prussians found themselves outnumbered two to one by a combined French-imperial force. As the French-imperials wheeled around the Prussian position, hoping to outflank them on their left, Frederick redeployed with impressive speed, despatching cavalry to sweep away the regiments of horse at the front of the allied advance and repositioning his infantry in a lethal scissors formation from which they could subject the French and imperial columns to heavy fire and attack. Prussian losses totalled 500 men to the enemy’s 10,000.

One of the central traits of Frederick’s battle-craft was a preference for oblique over frontal orders of attack. Rather than approach in parallel frontal array, Frederick tried where possible to twist his attacking lines so that one end, often reinforced by cavalry, cut into the enemy position before the other. The idea was to roll the enemy up along his own lines rather than assault him head on. It was a mode of manoeuvre that required especially skilled and steady infantry work, particularly where the terrain was uneven. In a number of battles, Prussian attacks from the flank using complex infantry deployments worked with devastating effect. At Prague (6 May 1757), for example, where Prussian and Austrian numbers were roughly matched, Frederick managed to wheel the Prussians around on to the right flank of the Austrians. When the latter redeployed in haste to meet his advance, local Prussian commanders recognized and exploited a gap in the ‘hinge’ between the old and the new positions and drove a salient through it, irreparably shattering the Austrian force. The classic example of the oblique marching order in action was the battle of Leuthen (5 December 1757), where the Prussians were outnumbered by the Austrians nearly two to one; here a Prussian feint attack gave the impression of a frontal approach while the mass of the Prussian infantry swept around to the south to scoop up the Austrian left wing. In this extraordinary set piece, the ‘moving walls’ of the Prussian infantry were flanked by coordinated artillery fire as the Prussian guns moved from firing position to firing position along the line of attack.

However, the very same tactics could also fail if they found the enemy prepared, were not supported by sufficient troop numbers or were based on a faulty understanding of the situation in the field. At Kolin (18 June 1757), for example, Frederick tried as usual to wheel around the Austrian right flank and roll the enemy up from the wing, but found that the Austrians, in anticipation of this, had extended their lines across his route of approach, committing him to a disastrous uphill frontal assault against heavily defended and numerically superior positions – here it was the Austrians who won the field, at a cost of 8,000 men to Prussia’s 14,000.

In the battle of Zorndorf (25 August 1758) against the Russians, Frederick completely misread the Russian deployment and, wheeling around from the north to roll up the Russian left wing, found that the enemy was in fact facing him head-on; the fighting was savage and losses were very high – 13,000 Prussian and 18,000 Russian casualties. It is still unclear whether we should regard Zorndorf as a Prussian victory, a defeat or simply a brutal stalemate. Frederick’s next major encounter with the Russians exhibited some similar features. The battle of Kunersdorf (12 August 1759) opened promisingly with accurate Prussian artillery and infantry fire on the Russian right flank, but soon became a disaster as the Russians turned to construct a solid local front against the Prussian advance and the Prussian infantry got themselves jammed into a narrow depression where they were exposed to the Russian guns. Here again, Frederick showed a flawed awareness of how the battle was unfolding; the unevenness of the terrain made cavalry reconnaissance difficult and he seems to have failed to take adequate account of the poor quality of his intelligence. The cost was hair-raising: 19,000 Prussian casualties of which 6,000 were dead on the field.

Frederick was not, then, infallible as a military commander. Of the sixteen battles he fought during the Seven Years War, he won only eight (even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and count Zorndorf as a victory). Yet it is clear that in most respects he had the edge over his opponents. His isolation was also a kind of advantage – he had no allies to consult. By comparison with Russia, France and Austria, the Prussian military decision-making process was fantastically simple, since the commander-in-chief in the field was also the sovereign and (effectively) the foreign minister. There was no need for the kind of elaborate discussion that slowed the reflexes of the Habsburg monarchy. This advantage was reinforced by the king’s personal indefatigability, talent and daring, and by his readiness to recognize where mistakes had been made (including by himself). If one contemplates the course of the Third Silesian War as a whole, it is surprising how often Frederick succeeded in throwing his enemies on to the tactical defensive, how often it was he who defined the terms on which battle would be joined. This was partly due to the by now widely acknowledged superiority of Prussian drill training, which allowed the walls of blue uniforms to turn at will as if on invisible pivots, and to redeploy at twice the speed of most European armies at this time. With these assets Frederick combined the ability to keep a cool head at times of crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than after the catastrophe at Hochkirch (1758), where the king, drenched in the blood of his horse, which had been hit under him by a musket ball, commanded and oversaw a calm and effective withdrawal under fire from the killing ground to a safe defensive position, and thereby prevented the Austrians from driving home their advantage.

Frederick’s ability to keep recovering from defeats and inflicting new and painful blows on his enemies was not enough to win the war on its own, but it sufficed to keep Prussia above water for as long as it took for the allied coalition to fall apart. Once it became clear that Tsaritsa Elisabeth was terminally ill, Russia’s days in the coalition were numbered. Elisabeth’s death in 1762 led to the succession of Grand Duke Peter, an ardent admirer of Frederick, who lost no time in negotiating an alliance with him. Peter did not survive for long – he was thrust from the throne by his wife, Catherine II, and murdered shortly afterwards by one of her lovers. Catherine withdrew the offer of an alliance, but there was no resumption of the Austro-Russian compact. The Swedes, who had little hope of securing their objectives in Pomerania without great-power support, soon defected. After a string of shattering defeats in India and Canada, the French, too, lost interest in pursuing further a war whose objectives now seemed strangely irrelevant. The peace they signed with Britain at the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1763) left the Austrians high and dry. Their treasury was exhausted. At the Peace of Hubertusburg (15 February 1763), after seven years of bitter struggle and prodigious sacrifice in money and lives, Maria Theresa confirmed the status quo ante bellum. In return, Frederick promised that in the next imperial election, he would vote for her son, the future Joseph II.

There is a tendency, when we reflect on the European wars of the mid eighteenth century, to visualize them as diagrams with rectangles and sweeping arrows, or as compact arrays of brightly painted soldiers on the green baize of the war-gamer’s table. When we focus on ‘moving walls’, ‘oblique marching orders’ and the ‘rolling up’ of enemy flanks it is easy to lose sight of the terror and confusion that reigned on most battlefields as soon as the serious fighting began. For the troops on an exposed front or flank, coming under fire meant maintaining formation and discipline while projectiles ranging from musket balls to canister shot and cannon balls scythed through closely packed rows of standing men. Opportunities to display individual dash and daring were limited – it was more a matter of mastering an overwhelming instinct to flee and take cover. Officers stood in especially exposed positions and were expected to display absolute calm before their men and each other. It was a question not just of personal bravado, but of the collective ethos of an emergent military-noble caste.

Ernst von Barsewisch, the son of a modest Junker landowner in the Altmark, had been educated at the Berlin Cadet School and later served as a Prussian officer in many of the battles of the Seven Years War. His memoirs, based on diary entries sketched while on campaign, capture the mixture of samurai fatalism and schoolboy camaraderie that could sometimes be observed among officers in action. At the battle of Hochkirch, Barsewisch happened to be positioned near the king on a section of the Prussian wing that came under Austrian attack. There was a thick hail of musket balls, most of which were aimed at the chests and faces of the standing men. Just next to the king, a Major von Haugwitz was shot through the arm and shortly afterwards another ball buried itself in the neck of the king’s horse. Not far from where Barsewisch was standing, Field Marshal von Keith (a favourite of the king’s) was torn from his horse by a shell and died on the spot. The next commander to fall was Prince William of Brunswick, brigadier of Barsewisch’s regiment, who was drilled through by a musket ball and fell dead to the ground. His terrified horse, an immaculate white stallion, galloped riderless back and forth between the lines for nearly half an hour. To help master their nerves, Barsewisch and the young noblemen around him engaged in light-hearted banter:

Early in the action I had had the honour that a musket ball had drilled through the peak of my hat at the front just above my head; not long afterwards, a second ball shot through the large upturned rim on the left side of the hat, so that it fell from my head. I said to the von Hertzbergs, who were standing not far from me: ‘Gentlemen, should I put this hat back on my head, if the Imperials want it so badly? ’‘Yes, do,’ they said –‘the hat does you honour.’ The eldest von Hertzberg took his snuff box in his hand and said: ‘Gentlemen, take a pinch of courage!’ I stepped up to him, took a pinch and said: ‘Yes, courage is what we need.’ Von Unruh followed me and the brother of von Hertzberg, the youngest, took the last pinch. Just as the eldest von Hertzberg had taken his pinch of snuff from the box and was raising it to his nose, a musket ball came and flew straight into the top of his forehead. I was standing right beside him, I looked at him – he cried out ‘Lord Jesus’ – turned around and fell dead to the ground.

It was through this collective sacrifice of its young men – note the presence of three von Hertzberg brothers on one section of the Prussian line! – that the Junker nobility earned its special place within the Frederician state.

The great majority of first-person battle narratives stem from officers, mostly of noble birth, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the phenomenal sacrifice of humbler men in the field. For every officer killed at the battle of Lobositz, more than eighty private soldiers were slain. In a letter to his family, the cavalryman Nikolaus Binn from Erxleben near Osterburg in the Altmark reported twelve deaths among the men from his home district, including an Andreas Garlip and a Nicolaus Garlip who must have been brothers or cousins, and added reassuringly: ‘all those who are not named as dead are in good health.’ On 6 October, five days after the battle, Franz Reiss, a soldier of the Hülsen Regiment, described his arrival at the battlefield. As soon as he and his fellows had formed up in line, he wrote, they had come under heavy Austrian cannon fire:

So the battle began at six o’clock in the morning and dragged on amidst thundering and firing until four in the afternoon, and all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for [preserving] my health. In the very first cannon shots our Krumpholtz took a cannon ball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands. But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was an amazing sight. Now, dear child, just think how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.

In the aftermath of an action the battlefield descended into chaos. To remain wounded on the field could be a miserable fate. In the nights that followed the battles of Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, the battlefield echoed with the shrieks of the Prussian wounded being killed by Cossack light troops of the Russian army. Even if they escaped deliberate brutality, wounded soldiers needed determination and good luck to survive. The Prussian army had a relatively large and well-organized surgical support service by the standards of the day, but in the disorder following an action (especially a lost one), the chances of finding one’s way in time to proper care might be very slim. The quality of treatment varied enormously from surgeon to surgeon and the facilities for handling infected wounds were very rudimentary.

After Leuthen, where a musket ball bored through his neck and lodged itself between his shoulder blades, Ernst von Barsewisch had the good fortune to run into a captured Austrian soldier who happened to be a Belgian graduate of the surgical school at the University of Lyon. Sadly, the Belgian no longer had his fine surgical tools to work with – his Prussian captor had snatched them as booty. Using the ‘very bad and blunt knife’ of a shoemaker, however, he was able to hack the ball out of Barsewisch’s back with ‘ten or twelve cuts’. Less fortunate was Barsewisch’s comrade Baron Gans Edler von Puttlitz, whose foot had been shattered by canister shot and had grown infected while he lay out in the cold untended for two nights and a day. The captured surgeon told him that an amputation of the leg below the knee was his only hope, but Puttlitz was too confused or too terrified to consent. The infection gradually spread and he died a few days later. Shortly before he died, he told Barsewisch that he was his parents’ only child and begged him to be sure that they were informed of the place of his burial. ‘This death affected me greatly,’ wrote Barsewisch, ‘because this was a young person of about seventeen years, and from his wound he had watched his death draw nearer, creeping slowly, hour by hour.’

The Seven Years War, unlike the Thirty Years War of the previous century, was a ‘cabinet war’ fought by relatively disciplined bodies of troops equipped and supplied by their own governments through relatively sophisticated logistical organizations. It was thus not marked by the kind of pervasive anarchy and violence that had traumatized the populations of the German territories in the 1630s and 1640s. But this did not mean that the civilians in occupied areas or theatres of combat were not subject to arbitrary exactions, reprisals and even atrocities. Following their invasion of Pomerania, for example, the Swedes demanded from the neighbouring Uckermark in northern Brandenburg contributions totalling 200,000 thalers, double the amount of contribution raised annually by the king from that province. The Hohenzollern provinces of Westphalia were under French and Austrian occupation for much of the war; here the military authorities imposed an intricate system of contributions and extortions, often supported by the kidnapping of local notables as hostages. French soldiers from the defeat at Rossbach committed numerous excesses as they passed through Thuringia and Hessen. ‘If one wished to relate all of these disorders, one would never get to the end of it,’ one French general reported. ‘Over a forty-league compass, the ground was swarming with our soldiers: they pillaged, killed, raped, sacked, and committed every possible horror…’

Particularly problematic were the ‘light troops’ used by most armies at this time. These units were recruited on a voluntary basis, operated semi-autonomously from the regular army, were not provided with the standard logistical support, and were expected to support themselves entirely through exactions and the acquisition of booty. The best-known examples of such troops were the Russian Cossacks and the exotically clothed Austrian ‘Panduren’, but the French too retained the services of such units. During the first phase of the Russian occupation of East Prussia, some 12,000 light troops made up of Cossacks and Kalmucks rampaged through the country with fire and sword: in the words of one contemporary, they ‘murdered or mangled unarmed and defenceless people, they hanged them from trees or cut off their noses or ears; others were hacked in pieces in the most cruel and disgusting manner…’ During 1761, the Fischer Free Corps, a light unit in French service, broke into East Frisia – a small territory in the north-west of Germany that had fallen to Prussia in 1744 – and terrorized the civilian population with a week of rape, murder and other atrocities. The peasants, drawing on a local tradition of collective protest and resistance, responded with an uprising that reminded some contemporaries of the Peasants’ War of 1525. Only through the deployment of French regular army units stationed nearby could peace be restored in the area.

Conflict at this level of intensity was the exception, not the rule, but in all provinces touched by the war, there were substantially raised mortalities, mainly through the so-called ‘camp epidemics’ that spread from overcrowded troop hospitals. In Kleve and Mark, the mortality for the war years amounted to 15 per cent of the population. In the city of Emmerich, situated on the bank of the Rhine in Kleve, 10 per cent of the townsfolk died during 1758 alone, mainly of diseases contracted from French soldiers fleeing out of north-west Germany. The demographic losses for nearly all of the Prussian lands were breathtaking: 45,000 in Silesia, 70,000 in Pomerania, 114,000 in the Neumark and the Kurmark combined, 90,000 in East Prussia. In all it seems that the war took the lives of about 400,000 Prussians, amounting to roughly 10 per cent of the population.

Silesia Campaign 1807

On 6 January 1807, Breslau finally falls to Jérôme’s besieging army of Bavarians and Württembergers (now fighting as ‘IX Corps’). After thirty-one days the Prussian garrison under General von Thiele capitulates and marches into captivity. Heartened by this development, Napoleon orders sieges of Danzig, Graudenz, and Kolberg to commence. He raises a new ‘X Corps’ for the task: a medley of Saxon, Polish, French and German troops, some 26,000-strong.

Diplomatic attempts to persuade Tsar Alexander to accept the French status quo were equally unavailing. It was with some reluctance that Napoleon turned his mind to the problem of defeating Russia’s armies, for he recognized the magnitude of the task, and it was some time before a scheme formulated in his mind. At the time of the capture of Berlin he was claiming vaguely that “we must, sooner or later, encounter and defeat the Russians,” but later in October more information about Russian moves and intentions came to hand, information that persuaded the Emperor that it was desirable to lead his army over the Vistula before permitting them to enter winter quarters that year. If the French were cantoned along and to the east of that great river, the corps would be in a good position to cover the operations already in progress against the remaining Silesian fortresses and at the same time protect the planned sieges of the important ports of Danzig, Köslin and Strälsund on the Baltic coast. Furthermore, the fact that the army would have the River Oder and its fortresses to its rear would provide a road of retreat and a second line of defense should events in Poland go adversely.

In an attempt to secure accurate information of Russian intentions, on November 5 1806 Napoleon ordered Davout “to scour the country in advance” and make a reconnaissance with the 2,500 dragoons of General Beaumont’s division as far as Posen. At the same time, on the southern flank, Jerome Bonaparte was instructed to seize Glogau in Silesia. While these moves were being executed, new and crucial intelligence reached Imperial Headquarters on the 9th.

A force of at least 56,000 Russians had definitely moved westward from Grodno in late October, which made it quite possible that they could have reached the easternmost frontiers of Prussia by the end of that month, and might well arrive near the vital center of Thorn on the Vistula by mid-November. Two days later, Davout reported that there was no sign of the enemy near Posen, where he was in the process of setting up field bakeries. On the basis of these pieces of information Napoleon finally made up his mind. Although the exact position of the Russians and the real intentions of Austria were not yet clear, it was certainly in his interest to secure the most advantageous winter quarters from which to launch a decisive offensive in the spring of 1807. If the Russian commander, General Bennigsen, was to be forestalled on the Vistula and prevented from joining up with Lestocq’s Prussian corps in the vicinity of Warsaw, it behoved Napoleon to advance at once and occupy both Thorn and the Polish capital with the minimum of delay. Once he had gained the west bank of the Vistula, he could decide on the advisability of any further advance in the light of the information that would by then have come to hand; if necessary, he could turn to deal with Austria.

Orders were accordingly issued. The initial advance was to be made on a broad front behind a screen of cavalry with the intention of acquiring the earliest possible tidings of Russian dispositions. Eighty thousand men, comprising the corps of Davout, Lannes, Augereau and Jerome, under the temporary command of Murat, were designated for this task. To the north, the Vth and VIIth Corps would move from Stettin and Berlin respectively towards Thorn, while in the center Davout’s IIIrd Corps was to push on beyond Posen and make for Warsaw. To the south, Jerome’s command (the IXth Corps) was to advance from Glogau toward Kalisch in such a way as to secure the southern flank against any possibility of Austrian intervention (however remote this likelihood now appeared); while on his extreme right, General Vandamme’s division was to move on Breslau to seize the Silesian fortresses as occasion offered.

Napoleon orders Jérôme to press down the River Oder to Breslau, to take this important fort. Poland is peppered with fortified towns, and Napoleon knows that as his army advances, every one of these hostile islands of stone must be taken, otherwise his lines of supply and communication will remain vulnerable.

The extreme northern flank was entrusted to Mortier’s VIIIth Corps on the 11th, Louis Bonaparte being ordered back to guard Holland. Napoleon himself would, for the present, remain at Berlin organizing the rear areas and ensuring that the remaining corps of the Grande Armée, as they returned from pursuing Blücher, were sent forward along the correct roads in the second wave—namely, Bernadotte and Ney toward Thorn, and Soult (with his own command and the four cavalry divisions constituting Bessières’ Second Cavalry Reserve) in the direction of Warsaw.

Napoleon’s decision to invade Poland was not wholly dictated by military requirements; there was also a strong political motive. During the past 35 years this unfortunate country had no less than three times been partitioned by its powerful and voracious neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria. The Emperor was well aware that he was now in a position to play the role of “deliverer,” and by reconstituting the ancient kingdom might hope to gain a cooperative ally in eastern Europe besides perhaps 50,000 troops to swell the Grande Armée. Once again, his motives were wholly opportunist; in his heart of hearts Napoleon evinced little true sympathy with Polish national aspirations. “Poland! So much the worse for them,” he once exclaimed. “They have allowed themselves to be partitioned. They are no longer a nation—they have no public spirit. The nobles are too much; the people too little. It is a dead body to which life must be restored before anything can be made of it. I will make officers and soldiers of them first; afterward I shall see. I shall take Prussia’s portion; I shall have Posen and Warsaw, but I will not touch Cracow, Gallicia or Vilna.” Indeed, Poland required careful handling; too brusque an approach might sting Austria into immediate hostilities, and Napoleon was equally eager not to overoffend the Tsar’s known susceptibilities and thus compromise any future chance of a negotiated settlement. In consequence he was careful not to make any direct promise of political freedom, nor did he call on the Poles to revolt against their present masters. Once Warsaw was in his hands, he contented himself with forming the six departments already wrested from Prussia into a semiautonomous political unit, setting over it a council of seven Polish noblemen. For the rest, Napoleon was very cautious. “I should like to make Poland independent, but that is a difficult matter,” he once confided to Bourienne. “Austria, Russia and Prussia have all had a slice of the cake; when the match is once kindled, who knows where the conflagration may stop…. We must refer this matter to the sovereign of all things—time.”

Battles continue in the Grand Army’s rear, with the campaign against enemy fortresses in Silesia and Pomerania. In the former province, Jérôme’s IX Corps – having marched south-east from Breslau to subdue Prussian garrisons at Brieg and Schweidnitz – is investing Kosel and Neisse.

Journal of the Operations of the Siege of Breslau

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

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

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

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

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

PEACETIME INNOVATION: NEEDLE-GUN AND RAILROAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreyse needle gun, model 1862.

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

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

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

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

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

THE PRUSSIAN SYNTHESIS: MOLTKE AND ROON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CULMINATION AND RESPONSE: 1870–71 AND BEYOND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Torgau I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Torgau II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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