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17th-18th Century Articles
Return of Rogers' Rangers
Betrayed by a Mason?
Benedict Arnold in Canada
The Success of Napoleon
Battle of Great Bridge
Frederick: Battle of Leuthen
G. Washington and J. Monroe
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
The Raid on Thurso, 1649
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War
The Battle of Cowpens
War Comes to the Islands
The Battle of Dunbar
Governor Kieft's Personal War
Philip's War
Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun

Birrion Sondahl Articles
The Battle Tannenberg
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Leuthen
Napoleon's Campaign of 1809

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Frederick the Great on the Art of War


Frederick the Great: King of Prussia


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Napoleon's Campaign of 1809
Frederick the Great's Masterpiece: The Battle of Leuthen 
by Birrion Sondahl

Frederick the Great has been described as the embodiment of "the utmost in military achievement that was possible in Europe in the conditions prevailing before the French revolution." [1] Of all of his battles, none shows Frederick's military abilities more than the Battle of Leuthen (December 5, 1757). His leadership before and throughout the battle show his capabilities as a military commander. The Battle of Leuthen can truly be considered to be Frederick's masterpiece.

The strategic situation prior to the Battle of Leuthen was one of mixed fortunes for Frederick. He had just recently won a great victory over the French at Rossbach (November 5, 1757) that had for the moment secured Prussia against a French incursion. However, he now had to turn to an equally menacing threat from Austria. The Austrian army under the command of Prince Charles of Lorraine and Field Marshal Daun had just recently invaded Silesia. On November 22, 1757, this force had defeated the Prussians under the Duke of Bevern and subsequently captured Breslau. Under the leadership of the cavalry commander General Ziethen, the defeated and demoralized Prussian army had marched south. It was able to meet up with Frederick's victorious army at Parchwitz on December 2, 1757. With the addition of these forces, Frederick's army now contained around 35,000 men consisting of "38 ½ battalions of infantry, 133 squadrons of cavalry, and 78 heavy guns, in addition to 98 battalion field pieces." [2] This force was all that Frederick had to face the Austrians in Silesia.

The morale of Frederick's army was quite mixed. General Ziethen's men were uniformly of very low spirits after their retreat from Breslau. In contrast to this, Frederick's own men were greatly confident after their victory at Rossbach. Before he could attempt to drive the Austrians out of Silesia, Frederick understood that he would have to do something to improve the morale of Ziethen's force. He primarily carried out this task through two methods. The first of these was through his own personal leadership skills. Dennis Showalter describes Frederick's behavior in the following, "Account after contemporary account describes a sick, exhausted monarch moving from bivouac to bivouac, warming himself at the men's fires, listening to stories and hearing complaints, promising promotion and reward for future good service. To senior officers, instead of the expected tirades, Frederick offered fellowship, implying that future deeds would cancel past misfortunes." [3] He also spoke to his senior commanders informing them of the situation in Silesia and the importance of their performance in the days to come. He informed them that he would consider the recent disaster at Breslau to be, in his own words, "insurmountable were it not that I [Frederick] place the most unbounded confidence in your gallantry and courage, in that resolution and love of country which you have so nobly evinced on so many occasions..." [4] He reminded these men in the following words that they should, "Bear in mind, gentlemen, that we shall be fighting for our glory, the preservation of our homes, and for our wives and children." [5] Frederick concluded this speech with the warning that, "I shall immediately after the battle dismount and convert into a garrison regiment that cavalry regiment that does not immediately, on being ordered, burst impetuously on the foe. The infantry battalion which, whatever the obstacles, halts for a moment, shall lose its standards and swords, and I shall cut the facings from its uniform." [6] From this speech, it is clear that Frederick had faith in his army. It was due to this faith that he intended to bring the Austrians to battle in spite of the certainty that he would be outnumbered on the battlefield. Frederick expected only the best from the Prussian army and a half-hearted effort would not be acceptable. The second method whereby he improved the morale of Ziethen's force was through a relaxing of his usually stringent discipline. This allowed "his veterans of Rossbach to mingle with their fellow soldiers and tell their stories of victory and plunder." [7] Frederick would later write that these men "persuaded their comrades [Ziethen's command] to take heart." [8] An increased ration of food and liquor also did much to improve the spirits of the men. [9] Content that he had done everything in his power to improve the morale of his army, Frederick now proceeded to march towards Breslau where the Austrians awaited his approach.

The Austrian army which faced Frederick was under the command of Prince Charles of Lorraine and Field Marshal Daun. This force numbered "85 battalions, 125 squadrons, and 235 guns, better than 60,000 men in all." [10] The Austrian soldiers were quite confident following the capture of Breslau. Prince Charles fully intended to spend the winter in Silesia living off the bounty of their recent victories. As Duffy describes, this Austrian army "was not a mob like the one he [Frederick] had defeated at Rossbach a month before, but a highly professional force which had three times got the better of the Prussians in recent combats." [11] Neither Prince Charles nor Field Marshal Daun expected that the Prussians would attempt to face them in open battle until spring.

Frederick knew that the Austrians were positioned near Breslau. With this knowledge, he marched from Parchwitz towards Breslau. His first knowledge of the exact position of the Austrians came when his advanced guard clashed with that of the Austrians in the town of Neumarkt on December 4, 1757. The Austrians had set up a field bakery there and held the town with 1,000 Croats and two hussar regiments. [12] Frederick determined to drive the Austrians out of the town before they were able to occupy it with a more substantial force. Frederick understood that if the Austrians were able to place infantry in the town and artillery on the hills outside of the village, they would have a very strong position. In order to take the town, Frederick had a portion of his hussars dismount and batter down the gate. When the gate fell, another regiment entered the city at a full gallop. Meanwhile a third regiment had traveled around the outskirts of the town and made an entrance through the Breslau gate. The Austrians were taken by surprise and those that did not immediately flee were captured. A total of 800 Croats were captured in this skirmish. [13] Frederick's advanced guard continued to Kammendorf. The rest of the Prussian army now advanced and occupied Neumarkt and the other villages in the immediate area for the night.

As the bulk of his army slept, Frederick made plans for the following day. Shortly after the capture of Neumarkt, he had received intelligence informing him that the Austrian army was in a defensive line "which stretched across four miles of open country from the hamlet of Nippern in the north to that of Sagschutz in the south." [14] The rear of the Austrian position was anchored by the watercourse Schweidnitz. With this knowledge, Frederick felt confident that he would be able to engage them in battle the next day. Frederick's writings describe the order in which his army advanced on the morning of December 5 in the following, "It [the army] was preceded by an advance guard of sixty squadrons and ten battalions headed by the King in person. The four columns of the army followed at a slight distance, with the infantry forming the two middle columns and the cavalry, the wings." [15] The ten battalions of the advance guard were under the command of Major General Heinrich von Wedell. It was this force which first came into contact with the Austrians. An Austrian advanced guard of cavalry under the command of General Nostitz had deployed at Borne. This force consisted of "four regiments of Saxon dragoons and two of Imperial hussars." [16] It was deployed in such a manner that the left flank was covered by a woods while the rest of the force was angled back in the direction of Lissa. As Frederick still did not have a perfect knowledge of the Austrian deployment, he at first believed this force to be a wing of the Austrian army. Therefore he had his scouts carefully probe the position to determine the exact nature of the force. Upon discovering that it was simply a cavalry force and not a part of the main army as he had supposed, he moved General Wedell's infantry into the woods on the Austrian left. Once the infantry were in position, Frederick then ordered the cavalry to charge the Austrian front. With the support of the infantry attacking Nostitz's flank, this cavalry charge routed the Austrians. The remnants of General Nostitz's force fled back to join the main Austrian army. The Prussians captured a total of five officers and eight hundred men in this attack. In order to "animate the soldiers by this successful example" Frederick had these prisoners "marched all along the columns to Neumarkt." [17] This action makes it clear that even after contact had been made with the enemy, Frederick was still concerned with uplifting the morale of his men and inspiring them for the conflict to come.

Figure 1. The Department of History at the United States Military Academy, "The Battle of Leuthen, The Fix, 5 December 1757" in The Dawn of Modern Warfare. Map. Retrieved from: http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/dawn_modern_warfare/dawn%20modern%20warfare%20maps/battle_leuthen_fix.gif:United States Defense Printing Agency, 2007. This map shows the initial movements of both armies up to the clash of the advanced guards at Borne.

Frederick halted the Prussian advance between the villages of Heidau and Frobelwitz just out of cannon range of the Austrian army. Frederick described that "From there the Imperial army was so clearly visible that it would have been possible to have counted it man by man. The Austrian right, known to be at Nippern, was hidden by the great wood of Lissa, but of the center as well as the left nothing was out of sight." [18] In their belief that Frederick would not attempt to attack such a strong force in a defensive position, the Austrians had made no attempt to conceal their strength. [19] From his position between the two armies, Frederick could easily discern all the strengths and weaknesses of the Austrian position. It was clear to him that the key point in the Austrian line was a knoll upon which its left flank was anchored. From this knoll, "the ground sloped off in one continual descent toward Nippern." [20] Frederick with his keen eye for the terrain understood that capturing this knoll in the south would give him an advantage throughout the battle. He therefore determined to focus the efforts of his attack upon the Austrian left flank and this knoll.

In order to carry out this flank attack, a key part of Frederick's plan was that the Austrians not discover his movements to the south. Fortunately for his plans, a chain of knolls provided a cover for his maneuvers. His army now wheeled to make a sharp turn to the south masked by the terrain. While the bulk of the Prussian army was making these maneuvers, Frederick himself rode between the two armies with his personal contingent of Hussars. As he described later, "Being between the two armies the King could observe that of the Austrians and direct the march of his own." [21] He had dispatched other forces to observe the Austrians' right and center. As Frederick's plan hinged upon the Austrians remaining in their position until he was able to outflank them, it was necessary that the Austrian right and center remain in their positions until the attack began. In addition to using the terrain to hide his movements, Frederick also ordered a portion of his army to "go through a show of deploying into battle order" [22] in the north. This force would also secure Frederick's own left flank while keeping the Austrians fooled as to Frederick's real intentions. This plan was successful for upon observing the Prussians deploying, the Austrian commander, Prince Charles, "moved nine battalions from the reserve northwards to his far right around Nippern." [23] However, the Austrians were also able to observe some of the Prussian movements to the south. They misinterpreted these movements as a withdrawal rather than the maneuver to their south flank that it actually was. [24] When Field Marshal Daun was told of the Prussian movements to the south, he commented, "These people are going; let them go." [25] As the German military historian Hans Delbruck explains, "when the king approached, they [the Austrians] thought it sufficient to face him in a suitable defensive position. They did not expect that he would dare to attack them in this position (5 December); they assumed that he would withdraw, and they would have been content with this result." [26] Both Prince Charles and Field Marshal Daun had been completely fooled by Frederick's maneuvers.

After successfully maneuvering the right wing of his army to the Austrian southern flank, Frederick prepared for the attack. The first part of this assault consisted of General Wedell's ten infantry battalions. This force "was supported by a battery of twelve-pounders that the King had stripped from the ramparts of Glogau." [27] General Wedell advanced in echelon with a distance of fifty paces between each battalion. Frederick's army was now deployed in the famed oblique order. This order has been simply described as "the advance of one wing by echelons with refusal of the other." [28] The right wing was spearheaded by General Wedell's force and supported to the flank and rear by General Ziethen's cavalry. The left which had made such a show of deploying in battle order to confuse the Austrians was supported by a similar force of cavalry under Lieutenant General George Wilhem von Driesen. From this position, it would be able to guard a Prussian retreat if Frederick's initial attack were repulsed or if successful it could easily maneuver to engage in the battle. Satisfied that his troops were all in order, Frederick ordered General Wedell to march to the attack.

Figure 2. The Department of History at the United States Military Academy, "The Battle of Leuthen, The Shift, 5 December 1757" in The Dawn of Modern Warfare. Map. Retrieved from: http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/dawn_modern_warfare/dawn%20modern%20warfare%20maps/battle_leuthen_shift.gif: United States Defense Printing Agency, 2007. This map shows Frederick's feint to the north and the shift of his forces to the south. Also shown is the Austrian movement of nine battalions of the reserve to support their right wing.

The first contact between the two opposing force came when General Wedell's ten battalions ran into fourteen battalions of Wurttembergers in a wood on the far Austrian left. The Austrian force was quickly driven out of the woods. The Austrian cavalry stationed on this flank under the command of General Nadasti responded with a counterattack. This attack was easily repulsed by General Ziethen's Prussian cavalry. Moving rapidly, the Prussians were able to capture the knoll which gave them a commanding presence over the entire Leuthen plain. By placing a battery of 20 twelve-pounders on this knoll, Frederick was able to prevent the Austrians from carrying out a successful counterattack. However, the Prussian attack itself was somewhat blunted when the Austrians seized a knoll next to the Schweidnitz watercourse. As Frederick explained, "Wedell did not allow them to stay there for long, and after a longer and more obstinate fight than the one preceding he forced them to give up the ground." [29] While Wedell was engaged in this battle, the Prussian cavalry under Ziethen made a successful charge upon Nadasti's Austrian cavalry opposite them. The Austrian cavalry was forced to retreat, but so was Ziethen following a well placed artillery barrage from the Austrian cannons. The Austrians had now been forced from their initial positions and were falling back upon the village of Leuthen.

Although they had been taken by surprise, the Prince Charles and Daun were now starting to respond to Frederick's attack. It was now quite clear to them that they had been taken in the flank by a significant Prussian force. As Frederick would later write, "The Austrian generals, seeing themselves turned and taken in flank, endeavored to change their position: they attempted, but too late, to form a line parallel to the Prussian front." [30] The Austrian right began to move through the Lissa woods in order to support the beleaguered left at Leuthen. This force was able to reform into "the semblance of a new line, which faced south and extended on either side of Leuthen along a frontage of 1,800 paces." [31] The Prussians entered Leuthen itself at around 3:30 PM. The focus of the battle was now around the Leuthen churchyard which was held by a Franconian battalion. [32] This church was surrounded by a tall stonewall. This wall prevent the advance of the Prussians until it was finally breached by a well placed artillery barrage. The Prussian infantry were now able to storm the building and drive the Franconians out. Once the church had been taken, what few Austrians remaining in the town were driven back to the north. The Prussian forces now faced the newly formed Austrian line which held the hill country north of Leuthen. [33] This line was located so as to be able to concentrate fire upon Leuthen itself. The Prussian attack faltered under this intense fire.

With the impetus of the Prussian attack halted, a force of Austrian cavalry consisting of 70 squadrons under generals Lucchese and Sebelloni moved to launch a counterattack against the Prussian left. [34] This movement did not go unnoticed and Frederick ordered the Prussian left, under command of Lieutenant General Driesen, to advance to the Austrian right flank. [35] The time was now 5:00 PM and darkness was beginning to fall. As the Austrian cavalry formed up to make their attack, Driesen fell upon their flank and drove them from the field. Frederick would later simply say of this attack that, "The Imperialists were dispersed and fled in disorder." [36] After driving the enemy cavalry from the field, Driesen continued to press his attack into the flank of the Austrian infantry. At the same time, General Wedell and the Prussian right turned the Austrian left flank. Under attack from three sides, the Austrians broke and fled the field. General Wedell's final charge completed the Prussian victory for Frederick. [37]

Figure 3. The Department of History at the United States Military Academy, "The Battle of Leuthen, The Press, 5 December 1757" in The Dawn of Modern Warfare. Map. Retrieved from: http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/dawn_modern_warfare/dawn%20modern%20warfare%20maps/battle_leuthen_press.gif: United States Defense Printing Agency, 2007. This map shows Frederick's initial attack upon the Austrian left flank and the subsequent movements of both armies. Driesen's final charge on the Austrian right is shown while General Wedell's charge is not.

The greater bulk of the Austrian army fled back along their line of communications towards Lissa. Frederick personally led the chase that harried these men all along their retreat through the Lissa woods and across the Schweidnitz. Darkness hindered this pursuit greatly as it made it much more difficult to identify the fleeing foe. Nevertheless, according to Frederick, "Seydlitz's cuirassiers brought in prisoners in bands." [38] The Prussians reached Lissa itself between 7:00 and 8:00 PM. Frederick's first action upon arriving at the town was to send a force of grenadiers to capture the bridge. This was easily accomplished as the bridge was only held by an insignificant Austrian force. Frederick placed artillery covering the bridge to prevent any Austrians from making a crossing and renewing the battle in the morning. The Austrian army continued its retreat through Lissa and onward to the road to Breslau. Frederick did not attempt to cross the Schweidnitz at this late hour, but rather placed his men along its bank with orders to fire across into the darkness. The reason for this was "as much to keep the terror in the vanquished as to prevent them from sending troops...to dispute his passage the next day." [39] The Austrians did not attempt to retake the field the following day but rather continued their retreat.

Frederick's own writings give the number of casualties in the following, "Prussian casualties were 1,175 officers and men killed and 5,207 wounded, making a total of 6,382. The Austrians lost about 3,000 killed, 6,000 to 7,000 wounded, and over 12,000 prisoners, along with 46 colors and 131 guns. An additional 10,000 Austrians were captured during the pursuit." [40] Modern estimates place the total number of prisoners as 12,000. [41] The number of casualties show how intense the fire was during the key phases of the battle. Frederick had anticipated this and had actually had his infantry bring along their ammunition wagons into the battle. The main part of the battle had lasted no longer than five hours, yet some of Frederick's men had fired over 180 rounds during this time. [42] According to Frederick, "If night had not come on this battle would have been one of the most decisive of this century." [43] It is true that the Austrian army had not been entirely destroyed, but it had still suffered severely in the defeat.

Frederick's tactical success at Leuthen also resulted in a broader strategic success. Prince Charles and Field Marshal Daun took what remained of their army and fled from Silesia. On December 20, Frederick had retaken Breslau and captured an additional 17,000 men who had been left there without support. [44] Frederick's initial goal in attacking the Austrian position at Leuthen had been "because he did not want to allow them to spend the winter in Silesia." [45] The Prussian victory at Leuthen achieved this goal. Considered together with his earlier victory over the French at Rossbach, Frederick's victory at Leuthen "probably saved Prussia from extinction." [46] While the war was far from over, Leuthen was an important step forward and allowed Frederick to continue the war.

The Battle of Leuthen was an incredible victory for Frederick. General Sir John Hackett describes the battle as Frederick's "most skilfully conducted battle." [47] While it is true that some of the credit for the victory should be accorded to the men who fought and died, the victory would not have been gained if not for Frederick's brilliant tactical maneuvering. As Fraser so aptly notes, "Frederick had devised the battle and been in full, personal, control. He had been captain as well as king and general." [48] A great part of why Frederick was so successful at Leuthen was due to the moral effect that his maneuvers had upon the enemy. From the very start of the battle when he fooled the Austrians into thinking he was going to deploy to attack their right, Frederick had a moral superiority that offset his numerical inferiority. As the French military theorist Colonel Ardant du Picq wrote, "Frederick liked to say that three men behind the enemy were worth more than fifty in front of him, for moral effect." [49] In the case of Leuthen, it was the presence of Frederick's army at a point completely opposite where the Austrians expected it that had such a profound moral effect. Frederick's deployment in the oblique order set up all the subsequent portions of the battle up until the final attacks of Driesen and Wedell. The Battle of Leuthen was truly a tactical masterpiece.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Birrion Sondahl 

Written by Birrion Sondahl. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Birrion Sondahl at:
birrion@slewfoot.us.

About the author:
Birrion Sondahl recently completed his degree in Military History from American Military University. In addition to studying military history, he is an avid freestyle skier. He lives at home with his parents, three cats, and a flock of chickens in Spirit Lake, Idaho.

Published online: 12/15/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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