Frederick’s defeat at the hands of the Austrians
Date: 14th October 1758
Place: In Eastern Saxony.
War: The Seven Years War.
Contestants: Prussians against an Imperial Austrian Army comprising the various nationalities that made up the Austrian Army (Austrians, Hungarians, Bohemians, Silesians, Croats, Italians and Moravians).
Generals: King Frederick II of Prussia commanding the Prussian Army against Marshal Daun commanding the Austrian Army.
Size of the Armies: Prussians: 20,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry and 200 guns. Austrians: 50,000 infantry, 28,000 cavalry and 340 guns.
Winner: The Austrians, decisively.
Uniforms and equipment: The Prussian infantry and artillery wore a dark blue coat turned back at the lapels, cuffs and skirts with britches and black thigh length gaiters. From cross belts hung an ammunition pouch, bayonet and ‘hanger’ or small sword. Headgear for the line companies was the tricorne hat with the receding front corner bound with white lace. Grenadiers wore the distinctive mitre cap with the brass plate at the front. Fusilier Infantry Regiments and gunners wore the smaller version of the grenadier cap.
The infantry carried the musket as their main weapon. The single shot musket could be loaded and fired by a well trained soldier between 3 and 4 times a minute. During the course of his wars Frederick introduced the iron ramrod and then the reversible ramrod which increased the efficiency of his infantry, the wooden ramrod being liable to break in the stress of battle.
The Prussian infantry regiment was based on the cantonment, with soldier joining their local regiment. Soldiers were released for key agricultural times such as sewing and harvesting. In the autumn reviews were conducted of all regiments to check that each regiment was up to the required standard. Each year certain regiments were selected to conduct the review at Potsdam under the eye of the King. Officers whose soldiers were considered by Frederick not to be of a sufficient standard were subjected to a public tongue lashing and in extreme cases dismissed on the spot.
The efficiency of the Prussian regiments at drill enabled them to move around the battlefield with a speed and manoeuvrability that no other European Army could equal.
Heavy cavalry of the period comprised cuirassiers, whose troopers wore steel breastplates, and dragoons. The main form of light cavalry were the regiments of hussars. The Austrian hussars were Hungarian and the genuine article while the hussars of other armies were given the same dress as Hungarian hussars and expected to perform to similar standards.
The Prussian cuirassiers wore a white coat, steel cuirass, white britches and thigh boots. The headgear was the tricorne hat. Dragoons wore a light blue coat. Weapons were a heavy cavalry sword and single shot flintlock carbine.
The light cavalry arm was provided by the Prussian Hussar regiments. Frederick found the Prussian Hussars as inadequate for their role as the heavy cavalry regiments. Following Mollwitz and in particular after the First Silesian War the hussars were re-organised and re-trained to provide a first class scouting and light cavalry service. Frederick found in Colonel von Zieten the ideal officer to implement the improvements in the hussar regiments. The Prussian Hussars wore the traditional hussar dress worn by the original Hungarian Hussars of tunic, britches, dolman (slung jacket), busby (fur hat) with bag, sabretache (leather wallet on straps) and curved sword.
The Austrian infantry wore white coats with lapels, cuffs and skirts turned back showing the regimental lining colour. Headgear was the tricorne hat for line infantry and bearskin cap for grenadiers. The infantry weapons were musket, bayonet and hanger small sword. Heavy cavalry wore white coats and hats as for the infantry and were armed with a heavy sword and carbine. The Austrian army contained a large number of irregular units such as the Pandours from the Balkans who wore their ethnic dress without uniformity. Hungarian Hussars provided the light cavalry arm. These Hussars were dressed as described for the Prussian Hussars, were considered to be little more than bandits but were highly effective in all the roles required of light cavalry.
The artillery of each army was equipped with a range of muzzle loading guns. The Prussian Artillery was considerably more efficient at manoeuvring on the battle field. In the changes implemented by Frederick after the First Silesian War horse artillery was introduced to support the Prussian cavalry.
Frederick the Great at the Battle of Hochkirch: picture by Adolph Menzel
Background: In 1758 King Frederick II of Prussia and his armies held Silesia and much of Saxony. In the mid-summer of 1758 Frederick hurried to confront the Russian incursion to the Oder leaving his brother Henry to oppose the Austrians of Marshal Daun and the Reichsarmée of Prince Zweibrucken in Saxony. Daun planned an attack on Prince Henry but acted so slowly that Frederick had defeated the Russians at Zorndorf on 25th August 1758 and raced back to Saxony before the Austrian / Reichsarmée got under way.
Daun’s army occupied the hills outside Dresden at Stolpen while Frederick held Dresden and encamped on the lower ground.
Frederick moved his army towards Silesia with the intention of forcing Daun to withdraw south into the Austrian province of Bohemia. Contrary to expectations Daun moved east to Kittlitz where he established a fortified encampment on 7th October 1758.
On 10th October 1758 the Prussian army arrived in the area of the Saxon town of Hochkirch where Frederick intended to wait for supplies from Bautzen before moving on into Silesia. A feature of Hochkirch was its substantial and ornate newly built church.
The Prussian army’s position formed a long shallow S shape stretching from Hochkirch to the village of Rodewitz to the North East. Further to the North the detached Prussian force of General Retzow, comprising 9,000 men, was encamped at Weissenberg.
A redoubt guarded the Prussian left and a series of redoubts formed the right of the Prussian position beyond Hochkirch. The weakness of the Prussian right was that it was overlooked by the Kuppritzer Berg, heavily wooded high ground dominated by the numerous Austrian Croat light troops.
It was this weakness that the Austrian General Lacy urged his commander, Marshal Daun to exploit. Daun conducted careful reconnaissance of the Prussian position over a period of days before accepting Lacy’s recommendations for a full attack. Lacy was left to plan the assault which was set to commence at 5am by the striking of the Hochkirch church clock on 14th October 1758.
On the night before the attack the Austrians left their tents standing and camp fires burning. Workmen continued felling trees for an abattis to defend the Austrian camp and were encouraged to sing and call out loudly.
On the day of the assault the area was covered by a thick early morning fog. The main Austrian assault, led by Daun himself, emerged from the wooded Kuppritzer Berg to attack the Prussian batteries in the redoubts to the South of Hochkirch. Although 2 Prussian free battalions were in the forest no advance warning was given to the Prussian line, such was the all enveloping effect of the terrain and the activities of the Croat light infantry.
A strong cavalry force led by General von Loudon advanced up the road from the South towards Hochkirch to the left of Daun. A further force under General O’Donnell advanced along the road from the West directly into the rear of the Prussian right wing. General Weisse approached Hochkirch from the opposite direction. 4 separate Austrian contingents were converging on the Prussian positions in and around Hochkirch in overwhelming strength.
The Prussian commanders in the area of Hochkirch were Marshal Keith and General Zieten.
Daun’s main body emerged from the woods on the hillside, disappearing into the dead ground to the front of the Prussian redoubts before delivering an attack which quickly overwhelmed the defenders and captured the battery in the end redoubt.
Frederick’s quarters were in the village of Rodewitz at the far end of the Prussian line. Signal rockets could be seen in the sky and heavy firing heard, but Frederick’s staff could not persuade him that a major attack was under way and that he should rise to deal with it. Frederick’s view was that the Austrian Croat light troops were responsible for a harassing fire every morning and that there was nothing unusual about the firing that could be heard that day.
A Captain von Troschke arrived with the news that the Austrians had taken the end redoubt of the Prussian position and were attacking towards Hochkirch. Frederick was sceptical until Troschke informed him that the Austrians would soon be firing on him with his own guns. At that moment the first salvo screamed over their heads and Frederick commented “Troschke, you are quite right. Lads, take up your muskets. Somebody find my horse.”
In the area of Hochkirch the Prussians were struggling to hold the Austrians back, the most savage fighting being centred on the church. The second battalion of Margrave Carl’s Regiment (No 19) under Major Simon Moritz von Langen held the churchyard wall while the remaining Prussian infantry regiments crammed into the town in considerable disorder.
General Zieten directed General Krockow to deliver a charge with the Schönach Cuirassiers against the Austrian infantry which ensured a short reprieve. Krockow was fatally wounded in the charge from which the cuirassiers returned with an Austrian colour and some 50 Austrian prisoners.
In the meantime Marshal Keith directed counter attacks against the advancing Austrian regiments.
While leading the Regiment Prinz von Preussen (No 18) Keith was shot dead from his horse.
Another of Frederick’s leading generals Moritz of Anhalt-Dessau was severely wounded in the battle and permanently incapacitated.
One of the streets of Hochkirch was so full of dead and wounded Prussian soldiers that after the battle it was named the ‘Blutgasse’ or ‘Blood Street’.
The Prussian infantry at the Battle of Hochkirch
As Daun pressed his attacks on the Prussians in and around Hochkirch further Austrian forces under Generals Arenburg and Buccow attacked the far end of the Prussian line. The great battery in front of Rodewitz was taken and the Prussian infantry driven out in flight. Another Austrian force under General Colloredo advanced towards the Prussian centre. Frederick had allowed his army to be taken completely by surprise by the substantially more numerous army of Marshal Daun.
Frederick made his way to Hochkirch where it became clear that there must be an immediate withdrawal in order to save his army. The retreat was effected with the Prussians drawing off to the North West. This difficult operation was eased by the failure of the Austrian generals attacking the Prussian left flank to move with sufficient aggression in pursuit of Frederick’s defeated and demoralised troops.
The Prussian retreat was covered by a rearguard assembled around the Regiment of Alt-Braunschweig (No 5) and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Saldern.
As soon as he realised the extent of the Austrian attack Frederick sent an urgent message to General Retzow requiring him to join the main army. Retzow was delayed in responding to this order as he had come under attack. As soon as he was able Retzow marched his force to the sound of the fighting. Prince Eugene of Würtemburg, commanding Retzow’s cavalry, hurried in advance and assisted in covering the Prussian retreat.
Frederick gathered his troops at Dobershütz, where he took stock of the disaster that had engulfed his army.
Daun failed to follow up his signal victory over the Prussians.
Casualties: Prussian losses: 9,100 men killed, wounded and captured and 101 guns lost. Austrian losses: 7,000 men killed, wounded and captured.
Frederick was thrown into a period of depression by the battle.
On 20th October 1758 Frederick’s brother Prince Henry joined him with reinforcements.
Ever cautious Daun failed to exploit his victory and gave Frederick the breathing space he needed to re-constitute and re-organise his defeated army. Frederick withdrew into Silesia while Daun returned to the siege of Dresden. The Prussian commander in Dresden, Count Schmettau, was an officer of determination and prepared the city for a siege, burning the outer suburbs so that the fortifications were cleared. In November 1758 Frederick advanced to Dresden and Daun withdrew into the hills.