Frederick’s heavy defeat at the hands of the Russians.
Date: 12th August 1759.
Place: In Neumark, east of the Oder.
War: The Seven Years War.
Contestants in the Battle of Kunersdorf: Prussians against a Russian Army and a strong Austrian contingent.
Generals in the Battle of Kunersdorf: King Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great, commanding the Prussian Army against General Saltykov commanding the Russian Army. General Loudon commanded the Austrian contingent.
Size of the Armies in the Battle of Kunersdorf:
Prussians: 36,900 infantry, 13,000 cavalry and 140 heavy guns.
Russians: 41,000 and 200 guns. Austrians: 18,523 and 48 guns.
Winner in the Battle of Kunersdorf: The Russians and Austrians.
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.
In most respects the Russian army mirrored that of the western powers in structure, uniforms and weapons. The Russian infantry wore green coats. The cavalry comprised cuirassier, dragoon and hussar regiments. The
Russians relied upon a large force of Cossack irregular cavalry. The Cossacks pillaged far and wide and were of limited use to the Russian commanders, often being too busy looting to spend much time on the pursuits of scouting and harassing enemy troops
Following the Austrian defeat of Frederick’s Prussian army at the Battle of Hochkirch on 14th October 1758 the balance of the year was a success for the Prussians. The Austrians were manoeuvred away from the Saxon capital Dresden, which was held by the Prussians, and the Silesian town of Neisse was recovered for Frederick.
1759 started with Frederick waiting to see what action would be taken against him by his principal adversaries, the Austrians, Russians and the German Reichsarmée. At the beginning of July 1759 Frederick received the information he needed. Daun was moving with an army of 75,000 Austrians towards Lusatia and General Saltykov was assembling a Russian army of 60,000 at Posen in Western Poland with the intention of crossing the Oder and invading Brandenburg, the heart of Prussia.
General Dohna commanded the Prussian army of 28,000 men east of the Oder River with the role of holding back the Russians. Dohna failed completely to prevent Saltykov’s advance towards the Oder.
At the end of July 1759 Frederick sent Lieutenant General Kurt Heinrich von Wedel to replace Dohna and attack the Russians.
Saltykov managed to march around Wedel and positioned his army across Wedel’s lines of communications. Wedel attacked the Russians at Paltzig on 23rd July 1759. In a disastrous battle the Prussians were thrown back with casualties of around 8,000 men. Saltykov continued his advance to the Oder and prepared to take the city of Frankfurt.
Following receipt of the news of Wedel’s defeat at the hands of the Russians Frederick immediately put his army in motion from Sagan in Central Silesia towards the Oder. Frederick’s aim was to prevent Saltykov and his Russians from crossing the Oder River and invading Brandenburg. Frederick left his brother Prince Henry with an army of 44,000 Prussians to hold Silesia against the Austrians.
Slightly in advance of Frederick’s departure Daun despatched 2 corps of Austrians under Generals Haddik (17,500 men) and Loudon (25,000 men) to join Saltykov.
Frederick hearing of the potential reinforcement of the Russians attempted to overtake the 2 Austrian corps. He intercepted Haddik’s baggage train but Haddik had already given up the attempt to reach the Oder before Frederick. The deviation from the Prussian’s most direct route gave Loudon the opportunity to join Saltykov before Frederick came up with the Russians. Loudon crossed the Oder and joined Saltykov on 5th August 1759.
On his arrival on the west bank of the Oder Frederick formed a camp at Mulrose to the South of Frankfurt-an-Oder and went through the operation of incorporating Wedel’s defeated troops into his own army. In addition Frederick was joined by a force of Prussians under Lieutenant General Fink which had been covering Berlin.
Frederick determined to carry out against Saltykov the same plan he had implemented against his predecessor, General Fermor, at the Battle of Zorndorf: that is to cross the Oder well downstream of the Russian positions and return by the right or eastern bank of the river.
Frederick’s army marched down the Oder to a point at Göritz, just short of Custrin, and there established a bridgehead followed by the necessary bridges. The army crossed the Oder during the night of 10th August 1759 and began the march south, arriving at Bishofsee just short of the Russian positions around Kunersdorf before dawn of 11th August 1759.
With dawn Frederick observed the terrain and the Russian positions in order to devise his plan of attack. A local squire and a forestry official were questioned by the King but seemed incapable of providing useful information about the area.
Frederick conducted a personal reconnaissance from the Trettiner Spitz-berg and saw that the Russians had prepared positions along a low ridge or series of hillocks stretching off towards the right diagonally from a point to the front of where he stood. Frederick spent the 11th August 1759 preparing the plans for his attack. General Fink would remain on the north side of the Russian positions while Frederick took the main body around the Russian right and attacked their positions in the rear.
One of the main purposes of this plan was to cause the Russians to leave their prepared positions and face in the opposite direction. What Frederick did not realise was that Saltykov had expected the Prussian attack to come from the South so that his entrenchments faced in that direction. With the approach of the Prussians from the North the Russians had faced about. Frederick’s outflanking march would take the Prussians around to the Russian front and not their rear.
The weather was baking hot and the Prussian troops were exhausted by their long approach march. The terrain was dry and sandy. Movement was difficult and the soldiers suffered from heat and thirst.
As Frederick’s main army emerged into the area to the south of the Russians the King saw that there was a row of large ponds stretching from the Russian lines at right angles which limited the area in which he could manoeuvre to that immediately in front of the eastern section of the Russian position. Instead of attacking along the Russian front the attack would have to be confined to the Russian flank. The forced change of plan took place at short notice and the Prussian columns were required to change direction to focus on the Russian flanking positions.
60 Prussian guns were established in 3 batteries on the Walk-Berge, Kloster-Berg and the Kleiner-Spitzberg. At around 11.30am these guns opened a heavy barrage on the end Russian position on the Muhl-Berge.
The garrison of the redoubt on the Muhl-Berge comprised 5 large regiments of the Russian Observation Corps with 40 guns. The Prussian barrage overwhelmed the Russian garrison so that when the Prussian infantry launched their assault on the Muhl-Berge the Russians were quickly overwhelmed.
The capture of the Muhl-Berge was a devastating blow for the Russians. A quarter of the Russian line was lost with some 80 guns taken or destroyed and heavy casualties amongst their infantry.
Senior Prussian generals, Fink and probably Seydlitz, pressed Frederick to abandon any further attack as the Russians would inevitably be forced to retreat. The ferocious heat made the battle a terrible ordeal for all the troops involved. But Frederick was looking for a decisive defeat of the Russians. He insisted that the attack must continue.
The Prussian heavy batteries were hauled over to the positions in the Muhl-Berge for the next phase of the battle. Once in position they opened fire on the Russians.
Following the barrage the Prussian infantry began their attack across the Kuh-Grund that lay between the Muhl-Berge and the next Russian redoubt in the line. The Kuh-Grund was a narrow sandy valley. It was heavy going for the Prussian infantry and the Russians brought substantial forces and numbers of guns to this point, knowing that the Prussian attack was now on a narrow front.
Frederick brought up more infantry and sent them into the attack. Fink assaulted the northern side of the Russian redoubt. The fighting ranged along the southern and northern sides of the Russian position.
The Prussian cavalry were committed to the battle in small packets to support the infantry. The Austrian and Russian cavalry counter-attacked and were in turn driven back as more Prussian cavalry under Seydlitz joined the fight.
Seydlitz was injured and left the battle. Major-General Puttkamer was killed leading his regiment of White Hussars into the assault following an earlier attack by Lieutenant General the Prince of Württemburg.
In the late afternoon with the other senior Prussian cavalry commanders casualties Lieutenant General Platen led the Prussian cavalry into an attack on the Russian position in the Grosser Spitzberg. The regiment of Schorlemer Dragoons was wiped out by Russian gunfire. As the remaining regiments attempted to form up they were charged by Lieutenant General Loudon leading Austrian and Russian cavalry. The Prussian cavalry was decimated in the attack.
By now the Prussian infantry and cavalry, unable to make any significant impression on the Russian positions, were collapsing in flight. Frederick had to be rescued from a party of Cossacks by his escort of Zieten Hussars commanded by Captain Prittwitz.
The Prussian army fled North and crossed the Oder at Göritz. Frederick was prostrated both emotionally and physically and abdicated command to Fink. He expected the Prussian state to collapse following this dreadful defeat.
Cossacks pillaging Prussian dead
Casualties in the Battle of Kunersdorf: Prussian losses: 19,100 men killed, wounded and captured and 172 guns lost. Russian losses: 13,500 killed, wounded and captured. Austrian losses: 2,000 men killed, wounded and captured.
Immediately following the battle the Prussian army crossed the Hühner-Fliess where it spent the night. A rain-less thunder storm caused the night to be illuminated by lightning. Frederick crossed to the west bank of the Oder River but then returned to be with his defeated army as his officers attempted to restore some semblance of order and discipline to the defeated and disintegrated regiments. On 14th August 1759 Frederick led the army across the Oder River to the West Bank.
One of the most striking features of Frederick the Great’s military genius was his resilience and ability to recover from the disastrous defeats the Prussian army suffered. Kunersdorf was particularly bitter for Frederick in that he knew that it was substantially his fault. Frederick had badly underestimated the fighting qualities of the Russian army in spite of his previous experience of the tenacity of the Russian soldier at the Battle of Zorndorf on 25th August 1758. Frederick had failed to heed the advice of his generals to end the battle with the successful capture of the Mühl-Berge. After a period of deep depression during which he wrote to Count Schmettau permitting him to surrender Dresden, which he duly did, Frederick recovered and resumed the field.
Frederick was rescued by the failure of the Austrian and Russian generals fully to exploit the victory of Kunersdorf. Saltykov crossed the Oder River into Brandenburg, threatening Berlin, and Daun marched north from Saxony with a large Austrian army. But when Daun’s lines of communication were threatened by Prince Henry with a Prussian army Daun retreated to Saxony. Saltykov marched to the South East re-crossed the Oder River and retreated into Poland.