Frederick the Great’s Pyrrhic victory over the Russian Army.
Date: 25th August 1758
Place: On the eastern bank of the River Oder to the North of Frankfurt am Oder.
War: The Seven Years War.
Contestants: Prussians against a Russian army
Generals: King Frederick II of Prussia, Frederick the Great, commanded the Prussian Army against General Fermor who commanded the Russian Army.
Size of the Armies: Prussians; 25,000 infantry, 10,500 cavalry, 35,500 in all and 193 guns. Russians; 36,500 infantry, 3,500 cavalry, 3,000 Cossacks, 43,000 in all and 136 guns.
Map of the Battle of Zorndorf by John Fawkes:
available to buy as a high quality Giclee print 430 x 330mm.
A narrow victory for the Prussians; although some authorities describe the battle as a draw.
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, the brim 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 Prussian 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 5 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 soldiers joining their local regiment. Men were released at 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. Every year certain regiments were selected to be reviewed at Potsdam by the King.
Officers whose units were considered by Frederick not to be up to standard were subjected to a public tongue lashing and in extreme cases dismissal 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. Their rate of fire was said to be around 3 times the rate of other armies.
Heavy cavalry of the period comprised cuirassiers, whose troopers wore steel breastplates, and dragoons. The main form of light cavalry was the hussar. The hussar regiments in the Austrian service were Hungarian, while the hussars of other armies were given the same dress as Hungarian hussars and expected to perform similar light cavalry roles.
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. At the beginning of the Silesian wars Frederick found the Prussian Hussars as inadequate for their role as the heavy cavalry regiments. Following the Battle of Mollwitz 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 scimitar-style sword.
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.
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 increase the mobility of the guns on the battlefield.
On his accession as King in Prussia, Frederick II annexed the Austrian province of Silesia. Frederick spent the next 25 years fighting to maintain his hold on Silesia. He fought the two Silesian Wars against Austria (battles of Mollwitz, Chotusitz, Hohenfriedberg, Soor and Kesselsdorf) which ended with the Treaty of Breslau on Christmas day 1745. 8 years of peace intervened before the outbreak of Frederick’s most severe test, the Seven Years War, in which Prussia was arrayed against Austria, Saxony, the German Reich states, France, Russia and Sweden. Frederick began the war with a pre-emptive invasion of Bohemia in 1756; fighting against the Austrians the Battle of Lobositz and in 1757 the Battles of Prague and Kolin and against the French the Battle of Rossbach and again against the Austrians the Battle of Leuthen.
Frederick the Great spent the spring and early summer of 1758 in the abortive siege of the Moldavian town of Olmϋtz. The Austrian success in ambushing a large Prussian convoy with urgently needed supplies forced Frederick to abandon the siege and retreat through Northern Bohemia and into South Western Silesia; reaching Glatz on 4th August 1758. He there had to juggle his resources. The Austrian Marshal Daun was following the retreating Prussians, albeit at a leisurely pace. Saxony was held by just 20,000 Prussians. But the most immediate threat to the Prussian state was the Russian army of General Fermor advancing from the East towards Küstrin on the Oder. The Russians were opposed by 26,000 Prussians under General Dohna. If Küstrin fell the Russians had only a 50 mile march to reach Frederick’s capital city, Berlin.
Frederick resolved to march at speed to attack Fermor, with the aim of being back in southern Silesia to confront Daun within 3 weeks.
Frederick marched on 11th August 1758 with 11,000 men to join Dohna and his Prussian army. Together they would confront General Fermor with his 56,000 Russians.
The Russians reached the Oder River on 15th August 1758 and began a bombardment of the town of Küstrin on the banks of the Oder. Cossacks and Russian troops pillaged the surrounding towns and villages.
Frederick force marched down the Oder to Frankfurt, arriving with his corps on 20th August 1758. Lodging in the town the Prussians could clearly hear the bombardment of Küstrin. Frederick had been imprisoned in the castle at Küstrin in his youth while out of favour with his father King Frederick William.
Early on the next morning Frederick rode with his staff to meet General Dohna outside Küstrin. Dohna’s troops were in good order but Frederick was far from pleased with the army’s feeble attempts at resisting the Russian advance.
On hearing of Frederick’s arrival Fermor drew his army off from Küstrin and took up positions on the eastern side of the Oder. Frederick and his troops entered the town and found it devastated by the Russian bombardment. The sight filled them with determination to inflict revenge on the Russians.
General Fermor sent a force of 11,000 men down the Oder to the next major bridge to prevent Frederick from crossing the river and attacking him. In doing so Fermor completely underestimated the technical ability and determination of the Prussian army and reduced his immediate force to 45,000 troops.
Prussian guns opened fire on the Russian positions on the far side of the river while Frederick made plans to cross the Oder further north. General Kanitz established a bridge of boats 20 miles downstream from Küstrin while Prussian infantry crossed the river by boat. This crossing point interposed the Prussian army between Fermor and his detached force, which was of no further use to the Russian commnander. Once across, the Prussian army marched back up the river on the east bank. The weather was extremely hot and the speed of the march caused significant casualties among the hurrying infantry.
In the afternoon of 24th August 1758 the Prussian army came up to the Mietzel stream, a tributary of the Oder. The Russian army could be glimpsed on the far side of the Mietzel but some way back, the dense forest making it difficult to see their positions in detail. Frederick halted and pushed the Prussian advance guard over the Mietzel at Neu Dammer Mϋhle, opposite the far right of the Russian position. Bridges were then built at this point. With the crossing at Neu Dammer Mϋhle secured, the Prussian army was well placed to launch its attack the next day.
Frederick spent the night in the Neu Dammer Mϋhle. 2 forestry officials who could be expected to know their way around the area were drafted in to guide the Prussian advance; one to accompany Frederick and the Prussian infantry columns through the forest of Zicherer-Heide around the Russian right flank, the other to guide the Prussian cavalry in a wider advance to the East of the infantry.
Emerging from the mill in the early morning Frederick greeted his generals with the pronouncement “Congratulations. We have already won the battle.” In spite of the warnings of his trusted Scottish lieutenant, Field Marshal Keith, who had served in the Tsar’s army and urged his king that the Russian soldiers were not to be underestimated, Frederick viewed his opponents with contempt.
The Prussian columns crossed the Mietzel stream in the early dawn, moved through the woods on the far side of the river and emerged near Batzlow; beyond the Russian right flank. As Frederick’s columns marched across the cultivated landscape scouting hussars drew the king’s attention to the main Russian baggage train drawn up in a ‘Wagenburg’ to the south of Gross Camin, a kilometre to their left. The proposal was put to the king that capture of the baggage train would hamstring the Russian army and force its retreat through lack of supplies, making a battle unnecessary. But Frederick and his army were enraged by the devastation inflicted on the area by the Russians. Their fighting blood was up and most significantly Frederick thought he had an easy victory in his grasp.
The Prussian army wheeled to the West and marched to the line of Zorndorf-Wilkersdorf, before swinging to the North and beginning its assault on the Russian rear; or what would have been their rear if Fermor had not turned his army about to meet the attack. The Prussian assault began with its leading regiments on the new right of the Russian line between the streams of the Zabern-Grund and the Galgin-Grund.
The Prussian advance guard under Lieutenant General Manstein began the assault on the far left, along the line of the Zabern-Grund. Manstein was followed by the left wing of the main Prussian army under Lieutenant General Kanitz moving up to his right rear. Lieutenant General von Bieberstein came up in support of Kanitz with his cavalry. Lieutenant General Seydlitz with his cavalry force moved up on the far side of the Zabern-Grund keeping level with the advancing Prussian infantry. While this attack went in Colonel Moller’s artillery fired a supporting barrage from positions around the burning village of Zorndorf that had been pillaged by the Cossacks. General Dohna commanded the ‘refused’ Prussian right wing which remained stationery as the left wing pressed its attack.
Moller moved his guns forward to fire the barrage from a shorter range. The noise of the battle was reported as stupefying, with Russian powder wagons exploding in the burning vegetation. In a lull in the racket Frederick commented on the music being played by the band of one of his advancing regiments and was told it was the hymn “Ich bin ja, Heer, in deiner Macht”-“Now Lord I am in thy keeping.” Frederick hummed the melody as the regiment marched off into the dense smoke caused by the heavy firing.
The smoke proved a major difficulty for Manteuffel’s advancing infantry. The Russian line could not be seen until the Prussians were within 40 yards. The blasts of musketry and canister from the waiting Russian foot and guns inflicted high casualties on Manteuffel’s battalions. Under pressure and unsure of its position the Prussian advance guard drifted away from the Zabern-Grund, leaving its flank exposed to a charge by a force of Russian cavalry. In this devastating attack, some units suffering 60% casualties, the Prussian advance guard was driven back in confusion.
Kanitz was required to bring his regiments up in support of the advance guard, but failed to comply with the route taken by Manteuffel, heading straight to his front. Passing through the Stein-Busch several of Kanitz’s regiments became disordered. Emerging into the open Kanitz’s division met the heavy fire of the Russian centre and was attacked on its open left flank. Frederick and Prince Moritz brought up Bieberstein’s cavalry to lessen the pressure on Kanitz’s faltering advance.
It was at this point that Seydlitz launched his decisive attack on the extreme left wing. Seydlitz had been given the role of covering the Prussian left flank from the far side of the Zabern-Grund with his 36 squadrons of cuirassiers and hussars. As the Prussian infantry assault became more enmired Frederick sent message after message to Seydlitz ordering him to attack. Seydlitz refused to act on these messages saying in answer to one “Tell the king that after the battle my head is at his disposal, but until then he will have to allow me to use it as I see fit.”
Finally Seydlitz considered that the moment had come to launch his assault. His cavalry crossed the steep sided Zabern-Grund, formed line at the gallop and launched a charge that swept away swathes of Russian infantry. The Russian right flank collapsed under the weight of Seydlitz’s attack.
On the Prussian right Dohna’s infantry moved forward to relieve the pressure on Kanitz but were counter-attacked by General Demiku’s cavalry from the Russian left wing.
At around this time Frederick seems to have been struck with indecision by the way his plans were collapsing around him, but revived sufficiently to bring up cavalry regiments to relieve the hard pressed infantry.
Order began to break down in both armies; Prussian hussars looting the Russian baggage and the Russian soldiers breaking open stores of alcohol.
At around 9pm the fighting ended. Dohna’s advance had pushed the Russians out of their positions so that the Prussians ended the day in the area of Quartschen to the rear of the original Russian position; while the Russians had been pushed towards the smouldering remains of the village of Zorndorf.
Both armies remained on the field of battle until 1st September 1758 when Fermor finally withdrew enabling Frederick to return to Saxony and face the renewed Austrian advance.
Russian casualties were 18,000 and the Prussian casualties 12,800, one third of Frederick’s army.
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