Battle of Hochkirch
|Battle of Hochkirch|
|Part of the Seven Years' War|
The Fall of the Prussian camp at Hochkirch
|Commanders and leaders|
|Frederick the Great
Hans Joachim von Ziethen
|Feldzeugmeister Leopold Josef Graf Daun
Franz Moritz von Lacy
|30,000–36,000 men||80,000 men|
|Casualties and losses|
|9,400 men, 101 cannons, nearly all their tents; 28 flags and two standards; 70 munitions wagons||7,300 men, 3 flags|
The Battle of Hochkirch occurred on 14 October 1758 during the Seven Years' War. After several weeks of jockeying for position, an Austrian army of 80,000 commanded by Feldzeugmeister (Lieutenant Field Marshal) Leopold Josef Graf Daun surprised the Prussian army of 30,000–36,000, commanded by Frederick the Great; the Austrian army overwhelmed the Prussians and forced a general retreat. The battle took place around the village of Hochkirch, which is 9 kilometers (6 mi) east of Bautzen, Saxony. The battle ranks among Frederick's greatest blunders, although the failure of the Austrian commander to follow up on his victory nullified the loss.
In September and early October 1758, Field Marshal Count Leopold Joseph von Daun and his 80,000-man army camped near the town of Stolpen. Frederick, King of Prussia, had tried several times to draw the Austrians out of Stolpen into a battle: Daun had refused the bait. Frederick and his army had marched within 8 km (5 mi) of the Austrians, but Daun had pulled his army away, again, refusing to be drawn into battle. Upon the Austrian withdrawal, Frederick sent troops in pursuit; these were driven off by Daun's rearguard. In frustration, Frederick shadowed Daun by maneuvering his army toward Bautzen; while there, Frederick learned that Daun had established a camp about 5 km (3 mi) east of him in the hills directly east of Hochkirch. He dispatched an entire Prussian corps to those hills in late September; by early October, General Wolf Frederick von Retzow's corps was within 2 km (1 mi) of the Austrians. Frederick ordered Retzow to take the hill that commanded the area, called Strohmberg. When Retzow arrived there, he discovered that the Austrians already had laid possession with a strong force. Retzow chose not to attack; Frederick had him removed from command and arrested.
Hochkirch stands on slight rise in terrain, surrounded by mildly undulating plains; the village can be seen from the distance, except from the south, where several heights abut the village and block visibility. The church stands near the highest point, granting visibility east, west and north.
On 10 October, Frederick marched on Hochkirch and established his own camp, extending from the town north, 5 km (3 mi) to the edge of the forest at the base of the Kuppritzerberg. Frederick did not plan to stay in the small village for an extended period, only until their provisions—mostly bread—arrived from Bautzen, and then they would move eastward. Frederick ignored the warnings of his officers, especially his trusted Field Marshal James Keith, who thought staying in the village was suicide. "If the Austrians leave us unmolested in this camp," Keith told the king, "they deserve to be hanged." Frederick reportedly replied, "it is to be hoped they are more afraid of us than of the gallows."
Instead of worrying about a possible Austrian threat, Frederick scattered his men facing eastward, the last known location of Daun's army. The troops created an S-shaped line, north to south, adjacent to Hochkirch. The weak (west) side was guarded by an outpost of nine battalions with artillery support; the principal purpose of the infantry was to maintain contact with a deployed scout unit. Eleven battalions and 28 squadrons guarded the east side. Frederick had his best soldiers garrison the village of Hochkirch. He did not believe any attack would occur; Daun's army had been dormant in recent months, refusing to be drawn into battles.
To the east of the village, less than 2 km (1 mi) distant, the Austrians' presence on the hilltop increasingly made the Prussians—except Frederick—anxious of an attack. The Strohmberg, one of the heights abutting Hochkirch, anchored Daun's left flank, and he deployed the remainder of his force southward across the road between Bautzen and Lobau. This also gave him control of an important junction between Görlitz in the east and Zittau in the south. He anchored the far right end of his line in another wooded hill south of the road, called the Kuppritzerberg. After days of personally scouting the Prussian camp and being urged to attack by his officers, he noted that the Prussians neither increased their security nor deployed their troops in response to the Austrian presence. He also took into account that his men were eager to fight a battle and that they outnumbered the Prussians by more than two-to-one. His plan, which he had kept secret, was an early morning sweep through the woods with 30,000 hand-picked troops, around Frederick's flank, to enclose him. The Prussian army would be asleep, both literally and figuratively, when the Austrian army struck.
Daun's battle plan surprised the Prussians. The east side of Frederick's line was the first to be attacked. Using the starless night and fog as cover, and grouped into small shock units for easier control and stealth, the Austrians fell on the Prussian battery when the church bell signaled 5:00, catching the Prussians completely off guard. Many men were still sleeping, or just waking up, when the Austrians attacked. The Austrians cut tent ropes, collapsing the tents on sleeping soldiers, then bayoneted the men as they struggled to free themselves from canvas and cords.
At first Frederick thought the sounds of the battle were either an outpost skirmish or the Croats in the Austrian army, who apparently started their days with regular firing of their weapons. His staff had trouble rousing him from bed, but he was soon alerted when his own cannons, captured by the Austrians, started to fire on his own camp.
While his adjutants were trying to wake Frederick, his generals, most of whom had not slept and had kept their horses saddled and weapons ready, organized the Prussian resistance. Keith, anticipating an Austrian attack, organized a slashing counterattack on the Austrians holding the Prussian battery. Maurice von Anhalt-Dessau, another of Frederick's able generals, funneled the awakening troops to Keith. Combined, this action briefly retook the Prussian battery south of Hochkirch, but they could not hold it in the face of Austrian muskets. At 6:00, three more Prussian regiments rushed Hochkirch itself, while Prince Maurice continued directing stragglers and reinforcements into the counterattack. The Prussians swept through the village, out the other side, and fell on the battery at bayonet point. By that point, though, most Prussian order and cohesion had been lost. The Austrians, supported by their appropriated Prussian guns, which had not been spiked, wrought havoc on the attackers. Keith was hit mid-body and knocked out of his saddle, dead as he fell.
When the early morning fog had lifted, the soldiers could make out friend from foe. Prussian cavalry, which had remained saddled and ready throughout the night, launched a series of regimental counterattacks. A battalion of the 23rd Infantry charged, but withdrew as it was surrounded flank and rear. The church yard, a walled stronghold, diverted the Austrians; Major Siegmund Moritz William von Langen's musketeers of the 19th regiment held it with sheer determination and provided safety for retreating Prussians. Most importantly, Langen bought time.
Frederick, by this time fully awake, dressed and ready to fight, hoped that the battle could be retrieved and returned to the village to take command. At 7:00, finding his infantry milling about in the village, Frederick ordered them to advance, sending reinforcements commanded by Prince Francis of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his brother-in-law, with them. As Francis approached the village, Austrian cannon-fire sheered his head off his shoulders; his troops faltered, demoralized by the sight of the prince's headless body atop his spooked horse. Frederick himself helped to rally Francis' shaken troops.
Led by the King, they advanced against five Austrian companies of horse grenadiers commanded by Franz Moritz von Lacy; they marched into an alleyway still known today as Blood Alley (Blutgasse). Apparently, the soldiers were so tightly packed into the alley they could not fall when shot; they died where they stood and their blood ran from the holes in their bodies through the gutters.
By 7:30, the Austrians had possession of the burning village. Keith and Prince Francis were dead. General Karl von Geist lay among the injured. Maurice von Anhalt-Dessau had been injured and captured. By 9:00, the Prussian left wing collapsed under the weight of the Austrian assault; the last Prussian battery was overrun and turned against them.
Frederick established a fighting line north of the village, but it ended up as a rallying point for stragglers and survivors. By mid-morning, around 10:00, the Prussians retreated to the north-west. Frederick and his surviving Prussian army were out of range of the Austrian army by the time they had reorganized. Ziethen and Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, who had remained alert all night, organized a rear guard action that prevented the Austrians from falling upon the retreating Prussians.
Frederick lost 9,400 men, more than 30 percent of his army, including five generals, 101 guns, and nearly all the tents. Frederick required his generals to set an example of courage and leadership: they led from the front. The same rate of attrition applied throughout the officer corps, which lost half of its strength in the first three campaigns of the war. In addition to human losses, they lost valuable horses and draft animals, 70 munitions wagons, and, a blow to morale, 28 flags, and two standards. On the positive side, though, Retzow's corps, which had not arrived in time to participate in the fighting, remained intact; Frederick had pulled his troops together for an orderly retreat; and the King retained the confidence of his soldiers.
The Austrians suffered casualties and losses at about three percent. According to the military historian Gaston Bodart, there were fewer troops participating than most modern sources suggest: he places Austrian participants at 60,000, losses in casualties at 5,400, approximately 8.3 percent, but other losses (to injuries, desertions and capture) at about 2,300, or 3.6 percent. Daun and his army celebrated their victory, and he received a blessed sword and hat from Pope Clement XIII, a reward usually granted for defeating "infidels". Notification of the battle arrived in Vienna during the celebration of the Empress's name day, to the delight of Maria Theresa and her court, gathered at Schönbrunn Palace; she eventually created an endowment of 250,000 gulden for Daun and his heirs.
Although Frederick demonstrated good leadership by rallying his troops against the surprise attack, Hochkirch is marked as one of his worst losses, and it badly shook his equanimity. There was no one to blame but himself. Andrew Mitchell, the British envoy who was with them, attributed Frederick's loss to the contempt he had for his enemy and his unwillingness to give credit to intelligence that did not agree with his imagination. The grief he felt at the loss of his greatest friend, and possibly one of his only friends, James Keith, was intense. His grief was added to when he learned a couple of days later that his beloved elder sister, Wilhelmine, who had shared their father's wrath in 1730 during the Katte affair, had died on the same day. He sulked in his tent for a week. At one point, he showed his librarian a small box of opium capsules, 18 in total, that he could use to "journey to a dark place from which there was no return." Despite having rescued his army from catastrophe, he remained depressed and suicidal.
It could have been worse for Frederick. The fabled discipline of his army held up: once the Prussians were out of the burning village, unit cohesion and discipline returned. Their discipline neutralized any strategic advantage the Austrians could have gained, and Daun's caution nullified the rest. Instead of following Frederick, or cutting off Retzow's division, which had not participated in the battle, Daun withdrew to the heights and positions he had occupied before the battle, so that his men might have a good rest under blankets after the fatigue of the day. After staying there for six days, they marched out in stealth to take up a new position between Belgern and Jesewitz, while Frederick remained at Doberschütz. The costly Austrian victory decided nothing.
A granite monument, inlaid with a bronze plaque, was erected by the inhabitants of Hochkirch in memory of "Generalfeldmarschall Jacob von Keith" and his achievement. The inscription reads "Suffering, Misery, Death."
|Hochkirch and environs|
- David T. Zabecki, Germany at War. Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History (2014 2015), Vol. I−IV, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 978-1-59884-980-6 pp 612–614.
- Augustus Ralli, Guide to Carlisle, G. Allen & Unwin Limited, 1922, pp. 289–290.
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- Herbert J. Redman, Frederick the Great and the Seven Years' War, 1756–1763. McFarland, 2014, ISBN 978-0-7864-7669-5 pp. 242–249.
- Showalter, here.
- In addition to Keith and Frederick's brother-in-law, who were killed outright. General Karl Ferdinand von Hagen died from his injuries three months later; Hans Caspar von Krockow died from his injuries on 25 February 1759; Maurice of Anhalt Saxony, captured, was badly injured, and never led an army again. See Blanning, pp. 251–253. Wolf Frederick von Retzow, who had been relieved prior to the battle, was suffering from dysentery and died 5 November 1758 at Schweidnitz. See Bernhard von Poten, Retzow, Wolf Friedrich von, ADB, vol. 28, pp 277–278.
- Blanning, p. 251.
- Gaston Bodart, Losses of Life in Modern Wars, Austria-Hungary. Clarendon Press, 1916, p. 36.
- Blanning, p. 253.
- Blanning, p. 252.
- Gemeinde Hochkirch, Sehenswertes um und in Hochkirch, Hochkirch Accessed 20 Jan 2017.
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- Duffy, Christopher. Frederick the Great: A Military Life. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1985. Print.
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- Ralli, Augustus, Guide to Carlisle, G. Allen & Unwin Limited, 1922
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- Zabecki, David, Germany at War. Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History (2014 2015), Vol. I−IV, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 978-1-59884-980-6
- Battle of Hochkirch – Chapter 14 of Thomas Carlyle's History of Friedrich II.
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- Rickard, J. (17 November 2000), Battle of Hochkirch, Military History Encyclopedia of the Web. Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
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