Battle of Kunersdorf
|Battle of Kunersdorf|
|Part of the Seven Years' War|
Painting by Alexander Kotzebue, 1848
|Commanders and leaders|
|Frederick the Great|| Pyotr Saltykov
Ernst Gideon von Laudon
|Casualties and losses|
Total: c. 15,500
The Battle of Kunersdorf, fought in the Seven Years' War, was Frederick the Great's most devastating defeat. On 12 August 1759, near Kunersdorf (Kunowice), east of Frankfurt (Oder), 50,900 Prussians were defeated by a combined allied army 65,000 strong consisting of 41,000 Russians and 24,000 Austrians under Pyotr Saltykov and Ernst Gideon von Laudon. Only 3,000 soldiers from the original 50,900 comprising the Prussian army returned to Berlin after the battle, though many more had only scattered and were ultimately able to join the army afterward. This represented the penultimate success of the Russian Empire under Elizabeth of Russia and arguably was Frederick's worst defeat.
Situation in Seven Years' War
By 1759, Prussia had reached a strategic defensive position in the war; Russian and Austrian troops surrounded Prussia, although not quite on the borders. Upon leaving winter quarters in April 1759, Frederick assembled his army in Lower Silesia; this forced the main Habsburg army to remain in its staging army in Bohemia. The Russians, however, shifted their forces into western Poland, a move that threatened the Prussian heartland, Brandenburg, and potentially Berlin itself. Frederick countered by sending an army corps, commanded by Friedrich August von Finck, to contain the Russians. Finck's efforts were defeated at the Battle of Kay, on 23 July. Subsequently, the Russian forces, commanded by Pyotr Saltykov, occupied Frankfurt an der Oder, Prussia's second largest city, on 31 July, and began entrenchment of their camp near Kunersdorf. To make matters worse for the Prussians, an Imperial corps of 19,200 soldiers, commanded by Ernst Gideon von Laudon, joined them on 5 August. King Frederick rushed from Saxony, took over the remnants of Lieutenant General Carl Heinrich von Wedel's contingent at Müllrose and moved across the Oder River. By the time he reached Kunersdorf, his forces had been enhanced by Finck's defeated corps, and another corps moving to the Lausitz region: by 9 August, he had 49,000 troops.
The terrain surrounding Kunersdorf suited itself well to defense. A stream, the Hühner-Fliess, flowed in a depression beyond these hills northwesterly toward the Oder. Two other depressions intersected the ridge, creating three distinct promontories. The western portion was a 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) stretch from the Juden-Berge in the south-west to the highest ground in the area, the Grosser Spitzberg and its outcropping int he north east. A narrow depression, known as the Kuhgrund, lay beyond that. After the Kuhgrund, the ground rose again into another hill, called Mühl-Berge. Beyond this lay a second depression known as Bäcker-grund, then a slight rise known as the Walk-Berge. There was additional high ground to the east of Kunersdorf, called the Kleiner Spitzberg.
Saltykov crossed the Oder on the same day as Frederick, and knew of Frederick's movements. He established his troops on a strong position from which to receive the Prussian attack. Saltykov entrenched himself in a position running from the Juden-Berge through the Grosser Spitzberg to the Mühl-Berge, and faced his troops to the south east. He and the Austrian troops were stretched along a ridge of small hills that ran north-easterly from the outskirts of Frankfurt to just north of the village of Kunersdorf (present day Kunovice). He had little concern about the northwestern face of the ridge, which was steep and fronted by a swampy ground called the Elsbruch, but a few of the Austrian contingents to his right faced northwester as a precaution. He knew that the Frederick had crossed the Oder south of Frankfurt and would attack from the south-east.
The Prussians reached the area north of the Hühner Fliess on 11 August. Frederick conducted a perfunctory reconnaissance of his enemy's position, but did not send scouts to reconnoiter the land or question locals about the ground; instead, he decided that all the Allies were facing northwest. He placed a diversionary force, commanded by Finck, at the Hühner Fliess, which would apparently threaten the north-eastern portion of the Allied position, and marched his main army around to the south east This way, he thought he would surprise his enemy, forcing the Allied army to reverse fronts, a fairly complicated maneuver, and Frederick could employ his much feared oblique battle order, feigning with his left flank as he did so. Ideally, this would allow him to roll up the Allied line from the Muhl-Berge.
It started at 2 a.m. on 12 August with an 8-hour Prussian march around the Russian and Austrian positions. This constituted the first blunder: Frederick exhausted his already tired men on a forced march to face the enemy where it was strongest. Early in the battle Frederick realized that he was actually facing his enemy, instead of coming up behind them. Furthermore, a row of ponds forced him to break his line, exposing it to greater fire power, and diminishing its impact. This was his first set-back: instead of a broad frontal attack, Frederick was forced to deploy his men into three narrow columns. He changed his dispositions; the Prussians would concentrate east of the ponds of Kunersdorf, and make an assault on the Mühl-Berge. Frederick calculated that he could turn the Austrian-Russian flank. His re-deployment took some time, and the hesitation in the assault confirmed to Saltykov what Frederick was planning.
As the Prussians approached, their own artillery batteries created an arc of artillery fire on the Russian sector by the Walk-Berge and the Kleiner Spitzberg. Shuvalov's Observation Corps, stationed on the Mühl-Berge, took substantial losses—perhaps 10 percent—and the Prussian grenadiers overwhelmed them at 11:30. Saltykov sent grenadiers to shore them up but the Prussians carried the Mühl-Berge, capturing 80 enemy cannon, which they could then deploy against the Russians. The Prussian position, despite this success, was not substantially better than a few hours earlier. To complete Frederick's battle plan, the Prussians would have to descend to the lower Kuhgrund and then assault a well-defended higher ground.
Prince Henry and several of the Prussian generals encouraged Frederic to stop there. The Prussians held the high ground between the Austro-Russian force and Frankfurt. Frederick's generals asked him to stop. To descend into the valley and ascend against frightful fire was foolhardy, they argued. Furthermore, the weather was blistering hot, and the troops had endured forced marches to reach the battle field. They had not had a hot meal in several days, having bivouacked the night before without fires. However, Frederick wanted to press his initial success and decided to continue the fight. He transferred his artillery to the Mühl-Berge, and ordered Finck's battalions to assault the Allied salient from the north-west, while his main strike would cross the Kuh-grund ravine.
Saltykov was ready for him and had reinforced the salient with reserves from the west and south-west; these reserves most of Loudon's infantry. Finck made no progress at the salient and the Prussia attacks at the Kuh-grund were thwarted with murderous fire along a very narrow front. Despite the fierce fighting, it looked like the Prussians might break through,but gradually the Allied superiority (423 artillery pieces) could be brought to bear on the Prussians as they struggled up the hill, and the Allied grenadiers held their lines. Saltykov fed in reinforcements judiciously from other sectors.
The battle culminated in the early evening hours with a massive Prussian cavalry charge under Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz upon the Russian center and artillery positions. The Prussian cavalry suffered heavy losses from cannon fire and retreated in complete disorder. Seydlitz himself was badly wounded and, in his absence, Lieutenant General Dubislav Friedrich von Platen assumed command. He organized the last-ditch effort. His scouts had discovered a suitable crossing past the chain of ponds south of Kunersdorf, but would have to deal with the artillery batteries on the Grosser Spitzberg. Seydlitz, wounded and but still following the action, noted that it was foolish to charge a fortified position with cavalry. The units sent against the position shattered; before any further action could take place, Loudon himself led a Austrian and Russian horse counter-attack and routed Platen's cavalry. The fleeing men and horses trampled their own infantry around the Mühl-Berge and general panic ensued.
At this point the battle was lost: two of Frederick's initiatives, his cavalry attack across the Fleiss, and his attack on the Kuhgrund, already had failed. His cavalry attack against fortified positions failed. The foot soldiers had been on their feet for 16 hours, half of that in a forced march over muddy and uneven terrain, and the other half in slogging battle against formidable odds.
At this point, Saltykov threw his own Cossack and Kalmyk cavalry into the fray. Frederick, who was in the very middle of the action but unhurt, barely escaped capture. Two of his horses were shot out from under him, his uniform was torn, and a snuff-box in his pocket was pulverized. He stood on a small hill with the remnants of his body-guard—Leib Cuirassier—determined to either hold the line against the whole enemy army, and surrounded by the Chuggavieski Cossacks. With a 100-strong Hussar squadron, Rittmeister Ernst Sylvius von Prittwitz cut his way through Cossacks and came to the king's rescue.
The Russians and Austrians lost about 15,000 men (approx. 5,000 killed), although some sources suggest a slightly higher number, perhaps 15,600 or 15,700; while the Prussians lost about 19,000. Regardless the percentage of Russian and Austrian losses were at about 26 percent, which is high for the 18th century. The Prussians suffered a severe defeat, losing 172 of their own cannons plus an additional 105 that they had captured from the Russians in the late morning on the Muhl-Berge; they also lost their entire horse artillery, an amalgam of cavalry and artillery in which the entire crews road horses into battle, one of Frederick's notable inventions. Despite their being wiped out during the battle, he reorganized these mobile batteries later in the year and they participated in the Battle of Maxen. and 6,000 killed, 13,000 wounded, more than 37 percent. An additional 26,000 men—most of the survivors—were scattered over the territory between Kunersdorf and Berlin; by the end of the battle itself, Frederick thought he had 3,000 men capable of mounting any kind of organized resistance. Four days after the battle however, most of the 26,000 scattered men turned up at the headquarters on the Oder River or in Berlin, and Frederick's army recovered to a strength of 32,000 men and 50 cannon. Furthermore, following the battle, the victorious Cossack troops committed (unspecified) atrocities against the population.
The storming of field works usually results in a disproportionate number of killed over wounded. The conclusion of the battle in hand-to-hand struggle also increased casualties on both sides. Finally, subsequent cavalry charges and the stampeding flight of the Prussian cavalry, caused many more injuries. Of men lost, on the Russian side, half were killed; on the Prussian side, two-thirds of the casualties were killed, and one third wounded. The Prussians also lost 60% of their cavalry, killed or wounded, In addition, Frederick lost six regimental colonels. In addition, among the dead lay Major Ewald Christian von Kleist, the famous poet of the Prussian army.
The crushing defeat remained without consequences when the victors did not the opportunity to march against Berlin and retired to Saxony instead. Frederick wrote of the "Miracle of the House of Brandenburg" in a letter to his brother Henry on 1 September. Russian army would no longer fight any major battle, allowing the Prussians to focus on the Austrians. Elizabeth of Russia continued her policy of support to Austria, considering it vital to Russian interests, but with decreasing effectiveness. The Russian supply lines, though, were strained beyond support and despite Austrian headquarters agreement to supply the Russian troops through their own lines, Russian troops took little part in the remaining battles of 1759 and 1760. The Russians did manage to capture the fortress at Kolberg in 1761, their sole success; Prussia was at its last gasp and Frederick despaired of preserving much of his remaining territory for his heir. The death of Elizabeth, and the ascension of her nephew, an admirer of Frederick's, saved the Prussian Kingdom. Peter immediately withdrew Russia from hostilities against Prussia.
Most military historians will agree that Kunersdorf was Friedrich's greatest, and most catastrophic, loss. They attribute it variously to his indifference to the Russian practices of the "art of war", to his lack of information about the ground, and his inability to realize that the Russians had, effectively, surmounted the obstacles of location. Frederick had made limited efforts to assess the terrain: the Russians and the Austrians had discovered a causeway between the lakes and the marshland that allowed them to present Frederick with a united front. This ability effectively cancelled any advantage Frederick could muster with the use of the oblique battle order. Furthermore, the Russians utilized a naturally defensible position that forced the Prussians to employ clumsy tactics. Despite the murderous fire, though, Frederick's troops eventually turned the Russian left, but to little benefit since the terrain allowed the Russians and Austrians to form a compact front shielded by the hills and marshes.
Perhaps Frederick most egregious mistake was his refusal to consider the recommendations of his trusted staff. His brother reasonably suggested the halt the battle at mid-day on the 12th, after the Prussians had secured the first height. From this vantage point, they would be unassailable, and eventually, the Austro-Russian force would have to withdraw. Instead of holding his secure position, Frederick forced his troops to descend the hill, cross the low ground, and ascend the next hill in the face of heavy fire. The subsequent Prussian cavalry effort was badly coordinated and, despite an initial success that drove back the Russian and Austrian squadrons, the fierce fire from the united Allied front eventually inflicted staggering losses on Frederick's much-vaunted cavalry. Furthermore, he committed perhaps the gravest of errors in sending his cavalry into battle piece meal, and against entrenched positions.
Sources differ on the losses: Frederick lost between 19,000 and 25,000 killed wounded and captured and the Russians lost about 15,000. Saltykov and Loudon left the field with intact armies, and with extant communications between one another. Frederick was not so fortunate: he had less than 5,000 men capable of offering any sort of resistance. The king wrote to Berlin to Karl Wilhelm von Finckensten, on the evening after the battle:
This morning at 11 o'clock I have attacked the enemy. ... All my troops have worked wonders, but at a cost of innumerable losses. Our men got into confusion. I assembled them three times. In the end I was in danger of getting captured and had to retreat. My coat is perforated by bullets, two horses of mine have been shot dead. My misfortune is that I am still living ... Our defeat is very considerable: To me remains 3,000 men from an army of 48,000 men. At the moment in which I report all this, everyone is on the run; I am no more master of my troops. Thinking of the safety of anybody in Berlin is a good activity ... It is a cruel failure that I will not survive. The consequences of the battle will be worse than the battle itself. I do not have any more resources, and - frankly confessed - I believe that everything is lost. I will not survive the doom of my fatherland. Farewell forever!
Frederick complicated his own fate by violating every principle of war he had espoused in his own writing, particularly the one on reconnaissance. On the basis of meager information and almost no understanding of the ground, he had thrown his infantry into the teeth of gun fire; he compounded this folly by committing his cavalry piecemeal to pointless charges. Although he had matured considerably since the disaster at Mollwitz in 1741, he still acted on ground of his enemy' choosing, not his own. Langer and Pois suggest, though, that he violated all his own rules because he was facing an enemy he despised, and this brought out the worst of his generalship.
- Christopher Duffy (1974). "prussians+53+b"&dq=kunersdorf+duffy+"prussians+53+b"&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwia0OH4jOLQAhUKiCwKHYfUDD0Q6AEIGjAA The army of Frederick the Great. Hippocrene Books. p. 235.
- Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche, Jean-Paul Bled
- Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, Penguin UK, 2007Penguin UK, 2007,here estimates at the low end; Stephen A. Barrow. Death of a Nation:A New History of Germany. Book Guild Publishing, 2016 here.
- Dennis E. Showalter, Frederick the Great: A Military History. Casemate Publishers, 2012, here.
- Franz A. J. Szabo (2013). The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756-1763. Routledge. p. 239. ISBN 978-0582292727.
- Bodart, pp. 20, 72.
- David T. Zabecki, Germany at War: 400 years of Military History. ABC-CLIO, 2014.
- Franz Szabo, The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756–1763. Routledge, 2013. p. 236.
- Szabo, p. 237.
- Scott Stephenson (Lt. Col, USArmy), Old Fritz Stumbles: Frederick the Great at Kunersdorf, 1759. Studies in Battle Command. DIANE Publishing, n.d., 9781428914650 p. 13.
- Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life, Routledge, 2015, pp. 50-56.
- Richard Holmes, John Pimlott, The Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans: Before and After Taylor & Francis, 1999, p. 124–126.
- Szabo, p. 238.
- Christopher Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West: Origins and Nature of Russian Military Power 1700-1800, Routledge, 2015, no page numbers, but beginning here.
- Faksimile und Übersetzung aus dem Französischen bei Herman von Petersdorff: Friedrich der Große. Ein Bild seines Lebens und seiner Zeit. Gebrüder Paetel, Berlin 1911, Beil. 17 (nach S. 400)
- Scott, p. 15; Duffy, here.
- Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare, Indiana University Press, 2004, p. 191.
- Stephen A. Barrow. Death of a Nation:A New History of Germany. Book Guild Publishing, 2016 here. 9781910508817
- Hedberg pp. 11–13.
- Paul Wanke, Russian/Soviet Military Psychiatry 1904–1945. Psychology Press, 2005, p. 5. Gaston Bodart represents losses at 39 percent. Bodart, p. 76.
- Wanke, p. 5.
- Gaston Bodart, Losses of Life in Modern Warfare, Clarendon Press, 1916, p. 20.
- Eberhart, Die schlacht von Kunersdorf am 12. august 1759: vortrag gehalten in der Militärischen gesellschaft zu Berlin am 24. jan. 1903, E[rnst] S[iegfried] Mittler und sohn, 1903 p. 31.
- Duffy, A Life, p. 52.
- Otto Hoetzsch, The Evolution of Russia, London, Thames and Hudson, 1966, p.93.
- David Fraser, Frederick the Great. King of Prussia, London: Allen Lane, 2000, p. 420.
- Russell F. Weigley, Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, in The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo, Indiana University Press, 2004 p. 192–193. isbn 0-253-21707-5
- Philip Langer, Robert Pois, Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership. Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 18–19.
- Langer and Pois, p. 22–24.
- Clark, Christopher, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, Penguin UK, 2007
- Duffy, Christopher. Frederick the Great: A Military Life, Routledge, 2015.
- Fraser, David, Frederick the Great. King of Prussia, London: Allen Lane, 2000
- Hedburg, Jonas (ed), Kungliga artilleriet: Det ridande artilleriet (1987) (summary in English) ISBN 91-85266-39-6
- Langer, Philip, Robert Pois, Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership. Indiana University Press, 2004
- Stephenson, Scott. (Lt. Col, US Army). Old Fritz Stumbles: Frederick the Great at Kunersdorf, 1759. Studies in Battle Command. DIANE Publishing, n.d., 9781428914650
- Szabo, Franz, The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756–1763. Routledge, 2013.
- Wanke, Paul, Russian/Soviet Military Psychiatry 1904–1945. Psychology Press, 2005.
- Weigley, Russell F. Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, in The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo, Indiana University Press, 2004.
- Weigley, Russell F. The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare, Indiana University Press, 2004,
- Zabecki, David T. Germany at War: 400 years of Military History. ABC-CLIO, 2014.