Leuthen 1757

On this date, the battle of Leuthen was fought between the Prussians under Frederick the Great and the Austrians (sorry Erik) commanded by Charles of Lorraine. Frederick had already defeated a Franco-Imperial (Reichsarmee) army at Rossbach a month earlier, but found himself retracing his steps in order to maneuver the Austrians into battle after they threatened Berlin and captured the Silesian city of Breslau. It being late in the season, the Austrians confusedly evacuated Breslau on their way to winter quarters, but were caught out by Frederick near the village of Leuthen, grounds which the Prussian army had used many a time for training maneuvers. Prussian hussars rushed to fix the enemy before it could escape. Frederick made use of his detailed knowledge of the terrain to demonstrate in front of the enemy’s center and right wing, while a detachment of his infantry marched away from the main Prussian formation, disappearing behind a ridge of low-lying hills. The Austrians, after witnessing enemy troops apparently abandoning the battlefield in standard march column formation, were shocked to see those units emerge from behind the hills opposite the weak left flank of the Austrian position; Habsburg surprise turned to terror as the Prussian foot quickly wheeled onto the attack using Frederick’s now-famous oblique order. Austria’s army fell into confusion as it attempted to rotate its west-facing front 90° to the south, where the Prussians had reformed and were quickly approaching. Austrian defenders in the village of Leuthen offered their lives to buy their compatriots enough time to form a scattered line, and cannonfire, musket shot and cold steel rang out for several hours until night fell. Outnumbered 2:1, the Prussian flanking maneuver allowed Frederick to defeat the over-extended Austrians; Habsburg numbers did, nevertheless, make Prussian troops pay for the victory with heavy losses. For only the billionth time in history, the victorious commander exclaimed that just a few more hours would’ve allowed the battle to become the most decisive in a century, but the Austrians managed to limp off toward their Bohemian base to the south. Over the winter and into the spring Prussian forces mopped up the enemy’s remnant garrisons in Silesia. The war would continue with the anti-Prussian forces weakened: Austria managed to fend off a Prussian offensive in 1758 while their French allies lost interest in future interventions in central Europe. Prussia was buoyed by new British subsidies, but after a diversion to fend off a Swedish threat, the rising might of Russia would focus the philosopher-king’s attention on this implacable foe in the east. Prussia managed to barely deflect renewed assaults on all sides until the fortuitous accession of a Germanophilic tsar to the Russian throne allowed another advance into Austria, courtesy of “the miracle of the House of Brandenburg.” Within a year, another successional struggle in Russia turned the tide against Frederick once again, while a new ministry in Britain closed its purse to further Prussian subsidies. An exhausted peace was finalized in 1763.

So much for my attempt to summarize a battle and war in a paragraph.

On a related note, here’s a table of Frederick’s battles that I compiled from Duffy’s The Army of Frederick the Great for my warfare course. I did it pretty quickly the day before class and haven’t checked it since, so let me know of any errors.

In class I ask the students to interpret the data. Here are a few of the things we note:

  • the seasonality of the battles (a lot of battles late in the season)
  • the preponderance of battles in the 7YW (the horizontal lines indicate phases of the wars)
  • the small size of most of Frederick’s armies, especially late in the 7YW
  • the size disparities between Prussian and enemy forces
  • the ratio of Prussian-to-enemy losses, even when outnumbered, as at Leuthen
  • with a few exceptions, the later battles cost Frederick a lot more (percentage wise) than his enemies. Bye-bye drilled veterans!

Suggested Readings:

Duffy, Christopher. The Army of Frederick the Great. London: Emperor’s Press, 1996.

Duffy, Christopher. Prussia’s Glory: Rossbach and Leuthen 1757. Chicago: The Emperor’s Press, 2003.

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3 responses to “Leuthen 1757”

  1. John Stapleton says :

    Jamel:

    You should look more closely at Duffy’s book on Rossbach and Leuthen. According to his research, the Prussians were not as outnumbered at Leuthen as historians had believed. I think he estimates between 38,000 and 40,000 Prussians versus between 50,000 and 55,000 Austrians. Also, he did not use an oblique attack per se but more of a complex form of the older processional to set up his forces on the Austrian flank at Leuthen.

    John

    • jostwald says :

      Fair enough. I used his earlier “Army of Frederick the Great” book for the chart because 1) I had it at the time, and 2) because I wanted consistency in methodology and a full range of stats for all the battles – his Rossbach/Leuthen book doesn’t have those other battles. For what it’s worth, I did notice the difference in Duffy’s sizes between the two books, but didn’t want to go and change the table because I thought it would be a waste of time. So much for that idea! As we know, numbers are very difficult to pin down, and it takes a long time for “corrected” numbers to make their way through the historical consciousness, witness the continued use of 16,000 defenders at Lille in 1708 vs. the more-likely 8,000 Sautai calculated in the 1890s. Ironically perhaps, this post illustrates the same tendency I’ve criticized elsewhere – historians in a hurry usually go for the largest processed dataset (although at least with this Frederick set I had to cobble the answers together from throughout a book instead of relying on a handy table, and that’s why it’s an informal blog!), rather than go through all the sources sifting and weighing. That’s pretty time consuming, as I know from my sieges and you know from your regimental counts.
      As for oblique order or not, we know it was almost never used, and the theoretical will never approach the reality in combat. I was in fact basing the reference off of Duffy’s Leuthen book. On p149 he says “The arrangement of the army as a whole was intended to put the weight of the attack heavily on one of its wings, in this case, on the right. This was the grand tactic of the celebrated Frederician Oblique Order…. The Oblique Order was given its fullest expression at Leuthen.” So unless we’re going to ban the term altogether, I think it’s merited here if anywhere. I included it largely because the term would have resonance for people who aren’t as familiar with the complications of battlefield command and control (and I am obviously a master of the battlefield! ;).
      Thanks, Jamel

  2. Erik Lund says :

    It was closer than it looked! What matters is the season record! The Imperialists had a bad travel schedule! The coach should have started Daun!

    What Jon said about the numbers. Unfortunately, unlike with the (earlier) campaigns of the War of the Austrian Succession, we don’t have an Austro-Hungarian equivalent to Krieges Friedrich des Grossen, so we have to take the ludicrously manipulated numbers out of Potsdam, rather than the scientifically vetted numbers handed down from the cerulean clarity inhabited by the historical section of the k. (u.) k. General Staff.

    Next, this was a Reichsexekution duly voted by the Diet. So “Imperial” seems a more-than-sufficiently accurate adjective to describe the army Prince Charles was leading, as opposed to the Reichsarmee just summarily handled at Rossbach.

    And, finally, I can’t help being struck by the contrast between the way that the Imperialists, caught out sleeping rough with only their march ration, and the Prussians,* issued double rations of food and firewood on the night before the battle. It’s the everyday things that sometimes count the most.

    NB: Obviously the armies of the Kurfurst of Brandenburg were not actually Prussians, for the most part. We use the term from the perspective of his royal title taking precedence over his margravate. So why do we promote the chief of clan Zollern and demote the chieftainess of the Habsburgs? Are we taking up well-established partisan positions favouring the Reformed prince over the Catholic? Does my Gran smell of elderberries?

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