Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Battle of Rossbach: 5th November, 1757

Map of Rossbach from-Rossbach and Leuthen: Prussia's Eagle Resurgent
Dear Readers,

When we last left our heroes, the Prussian army was shadowing a larger French and Reichsarmee force. (The Reichsarmee was made up of troops from a motley collection of small German states.) While the French and Reichsarmee had the advantage in terms of number of soldiers, (about 40,000 to 22,000) the Prussians indisputably outmatched the allies in terms of quality.

On the morning of November 5th,  the allies began a wide flanking move in an effort to get around the Prussian army, and potentially destroy it with a flank attack. The supposedly "Great" king, Frederick, failed to notice this movement on the part of the enemy, he was busy having lunch.  The first Prussian to notice the movements of the enemy was Frederick's young Fl├╝geladjutant, Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Ersnt von Gaudi. According to historian Christopher Duffy, Gaudi reported to the king, "who was lunching with Prince Henry (his royal brother) Seydlitz, and a number of officers in the chamber below. If there was anything Frederick disliked more than having his monologues interrupted, it was signs of panic in a junior officer." Frederick told Gaudi that he was wrong about the flanking movement. Later, when the commander of a Frei-Battalion charged with watching the French, (the same Frei-Battalion a certain young Baron von Steuben was serving in...) reported the same, he was met with similar disdain from the great king.

Frederick dismisses Gaudi's (on right) report

However, Frederick is not, as historian Franz Szabo claims, totally at fault. After all, he had created a system in which these younger officers could report to him, and encouraged initiative among his advisers.  While I agree with Szabo that Frederick was in the wrong in this instance, I can not share his opinion on the Prussian military, which encouraged initiative, so that the army would not be destroyed if the king was at fault.

In time, when the movements of the enemy became more clear, subordinate Prussian officers made plans for movement in spite of the king's indifference, a move which undoubtedly saved the Prussian army. Frederick, finally awakening to the danger, moved prepared his infantry to move, and instructed General Seydlitz to take command of the Prussian cavalry.

The map of the Battle of Rossbach, from Christopher Duffy's: Prussia's Glory, pg 67.

Seydlitz immediately sprang into action, and his cavalry attack shattered the allies advanced guard. Young Fahnen-Cadet von Barsewisch, who we heard from in the last post, described the battle from his place with Prussian Regiment von Meyerinck (IR 26), on the map, von Meyerinck is right by the box which reads, "Final Attack."  Barsewisch describes the battle:

"To that end, His Majesty had re-positioned eight Battalions, of which our regiment was one, because of the re-positioning of the enemy.  There we stood, calmly, and went about our lunch, while awaiting further orders.  At roughly 2 O’clock in the afternoon, the enemy suddenly shifted their march left towards Rossbach, in an effort to turn our left flank, and began to march up. The speed with which we broke down the camp, formed battle array, and began to march up was indescribable. About 3 O’clock in the afternoon, a cannonade began, and the army stood in battle order. Our cavalry on the left wing, under the command of General Seydlitz crashed into the enemy cavalry, and on the second shock, the enemy cavalry took flight, and threw many of the infantry behind them wholly into ruin.
 Our infantry battalions from the left wing appeared from under our cannon, and engaged the French Swiss corps in such a way that they were still in columns. These columns were in the form of an ancient Phalanx, and through want of time and space to deploy, they were situated in rows of men a hundred deep. In this manner, they attempt to charge. This unstoppable Swiss Phalanx of left thousands of dead behind, and the whole of the French army was in such confusion, that they attempted to escape and flee, and by nightfall, they had left their cannons behind and were totally defeated by our left wing."

In essence, the Prussian cavalry attacked, defeated the enemy cavalry, and then reformed. The Prussian infantry regiments advanced on the allies, who were still in marching columns. Desperately, these marching columns attempted to charge and break the Prussian infantry through force of shock. The incredible firepower of the Prussian infantry and artillery stopped this attack, which developed into a firefight. This phase of the battle is artistically represented below:

Painting from- Rossbach and Leuthen: Prussia's Eagle Resurgent 
 However, by this point in the battle, General Seydlitz had reformed the Prussian cavalry, and they attacked the flank of the allies, throwing their army into a total rout.  The Prussian's lost 548 men, while the allies lost 5,000 dead and wounded, and 5,000 prisoners. Franz Szabo deliberately misrepresents these casualty figures, stating that the allies only lost 5,000 total men.

 While Frederick may have been slow to recognize the danger, and even slower to accept the advice of his subordinates, his handling of the main infantry line enabled the allies to be caught between the anvil of the Prussian infantry, and the hammer of Seydlitz and Prussian cavalry.

Why is Rossbach important? Why should we "remember remember," THIS 5th of November?

Remember in the last post when I was talking about how the English had been basically knocked out of the war, and the French were going to be able to send more troops to North America? Rossbach changed all that. This Prussian victory gave the British an excuse to get back into the war in Europe, where they were able to prevent French expansion into western Germany. It also tied down French forces in Europe, which allowed the British to conquer Canada, which retains ties with the British to this day. If this battle had not happened, the Seven Years' War would have been much shorter than seven years, with a different victor.

If this 5th of November had not occurred, the whole geopolitics of the Atlantic world could be radically different than it is today. That is why you should remember the 5th of November, 1757.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

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  1. Enjoyable read, but I do have to point out, Canada is not a British possession ;)

    1. Thanks for reading. I agree with you-the British have not control over Canada. That's why I said technically, I believe that Queen Elizabeth is still the head of state, on paper. So perhaps I did overstate the relationship between the two countries. Out of curiosity, are you Canadian?

    2. How did you guess ;) ?

      QE2 is the head of state of Canada, but not by virtue of being Queen of England; she just happens to be queen (and head of state) of both countries. If the English decided tomorrow to become a republic, she would remain Queen of Canada.

      The British government has had no connection to, or authority over, Canada (not even a technical or nominal one) since 1982, when the Canadian constitution was repatriated. It may seem a technicality, but it matters to us ;)

      I'm enjoying this series, including the most recent installment, do please continue with it.