Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Valley Forge vs. the Bunzelwitz Position

George Washington, (no cool royal title)
Frederick II, King of Prussia
Dear Reader,

In the mythos of Kabinettskriege conflict, the modern mind is drawn to aggressive action. Those alive to a sense of the past might recall Karl XII's Karoliner attacking through ice-strewn fields at Narva or Fraustadt, the daring attacks by George Washington at Trenton and Princeton, Wolfe's men scaling the heights at Quebec, or Frederick II of Prussia's masterpiece at Leuthen. Today, we are going to examine something a bit less glamorous, but no less vital to securing the reputation of these great commanders: positional warfare.

The two positions under comparison are George Washington's 1777/1778 winter encampment and defensive position near Valley Forge, and Frederick II of Prussia's defensive position in the autumn of 1761, near the fortress of Schwiednitz. We will examine the Prussian position in the Seven Years' War first, before moving to the American winter encampment.

Although known for his aggressive attacks, Frederick II was also a master of defensive positional warfare. In 1761, Frederick faced disaster when two larger Austrian and Russian armies combined against him. Six years into the conflict, the Prussian army had only 54,000 men with which to face the Austrian and Russian armies combined total of some 140,000 men. Desperate to retain his position in the Prussian province of Silesia, Frederick assumed a defensive position near Schwiednitz, his vital Silesian fortress.  Frederick knew that his troops were no longer of a superior enough quality to risk open battle against such stacked odds.

Positions: Prussian (Blue) Austrian (White) and Russian (Green)

This position, which centers on the modern town of Jaworzyna Slaska (which did not exist in the eighteenth century) saw  39,000 Prussian infantry in a line some 7 miles/11.5 kilometers in distance. Frederick correctly identified the salient around Wickendorf and Jauernick (present-day Witkow and Stary Jaworow) as vulnerable part of the line. Though the Prussian position was not geographically formidable, (certainly nothing like the Zobtenberg east of Schwiednitz) Frederick was able to use heavy field fortifications combined with gently sloping ground in order to offer a truly daunting defensive perimeter.

Photos of the modern-day position capture some of the ground's tactical usefulness.

The view just West of Stary Jaworow (Jauernick) looking north towards the Prussian Nighttime HQ
Prussian defensive positions in between Stary Jaworow and Czechy (Jauernick and Tschechen)

Approach ground of planned Austrian attack in on the Position


Prussian position opposite the previous image

View towards Austrian positions near the Nonnen-Busch (forest underneath Grochotow on the map)


Prussian Positions across from the Nonnen-Busch
The Prussian position, then, did not take its strength from geographic features, but from the clear, sweeping fields of fire which the position afforded Prussian artillery. Frederick had 182 guns in and around Bunzelwitz, and he positioned most of them into redoubts which crisscrossed the gorund with lanes of fire. Indeed, despite his failing health, so often cited by historians who dismiss Frederick as past his prime as a commander in the Seven Years War, Frederick spent every night at Bunzelwitz at the fortifications with his men.

"Officers and soldiers alike had to live on bread and water. So as to set an example to the soldiers, the king made a point of staying every night in one or other of the batteries, where he had a bale of straw brought up to serve as his chair." (Quoted in Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life, 223, from Warnery, Campanges de Fredriec II, 1788, 474)

The Austrians developed a plan for a grand attack on the Bunzelwitz encampment, but this attack stalled when Frederick destroyed Russian supply depots in Poland by means of a raid, forcing part of the Russian army to withdraw. Although Frederick was forced to abandon the Bunzelwitz position when the fortress of Schwiednitz was captured, this position bought vital time for Frederick, from August 20th to October 6th. This month and a half could have brought disaster for the Prussian army, with vastly superior forces present in theatre against a smaller Prussian army. Instead, Frederick and his soldiers survived in order to enter winter quarters late in 1761, where they would receive the news that Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna had died. While this news did not mean an immediate end to the war, it did mean the Russians would switch sides in 1762, bringing the war back into roughly equal terms, and allowing Frederick to seize victory.

National Park Service map of the defenses at Valley Forge
I had the pleasure of visiting Valley Forge National Historical Park for the first time over the last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw there. George Washington utilized excellent defensive terrain in order to winter his army less than twenty miles from substantial British forces. When considering Valley Forge, generally historians gloss over  the defensive nature of the position in order to discuss issues such as the deprivation, sickness, and professionalization of the Continental Army. However, much like the Prussian position at the Bunzelwitz, Valley Forge was chosen with defense in mind. The continental army required a defensible location close enough to continue observation of the British force in Philadelphia. While a winter offensive by British General Howe might not seem likely, it was certainly a possibility, considering Washington's own actions the year before, as well as Frederick II's winter offensive in Silesia in 1757.

The outer line of defenses consisted of a number of infantry brigades occupying a ridge. The fields of fire on this ridge are truly impressive. Behind the initial line, the American position had a further set of defenses on the high ground in between the army's camp and Washington's HQ near Valley Forge. The defensive positions at Valley Forge provided a haven for the army to survive the winter, and allowed for a renewed and retooled Continental Army to prosecute the war successfully against the British in the following years.

 Here are a few photos of the defensive lines at Valley Forge.

The view from just west of the Redan near Muhlenberg's Brigade, facing southwest.
The opposite view, towards the outer line from south of Poor's Brigade, facing northeast.
The southwestern extremity of the outer line, held by Scott's Brigade

From behind the artillery park, facing southeast towards the outer defense line

Now that we have examined both of these positions, some comparison needs to be made. First of all, in my opinion, Valley Forge is much more geographically impressive than position around Bunzelwitz. This is especially apparent terms of the sweeping fields of fire the south of the outer line defenses. The high ground around the inner line at Valley Forge is higher than almost any portion of the Bunzelwitz position, perhaps excepting the Wuerbenburg behind Bunzelwitz.

 Considering the smaller numbers of troops engaged, it should not surprise us that the defenses at Valley Forge are considerably smaller than Bunzelwitz: stretching around 2 miles compared with to Bunzelwitz' 7. However- this is telling. Frederick's infantry were stretched thin at Bunzelwitz, and he had 39,000 men to defend a 7 mile frontage, or around 5,500 per mile. By that calculation, it would seem that the the roughly 7,000 (allowing for desertion and sickness) available to Washington in the early winter would have been inadequate to defend the frontage in the case of an attack. This calculation appears to have even more weight when considering the number of cannon available to both armies. At Monmouth the following year, the Americans seem to have had 16 cannon, but supposing at Valley Forge they had double that number, their position would still have been dangerously short.

Another point worth consideration is the location of the headquarters. The Prussian army manned the Bunzelwitz position in 12 hour shifts, with the night headquarters being much closer to the lines, practically in Jauernick. By contrast, the American headquarters was a mile and a half away from the outer line of defense. While certainly the possibility of attack at Bunzelwitz seemed an imminent reality in a way it did not at Valley Forge. In the advent of a British attack, would valuable time have been lost, making the trek from the headquarters to the outer line?

In the final accounting, Washington's position at Valley Forge was certainly better sited than Frederick's at Bunzelwitz. However, the weakened state of the Continental Army and the smaller number of cannon at the Continental's disposal made the position at Valley Forge tenuous. Both of these eighteenth-century commanders proved their worth, and both of these defensive positions were formidable, and continue to be imposing today.

Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns




2 comments:

  1. Alex, I visited Bunzelwitz with Duffy and have been to Valley Forge several times. You are correct, the defensive concept was identical. I have a photo of Jim Purky standing in an still existent Bunzelwitz entrenchment!

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    Replies
    1. Ken- that is awesome! I'd love to see it someday.

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