Friday, June 16, 2017

Kolin: Why did Frederick lose?

Richard Knoetel's reimagining of Frederick and a Cuirassier after Kolin. Edited for Richard's apparent lack of understanding how shadows work.

Dear Reader,

This Sunday is the 260th anniversary of one of the most important battles in the Seven Years' War, the Battle of Kolin. In this battle, fought on June 18th, 1757, Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) lost for the first time in his military career. From the beginning of his military career as king in 1740, to the Battle of Prague, fought on May 6th, 1757,  Frederick had never lost a battle. Without delving too far into the narrative of the battle, this post attempts to establish why this battle was Frederick's first taste of defeat.

A map of the battle, likely copied from Christopher Duffy, from the German website

If you want a narrative of the battle, and don't have any books by Christopher Duffy close at hand, try this site, or this one.

So: What explanations for the defeat have historians advanced in the past?

1) The Lost Cause explanation
According to this line of thinking, it was hopeless to expect the Prussians to win at Kolin. How could 34,000 Prussians ever hope to overcome 52,000 Austrians in a defensive position? Oddly enough, the folks in this camp are often cheering the most when 22,000 Prussians beat 42,000 Frano-Imperials at Rossbach five months later at Rossbach, or when 33,000 Prussians defeat 65,000 Austrians six months later at Leuthen.

2) The Overconfident Frederick explanation
According to this theory, such as advanced version advanced at the second link above, all of the success had gone to Frederick's head, and he did not respect the real threat presented by Daun and the Austrian field army under his command. "Like Lee at Gettysburg," in the words of the blogger above, Frederick believed that his men were invincible and that they could carry any position. If that is true, why didn't Frederick order frontal assaults more often? Why did maneuver and flanking still form such a key part of his strategy?

3) The Exhausted Prussians explanation
For believers in this explanation, the Prussian army was simply pushed to the breaking point by the the Battle of Prague on May 6th, 1757, and had not had sufficient time to recover. Christopher Duffy appears to be in this camp, quoting the following source:
"Never did troops march less willingly than did our men on this occasion - it was as if they were being led to a place of execution. They were shocked by the resistance the Austrians had put up [at Prague], and they feared the worst... our strength and courage seemed to have drained away."[1]
This is a hard idea to refute, supported as it is by primary source evidence. With that said, Warnery was writing over thirty years after the events. A quick examination of the service record of Prussian infantry regiments reveals that around 40% of the infantry regiments had not fought at Kolin, while 60% had. In addition, as the day wore on, multiple units who had been engaged at Prague were moved from the rear of the Prussian army into the heaviest fighting.

An artist's reimagining of the Prussian 2nd Battalion of Guards at Kolin

4) The Frederick's Tactical Blunders explanation
Frederick II's military reputation has suffered in recent years, as impartial historians credit him with a 50/50 win-loss record, polemic Frederick-bashers place all blame for Prussian defeats on his shoulders, and even positive biographers note that he was more useful as a campaign planner than as a battlefield commander.  Could his plan have been flawed? Absolutely. Frederick would misjudge attacking a defensive position again in the Seven Years' War, at the Battle of Kunersdorf. However, his exact plan at Kolin seems to have made sense and been clearly understood by his generals. According to a Royal Page, Prinz Moritz von Anhalt-Dessau replied after the king's briefing: "No one can misunderstand it: It is so clear that no-one will make a mistake."[2]

5) The Blundering Subordinates explanation
Like the American Civil War lost-causers attempting to blame James Longstreet for what happened at Gettysburg, Frederick's subordinate generals have certainly been accused of failing the Prussian monarch at this critical juncture. In this view, Johann Dietrich von Hülsen, Prinz Moritz von Anhalt-Dessau, or Duke August Wilhelm von Bevern are responsible for the failure of the Prussian attack. By and large, these accusations are unfounded. Hülsen rose to successful independent command later in the Seven Years' War, winning smaller battles such as the Combat at Strehla. Prinz Moritz was also successful, and redeemed his reputation at Leuthen, but died in the course of the war. Bevern had shown great skill in commanding men on the battlefield, and would again, at battles such as Reichenbach in 1762.

6) The Austrian Military Competence explanation
This final explanation put forth by Christopher Duffy over his two-volume examination of the Austrian army in the Seven Years' War, makes the most sense. The Austrians knew Frederick's strategy and planned accordingly. A clever Austrian junior officer, Franz Vettesz, correctly predicted the Prussian plan of attack on the morning of the battle. Daun, the Austrian field marshal, quickly acted on this information. Seeing his path to victory, Daun used delaying forces such as Croats and light artillery to slow the main Prussian attack under Hülsen while bringing the weight of his superior numbers to bear on the Prussian force.

With this in mind, the battle looks less like an Austrian Gettysburg and more like an Austrian Antietam. The Austrians correctly divined the Prussian plan, and defeated the Prussian army, but failed to capitalize their victory or, as was common in the eighteenth century, pursue their defeated foe. In addition, the battle was costly for the Austrian force.  When the 4,000 Prussian prisoners are removed from the equation, the Austrians and Prussians lost a very similar number of men (approx. 9,000) dead and wounded. Kolin was a hard fought Austrian victory. Rather than always looking for an explanation on the Prussian side of the equation, perhaps some credit is due to the men who earned it.

Austrian Grenadiers in 1748

 The Prussians fought hard and long, following a strategy that had previously been highly successful. They inflicted large losses on the Austrian army and exhausted the Austrians so much that a pursuit of the defeated Prussian army was impossible. Kolin ended a victorious chapter in the history of the Prussian army but did not end the Seven Years' War. It would take five more years of bloody conflict to draw this war to a close.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Warnery, Campagnes de Frederic II, 135.
[2] Duncker, Aus der Zeit Friedrichs der Grossen und Friedich Wilhelm III, 90.  


  1. Alex you are right in your conclusion that Kolin was a close hard fought battle that the Prussians came close to winning.

    Most People forget that at Kolin the Prussian attack was not an initial frontal assault but was an attack swinging around the Austrian right flank similar to what they did at the Battle of Prague the month prior. Most maps do not show the initial positions of the Austrians/Prussians mainly facing West/East prior to the start of the flank march that led to the battle that was Prussian/Austrian on a North/South axis. Frederick was smart in not launching a frontal assault against the initial Austrian position that mainly was facing west along the heights between Poborz and Swojschitz. When the Prussian attack started the Austrians were in place on Przerovsky Hill, but not on Krzeczhorz hill as Wied’s Inf Div was still redeploying from its initial West facing. It was the Croats who defending Krzeczhorz and the adjacent Swedish earthworks that slowed Hulsen down enough, allowing the Austrians to deploy on Krzeczhorz hill. The Prussian initial attack almost succeeded and the rest of the days hard fighting back and forth showed that it was not a foregone conclusion that the Austrians were going to win.

    Most people assume that the Austrians with a significantly larger number of men by over 40% more (20,000 men) than the Prussians, can steamroll them. What most games/scenarios fail to account for is the Higher Quality of the Prussians over the Austrians in 4 Areas. 1) The Prussian Inf/Cav are better trained and more experienced that the Austrian Inf/Cav. While the Austrians, especially the Inf, are improved from the WAS, they are not yet the Prussians equals. So each Prussian unit is better than one of its equivalent opposites. Items 2-4 are as a result of the emergency of a large part of the Austrian army being bottled up in Prague under siege. 2) About 20% of the total Inf were Grenz/Croat units. While these troops did a great job in delaying Hulsen’s attack, and could fight the Prussian Inf from defensible areas, they could not fight the Prussian Inf/Cav in the open like Austrian Fusilier Inf, so are limited in capability for Daun. 3) About 20% of the Austrian Reg Line Fusilier Inf were 3rd “depot” battalions of the regt. While these units are better than militia, they are surely not as good in quality as the normal Austrian Fusilier 1st/2nd battalions. 4) About 40% of the Austrian Cav is Lt Cav and not Battle Cav. In Daun’s relief army about 25% of the Cav was regular Hussars which is comparable to the normal 20-25% Lt Cav in an Austrian Field Army. But then an additional 15% of the Cav were Grenz Hussars that were less capable than the regular Hussars.

    In total about 60% of the Austrian numerical advantage was in Inf/Cav that were inferior to their normal Austrian unit types. If this is not properly represented on the tabletop, you do not get an accurate refight of Kolin.

    The main advantage of the Austrian positions on Przerovsky Hill and Krzeczhorz Hill is that they allowed Daun on them to see all of the Prussian movements and react to them, while shielding some of his movements from the view of the Prussians. The hills while excellent Artillery platforms are not steep, with a Grade of only 6% on both the lower and upper parts of the northern slopes where the Prussians attacked. Inf/Cav can march and charge like normal, except where the Swedish earthworks are which is a sudden high/steep defensible position. There were no fieldworks constructed by the Austrians to help them defend as they had not the time. So the Austrians were not in a highly defensible, impregnable position. Some players overrate the defensive nature of the hills in a wargame.