1757-11-05 - Battle of Rossbach

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Battles >> 1757-11-05 - Battle of Rossbach

Prussian Victory

Prelude to the Battle

At the end of October 1757, after the initial invasion of Saxony the Franco-Imperial army which had previously retreated into the Eisenach hills finally came out in the open. Frederick II who was waiting for such an opportunity since mid-September quickly concentrated his army at Leipzig.

By October 31, Frederick was at Weissenfels. He crossed the Saale river the following day. From November 2 to 5, both armies manoeuvred and counter-manoeuvred trying to get an advantageous position from where a successful attack could be launched upon the enemy.

Map

As it passes Weissenfels, the Saale turns from eastward (his course for the 19 previous km) to north-eastward, then to northward at Merseburg. Right across from Weissenfels, lapped in this crook of the Saale which bordered it on south and east side, rises lazily a dull circular lump of country. It is about 11 km in diameter with Rossbach and half a dozen other hamlets scattered on it. The two topmost points were Janushügel and Polzenhügel, rather flat hills indeed. Saale River was some 7 km distant. Westward and northward, two brooks springing about Mücheln ran towards the Saale. This whole flat country had no vestige of hedge, shrub or bush. The two roads coming respectively from Freyburg and Naumburg and heading towards Merseburg, crossed this height straight like the string.

Map of the battle of Rossbach.
 
Source: Die Werke Friedrichs des Grossen in deutscher Übersetzun, Vol 4, by Gustav Berthold Volz and Friedrich von Oppeln-Bronikowski
 
Courtesy: Tony Flores


Description of Events

Did you know that...
In 1757 after this defeat, a French anonymous author published a song entitled "Comprenez-vous" or "Les reproches de la Tulipe à Mme de Pompadour".

An interpretation of this song by Gabriel Yacoub is available on Youtube if you expand the original message, you'll have access to the lyrics.

Early in the morning of Saturday November 5, an Austrian party had broken the bridge on the Saale at Herren-Mühle cutting off Frederick from Weissenfels.

Hildburghausen sent a message to the Prince de Soubise stating that they should not loose a moment and attack Frederick immediately. Hildburghausen thought that Frederick would not attack them but would rather try to cut their communications with Freyburg. He concluded with the suggestion that the Franco-Imperial army should gain the heights near Pettstädt and attack him from that side

At about 11:00 AM, Soubise struck his camp. Meanwhile, Frederick, who had his quarters in the Herrenhaus of Rossbach, went up to the roof where some tiles were removed to allow him to observe the movements of the Franco-Imperial army. He carefully studied their manoeuvres for almost an hour. He saw that the Franco-Imperial army (about 41,000 men) was getting in movement, marching towards Gröst. He then ordered the army to hold themselves in readiness. The Franco-Imperial army was arrayed in three parallel columns. Artillery was placed between the columns with cavalry as vanguard and rearguard.

At about noon, the right wing of the Franco-Imperial army had gone through Gröst.

A body of French horse chiefly, under the Comte de Saint-Germain, deployed between Schortau and Almsdorf as if intending to attack about Rossbach where the Prussian left wing was. Saint-Germain did nothing but cannonading a little. Meanwhile, the Franco-Imperial army continued its slow movements. It turned southward, rather south-eastward, from Gröst out in the Rossbach and Almsdorf region and then proceeded towards Pettstädt. Its true intention being to get upon Frederick's left wing.

During his dinner at the Herrenhaus of Rossbach, Frederick was informed by adjutant Gaudi that the Franco-Imperial army had now turned to left and was advancing on Pettstädt.

A little after 1:00 PM, Frederick climbed to the roof of the Herrenhaus again to observe the advance of the Franco-Imperial army. He was not sure whether the enemy was marching towards Freyburg to replenish its supplies, or towards Merseburg to cut him off from the Saale. Frederick planned to wait for the proper time and to strike at the rear end of the enemy army.

At 2:30 PM, Frederick ordered his army to march eastward. He also gave orders to General Seydlitz to move with the whole cavalry to the left behind the heights, in order to cut the Franco-Imperial army off from Merseburg. The cavalry were saddled and in motion in a moment.

At 3:00 PM, the Prussian army (22,000 men) was on the road. Mayer with some freikorps and light cavalry was left to amuse Saint-Germain. Seydlitz, with all his cavalry, vanished round the corner of the Janushügel invisible to the enemy. In fact, he was heading for the Janus and Polzen hills. The infantry followed at double-quick pace.

Soubise was agreeably surprised by the Prussian movement and concluded that Frederick was speedily retreating to Merseburg. He thus ordered his own army to march at double-quick pace too, hoping to catch him during his attempt to cross the Saale. Meanwhile, Seydlitz with his 38 squadrons (about 4,000 horse) reached his assigned position behind the Polzenhügel and Janushügel. He then wheeled about, front to southward, forming the new left wing.

The Franco-Imperial infantry was unable to keep up with his own cavalry vanguard (7,000 horse) which was now advancing at a sharp trot. This cavalry vanguard, under the Duc de Broglie, soon reached the Janus and Polzen hills southern slope and began to climb it.

Seydlitz had hussar pickets on top of the hills to keep him informed of the enemy movement.

Seydlitz signalling to charge by throwing his clay pipe in the air - Source: Richard Knötel, 1895

At 3:30 PM, Seydlitz came to the top of the hills. He rapidly formed his cavalry in two lines and, without waiting for the Prussian infantry, plunged on the advancing Franco-Imperial cavalry vanguard which in fact constituted the right flank of the army. Broglie was totally surprised and had not even time to form. Only the two Austrian cuirassier regiments (Bretlach and Trautmansdorf) got completely formed, the rest very incompletely. Seydlitz charged thrice through this mass of disorganised cavalry.

At 4:00 PM, the Franco-Imperial cavalry vanguard was in full rout, plunging on his own infantry and driven through Reichardtswerben. Seydlitz soon reformed in the hollow of Tagewerben. Frederick with the infantry left wing now emerged over Janus hill while 18 field guns and four heavy guns taken from the walls of Leipzig opened fire from the same hill on the Franco-Imperial infantry.

Frederick had placed his infantry right wing and centre "refused" in oblique ranks, invisible behind the hill. His left wing consisted of seven battalions, five of them under Keith, in one line. Soubise hurled regiments in an attempt to form a line from his columns of march. But all regiments were jammed in an astonishing way. The Prussian line steadily strode forward and, at 40 paces, delivered its first burst of platoon fire. It then continued steady at the rate of five volleys a minute. The Franco-Imperial regiments soon began to waver. It was the moment that Seydlitz chose to burst out of Tagewerben hollow and to charge the rear of them. This was too much for the disorganised infantry who broke and routed. This second act of the battle had lasted a mere 25 minutes.

By 4:30 PM, the battle was over. Frederick’s right was then at Lundstädt and his left at Reichartswerben. The retreat became a rout. Saint-Germain tried to cover the retreat but got broken by Mayer's troops. However, there was no pursuit.

The Franco-Imperials lost 8,000 men: 800 killed, 2,200 wounded and 5,000 prisoners (8 generals and 300 officers). It also lost 67 guns, standards (2 from Fitz-James Cavalerie, 1 from Penthièvre Cavalerie, 1 from Saluces Cavalerie, 1 from Bussy-Lameth Cavalerie and 1 from Descars Cavalerie), flags, kettle-drums (from Fitz-James Cavalerie) and meaner baggages. The Prussian lost 165 killed, 376 wounded.

Outcome

The Franco-Imperials soon abandoned Saxony, leaving Frederick in control of this country and allowing him to focus on another theatre of operation, namely Silesia. Indeed, the Austrians had taken advantage of the fixation of the Prussian army on the western front since mid-September to proceed to the invasion of Silesia contested province and to the capture of Breslau (present-day Wroclaw) its capital.

Order of Battle

Franco-Imperial Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: Fieldmarshal Prince von Hildburghausen assisted by Lieutenant-general Prince de Soubise

Summary: 62 bns, 82 sqns, 45 field guns (33 French, 12 Imperial) for a total of approximately 41,000 men.

First Line Second Line Reserve under Broglie
Right Wing Austrian and Imperial Cavalry Right Wing Austrian and Imperial Cavalry Right Wing French Cavalry under the Marquis de Poulpry assisted by the Chevalier d'Ailly
Center French Infantry under Comte de Montboisier and Chevalier de Nicolaï Center French Infantry under Comte de Lorges assisted by Comte de Vaux and Marquis de Rougé Center French Infantry under Duc de Broglie
Left Wing French Cavalry under Lieutenant-general Comte de Mailly assisted by M. de Raugrave   Left Wing French Cavalry under Marquis de La Chétardie assisted by Marquis de Castries

Corps Saint-Germain

Corps Loudon

Some sources gives 3 grenzer battalions and 3 hussar squadrons. However Brabant gives the following:

Imperial Infantry under Prince von Hessen-Darmstadt assisted by Baron Drachsdorff

N.B.: Kreisinfanterieregiment Pfalz-Zweibrücken and Kreisinfanterieregiment Kurbayern had been detached to Freiburg before the battle.

Artillery

Undeployed Units

Prussian Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: Frederick II King of Prussia assisted by Field-marshal James Keith

Summary: 27 bns (16,600 men) with 56 battalion guns, 45 sqns (5,400 men), 18 heavy guns, for a total of approximately 22,000 men.

First Line Second Line
Flank Guard  
Right Wing Cavalry under Major-general von Seydlitz
Infantry centre under Prince Henri
First Line under General of infantry Fürst von Anhalt-Dessau

Right Wing Infantry under Lieutenant-general Ferdinand Prince von Braunschweig

Second Line under Lieutenant-general von Forcade
Left Wing Infantry under Lieutenant-general Heinrich Prince von Preussen  

Artillery under colonel Moller

  • 18 field guns
  • 4 heavy guns

Undeployed Units

References

This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Carlyle T., History of Friedrich II of Prussia vol. 18, chapter 8
  • Tempelhoff, Fr., History of the Seven Years' War Vol. I pp. 149-151, as translated by Colin Lindsay, Cadell, London, 1793

Other sources:

Brabant, Artur, Das Heilige Römische Reich teutscher Nation im Kampf mit Friedrich dem Grossen – vol. 1 – 1757, Berlin: Paetel, 1904 (from Google Books via Archive.org)

Evrard, Philippe, Praetiriti Fides

Fuller, J. F. C., The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Granada Publishing Ltd, 1970, pp. 565-570

Millar, Simon, Rossbach and Leuthen 1757 - Prussia’s Eagle resurgent, Osprey Campaign, Oxford UK: 2002

Nelke, R., Preussen

Reuter, Claus: Die Schlacht bei Roßbach, die Reichsarmee, Thüringen und das Amt Rossla im Siebenjährigen Krieg, 2011

Rogge, Christian, The French & Allied Armies in Germany during the Seven Years War, Frankfurt, 2006

Soilleux-Cardwell, Martin, Order of Battle - Rossbach - 5th November 1757

Yahoo SYW Group Message 3763, 4469, 5358, 5515