1759-08-12 - Battle of Kunersdorf
Prelude to the Battle
After his victory at Paltzig on July 23 1759, general Piotr Semionovitch Saltykov resumed his plan for the invasion of Brandenburg, marching his troops towards Frankfurt an der Oder and reached the town on July 30. Meanwhile, two Austrian corps had left Silesia under Andreas Hadik and the baron Ernst Gideon Loudon to make their junction with Saltykov's Russian army. These manoeuvres forced Frederick II to rush towards Brandenburg in a desperate attempt to prevent the junction of these three corps.
Loudon managed to join Saltykov on August 8 while Hadik had drawn the Prussians away from Loudon's column. By August 9, Frederick had assembled an army of some 49,000 men. During the night of August 10, the Prussian army crossed the Oder at Goritz (actual Gorzyca).
On August 11, Frederick reconnoitred the Russian positions. He then left general Schorlemmer and general Finck with 40 squadrons and 8 battalions to poke the Russian lines behind the Huhner Fliess while he would take the rest of the army around the Russian position marching unseen through heavily wooded areas. The idea was to emerge in the open in front of the south-eastern side of the Russian position and make good use of the element of surprise.
Description of Events
On August 12 at 3:00 AM, Frederick gave the order to march. He wanted to repeat the tactics of the battle of Leuthen and to attack the enemy left wing with his right while general Finck feinted an attack on the Muhlberg hoping to convince the enemy that the Prussian main thrust was still coming from the north.
The march was slowed down by the condition of the terrain. Finally at dawn the Prussians reached the edge of the woods. It was now clear that instead of the soft belly of the Russian army they were facing what appeared to be the heavily fortified enemy front line.
Indeed, realising that Frederick intended to turn his positions, Saltykov had inverted his front.
Map and initial deployment
The Russian position had been carefully chosen, it was situated 5 km from Frankfurt, on the right bank of the Oder where there was a valley formed by the overflowing of the river. It was 3,000 paces wide near Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and about 4 km wide lower. This valley was bordered by a chain of hillocks along the Kunersdorf road.
The Russians occupied these hillocks rising above a marshy ground, crossed by a stream (Huhner Fliess). General Saltykov had fortified all the heights bordering a road that led to the small village of Kunersdorf in the middle of a valley dotted with ponds and crossed by brooks.
The first hillock, defended by the Russian left wing, was in fact a group of steep heights, it was the closest to Frankfurt and was called the Judenberg. From there, the terrain was relatively flat for 800 paces up to the next knoll: the Grosser Spitzberg, a round shaped hill, pivot of the Russian centre, situated in front of Kunersdorf. Here the Russians had concentrated a formidable battery. On the right hand of the same village, a hollow road known as the Kuhgrund ran across the valley, thus delimiting 2 plateaus. Within the village of Kunersdorf and to its left, three ponds broke the terrain, extending up to the forest.
Finally, 1 km behind Kunersdorf, the right wing of Saltykov’s army, consisting essentially of the Russian Observation Corps, was deployed on another high ground called the Muhlberg, just as high as the Judenberg.
Loudon was in reserve, behind the Judenberg. The Russian cavalry was also deployed on the left hand side of their defensive line. Four infantry battalions and some Grenzers were guarding the bridges across the Oder in front of Frankfurt .
The entire battlefield was bordered by the forest of Reppen.
As mentioned before, Saltykov had inverted his front during the Prussian approach. Thus, his troops on the Judenberg now formed his right wing while the Observation Corps on the Muhlberg was now his left wing.
Puzzled by the unpleasant discovery of the fortified Russian positions, the Prussians were even more depressed when they found out that the field where they hoped to find space to deploy for the attack was dotted by a string of ponds in Kunersdorf itself and in its immediate surroundings.
It now appeared that the only possible course of action was to attack the Muhlberg, but precious time had been wasted.
At 10:00 AM, the Prussian army formed its lines of battle in the forest, its right on the heights near the Huhner Fliess stream and its left to the woods. Furthermore, unnoticed to the Russians, a strong battery was planted on the Kleitsberg on the right. Meanwhile, Finck made demonstrations on the heights of Trettin to attract the attention of the Russians. When the first elements of Frederick's corps appeared at the edge of the woods, Saltykov just sent a few cossacks against them, thinking that it was a simple detachment.
Frederick then moved 6 grenadier battalions and Bredow Fusiliers (2 bns) formed in 2 lines in front of his right wing. They were charged to storm the entrenchments and batteries of the Muhlberg. Meanwhile, the entire Prussian cavalry, to the exception of a few dragoon sqns, was assembled behind the left wing. The main Prussian corps was now formed in front of the Russian left flank.
Finally, at 11:30 AM, the Prussian battery on the Kleitsberg and another battery planted by Finck on a height near a big mill started a preliminary bombardment. Meanwhile, a third Prussian battery was being established on Seydlitzberg. With the addition of this battery, there were now 60 Prussian field guns, including some captured Austrian 12-pounders, hitting the Russian held Muhlberg with a violent concentric fire. However, 2 of these batteries were too distant from the Russian lines to be effective. The battery on the Kleitsberg was better positioned and enfiladed the entire Russian line up to Kunersdorf, causing them heavy losses. On their left alone, the Russians had some 100 field pieces among which a large number of howitzers. They vastly outnumbered the Prussian artillery. The Prussian howitzers were trying to set the abatis afire.
The heat was becoming unbearable for both the Prussians and the Allies. Then at 12:30 PM, Frederick ordered to storm the Muhlberg. A vanguard of eight battalions (4,300 men ) mostly elite grenadier units advanced in two lines, crossed the open ground in relative safety since the battalions of the Russian Observation Corps were still stunned by the bombardment, reached a fold in the ground where they could not be harmed by enemy fire and finally emerged in the open only 100 paces from the Russian line.
Until then, the Prussian grenadier battalions had not suffered significant losses, the Russian artillery being ill positioned to fire at them. However, now that they were deployed in the open, they received deadly salvoes of grapeshots and musketry. The Prussians responded with a very effective volley that spread panic among the Russian gunners and musketeers. Then the first line of the Prussian grenadiers, led by Schenkendorf, fixed bayonets and stormed the ramparts followed by the second line led by Lindstedt. In 10 minutes, the Prussians had captured 70 Russian pieces and forced the enemy to run away in disorder abandoning the Muhlberg. The terrain between the Muhlberg and Kunersdorf was now covered with isolated and disorganised Russian troops assembling into platoons.
If Prussian cavalry had been available at this moment, victory might have been complete. Unfortunately, all the Prussian horse regiments had been deployed on the left wing. It was also impossible to exploit in full the advantage obtained by the enemy rout because the captured Russian guns were not immediately available and it took too long to drag some Prussian light guns on the Muhlberg.
Meanwhile, Frederick had advanced his right wing to support his grenadiers on the Muhlberg. Soon this wing was deployed on the crest of the height.
While waiting for this support, the Prussian grenadiers rallied. This delay gave the Russians the opportunity to advance a few battalions and to rally some of those who had been routed. Nevertheless, as soon as they were adequately supported, the Prussian grenadiers attacked these units and drove them back.
By 1:00 PM, the Russians had retreated almost as far as Kunersdorf, but the Prussians were unable to synchronize a final assault because the units that were supposed to take part had either already launched uncoordinated attacks that were easily repulsed or had been delayed, slowed down by their heavy artillery pieces or struggling in the waterlogged fields.
The shots of some Prussian light guns firing from the Muhlberg were soon spent and the Russians had time to reorganize their ranks, bringing forward fresh troops and artillery from unthreatened sectors of their line. Furthermore, the Prussian batteries of the Sptizberg were reoriented to the left
Then the Prussian heavy guns were finally brought forward and the bombardment started again with renewed fury until the battlefield was enveloped by a dense and acrid smoke. Frederick then led his first line against the Russian positions.
Saltykov had organized a new defence line with infantry and artillery en potence from the small mill up to Kunersdorf. The Kuhgrund providing a natural obstacle to the assaults of the Prussians. Meanwhile, Loudon was on the move to come to the support of the Russians in this sector.
After a fierce combat, the Russians were forced to retire towards Kunersdorf to prevent their positions to be turned by Finck. Their lines became quite disorganised during this retreat. At about this time, Loudon deployed his corps behind the Kuhgrund.
Suddenly, the Prussian battalions of the first line began to give way. However, the second line of the Prussian right wing as well as Finck's whole corps had not yet been seriously engaged. Finck finally disentangled himself from the swamps surrounding the Huhner-Fliess. His corps had been obliged to separate into platoons to negotiate its way between the numerous ponds protecting the Russian positions and then to reform under the fire of the batteries on the Spitzberg. Finck planted his own artillery on the heights and attacked with his 8 battalions but was repulsed by the concentrated grapeshots of Austrian and Russian guns.
At 3:00 PM, many Prussian generals, Seydlitz among them, realizing that the troops were utterly exhausted, advised Frederick to either call for a pause in the fighting and wait the next day to renew it, or consider the possibility of a withdrawal. Frederick would not listen and, when he saw the first line of his right wing waver, he ordered his cavalry of the left wing to storm the Russian battery on the Grosser Spitzberg.
Seidlitz and the prince of Württemberg were slowed by the chain of ponds on the left of Kunersdorf that had not been spotted beforehand. In several places, the terrain was so narrow that the regiments were forced to march by section. They then reformed under the fire of the Russians and advanced boldly under deadly grapeshot salvoes. Seydlitz at the head of his cuirassiers was wounded and had to hand over his corps to Eugen of Würtemberg. Eventually, Puttkamer tried to rally the wary cavalrymen by charging at the head of his white hussars but was shot dead. The Prussian cavalry was soon disordered and, when some Austrian and Russian squadrons manoeuvred against their flank, it broke and routed, rallying behind the Prussian left wing.
The Prussian left wing then advanced and captured Kunersdorf to the exception of the churchyard stubbornly held by some Russian troops, thus cutting the lines of communication of the Russian army with Reppen and Zielenzig. The Prussian left wing continued its advance and attacked the Spitzberg. Meanwhile Frederick led the right wing in an attempt to cross the Kuhgrund.
Furious combats took place. Frederick personally led battalions to the charge while Finck tried to drive the Russians from the height of Elsbuch. Meanwhile, Saltykov had concentrated all his forces near the Spitzberg. The Russian infantry was packed on 4 or 5 lines on this narrow terrain.
Now all depended on the capture of the 400 paces long and 60 paces wide steep-sided road running through the Kuhgrund. The Prussian infantry poured into the hollow road and tried to climb the opposite slope defended by Loudon with all his grenadiers and 2 regiments. Savage hand to hand fighting went on but all Prussian attempts to conquer this position were repulsed. Each broken Prussian battalion was rallied and sent back into the melee. Prussian casualties were appalling. Finally, Frederick's corps retired.
Finck was not luckier at the Elsbuch: a few Austrian squadrons showed up, charged his right flank and routed his corps
The Prussian left wing at the Spitzberg was slowly pushed back to Kunersdorf and beyond.
By about 5:00 PM, the struggle around the Grosser-Spitzberg was losing momentum. The command now passed to general Platen who decided to widen the sector of attack and ordered his cavalry to advance beyond the string of lakes south of Kunersdorf and to attack the Grosser-Spitzberg from behind. The Schorlemmer Dragoons were among the leading regiments but the cavalry charges were scattered by the Russian artillery fire.
At 6:00 PM, Loudon's combined Austrian and Russian cavalry, which, for most of the battle, had been waiting by the Judenberg screened by the Grosse-Spitzberg, appeared suddenly on the battlefield and hit the Prussian left wing that now had the chain of ponds behind their backs. At the sight of the Austrian dragoons and Russian hussars charging, the Prussians collapsed and soon the flight became a rout. The entire Prussian army was rushing towards the bridges across the Hunerflies, abandoning 165 pieces behind.
Frederick on the Muhlberg tried to cover the retreat with Lestwitz Infantry and ultimately with Diericke Fusiliers that had been guarding the artillery park in the rear. These troops too were finally overwhelmed and captured and the king, who had had two horses shot under him, nearly lost his life when a bullet aimed at his chest was stopped by a gold case he carried in his waist pocket. Frederick himself was nearly captured when his party leaving the battlefield was encircled by some Cossacks of the Chuguevski regiment. However, he was saved by the timely intervention of Zieten Hussars.
The bridges at the Hen-Floss were crowded with fleeing soldiers. All the guns had to be left behind. Fortunately, the Russians had also suffered appalling losses and were in no mood for pursuing the routing Prussians, sending forward only a few sqns under Loudon.
The defeated Prussian army, now only 3,000 strong, reached the Oder bridges. Frederick, who had been among the last to leave the battlefield, arrived soon after.
The disordered remnants of the Prussian army spent the night on the heights of Oetscher and assembled near the bridges over the Oder. Frederick reorganised his army during the night.
The battle had lasted for 6 hours. Frederick had lost over 18,000 killed and wounded, 2,000 taken prisoners and 178 guns in this battle, one of his worst defeats. General Puttkamer was among the dead while Seydlitz, Wedel, Finck, Hülsen and Itzenplitz had all been wounded.
The Austro-Russians lost 15,700 men.
On the morning of August 13, the retreating Prussian units joined forces with Wunsch and his detachment (a few bns) which had been sent the previous day to blockade and eventually capture Frankfurt an der Oder in order to cut Saltykov's retreat.
Frederick was utterly depressed and at least for a while thought about abdicating and abandoning his command. However, the Allies were too weak and too divided to exploit their victory and eventually the chronic lack of supplies, forced the Russians to abandon the campaign.
Order of Battle
Austro-Russian Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: general count Piotr Semionovitch Saltykov
Summary: 84 battalions, 99 squadrons, about 5,000 Grenzers, 50 sotnias of Cossacks, 211 field guns, 212 regimental guns
|Vanguard||First Line||Second Line||Reserve|
|Right Wing under lieutenant-general Demiku||Austrian Cavalry under field-marshal Loudon|
|Centre 2nd Division under lieutenant-general Villebois|
|Centre 1st Division under lieutenant-general count Villim Fermor||Austrian Infantry under Field-Marshal Loudon|
|Centre 3rd Division under lieutenant-general count Rumiantsev||Austrian Infantry under field-marshal Loudon|
|Left Wing||Austrian Cavalry under field-marshal Loudon|
||Lieutenant-general Fürst Golitsyn Observation Corps||Lieutenant-general Fürst Golitsyn Observation Corps
Prussian Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: king Frederick II of Prussia
Summary: 63 battalions and 110 squadrons (including detachments)
|Advance Guard||First Line||Second Line||Reserve|
|Lieutenant-general von Schorlemmer Division||Major-general von Platen Division||Major-general von Meinicke Division|
|Lieutenant-general Hülsen Division||Lieutenant-general Itzenplitz Division|
|Lieutenant-general von Wedel Division||Lieutenant-general Kanitz Division||Lieutenant-general von Finck Division|
|Lieutenant-general Eugene von Wurttemberg Division||Lieutenant-general Platen Division|
Detachment protecting the bridges near Goritz
- Graf Flemming Brigade
- Wunsch Brigade
Detachment on the left bank of the river Oder near Lebus
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 374-378
- Carlyle, T., History of Friedrich II of Prussia vol. 19
- Jomini, Baron de, Traité des grandes opérations militaires, Vol. 3 – Campagne de 1759, chap. XVII, pp. 119-136
Duffy, Christopher, Frederick the Great: A Military Life, Routledge: 1988
Großer Generalstab, Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung II (Publisher). Die Kriege Friedrichs des Großen. Dritter Teil: Der Siebenjährige Krieg 1756–1763. Berlin 1903 - 1912.
Stephenson, Lt.-Col. Scott, Old Fritz stumbles : Frederick the Great at Kunersdorf, 1759, US military college
Alessandro Colaiacomo for the entire initial version of this article