1761-10-01 - Storming of Schweidnitz

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page)) >> Sieges >> 1761-10-01 - Storming of Schweidnitz

The assault took place on October 1 1761

Description of Events

Preparation of the Operation

At the end of September 1761, Frederick II putting an end to his campaign in Silesia retreated with his main army towards Neisse (present-day Nysa), leaving only a small force to defend the Fortress of Schweidnitz (present-day Swidnica).

Loudon, whose delaying strategy had been criticized at the court, needed to achieve some tangible success before the end of the campaign. He thus decided to attack Schweidnitz.

At about 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday September 30, Field-marshal-lieutenant Jahnus drew out all round Schweidnitz at some km distance a ring of hussars, cossacks and grenzers, blocking up every path and road. Meanwhile the cavalry under Fürst Liechtenstein and Colonel Count Kinsky collected from the neighbouring villages as many ladders and planks as they could find. They brought all this material to Kunzendorf (present-day Mokrzeszów).

For the attack itself, Loudon chose the best officers and the 20 best battalions in the army. Tchernichev also contributed 800 Russian grenadiers. The synchronisation of the attack was perfect. Zastrow, the Prussian commander in Schweidnitz, in spite of Loudon's precautionary curtain of light troops had got indications that something unusual was going on. He was on the walls all day with his officers, scanning the surroundings with their glasses.

At about 4:00 p.m., the Austro-Russian troops were assembled at Kunzendorf where their baggages were stored. Loudon addressed them in a few fiery words and promised them 100,000 gulden in lieu of plunder, which he strictly prohibited.

By 6:00 p.m., the operations of the light troops were terminated.

At 9:00 p.m., all being now dark, the four divisions marched to their respective starting-places while the cavalry moved closer to Schweidnitz. Meanwhile, Zastrow sent out patrols and occasionally fired with musketry and guns. Loudon with the bulk of his force took place in a field near Reichenbach (present-day Dzierżoniów), preceded by the cavalry right wing.

Loudon had forbidden to light any fire. He then sent officers to reconnoitre the defences of the fortress. The Austrians knew the place very well since they had occupied it for a few months in 1757.

When he realised that the Austrians were preparing an action against Schweidnitz, General Zastrow had immediately prepared his garrison and everybody were at his assigned posts. In each of the four forts, there were an officer and 270 men of which 140 formed a reserve. There were 48 men to guard the Wasserfort while the city gate was guarded by 36 soldiers. The curtain walls were defended by 400 soldiers and 2 officers. Only 83 artillerymen were available to handle the 240 guns of various calibre. Infantrymen had to assist the artillerymen to load and aim the guns. Another 450 men were distributed in the areas separating the various works. A central reserve of 1,400 men was concentrated behind the outer works. Finally, another reserve of 560 men was kept inside the fortress. These reserves had no precise instructions as to how to react to the initiatives of the enemy.

Each Sternshanze (star shaped outworks) was armed with a battery of 8 12-pdr guns, 4 6-pdr guns and 4 or 5 3-pdr guns. In addition to these guns, there were 6 mortars. The 'Bogenfort hosted 27 guns and 270 men. The Wasserfort was defended by 8 guns and 4 mortars. The lunettes were armed with 4 to 8 12-pdr or 6-pdr guns and garrisoned by 30 men. The Wasserfort had 12 guns and 50 men.

Preparations for the Attack

Map of the Storming of Schweidnitz - Source: Tielke – Copyright: MZK Brno

The assault of the fortress was planned by the Marquis Giannini, the chief of Loudon's état-major. Half of Loudon's Corps (7,000 men) would attack in four columns without preliminary preparation of artillery:

  • the first column, starting from Säbischdorf (present-day Zawiszów), would attack the Galgenfort and its redoubts and lunettes
  • the second column, starting from the road to Striegau (present-day Strzegom), would attack the Jauernicker Fort
  • the third column, starting from Schönbrunn (present-day Słotwina), would attack the Gartenfort
  • the fourth column, starting from Bögendorf (present-day Witoszów), would attack the Bogenfort

At the head of each column, there were artillerymen; sappers; workers equipped with shovels, axes and pickaxes; and soldiers carrying ladders with their musket slung across their shoulders. Engineers with a good knowledge of the place guided each column. The commanders of each columns had had a detailed briefing and precise instructions.

The average strength of an Austrian battalion at that time was about 500 men. A small detachment of about 140 sappers was attached to each column. These four columns were under the command of Major-general Carl Baron Amadei who had commanded the assault of the same fortress in 1757. Amadei's force consisted of 20 battalions, 6 grenadier companies and 4 squadrons.

The plan of attack called for the capture of the 4 forts and of the 3 northern, western and southern lunettes or redoubts of the outer ring of fortification. Simultaneously, a fifth column under Generalfeldwachtmeister Jahnus (3 battalions and 3 grenadier companies) would lead a diversionary attack on the eastern outworks and occupy the village of Kletschkau (unidentified location).

To coordinate the attack on the various forts, the commanders of each column had synchronized their watches to advance simultaneously without the need for signals that would betray their presence. Each commander was supposed to send a messenger to Loudon as soon as he was within 500 paces from his objective and then immediately to rapidly advance without shooting or loosing time to occupy the covered-way or the ditch. The cavalry would advance behind the assault columns to maintain order and take charge of the prisoners.

The time of the attack was fixed at 3:00 a.m. on October 1.

The Assault

At midnight, the columns advanced toward their assigned positions, bringing with them all the ladders and the necessary equipment. They reached their respective destinations at 2:00 a.m.. In each company of grenadiers, 100 men were supplied with two hand grenades each.

An hour later came the command to attack. Accordingly, at 3:00 a.m. on October 1, the four columns all stepped forward with fixed bayonets, no musketry was permitted till the works were won. Loudon was waiting at the village of Schönbrunn, within short distance. Soon, Prussian patrols galloped in, announcing that the Austrians were on march.

Loudon's columns came on with extraordinary vigour and condensed impetuosity. However, the fourth column under de Vins arrived first on its objective and launched its attack at 2:45 a.m., about half an hour earlier than the other columns. When de Vins appeared, he was greeted by the shots of a sentry. But soon the Austrians had stormed the outworks everywhere and almost at once their grenadiers got into the shelter of the covered-way and invaded the place of arms.

At 3:15 a.m., Lieutenant-colonel Caldwell and Colonel de Fabris, had attacked the Gartenfort which was already on alert because the column had been detected by Prussian dragoons who had retired towards the Bogen Gate. These dragoons finally confronted the Russian grenadiers in a confused combat and retired at the foot of the Gartenfort. The Austrians penetrated into covered-way and, with Fabris at their head, managed to escalate the walls of the fort and to enter into it. The fort was conquered in less than 15 minutes.

While the Gartenfort was falling into the hands of the Austrians, the Jauernicker redoubt sustained the attack of the Austrian grenadiers led by Lieutenant-colonel Rummel who rapidly captured it.

At the Bogenfort, the defenders fled through the drawbridge pursued by the Austrians who entered the fort with Lieutenant-colonel de Vins at their head. The fort itself repulsed two consecutive assaults but the Austrian grenadiers, supported by their infantry advancing behind them, launched a third assault and this time penetrated the defences. Suddenly the powder magazine exploded, killing attackers and defenders as well. The explosion killed some 400 men of the Joseph Esterházy Infantry, Arenberg Infantry and Batthyányi Infantry. By 3:30 a.m., de Vins had captured the Bogenfort.

The column of Major Link attacked the Jauernicker Fort. During their advance, they had to sustain three successive salvoes from the guns of the fort. But this could not stop their progress and 300 men converged on the gates of the fort. After a violent combat the gates were opened and the drawbridge lowered. The fort fell and its guns were turned toward the town.

There remained only the most powerful fort, the Galgenfort, defended by Tresckow Infantry. The column of Colonel Wallis was already attacking the fort. Two companies of Austrian grenadiers under Major Count Truchsess along with the Russian grenadiers on their left led the assault. Count Dombasle closely followed this first line with one of the two infantry battalion while the second was kept in reserve. Under a very lively fire, the grenadiers converged on the defences. Major O'Donnell leading the attack was injured. Without losing time firing a single shot, the Austrians covered the traps and penetrated into the covered-way. They attacked the fort four times without success. Reinforced by infantry, despite the repeated failures of the previous assaults, Wallis launched a fifth attack. Before the attack, Wallis shouted to his men: “Children, remember that our regiment bears the name of Loudon. We must vanquish or perish! I have solemnly promised it to our Inhaber." The indomitable grenadiers of O'Donell sped up while Dombasle stormed the Galgen redoubt. Around 4:00 a.m., groups of Russian grenadiers were getting close to the Bogen Gate. Once reinforced, they attacked and penetrated into Schweidnitz while the captured fort opened fire against the town. What was left of the Prussian garrison retired into the Wasserfort which, protected by a ring of inundated ditches, could not be directly stormed like the other forts.

Four of the five forts had been attacked. Prussian defence had been better than could have been expected in such a situation.

To the east, the 3 battalions of Grenzers under Jahnus, had captured the eastern outworks. Leaving their grenadiers to occupy the positions, they marched on the Wasserfort. Meanwhile, Loudon had ordered a sham attack on the fort. Inexplicably, the drawbridge was lowered in front of the astonished assailants. This “miracle” was in fact the consequence of the action of 400 Austrian prisoners, held in Wasserfort. Aware of the battle that was taking place, they had managed to overcome the sentinels and had attacked the Prussian detachment guarding the gates, overcome them and open the gates. At 7:00 a.m., the Wasserfort had fallen too. In spite of Loudon's orders, some soldiers began to plunder but the Russians took no part in it.

Between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m., Loudon was everywhere victorious. He then immediately ordered four squadrons of dragoons of his reserve to gallop into the town to prevent pillage.

Outcome

Overall, the capture of Schweidnitz had cost Loudon about 12 officers and 270 men killed, 51 officers and 986 men wounded, along with 140 missing (most probably killed by the explosion of the powder magazine). His Russian Allies had lost 51 men killed, along with 5 officers and 41 men wounded.

There is no official account of the Prussian losses but we can assume about 800 men when taking into account the number of prisoners:

  • 1 major-general
  • 1 lieutenant-colonel
  • 8 majors
  • 17 other senior officers
  • 70 officers
  • 3,173 NCOs and troopers

The Austrians also captured 25 flags, a pair of silver and a pair of copper kettle-drums, 169 guns, 170 mortars and 4 unusable guns, 9 gun carriages, 118 wagons, food, 89,760 musket-cartridges, 1,300,000 flints, various materials and a war chest of Prussian money estimated to 38,500 gulden....

Loudon placed a garrison of 10 bns in the place and ordered to repair all works. He then remained encamped on the Heights of Kunzendorf.

The rapid capture of the fortress can be attributed to the fact that Schweidnitz was designed to withstand a conventional siege as the Prussians would soon realised during the difficult siege of 1762. A rapid and decisive surprise attack by assaulting troops deployed in nearby positions made the artillery firepower and the mines disposed in front of the glacis quite useless, the combat being rather decided by violent fighting in the covered-way as previously demonstrated by the recapture of the fortress by the Prussians in 1758.

On Friday October 2, Frederick detached General Lentulus to rearward to get news of Loudon. Lentulus saw nothing whatever of Loudon, but he heard from two Prussian garrison-soldiers that Loudon had got hold of Schweidnitz since 5:00 a.m. on October 1. This meant that the Austrians would winter in Silesia.

Each soldier belonging to Loudon's Corps received a bonus of 13 gulden. Furthermore, Maria Theresa personally gave 3,000 ducats to the Russian grenadiers.

Loudon received 6,000 ducats and the Great Cross of the Maria-Theresien-Orden. In his relation of the battle, Loudon proposed the promotion of Generalfeldwachtmeister Liechtenstein, Giannini and Amadei, of colonels Rouvroy and Wallis, of lieutenant-colonels de Vins, Leopold Pálffy and Caldwell, of Oberstwachtmeister Count O’Donell and Linck. In sign of appreciation, Lieutenant-colonel de Vins was invited to Vienna to report about the battle.

Map

The fortress of Schweidnitz (actual Swidnica) is located in Silesia, at an important crossroad linking Breslau, Glatz, Landeshut and the axis Bunzelwitz-Striegau-Liegnitz. In the vicinities of the city, to the east of it, ran the Weistritz river with sandy banks and marshes all along its course. The Weistritz river separates Schweidnitz from its suburb of Kletachkau. To the south of the fortifications of the city lays the suburb of Schreibendt and the mill known as the Neue Mühle, on the banks of a tributary of the Weistritz: the Bögen Wasser.

The city of Schweidnitz was a fortified place which Frederick II improved from 1747 to 1756 through continuous series of works. The works were finished just for the outbreak of the Seven Years' War. Outer works were added to the walls dating from previous periods. Some of these outer works were as far as 500 m. from the city walls. The concept was new and revolutionary. It relied on defensive zones taking advantage of the lay of the land in front of the works and creating areas of cross fire. This approach was an innovation compared to Vauban's theory basing the defence on a continuous rampart completely conditioning the dispositions of the outworks. Developed by the same Frederick, this brilliant innovation, often copied in the military architecture of the XVIIIth century, allowed for a more economic use of fortifications without the huge dispersion of manpower and artillery necessary to defend the extensive perimeter of a city, and the vast construction and maintenance expenses.

The Austrians, who eventually became masters of the fortress, did not really grasp the modernity of its structures and linked the outworks with fieldworks to constitute continuous fortifications.

Map of the fortress of Schweidnitz in 1757.
Source: Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, volume III by the German Grosser Generalstab

The role of stronghold was assumed by a kind of star or zigzag shaped fortification known as a sternschanze, consisting of a small central irregularly shaped pentagon with a three-pointed base facing the town. A small place of arms occupied the inside of this sternschanze with ramps leading to the platform protected by a parapet; a ditch separated the central redoubt from the external star-shaped curtain wall. The base of the curtain wall ran parallel to the walls of the five-pointed central redoubt whose three longer walls were parallel to those of the curtain wall and its two smaller ones ran opposite to its base. The height of the outer curtain wall allowed to fire from the central redoubt. The zigzagged outer curtain wall was fitted with a ditch and a counterscarp, a covert way and a glacis. In the inner angle between two bastions, covered caponnieres with loopholes for enfilade fire crossed the ditch to link the curtain wall to the redoubt. The central redoubt was armed with 15 heavy guns deployed evenly in three batteries placed at the extremity of each point.

Each sternschanze had its own powder magazine, barracks for its garrison and magazines providing for a certain autonomy for these isolated forts. The entrance was located at the base and accessed through a covert way. The parapet of this covert way, the caponnieres and the base of the curtain wall in the ditch were reinforced by palisades and breastworks of fallen trees. A vast network of countermine galleries existed and was later improved by the Austrians after the capture of the fortress.

Around the town of Schweidnitz there were four of these forts and other minor fortifications. Oriented to the south, the Bögen Fort (star-shaped) then, proceeding counter-clockwise, the Wasser Redoubt (an arrow shaped ravelin) oriented to the southeast, followed by the Wasser Fort in the shape of an irregular hexagon oriented to the east. To the north of this latter fort there was a ravelin (arrow shaped), then the Galgen Fort (star-shaped) which constituted the northeast angle of this ring of forts. To the northeast of it, isolated at a certain distance, there was a small arrow shaped redoubt. Oriented to the north, the Kirchen Redoubt (arrow shaped). At the northwest angle of the ring of fortifications, the Jauernicker Fort (star-shaped) reinforced by the Jauernicker Flèche (a ravelin). Then followed, oriented to the west, the Jauernicker Redoute (arrow shaped), the Garten Fort (star-shaped); the interval between the Garten Fort and the Bögen Fort was occupied by the Garten Redoubt (arrow shaped).

The Wasser Redoubt and the Wasser Fort overlooked the Weistritz river flowing to the southeast of Schweidnitz.

Order of Battle

Austrian Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief:Baron Ernst Gideon Loudon

  • First column under the command of Colonel Count Wallis and Major Count O’Donell
    • Grenadier Battalion O´Donell (1 bn)
    • Blau Loudon (1 bn)
    • Carl Lothringen (1 bn)
    • Waldeck (1 bn)
    • Gyulay (1 bn)
    • Unidentified Russian grenadiers (2 coys)
    • Löwenstein Dragoons (1 sqn)
    • Detachment of artillerymen (20 men) to eventually man the guns of the captured fort
    • Detachment of labourers (6 officers, 8 NCOs and 140 men) carrying ladders
    • Detachment of carpenters (1 officer, 2 NCOs and 40 men) with axes and hammers
    • Detachment of labourers (3 officers, 5 NCOs and 100 men) with picks and axes to ease the passage over the traps dug in front and behind the outer works
    • Pioneers (16 men)
    • Sappers (6 men)
    • Artillery
      • 4 howitzers
      • 6 x 6-pdrs
  • Second column under Major Koppernzelle (???or Linck???)
  • Third column under Colonel Caldwell and Fabris Count von Cassano
    • Grenadier Battalion Caldwell (1 bn)
    • Grenadier Battalion Rummel (1 bn)
    • Botta (1 bn)
    • Königsegg (1 bn)
    • Platz (1 bn)
    • d'Arberg (1 grenadier coy)
    • Sachsen-Gotha (1 grenadier coy)
    • Unidentified cavalry unit (1 sqn)
    • Artillery
      • 4 howitzers
      • 4 x 6-pdrs
    • Pioneers (10 men)
  • Fourth column under Lieutenant-colonel baron de Vins
    • Grenadier Battalion de Vins (1 bn)
    • Batthyányi (1 bn)
    • Joseph Esterházy (1 bn)
    • Kolowrat (1 bn)
    • Arenberg (1 bn)
    • Unidentified Russian grenadiers (2 coys)
    • Unidentified cavalry unit (1 sqn)
    • Artillery
      • 4 howitzers
      • 4 x 6-pdrs
    • Carpenters
  • Reserve

The Striegauer Fort and its lunette were attacked by a fifth column consisting of 5 unidentified battalions (including 1 grenadier battalion and four light troops battalions selected among those who had earlier surrounded the town), 1 unidentified squadron, 8 guns and the detachment of carpenters.

The light troops who had surrounded the fortress on the previous day consisted of:

The cavalry who covered the operations consisted of:

N.B.: the unidentified Austrian line battalions were probably from the following regiments who had two battalions at Schweidnitz but only one specifically identified in the order of battles: Botta, Königsegg, Blau Loudon.

Prussian Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: General Zastrow

The Prussian garrison, under Commandant Zastrow, numbered only 3,800 men with some 191 artillerymen, merely one third of what it should have been. This garrison consisted of:

References

A few paragraphs are excerpts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Carlyle, T.: History of Friedrich II of Prussia, vol. 20
  • Jomini, Henri: Traité des grandes opérations militaires, 2ème édition, 4ème partie, Magimel, Paris: 1811, pp. 110-111-112-113-131-132
  • Vanicek, Fr.: Specialgeschichte der Militärgrenze aus Originalquellen und Quellenwerken geschöpft, Vol. II, Vienna: Kaiserlich-Königlichen Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1875, pp. 485-486

Other sources

Archenholz, J. W. von: Geschichte des Siebenjahrigen Krieges in Deutschland, Berlin: 1828

Duffy, Christopher: Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare (1660-1860), David & Charles, London: 1975

Fiedler: Geschichte des grenadieres Friedrichs des grossen

Grosser Generalstab, Die Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, Hiller, Berlin, 1830-1913

Acknowledgments

Carlo Bessolo for the initial version of this article