1762-06-24 - Battle of Wilhelmsthal
For the campaign of 1762 in West Germany, Ferdinand of Brunswick could count on a larger army than in his previous campaign. However, the French armies still remained far superior to his own. Nevertheless, Ferdinand determined to be first in the field.
On June 21, Ferdinand advanced to the Diemel and took position between Körbecke and the heights of Teichsel with the main Allied army.
On June 22, Soubise and d'Estrées moved northward from Kassel, closer to the Diemel, with the French army of the Upper Rhine, encamping at Burguffeln between Immenhausen and Grebenstein. The Reserve of the right wing under M. de Castries advanced towards Carlsdorf and took position with its right anchored on the wood of Reinhardswald. Meanwhile, the Comte de Stainville covered the left of the French army by taking position on the heights bordering the stream of Westuffeln. Soubise and d'Estrées thought that Ferdinand had moved closer to the Diemel to prevent the passage of French troops. They did not consider the possibility of an Allied attack. They fixed their headquarters at Wilhelmsthal and halted. The positions taken by the French army were very badly chosen: too far from the Diemel to prevent its passage by the Allies; its right flank rested on the large forest of Reinhardswald who could have been rendered absolutely secure by the occupation of the Sababurg, which commanded every road through that forest. Nevertheless, Soubise and d'Estrées allowed this important post to fall into Ferdinand's hands. Again, the occupation of the passes to the south of the Diemel would have secured their front; but here also they had allowed the Allies to be before them. Furthermore, they had stationed Castries with the Reserve of the right wing at Carlsdorf, in absolute isolation from their main body.
On June 23, Ferdinand sent all his advanced posts across the Diemel to cover the construction of bridges over the river. Meanwhile, seeing the bad dispositions of the French camp, Ferdinand saw his opportunity and, though he could bring but 50,000 men against their 70,000, resolved to strike at once. Accordingly, he recalled Luckner, posted at Sülbeck across the Weser, to pass this river at Wambeck during the night and to march to Gottsbüren, a little to the north of the Castle of Sababurg. When Ferdinand received confirmation of Luckner safe arrival at 8:00 PM, he ordered the whole army to be under arms at midnight, ready to pass the Diemel in 7 columns by 3:00 AM.
Allied plan of attack
Luckner's corps was just one of those that Ferdinand was preparing to draw around the unsuspecting French.
The position of the other corps had already been chosen:
- the first column, consisting of the British cavalry, would pass the Diemel at Liebenau and move south upon Zierenberg to fall upon the French left flank
- the second column, consisting of the British infantry and artillery, would pass the Diemel downstream of Liebenau
- the third column, consisting of the Brunswicker infantry, would pass the Diemel at Lamerden
- the fourth column, consisting of the Hanoverian heavy artillery, would pass the Diemel at Eberschütz
- the fifth column, consisting of the Hessian infantry followed by 16 sqns of the left wing, would pass the Diemel between Eberschütz and Sielen
- the sixth column, consisting of 12 bns of Hanoverian infantry under Spörcken, would pass the Diemel at Sielen, turn a little to the eastward upon Hümme and, marching from thence southward, would fall upon the right flank and rear of Castries' corps at Hombressen
- the seventh column, consisting of the rest of the cavalry of the left wing, would pass the Diemel downstream of Sielen
The 20th Kingsley's Foot would pass at 2:00 AM near Liebenau and would take position on the heights facing Zwergen to cover the passage of the Allied columns. Lord Cavendish's Chasseurs (unidentified unit) along with Hanoverian jägers, the picquets of the army and Riedesel Hussars would form the vanguard. The passage of the Diemel was planned at 4:00 AM for all 7 columns.
As soon as the British, Hessian and Brunswicker troops would reach the heights near Kelze, they would form with their right at the wood and ravine of Niedermeiser and their left to the Asse River; with the village of Kelze, the ponds and the heights of Langenberg to their front. The cavalry of the fifth column would form in echelon on the left behind the Hessian infantry. Cavendish's Chasseurs and Hanoverian jägers should try to make themselves masters of the heights of Langenberg and of the débouchés of Westuffeln and Calle (maybe Calden).
Meanwhile at 3:00 AM, Luckner, with 6 bns and 7 sqns, would march south-west from Gottsbüren through the forest of Sababurg to Mariendorf, and then advance to Udenhausen to form up to the left of Spörcken on Castries' right rear. Furthermore, Major Specht and Colonel Riedesel would push forward from the Sababurg with a body of light troops. Specht would then leave his infantry near Holzhausen and advance with his cavalry to Hohenkirchen, on the south and left of Luckner.
Once the Allied army in position, Spörcken would attack the French right flank posted near Carlsdorf while General Luckner would try to turn this right flank.
All equipages would remain a the Tower of Warth (unidentified location) between Borgentreich and Bühne.
Supposing that every corps fulfilled its duty exactly in respect of time and place, there was good hope that the entire force of the French might be destroyed.
Description of Events
In the night of June 23 to 24, the Allies threw bridges over the Diemel.
On June 24 between 1:00 and 2:00 AM, Granby's corps passed the Diemel near Warburg and, after a long detour by Nieder-Listingen and Ober-Meiser arrived on the rear of the French army to capture Dörnberg.
At 4:00 PM, the seven columns of Ferdinand's army passed the Diemel.
At 5:00 AM, Spörcken's two columns emerged from the Reinhardswald. They found only two vedettes before them on the heights of Hombressen, and ascended those heights unopposed. Spörcken, not seeing Castries' corps, which, as it chanced, was hidden from them by a wood, turned mistakenly left instead of right and advanced unconsciously towards the front of the French main army instead of marching against Castries' Corps. The startled French vedettes galloped back to give the alarm. Castries' corps started to cannonade Spöcken who decided to launch his attack on the heights of Hombressen without waiting for Luckner's support. Spörcken deployed his artillery to answer to Castries' cannonade.
All this noise gave alarm to the French army who finally came out of its lethargy. The situation was critical since French commanders had no instruction and did not know if they should attack or retire.
During this time, Castries did not spare any effort to put a stop to Spörcken's advance, threatening his right flank with a few battalions who were finally forced to retire. Castries was preparing to repeat the same manoeuvre with his cavalry against the left flank of the Hanoverians when he noticed the arrival of Luckner's corps. Castries cancelled the attack but maintained his defensive positions.
Between 7:00 and 8:00 AM, Spörcken's gradually arrived near Hombressen.
Indeed, by 7:00 AM, Riedesel had reached Hohenkirchen and Luckner was at Mariendorf, punctually in their appointed places. Luckner formed with the village of Mariendorf on his left and his right towards Hombresssen: his infantry in the first line, his cavalry in the second.
The cannonade continued for another hour without any significant effect on Castries' disposition. However, the head of the Allied third, fourth and fifth columns appeared and Castries decided to retire. Castries quickly set his infantry in order for march; and having contrived to hold Spörcken at bay for an hour, began his retreat upon Wilhelmsthal and Kassel.
The retreat was done in good order, covered by Alsace Infanterie, and Castries reformed his corps in the ravine of Grebenstein, throwing part of his infantry into this small town. Lückner came up as he had been bidden at Udenhausen, but meeting part of Spörcken's corps on its march in the wrong direction was fired upon by it.
In the confusion, Castries was able to make his escape. Riedesel being weak in numbers could not stop him, though he fell furiously with Riedesel Hussars upon the rear-guard and cut Fitz-James Cavalerie to pieces; but except for this loss Castries retired with little damage. Thus, as so often happens, failed the most important detail of Ferdinand's elaborate combinations.
Meanwhile the French main army, startled out of its sleep by the sound of the guns about Hombressen, was in absolute confusion. Fortunately for Soubise and d'Estrées, the unlucky mistake which had saved Castries, saved them also, since it checked Spörcken's advance against their right.
D'Estrées took command of the cavalry of his right wing and advanced to cover Castrie's retreat, while Soubise took dispositions for the centre and the left wing.
During Ferdinand's slow advance against the French positions, Granby arrived by Dörnberg, outflanking the French left.
Soubise and d'Estrées were not expecting the involvement of Granby's corps and its arrival made them panic. They broke up their camp with amazing rapidity, formed upon the heights and hastened their baggage away towards Kassel under escort of 6 bns. Soubise then ordered the army to retire in 4 columns towards Kassel.
This retreat had to be done very rapidly because Ferdinand's army was now deploying at the foot of the Langenberg between Meimbressen and Kelze while Granby was advancing by Ehrsten and Fürstenwald.
Lückner, awake to the miscarriage of the turning movement on the French right, now begged Kielmansegg, who commanded the left column of Spörcken's corps, to hasten with him to Hohenkirchen, from whence a cross way to westward would enable them to bar every road between Wilhelmsthal and Kassel. But Kielmansegg persisted in attacking the right flank of the French main body, despite the fact that it was covered by a brook running through a swampy valley; and before he could effect his passage over this obstacle, the opportunity for cutting off the French retreat was lost.
Meanwhile the troops under Ferdinand in the centre advanced against the French front, though very slowly. Spörcken's right column formed up on their left, but being out of its right place hampered the advance of the rest and caused lamentable delay.
The French main army, having cleared its baggage out of the way, was falling back in several columns towards Wilhelmsthal, when the appearance of Granby on their left showed them the full extent of their peril.
Stainville's corps (Grenadiers de France, Aquitaine Infanterie, Poitou Infanterie, Waldner Infanterie, Eptingen Infanterie) posted in front of the left wing on the heights of Schachten along the stream of Westuffeln was in great danger of being cut form the rest of the French army. Stainville changed his front, deploying en potence in the wood between Meimbressen and Wilhelmsthal, to cover the retreat of the French columns at any cost. He threw Waldner Infanterie and Eptingen Infanterie against the Highlanders who were debouching from the woods near Wilhelmsthal, and drove them back.
Stainville's infantry then debouched from the wood and formed in front of d'Estrées' cavalry which was deployed in 3 lines.
A very long and stubborn combat began opposing Stainville's elite troops to Granby's British infantry which consisted of 3 battalions of British Guards, 3 converged battalions of British grenadiers, the 5th Foot and the 8th Foot - some of the finest troops in the British Army. Stainville charged with some initial success the head of Granby's columns before the whole of his troops had come up. Nicolaï Dragons captured a battery of 3 guns and 200 grenadiers. However, Aquitaine Infanterie and the Grenadiers entered into the wood of Fürstenwald and became separated from the other part of Stainville's infantry which had entered into the wood of Wilhelmsthal.
However, Stainville was gradually forced back as more and more of the British battalions advanced into action. French and British came to close quarters, guns were taken and retaken. and for a time two British cannon remained in the hands of the French.
Meanwhile, d'Estrées sent the Duc de Duras with 1 infantry brigade (4 German battalions) to occupy the height of Wilhelmsthal.
During this combat, Ferdinand's columns continued their advance and soon occupied the heights of Calle (probably Calden) in the rear of Stainville's corps while a detachment attacked the right of this corps.
Granby had started to surround the wood of Fürstenwald occupied by part of Stainville's corps on two sides and was making dispositions to surround it on all sides, when Ferdinand's troops at last came up on Stainville's rear. The joint attack of Granby's corps and Ferdinand's advanced units had reason of Stainville's infantry which broke and routed, suffering heavy losses.
Stainville, even though partially surrounded, then managed to extirpate a few battalions of his corps from the trap, marching to Heckershausen and Wählershausen.
During this time, the main French army came to contact with a few Allied units near Hohenkirchen. Soubise sent 4 battalions of grenadiers and chasseurs along with 1 dragoon rgt who contained them till the arrival of Castries at the head of his corps.
The French cavalry retreated only once Soubise's infantry columns had marched a certain distance from its original camp. Then the cavalry of the right wing went to Hohenkirchen to support Castries and the cavalry of the left wing went to Mönchehof. Batteries were then planted to stop the Allies at the foot of these heights.
The French army then retired to Kassel.
Around 3:00 P.M., the Allied army advanced a little to the south of Wilhelmsthal and so the action came to an end.
The losses of the French consisted essentially of Stainville's corps. From this corps 1,500 men were killed or wounded, and nearly 2,702 surrendered (the 5th Foot having captured a large body Grenadiers de France received the privilege of wearing French grenadiers' caps, which were modified later into the fusilier-caps, which they wear for over a century). Only 2 battalions from Stainville's corps made good their escape. The Allies also took 1 standard, 6 colours and 2 guns.
The losses of the Allies were small, reaching but 208 men killed (including 4 officers) and 273 men wounded (including 2 officers) and 315 men taken prisoners (including 4 officers). Of these losses, 450 belonged to Granby's corps. The result of the action was in fact a great disappointment, due partly to the mistakes of Spörcken and Kielmansegg, partly to the extreme slowness of Ferdinand's advance in the centre. The main body of the Allies indeed seems to have taken 5 hours to move from Grebenstein to Wilhelmsthal, a distance of about 7 km; and the fact would appear to indicate considerable clumsiness on the part of some officer or officers in the handling of their men. Still the fact remained that 40,000 men had attacked 70,000 and driven them back in confusion; and the French were not a little shamefaced and discouraged over their defeat.
Order of Battle
The order of battles of both armies have been quite difficult to reconstruct.
For the French army, it has been reconstructed based primarily on Pajol's and Kessel's book (see the References section).
For the Allied order of battle, we have used the information provided in Sichart and compiled by Nafziger (see the References section). After normalizing the enumeration of the various brigades, we reorganized this order of battle to correspond to the seven columns described by Jomini, Pajol and Mauvillon.
Allied Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: general Ferdinand of Brunswick
Main Allied army
- 1st column: British cavalry
- Lieutenant-general Mostyn's Division
- Major-general Pembroke's Brigade
- Major-general Johnson's Brigade
- British 6th Inniskilling Dragoons (2 sqns)
- Unidentified officer's Brigade
- Major-general Pelt's Brigade
- 2 unidentified mounted units (4 sqns) maybe the Légion Britannique Dragoons
- Lieutenant-general Howard's Division
- Lieutenant-general Mostyn's Division
- 2nd column: British infantry (about 500 men per battalion) and artillery
- Lieutenant-general von Wissenbach Division
- Lieutenant-general Conway's Division
- Lieutenant-general Waldegrave's Division
- British Royal Regiment of Artillery (12 x 6-pdr guns, 8 x 30-pdr howitzers and 12 x 12-pdr guns)
- 3rd column: Brunswicker infantry (11 bns for a total of 6,442 men) under Prince Friedrich von Braunschweig
- Major-general von Rhetz's Brigade
- Major-general von Mansberg's Brigade
- Major-general von Sommer's Brigade
- 4th column: Heavy artillery under Major-general Braun
- 5th column: Hessian infantry (about 460 men per battalion) and 16 sqns of the left wing under the Prince von Anhalt
- Lieutenant-general Prince von Anhalt's Division
- Lieutenant-general von Gilsa's Division
- Cavalry units (16 sqns)
- 6th column: Hanoverian infantry (12 bns) of under Spörcken
- Lieutenant-general Count Kielmansegg's Division
- Lieutenant-general von Scheiter's Division
- Lieutenant-general von Zastrow's Division
- Hanoverian Artillery (12 x 6-pdr guns)
- 7th column: rest of the cavalry of the left wing
- screening force marching in front of the central columns
Granby's Corps forming the left wing towards Dörnberg
- Lieutenant-general von Wangenheim's Division
- Lieutenant-colonel Beckwith's Brigade
- Colonel Pierson's Brigade
- Colonel von Ahlefeld's Brigade
- Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg Artillery serving
- 6 x 6-pdr Hanoverian guns
- 6 x 6-pdr British guns
- Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg Artillery serving
- Cavalry Division
- Colonel von Plessen's Brigade
- Hanoverian Schlepegrell converged grenadiers (1 bn)
- Hanoverian Kauffman converged grenadiers (1 bn)
- Hanoverian Bock converged grenadiers (1 bn)
- Hanoverian Greven converged grenadiers (1 bn)
- Hanoverian Schlemme converged grenadiers (1 bn)
- Hanoverian Mutio converged grenadiers (1 bn)
- Cavalry Brigade
- Light troops
- Brunswicker Foot Jägers
- Speth Jägers covering the left flank at Hohenkirchen
French Order of Battle
Right vanguard under the command of M. de Castries assisted by MM. de Besenval, Wurmser, Thiars, Duc de Fronsac and Caulincourt
- infantry (12 bns)
- cavalry (18 sqns)
- light troops
Left vanguard under the command of M. de Stainville assisted by MM. de Lillebonne, Chevalier de Modène, de Rochambeau, de Montbarey
- infantry (12 bns)
- cavalry (14 sqns)
- light troops
- Chasseurs de Monet (6 coys)
Main French army
- first line (29 bns 16 sqns)
- infantry right flank
- infantry centre
- infantry left flank (soon join Stainville's corps)
- second line (18 bns, 16 sqns)
- Corps des Carabiniers under the Marquis de Poyanne
- Carabiniers (10 sqns)
- light troops
- Corps Royal de l'Artillerie (3 bns)
- Corps du Génie (5 bns)
- unidentified militia units
This article incorporates texts from the following book which are now in the public domain:
- Carlyle T.; History of Friedrich II of Prussia vol. 20
- Fortescue J. W.; A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 549-552
- Jomini, Henri; Traité des grandes opérations militaires, 2ème édition, 4ème partie, Magimel, Paris: 1811, pp. 165-170
- Mauvillon, I.; Geschichte Ferdinands Herzogs von Braunschweig-Lüneburg, Part 2, Leipzig: 1794, pp. 227-235
- Pajol, Charles P. V., Les Guerres sous Louis XV, vol. V, Paris, 1891, pp. 352-357
- Sichart, L. v.: Geschichte der Koniglich Hannoverschen Armee, Hanover, l870
Kessel, Eberhard: Das Ende des Siebenjährigen Krieges 1760-1763, Paderborn: Schöningh, 2007, pp. 837-842, 999-1002