Frederick the Great's Greatest Blunder: The Battle of Hochkirch

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September 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Frederick The GreatPrussiaAustriaSeven Years WarHochkirch

Frederick the Great's Greatest Blunder: The Battle of Hochkirch

One of the greatest military strategists of the 18th century had been taken completely by surprise.

Cannons roared and muskets crackled in the darkness below the hill of Rodewitz, but King Frederick the Great of Prussia was in no hurry to move. During this campaign, many a night’s sleep had been cut short by noisy predawn attacks by Croatian pandours serving with the Austrian Army. Soldiers encamped near his quarters rushed to take up arms, but he scoffed, “What are you about, lads? It is nothing—only those scoundrels the Croats!” But this time, the firing heralded more than a mere picket-line skirmish. It was not yet dawn, but tens of thousands of Austrian grenadiers, regular infantry, cavalry, and gunners had already smashed the right flank of the Prussian Army at the village of Hochkirch in Saxony. Thousands of Prussian soldiers awoke to the sound of captured guns turned to rake their camps with shot and shell.

One of the greatest military strategists of the 18th century had been taken completely by surprise. The next few hours of the morning of October 14, 1758, would tell whether Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army would survive the Battle of Hochkirch.

The Seven Years’ War was in its second year. Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army held the German lands of Silesia and Saxony. Surrounded by the great empires of France, Austria, and Russia, Frederick deftly parried attacks from vastly greater armies than his own with the limited help of allied German states, and financial aid and some troops from King George II of Great Britain.

The Prussian king had some advantages that helped balance the odds against him. He possessed uncanny ability as a strategist and military leader, and he held seemingly boundless confidence in his own strategic and political skills. Most important of all, his system of intense training and discipline mixed with his willingness to share the hardships of campaigning with his soldiers won him their devotion. 

In the summer of 1758, another threat to Prussia materialized when a Russian army under General Wilhelm von Fermor marched from the east toward the Oder River. Frederick took most of his troops to deal with the Russians, leaving a 20,000-man army in Saxony under his brother, Prince Henry of Prussia. The prince’s small force faced an Austrian army of 90,000 men under Field Marshal Count Leopold von Daun.

On August 25, 1758, Frederick won a narrow and costly victory over the Russians at Zorndorf, a place now in western Poland. A few days later, General Fermor withdrew with his battered army, and Frederick hurried to rejoin his brother in Saxony. On October 8, Daun’s army arrived to confront Frederick and camped at Kittlitz, about 40 miles east of Dresden.

Frederick the Great’s army was largely drawn from his dominions. His kingdom, a growing European power, included several noncontiguous parcels stretching from the Dutch border to the Baltic, in addition to the larger regions of Brandenburg and East Prussia. The Austrian force, in contrast, was a multilingual combination of soldiers from the German-speaking lands of Austria, as well as Croatians, Italians, Hungarians, and troops from other Hapsburg lands. Frederick ruled perhaps four and a half million subjects, compared to 25 million living in the Austrian dominions.

Among Frederick’s commanders was one of his few close friends, Field Marshal James Francis Edward Keith. Exiled after serving in the ill-fated Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1719 in Scotland, Keith served with the armies of Spain and Russia before accepting a commission from Frederick the Great in 1747. The Prussian king appreciated the Scottish officer not only as a brave and dependable battlefield commander, but also as a sophisticated and cultured gentleman. The Prussian king promoted Keith to field marshal, and Keith’s sterling leadership in the early battles of the Seven Years’ War amply confirmed Frederick’s judgment. In late 1758 Keith was recovering from a breakdown in his health.

On October 10 Frederick’s 37,000 troops encamped at Hochkirch in Saxony. The substantial village was situated on a low rise that commanded the surrounding plain. Looming over the cluster of cottages, cabbage gardens, and narrow lanes was a new church, one rather surprisingly grand in scale and style compared to the modest village. By the church was a large cemetery surrounded by a sturdy stone wall. Many local inhabitants were Wends, people of Slavic ancestry whose language is reflected in some Saxon place names.

The Prussians erected a redoubt to shield the southern approaches to the village. The redoubt bristled with 20 12-pounder cannons and half a dozen smaller guns. Some battle accounts refer to this field work, which rested on a rise slightly higher than Hochkirch, as the Grand Battery. Grenadiers in smaller nearby works protected the flanks of the artillery position. The Prussian forces were deployed on a three-mile front from Hochkirch to Rodewitz. From his new camp, the king planned to strike the nearby Austrians and drive them out of Saxony.

Frederick’s army, though, was in a precarious position. Although the site of Hochkirch itself provided a good field of fire, it overlooked only a rather narrow stretch of pastures and hayfields. These sunlit fields quickly ended in barriers of dark woods covering hills to the south and east that rose much higher than the village. The hills and forests offered cover to potential enemy attacks.

With his experienced eye for terrain, Frederick noted that a hill known as the Stromberg, which was located two miles from the Prussian left at Rodewitz, was a key position. The Prussian king believed that by holding the Stromberg his troops would be able to menace Daun’s right flank and compel the Austrians to withdraw. Conversely, if the Austrians held that hill, Frederick’s own position would be in danger. To ensure that the Stromberg was in Prussian hands, Frederick ordered Lt. Gen. Wolf Frederick von Retzow to secure the important hill.

The Austrians, though, had already occupied the hill. When he approached the Stromberg, Retzow found Austrian troops swarming over it. Certain that an attack would be costly and futile, the general did not act on the king’s orders.  Under the impression that the Stromberg was lightly held, the king again ordered Retzow to attack the hill. Frederick’s initial assessment had been correct, as at first only a small force held the hill. While Retzow hesitated, however, Daun dispatched a substantial infantry and artillery force to occupy the strategic hilltop. When Retzow declined a second order to attack, Frederick became enraged. Despite the angry king’s stipulation that his head would be forfeit if he failed to move, Retzow’s forebodings were so strong that he submitted to arrest and gave up his sword rather than give the order to assault the position.

Besides the Stromberg, the Austrians also held two thickly forested hills south of Hochkirch. One was the Kuppritzerberg, and the other farther to the southwest was the much larger Czarnabog. The latter hill’s name, drawn from the Wendish language, meant “Devil’s Hill.” The name aptly symbolized the menace of the dark forests hiding enemy movements around Hochkirch. Not only did the much larger enemy force control the higher ground overlooking it, but Frederick’s troops were stretched thin. Indeed, the Prussian line was too long for a successful defense. What is more, a dangerous gap of about two miles separated the Prussian troops at Rodewitz from Retzow’s 9,000 men who were deployed at the village of Weissenberg.

The Prussian king was well aware of the potential risks of staying at Hochkirch. But with strong faith in his own military ability and deep contempt for his enemies, Frederick would not make a quick withdrawal to a safer camp. Keith saw that their camp was within artillery range of an enemy holding the Stromberg as well as other high pieces of ground in their front. “If the Austrians leave us alone here, they deserve to be hanged,” Keith warned the king. “It is to be hoped that they are more afraid of us than of the gallows,” replied Frederick. 

Up to that point, the Austrian strategy had been strictly one of defense. Daun was often called “Fabius Cunctator” after Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, an opponent of Hannibal who used delaying tactics rather than direct attacks on the legendary Carthaginian commander.

During the campaign, offensive moves by the Austrians had been so rare that Frederick never expected Daun to roll the dice and launch a surprise attack. The Prussian king therefore waited for his supply train, and the armies seemed to settle more or less quietly into their lines. The big guns of the Grand Battery, aimed at the menacing wooded hills, remained silent. Little broke the dull daily routine other than the Croatian pandours of Daun’s army.

The pandours were irregulars from Croatia and the Balkans. Instead of military uniforms, they wore their regional clothing, which resembled the dress of the Ottoman Empire. Each one typically carried a saber, a dagger, and one or more pistols. They harassed communication lines, killing or capturing couriers, or fell on isolated detachments and baggage trains. Regular officers looked down on them as wild and undisciplined, considering them more like bandits than soldiers; indeed, they had a notorious reputation for looting. Nevertheless, the pandours were tolerated for their superb skills as woodland fighters and guerrillas.