Battle of Leuthen II
The Battle of Leuthen, fought between the Prussians and Austrians on December 5, 1757, was one of the key battles of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). In 1756 Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony joined together against Prussia. King Frederick II of Prussia, not wishing to allow his enemies time to concentrate against him, invaded Saxony in late August 1756 and initiated the Third Silesian War (1756–1763), which was the catalyst for and a major part of the Seven Years’ War.
After overrunning Saxony, Frederick next campaigned in Bohemia, defeating the Austrians in the May 6, 1757, Battle of Prague (Praha). Then, with large French forces having invaded his British ally’s territory of Hanover, Frederick moved west. On November 5, 1757, in the Battle of Rossbach he defeated a combined French-Austrian force and secured his western flank for the time being.
Frederick immediately moved his army east to Silesia, where a strong Austrian force under Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine had taken Schweidnitz and was moving on the Silesian capital of Breslau (the present-day Polish city of Wrocław in Lower Silesia). En route Frederick learned of the fall of Breslau (November 22). He drove his men forward, covering 170 miles in 12 days and joining up with surviving Prussian troops from the fighting at Breslau near Liegnitz (present-day Legnica). With about 33,000 men, Frederick then marched east to meet the Austrians.
Prince Charles commanded 65,000 men. Aware of Frederick’s approach, Charles took up position facing west along a five-mile front in rolling country near the village of Leuthen. The bulk of Charles’s forces were on his left wing that ended close to the Schwiednitz River; his right flank was anchored on a marsh.
Frederick II and his commanders were familiar with the area, as it was the site of Prussian military maneuvers. Outnumbered almost two to one, Frederick relied on a ruse. He moved toward the Austrian right wing in four columns; the two inner columns consisted of infantry, and the two outer columns consisted of cavalry. Frederick then took advantage of low hills to shift the two columns of infantry and one column of cavalry obliquely to the right. The left-most column of cavalry remained behind to demonstrate in front of the Austrian right.
Charles took the bait, shifting reserves from his left front to his right to meet the threatened Prussian attack. Frederick’s three remaining columns meanwhile continued undetected across the Austrian front, overreaching the Austrian left wing. The main Prussian attack occurred in oblique formation, in two lines echeloned from the right. The Prussian fire increased as each successive battalion attacked. Highly mobile Prussian artillery supported the attack, directing their fire at the apex of the Austrian left flank. Prussian general Hans J. Von Ziethen charged into the disorganized Austrian cavalry on the left flank, forcing it back on the center of the line.
The Austrian army now wheeled toward the south to meet the Prussian attack. Charles attempted to form a new line while hurling his right-flank cavalry against the Prussians. The remaining Prussian cavalry defeated this thrust, and the Austrian infantry gave way in confusion. Nightfall ended the fighting and rendered impossible any Prussian pursuit. The bulk of the Austrian forces escaped across the Schwiednitz River to Breslau.
The Battle of Leuthen shattered Charles’s army, which lost 6,750 killed or wounded and more than 12,000 captured. The Prussians also took 116 Austrian guns. Prussian losses were 6,150 killed or wounded. Frederick II retook Breslau five days later, capturing another 17,000 Austrians. Both armies then went into winter quarters, but only half of the Austrian army that had begun the campaign remained.
While Leuthen was one of the most decisive battles of the century and was Frederick’s military masterpiece, much more fighting lay ahead. The French turned their efforts against Hanover, where they defeated a largely mercenary force commanded by Frederick’s nephew, the Duke of Brunswick. Swedish forces meanwhile moved into Pomerania. The Russians and Austrians also made a major effort, leading one historian to refer to the war as a struggle of 90 million against 5 million. Frederick’s position steadily deteriorated. The magnificently trained forces with which he had begun the war were gradually whittled away, replaced in large part by untrained levies expected to learn on the job.
On August 25, 1758, in one of the bloodiest battles of the 18th century, Frederick defeated an invading Russian army at Zorndorf, but on October 14 the Austrians were victorious over the Prussians at Hochkirch in Saxony. Frederick maneuvered ever smaller forces against his enemies, and on August 12, 1759, the Russians defeated Frederick at Kunersdorf, administering the worst setback of his military career. Two months later the Russians briefly took Berlin and burned the city.
By 1761 Frederick II was barely surviving. With little more initiative on the part of his enemies, he would have been defeated. He and Prussia were delivered by the so-called Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, when Czarina Elizabeth died suddenly on January 6, 1762. Elizabeth hated the Prussian king, but her successor, Peter III, was an unabashed admirer of Frederick and promptly recalled Russian troops from the war. This unhinged the coalition and isolated Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who was forced to conclude peace with Prussia in the Treaty of Hubertusberg on February 15, 1763. The treaty restored the status quo ante bellum, and Maria Theresa reluctantly gave up all claims to Silesia. The net effect of the war was to raise Prussia to the status of one of the great powers of Europe despite a long and difficult recovery for the kingdom after the ravages of the long war.
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Reddaway, W. F. Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia. New York: Greenwood, 1969.
Ritter, Gerhard. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.