5 December 1757

An illustration from 1897 shows a selection of different Prussian uniforms from the time of Frederick II (the Great). The illustration shows clearly the different weapons available to Frederick’s army and the distinctive uniform of the mounted dragoons.

If Frederick the Great of Prussia needed a battle to complete his impressive curriculum vitae, then Leuthen was certainly it. The battle was fought against all kinds of odds, not least the prospect of a winter confrontation at a time when most armies had abandoned combat for winter quarters. The most impressive odds against Frederick lay with his Austrian enemy. After a number of major victories they had seized back much of Silesia, conquered by Frederick several wars before, in 1740–41. The Austrian army, reinforced by Imperial troops from the smaller German states, outnumbered Frederick’s 39,000 men and 170 guns with an army of 66,000 horse and foot with 210 cannon, a disparity that ought to have made a decisive difference given the way eighteenth-century battles were fought, line against line until the weaker gave way. Frederick risked all on a radical battlefield manoeuvre that succeeded in reducing the odds to a more than even bet, and it is for this reason that Leuthen was remembered long afterwards as Frederick’s apogee.

The renewed struggle for control of Silesia was part of what became known as the Seven Years War (1756–63). It was in reality a series of different wars between the European powers, which merged into a single conflict. At its heart was the desire of Austria, France and Russia to hold down the emergent state of Prussia under its bellicose monarch, Frederick II. During 1757, the Austrian army, together with its allies, drove Prussian forces back towards the Prussian heartland in northern Germany. Commanded by Prince Charles of Lorraine, who had learned much about Prussian tactics since his defeat at Hohenfriedberg in 1745, and the Habsburg field marshal Leopold Daun, the Austrians set out to achieve a decisive victory over Frederick before the end of the year. On 4 December 1757, they set up camp on either side of the Silesian town of Leuthen (Lutynia in present-day Poland) and awaited the Prussians.

Rousing his camp at 4 a.m., Frederick led the vanguard forward, followed by columns of infantry flanked by large numbers of cavalrymen, the troops singing hymns as they marched. An enemy outpost was destroyed and Frederick captured several hundred men. When he arrived to view the Austrian camp he saw that it stretched almost 8 kilometres (5 miles) in width, with the left flank unsupported by any natural barriers. Along most of the length of the Austrian line was a shallow ridge that could shield the Prussian army from view. Frederick took a gamble that he could exploit the ridge’s shallow cover to move most of his army in an oblique manoeuvre across the Austrian front in order to make a powerful attack on the exposed enemy flank, so compensating for his lack of numbers. To deceive the enemy as to his intentions, Frederick sent a small force of cavalry and infantry to threaten the other wing of the Austrian army. It was the stronger end of the line, commanded by the Italian cavalry general Lucchese, and Daun and Charles were also positioned there. All three took the bait, Lucchese insisting on reinforcements as the Prussians approached with a deliberate languor.

Frederick compelled the rest of his army to form into two long snaking columns and march along the face of the enemy, concealed by the landscape. This was an exceptionally complex manoeuvre, requiring a high level of marching discipline to prevent the units from becoming entangled. When Charles and Daun detected the rightwards movement of the Prussian force, they took it for a retreat in the face of overwhelming odds.

While the Prussian feint continued to absorb Austrian attention, the rest of the Prussian army arrived in good order at the far left of the enemy line, wheeled left and then, supported by heavy guns and lines of infantry 50 metres apart, sent in three crack infantry battalions to begin the process of unhinging the whole Austrian line. The main attack came at 1 p.m., with only a few hours of daylight left. The Hungarian commander on the Habsburg left flank, General Franz Nádasti, could see Prussian movement along his front and called to Charles for reinforcement, but the Austrian high command ignored him, still sure that an attack would be mounted against their sector. The Prussians stormed forward and the less reliable German Imperial troops panicked and turned, 2,000 of them falling prisoner. The Prussian cavalry under Ziethen drove off the Austrian horse and completed the rout of the infantry. The oblique attack began as a resounding success.

Nádasti withdrew towards Leuthen in disarray and Charles and Daun at last realized that they had been tricked. The Austrian line was ordered to swing at right angles to face the onrushing Prussians on either side of Leuthen. The result was a chaos of disorganized units, muddled orders and confused men, forced to march three or four miles to confront an enemy already in command of the field. Resistance in Leuthen was fierce but as dusk fell the town was cleared.

Lucchese brought up his fresh cavalry from the right wing and charged forward against the Prussian infantry, not realizing that Prussian cavalry, under Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Driesen, was positioned on his right flank. As they galloped forward, they were hit from the side by the onrushing Prussian horses. The shock was sufficient. Lucchese was killed and his cavalry forced back into the ranks of the defending Austrian foot soldiers. The ensuing panic took root across the remaining Austrian line and the whole front collapsed, fleeing in disorder towards the Silesian capital of Breslau. Frederick pursued the stragglers at the head of a small force gathered from among his exhausted men. Heavy snow began to fall and the pursuit was halted. The reformed infantry lines began to sing the hymn ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ and the song rolled out over the mass of soldiers, to be known thereafter as the ‘Leuthen Chorale’.

Losses on both sides were high from the savage hand-to-hand fighting. Prussian casualties were 6,000; Austrian and Imperial losses were 10,000 dead and wounded and 12,000 prisoners. The risky battlefield plan tipped the odds and flank encirclement became a speciality of the Prussian and later German armies, and was imitated by Napoleon. The battle opened the way to Prussian reconquest of Silesia but the cost for Prussia, smaller, poorer and less populous than its enemies, was substantial. Frederick had to sustain four more years of bruising conflict, always against the odds, until the Habsburg empress, Maria-Theresa, finally abandoned the attempt to defeat her German rival.