Battle of Rossbach
The Battle of Rossbach on November 5, 1757, was a brilliant victory for King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) and the Prussian Army over a combined FrenchAustrian force commanded by Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, and AustrianImperial (Holy Roman Empire) forces under Prince Joseph Friedrich von SachsenHildburghausen. In 1740 on Maria Theresa’s accession to the Habsburg throne, Frederick had invaded Silesia and seized that rich province from Austria. This nearly doubled his population and also secured rich natural resources and industry. It also precipitated the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and brought in other major powers. France aided Prussia against its own traditional enemy of Austria, and Britain sided with Austria. Despite Maria Theresa’s best efforts, the war ended in 1748 with Prussia firmly in control of Silesia.
An uneasy peace followed. At the urging of Maria Theresa, Austrian foreign minister Count Wenzel Kaunitz pulled off the improbable. In the First Treaty of Versailles (May 1756) he achieved the “Diplomatic Revolution of the Eighteenth Century.” France agreed to switch sides against its former ally of Prussia and join Austria. The coalition of powers that Kaunitz formed against Prussia ultimately included France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony and was probably the most powerful of the 18th century. To maintain the balance of power on the continent, however, England now supported Prussia.
The ensuing struggle, known to history as the Third Silesian War (1756– 1763) and that was part of the Seven Years’ War of the same dates, ranks with the War of the Spanish Succession (1701– 1714) as one of the greatest in Europe to that point. It was also fought all over the world, including North America, and might justifiably be called a world war. While it was the British who triumphed in the larger conflict, Prussia emerged from the war as a new European power. Ultimately Frederick II fielded an army of 200,000 men, although a third to a half of it was pressed men or mercenaries. Frederick accompanied his army in the field, conducting brilliant campaigns based on swift movement and surprise attacks. He was able to do this in part because his forces were operating on interior lines against allied forces who were often working at cross purposes.
Even with Silesia, Prussia had a population of only 6 million people. Any one of Prussia’s three major enemies had 20 million or more. Prussia did have the great advantage of the best-trained and best-equipped army in Europe, although it was hardly the largest. Frederick’s only hope of survival for his kingdom was to defeat his enemies piecemeal before they could concentrate against him. His best course of action was to strike through Saxony at Austria before it could fully mobilize against him. Whereas the War of the Austrian Succession was clearly an act of Prussian aggression, from the Prussian point of view the new war was justifiable from the standpoint of self-defense.
Frederick accordingly invaded Saxony on August 29, 1756, without declaration of war. He quickly occupied Dresden, drafted the Saxon forces into his own army, and imposed heavy financial demands on Saxony. It was a practice he would continue throughout the war.
Having secured Saxony, Frederick moved south to meet a Habsburg army of 50,000 men commanded by Marshal Maximilian Ulysses von Browne. In the Battle of Lobositz (Lovosice) on October 1, 1756, Frederick, with an equal force, defeated the Austrians; each side sustained about 3,000 casualties. Frederick then invaded Bohemia and on May 6, 1757, defeated the Austrians again in the Battle of Prague (Praha). Casualties this time were heavy: 13,400 Austrians and 14,300 Prussians.
Meanwhile, in the Second Treaty of Versailles of May 1757 France agreed to support Austria’s effort to regain Silesia. King Louis XV promised to field an army of 105,000 men in the German states as well as finance 10,000 German mercenaries and provide Austria an annual subsidy of 12 million florins. In return France would receive the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium), but this depended on Austria securing Silesia. France thus committed itself to a large-scale war with the promise of no gain whatsoever if Austria was not successful with Silesia.
Russia joined the coalition, as did most of the German states and Sweden, but Frederick now showed the qualities of military genius that would earn him the title “Frederick the Great.”
A Russian army invaded East Prussia in August 1757, and on October 16 Russian forces briefly occupied and plundered Frederick’s capital of Berlin. The allies operated cautiously, planning to draw the noose around Frederick and then pull it tight without risking separate military encounters.
As allied armies moved against Prussia from all directions, Frederick detached a small force for the relief of his capital while he accompanied an army into central Germany to deal with a combined Franco-Austrian force advancing east under Soubise and Saxe-Hildburghausen. Frederick commanded some 22,000 men, while the French and Austrians had perhaps 66,000. Frederick sought to trick his enemies into attacking on ground that would favor him. The two armies came together northeast of the village of Rossbach, west of Leipzig.
The battle occurred on November 5, 1757. The Franco-Austrian forces held high ground facing east. Soubise decided to envelop the Prussian left flank and sent three columns with some 41,000 men south to that end. Detecting this maneuver, Frederick feigned a withdrawal east while actually slipping the bulk of his army farther to his left, a move that was concealed from the allies by a line of hills. The fast-marching Prussian infantry were much better trained and more mobile than that of the allies. At the same time, Frederick sent 31 squadrons of Prussian cavalry under General Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz wide to the east.
When the advancing allied columns swung north, they encountered heavy Prussian artillery fire and the repositioned Prussian infantry. Seydlitz’s cavalry smashed into the right flank of the surprised allied infantry. In echelon (overlapping succes sion) formation, the Prussian infantry drove into the allied columns. Unable to reform, the allied force was routed in less than an hour and a half. The Prussians suffered 169 killed and 379 wounded (including Seydlitz), while allied casualties came to some 10,000, half of them taken prisoner. The surviving allied forces joined in retreat the remaining 25,000-plus troops who had not been engaged in the battle.
Frederick II’s victory was a tremendous boost to his cause and an embarrassment to the French. The Prussian victory at Rossbach removed the immediate threat to Prussia from the west. This enabled Frederick to quickly shift his resources and meet the major Habsburg armies advancing from the south. These forces came together one month later in the Battle of Leuthen.
Duffy, Christopher. The Military Experience in the Age of Reason. New York: Atheneum, 1988. ———. The Military Life of Frederick the Great. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
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.