Faded Glory: In The Footsteps of Old Fritz

In 1757, Prussia under Frederick the Great celebrated its most famous victories in the Seven Years’ War. The two battlefields at Leuthen and Rossbach are still worth seeing today

Features History
Carl Rochling's painting of the storming of the breach by Prussian Guards during the Battle of Leuthen

An Italian psychotherapist friend finds my fascination with battlefields unhealthy. Visiting places where men have used the utmost cunning and brutality to kill each other appears to her morbid. Perhaps she is right. But let me try to explain what draws me to these killing fields.

At heart, it is because here pretence is stripped away in the fight for survival. Stendhal, who accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns, wrote that the two qualities men cannot fake are courage and wit. You either have them or you don’t. On the battlefield the stakes, life or death, could not be higher. Courage, both physical and mental, is starkly exposed. And the same goes for cowardice.

On this basic attraction other layers rest. There is the genius of great commanders who, in the words of Carl von Clausewitz, author of On War, combine strength of character with “a sense of unity and a power of judgment raised to a marvellous pitch of vision”. Then there is the fate of nations on which their decisions depend, the wider political dimension of which war forms an integral part, what Clausewitz famously calls “a continuation of political intercourse, carried on by other means”.

Because of its existential nature, armed conflict is a constant spur to technological advance — from bow to musket, machine-gun and missile — whose effects have radically changed the face of the battlefield, and the tactics needed to dominate it. Compare, say, the limited manoeuvring at Crécy in 1346 to the huge deployment at Kursk nearly 600 years later. Sites of battles thus offer great topographical variety.

The history of particular regiments is another draw — the shared experiences which have formed their esprit de corps, the campaigns in which they have fought and, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, their distinctive uniforms.

Finally, there is the challenge of exploring the battlefield itself. Sometimes, as at Waterloo, it is well mapped and retains enough of its original features to make it easy to read. More often than not, it has been degraded by later development or simply neglected. For such sites you require a detailed history of the encounter, large-scale modern maps, enthusiasm and plenty of imagination.

Armed with Christopher Duffy’s Prussia’s Glory (Emperor’s Press, 2003) and several 1:50,000 maps, I set off with my brother and nephew last autumn to learn more about the most famous victories of one of Clausewitz’s heroes — “Old Fritz” or Frederick the Great. Rossbach and Leuthen, fought within a month of each other in 1757, are 220 miles apart as the crow flies, the first near Leipzig in eastern Germany, the second outside Wrocław in south-west Poland. So we based ourselves between them in Dresden.

The two battles took place in the third and final war which Prussia fought against the Habsburg Empire under Maria Theresa for control of Silesia. They also formed part of a much wider conflict, the Seven Years’ War, in which Britain, Hanover, with which it was united, Portugal and some smaller German principalities sided with the Prussians, and France, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Saxony with the Austrians. Because of the participants’ interests outside Europe, the conflict spilled over into North and South America, Asia and Africa. A few months before Rossbach and Leuthen, Robert Clive’s defeat of the nawab of Bengal and his French allies at Plassey had laid the foundations for British rule in India.

That year was the bloodiest of the 18th century. In six big battles — Prague, Kolin, Gross-Jägersdorf, Rossbach, Breslau and Leuthen — it is estimated that, among the 560,000 who took part, losses amounted to 120,000. It would take until 1809, the date of Wagram, for that total to be exceeded. 

At Rossbach on November 5, Frederick, with 22,000 men, defeated an allied force (France, the Reichsarmee of the Holy Roman Empire, and Austria) of about twice that size. Differences between incompetent enemy commanders, the Prince de Soubise, a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, and the Prince von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, made the king’s task easier. But, having been surprised by an allied flanking movement, the Prussians and their allies quickly redeployed and, hiding behind undulations in the terrain, caught the head of the advancing columns in a pincer movement. Cavalry and cannon, arms which Frederick had strengthened after years of struggle with the Austrians, played a dominant part. 

The artillery commander, Colonel Karl Friedrich von Moller, opened the engagement with heavy ordnance which he later succeeded in manoeuvring to a second location. The cavalry, led by Major-General Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, charged after the first cannonade, met stiff resistance but managed to reassemble before the end of the battle and deliver the coup de grâce. In less than one-and-a-half hours the allies had lost over a fifth of their men and more than 70 per cent of their artillery. On the other side the losses amounted to less than 3 per cent of total forces. Franz Rudolph Mollinger, secretary to one of the allied commanders, wrote that Frederick “could justifiably count this victory as the most economical — but at the same time the most remarkable…and rewarding — ever attained by his arms”.

The battlefield today is largely unchanged, except in one crucial aspect. The manor house in Rossbach where Frederick was lunching with his officers as the allies advanced still stands, and his stay is commemorated in a relief over the front door. You can see the ridge above the Leiha stream on which the Prussians, facing west, first deployed, and the southern line of hills, commanding a view over the village, along which the allies advanced. But the core of the battle site has been heavily degraded by brown coal mining. The Janus Hill, a gentle eminence behind which the Prussians concealed themselves, has been removed, giving way to a large artificial lake.

In Reichardtswerben, the village nearest to the centre of the action, is a diorama of the battle in its final phase. Containing nearly 4,500 pewter figures, it was designed by a local schoolteacher in the 1930s, fell into disrepair after the war and was restored in the 1980s when the German Democratic Republic saw the propaganda advantage of acclaiming great figures from the past who had been active on its territory. 

In 1993, a few years after German reunification, the “friends” (Interessengemeinschaft) of the diorama were formed. They look after the little museum which contains the display and other rooms devoted to the battle. Used as a field hospital, it is a half-timbered building dating from 1632 with an open gallery on the first floor. Among its exhibits are Seydlitz’s iron camp bed on which he lay after being wounded, the facsimile of a letter in French from Frederick to his sister Wilhelmine, the Margravine of Bayreuth, and a photograph of the then General (later Field Marshal and President) Paul von Hindenburg visiting the site in 1907. Also to be seen is a sculpted stone flame, the remnant of the first of several memorials to the battle. But more of these later.

Rossbach may have been a signal victory but events soon turned against Frederick again. On November 12 the Austrians took Schweidnitz, a strategically placed Silesian fortress which the king had greatly extended. Later that month Breslau (Polish Wrocław), the regional capital, fell to them. These two setbacks came on top of a string of others. Since the summer Frederick had been defeated at Kolin, expelled from Bohemia, seen his British-funded allies under the Duke of Cumberland beaten at Hastenbeck, and suffered the indignity of a raid on his capital, Berlin, by the Hungarian general, Andreas von Hadik. In the east he was under pressure from the Russians, in the north from Sweden.

It is against such odds that the great commander proves his mettle. “Once it has been determined, from the political conditions, what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course,” Clausewitz writes. ” But great strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily, to carry out the plan, and not be thrown off course by thousands of diversions.”

At Leuthen (Polish Lutynia) on December 5 Frederick had no doubt that his kingdom was at stake. “Before long, we shall either have defeated the enemy or we shan’t see each other again,” he told his officers. A successful clash early in the morning enabled him to gain a small rise called the Schönberg, from where he could survey the Austrian lines, thinly stretched out over five-and-a-half miles to the east, and make his plans. While the Prussian vanguard launched a diversionary attack on the centre, the main part of the army made its way south, then southeast, hidden by what Thomas Carlyle, Frederick’s biographer, calls the “slow heavings and sinkings” of the terrain.

This was a beautifully executed manoeuvre by an army whose foundations had been laid under Frederick William von Hohenzollern, the Great Elector, in the 17th century and had since been built up, first by Frederick William I, the “Soldier King”, then by his son, into the best-drilled in Europe. Cavalry and infantry swung from four wings into two lines, then deployed in oblique order to attack the enemy’s southern flank. Moller’s cannon, moved rapidly across frozen ground, again wrought havoc. The Austrians turned southwards to defend the village of Leuthen, which was taken after fierce fighting across its churchyard. Emerging on the far side, the infantry were vulnerable to a flanking attack by the Austrian cavalry but they in turn were taken in the flank by their Prussian counterparts. The battle was all but over. Frederick, with around 35,000 men, had again broken the back of a force nearly twice as large. Their losses were around 20,000, his some 6,400. 

In his history of the war, Old Fritz wrote that only the fall of night prevented this from being one of the most decisive battles of the century. As it turned out, having retaken Breslau and Schweidnitz, he was to suffer reverse on reverse until the Battle of Liegnitz in 1760, after which the exhausted parties sued for peace and he was left in undisputed control of Silesia.

The central point of interest on the battlefield of Leuthen today is the church. The ornate gateway to the graveyard broken down by Captain (later Field Marshal) Wichard von Möllendorf and the third battalion of the Prussian Guard still stands. That scene is pictured on a noticeboard outside the churchyard wall. It also tells you about the neoclassical building on the far side of the road, opened as a museum in 1921 in the presence of 10,000 people and counting among its exhibits a model of the battlefield and Frederick’s tobacco pouch. Today it is closed and forlorn. Also by the wall is a cross erected on the centenary of Leuthen in 1857. Under it lies a coffin containing the remains of soldiers, hailed as heroes on its base.

The most poignant monument stands on the Schönberg, a blackened granite stump defaced with colourful graffiti in Polish. You approach it from the main road by a concrete track laid, I suspect, not to give access to the monument but to a sand bunker next to it. On its eastern face you can decipher the German words “In memory of Frederick the Great’s victory at Leuthen on December 5, 1757”. On the reverse side you read that it was paid for by contributions from the 6th Army Corps. That corps was based in neighbouring Breslau and the monument was not erected until 1854. After the Red Army swept through Silesia in 1945, the gilded angel of victory was smashed and the plinth battered.

It is sad, but not surprising, that a memorial to an exemplary feat of arms should be in such a pitiful state. After what happened in the Second World War, the Poles, who had come into possession of Silesia for the first time, were hardly going to spend money on restoring a monument to Prussian prowess.

At Rossbach the history of the battle’s memorials largely reflects the tide of war between Germany and France. The first, erected in 1766, was topped by a flame which is now in the Reichardtswerben museum. The memorial was moved from the Janusberg to nearer the village in 1796 to make way for one presented by the Prussian king’s Hussar regiment. After Napoleon had wreaked revenge for Rossbach at Jena in 1806, both columns were taken down. The first fell to pieces, the second was taken to Paris and eventually found its way to the bottom of the Seine. A third memorial, of cast iron, was presented by the Prussian Third Army Corps in 1813 following the allies’ defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. The foundation stone for the fourth, mainly funded by the Prussian state and bearing a large relief showing a mounted angel of victory riding over a prostrate French soldier, was laid in 1857, the centenary of Rossbach. That fell victim to what one might call the “own goal” of brown coal mining in 1958. 

Today, the third memorial and a mini-version of the relief, paid for by the friends and unveiled in 2001, stand in a little park on the edge of Reichardtswerben. Rather than glorifying military might, the new inscription above the relief sees the 1,500 deaths at Rossbach as an exhortation to peace; the one below reminds us of the suffering of war, “in the hope of establishing peace in Europe”. Thus have attitudes towards Old Fritz’s legacy swung back and forth in the two-and-a-half-centuries since his greatest triumphs.