- James Houser
November 5, 1757 - Frederick the Great and the Battle of Rossbach
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
November 5, 1757. The small state of Prussia is in danger of being swamped on all sides. King Frederick II, the military mastermind behind the most elite army in Europe, has three larger nations pushing armies into his territory, and just days ago Austrian cavalry raided his capital of Berlin. His back against the wall, Frederick gambles everything on a lightning attack at Rossbach. There’s a reason they call him The Great.
I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about Frederick the Great this year yet, so I’m going to have to start this narrative from scratch. Old Fritz was a unique figure in his age, fascinating and full of contradictions. He was infamously homosexual (a well-known fact even in his own time), yet deeply misogynistic. He was impressively enlightened and implemented many forward-thinking policies, including Europe’s first abolition of capital punishment, yet he was a stern autocrat and authoritarian. He built the greatest military machine in Europe, but stamped such a conservative outlook on his army that he trapped it in tradition and backwardness for two generations after his death. On top of all this, he was a king of snark and a galaxy-grade cynical asshole, reminding me of no more than an early modern Dr. House.
Brilliant but devoid of charisma, cynical yet full of progressive ideas, Frederick the Great was…well, he was something, all right. But first and foremost he was the King of Prussia. And as the King, he transformed it from a minor German state into one of the premier military powers of Europe.
Frederick ascended to the throne in 1740, and pretty much immediately launched an aggressive, reckless war. The Kingdom of Prussia at this time was a long and disparate series of territories stretching from central Germany through Poland to the borders of Russia, centered on the still-small capital of Berlin. As borders go, Prussia was extremely exposed and disconnected, which made it exceedingly vulnerable to foreign invasion from various angles. Ever since the Thirty Years’ War, the rulers of this kingdom had compensated for this fact by allying with the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors against, well, whoever they happened to be fighting. Prussia essentially became a hyperpowered sidekick to the Austrian Habsburgs, providing striking forces in their many wars, and in so doing earned the right to call themselves Kings as well as honing their military acumen. Frederick thus inherited an already proud military tradition already as well as the growing legend of the Prussian Army.
The Prussian Army that Frederick inherited in 1740 was – man for man – probably the best in Europe. It was 80,000 strong, the fourth largest in Europe while Prussia was only the twelfth largest in population, and its maintenance took up almost 70% of the state budget. Voltaire, a close personal friend of Frederick, would later assert that Prussia was “not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” The Prussian Army was locally recruited from specialized cantons throughout the Kingdom, with conscription a fact of life. Frederick’s ancestors had neutered their powerful nobility by forcing them into military service as the army’s officer corps, with the result that Prussian officers were among the best-trained and most highly motivated in the world. The Prussian soldier was drilled to machine-like precision, able to get off four to five volleys a minute with the muzzle-loading musket while most armies only managed two to three. The robotic mechanization of the Prussian infantryman made him the dominant force on the mid-century battlefield.
Within a few months, Frederick had dragged his army into open war. The new heir to the Habsburg throne was Maria Theresa, who due to her gender had initiated a succession crisis within the Holy Roman Empire. France was only too happy to pitch in to the developing War of the Austrian Succession, but when Maria Theresa asked Frederick for help he had different ideas. Old territorial disputes presented Frederick with a chance to seize the rich Austrian-held province of Silesia to its south, and only months after taking the throne in 1740 Frederick launched his army into Saxony and Silesia.
It was during the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740 to 1748, that Frederick gained his reputation as Europe’s greatest military mind. He was one of the most aggressive generals in history, possibly THE most, and never hesitated to attack even when outnumbered fearfully. Partly this was a result of his position: with Prussia so geographically vulnerable, and with the enemy’s forces so much larger than his own, Frederick saw no means of gaining his victories than by quick and decisive action to shock the enemy and keep them on their toes. He won magnificent victories at Chotusitz in 1742 and Hohenfriedberg in 1745 by doing just this: striking fast, hard, and in an unexpected place. His triumphs secured control of Silesia by the end of the conflict after he signed a separate peace with Austria, and by the end of the war Prussia was one of Europe’s greatest military powers.
This came with consequences. The sudden and dangerous rise of Prussia was both startling and troubling to most of Europe. Frederick had permanently alienated Maria Theresa who, despite Frederick’s conquest of Silesia, had held on elsewhere and kept her throne. Maria Theresa had been assumed to be a weak ruler by virtue of her gender, but she proved as iron-willed and determined as Frederick himself, and was obviously preparing to regain Silesia by force. Frederick had also alienated France by signing a separate peace with Maria Theresa and leaving them in the lurch, though France had managed to come back and get a favorable peace out of the affair. Other events in the war had also alienated Austria from their major ally Britain. All these combined to result in the unthinkable.
In the mid-1750s, as Britain and France were clearly squaring off for another major war, they both courted continental allies. Somehow, through an intricate series of diplomatic incidents, insults, and triumphs, the entire alliance system of Europe realigned in less than ten years. It was known as the “Stately Quadrille,” after a popular ballroom dance that involved an exchange of partners. By 1756, then, the Austrian Habsburgs had severed their six-decade long alliance with Great Britain to align with their oldest and bitterest enemy France, mainly because France offered to help Maria Theresa regain Silesia. Britain had aligned with Prussia as a counterweight to France’s domination of Germany. Austria had also gained an alliance with Russia, which had designs on Prussia’s eastern provinces.
The upshot of all this craziness was that Britain’s only ally in the world was Frederick II’s Prussia, which suddenly found itself isolated and surrounded by three larger empires – France, Austria, and Russia. It was still peacetime, but everyone and their brother knew that Austria wanted Silesia back and would do anything to regain it. The odds were looking increasingly bad for Frederick, even if he had a great army and his own military genius.
Frederick had been expanding and reforming his army throughout the peace, especially reforming the heavy cavalry arm which had disappointed in years part. He doubled his army’s size to nearly 150,000 men, but this was an enormous burden on his small country and he was constantly short of funds. Britain had promised him subsidies in the event of war, but tried to get him not to do anything rash. Already trouble had broken out in America, where a young militia officer named George Washington had kicked off a struggle that became known as the French and Indian War. The British were about to commit troops and resources to this new struggle, which they could do easily as long as Frederick didn’t, you know, do anything rash. Hopefully no one was a big enough madman to START a war against an overwhelming alliance.
This was a bad bet to make with Frederick. His motto was “When in doubt, attack,” and with a huge continental alliance forming against him Frederick wasn’t going to let his foes choose the time and place of the duel. He had sought, and failed to gain, assurances from Maria Theresa that she would not attack him. The King of Prussia had confidence in his ability to win on the battlefield, launch a quick and decisive blow against any foe, parry between enemies as needed, and rely on British help if things got too rough. Above all, though, Frederick felt increasingly backed into a corner, and like any animal felt the need to lash out. His advisors and generals disagreed, but Prussia operated on “one man, one vote.” King Frederick was the man, and he had the only vote.
On August 29, 1756, Frederick II of Prussia plunged Europe into war once again by invading Saxony, an Austrian-allied German state that posed a major threat to his borders. Within months, he had blitzed through the territory with a speed and hunger that shocked the rest of Europe. With this outbreak of violence, the war in Europe blended with Britain and France’s already ongoing war in the Americans to become the Seven Years’ War, which I have called “World War Zero.” A massive land campaign in Europe, mostly revolving around Frederick’s attempts to survive the weight of the other powers, was matched by Britain and France’s struggle for America and their simultaneous war for control of India. Military operations extended to the Pacific, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Most of these fights, though, were small-scale affairs compared to the great bloodbaths about to emerge in Central Europe.
With his position secure in early 1757, Frederick decided to jack the war up a notch. France and Russia were still gathering their armies with clear intent to come after Prussia, and he wanted to keep hitting the Austrians while he still had the chance. Old Fritz sent his blue-coated machine straight into Austrian-ruled Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic) in spring of 1757, hoping to capture the capital of Prague and gain more breathing room against his enemies. It was here, in Bohemia, that Frederick finally went too far and bit off more than he could chew.
It seemed to start off well. Frederick’s forces advanced from the north and the east, and on May 6 they collided with an Austrian army at the Battle of Prague. Here was the first warning: though the Prussians won this fight, it was remarkably difficult and bloody, with Count Schwerin – one of Frederick’s best generals – being killed. Both sides had pitched in with almost 60,000 men, and each had lost around a quarter of that number. Despite the difficulty of this victory, Frederick had forced the Austrians inside Prague and began to lay siege to the city. He had hoped to destroy their army outside of the walls, but now he had no other option.
The second problem arose when Austrian light troops began to harass Frederick’s supply lines. Soon the Prussian King realized an unpleasant fact: while he had been reforming his army, his enemies had reformed theirs. The Austrians had recruited large numbers of border skirmishers from Hungary and Croatia, known as the pandeurs or the “grenzers,” who launched hit-and-run raids on Frederick’s supply convoys from Prussia. Frederick posted garrisons and escorts to protect his logistics, but this reduced his overall numbers in the field.
Finally, the Austrians launched a counterattack led by Field Marshal Leopold von Daun to drive Frederick’s army away from Prague. Frederick turned to face them at Kolin on June 18, 1757, and even though he was heavily outnumbered – his 34,000 to the enemy’s 54,000 – he decided as usual to attack. This time, though, his gamble miscarried. The Austrian light infantry harassed his rigid lines into a premature assault, and the disunited and aggressive Prussian columns smashed themselves on the Austrian lines. Though Frederick displayed enormous bravery, rallying his Guards with the taunt “Rascals, would you live forever?”, he was unable to gain a victory. Frederick was forced to lift the siege of Prague and retreat, having lost nearly 14,000 men at Kolin. It was his first military defeat.
Though Frederick brooded after Kolin, spending hours the next day stabbing petulantly at the ground with a stick, he had little time to be depressed. The Austrians were already pouring into Silesia with thousands of men, and more bad news was coming from his west and east. To the east, the Russians were descending on East Prussia, had defeated a small Prussian army there, and were besieging the fortress city of Konigsberg. To the west, the French had routed a British-German army near Hanover and had forced it into an armistice. It was likely that within months, Frederick would be facing a triple-headed attack that he could not hope to withstand. Having bitten off more than he could chew, Frederick now looked like he was about to choke.
The most immediate threats were from the French and Austrians. A French army under the Count of Soubise had joined up with a number of German units allied to Maria Theresa, and they were slowly making their way east into the forests of Saxony. The Austrian army of Prince Charles Alexander was picking off Frederick’s isolated fortresses in Silesia, but Frederick and his main force sat between these two armies. If they joined up, they would easily overwhelm him. The King’s only hope was to beat them each in turn before they could link up – otherwise, Prussia was ruined, and there was no other help coming.
Frederick chose the French and Imperial army as his first target. The Austrians were still bogged down in taking fortresses, but the French were actually moving, and they needed to be stopped before they got any farther. To face off with the men of King Louis XV, Frederick planned a rapid march unparalleled in his age. He split off the best of his soldiers and marched 170 miles in 13 days. Frederick was only able to do this by leaving behind all his supply wagons and pre-arranging provisions en route. The French were surprised by the King’s sudden appearance and backpedaled out of his reach, resulting in a stare-down stalemate as the two sides waited for the other to move.
But events were growing more dire for Frederick by the minute. The Austrians were taking the last of his Silesian fortresses, and the absence of any forces near his capital had nearly cost him everything. A raiding party of Austrian cavalry had slipped past his forward units, attacked, and briefly occupied Berlin itself. The Prussian royal family escaped with only minutes to spare. Though local Prussian forces soon drove them out, it was not before the Austrians extracted of 200,000 thalers (and a nice pair of gloves for Maria Theresa) as a ransom. This humiliation once again highlighted Prussia’s vulnerability, and placed pressure on Frederick – he had to win a battle. Soon. NOW.
That would be a tall order. Soubise’s French-Imperial Army of 42,000 men seriously outnumbered Frederick’s 22,000, and the last attack on a stronger army at Kolin had not gone so well. Frederick had spent two weeks maneuvering against this bigger army, blocking its advance eastward, and they had shied from battle every time – but eventually a fight would come, and if Frederick didn’t pull off something awesome it was going to be a risky one. It was probably risky to even chance battle at all, but this was Frederick. When in doubt, attack. When on the ropes, toss the dice.
On the day of November 5, 1757, the two armies were eyeing each other near the small village of Rossbach. Count Soubise and his generals had made a decision to try and outflank Frederick to the south, then march east into the King’s rear. This move would threaten to cut Frederick off from his supply line and either force him to attack the French or force him to retreat, either way gaining Soubise’s objective. By midday, as his scouts reported no moves from the Prussian camp, Soubise set his plan into motion. The French-Imperial army lumbered slowly into motion, pushing south and then making its ponderous turn east.
Frederick noticed the enemy army breaking camp, but wasn’t sure if they were withdrawing or advancing against him. When he sent out a scout to report, the young officer confirmed that Soubise’s men were making a left turn at the crossroads. This was where Frederick the Great, for all his risk-taking and general disagreeability, truly earned his appellation. At 2:30pm, he learned of the French plan. At 3:00 pm, within 30 minutes, he had a battle plan, had his army formed up, and had them in motion. Most lieutenants can’t do that with a platoon, but he did it with 20,000 men. The French were offering him the battle he wanted and had tried to force for so long? He’d give them all they could handle.
Leaving a small screening force of light infantry, Frederick’s army marched east at top speed. Soubise’s scouts reported this, and Soubise assumed not unreasonably that Frederick was retreating. He urged his troops to march faster, hoping to catch the Prussian King in mid-march and attack him. The French forces pushed their men faster, and the column became strung out as they hobbled down the road into the lush Saxon farmlands of autumn. Their boots crunching the falling leaves, the French and German soldiers gazed out at the pleasant greenery of the farms and felt the chill air above their stiff collars. The Prussian King was retreating! The war would be over soon, no doubt; they would link up with the Austrians, capture Berlin, and call it over.
Then Frederick hit them.
Frederick was NOT retreating. He had done a week’s worth of modern military staff planning in his head on the fly, sent his cavalry under General Friedrich von Seydlitz powering off, and set his infantry out at nearly a jog. The French were walking into an ambush as they struggled forward down the road in the fading light. Thanks to the superior training and skill of the Prussian officers, and his own considerable ability, Frederick was able to pull off things that no other army at the time could do. The result was that as the French came up on the Janus Hill to their left, happy and content that they had Frederick on the run, three things happened at once.
First, eighteen artillery rolled up on the crest of the ridge and began to pour a plunging fire into the enemy infantry. Second, Frederick’s infantry came boiling across the hill to their right, machine-like precision thundering down the slope. Third, Von Seydlitz’s heavy cavalry had been forming up just under the crest of the hill, right in front of his foe’s advance. When the French were less than a thousand yards away Seydlitz, who had been calmly smoking his pipe, tossed it in the air as the signal to charge. The Prussian cavalry came over the hill and bludgeoned into the French infantry like a bowling ball. The Prussian riders rode with knees nearly touching in a column three to four deep, horses tail to nose, swords outstretched in a wall of steel, leather, horseflesh and men.
As Seydlitz and his troopers pitched into fierce melee, with Seydlitz himself sustaining injuries, Frederick ordered his infantry forward. Soon the French fleeing the cavalry’s charge were faced with lines of navy-coated grenadiers, who unleashed their highly disciplined volleys at near point-blank range. Seydlitz’s cavalry, taking advantage of the breathing space, withdrew back into the woods to reorganize. The French and German infantry gained their footing and tried to face the Prussian infantry, who gave ground a bit before the press of overwhelming numbers – but guess who’s BAAAACK! Seydlitz’s troopers once again came screaming out of the woods and plowed into the French – into their rear this time.
Panic swept the French and German troops, and soon they were fleeing in every direction from the enemy. Seydlitz chased them until twilight, but the battle was already over. It had only taken 90 minutes.
At Rossbach, Frederick the Great gained one of his most famous and impressive victories. Faced with an army twice his size, not only had he won, but he had won decisively, inflicting around 3500 killed and wounded and capturing almost 10,000 demoralized soldiers. This was at the cost of around 700 of his own casualties – easily the least costly of all his great triumphs. Not only had Frederick won the battle, he had probably saved his capital and his kingdom. There is no telling what would have happened had Frederick lost the Battle of Rossbach, or even if he had failed to force a decision by the end of 1757. The Austrians and Russians, after all, had yet to be stopped.
But Rossbach changed everything. The French were removed as a threat to Prussia itself – permanently, I might add, because they never tried to invade Prussia for the rest of the war and concentrated their efforts on the British. Rossbach was also an enormous humiliation for the French army, which had fallen far from its Louis XIV glory days when it was the envy of all Europe. Now Prussia had taken that title, and the French would be sore about it for decades afterward. Not until Napoleon’s 1806 victory at Jena, which the Emperor referred to quietly as “Rossbach Avenged,” would France regain their self-respect vis-à-vis Prussia.
Frederick had lived to fight another day – but for how long? It was only Year #2 of the Seven Years’ War, and there would be more fighting to go. It was not his first near miss, and it would not be the last. In December, I’ll talk about Rossbach’s twin and one of the greatest tactical victories in human history – Frederick the Great’s miracle at Leuthen.
Actually I never ended up writing that post. I think I ended up talking about Cyrus the Great? Oh well.
Book Recommendation: A good source for Frederick's wars is the late great Dennis Showalter, The Wars of Frederick the Great (New York: Longman, 1996).