Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rossbach: Prelude

Rossbach: Prussian initial approach and retreat. Because Frederick might have been aggressive, but he was no fool.

The battles of Rossbach and Leuthen in 1757, during the Seven Years War, are like something from a movie.

It's really almost unbelievable things happened the way they did. After being defeated at the Battle of Kolin in June Frederick and the Prussians were in a bad way. Frederick was outnumbered badly by Austrian armies advancing into Silesia and by allied French/Imperial forces in Saxony and points west. Worse, the Russians with a massive army had won at Gross-Jagersdorf in East Prussia in August, and while they had withdrawn after the battle, it was fully expected that they would be back in force.

Frederick left an army in Silesia to observe and delay the Austrians, and took his remaining troops, only about 22,000, to intercept the French/Imperial army in Saxony. After a period of maneuvering, during which the French/Imperial forces generally retreated back west, Frederick confronted an enemy army about 42,000 strong in the vicinity of the village of Rossbach.

The allied army had entrenched and was strongly posted on the Schortau Heights south of the village of Mücheln. Although their position was strong, the Imperial Army under Hildburghausen was composed of very poor quality troops for the most part, and was beginning to fall apart. The French under Soubise were of better morale and quality, but not the disciplined force of the era of Louis XIV. Even more damaging to their situation was the lack of unitary command: Hildburghausen was titularly in command, but the French paid him little attention.

Rossback: The Allies do something really dumb
The Allies also were beginning to suffer from a lack of supply, and with winter coming on (it was now November) they needed to fall back on their winter quarters. Frederick meanwhile needed to wrap things up in Saxony so he could deal with the Austrians in Silesia before it was completely overrun. Both side had some motivation to bring things to a conclusion - and the Allies outnumbered the Prussians considerably.

Aside from suffering from a split command, neither Prince Hildburghausen nor Prince Soubise was a particularly great general, let alone a match for Frederick. The Allies convinced themselves that Frederick declining to attack their entrenched position was due to fear and hesitancy on the part of the Prussians. So, despite a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the French, Hildburghausen determined to attack the Prussians, mainly by moving around their left and taking a position threatening Frederick's line of communication.

The Allies set of in several columns for their flank march, screened by an advance guard of cavalry and two detachments under St. Germain and Von Loudon, who took up positions on the Schortau Heights and Gallows Hill respectively. The intent of these detachments was to fix the Prussians in their current position while the bulk of the army conducted the flank march.

Unfortunately for the Allies, the Prussians didn't stay fixed. When it became evident to Frederick (admittedly at the urging of some of his officers) that the Austrians were attempting a flank march he reacted brilliantly. After dispatching Seydlitz with all of the cavalry to the east of a long ridge called Janus Hill to neutralize the Allied cavalry, Frederick led the Infantry east from their encampment to form a line to the north of the ridge, screened from the Allied advance. After Seydlitz engaged and routed the Allied cavalry, Frederick led the fearsome Prussian infantry over the ridge and using the famous "Oblique Order" formation, into an attack on the Allied columns.

On the flat ground south of the hill between the villages of Rossbach and Reichartswerben, the Prussians smashed into the Allied army, which had yet to deploy from column into line formation. Disciplined Prussian musketry and heavy artillery blasted into the already disorganized Allied infantry. As the Prussian infantry closed in, Seydlitz, having rallied the Prussian cavalry after their earlier charge, crashed into the Allied columns from the south. Despite some French and Swiss battalions trying desperately to stem the tide, the Allied army was broken and fled the field.

From start to finish the entire action took a mere ninety minutes. Only seven Prussian infantry regiments were actually engaged, and the Prussians suffered only about 500 to 600 casualties. The Allies lost around 5000 dead and wounded, and a further 5000 captured as the Prussian cavalry rounded them up as they attempted to flee. In less than two hours and at very little cost, Frederick had secured the Prussian position in Saxony and ended the French and Imperial threat to his west for the foreseeable future.

Prussian positions at the 0830 5 November 1757 - this is a mostly historical setup, with Frederick place at his HQ in Rossbach

This battle is captured with an intriguing scenario in GMT's Prussia's Glory. While a smaller scenario, there are a number of scenario specific rules that make for an interesting game. These rules mostly have to do with encouraging the Allied player to make the historical flank march and attack.

Allied positions at the start of the battle. White units are French, light grey are Imperial. A major handicap for the Allies is that they can not set up with their formations already in column.
I'll be playing this scenario this week to illustrate both this fantastic game and some of the challenges of maneuvering and fighting an army during this period. It turns out that it isn't as easy to pull off the kind of attack the Prussians made as Frederick made it look!

Both armies the morning of 5 November, before the maneuvering begins

If the situations allows (and it might not, depending on how things develop according to the scenario rules) I intend for the Allies to make a move around the Prussian left as they did historically. This isn't as bad an idea as the crushing defeat they suffered would indicate. Indeed, if the Allies can manage to not fall into a Prussian trap, they have a better than even chance of winning the battle. The Prussians are in fact badly outnumbered, and won't be able to sustain and extended slugging match.

Will Frederick once again win the day? Check back later to see how the battle develops!