Battle at Züllichau I

The Battle of Kay (German: Schlacht bei Kay), also referred to as the Battle of Sulechów, Battle of Züllichau, or Battle of Paltzig, was an engagement fought on 23 July 1759 during the Seven Years’ War. It occurred near Kay (Kije) in the Neumark, now part of Poland.

On July 17, 1759, General Count Christoph von  Dohna, who had been retiring before the enemy, reached the village of Züllichau, on the eastern bank of the Oder. He barely occupied it before the Russians could. The situation was critical. Dohna had been unable to stop or even retard the progress of the Russian advance and the situation on the Eastern side was worsening. As for the king, he was furious when he learned of the complete, miserable failure of the campaign in Poland, but, in fairness, he could have expected little more.

“A mediocre general in his cups would not have been able to handle an army more erratically. Your—Polish—Campaign rightly deserves to be printed as an eternal example of what every intelligent officer must strive to avoid. You have done every silly thing which can be done in war and nothing whatever which an intelligent man can approve,” adding as a final line, “I tremble to open my letters from you.” Such were the words addressed to the commanders of the Eastern Front armies, intended primarily for Wobersnow and not Dohna it would appear.

Frederick was also quick to realize in what a bind this left him. He must do something, or Brandenburg (and Berlin) would be at General Petr Semenovich Soltikov’s mercy. July 20, the king ordered off General Georg von Wedell, who had spearheaded the Prussian infantry at Leuthen, to go to eastern Brandenburg, take command of the forces there. In the guise of a ‘dictator’ of sorts, Wedell would do something against the Russian threat. Something meant attack when and where he found them. Had the commander been Seydlitz or Moritz of Dessau, the issue might have been different, but Frederick can hardly be blamed for his selection of Wedell. He had little clear-cut alternative. Winterfeldt, Schwerin, Keith, Moritz, Retzow, were all either out of action or dead. It is true that Wedell performed well enough at Leuthen, but the plain fact was he had never commanded so much as a corps, let alone an army, before this.

July 22, Wedell was in Züllichau. A set of orders accompanied him addressed to the generals present thereabouts from the king himself. The communiqué told them in no uncertain terms to obey Wedell as they would the monarch himself. Frederick had calculated trouble from the senior officers over the appointment of the younger Wedell over their heads. A grenadier battalion and hussars accompanied him. The army he took command of consisted of 19,600 infantry (30 battalions), 7,800 cavalry (63 squadrons), and 56 heavy guns, total of 28,000 men. In retrospect, Wedell may have been overanxious to try his hand. Having been ordered to do all he could to halt Soltikov’s forward progress, Wedell wasted no time trying to do just that. Did Wedell have to attack when he did? He had ten days’ rations in his supply wagons. So there was no apparent reason to hurry with the attack, other than the king’s impatient attitude. But a quick strike it would be. His subordinates reasoned the best chance of defeating the enemy lay in catching them on the march and at the most vulnerable, and Wedell realized in the back of his mind Frederick was not very tolerant of failure, if the events ended that way.

Just after dawn July 23, Wedell mounted some heights above Züllichau to observe what the enemy were up to in preparation to attack them. Despite his elevation, he was unable to discern with accuracy the position the enemy held, since the forests near Paltzig in which they were encamped made a scan of their posts very difficult (Soltikov undoubtedly selected the position for that very reason). Soltikov had secured his rear when General Merdivinow reached Fölitsche (July 19). The Russian leader pressed past Babinmost (July 19), then to Kelschen (July 20). Here the main army paused in order to let Merdivinow to close up. Soltikov, leaving most of his heavy baggage at Holzen, pressed on to Paltzig on July 22. Immediately, rumors began swirling that the bluecoats were going after the vulnerable Russian baggage. If the latter happened to be captured, then Soltikov would undoubtedly have to retreat, at least into Poland.

Now the Prussians were gazing on the enemy. There, stretched out in the distance, and interspersed among the bushy, woody ground, known as the Eichmühlen Fleiss, Wedell saw a long double-line of green-uniformed Russians (which he took to be the left wing), and decided with this thin bit of evidence, Soltikov was going to stay immobile the rest of the day, just resting.

As it worked out, the latter had marched just about dawn that morning with his right moving out ahead, followed systematically by the center and left. In fact, by the time that Wedell had taken view of the whole panoramic scene, it was already emptying of men, and the main body of Soltikov’s men were marching in concealment under the thick cover upon the Prussian camp. What Wedell had taken to be the Russian left wing was actually the rearguard attending the baggage and provision wagons. This side also boasted a thick barrier of skirmishers to shield any of the magazines from the Prussians. It was itself preparing to move out as soon as the main body burst through the woods. After a brief second look, Wedell returned to Züllichau (arriving about 1000 hours) and promptly gave orders to prepare to march and attack the enemy.

But the Prussians were still preparing to march when within an hour all was changed as the head of the extremely long enemy mass broke through the underbrush and began moving towards the bridge and village of Crossen. At the bridge, the Russians could cross the Oder and have Brandenburg virtually for the taking. They had learned, courtesy of Prussian deserters, that the foe was worried about Russian irruptions into Silesia. By now, Soltikov had already reached Paltzig—five miles northeast of Züllichau—and from there he was in effect between Wedell and that all-important bridge. The Prussians (though without additional orders) had gotten ready to march when the enemy showed their hand. Wedell immediately developed a counter plan: his army was to attack and roll up the Russian flank, emulating the Prussian stroke upon the allies at Rossbach two years before.

Alas, the circumstances were far different now. There were no hills to hide Prussian movements behind, there was no fine artillery arm to render support to the bluecoats here, the army was just not the well-trained cadres of 1757, and, lastly, the numerical imbalance was more pronounced. At Züllichau, Wedell faced Soltikov’s Russians with less than 30,000 men. The Russian army had 54 battalions with 46 grenadier companies, 58 squadrons, 3,900 Cossacks, 188 guns. In all, about 52,300 men. And, of course, there was no Frederick to take charge here, as at Rossbach.

If this were not enough, the topography angle definitely favored a defensive stance. As the Russians wound along the way, a small pool, along with nearby quagmires, lay between them and Wedell. This looked passable from a distance but could actually only be traversed by a small bridge at the hamlet of Kay (for which the battle was also known as). Behind the first pool, a branch off went between the Russians and the first, and was bridgeless. At about 1500 hours, Manteuffel, leading the van, at the head of which were the 3rd Infantry (Major-General Franz Adolf, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg/Schaumburg) and the 7th of Brunswick-Bevern, two fine units, marched at Kay, where he crossed the stream and speedily ranked his men on the opposite side. With Wobersnow marched three Grenadier battalions and 15 squadrons of dragoons and hussars.

The bluecoats were handicapped by the thick woods. Wedell had “calculated on making the assault on a broad front.” But the Prussians could not do so because of the topographical barriers, and was perforce to switch to a narrower front between Heidenmühl and the village of Glogsen. That small stream alluded to earlier was another of the barriers. The banks on either side of the stream were far too unsteady to do much with.

Manteuffel then swept forward at the enemy, with the commander himself leading the way. The 3rd Infantry, advancing in spite of heavy Russian artillery fire, attacked the greencoats, but was soon flung back with heavy losses. Almost simultaneously as his attack struck the head of the Russian mass, Manteuffel’s initial charge rolled it back, scattering the opposing cavalry to the wind (and it was not ranked again as an organized body that day). The advance tended towards Paltzig, towards which Soltikov happened to be concentrating.

As his leading troops faltered and fell back under the weight of the Prussians, Soltikov called forward his reserve to bolster the first, front line; at that point, on the verge of caving in. Manteuffel’s advance forced Soltikov to withdraw his forward line to reform it. He now steadied it into a long, wavy defensive line just behind the houses of Paltzig, and behind that second brook. The Battle of Züllichau had begun.

At the very moment that the Prussian advance reached the new Russian front, they slowed and were quickly brought to a halt. Soltikov, all the while, pumped his abundant forces into the new position, and ordered up batteries on the double. The latter took post within the gates of a local churchyard (which soon held almost 70 pieces of ordnance), blasting away at the attackers for almost an hour. The Prussian cavalry set itself in two lines behind Manteuffel’s infantry, which was right there. Then, as Major-General Johann Dietrich von Hülsen charged, a full 20 squadrons of the horse galloped into the Russian line near Paltzig. The Prussians looked for a time like they would carry the day.

As Manteuffel’s line stalled, he was taken under a severe fire from the enemy’s front. The force retired on Kay, while the main body of the Prussians were ordered forward into action. The Russian front was by then protected by six batteries which riddled the bluecoats as they advanced. Wedell would have called off the attack had he not realized that Soltikov was in his rear and might conceivably cut him off from Brandenburg completely. His men had been forced to endure a hot and lengthy forced march to get to this point, and the greater portion (save General Moritz Franz von Wobersnow’s rearguard) was in action facing an opponent who badly outnumbered them. This assault upon a well-prepared and numerically superior enemy had slim chance of succeeding with an army the size of Wedell’s. Hülsen’s attack—leading the main body—also miscarried, with heavy losses among his troops. Wedell called for Wobersnow, who now lent support to Hülsen. But the Prussians could nowhere make a dent in the Russians’ “armor,” even though three separate attacks were tried. Torn and battered as they were by the very accurate artillery fire and massed musketry of an enemy posted behind an impassable brook, the attackers suffered serious losses.

During one of these strokes, Wobersnow fell, mortally wounded by cannon shot. As Wobersnow fell, General Hülsen took his force (six full battalions), to go in against the greencoat infantry, but the attack fragmented. Nearly simultaneously, four battalions under the direction of Major-General Georg Carl Gottleib von der Gabelentz (40th Infantry) attacked the enemy right, but was beaten back. At the end of his rope, Wedell ordered General Ludwig Wilhelm von Schorlemer with four squadrons to gallop at the southern corner of the Russian position.

Russian cavalry managed to stop this new assault. Meanwhile, Major-General Hans Wilhelm von Kanitz reformed a new line of infantry, which attacked the enemy opposite about 1530 hours. But there was nothing doing. It was nearly dark (2000 hours) when Wedell put a stop to the misery. The completely unsuccessful assaults had cost some 6,000 casualties in killed, wounded/captured. The 24th Infantry, for example, lost 933 men and 37 officers on this day. The struggle in all had been about nine hours long, and, by 2100 hours, Wedell was marching his survivors back towards the Kay Bridge. Away from Soltikov, who mercifully did not pursue—making only a brief gesture in that direction—in no real hurry. Soltikov lost about 7,500 men, and although his men were shaken by the heroic Prussian effort, they were made confident by the victory. Wedell, during the night, recrossed the bridge. It had been far from another Rossbach. In fact, the sanguinary struggle did not impede the Russian advance. It had, however, all but shattered Wedell’s army. This was a far more serious result, since his army was the only protection on the eastern side of Brandenburg.

Saltykov masterfully distributed his troops, taking advantage of the heights surrounding the village of Kay

With Wedell rooted out of the way, Soltikov could proceed with his plan. All along aiming for Crossen, he wasted no time. July 24, he moved there. Simultaneously, Wedell reacted. He crossed the Oder (at Tschicherzig) and made for Crossen’s bridge, which he did manage to occupy (July 25), before the Russians could arrive. It was some five miles south of the village, so the Russian commander decided to go to Frankfurt—some 50 miles south of his own army’s position—to pierce the Oder. Wedell had thwarted Soltikov indeed, but not for long. The first rumors gave credit for victory to Wedell. Ambassador Mitchell even wrote, early on July 24 “General Wedel[l] thought proper to attack … [the Russians], which he did with great success.” Soon the truth would become plainly, and painfully, evident.