Hochkirch, Saxony, 1758 Part I

Preliminaries to Battle at Hochkirch

In the interim, the king laid plans to attack Laudon and, driving him from the road in from Bautzen, to shove him back towards his allies. He had to possess this route for two reasons: (1) It would put the main army astride the road to Görlitz, and thus into Silesia; (2) Perhaps less importantly, it would open access into Zittau from Bautzen, breaking Daun’s lines-of-supply and communication with the interior of the Austrian Empire. This would bring Daun out swinging for a battle. Frederick knew that Daun would have to fight such a battle, or else retreat.

Frankly, Christoph was not at all sure of the intentions of the enemy opposite him, namely Retzow. It was decided that a reconnaissance of the area in question was in order. He galloped to Kleinröhrsdorf with a small body of men early on September 16. In a misty morning, with Prussian scouts all about, Baden-Durlach admitted he was unable to see what the enemy had in mind or even make out their strength. Without clear, certain intelligence, he was very reluctant to act. So the movement, which might have really aided the allied cause, was called off.

This whole episode is eye-opening. The timidity of some of the allied commanders in this war was often remarkable, and often quite crippling to their war effort. A strong contrast to the often head-strong men employed by Frederick in this same capacity.

The noteworthy Laudon was an exception to this rule.3 He demonstrated an uncanny ability to generally give a little better than he got in his encounters with the Prussians. Besides, Daun was not about to leave Laudon to his fate. The Prussians kept cavalry patrols out to counteract the irascible commander. Daun made sure reinforcements were prepared and sent to Laudon in case the king decided to try something.

This reinforcement was under our old friend Bülow, who had already demonstrated a knack for effectual command of a semi-independent nature. The Prussians, as was their consummate skill, chose to try one flank of Laudon’s to put in their stroke. Laudon’s left was at Fischbach, with his right at Röhrsdorf. On his far left, Laudon kept Wied with a force of Croats to cover the approaches to the Dresden road. Other forces were sent out to warn the Austrian commander in case Frederick might try something.

Just after midnight on September 16, alert scouts brought word to Török that suspicious movements were occurring near Copitz. Török strengthened his patrols towards Lohmen, and tried to keep abreast of developments. Suddenly, about 0700 hours, Retzow struck at Laudon. This initial charge was finally beaten back after great effort, but Frederick’s main body appeared then at Fischbach. Laudon shoved the Croats, led by Brentano, into an attack against the king’s advanced guard. It quickly became apparent that Frederick had too strong a force to provide a successful defense against. So he withdrew his men to Kappellendorf; here he quickly took refuge. About 1000 hours, the Prussians were cognizant of the movement, which brought Laudon closer to Daun’s main army. Laudon, for sure, had suffered a reverse, but, although the roar of Prussian batteries continued until late afternoon, the Prussian follow-up was most effectually snuffed out.

Daun was still inclined to keep to his posts, he was fully aware that Frederick was not quite strong enough to attack his main body in its present position. The play for time was actually a stand-off, but the weather was worsening by the day and it was an open question how much longer the armies could keep the fields. As for Laudon and the outlying detachments, they were still staying close to the main body as well.

The Prussians were not inclined towards timidity even before Stolpen. Retzow brought his force into Fischbach, while the king, with his goal of gaining the road to Bischofswerda temporarily on hold, returned to camp. He now awaited Daun and Daun was just stalling for time. Likely the marshal wanted to withdraw into Bohemia, but he remained cognizant of the weakness of Zweibrücken’s army. The latter would not be able to stand alone against the Prussians. This stand of Daun’s was almost unfathomable in Vienna. There the general view was that Daun, with the best army Austria had to put in the field, should be able to accomplish something of note during the campaign. All of this while some of the high command were castigating Daun for allowing the Prussian king, with smaller forces, to “harass and hem in the bigger [Allied] armies.” Additionally, the deteriorating state of the autumn weather precluded major operations for about a week and a half.

Frederick was now in a better position than he had seen for a while, but he had Daun’s big army to contend with. Prince Henry was charged off to keep track of Zweibrücken’s men. There was a wild rumor that Hadik was attempting to outflank Henry’s army, although what was actually happening was the Imperialists were trying to solve their supply difficulties. Nevertheless, Henry ordered Knobloch off with two regiments of infantry, a force of horse and Belling’s Hussars. This force almost immediately ran into, and subsequently captured, one of Zweibrücken’s supply convoys. The result was a virtual guarantee the Imperialists were going to stand pat on the defense.

The consternation of the allies worked in Daun’s favor. Among the allies, Hadik (probably the most capable of the Imperialist generals) was determined to do what he could to get a favorable return. Hadik deployed his troops to prepare for an enemy appearance. Kleefeld’s men were put down at Naundorf, other detachments took up at Freiberg (Colonel Joseph von Kamanrony) and at Burkersdorf (Ujházy). Hadik put his main force at Dittersdorf. These various positions were exposed to interference from Prince Henry. Prussian patrols gradually increased towards Freiberg. Knobloch’s forward elements crashed into Imperialist posts at Niederbobritzsch, and the direct result was tipping off the Imperialists there was a general offensive starting soon against them from Henry. Zweibrücken realized the Prussian intentions were to roll over allied posts at Freiberg. This caused Hadik to take matters into his own hands. The supply situation demanded that they act to head off the Prussian threat to their lines-of-communication.

Hadik rose and moved on Freiberg, unsure if Prince Henry were bringing back his whole army. If so, this could be a real problem for Hadik had just 600 men in his force. Meanwhile, the Belling Hussars had been unleashed to wreak havoc. In the wee hours of the morning of September 25, Kleefeld’s outposts received a nasty surprise when they were attacked by the Prussian riders. Without infantry support, however, it was clear the hussars could not stay. They fell back stubbornly to Sadisdorf. Kleefeld’s lines suffered no ill effects, and the enemy had retired. However, intelligence reports had Prussian patrols drawing close to Chemnitz. Hadik’s measured response was to strengthen patrols in that direction. Ujházy was unbuckled directly on to the town. A Prussian occupation force holding Chemnitz was present. They were loath to leave without “persuasion.” After some street fighting, the bluecoats finally retreated. However, Ujházy, with bigger fish to fry, simply left a garrison at Chemnitz and returned to his old post.

Meanwhile, Hadik was being reinforced (to about 12,000 men) with a view to conducting operations independently of the indolent marshal. With his troop strength growing, Hadik’s reconnaissance forces fanned out between the Mulde and the Saale. It was now anticipated that the Prussians would make their appearance somewhere in that general area. Simultaneously, Kleefeld’s men also moved forward. It was a most alarming state of affairs. Renewed supply problems now haunted Daun, and for the Imperialists, they had become a way of life in this campaign.

Winter was drawing close and it was becoming a concern of the allies as to where to plan for winter quarters. Daun’s strange inactivity could not help but seem to tip the balance of maneuver straight into the Prussian camp. To try to regain something of this lost opportunity, Daun was good enough to send one of his staff, the capable Major-General Johann Anton von Tillier, to discuss viable options with Zweibrücken. Daun had been busy again cooking up another plan for dealing with the situation. Baden-Durlach was to take a picked force of 8,000 men to press off for Görlitz, where he was to join up with Vehla. There they were to await the arrival of some support troops that Zweibrücken was to send to supplement the men Daun had earmarked for his new plan.

September 24, right on time, Baden-Durlach shoved off, from Nieder-Putzkau. If time was of the essence, however, this fact seems to have escaped the commander’s thinking. It took the greater part of four days for him to get to Löbau, still well short of Görlitz. Then, instead of pushing on, Baden-Durlach unaccountably called a halt at Löbau.

Things might have remained at this status quo but Frederick threw a monkey wrench into the whole works by suddenly going back on the offensive. Daun had a back-up in the form of Fermor’s Russians and had received firm promises of commitments of these troops. Once Zorndorf did not pan out to Fermor’s liking, the Russian commander and his legions more or less just faded from the scene. In the end, it may have had little to do with Zweibrücken’s decision to pull out completely from the plan. The latter had little faith in the scheme’s chances.

If that was not bad enough, the choice of leaders for this movement was not a good one. Hadik, the best man for the job, was not available to be spared. He was needed right where he was. Then, the capper, when Zweibrücken balked, Daun’s beleaguered plan was really in trouble. Zweibrücken also desired Daun to move from his side to attack Prince Henry; if the latter were rooted out, then Frederick’s position would be totally compromised. The Prussian king simply acted first.

On September 26 (1400 hours) the main Prussian force marched from Schönfeld, to form link with Retzow. Keith hitched to Arnsdorf, which Retzow had moved out from. The next day, Retzow and Frederick joined up at Rammenau. The Prussians all of a sudden had the initiative in their hands. Then, adding insult to injury, although DeVille intensified the effort against Neisse, he was making no headway. This put paid to Daun’s plan.

While Daun was anchored to his post at Stolpen, Laudon moved up on Bischofswerda. Frederick was a little surprised by this move. The king was going to make the same maneuver, except Laudon beat him to the punch. Evening of September 27, a strong Prussian recon was carried out near Schönbrunn. This really worried Daun. Enough so Daun was looking to reinforce Laudon immediately. With this view in mind, a large portion of the reserve under the Marquis d’Ayufe was pushed out to Bischofswerda. Meanwhile, some of Laudon’s men were involved in some skirmishing with Prussian detachments. This was developing the presence of the main Prussian army, which Laudon knew was very close. It was essential for the Prussians to get Laudon rooted out before they could proceed on with further business. This was clear to all concerned, including Marshal Keith, who had recovered quite nicely from his recent illness.

With this specific task in mind, early on September 28 the Prussians attacked the posts of Laudon rather forcefully. The marching troops were judiciously separated to make an attack easier to mount. Two of the columns roared against Laudon at Burka and Bischofswerda. An additional body of men railed against Laudon’s rear. In view of Laudon’s readjusted position, Daun felt it was essential to maintain communication with Laudon. Accordingly, General Baron O’Kelley von Gallagh und Tywoly, was pushed out to Drebnitz. The latter was packing enough of a force to form a link to Laudon. However, it is worth noting Daun never intended for Laudon to stay isolated at any time. As for Laudon (who finally retired to Nieder Putzkau after his clash with the king), he kept close to d’Ayufe’s men. It had been the latter’s effort, namely a fast paced move to join Laudon, that had kept his force safe when the enemy suddenly erupted. Laudon was able to extricate his men about 0400 hours with the loss of eight men captured.

Of course, the advantage was already starting to shift noticeably towards the Prussian side. This was a most disturbing state of affairs, as Daun was quick to point out in a parlous letter to Maria Theresa. Daun was so brash as to tell his Empress he dared not risk his army in any movements since the realm had no further resources at the moment. And the marshal rather surprisingly admitted although the Austrians clearly possessed the advantage of superior numbers, “he [Frederick] has many other advantages which offset this [one].” Which begs the question, “What other advantages?” Well, the Prussian standard, although much weakened by the war, remained one of the best in the world, and there was still marked reluctance to engage the bluecoats in battle on the part of some Imperial units.

Nevertheless, many in Vienna were decidedly displeased with the marshal’s “performance.” There were others who wondered aloud why the main Austrian army and the Imperialists, who had between them a great numerical superiority, could not work actively against Frederick. Kaunitz, among many, did not support the passive state of affairs that Daun encouraged.

Meanwhile, back with the Prussians, Retzow was assigned the role of advanced guard, and the rest of the army was to follow in his tracks in a few days’ time. Retzow promptly took to his duty, reaching Bautzen (October 1), driving off some of Daun’s Croat parties which had been deployed there. He punctually put in the supply wagons before advancing upon Hochkirch. Following this, the general paused with his men, and waited for the scheduled arrival of Frederick; the latter was to be up with the main body soon.

The one detail Retzow had overlooked and/or forgotten, in this confusing state of affairs, was to occupy the Stromberg. In the space of a few weeks, the “failure” of Retzow would have a big impact. Now we must clarify ourselves. Prince Henry often considered it a Frederician trait to heap the backs of others with his own shortcomings. “All his [Frederick’s] life,” wrote Henry, “he blamed his errors … [on others, i.e.] his generals.” Besides, the orders to Retzow do not appear to have been terribly specific. Still, this one oversight was to result in a severe rebuke for the Prussian king and his men. This evening, Retzow could gloat over a job well done, considering the horde of enemies hovering about. He routinely pushed over into Weissenberg and vicinity, and there his troops were when Frederick, with Daun (more or less as usual) not far behind, marched on Hochkirch in about a week.

It was the ardent desire of Vienna that Daun should stay as close to Zweibrücken’s force as possible while still tending to the other duties he had at hand. A hitch by the Imperialists back into the German Reich would be seen—and rightly so—in a very negative way. Vienna also, in this case needlessly, reminded the marshal of his obligations to the Russians. They had once required a detachment to join them, but Zorndorf had changed all of that.

Meanwhile as September lengthened into October, a short Prussian pause was required to get some supply entanglements ironed out. Scouts reported to Laudon that suspicious activities were afoot. This presaged a major offensive was imminent from the Prussians. When he was informed of this, Daun did what he usually did: rather than try to act decisively, he called a council-of-war while the army was still at Stolpen. Daun was only too aware of the continuing slack state of Swedish arms, and of the chronic tardiness of the Russians. Maria Theresa told him he would have to take the offensive himself to go to the aid of these allies, although the exact opposite situation should have ensued. Vienna would not hear of staying in camp at Stolpen in order to help cover Zweibrücken’s exposed posts near Pirna.

Indeed, Daun, hearing that Laudon by retreating had left the road to Bautzen open, quickly realized that his erstwhile impregnable camp at Stolpen would now have to be abandoned, for Frederick had but to turn south and sweep down upon Zittau, capturing the heavy baggage, magazines/provisions there in one stroke. To retire from Stolpen and move to get ahead so he could intercept the Prussians, just in case they did happen to be aiming for Zittau, had thus become Daun’s first priority. Secondly, if it could be accomplished, Daun intended to swing in front of Frederick and block his march on Silesia. Indeed, the last should have been the first priority in this business.

Even cautious Daun realized there was no other alternative; if he stayed immobile at Stolpen his already discontented soldiers would starve and there would be no ammunition for the guns and muskets. Besides, despite orders to the contrary, the marshal really wanted to be away from the Imperialists. The latter were an unfavorable influence on the whole Austrian army. Even Maria Theresa had to agree with that unfortunate summation.

Daun’s councils-of-war took time. Two such needless discussions were called, which served only to waste precious time. It was, therefore, four days after Retzow had already reached Bautzen before the Austrian army (October 5) finally pushed off. Covered by rainy, soaking weather and in pitch darkness, Daun’s discouraged men staggered along on the road through the Oberottendorf Woods to Neustadt and Löbau, south of Bautzen, and with both Frederick’s army and the Elbe to the rear. The Austrian move commenced at 1500 hours, with Laudon’s capable hands leading the van. Hours after, with the sun set, in three columns, Daun’s main army wound off, leaving their tents standing to deceive the Prussians. The Austrians were able to reach a long valley at Neukirch before dawn was breaking.

The Prussians did not bother Daun’s men beyond deploying two dragoon regiments with several infantry units, to harass the move. The Austrians of Colonel Count Merode, with little fanfare, attacked and drove off the intruders at Neider-Putzkau. In the event, “One Prussian battalion was totally destroyed.” The Austrians lost 327 men in the spirited proceeding. Before the morning was much used up, the Austrians were filing through the streets of Löbau and passing to Kittlitz, beyond which Daun carefully deployed. In one march, he had stolen some of Frederick’s thunder, not to mention that the Austrians were once again ahead of the king, between him and the route to Zittau. This time it was with the main army, not just Laudon. Daun could thus be rapid indeed when provisioning his men and keeping them supplied depended on swiftness. Speaking of Laudon, on October 7, he moved with purpose on Kleinpostwitz and Schirgiswalde. Daun posted his reserve under Baden-Durlach, meanwhile, between Reichenbach and Arnsdorf.

Within the lines that Daun now occupied, he could dispose of roughly 80,000 men: 50,000 of which were infantry; 28,000 cavalry; the balance made up of light parties and the artillery teams, the latter responsible for 340 guns. The main Austrian army, by itself, was superior in all respects numerically speaking, and, as a plus, Daun could boast the army had just won its last hurdle with Frederick, at Domstadl.

Frederick, after haggling along with his troops, sent back word to Dresden to have a second (and larger) convoy made ready for him and sent forward. He arrived at Bautzen on October 8, determined now definitely to march into Silesia, as the only viable option to Saxony. The following day, the king moved on Rodewitz. Bautzen was to be held in great force. Retzow grasped the Weissenberg locale while the getting was good, and Marshal Keith finally put in a belated appearance.16 Frederick would be compelled to wait, however, at his present location until the new supply train came in. As for the marshal, his new posts were in much better respects than the old accommodations at Stolpen. Frederick’s camp at Rodewitz and Bautzen offered him interior lines to move on the Oder, or, barring that, a retrograde movement on the Saxon capital. In the worst case scenario, the king would be able to, not only retain Dresden from the enemy, but also to drive them for the year entirely from Saxony. In the end that was precisely the result. This was a situation guaranteeing the displeasure of Maria Theresa’s allies. The French openly voiced their attitude at court, implying they would not have fought on past 1757 if not for the Austrians. King Augustus, from his locale in Warsaw, railed against what he perceived as virtual abandonment to the Prussians of his realm by an Austrian force so clearly superior in numbers. “Surely more could have been done,” thought the allies collectively.

As for Saxony itself, the war being waged over so much of its territory left little breathing space for more normal routines, such as planting/harvesting crops. All of the contending armies had drawn at least some of their supplies locally from Saxon farmers. The Prussians generally “misappropriated” what they needed, but the allies did their best to “buy” what they required. Usually, this would involve some form of paper exchange. Sometimes actual cash was given, but the usual method was to give out what amounted to an I.O.U. which could then, supposedly, be exchanged at a later time for cash or other favors. It does not take a great stretch of imagination to wonder how some farmers felt about their so-called “allies” arriving to clean out their crops. Could they trust the Austrians and Imperialists any further than their enemy, the Prussians? To his credit, Daun made a legitimate effort to curb the involuntary withdrawal of farm produce by his troops. Several guilty individuals were hanged for their parts in such deeds. Daun made sure that the executions were carried out in prominent locations, in order to help discourage such malefactors.

Whether Frederick had guessed at this stage that Daun would pull an about face and sweep ahead to block his march is unknown. In any event, he intended to remain at Bautzen and about just until the expected convoy could come forward, and then start for Silesia immediately afterwards.

The Hochkirch-Löbau road led to both Zittau, to which Daun would be only too happy to bar the way to, as well as towards Silesia. Frederick planned to use this fact to keep the enemy off balance and guessing as to where he intended to strike. Indeed, the king would find the normally cautious and slow Daun blocking the road ahead. Here the latter did pull a surprise, but Daun a week hence had an even bigger surprise up his sleeve.