Battle of Rossbach Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Confronting an advancing allied army of French, German, and Austrian troops that was more than twice the size of his own, Frederick the Great wheeled his soldiers into a position from which they literally destroyed the allied forces. The defeat ended France’s advance in the Seven Years’ War.

Summary of Event

On May 6, 1757, in one of the early Prussian gambits of the Seven Years’ War, Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] King Frederick the Great of Prussia routed the Austrian army at Prague and besieged the city. Austrian field marshal Leopold Joseph Daun gathered a ragtag army and went to the city’s aid, defeating the Prussians at Kolin. This defeat forced Frederick to retreat from Prague and to leave Bohemia. Thanks to Frederick’s impertinent invasion, moreover, he had made enemies of Austria and much of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Sweden, Russia, and France. Each nation mobilized to march on Prussia in retaliation. [kw]Battle of Rossbach (Nov. 5, 1757) [kw]Rossbach, Battle of (Nov. 5, 1757) Rossbach, Battle of (1757) Rossbach, Battle of (1757) [g]Germany;Nov. 5, 1757: Battle of Rossbach[1500] [g]Prussia;Nov. 5, 1757: Battle of Rossbach[1500] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 5, 1757: Battle of Rossbach[1500] Frederick the Great Soubise, prince de Sachsen-Hildburghausen, Prince von Seydlitz, Friedrich Wilhelm von

In mid-July a French army of more than 100,000 men thrust eastward against Hanover, the homeland of the kings of England and Frederick’s only considerable ally. By September, this huge force had defeated the British-Hanoverian army and overrun the state. A second French army under the command of the prince de Soubise was gathered to join with the Reichsarmee, a coalition force of imperial infantry and cavalry from southern and central German states. Together, these forces were to march against Frederick himself, perhaps catching him in a pincer between themselves and the Austrians. In any case, they were assigned the task of driving the Prussians from Saxony and liberating that German state. The French and the Reichsarmee, under the high command of the Austrian prince von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, were to rendezvous at Erfurt, creating a force of perhaps forty-five thousand men.

To meet the impending threat of the invading French and imperial forces, Frederick divided his army of some sixty-five thousand men: He left forty-four thousand to the south to screen any Austrian movement against him and took the remainder, perhaps twenty-five thousand, north to confront the allied army. Frederick had command of a finely honed fighting machine whose officers knew their leader well and whose men, despite the setback in Bohemia, trusted them all. His cavalry was well drilled and equipped and could boast an especially competent commander in the young Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz. Prussian artillery had become very mobile in comparison with that of other continental powers, and thus it could be brought to bear very quickly and efficiently on the battlefield.

Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz leads the decisive cavalry charge at the Battle of Rossbach.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The forces led by Sachsen-Hildburghausen and Soubise suffered from virtually every problem that could plague a coalition army. The Austrian field marshal labeled the French commander an “ignoramus” in matters military, while the critic himself had never commanded a victorious army. The Germans in the Reichsarmee varied in quality from superb to dreadful and from staunchly Catholic to deeply Reformed. Many Protestant soldiers sympathized with the Lutheran Prussians and resented having to fight for the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. Pay had been low and irregular, food and other vital supplies were ill provided, and time and again troops had to be admonished against ravaging the countryside. Many of the men were raw recruits who had never fired a shot in anger. Their commanders had to count on their numerical superiority—roughly two to one—to compensate for the uneven quality and poor conditions of the allied army.

In early September, a skirmish between von Seydlitz and the Austrian cavalry announced the Prussians’ arrival in the vicinity of Erfurt. The allies changed plans and used Eisenach, about thirty miles due west, as their new staging point. Frederick himself arrived in Gotha on September 15, while the allies flooded into Eisenach during the week following. Defeats in East Prussia and Pomerania forced Frederick to send vital detachments northward, leaving him with barely eleven thousand effective troops. On September 18, he heard of the Hanoverian collapse and surrender and quickly decided to abandon Gotha. Seydlitz’s cavalry screened the retreat and made a mockery of the advance detachments of the allied forces who occupied the city.

A week later, Frederick moved farther eastward from Erfurt, seeking to draw the allies out, but the sluggish arrival of twelve thousand French reinforcements hampered any allied pursuit. Frederick decided that the allies were camping for the winter and led his forces out of Saxony toward Brandenburg. Sachsen-Hildburghausen recognized the opportunity to recapture Saxony for Maria Theresa and pressed forward to take Erfurt on October 17. Prussian garrisons studded Saxony, but the Austrian commander believed he could mop them up piecemeal. Leipzig proved the great obstacle, however. By October 21, Frederick had heard of the German advance, turned his reinforced army around, and came to Leipzig’s defense, entering the city on October 26. Meanwhile, Soubise demanded a halt to any movement, expecting to have his army recalled to France.

Frederick used the allied indecision to his advantage, thrusting out of Leipzig toward his enemies, forcing them westward across the Saale River. Though the retreating allies burned the bridges, Frederick managed to make separate crossings at Halle, Merseburg, and Weissenfels on November 3. He quickly reconsolidated his forces near Rossbach before the allies could pounce on any of the three individual corps. Learning of his move, the allies dug in, expecting a rapid Prussian attack. This surprised Frederick, who left his men encamped along a four-mile line between the villages of Rossbach and Bedra, several miles from the new allied lines. As dawn broke on the day of battle, Soubise commanded some thirty thousand French soldiers and Sachsen-Hildburghausen close to fifteen thousand Germans and Austrians. Frederick had some twenty-two thousand Prussian troops and eighteen heavy artillery pieces to the allies’ forty-five.

On November 5, the allies decided very slowly to form up in columns in order to advance on the Prussian left flank, while allied cavalry units effectively froze the Prussians’ right flank. The Prussians were equally slow to recognize the movements of the swift allied cavalry screen, which preceded four huge columns of infantry. Well-placed Prussian cannon, however, opened fire on the allied squadrons, and Seydlitz quickly mobilized his own cavalry, swept around in front of the advancing allies, and charged headlong into the columns of allied horsemen. The allied cavalry was shattered, and even more important, Frederick had time to wheel his army down behind his cavalry to confront the infantry columns. He was able to create but a single line, which, with the cavalry forming his left flank, stretched for about five miles.

The allies were still crammed in column formation, offering a front of only three hundred yards. The mobile Prussian artillery quickly repositioned itself directly in front of the advancing columns at the center of the Prussian line. With no opportunity or orders to shift from column to line, the allied soldiers could do little more than march into the meat grinder that Frederick had so rapidly deployed. The result was slaughter. The Prussians poured fire into the hapless allies from three sides, while the victorious cavalry ran down fleeing men with impunity. While some allied units fought well, most broke up, and their men fled for their lives as the Prussians advanced against the disintegrating mass with guns blazing at will. Only nightfall preserved the surviving allied troops from the dragoon’s sword or the sharpshooter’s ball.

Frederick pursued the broken armies to Erfurt to ensure that they did not recover. The allies lost perhaps ten thousand men, including an estimated three thousand dead and wounded after the first hour and a half of fighting. Frederick counted 549 casualties, including one prisoner.

Significance

The French would never march as far east again in the Seven Years’ War, and they were effectively neutralized by their horrendous defeat at Rossbach. The Austrians thus lost a key ally, and they were beaten again by Frederick himself at Leuthen (December 5), where he commanded the army he had left behind three months earlier. Austria never recovered from the blows at Rossbach and Leuthen, and in the end it had to make peace with the belligerent Prussian king.

The victory at Rossbach was a key factor in Prussian success as the war dragged on. It not only made up for the earlier defeats by the Austrians but also seemed to confirm the glory of the Prussian army on the battlefield. The German allies who had been let down by the French and the Austrians would never again be as keen to join with either as allies against the Prussian masters of war. The battle may have even given impetus to German nationalistic feeling. By the same token, the military leaders of France, whose wits labeled the defeat the “amusing battle,” recognized the need for serious military reform. In some ways, the reforms spurred by the Battle of Rossbach led directly to the French battlefield successes of the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, Christopher. The Army of Frederick the Great. 2d ed. Chicago: Emperor’s Press, 1996. A very useful study of how Frederick forged the army that performed so well at Rossbach.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_____. Prussia’s Glory: Rossbach and Leuthen, 1757. Chicago: Emperor’s Press, 2003. By far the most detailed treatment of the Battle of Rossbach in English. Well illustrated, with especially clear maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennett, L. The French Armies in the Seven Years’ War. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967. A significant study of the reasons behind the weaknesses of French arms.

Accession of Frederick the Great

Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne

War of the Austrian Succession

French and Indian War

Seven Years’ War

Battle of Plassey

Peace of Paris

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

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