Ars Bellica

Battles In Brief

Battle of Meissen

December 4, 1759

The opponents

Field Marshal Leopold Joseph Maria von Daun, or Dhaun (Vienna, September 24, 1705 - Vienna , February 5, 1766)

He reorganized the army after the War of the Austrian Succession and founded (1752) Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. During the Seven Years' War had the supreme command of the Habsburg forces after the defeat of Leuthen, and beat the Prussians at Kolin (1757), in Hochkirch (1758) and Maxen (1759). It was then chairman of the board of courtly war.

Frederick the Great (German der Grosse), king of Prussia (Berlin 1712 - Castle of Sans-Souci 1786)

Educated, according to the precise provisions of the father, with the greatest severity, in addition to the careful study of the most recent European history and political economy, despite was subjected to the toughest military exercises, Frederick manifested a keen interest in literature and philosophy, was able to form a literary culture, thanks to the complicity of the preceptor, the French Calvinist Duhan de Jandun. He married in 1733 to Princess Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Luneburg-Bevern, from which had no heirs, and retired to the castle of Rheinsberg, again had the opportunity to devote himself to the study of letters, surrounding himself with writers and thinkers, proponents of the new Enlightenment ideas. Succeeded his father May 31, 1740 and after the death of Emperor Charles VI knew how to get benefits from the difficult position in which Austria was reduced following the contrasting succession of Maria Theresa to began a war with the intent to take possession of Silesia. Proving brilliant leader, occupied Wroclaw on January 3, 1741 and achieved the victory of Mollwitz (April 10), he obtained from Maria Theresa, close by enemies on all sides, with the agreement of Klein-Schnellendorf (9 Oct.), the Lower Silesia. Once resumed the war with the Treaty of Breslau (June 11, 1742), he also obtained the Upper Silesia and the county of Glatz. The death of Charles VII of Bavaria and the never dormant hopes of Maria Theresa to recover the lost provinces, in 1745 led Frederick to a new war against Austria. The Prussian victories of Hohenfriedberg, Soor and Hesselsdorf were the prelude to the peace of Dresden on December 25: Maria Theresa confirmed to Frederick the possession of Silesia, while the King of Prussia recognized as the emperor her husband, Francis I. But the alliance between Austria and France (Treaty of Versailles, 1756), enemies until then, persuaded Frederick, alreday allied, since January 16 of the same year, of England, to prevent the Habsburg-Bourbon concentric attack, supported by Russia. Thus began the Seven Years' War. During this long period of war, Frederick fully revealed his qualities as an organizer and leader, for which occupies a prominent place in the history of the military art. From the Seven Years' War Frederick had come out with its country prostrate. With genius was able to promote the work of reconstruction; favored agriculture and industry, looking for the colonization and reclamation of depressed regions. However, he did not neglect to safeguard the prestige and position of relief that he had procured in Germany and Europe to his kingdom in the price of the sacrifices endured during the Seven Years' War. He still extended his rule to West Prussia under the first partition of Poland (1772), and the principalities of Ansbach and Bayreuth after the war of succession of Bavaria (Peace of Teschen, 1779). Suspicious of Austria, in 1785 promoted a league of German princes (Fürstenbund) to form a counterweight to the policy of Joseph II in the Empire. Nor was he only a politician and great leader of armies, but also generous though inconstant protector of artists, philosophers and writers. An admirer of Voltaire, laced with him an extensive correspondence, and hosted him to Berlin in the period 1750-53: after this stay, however, their collaboration soured. Lover of music, he was also a talented flautist and composer. Berlin and Potsdam embellished churches, palaces, castles and other buildings. He was assiduous collector of works of art mainly French and responsive to the taste of happy and pleasant, which then flowed into the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin.

The Austro-Prussian War before Meissen

The Prussian King Frederick II did not have an easy time against all his Austrians "cousins" in this conflict. He experienced a first defeat by the Austrians hands at the Battle of Kolin in Bohemia, June 18, 1757, which also led to the occupation of Silesia and Berlin. A month later, on December 5, 1757, it was instead the moment of revenge over the Austrians, led by Charles of Lorraine, defeated at the Battle of Leuthen, following which the Prussian king regained the lost Silesia.

Once regained lost positions, King Frederick was able to dedicate to the conduct of military operations with more caution, especially because now the factions on the field were much better delineated. The area of conflict stretched from the river Rhine in the west to the border with Poland in the east, or to the whole of Germany. So, while Ferdinand of Brunswick kept engaged the French on the Western Front, King Frederick had as opponents, on the Eastern front, the Austrians supported by Russia, as well as Sweden and by the imperial army. Even if he had to face the enemy in conditions of numerical inferiority, at least had the "advantage" of having to deal with a single front.

After a hard defeat against the Russians in the Battle of Zorndorf, August 25, 1758, Frederick II, though capable of preventing the junction of the Austrian and Russian armies, was unable to avoid, in the year following the defeat at Kunersdorf (12 august 1759), which led the Prussian army, already tried, to get involved a difficult confrontation, in the following December, with the Austrian army, galvanized by the success and with the certainty of being able to impose, in a short time, another heavy blow to the army of the small and fierce Prussian state. The site chosen for the Austrian offensive is located near a small town in Saxony where it was located a strategic bridge for crossing the Elbe river, Meissen, passed to Prussia just 15 years earlier.

The prelude

On 21 November 1759, the Prussian general Hülsen was in Dippoldiswalde when he had been informed of the capitulation of Finck after the defeat of Maxen. Thus, immediately retired in Freiberg while Frederick II sent four battalions to Mohorn so as to maintain open the communications with Hülsen.

Count Leopold Daun, meanwhile, moved the bulk of the Austrian army near Dresden, while the Reichsarmee retired in Franconia, where it camped for the winter. Meanwhile, Frederick took position in front of the Austrians. Its avant-garde (9 battalions , 24 squadrons) was in the Kesselsdorf, its first line (23 Battalions) between Wilsdruff and Limbach, the second line (8 battalions) between Blankenstein and Meissen while its third line (28 squadrons) near Herzogswalde. The reserve of Frederick (11 battalions, 35 squadrons), under the command of Hülsen, stood near Freiberg. Finally, Frederick sent a detachment under the command of Dierecke (6 battalions and 1,000 cavalry) on the right bank of the Elbe river, in front of Meissen, to control the road from Torgau to Berlin.

The movements of the armies

At the end of November, suddenly, Daun ordered an attack against the isolated detachment of Dierecke. In doing so, he also called the Corps under the command of Beck (about 6086 men) from Zittau. In addition, since Dierecke occupied a very advantageous position on the heights of Zaschendorf and Spaar, Daun decided to strengthen the Body of Beck with 5 Battalions and 500 policemen under the command of the Pilgrims. On the night of December 2 to 3, the Corp of Beck, so reinforced, left against the positions of Dierecke.

On December 3, at 02:00, Beck had reached Weinböhla exactly in front of the position of Dierecke but did not attack immediately because of the strong position of the soil in which they were Prussians. Meanwhile Dierecke, just informed of the reinforcements to the Corp of Beck, decided to begin to deploy in preparation for the battle, considering that he could not expect any kind of reinforcement, because it was on the "wrong" side of the Elbe. At the moonlight, his troops took up positions: 2 battalions settled in front Bohnitzsch, its other units formed a line between the hills of Spaar-Gebirge near Zaschendorf.

In view of the enemy formation, Beck did not want to risk a frontal assault. He preferred, however, to send the Corp under the commands of Pellegrini, together with two 12 pounds guns, from Gröben to Proschwitz, so as to enable its artillery to bombard the Prussian lines from a better position.

The battle

As soon as the austrians line was formed, both sides shelled each other without producing many effects. Meanwhile, the temperature decreased and the soldiers lit fires on the field to warm themselves. Gradually, the Austrian artillery in Proschwitz forced the first two Prussians battalions, established in the Furstenberg, to go towards Rotweinberg and Nieder Fehra.

The Prussian positions were now under too much pressure and it was then time to retire. In addition, the Austrians enjoyed a numerical superiority of 3-1 and were preparing for an attack.

On the evening of December 3, King Frederick, informed of the situation by Lieutenant Götzen, sent a small reinforcement of two battalions (or Prinz Ferdinand Alt Braunschweig regiment) with 6 heavy guns to support Dierecke. This strengthening took position on the left bank of the Elbe River to the north and south of Meissen. His artillery silenced the Austrian guns positioned in Proschwitz, forced them back to Zscheila where they resumed their shelling.

In the night between 3 and 4 December, the Meissen bridge was destroyed; Dierecke ferried part of his troops across the frozen Elbe. His cavalry went first, followed by the artillery with heavy infantry on the rear.

On December 4, the crossing of the Elbe was not finished when comes the light of day. The last Prussian battalions were forced to retrace their steps to Rotsweinberge, on the right bank of the Elbe.

At dawn, Beck sent the colonel Zettwitz, in charge of 4 Corps of grenadiers, 1 battalion of Banal-Grenzinfanterieregiment and Lieutenant-Colonel Lumago with 2 infantry battalions Joseph Esterházy for a frontal attack on the isolated remaining units of Dierecke on the right bank while Colonel Riese with 1 battallion Warasdiner Sankt-Georger-Grenzer, was advancing through Broschwitz toward the back of their positions. For his part, General Nauendorf and his hussars took possession of the Prussian "baggage" in Nieder-Spaar after rejecting back the Prussian troops who protected him. The first assault, executed by battalions of grenadiers and 2 Grenzer, was rejected.

Almost immediately, six Austrians battalions were ready to launch another attack. However, Colonel Zettwitz with Riese attacked again, and without firing a shot, captued the village of Kapellenberg with bayonet. Dierecke had fought fiercely for more than 2 hours, allowing enough time for all its its regiments to cross the river.

At that point, Grenzer troops attacked the remaining 3 battalions of Dierecke from all sides, the same Prussian general was wounded and forced to surrender with his 3 battalions. During the fight, distinguished particularly itself the 2nd Banal-Grenzinfanterieregiment (Infantry Regiment of the border).

The casualties of the armies

During this battle, the Austrians have only lost 1 officer and 81 men, and 3 officers plus 112 men were wounded (these figures probably reflect only the losses suffered on December 4). Beck and Pellegrini captured the general-Major von Dierecke together with 49 officers and 1,494 men of which:

  • Infantry Kanitz (1 battalion)
  • Rifle Hauss
  • Infantry Anhalt-Bernburg (only one battalion had been captured)

They also captured:

  • 8 pieces of artillery from 12 pounds
  • 4 to 6 pounds Cannons
  • 2 to 3 pounds cannons
  • 1 howitzer
  • 10 wagons of ammunition

After this new defeat, Frederick asked Ferdinand of Brunswick to send him reinforcements.

The aftermath

Frederick's army was defeated, finally despaired of his fate, and only the indecision and disagreement of the opponents' saved him from ruin. The following year, Austrians and Russians occupied respectively Saxony and Brandenburg, and for three days the same Berlin. Despite the victory of Frederick in Torgau (November 3, 1760), the situation remained almost unbearable, when there came the death of the Empress Elizabeth and the accession to the throne of Peter III, a great admirer of Frederick, who fled to Austria shortly after tightening an alliance with Prussia, with which it signed a peace treaty in May 1762. On July 21, 1762 Frederick tapped once again the Austrians Burkersdorf and less than a year later, on January 15, 1763, Maria Theresa also decided to end the conflict with the peace of Hubertsburg. Frederick was safe and Silesia was left to Prussia.