August 25, 1758

Frederick the Great's victory at Leuthen in December 1757 combined his earlier victory at Rossbach in November 1757 saved his kingdom, but his situation was still precarious.

Although the Austrian to the south was his greatest threat, Russia to the east was also at war with him.  Slow to become heavily involved, in January of 1758, a Russian army under Fermor captured Konigsberg then overran East Prussia.  Looking to advance west, the Russians considered combining with the Swedish army on the Baltic coast but instead opted to join up with the Austrians.  Advancing through Poland, on August 15, 1758 Fermor's Russian army besieged Custrin on the Oder River, dangerously close to Berlin, which was 50 miles away, and the Brandenburg heartland.

In a complex series of maneuvers, Frederick marched north to face the Russians, followed by the Austrian army, hoping to join the Russians.  Frederick moved quickly as he was understandably fearful of being massively outnumbered by a Russian-Austrian combination.  Frederick joined up with a Prussian force under Dohna, giving him 37,000 men, and Fermor lifted the siege of Custrin.

Siege of Custrin


Frederick had been imprisoned in Custrin by his father, so the place had many memories for the king.  Destroyed in World War II, the Prussian fortress is now being studied and restored.

A) Position of Russian Army

Wasting no time, on August 23, without opposition, Frederick crossed the Oder on a pontoon bridge erected north of Custrin - separating Fermor from a detached corps to the north under Rumyantsev.  The Prussian army made contact with Fermor's army the next day.  After lifting the siege of Custrin, Fermor prepared to withdraw, dispatched his heavy wagon train to the southeast to the presumed safety of an entrenched camp covered by the main army.  Placed on gentle heights, Fermor's army had a good field of fire facing north overlooking a swampy stream known as the Hofe-Buche and the Mietzel  River beyond.  It was an ideal defensive position.  Deployed in two lines, the light wagon train lay between the lines.

Not surprisingly, Frederick was disinclined to attack the front of a well placed enemy.  One option was to advance around the western flank of the Russians.  This would eliminate the Hofe-Buche as an obstacle, but after crossing the Mietzel, the Prussian army would have the soggy Drewitzer Wood at its back.  A march around the eastern flank and into the Russian rear was more promising.  Encamping at a mill on the Mietzel River upstream from the Russian army, and with a pontoon bridge constructed across the Mietzel, Frederick was well positioned to move deep into the Russian rear.  Having previously put down Russian fighting abilities, Frederick awoke on the morning of August 25th and declared victory.  The march began at around 3:30 and emerged from the woods at 5:00.  Foregoing an attack on the isolated Russian wagon train, the destruction of which would have severely hampered the Russian supply situation, Frederick continued his march.  Another option for Frederick was to attack into the Russian flank, but this, too, he decided against.  Reaching Zorndorf, recently torched by Cossacks, Frederick deployed into line directly facing the rear of the Russian army.  Beginning at around 6:00, the Russians had started to shift to meet the new threat to their rear, a move more complex than simply facing about, so a quick Prussian attack might catch them off guard.   

The Russian army now had to its back Zicher Woods,the Hofe-Buche, and the Mietzel River with its bridges destroyed.  The Russian position between the Zabern-Grund and the Stein-Busch was awkward and cramped.  Between the first and second lines of infantry was supporting infantry, three cavalry regiments, and the light wagon train in the Galgen-Grund.  Behind the second line was additional cavalry.  In front of the Russian first line was artillery distributed roughly evenly.  It was here that Frederick decided to attack.  Manteuffel's advance guard would lead the attack, followed closely by Kanitz.  To their right, Dohna was to advance to protect the flank.  To the left, across the Zabern-Grund, Seydlitz was to advance toward Quartschen.  Frederick organized his artillery into large batteries.  Fifty guns supported Manteuffel while batteries of 20 and 40 guns were further toward the Prussian right.

Handicapping the Russian situation was the commander himself.  Either wounded and seeking medical attention or simply shirking his duty, Fermor would not be a factor in the coming battle.

B) Fuchsberg - Manteuffel Attacks

Prussian artillery opened fire at around 9:00 after the army was deployed.  The gunners soon found that they were out of range.  Moving forward 600 paces, they opened fire on the Russians.  The Russian light wagon train and the cavalry between the infantry lines particularly felt the impact of the Prussian guns.  The Russian artillery responded, but did little damage to the Prussian guns.  At around 11:00, Manteuffel's infantry advanced.  In front of Manteuffel's infantry, a battery of 20 guns advanced to this location - the Fuchsberg - and poured canister shot into the Russian infantry.  Advancing through the artillery, Manteuffel's infantry traded volleys with the Russians at 40 paces, suffering also from the Russian artillery.  Low on ammunition, the Russian grenadiers charged but were repulsed.  Manteuffel's men were getting the better of the fight.

With casualties mounting, Manteuffel needed the follow-up line under Kanitz to take over the advance.  The Russians, however, were quicker and restored their line with reinforcements from the second line.  What accounted for Kanitz's failure to support Manteuffel?  Kanitz was concerned with his right flank.  Dohna to his right was supposed to be protecting him, but a gap developed between the two, so Kanitz extended his line in the direction of the Stein-Busch by feeding his supporting troops into his line.  This, in turn, hindered his ability to support Manteuffel.

C) Manteuffel's Left Flank

This is the view looking west from the Zorndorf - Quartschen road, which is on either end of this 180 degree panorama.  Manteuffel's left flank extended from the road to the Zabern-Grund - the prominent hollow shown here.  Cavalry under Seydlitz was beyond the Zabern-Grund.  Manteuffel's losses were contracting the lines, which closed up to their right.  When a gap opened up between their left flank and the Zabern-Grund, Russians exploited this with a counterattack, both frontally and by working around the flank.  Seeing the difficulty, Frederick ordered Seydlitz and his cavalry across the Zabern-Grund to help the infantry - several times.  Seydlitz, however, could see that the series of ponds in northern section the Zabern-Grund prevented this.  Seydlitz responded, "Tell the king that after the battle my head is at his disposal, but in the meantime I hope he will permit me to exercise it in his service!"  Only when Manteuffel's infantry were virtually routing, and spreading confusion and panic to Kanitz's men, did Seydlitz attack.  Frederick himself entered the fray, ordering cavalry under Moritz of Anhalt-Dessau to counterattack the Russian cavalry - and also attempting to rally his infantry by grabbing a regimental flag.  Frederick's gesture did little good, but his cavalry saved the day.  Taken by surprise, The Russians took heavy losses and fell back in confusion.  Seydlitz's counterattack had saved the day.  Many Russians looted their own light baggage train on the way, but with the bridges over the Mietzel destroyed, they were unable to go far in that direction.  Eventually, the Russians rallied enough to form a line behind the Galgen-Grund.

By this point, around noon, Frederick's planned attack had been shattered along with much of his army.  The Russians were in no better condition.

D) Galgen-Grund

Here, between the Galgen-Grund and the area of the Stein-Busch, a woodlot that only barely exists now, you can view much of the area of Frederick's initial attack.  Approaching from Zorndorf, Prussian artillery near the Fuchsberg had spattered the Russian line with canister before Manteuffel's infantry continued the attack with their right flank on the Galgen-Grund.  Kanitz's supporting line had been diverted more toward the Stein-Busch.as a gap developed between them and Dohna's men on the far side of the Zorndorf-Neudamm Road.  Manteuffel's left flank on the far side of the Zorndorf-Quartschen Road had been attacked, forcing the Prussian army back.  Prussian cavalry under Seydlitz and Moritz saved the day and pursued as far as the Galgen-Grund.  The Russians then returned to their original battle lines.

Now, although his attack had been smashed, Frederick wanted to mount another attack.  Although he kept the surviving artillery in action on his left - just left of position of the "Russian Battery" (one of several from the beginning of the battery), Frederick did not want to attack in this area.  The Stein-Busch would obstruct and confuse any movement through it, and the open ground between it and the Galgen-Grund was too narrow.  Instead, Frederick planned his next attack on the east side of the Stein-Busch on the far, or east, side of the Zorndorf-Neudamm Road.  Preempted by a Russian attack, which was repulsed, Prussian cavalry under Seydlitz actually moved around the north side of the Stein-Busch to strike the flank of the attacking Russians.  Although Seydlitz was unable to rout the Russians, he did buy time for Frederick to prepare his attack.


E) Russian Left

The Russian infantry line ran approximate through this slight bend in this dirt road facing the Stein-Busch.  Frederick began his efforts by pushing forward a battery on the far side of the Zorndorf - Neudamm Road at around 1:00pm.  Dohna's infantry supported the Prussian battery.  At 3:00pm, the Russian infantry on the left side of the Stein-Busch - the area on the left side of the panorama - moved forward to attack the Prussian battery.  Russian cavalry on the left flank joined in the attack on the battery, but they were repulsed by Prussian cavalry coming up from the rear - the Alt-Platen and Plettenberg Dragoons.  The rallying infantry of Manteuffel and Kanitz in the Prussian rear were so skittish that this move by their own cavalry was thought to be a Russian attack, and they retreated.  Continuing the attack, the Prussian cavalry on the right flank pushed the opposing Russian cavalry from the field.

By this point, Dohna's units were losing cohesion.  At around 3:20pm, Seydlitz brought his cavalry around the Stein-Busch and into the flank of the attacking Russian infantry.  In the panorama, Seydlitz attacked roughly from the area between the modern house on the far right and the fields to the right of the Fuchsberg.  Seydlitz was halted, but the Russian infantry also fell back to its original line.

Frederick hadn't given up on his planned attack.  Dohna's 9,000 men attacked but were repulsed.  Then, the artillery on the Prussian left moved northwest of the Stein-Busch to fire at an angle into the Russian left.  Dohna attacked again, and there was vicious hand to hand combat.  Eventually, at around 6:00pm, the Russian line collapsed, with men fleeing into the Hofe-Bruch and to Quartschen.  The Prussian cavalry, however, was too tired and disorganized to pursue.

Fermor had returned to the field and organized a new line on the west side of the Galgen-Grund.  At 7:00, Frederick ordered the position attacked.  A few Prussians made it into Quartschen, but the sun was setting.  Despite exhaustion, Fermor used darkness so his army could escape - but only made it to Zorndorf where the Russians spent the night.  Frederick's army captured Quartschen.  So throughout the day of battle, the armies had essentially reversed positions.  The next day, the two armies faced each other, unable or unwilling to continue the fight.  Once again, Frederick declined the chance to attack and capture the Russian heavy wagon train at Klein-Kammen.  Of his 37,000 men, Frederick lost around 13,000, or 35%, an incredible percentage for battles of that era.  In addition, he lost 26 guns and 8 regimental flags.  Fermor's 43,000 man army lost 19,000, or 45%, plus an unknown number of guns.  It had been a bloodbath with few prisoners taken and a shock to Frederick.  Never again would he discount the Russian army.

At night, Fermor withdrew, eventually to rejoin Rumyantsev's detached corps.  Supply difficulties forced the Russians to continue the withdrawal, and failing to capture Danzig, he retreated further to winter quarters.  Frederick left Dohna to deal with Fermor and took troops into Saxony to deal with Daun's Austrians.  There in October, he was attacked and nearly destroyed at Hochkirch.  The next year, an Austrian corps would join a Russian army, and Frederick would attack them at Kunersdorf, not even 20 miles from the field at Zorndorf.  

Copyright 2012-13 by John Hamill

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