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5 December 2009

On this day in history: Battle of Leuthen, 1757

In 1740, the newly crowned King Frederick II of Prussia annexed the prosperous Austrian province of Silesia. He wanted to connect his own disparate lands in Silesia and also prevent other European rulers doing the same. Frederick found his pretext for the invasion in an obscure 1537 treaty by which his dynasty should have inherited a number of Silesian princedoms.

The ensuing conflict, known as the First Silesian War, formed part of the larger War of the Austrian Succession, during which the French and Prussians challenged the power of Hapsburg empire. The Second Silesian War also formed part of this larger conflict, during which the Austrians failed to reclaim the province. The war ended with the signing of the 1745 Treaty of Dresden, by which the Austrian ruler, Maria Theresa, recognised Prussian rule in Silesia, in return for Frederick's recognition of her husband as Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1756 the European powers took up arms once more in the Seven Years' War with the Austrians and Prussians again in opposing camps. Fearing that the Austrians would make another attempt to retake Silesia, Frederick led a pre-emptive strike against Austria's Saxon allies. While he campaigned in Saxony, the Austrian forces managed to capture much of Silesia; so, following the defeat of French and Austrian forces at Rossbach, Frederick turned his attention to retaking Silesia.

On 5th December 1757, Frederick's army found an Austrian force twice its size near the village of Leuthen (now Lutynia, Poland). Frederick marched his troops towards the larger army before ordering his cavalry to make a diversionary assault on a nearby village before forming up to face the Austrian right flank. He then marched his infantry to the south behind a line of hills.

The Austrian commander, Prince Charles of Lorraine, had deployed his men in very long lines, knowing that the flanking attack was Frederick's favourite tactic. When he saw the Prussian cavalry face his right flank, he suspected that they were about to act as the spearhead of just such an offensive move; consequently, he sent his reserve and his cavalry to strengthen his right. Then, when he saw the Prussian infantry marching, Charles assumed them to be retreating.

Rather than retreating, Frederick marched his men round to engage the Austrian left flank, which crumbled. Charles tried to reform his troops, but the length of his lines meant that this was a slow process. Nevertheless, The Austrian cavalry saw an opportunity to outflank Frederick, but they were intercepted by the Prussian cavalry and the ensuing melee careered into the back of the Austrian lines, which broke.

Frederick's army of approximately 36,000 men and 167 guns defeated an Austrian force of around 80,000 men armed with 210 cannon. The Prussians lost 1,141 men with 5,118 wounded, compared to over 3,000 Austrian fatalities and around 7,000 wounded. The Prussians captured something in the order of 12,000 Austrians, while the rest of Charles' army fled to join the Austrian withdrawal from Silesia.

Related posts
Battle of Culloden: 16th April 1746
Treaty of Paris signed: 10th February 1763
Holy Roman Empire ended: 6th August 1806

2 comments:

David Funk said...

Hey man, I just want to say that I have read most of these, and that I'm a history buff myself.

That amazes me what Frederick's army was able to do that day. Very impressive stuff.

Great blog you got going on over here!

Stepterix said...

Thank you for the kind words. Frederick certainly helped define modern warfare.