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Seven Years' War: Battle of Rossbach

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Seven Years' War: Battle of Rossbach

Frederick the Great of Prussia, 1780 by Anton Graff

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Rossbach - Conflict:

The Battle of Rossbach was part of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763)

Battle of Rossbach - Date:

Frederick won his stunning victory on November 5, 1757.

Armies & Commanders:

Prussia

  • King Frederick II, the Great
  • 22,000 men, 79 guns

France, Holy Roman Empire, Austria

  • Charles, Prince de Soubise
  • Joseph Frederick William, Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen
  • 42,000 men, 45 guns

Battle of Rossbach - Background:

Following the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756, Prussia found itself nearly surrounded by its enemies. Moving swiftly, King Frederick the Great marched on Saxony and defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Lobositz. With the Saxons dealt with, Frederick turned south and began a campaign to capture Prague. After winning a bloody victory near the city, he laid siege in May 1757. This was lifted following the Austrian victory at the Battle of Kolin. Withdrawing, Frederick's position was further weakened when the Russians invaded East Prussia.

Seeing an opportunity, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Austria prepared to attack Prussia on multiple fronts. In the west, a an Allied army led by Charles, Prince de Soubise, began moving towards Prussia, while an Austrian army, under Charles of Lorraine, approached from the east. Assessing the situation, Frederick opted to deal with Soubise first. Marching from Dresden, Frederick's army traveled quickly, buying supplies along the way, and covering 170 miles in only thirteen days. After locating Soubise's army, the two commanders began several days of maneuvering with each trying to gain an advantage.

Battle of Rossbach - Frederick's Triumph:

On November 5, Frederick's 22,000-man army was in camp near Rossbach, with the Soubise's army nearby to the west. Though he possessed nearly a 2-to-1 advantage in manpower, Soubise was reluctant to give battle and required urging from the Duke of Hildburghausen to take action. The two devised a plan calling for the army to march south around the Prussian flank and assume a position between Reichardtswerben and Pettstädt which would cut Frederick off from the resources of the Saale. While sound in concept, this plan did not account for the terrain which made most their movements visible to the Prussians.

That morning, Frederick watched the Allied columns begin their march from atop a house in Rossbach. While he initially believed Soubise to be retreating south towards his bases, this changed when it was observed that the Allies had turned east. Seeing an opportunity, Frederick ordered his men to break camp and prepare to attack. This movement was seen by Soubise who assumed Frederick was falling back to the east to avoid being flanked. Soubise's march had begun well, however after wheeling east, several of his columns became intermixed leading to some confusion in the ranks.

In addition, Soubise called up his cavalry with the goal of having them reach Reichardtswerben before the Prussians. Seeking to surprise the Allies, Frederick's army moved swiftly using the Janus Hugel (Hill) and the Pölzen Hugel to screen their movements. It was his intention to attack them from the east, which would either take them in the flank or crush the heads of their columns as they marched. To this end, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz and his cavalry raced east. The action began when Colonel von Moller opened fire with eighteen guns from atop the Janus Hugel.

As the artillery hit the Allies, the Prussian infantry came up in support. Near Reichardtswerben, Soubise's cavalry suddenly found itself isolated from the main army as von Seydlitz's men came riding down upon them. Driving the Allies south, the Prussian cavalry drove them from the field before rallying to rejoin the main battle. Near the Janus Hugel, the Prussian infantry was descending the slope and attacking the confused mass that was the Allied army. While Soubise's men vainly attempted to form a line of battle, several of his French regiments launched attacks against the Prussian lines.

These assaults were easily defeated. As the situation worsened for the Allies, von Seydlitz's cavalry returned to the field and charged their right flank. This attack shattered the Allied lines, and they fled the field. The entire battle took less than an hour and a half.

Battle of Rossbach - Aftermath

Allied casualties in the battle were around 5,000 dead/wounded and 5,000 captured. For the Prussians, the cost was a remarkably low 169 dead and 379 wounded. The Battle of Rossbach proved to be one of Frederick the Great's most dramatic victories. A month later, Frederick crushed the Austrians at the Battle of Leuthen ending the threat of invasion in 1757. So stunning was Frederick's Rossbach-Leuthen campaign that Napoleon later referred to as "a masterpiece in maneuver and resolution."

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