1759-08-01 - Battle of Minden – Analysis

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Battles and Encounters >> Battle of Minden >> Analysis

The Battle of Minden – A Comment on General Spörcken’s Attack and Ferdinand’s Orders

Our story of the battle, with General Spörcken’s battalions attacking the French centre – without, misunderstood, or falsely transmitted orders – follows the widely accepted sequence of events, especially with English authored and language publications. It is in fact, for most parts, based on a draft "Minute de la relation…de la fameuse journée de Minden", edited by Ferdinand’s own hands in November 1759.

This draft was the fundament of an official ‘Relation’ edited by Ferdinand’s secretary Westphalen, to be forwarded to Lord Holdernesse in London. It served as an important basis for the jury of Sackville’s court trial. It was headlined "Relation de la Bataille de Minden en tant que la conduite de Mylord George Sackville s’y rapporte" [sic.]. Deliberately edited for Sackville’s trial, it apparently had been modified in certain parts, concealing the “true story” [the complete relation can be found in Westphalen, vol III, pp. 579 ff].

There is indeed strong evidence that General Spörcken attacked the French cavalry – still in the process of deploying in line of battle at this time – according to the direct orders of Ferdinand. There was no false transmitting, nor attacking without orders. These orders were of course not in accordance with Ferdinand’s initial instructions issued on the previous day. Apparently Ferdinand sent his ADC Count Taube to Spörcken with the order to attack – ‘now’ – with the battalions at hand, and without waiting for the army to deploy in line to his left. In secretary Westphalen’s edit of Ferdinands Relation, it instead reads "si les troupes avanceroient, cela se feroit tambour battant" and adds: "Cet ordre fut ou mal rendu, ou mal compris; on le prit pour l’ordre d’avancer tambour battant" [Westphalen, Relation, p. 582].

By the time he had sent orders to Spörcken to attack, Ferdinand had identified the French cavalry in the process of deploying in the centre as the – now – weak spot of the French position [Mediger]. His initial plan was to form his army with its right resting anchored on the village of Hahlen and extrending towards the village of Stemmern. From these positions, he intended to attack the French army in its left flank as it advanced to attack Wangenheims position around Todtenhausen and Kutenhausen [see Relation]. But with Hahlen now in French hands, this original plan was now obsolete. Therefore, Ferdinand changed his previous day's dispositions and decided to deliberately attack the French army “en front” as it was still found “wrong footed” in the process of deploying, apart from its left wing around Hahlen [Mediger].

General Guerchy’s and Lusace’s left wing columns had the shortest way to arrive at their designated deployment areas, so were the first to deploy. All other columns filed in only later. The more to the right of Contades's main force, the longer it took. No French troops were found in the vicinity of Malbergen at the time Spöcken advanced to engage the French cavalry. In fact, the French army was at no time found fully deployed the way wich is illustrated in our sketch. Only the left hand brigades of the cavalry centre were found formed in line of battle, while the right was still filing into line when Waldegrave’s first line battalions of Spörcken’s Division advanced to engage them. This is the reason why the right wing brigade of Colonel-Général and one or two right hand squadrons of the centre brigade did not take part in the first cavalry charge led by Castries. The entire right wing infantry of Contades's Army under the General Nicolay seconded by Beaupréau was only now beginning to deploy at their designated deployment areas illustrated in our sketch. Nicolay’s most right wing column being the last to arrive. This is the reason Broglie delayed his attack on Wangenheim’s earthworks at Todtenhausen, as he was waiting for Nicolay’s column to arrive for his support, by his own saying.

Prior to Ferdinand’s orders to Spörcken, he had already instructed the generals Holstein and Imhoff to speed up their deployment ‘and charge at the best opportunity’!, as he passed their columns during his ride from Stemmern to Hahlen [see Relation]. As Ferdinand approached into the vicinity of the Hahlen windmill, he saw the British artillery engaging the French left in support of General Anhalt’s piquets closing in on Hahlen (the two British light artillery brigades of the army’s right and left wing amassed here under the captains Foy (with Anhalt) and Drummond (with Spörcken). More heavy guns under Major Haase and captains Phillps and MacBean were yet to arrive on the right wing. Apparently Ferdinand was about to build up a rather massive concentration of guns to take care of the French left wing in order to secure Spörcken’s right.

While Ferdinand sent his ADCs to bring the guns into the best positions, he received a report from his most trusted ADC, Bülow. This man had assisted Wangenheim to get into his position between Todtenhausen and Kutenhausen. Bülow reported the French [Broglie’s reinforced command] had already missed the best moment for an attack. Wangenheim remained under great pressure – his cavalry even had to withdraw for some distance to avoid the terrible cannonade. But Bülow also reported that things were under control as Holstein and Imhoff had arrived at their positions and were now deploying. Only at his moment Ferdinand gave the order to attack. The ADC Count von Taube now describes what happened in his report, dated February 12, 1760, found in Westphalen vol. III, pp. 597-598:

"…Elle [Son Altesse] retournait vers le centre; en voulant s’y rendre, Elle vit la première Colonne d’infanterie de la Droite conduite par Son Excellence le général Spoercken, qui avoit déja debouché en partie et qui commençoit à ce former. Son Altesse m’ordonnoit tout suite de dire au général de Spoercken, d’avancer avec les régiments qu’il avoit tambour battant et d’attaquer ce qui s’opposeroit vèrs lui. Aussitôt que le dit général avoit reçu cet ordre, il se mit en marche malgré qu’il n’avoit alors que trois bataillons Anglois et le premier bataillon Garde Hannovrienne de formé; le second bataillon des Gardes et le régiment de Hardenberg le suivirent et se formèrent en marche…" [sic].

According to General Spörcken’s German language war diary, Spörcken immediately rushed to Waldegrave – the two gentlemen happened to be good friends, by the way – telling him: "Au nom de Dieu: Avance." [Mediger]. The wording of Taube’s transmitted order fits perfectly with Spörcken’s report to his sovereign, [[George II|King George II], in a letter dated much earlier – August 2, 1759. Spörcken writes that his orders were "mit die Regimenter, so wenig auch deren formiert wären, zu avancieren und die vor uns stehende sehr starke Linie feindlicher Kavallerie zu attackieren." [transl: "with the regiments, despite the few being formed, to advance and attack the very strong line of enemy cavalry in front of us."] Note: Spörcken’s corresponcence with King George II was in German.

Now, did Taube misunderstood Ferdinand’s orders? Apparently not. Taube continues in his report: "Comme ces régiments avancèrent avec trop de vivacité, je fus renvoyé de Son Altesse pour prier Mrs. les généraux de Spörcken et Waldgrave de ne faire pas courir les gens, ils seroint hors d’haleine sans cela avant de faire l’attaque. Son Altesse s’arrêtà là si long-temps que ces régiments avoient passé un petit bois de sapin et que la cannonade de l’ennemie commençat, même aussi que la Cavallerie ennemie s’ebranlât et avançât vèrs notre infanterie.…" [sic]. With these lines of Taube’s report, he reveals that he was sent back to Spörcken and Waldgrave only to slow their advance in order to avoid the lads being out of breath before engaging. Taube does not write a word that he had previously transmitted false order and was sent back to Spörcken to correct them. For an understanding, Ferdinand was a general of the Prussian school. The Prussian drill put great emphasis on advancing at a rather slow pace, as this was considered a necessary pre-condition to engage into a firefight with the best regularity. Ferdinand himself was a promoter of the slow advance, as his dispositions for the Magdeburg Revue of 1755 reveal (Mediger – quoting: "allemaßen das Laufen oder starke Anmarschieren mit ganzen Bataillons … die Leute außer Atem setzet und überhaupt sehr pernicieuse ist." [sic.].) It must have caused great worries to him seeing Waldegrave’s command litteraly running towards the enemy. There was no word of stopping the attack. Only as he observed Waldegrave’s first line storming forward despite his orders to slow the advance, he must have sent several more ADCs to Spörcken and Waldegrave to stop the British battalions running forward until all nine battalions of Spörcken’s command were properly formed in line of battle. The last ADC being sent was Derenthal, of whom we know for sure [Mediger, based on Derenthal’s report Archive Hannover]. It was Derenthal, to whom Waldegrave replied to tell Ferdinand that he was reluctant to stop his men, knowing the English national character, but he would see what he could do.

Now why did Ferdinand's own report of the events of August 1 to London alter the story by saying his orders for Spörcken have been falsely transmitted? Why should he dispatch one of his rare ADCs – so indispensable for the communication with his army in such a critical moment – with a completely superfluous command in the first place? It was custom practise of all nations infantry under his command to advance (i.e. attack) with drums rolling. It was found in the Brunswick, British, Hanoverian, Hesse-Cassel, as well as in the Prussian regulations, respectively [Mediger citing the Reglement vor die Königl. Preußische Infanterie, Berlin edition 1750; ditto for the Hessische Infanterie, Kassel 1754; Exercise for the Horse, Dragoons, and Foot Forces, Whitehall 6 Jan. 1728, publ. London 1739, pp. 72-75, 86; Sichart vol II, p. 139 paragraph 6 from the 1753 Reglement for Hanover, and Elster vol II, p. 151f. for Brunswick].

The truth is that Ferdinand tried to conceal that the army had attacked according to his very orders. The attack was instead attributed to some Higher Power or the Almighty, perhaps. He was aware that Sackville was trying to build his defence for the upcoming trial by trying to blame Ferdinand of having ordered Spörcken’s infantry to attack too early. This error on Ferdinand’s part, thus, creating a most dangerous situation for the army, resulting in all the confusion of conflicting and contradictory orders sent by Ferdiand's ADCs afterwards – this being Sackville’s narrative. Ferdinand was quite aware of this, as Sackville toured the camp just after the battle to find supporters for his view of the August 1 affairs. He found but few. Ferdinand simply wanted to prevent that Sackville had any chance of gaining ground in this direction. Ferdinand was aware that he had most influential enemies in London, who rejected British troops being under the command of a Prussian general. Among them the Prince of Wales and Lord Bute. Sackville himself belonged to this group. This may have been the reason for his outright obstructive behaviour on this day. It is perfectly revealed by ADC Fitzroy, in his reply to a letter by Sackville, where Sackville begged to meet him before leaving for England to deliver the news of the splendid victory gained August 1. In Fizroys’ frosty reply he writes: "Upon my arrival on the right of the Cavalry I found Captain Ligonier [who ordered the advance to the left just before Fitzroy] with your Lordship; notwithstanding, I delivered H.S.H. Orders to you, upon which you desired I would not be in a hurry; I made answer, that Galloping had put me out of breath which made me speak rather fast; I then again repeated the orders for the British Cavalry to advance towards the left; and at the same time mentioned the circumstance, that occasioned this order & added, that it was a glorious opportunity for the English to distinguish themselves and that your Lordship by leading them on would gain immortal honour. You yet expressed your surprise at the order saying it was impossible the Duke could mean to break the line; my answer was that I delivered H.S.H. orders word for word, as he gave them. Upon this you asked, which way the Cavalry was to march and who was to be their Guide. I undertook to lead them towards the left round the little open wood on their Left … Your Lordship continued to think my orders neither clearly nor exactly delivered and expressing your desire to see Prince Ferdinand…" [sic.]. The contrast cannot have been greater if one reads brave Spörcken’s comment on Sackville’s behaviour. Spörcken writes: "Es war ein Spiel mit Worten, indem er die Befehle hin und her wendete, um den für ihn passenden Sinn herauszuziehen. Das mag für ein Parlament gut sein, aber bei einer Schlacht muß man avancieren." [It was a game of words, twisting the orders back and forth to extract the meaning that suited him best. That might be good for a parliament, but in a battle you have to advance.]

by Christian Rogge