1759 - Siege of Dresden

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Sieges >> 1759 - Siege of Dresden

The siege lasted from from August to September 1759

Introduction

At the end of July 1759, when Prince Heinrich set off from Plauen to make a junction with Frederick’s main army in Brandenburg, Saxony was only defended by Finck’s small corps (12 bns, 17 sqns); the fortresses on the Elbe were manned by weak garrisons; only Dresden was in a state to oppose some resistance. Austro-Imperials corps then procceeded to the invasion of Saxony.

On August 3, General Brentano offered Count Schmettau, the Prussian governor of Dresden, the imperial grace and a sum of 118,000 thalers in exchange for the surrender of Dresden. Schmettau indignantly declined the offer. On the same day, Finck received Frederick’s orders to immediately march to make a junction with the main army in Brandenburg. After Finck’s departure, the only remaining Prussian troops in Saxony were the garrison of Dresden and a few detachments in the towns of Leipzig, Wittenberg and Torgau.

The Reichsarmee under the Prince of Zweibrücken and two Austrian corps under [[Maquire and Brentano slowly advanced into Saxony.

Description of events

On August 8, Brentano’s light corps marched from Pirna on the west side of the Elbe to the “Grossen Garten” in the suburbs of Dresden. On the opposite bank of the Elbe, Major-General Vehla, who had been detached by FML Count Maquire to reconnoitre in the direction of Dresden, reached the “Weissen Hirsch,” his light troops skirmished with Prussian outposts near the gates of the city. All road leading to Dresden were now blocked by the detachments of Brentano and Vehla.

On August 9, a request from the council and the citizens of Halle arrived in Dresden, urging Schmettau to surrender the place. Schmettau also received a letter from the Prince of Zweibrücken, who threatened to burn the suburbs and to raze Halle and the neighbouring salterns. Schmettau answered that he had orders to defend the place to the last man and to set fire to the suburbs if attacked.

On August 10, Brentano vainly renewed the offer, which he had made to Count Schmettau on August 3 for the surrender of Dresden.

On August 14, the Prussian garrison of Torgau capitulated.

On August 19, after hearing a report from his staff officers, Schmettau decided to abandon any plan to defend the new town of Dresden. All guns, which could not be transferred to the old town, were nailed. The stock of stores, which could not be transferred to the old town, remained the property of the Saxon estates. The Elbe Bridge was not blown up but a mine was installed to destroy it in case of emergency. Schmettau also received a letter written by Frederick on August 14, just after his crushing defeat at the Battle of Kunersdorf, in which he informed him that he could not count on any support and instructed him to try to maintain himself in the city but, failing which, to obtain a favourable capitulation allowing the free withdrawal of the garrison, war chest, magazine and hospital and to join his own army near Berlin.

On August 20, Frederick detached Major-General von Wunsch from Fürstenwalde with a small force to relieve Saxony.

On August 21, the Prussian garrison of Wittenberg capitulated.

By August 23, all the Prussian posts in those parts of Saxony had also fell to the Reichsarmee, not one of them capable of standing a siege of more than a few days. The Reichsarmee had now taken all the northward garrison-towns. It placed garrisons in each of these towns, monopolizing some 11,000 men for general protection of this region.

On August 23, Maquire’s Corps marched from Rothenburg to join the Reichsarmee on the Elbe for the siege of Dresden.

On August 24, the main body of the Reichsarmee (7,000 foot and 1,100 horse in 13 bns, 14 grenadier coys and 12 sqns) under the Prince of Zweibrücken finally set off from Leipzig and marched towards Dresden by way Wurzen and Hubertusburg. This corps consisted of:

On August 25

  • Maquire’s Corps arrived at Gönnsdorf, east of “Weissen Hirsch,” near Dresden.
  • A large artillery park was being readied in Prague for the siege of Dresden.
  • Frederick II despatched a second letter to Schmettau, instructing him this time to hold Dresden at all cost! This last letter did not reach Schmettau in due time...

On August 26

  • Maquire took position in front of the new town (Neustadt), a suburb of Dresden located beyond the river to the north, and attacked it but was repulsed by Schmettau.
  • Schmettau’s troops precipitously evacuated the suburb of Neustadt, considering it indefensible with his small garrison of 3,700 men. He then strengthened the riverbank and concentrated the garrison inside the old town on the left bank of the Elbe, where the inhabitants were used to erect entrenchments. They were also instructed to accumulate provisions for six weeks. A curfew was imposed and reunions on the streets were prohibited.
  • Vehla with his Grenzers rapidly occupied Neustadt where they managed to seize large quantities of wheat, oat, barley and straw along with 136 iron cannon, 4,000 muskets and 3,000 sabres.
  • The Duke of Zweibrücken then sent 4 Grenzer bns (including the Warasdiner-Sankt Georger), a few grenadier companies and the Jazygier-Kumanier Hussars to occupy the suburb.
  • Count Schmettau received a new summon from the Prince of Zweibrücken. He once more refused to surrender and vainly asked for the authorisation to send an officer to Frederick to receive instructions.
  • Schmettau then decided to set fire to the suburbs, bombarding it with red-hot cannonballs.

On August 27, Wunsch’s relief force recaptured Wittenberg.

On August 29

  • The main body of the Reichsarmee arrived at Gorbitz, west of the old town of Dresden. Brentano was encamped near Lockwitz. Two bridges of boat were thrown on the Elbe upstream and downstream from Dresden, near Ubigau and Loschwitz, to establish communication with Maquire’s and Vehla’s troops posted on the right bank of the river.
  • On the left bank of the Elbe the old town of Dresden was defended by a wall and a wet ditch fed by the waters of the river. Several gates gave access to the city. The parapets were mostly in ruins. The new town on the right bank of the Elbe was protected by a dry moat and largely unfinished walls. In places, especially in the vicinity of the Elbe, the walling had such large gaps that an entire squadron could easily have ridden through it. The covertway was completely leveled, and most of the moat was filled. Several massive multi-storey buildings of the suburbs stood in the immediate vicinity of the city gates, giving an attacker an overview of the defenders of the wall, making it easier to conceal batteries close to the city and severely impairing the field of fire of the defenders. In the old and new towns, there were defensive outworks in front of the walls.
  • Schmettau had the ruined walls partly repaired and the half-filled moat emptied. Upstream and downstream from Dresden, barrier chains were pulled across the Elbe, protected on both banks by entrenchments.
  • The garrison of Dresden, numbering some 3,350 men, consisted of 6 bns (I./Hoffmann Fusiliers, II./Salmuth Fusiliers, I./Horn Fusiliers (former Saxon), II./Garrison Regiment III Grolman, III./Garrison Regiment VII Lange, V./Garrison Regiment VII Lange and a detachment of cavalry (from Prinz von Preußen Cuirassiers, Meinicke Dragoons, Kleist Hussars and Belling Hussars). There were also 300 convalescents in the city. Most of the infantry consisted of Saxons and Austrian deserters, with the rest being recruits (including several Catholics from Upper Silesia). There were sufficient ammunition for firearms and artillery pieces. However, there was a lack of trained artillery crew and each infantry company had to provide 9 men to man the guns.

On August 30

  • Grenzer light troops took position in the eastern suburbs and approached the bridge over the Weisseritz, Schmettau sent an officer to the Prince of Zweibrücken to require the withdrawal of these troops, threatening to set the suburbs on fire if they did not retire. Zweibrûcken answered that, in such a case, he would put the garrison to the sword, burn Berlin and Halle and devastate the provinces belonging to the King of Prussia.
  • At 6:00 p.m., Schmettau gave orders to set fire to the suburbs. Austro-Imperial troops did their best to contain the fire, succeeding to do so in many locations. They then took position in the houses of these suburbs and maintained a steady fire against the defenders.

On August 31, Wunsch’s relief force recaptured Torgau. The same day, the Austrian siege artillery, which had been transported from Prague on the Elbe with ample ammunition, arrived at Loschwitz near Dresden.

On September 1

  • The Austrian siege artillery was unloaded from ships and brought to positions in the new town and in the ravaged suburbs.
  • The garrison of Dresden opened a lively fire against the Austrian troops occupying the suburb.
  • Gradually, several batteries were established all around the city of Dresden. The Prince of Zweibrücken still hoped to avoid the bombardment of a city belonging to his Saxon allies.
  • Count Schmettau initiated new negotiations with the besiegers, mentioning that members of the Saxon Court had taken refuge in the cellars of the castle, in the vain hope to delay the bombardment of the city. However, to avoid to submit the city to an attack and to the ensuing plunder, both parties were willing to negotiate an honorable surrender.
  • Schmettau assembled the staff officers of the garrison of Dresden and let them know of Frederick’s letter, which had been written on August 14. He also mentioned that he estimated that the city could hold for no longer than six days. The leading artillery officer, Captain von Winterfeldt seconded Schmettau’s assertion.
  • Members of the Saxon court managed to communicate with Maquire, imploring him to continue negotiations.

On September 2, Maquire offered Schmettau to resume negotiations. They both met on the Elbe Bridge and agreed to a 24 hours long ceasefire. Schmettau made it very clear that he would consent to capitulate only if all his conditions were met (free withdrawal with the war chest). Maquire rejected these conditions.

On September 3

  • Maquire resumed the siege of Dresden.
  • Maquire, informed of Wunsch approach, detached Vehla with his 4 Grenzer bns to Reichenberg (present-day Liberec/CZ), and instructed General Brentano to take position on the Elbe to support Vehla.
  • In the afternoon, Wunsch left Torgau and marched towards Dresden.
Map of the action of September 4-5, 1759, during the siege of Dresden.
Copyright: Dinos Antoniadis
Key to the map:
 
a The Prussians under command of Major General Wunsch marched by way of Grossenhayn and Reichenberg on Dresden
b An Austrian Corps under General Brentano advamced from Dresden and took position on the hills
c Austrian artillery harassing the Prussians while on the march
d Grenzer light troops posted on the Trachenberg are attacked and repulsed
e The Grenzer light troops retreated through the woods towards Dresden
f The Austrian Corps took position on the hills behind Bexdorf during its retreat
g Retreat towards Dresden
h Two Prussian battalions cannonaded the Reichsarmee, which was encamped on the opposite bank of the Elbe
i One battalion covered the baggage
 
The Prussian Corps marched away during the evening of the same day by way of Grossenhayn to Torgau, because Dresden had already capitulated and General St. Andre was marching against Torgau

On September 4

  • Maquire interrupted the siege and accepted all of Schmettau’s conditions. The Prince of Zweibrücken, whom Maquire kept informed of the progress of negotiations, urged Maquire to conclude negotiations, because Wunsch was approaching. Furthermore, FM Daun was very eager to see Dresden captured, since all other operations depended on this success.
  • At 9:00 p.m., the Prussian governor of Dresden capitulated. The garrison obtained free withdrawal to Magdeburg and could bring along everything that belonged to Prussia. Soon afterwards, an Austrian bn occupied the Elbe Bridge and 1 bn of the Reichsarmee took position at the Pirna Gate. The members of the Saxon court were escorted by Austrian troops from the palace to the new town.
  • At 10:00 p.m., unaware of the capitulation of Dresden, Wunsch set out from Grossenhain in a last attempt to relieve the city.

On September 5

  • Schmettau received a second letter from Frederick, this one had been written on August 25 at Fürstenwalde. Frederick now gave him totally different orders enjoining him to hold Dresden.
  • Around 5:00 a.m., near Reichenberg, Wunsch’s Corps engaged the light troops of General Vehla, who had taken position on a neighbouring height under cover of the walls of the Weinberg. Freiregiment Wunsch drove back the Austrian light troops and Wunsch resumed his advance through the forest south of Boxdorf towards Dresden.
  • Brentano’s Corps, which had been sent to its support by Maquire, soon joined Vehla's detachment (4 grenzer bns).
  • Dresden was roused from its sleep by loud firing and battle, audible from the direction of Grossenhain on the north side of the Elbe. It was Wunsch repelling Brentano's Grenzer Corps from the heights of Boxdorf.
  • In the afternoon, the combined forces of Brentano and Vehla made another attempt to stop Wunsch’s Corps near Trachau and the Trachenberg, at the débouché of the woods of Moritzburg. The Austrians were driven back at the point of the bayonet towards the “Weissen Hirsch” by Grenadier Battalion Willemey and Grenadier Battalion Burgsdorff. Wunsch’s Corps was now approaching the new town of Dresden, but strangely enough, the guns on the walls of Dresden did not fire a single shot. In this action, the Austrians had lost 511 men (321 of Vehla’s detachment and 190 of Brentano’s).
  • During the afternoon, musket-fire could also be heard and from the walls of the old town, one could see Austrian troops retiring towards the new town on the right bank of the Elbe. A Prussian relief corps was approaching.
  • Wunsch gave orders to Colonel von Wolfersdorff to advance on the bridge that the Austrians had thrown on the Elbe near Übigau with the Hesse-Kassel Fusiliers and a few heavy guns. Meanwhile, Wunsch planned to destroy the bridge near Loschwitz to cover his flank and rear. He sent summons to Maquire, who occupied the new town, to surrender. Afterwards, he intended to storm the new town and establish communication with the Prussian garrison of the old town. The Austrian outposts in the new town were driven back. As Wolfersdorff approached, the Austrians broke down their bridge near Übigau.
  • The attack on the bridges was successful and Wunsch resumed his advance, reaching the Fischhaus where Brentano and Vehla had redeployed their troops. Wunsch attacked them and put them to flight once more.
  • Maquire did not answer to Wunsch’s summons before the evening. By that time, Wunsch had learned of the surrender of Dresden. He also received a message from his commandant at Torgau, advising him that Saint-André's Corps (10 bns, 9 grenadier coys, 2,000 Grenzers, 18 sqns, 1 carabinier coy and 60 hussars) was upon him and that he could not hold out very long. Wunsch then took the road again to relieve Torgau.

References

This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books, which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 451-463
  • Carlyle T., History of Friedrich II of Prussia vol. 19
  • Grosser Generalstab Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung II: Die Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, Part 3 Der siebenjährige Krieg 1756-1763, Vol. 11 Minden und Maxen, Berlin, 1912, pp. 62, 92-118
  • Vanicek, Fr.: Specialgeschichte der Militärgrenze aus Originalquellen und Quellenwerken geschöpft, Vol. II, Vienna: Kaiserlich-Königlichen Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1875, pp. 458-481