As a Prussian field marshal, YOU face French forces in a battle during history’s first global war.
It is late July 1759 as you assume the role of Prussian Field Marshal Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, nephew and confidant of Prussia’s King Frederick the Great. You command an Anglo-Hanoverian-Prussian army in Westphalia (north- ern Germany) that is facing a French force under Marshal Louis Marquis de Contades.
For several months, your campaign against the French that began west of the Rhine River featured long periods of maneuvering by the opposing armies with infrequent clashes. In April, however, you lost a battle at Bergen to a French army under Victor Francois Duke de Broglie, and then on July 10 Brogile’s men captured the town of Minden in a surprise move. Minden is strategically important because it controls not only the Weser River but also the routes linking Osnabrück, Hanover and Bremen – your main line of communication with the British, who are your allies.
Since the French now hold a strategic advantage, your immediate problem is to determine how to bring Contades’ army to battle and decisively defeat it.
The war that began in 1756 pits Britain and its allies – including Prussia – against France and its allied countries and European principalities. Originating from British-French colonial boundary disputes in North America, the war has gone global, embroiling most of the era’s great powers. The fighting on land and at sea encompasses North America, Central America, and European colonies in Africa, India and the Pacific, and here in continental Europe.
Your campaign in Westphalia is of particular importance to your British ally, King George II, since a French victory here would threaten his original homeland, the nearby Electorate of Hanover, and would free French forces to launch an invasion of England from Channel ports.
A French victory in Westphalia would also frustrate the plans of your sovereign, Frederick the Great. It would not only prevent Frederick from extending Prussia’s influence and control in central Europe but would also leave Prussia isolated and surrounded by hostile powers.
THE OPPOSING ARMIES
Your tactical situation is complicated by the fact that you face two French armies – the main army under Contades west of the Weser River, and a smaller army east of the Weser commanded by the Duke de Broglie, who defeated you at Bergen in April.
Four days after Broglie captured Minden on July 10, you marched your army to the Weser to protect your important supply depot at Nienburg and established your headquarters at Stolzenau, north of Minden. You also ordered the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick – a brilliant officer who has performed well so far in this campaign – to send an advance guard to outpost Petershagen, east of the Weser, in case Broglie’s army moves north.
Contades, delayed by supply problems, arrived southwest of Minden July 15. His main French army is encamped between the marshes bordering the Bastau River and the Wiehen Mountains. His left front is protected by peat bogs and marshes while his right flank is anchored on the Weser River and the fortified town of Minden. North of the Bastau, Contades has deployed a French infantry corps to screen the direct approach to his army south of the river. Across the Weser to the east, Broglie’s smaller army (22 infantry battalions, 16 cavalry squadrons and artillery) guards the French flank against a threat from that direction. Contades’ supply line runs southwest through the Minden Gap, a narrow pass through the Wiehen Mountains.
The main army under Contades consists of 42,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry and 162 guns. He hopes eventually to be joined by forces under commanders Lieutenant General Louis Marquis de Armentières, Lieutenant General Charles Duke of Chevreuse and General Comte de Saint-Germain, which would add to his army 38 cavalry squadrons and 26 infantry battalions. However, these additional forces are currently besieging Lippstadt and other cities, so Contades seeks to avoid a decisive battle until they are free to join him at Minden.
Your army totals 45,000 men and 170 guns and includes a British contingent of 10,000 cavalry and infantry commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Sackville. Your principal subordinate commanders are the Hereditary Prince and Lieutenant General Georg von Wangenheim, both of whom lead strong corps. After you moved your army to the Minden area, you ordered Wangenheim’s corps (18 cavalry squadrons, 14 infantry battalions and a Hanoverian heavy artillery brigade) to prepare a stout defensive position to anchor the left flank of your line. You also distributed artillery guns to each infantry regiment, and you have three artillery brigades under experienced and very competent commanders.
The soldiers on both sides of the upcoming battle are disciplined, well trained and highly skilled at executing the tactics that will be employed. (See “Battle Tactics.”) Therefore you must carefully plan your opening maneuvers to place your army in the best possible position to win before the first shot is even fired.
COURSES OF ACTION
You realize that time is on Contades’ side. You must attack his army before additional French forces arrive and it is too strong to defeat. You also hope to attack Broglie’s army while it is still separated from Contades’ men by the Weser River. You decide to seize the initiative and develop a plan to induce Contades to leave his strong position southwest of Minden and bring his army to a decisive battle in open terrain – the Minden Heath north of the Bastau River – before it is too late. You must make a move that will prompt the French to move.
Late on July 31, you gather your principal subordinates at your headquarters to brief them on three courses of action you are considering. Once you have heard their ideas and concerns, you will determine which plan will work best to entice Contades into a decisive engagement tomorrow, August 1, 1759.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DIRECT ATTACK. Under the first course of action, you will advance your entire army to a position south of Todtenhausen in a move intended to draw Contades’ army north across the Bastau River. Once Contades takes the bait and moves from his strong defensive position and onto the open Minden Heath, your army will execute a direct attack to engage and defeat the French army.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FIXING ATTACK AND COUNTERSTRIKE. With this plan, Wangenheim’s corps will conduct a fixing attack along the Weser River while your main army moves west, thus creating the appearance of a gap – an irresistible inducement to draw an enemy attack. At the first indication that Contades’ men are moving to attack into the apparent gap, you will countermarch your right wing to conduct a devastating counterstrike into the French army’s vulnerable left flank.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: OBLIQUE ATTACK. Under the third option, you will initially array your battle line as if preparing to move westward to strike at Contades’ line of communication. Forced to react, Contades will counter by moving onto the Minden Heath to attack your main army before it gets fully under way. Once the French battle line advances forward, you will shift to an oblique attack formation, moving diagonally to focus overwhelming combat power to crush Contades’ right flank.
What next, Prince Ferdinand?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DIRECT ATTACK
After your defeat at Bergen in April, followed by your failure to offer battle over the ensuing months, Frederick’s confidence in you has wavered. In fact, Frederick has sent you a letter exhorting you to attack the French even at the risk of defeat. Therefore you decide to launch a direct attack to draw Contades into battle as soon as possible. You also send the Hereditary Prince with 10 cavalry squadrons, seven infantry battalions and 16 guns in a wide, sweeping movement to threaten the French line of communication.
Early on August 1, you order your army to advance onto the Minden Heath, where it forms south of the villages of Kutenhausen and Stemmer. In response, the French corps screening the approach to Minden hastily withdraws behind the Bastau River. To initiate your direct attack to draw Contades north of the river and onto the Minden Heath, you order your army to advance southward in a long battle line with Wangenheim’s corps on your left and the remaining units spread westward.
You were certain that your plan would draw Contades into battle, and thus you are troubled when he makes no move to oppose you. In fact, he instead orders Broglie’s army to cross to the west side of the Weser River. With none of your men on the Weser’s east side to oppose Broglie, he quickly gets his army across the river and initiates a savage artillery duel with Wangenheim’s corps.
By mid-afternoon, Contades’ entire force still stands in its extremely strong defensive position behind the Bastau River, guarded by the surrounding marshland that restricts movement by either infantry or cavalry. Although you keep your army in place offering battle, by 4 p.m. you realize your opponent has refused to take the bait.
In one final effort to precipitate a fight, you send an order to Lord Sackville to lead his British cavalry force in an attack on Contades’ Bastau River line position. You are hopeful this will prompt Contades into launching a counterattack that might embroil his entire army in battle. Sackville, however, inexplicably refuses to obey! You now have no choice but to order your army to countermarch and withdraw to its old camp.
After your army’s withdrawal, Broglie’s force moves back across the river and takes a position east and south of Minden. From there, his men can move north to threaten your main supply base at Nienburg, recross the Weser to support Contades if necessary, or engage the Hereditary Prince if the threat to the French line of communication becomes serious.
This battle is playing out much like a chess match, with the opposing commanders maneuvering their units as if they were playing pieces on a chessboard. And so far, Contades is winning.
With the French refusing to fight, both armies settle for conducting infantry and cavalry patrols to watch and report the opposition’s tactical dispositions and movements. Although there are constant skirmishes, the major battle you so desperately seek does not materialize. In a further setback to your plans, the Hereditary Prince is captured in a cavalry clash with one of the French forces moving to reinforce Contades.
Inevitably, the French forces besieging Lippstadt and other cities arrive to join Contades. By mid-August, his army, still occupying its formidable defensive position south of the Bastau, is much too strong to attack with any hope of victory. You have failed to draw the French into battle in time, and now your army is at risk of being defeated by their superior forces. You are certain that Frederick will relieve you of command.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FIXING ATTACK AND COUNTERSTRIKE
You reason that conducting a fixing attack with Wangenheim’s force while your main army moves west will convince Contades that he can win an easy victory over your apparently divided army. To give Contades further incentive to attack quickly, you send the Hereditary Prince with 10 cavalry squadrons, seven infantry battalions and 16 guns in a wide, sweeping movement to threaten the French line of communication.
Leaving Wangenheim’s corps in position at Todtenhausen, late on July 31 you move the rest of your army west to create a 3-mile gap between the two forces. Around midnight, you receive intelligence that indicates Contades is taking the bait. The initial report is that his army plans to cross the Bastau River and move north onto the Minden Heath. However, further reports indicate that Broglie is preparing to shift his army to the west side of the Weser. Once it is across, Wangenheim’s fixing attack will principally involve engaging Broglie’s army near Todtenhausen to prevent it from reinforcing Contades’ main army.
Your move west is in eight columns. From right to left, they are Lord Sackville’s British force, Lieutenant General Friedrich von Spoercken’s British and Hanoverian infantry, Lieutenant General Heinrich von Wutginau’s Hessian infantry, General Philipp von Imhoff’s infantry, and General Herzog Holstein’s cavalry. The remaining three columns are your artillery brigades.
As Broglie’s infantry, cavalry and artillery cross the Weser in the early hours of August 1, they immediately find Wangenheim warned and ready. Wangenheim’s fixing attack quickly becomes an artillery duel. Within an hour, his superior artillery gains the upper hand.
With some difficulty due to the lack of sufficient bridges, Contades gets his army across the Bastau River, where he deploys it on the Minden Heath in a semicircle with its right on the Weser and its left on the Bastau marshes. Contrary to military convention, however, he places his infantry on each flank and masses his cavalry in his battle line’s center – a key position normally defended by infantry. Contades seems to have made this unusual placement to give his horse squadrons firmer ground.
Now that Contades has committed his force to attack the apparent gap in your line, you order the commencement of a rapid counterstrike against the French left flank. Your force is deployed in the traditional formation, with cavalry on the flanks and infantry in the center. As your counterstrike begins, however, you find that Lord Sackville’s key attack with 14 British and 10 Hanoverian cavalry squadrons is late – the British general overslept! Yet since your other forces have already initiated the fighting, Contades changes the direction of his advance to meet your developing threat to his left.
Another problem that could potentially derail your counterstrike suddenly arises when, in a confused translation of your orders, Spoercken’s British and Hanoverian infantry attack prematurely. This prompts French cavalry charges; but fortunately, in an awesome display of disciplined fire, Spoercken’s sturdy infantrymen blast to pieces no less than three successive cavalry charges with controlled musket volley fire at 10 paces. British artillery arrives just in time to support Spoercken’s hard-pressed infantrymen in their fight against the French infantry and artillery that Contades rushes forward in the wake of his cavalry’s failure.
You realize that now is the moment to finish off Contades’ army once and for all. You order Lord Sackville to attack the French and collapse the entire enemy line. Incredibly, he refuses, disobeying your repeated orders to advance.
Yet despite the flaws in execution, your plan works. Contades, realizing he is beaten, rushes his army to the rear while Broglie’s force fights a rearguard action to prevent the French retreat from turning into a rout.
You have won a decisive victory, but Sackville’s initial tardiness and his inexcusable refusals to attack have prevented you from completely destroying the French armies.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: OBLIQUE ATTACK
Although Contades’ army outnumbers your army, you will not shrink from an encounter with a numerically superior force. As Frederick taught you: “An army of 100,000 men outflanked may be beaten by 30,000, because the issue is decided so quickly.” Therefore you decide to use one of Frederick’s favorite battle maneuvers, an oblique attack formation. Your battle line will advance diagonally, resulting in a greater concentration of your troops striking the enemy’s more thinly manned flank.
You send the Hereditary Prince with a corps of 10 cavalry squadrons, seven infantry battalions and 16 guns to cross the Wiehen Mountains in a wide, sweeping movement to threaten Contades’ line of communication. You then order Lieutenant General Philipp von Gilsa’s detachment of three cavalry squadrons and three infantry battalions to link up on the east side of the Weser with an allied force of two squadrons of cavalry, two infantry battalions and a brigade of skirmishers watching Broglie’s army. The combined force will delay or tie down Broglie’s attempt to recross the Weser to join Contades’ army.
Meanwhile, you order your army to feint a move westward, as if intending to follow the Hereditary Prince’s contingent against Contades’ supply line. You ensure that the French can see and hear the feint, and you dispatch a “deserter” to Contades with false movement orders.
You then order a countermarch that places your army in an advantageous attacking position on the French army’s right flank when Contades moves onto the Minden Heath. You deploy your force in an oblique order of battle, heavily weighted on your left wing. Wangenheim’s corps occupies firm ground on the Minden Heath, while Lord Sackville’s cavalry, Spoercken’s and Major General Johann von Scheele’s infantry, and three brigades of artillery are positioned to execute the oblique attack. Holstein’s cavalry brigades are held in reserve on the left, near you.
Early on August 1, you receive information that Contades’ army is moving across the Bastau’s bridges and onto the Minden Heath. Your feint has worked and now Contades is convinced that he must strike your army before it gets fully under way. Concerned about Lord Sackville’s trustworthiness to execute your orders promptly, you position yourself at his location.
As Contades moves his men onto the Minden Heath, you note that he has placed his cavalry in the center of his battle line – an unusual formation that puts a weaker defending force between the infantry on his flanks. Moreover, Broglie’s army is nowhere in sight – Gilsa’s force east of the Weser must be significantly delaying Broglie’s effort to cross the river and join Contades.
As Contades’ battle line moves north on the Minden Heath, you judge that the time is right to launch your oblique attack on his exposed right flank. While your attack advances, your massed artillery blasts the French infantry, further weakening Contades’ flank units. Since his infantry reinforcements are far removed on his left flank, his only option to support his threatened right flank is to order the cavalry from his center to strike your flanking force. However, you anticipate this maneuver and order Sackville’s and Holstein’s cavalry brigades to hit the French cavalry in the flank. Although Sackville initially balks at the directive, you immediately overrule his objections and he complies. Your cavalry quickly routs the French cavalry.
In confusion, the French cavalry retreats into the French infantry formations, destroy ing their cohesion. Contades’ army begins to melt away under your overwhelming oblique attack as your infantry surges forward. The collapsing French right flank spreads panic through the rest of Contades’ army, which races in disarray for the Bastau River bridges.
You send Wangenheim’s corps to finish off the fleeing enemy, and his men trap the French against the bridges and surrounding marshlands. With Contades’ army now completely destroyed, Broglie has no option but to surrender his isolated force to Gilsa. You have achieved an astounding and total victory over two French armies.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
Prince Ferdinand chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FIXING ATTACK AND COUNTERSTRIKE, and the fighting unfolded as described in the COA Two narrative. The Battle of Minden proved to be one of the most decisive engagements in what eventually became known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), history’s first global war. The extraordinary defeat of the French cavalry by British and Hanoverian infantry at Minden was a rare instance of a successful infantry attack against cavalry in the era of linear tactics. In fact, August 1 is still celebrated as “Minden Day” by six British infantry and artillery regiments.
Ferdinand dismissed Lord Sackville for cowardice, and the British officer was later court-martialed and cashiered from the military with the proviso that he could never again serve the king in a military capacity. Yet Sackville later leveraged his political connections to become Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies (1775-1782). In that vitally important position, he ran the unsuccessful British effort to win the American Revolutionary War.
Throughout 1759, Britain and its allies triumphed over France in every quarter of the globe. The defeat of the French at Minden was followed by the collapse of the French scheme to invade Britain and then in 1763 the defeat of the French in the war.
Ferdinand received many honors in the wake of his victory at the Battle of Minden. He retired from active military service in 1766 and died in 1792.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.