The Seven Years’ War: Why Frederick Won III

freidrich-750_at Zorndorf

Carl Röchling (1904): Frederick the Great in the battle of Zorndorf before the frontline of the von Bülow regiment. The painting became a widely perceived symbol of the early 20th century ideal of soldiers’ heroism.

Christian Tage, a chaplain serving in the Russian army, recorded after the battle of Zorndorf “the dreadful and terrifying moment” when the Prussian line wheeled into oblique order to the sound of drums. As they advanced, first the fife band became audible and then a thousand voices roaring out the Lutheran hymn “Ich bin ja, Herr, in Deiner Macht” (Lord, I am in your power). Prussian soldiers were famous for their singing. The poet-officer Ewald von Kleist wrote to his friend Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim in 1758 that on the march they liked to sing hymns first, before moving on to songs in praise of Frederick. Obviously it is impossible to quantify the impact of this close relationship between the warlord and his men, which has been likened to that between a highland chief and his clan, but it was probably considerable. Visiting Prussia at the very end of the reign, the Marquis de Toulongeon, a French officer, concluded that “the fundamental basis on which the great edifice of military power in Prussia resides is the example set by the King and his generals.” The Austrian cavalryman Jacob de Cognazo was very impressed:

The king treated his common soldiers with a degree of comradeship which in our army would not have been shown by a noble captain let alone a high and mighty general, and so they knew that there was no grievance, no hunger, no cold, no watch-keeping, no daily burden, in short no danger or discomfort of the war however great that was not shared by their “Great Fritz,” as they dubbed him with their childlike veneration and love.

Certainly there were plenty of anecdotes making the rounds to advertise it. For example, Count Lehndorff recorded in his diary in November 1759 that, when Frederick fell ill en route from Silesia to Saxony, he was placed in a litter to be carried by thirty men, to avoid the jolting of a carriage. When the time came for the first team to be replaced, they refused to make way and insisted on carrying their king the whole way. “Such is the veneration paid to him by his army,” proclaimed Lehndorff.

In short, for all his snobbery and contempt for humanity, Frederick showed a sharp awareness of the need to cultivate an intimate bond with his army. Although fear reinforced by punishment was an important ingredient, he also knew how to reward. As with Daniel Krauel von Ziskaberg, conspicuous gallantry on the field of battle could be recognized at once. Promotions, public or written expressions of appreciation, the medal of the Order “Pour le Mérite” (better known later as the “Blue Max”) and straight cash payments were all used. After victory at Liegnitz, for example, every regiment received 137 talers for captured cannons and fifty talers for captured standards and flags. This was one of the many aspects of Frederick’s leadership to catch the approving eye of the Comte de Guibert. After Hohenfriedberg, he noted, Frederick wrote out in his own hand a diploma of thanks for the “Bayreuth” regiment of dragoons in which every officer was mentioned by name. The “Pour le Mérite” was not only a battlefield decoration. It was also awarded to Lieutenant von Freytag, for example, the inventor of the funnel-shaped powder hole that made charging muskets easier.

The other side of the coin, of course, was equally instant punishment for cowardice or incompetence. The most prominent casualty was Frederick’s brother August Wilhelm, ruthlessly disgraced in 1757 with the words: “You will never be anything more than a pitiful general. Command a harem of maids of honor, if you wish; but I shall never again entrust you with the command of ten men.” Further down the hierarchy, the most notorious collective disgrace was that inflicted on the Anhalt-Bernburg regiment after it broke and ran from an Austrian attack outside Dresden in July 1760. Redemption was achieved the following month at Liegnitz when to shouts of “Honor or death!” the same soldiers launched a devastating counterattack with bayonets, “one of the few occasions in military history in which infantry have ever taken the offensive against cavalry.” After the battle, Frederick rode over to the survivors of the regiment:


The officers uttered not a word, in the silent expectation that the king would render them justice. But four old soldiers rushed to his stirrups, clasped his knee and begged him to restore them to favor in recognition of how well they had done their duty this day. Frederick was moved. He answered: “Yes, lads, everything will be given back to you. All is forgotten!”

Things were very different in the Austrian army, where there was not one court-martial in the course of the war.

One more ingredient in Frederick’s recipe for success in the Seven Years’ War needs to be mentioned. It both encapsulates and transcends the points already made. That is charisma, no less important for being difficult to pin down. It was famously defined by Max Weber as:

a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional power or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

Weber was thinking of religious leaders such as Christ or Joan of Arc, and in politics—rather surprisingly—had Mr. Gladstone in mind as an exemplar, but Frederick certainly fits well. This was a major theme of Theodor Schieder, who pointed out that Maria Theresa was just as popular as her rival and was greatly his superior when it came to humanity and integrity, but lacked “the charisma of a personality driven by his inner demon.” He also drew attention to the example provided by Frederick’s famous speech delivered to his generals and staff officers at Parchwitz on 3 December 1757 just before the battle of Leuthen. It was short, to the point, eloquent and revealing. He started by emphasizing the desperate plight in which they found themselves: Schweidnitz and Breslau had fallen; their supplies had been captured; the Duke of Bevern had been defeated and taken prisoner; most of Silesia was under Austrian occupation. He would be desperate, he declared, without the knowledge that he could count on the steadfastness, courage and patriotism of the men who stood before him and those they commanded. The hour had struck, it was now do or die!

Against all the rules of war I shall attack Prince Charles wherever I find him, even though his army is three times as numerous. Now it is a question of how many enemies there are or the strength of the position they have taken up; all this can be overcome by the enthusiasm of my troops and the precise execution of my orders. I have to risk this operation, or everything is lost; we must defeat the enemy or all of us must perish before his batteries. This is what I think, and this is what I shall do. Make my decision known to all your officers and prepare the rank and file for the events that must follow, and tell them that I am counting on their unconditional obedience. Remember that you are Prussians and you will prove worthy of that distinction; but if there is any one among you afraid of sharing the dangers with me, then let him take his leave and he will suffer not the slightest reproach from me.

He ended by brandishing the stick: a cavalry regiment failing to charge when given the order would be unhorsed and sent off to man a garrison, any infantry unit that even wavered would lose sabers, flags and regimental insignia (the disgrace inflicted on the Anhalt-Bernburg regiment after Dresden).

Charismatic authority or legitimacy is both immensely potent and notoriously fragile, for the good reason that it relies on the individual’s performance. If the miracles stop happening, the prophecies fail to materialize or the victories stop coming, it can collapse very quickly. Napoleon and Hitler provide good examples, although even they managed to retain some measure of support until the end (and even beyond). But Frederick was peculiar in that his defeats did not erode his charisma, rather the reverse. If he had died at Zorndorf or if Kunersdorf had been followed by total collapse and the dismemberment of his state, it might have been different. It was just because he kept on going in the face of apparently overwhelming odds that occasional failure could be absorbed by the ever-burgeoning myth. The chaplain Küster, for example, was an eyewitness of the disaster of Hochkirch, about which he wrote a graphic account. Yet it only enhanced his veneration of his king, for—he asked rhetorically—when was a lost battle ever rewarded with such wonderful results? The Austrians did not follow up; Neisse and Kosel were relieved; the Swedes left Pomerania; the Russians went home; and by the end of the year the Austrians had evacuated both Silesia and Saxony.

This leads naturally to a consideration of what was perhaps the main reason for Frederick’s survival: the failure of the allies to coordinate their war efforts. All five continental allies had different war aims. Four sought territorial gains, either to be kept or traded: Silesia for Austria, Belgium and Hanover for France, East Prussia for Russia and Prussian Pomerania for Sweden, while the Holy Roman Empire sought to uphold the imperial constitution contravened by Frederick’s invasion of Saxony. Ironically, it was only the last named and weakest of the five which achieved its objective, despite a fitful military performance. All might well have succeeded if Frederick had been crushed quickly and completely. The longer the war went on, the more the rifts began to show. As the later Prussian reformer Scharnhorst sagely observed, every coalition carried within it the germ of a secret betrayal. One serious worm had been in the bud from the start. Two diplomatic revolutions had occurred at the start of the war—not just the alliance between France and Austria, but also that between France and Russia, concluded when the latter acceded to the first Treaty of Versailles on 11 January 1757. Yet, as we have seen, traditional French policy had been devoted to constructing an “Eastern Barrier” against any form of Russian expansion. Sweden was an especial bone of contention, as the French supported the faction known as the “Hats” and the Russians the “Caps.”

The Austrians too had reservations about Russian expansion. At the end of 1760 Kaunitz told Maria Theresa that Russia should not be allowed to expand westwards lest it turn out to pose more of a threat to the Habsburg Monarchy than did Prussia. Moreover, the Russian military performance was sporadic. Partly this was a question of distance. So far away was the front that reinforcements melted away en route. Of a contingent of 20,799 that set off in 1759, 5,539 (26 percent) fell ill or died and 849 deserted. Although improvements were made in the course of the war, the immense Russian potential was never realized. Part of the problem was political. There was always a strong party at St. Petersburg whose members did not share the tsarina’s personal antipathy to Frederick. They argued very reasonably that in any alliance with him, Russia would always be the dominant partner and able to play him off against Austria.

The same sort of flaw weakened the Franco-Austrian alliance. So radical was the change of direction imposed by the first Treaty of Versailles that opposition to its reversal of two and a half centuries of hostility to the House of Habsburg was inevitable. As the policy was closely associated with the royal mistress Madame de Pompadour, it naturally attracted the full venom of Versailles faction-fighting. The minister she had put in place to negotiate the diplomatic revolution, the Abbé Bernis, lamented in April 1758: “Our nation is more than ever worked up against the war. The King of Prussia is loved to the point of madness, because those who run their business successfully are always popular. The court of Vienna is hated because it is seen as the bloodsucker of our state.” Just as the Russian national interest had been distorted by Tsarina Elizabeth’s fierce hatred of Frederick, so was French national interest distorted by Louis XV’s deep affection for Maria Theresa. Almost everyone, with the important exception of the king, his mistress and their chosen ministers, could see that a strong Prussia was needed in the Holy Roman Empire to balance Austria. The Comte de Vergennes, foreign minister of Louis XVI, asked rhetorically where France would have found herself if “les efforts monstrueux” of the Seven Years War had succeeded and Prussia had been eliminated.

Four days after his letter to Prince Henry of 1 September 1759 announcing “the miracle of the House of Brandenburg,” Frederick wrote to Prince Ferdinand in the same vein. The campaign could only end well, he stated, if there were either a miracle or his enemies committed some “divine idiocy” (divine ânerie). The latter took the form of a refusal by the Russians and the Austrians to combine to deliver the final blow. It was not the first or last time. Napoleon observed: “Everything tends to prove that he [Frederick] could not have resisted France, Austria and Russia for one campaign, if these powers had acted in earnest; and that he could not have sustained two campaigns against Austria and Russia, if the Cabinet of St. Petersburg had allowed its army to winter on the theater of operations.” This was not contingent, explicable in terms of the personalities of Elizabeth, Maria Theresa or Louis XV. It was an inherent part of coalition warfare. The same sort of structural flaw saved Louis XIV at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and would have saved Napoleon in 1814 if he had not been so stupid. As Clausewitz observed in On War: “One country may support another’s cause, but will never take it so seriously as it takes its own. A moderately sized force will be sent to its help; but if things go wrong the operation is pretty well written off, and one tries to withdraw at the smallest possible cost.”

That in itself should guard against the facile assumption that Frederick was saved from perdition only by a fluke—the death of the Tsarina Elizabeth on 5 January 1762. First put into print by Frederick himself, this is a myth which continues to be repeated. As we have seen, by that time all the continental combatants were exhausted, out of money and out of willpower. It was the Prussian state that could still generate the necessary funds and manpower to win the last battles. Moreover, it was a death long anticipated. Even before the war began, it was reported from St. Petersburg that the tsarina’s health was very bad, that she was often short of breath, was spitting blood, had swollen legs, water on the chest, and so on. The likelihood that she would die sooner rather than later was in everyone’s minds as the war unfolded, not least in the minds of the Russian commanders who knew that her heir was passionately pro-Frederick.

Frederick had won—just—because of the strength of his inheritance, the involuntary sacrifices of his subjects, the “ânerie” of his enemies and the inherent problems of coalition warfare. The final question is, of course, how much of a contribution did he make himself? Undoubtedly, the army that saw him through to the bitter end was in good measure his creation. A more flaccid hand would have allowed Frederick William I’s inheritance to go to seed—in the same way that his own successors did. Frederick ratcheted the military machine up still higher, made important improvements and greatly increased the size. The effect of the personal example he set in galvanizing both the civilian and the military administrations was “incalculable.” It was on the battlefield that the picture begins to blur. The horrific mistakes he made at Kolin, Hochkirch, Kunersdorf and Maxen (just to mention the more obvious) surely negate any claim to the genius rating claimed by his more enthusiastic admirers. Time and again he was saved from defeat only by the enterprise of his subordinates and the sacrifices of the rank-and-file. The much vaunted “oblique attack” only really worked once, at Leuthen. Every other attempt failed because conditions on the parade ground could not be replicated on the battlefield. In the course of the war, Prince Henry proved himself to be the more talented commander by far, both in tactical maneuvering and on the field of battle. Frederick himself recognized that, toasting his brother at a banquet after the war as “the only general never to have made a mistake.” It was an admiration that was definitely not reciprocated. Henry hated his royal brother with a pathological intensity that probably traced back to Frederick’s poaching of his beloved catamite, the page von der Marwitz.

Prince Henry was indeed the better general, but he would have lost the war. If Frederick had been killed at Kunersdorf or had committed suicide afterwards (which he seems to have contemplated), Henry would have made a peace that returned Silesia to Austria and Prussia to second-rank status. And that, ultimately, was Frederick’s greatest contribution to his success: his indomitable will and ruthless determination to keep going, no matter how desperate the situation looked. In short, he was an indifferent general but a brilliant warlord.

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