Frederick the Great and War I


When Friedrich II, later called the Great, came to the throne of Prussia in 1740, he inherited a realm both physically and in population a little larger than Portugal, but sprawled all across northeast Germany in little packages, and without any natural barriers to serve as points d’appui for fortresses. An unfortunate heritage of the Thirty Years’ War was the fact that the armies of both sides had marched very much where they pleased, regardless of neutralities, except in those few cases where the neutral had an armed force of his own big enough to insure respect. Johann Georg of Saxony was such a neutral until the Emperor Ferdinand forced him to choose sides; Georg Wilhelm of Brandenburg tried to be such a neutral and found he lacked the means. The lesson was not lost on the strong and imperious Hohenzollerns who followed him and turned the Electorate of Brandenburg into the Kingdom of Prussia, and most especially not on Friedrich II’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm I, not the least strong or imperious of that remarkable line. In addition, Friedrich Wilhelm was a kind of military connoisseur. In his younger days he had personally fought under Marlborough and Eugene at Malplaquet, and had fully accepted the opinion that one of the leading concerns of a royal personage was war.

There were no wars any more, but Friedrich Wilhelm behaved as though he expected one tomorrow morning. A series of financial and administrative economies, including the maintenance of his own court on a scale hardly more elaborate than that of a country gentleman, gave him one of the fattest treasuries of Europe from one of its poorest countries. He used the money to equip an army of 80,000, almost as large as the imperial forces, and equal to 4 per cent of Prussia’s population. In spite of a conscription system and the duty laid on males of noble families to serve in the officer corps from childhood up, little Prussia simply could not furnish that many men. Friedrich Wilhelm’s recruiting agents cruised through the whole of Europe in search of what they wanted, and when the candidates did not come willingly, they were kidnaped. This was especially true of very tall men; in one of those evolutionary specializations that made the head of triceratops almost too heavy to carry, the king devoted vast effort to assembling a regiment of giants for his personal guard. His people even sandbagged and carried off an exceptionally tall Italian priest while he was saying Mass.

The armies of the age of the balance of power were the product of a sharply stratified society, seeking everywhere to improve its productive mechanism. Even in soldier-hungry Prussia the fact that a man was an artisan or a trader exempted him from military service. It was the business of the middle class to pay taxes to support the armies, and the men who made them up were drawn from the lower levels–peasants, vagabonds, the tradeless. As a result, discipline everywhere was of the severest sort; but this severity was carried further under Friedrich Wilhelm than anywhere else in Europe. Flogging through the line was the usual punishment for talking back to an officer; a man who struck his superior was simply shot out of hand without trial. With this discipline went unceasing drill in the Prussian army, day in and day out, till the men moved like machines, on reflex and without even thinking.

Also there went with it a reduction in the number of movements required to load and fire a musket, and a new type of iron ramrod, introduced by Friedrich Wilhelm’s friend and officer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau. In other armies the ramrods were wood.

The rest of Europe regarded these antics with amusement; the regiment of giants was funny, and an army that drilled all the time but never did any fighting was an agreeable royal idiosyncrasy, like a collection of cameos, and about as useful. Indeed, an official report to the Holy Roman emperor said that the Prussian soldiers had been flogged so much that they would infallibly desert at the first fire.

But on October 20, 1740, the Holy Roman emperor died.


King Friedrich II was twenty-seven at the time of his accession, known for his liberalizing tendencies, his addiction to the arts and sciences, and what was generally considered to be a levity of temper. He abolished torture, proclaimed the freedom of the press and absolute religious toleration, and began writing all over Europe to tempt Voltaire, Maupertuis, anyone with a reputation, to come to Berlin and help set up an academy. He discontinued the regiment of giants, gave orders that in view of a prospective poor harvest the army magazines should be opened and grain sold at low rates. European editorial opinion was that he would reduce the army and maintain one of those German courts shining with reflected French cultural glitter.

All this was before the death of the emperor, Charles VI. He had produced only daughters, but before his death he spent a great deal of time and effort hurrying about Europe to get everybody to sign a document called the Pragmatic Sanction, guaranteeing the Hapsburg succession to the eldest girl, Maria Theresa, who was married to Francis, titular Duke of Lorraine. Everybody did sign, probably most of them with mental reservations, for there were two women with better hereditary claims, the daughters of Charles’ elder brother, Joseph. One was the wife of Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, and the Wittelsbach house had never abandoned its hope of becoming imperial; the other was the wife of Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who did not want the whole heritage, but only a part of it. Spain and Sardinia also had claims of a vague sort; and in the background there was always France, ready to promote anything that would keep the empire weak and divided.

These complications added up to the fact that the Hapsburg empire, made up of a collection of possessions under varying rules of inheritance, was surrounded by expanding states, which saw an opportunity to chip off pieces. But the balance of power and the futility of war to attain decisions had become so well established that nobody did anything practical about it until December 16, two months after Charles VI’s death.

On that date Friedrich marched across the border of the duchy of Silesia at the head of 30,000 men, claiming it as his own.

Legally the claim was of the flimsiest sort. It was rested on a document of 1537, in which the Duke of Liegnitz and the then Markgraf of Brandenburg mutually agreed that if the male heirs of either line ran out the other should inherit. Actually, as everyone recognized at the time, it was a straight case of expanding state, and, moreover, expansion by war. The effect was a transvaluation of values, not instantaneously, but as soon as Friedrich had demonstrated that something important could be accomplished by such means.


The demonstration was furnished at Mollwitz on 10 April, 1741, on a field blanketed with snow. Friedrich had been masking and besieging fortresses throughout Silesia and his strategy left a great deal to be desired, but he managed to get some 20,000 men to Mollwitz to oppose an approximately equal number of Austrians under Marshal Neipperg. There were several peculiarities about that battle. Although the total forces were nearly equal, the Austrian cavalry outnumbered the Prussian slightly more than two to one, which meant that Austria was similarly deficient in infantry; and the Prussians had sixty field guns against eighteen. King Friedrich, in imitation of Gustavus, took his station with the cavalry of the right wing. In the deployment there was not quite enough room for all the infantry on that wing, so that some of it had to be drawn back at an angle, en potence; and the ground was such that this wing was much forward, nearer the enemy.

The battle was opened by the guns; they galled the horse of the Austrian left so sore that these charged without orders and carried the Prussian cavalry right away–including the king, who took no further part in the proceedings that day. But when the Austrians tried to finish things by turning in on the infantary flank, they found themselves up against something much tougher than they could have imagined. Friedrich Wilhelm’s foot, drilled to the likeness of machines, did not break, but stood in their ranks and shot the horsemen down. Five times Austria tried against that angle of the Prussian right wing, five times the cavalry went back; at the last charge broken, just as the infantry lines came into contact. The battalions en potence swung forward, they overlapped the Austrian left, and with the mechanical Prussians firing five shots with their iron ramrods for every two of their opponents, with the overplus of Prussian artillery cutting holes in the Austrian front, Neipperg’s men could not stand it. They melted away into a wintry twilight, their line collapsing from left to right.

Mollwitz decided Silesia for the time being, and also made in Europe a noise almost as loud as Breitenfeld, for it was the defeat of a mighty empire by a power almost as little regarded as Sicily. The required demonstration was furnished; namely, that the military strength of a state is not necessarily proportionate to its size, and that it was still possible to accomplish something by military means. Forthwith, Charles Albert of Bavaria claimed the whole imperial heritage, Augustus of Saxony-Poland claimed part of it, and their alliance was backed by France with force of arms. This made it practically obligatory for England, already locked with France in a struggle for overseas dominion, to support Austria, and the War of the Austrian Succession began.

But these were only the publicly, immediately decisive events that flowed from Mollwitz. The privately decisive matters, which became the more important in the long run, were that Friedrich, who deserves to rank as a great man, if only because he learned something from every blunder and accident with humility unequaled in history, meditated long and hard over what happened in battle. His infantry had withstood the best cavalry in Europe; very well, infantry trained in the school of Friedrich Wilhelm could turn back any cavalry. His Marshal Schwerin had urged him to leave the field after the first cavalry charge, and then won the battle; very well, he would never leave a battlefield again and Schwerin was in disfavor. Most important of all was the train of accidents that resulted in a heavily weighted Prussian right wing striking the Austrian left at an oblique angle. Friedrich studied military history very hard and had the memory of an elephant; it reminded him of Epaminondas of Thebes, and he never forgot it.


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