Frederick II and the Silesian Wars

Prussian Infantry of the Guard Regiment 15.

Prussian Hussar Regiment No.3 (Black or Death Hussars) Of Frederick II

Frederick II was deeply alarmed at this threat on his eastern frontier – he was well aware of Russian designs on East Prussia and always tended to overestimate Russian power. Desperate to alleviate the pressure on his eastern frontier, he entered into a curiously open-ended agreement with Britain, the Convention of Westminster of 16 January 1756. The British agreed to withdraw their offer of subsidies from the Russians and the two states decided to undertake joint defensive action in Germany in the event that France should attack Hanover. This was a hasty and ill-judged move on Frederick’s part. He did not take the trouble to consult his French allies, although he ought to have guessed that this unforeseen pact with France’s traditional enemy would infuriate the court at Versailles and drive the French into the arms of the Habsburgs. Frederick’s panic reflex of January 1756 exposed the weakness of a decision-making system that depended exclusively on the moods and perceptions of one man.

Prussia’s position now unravelled with perilous speed. The news of the Convention of Westminster sparked fury at the French court, and Louis XV responded by accepting the Austrian offer of a defensive alliance (the First Treaty of Versailles, 1 May 1756), under which each of the two parties was obliged to provide 24,000 troops to the other in the event of its coming under attack. The withdrawal of the British subsidy offer also enraged Elisabeth of Russia, who agreed in April 1756 to join in an anti-Prussian coalition. Over the next few months, it was the Russians who were the driving force towards war; while Maria Theresa took care to confine her preparations to relatively inconspicuous measures, the Russians made no effort to conceal their military build-up. Frederick now found himself encircled by a coalition of three powerful enemies whose joint offensive, he believed, would be launched in the spring of 1757. When the king demanded categorical assurances from Maria Theresa to the effect that she was not combining against him and had no intention of starting an offensive, her answers were ominously equivocal. Frederick now resolved to strike first, rather than waiting for his enemies to take the initiative. On 29 August 1756, Prussian troops invaded the Electorate of Saxony.

Here was another totally unexpected and profoundly shocking Prussian initiative, and the king was alone in deciding upon it. To a certain extent, the invasion was based upon a misapprehension of Saxon policy. Frederick believed (wrongly) that Saxony had joined the coalition against him and had his officers search the Saxon state papers (in vain) for documentary proof. But his action also served broader strategic objectives. In his Anti-Machiavel, published shortly after his accession to the throne, Frederick had delineated three types of ethically permissible war: the defensive war, the war to pursue just rights, and the ‘war of precaution’, in which a prince discovers that his enemies are preparing military action and decides to launch a pre-emptive strike so as not to forgo the advantages of opening hostilities on his own terms. The invasion of Saxony clearly fell into the third category. It allowed Frederick to start the war before his opponents had amassed the full strength of their forces. It provided him with control of a strategically sensitive area that would otherwise almost certainly have been used as a forward base – only eighty kilometres from Berlin – for enemy offensives. Saxony was also of considerable economic value; it was ruthlessly milked during the war, supplying more than one-third of Prussia’s entire military expenditure, though it is difficult to establish how heavily the issue of finance and resources weighed in Frederick’s calculations.

The invasion of Saxony might have been defensible in purely strategic terms, but its political impact was nothing short of disastrous. The anti-Prussian coalition acquired the momentum of self-righteous outrage. Russia had already put an offensive construction upon the alliance, but the French had not. They might well have remained neutral if Frederick had bided his time and become the victim of an unprovoked attack by either the Austrians or the Russians. Instead, France and Austria now contracted a Second Treaty of Versailles (1 May 1757) with an openly offensive character, in which France promised to supply 129,000 troops and 12 million livres each year until the recovery of Silesia had been accomplished (France was to be rewarded with control of Austrian Belgium). The Russians joined the offensive alliance with a further 80,000 troops (they planned to annex Polish Courland to Russia and compensate a Russian-controlled Poland with East Prussia); the territories of the Holy Roman Empire put forward an imperial army of 40,000 men; even the Swedes joined in, in the hope of grabbing back some or all of Pomerania.

This was not, in other words, just a war to decide the fate of Silesia. It was a war of partition, a war to decide the future of Prussia. Had the allies succeeded in their objectives, the Kingdom of Prussia would have ceased to exist. Shorn of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, along with the lesser territories claimed by various members of the imperial contingent, the Hohenzollern composite state would have returned to its primordial condition: that of a landlocked north German Electorate. This would have been in precise accordance with the plans of the key Austrian policy-makers, whose objective was, as Kaunitz crisply put it, ‘la réduction de la Maison de Brandebourg à son état primitif de petite puissance très secondaire’.

That Frederick should have prevailed against such a massive preponderance of forces appeared miraculous to contemporaries and still seems remarkable to us. How can it be explained? Clearly the Prussians enjoyed certain geographical advantages. Frederick’s control of Saxony gave him a compact territorial base (excluding East Prussia and the Westphalian principalities, of course) from which to launch operations. He was sheltered on the southern fringes of Silesia by the Sudeten mountains of northern Bohemia. His western flank was covered by the British-financed Army of Observation in Hanover; this sufficed to keep the French at bay for a time in that sector. For the four years 1758–61, Prussia received a hefty annual subsidy of £670,000(roughly 3,350,000 thalers) from the British government, a sufficient sum to cover about one-fifth of Prussian war expenditures. Frederick (who decided early on not to defend either East Prussia or the Westphalian territories) also enjoyed the advantage of internal defensive lines, while his enemies were operating (with the exception of Austria) at a great distance from home. Dispersed around the periphery of the main theatre of operations, the allies found it difficult to coordinate their movements effectively.

There was also, as in virtually all instances of coalition warfare, a problem of motivation and trust: Maria Theresa’s obsession with the destruction of the Prussian ‘monster’ was not shared by most of the other partners, who had more limited objectives. France’s concerns were focused primarily on the Atlantic conflict and French interest in the struggle with Prussia dwindled fast after the devastating Prussian victory at Rossbach (5 November 1757). Under a renegotiated Third Treaty of Versailles, signed in March 1759, the French cut their military and financial commitments to the coalition. As for the Swedes and the assorted German territories represented in the imperial army, they were in it for easy pickings and had little inclination to persevere with an exhausting war of attrition. The strongest link in the coalition was the Austro-Russian alliance, but here too there were problems. Neither wished to see the other benefit disproportionately from the conflict and, on at least one crucial occasion, this distrust translated into Austrian reluctance to commit forces to the consolidation of a Russian victory.

But this should not be taken to imply that Prussia’s ultimate success was in any sense a foregone conclusion. The Third Silesian War dragged on for seven years precisely because the issue proved so difficult to resolve militarily. There was no uninterrupted string of Prussian victories. This was a bitter struggle, in which success, for Prussia, meant surviving to fight another day. Many of the Prussian victories were narrowly won, costly in casualties and insufficiently decisive to shift the balance of forces engaged in the conflict definitively in Prussia’s favour. At the battle of Lobositz (1 October 1756), for example, the Prussians managed to gain tactical control of the battlefield, at heavy cost in men, but left the main body of the Austrian army unbroken. Much the same can be said of the battle of Liegnitz (15 August 1760) against the Austrians in Silesia; here Frederick accurately assessed enemy positions and moved quickly to strike at one of the two separated Austrian armies and disable it before the other could respond effectively. This initiative was successful, but left the Austrian forces in the area largely intact.

There were a number of battles in which Frederick’s intelligence and originality as a field commander were brilliantly in evidence. The single most impressive victory was at the battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757) against the French. Here 20,000 Prussians found themselves outnumbered two to one by a combined French-imperial force. As the French-imperials wheeled around the Prussian position, hoping to outflank them on their left, Frederick redeployed with impressive speed, despatching cavalry to sweep away the regiments of horse at the front of the allied advance and repositioning his infantry in a lethal scissors formation from which they could subject the French and imperial columns to heavy fire and attack. Prussian losses totalled 500 men to the enemy’s 10,000.

One of the central traits of Frederick’s battle-craft was a preference for oblique over frontal orders of attack. Rather than approach in parallel frontal array, Frederick tried where possible to twist his attacking lines so that one end, often reinforced by cavalry, cut into the enemy position before the other. The idea was to roll the enemy up along his own lines rather than assault him head on. It was a mode of manoeuvre that required especially skilled and steady infantry work, particularly where the terrain was uneven. In a number of battles, Prussian attacks from the flank using complex infantry deployments worked with devastating effect. At Prague (6 May 1757), for example, where Prussian and Austrian numbers were roughly matched, Frederick managed to wheel the Prussians around on to the right flank of the Austrians. When the latter redeployed in haste to meet his advance, local Prussian commanders recognized and exploited a gap in the ‘hinge’ between the old and the new positions and drove a salient through it, irreparably shattering the Austrian force. The classic example of the oblique marching order in action was the battle of Leuthen (5 December 1757), where the Prussians were outnumbered by the Austrians nearly two to one; here a Prussian feint attack gave the impression of a frontal approach while the mass of the Prussian infantry swept around to the south to scoop up the Austrian left wing. In this extraordinary set piece, the ‘moving walls’ of the Prussian infantry were flanked by coordinated artillery fire as the Prussian guns moved from firing position to firing position along the line of attack.

However, the very same tactics could also fail if they found the enemy prepared, were not supported by sufficient troop numbers or were based on a faulty understanding of the situation in the field. At Kolin (18 June 1757), for example, Frederick tried as usual to wheel around the Austrian right flank and roll the enemy up from the wing, but found that the Austrians, in anticipation of this, had extended their lines across his route of approach, committing him to a disastrous uphill frontal assault against heavily defended and numerically superior positions – here it was the Austrians who won the field, at a cost of 8,000 men to Prussia’s 14,000.

In the battle of Zorndorf (25 August 1758) against the Russians, Frederick completely misread the Russian deployment and, wheeling around from the north to roll up the Russian left wing, found that the enemy was in fact facing him head-on; the fighting was savage and losses were very high – 13,000 Prussian and 18,000 Russian casualties. It is still unclear whether we should regard Zorndorf as a Prussian victory, a defeat or simply a brutal stalemate. Frederick’s next major encounter with the Russians exhibited some similar features. The battle of Kunersdorf (12 August 1759) opened promisingly with accurate Prussian artillery and infantry fire on the Russian right flank, but soon became a disaster as the Russians turned to construct a solid local front against the Prussian advance and the Prussian infantry got themselves jammed into a narrow depression where they were exposed to the Russian guns. Here again, Frederick showed a flawed awareness of how the battle was unfolding; the unevenness of the terrain made cavalry reconnaissance difficult and he seems to have failed to take adequate account of the poor quality of his intelligence. The cost was hair-raising: 19,000 Prussian casualties of which 6,000 were dead on the field.

Frederick was not, then, infallible as a military commander. Of the sixteen battles he fought during the Seven Years War, he won only eight (even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and count Zorndorf as a victory). Yet it is clear that in most respects he had the edge over his opponents. His isolation was also a kind of advantage – he had no allies to consult. By comparison with Russia, France and Austria, the Prussian military decision-making process was fantastically simple, since the commander-in-chief in the field was also the sovereign and (effectively) the foreign minister. There was no need for the kind of elaborate discussion that slowed the reflexes of the Habsburg monarchy. This advantage was reinforced by the king’s personal indefatigability, talent and daring, and by his readiness to recognize where mistakes had been made (including by himself). If one contemplates the course of the Third Silesian War as a whole, it is surprising how often Frederick succeeded in throwing his enemies on to the tactical defensive, how often it was he who defined the terms on which battle would be joined. This was partly due to the by now widely acknowledged superiority of Prussian drill training, which allowed the walls of blue uniforms to turn at will as if on invisible pivots, and to redeploy at twice the speed of most European armies at this time. With these assets Frederick combined the ability to keep a cool head at times of crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than after the catastrophe at Hochkirch (1758), where the king, drenched in the blood of his horse, which had been hit under him by a musket ball, commanded and oversaw a calm and effective withdrawal under fire from the killing ground to a safe defensive position, and thereby prevented the Austrians from driving home their advantage.

Frederick’s ability to keep recovering from defeats and inflicting new and painful blows on his enemies was not enough to win the war on its own, but it sufficed to keep Prussia above water for as long as it took for the allied coalition to fall apart. Once it became clear that Tsaritsa Elisabeth was terminally ill, Russia’s days in the coalition were numbered. Elisabeth’s death in 1762 led to the succession of Grand Duke Peter, an ardent admirer of Frederick, who lost no time in negotiating an alliance with him. Peter did not survive for long – he was thrust from the throne by his wife, Catherine II, and murdered shortly afterwards by one of her lovers. Catherine withdrew the offer of an alliance, but there was no resumption of the Austro-Russian compact. The Swedes, who had little hope of securing their objectives in Pomerania without great-power support, soon defected. After a string of shattering defeats in India and Canada, the French, too, lost interest in pursuing further a war whose objectives now seemed strangely irrelevant. The peace they signed with Britain at the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1763) left the Austrians high and dry. Their treasury was exhausted. At the Peace of Hubertusburg (15 February 1763), after seven years of bitter struggle and prodigious sacrifice in money and lives, Maria Theresa confirmed the status quo ante bellum. In return, Frederick promised that in the next imperial election, he would vote for her son, the future Joseph II.

There is a tendency, when we reflect on the European wars of the mid eighteenth century, to visualize them as diagrams with rectangles and sweeping arrows, or as compact arrays of brightly painted soldiers on the green baize of the war-gamer’s table. When we focus on ‘moving walls’, ‘oblique marching orders’ and the ‘rolling up’ of enemy flanks it is easy to lose sight of the terror and confusion that reigned on most battlefields as soon as the serious fighting began. For the troops on an exposed front or flank, coming under fire meant maintaining formation and discipline while projectiles ranging from musket balls to canister shot and cannon balls scythed through closely packed rows of standing men. Opportunities to display individual dash and daring were limited – it was more a matter of mastering an overwhelming instinct to flee and take cover. Officers stood in especially exposed positions and were expected to display absolute calm before their men and each other. It was a question not just of personal bravado, but of the collective ethos of an emergent military-noble caste.

Ernst von Barsewisch, the son of a modest Junker landowner in the Altmark, had been educated at the Berlin Cadet School and later served as a Prussian officer in many of the battles of the Seven Years War. His memoirs, based on diary entries sketched while on campaign, capture the mixture of samurai fatalism and schoolboy camaraderie that could sometimes be observed among officers in action. At the battle of Hochkirch, Barsewisch happened to be positioned near the king on a section of the Prussian wing that came under Austrian attack. There was a thick hail of musket balls, most of which were aimed at the chests and faces of the standing men. Just next to the king, a Major von Haugwitz was shot through the arm and shortly afterwards another ball buried itself in the neck of the king’s horse. Not far from where Barsewisch was standing, Field Marshal von Keith (a favourite of the king’s) was torn from his horse by a shell and died on the spot. The next commander to fall was Prince William of Brunswick, brigadier of Barsewisch’s regiment, who was drilled through by a musket ball and fell dead to the ground. His terrified horse, an immaculate white stallion, galloped riderless back and forth between the lines for nearly half an hour. To help master their nerves, Barsewisch and the young noblemen around him engaged in light-hearted banter:

Early in the action I had had the honour that a musket ball had drilled through the peak of my hat at the front just above my head; not long afterwards, a second ball shot through the large upturned rim on the left side of the hat, so that it fell from my head. I said to the von Hertzbergs, who were standing not far from me: ‘Gentlemen, should I put this hat back on my head, if the Imperials want it so badly? ’‘Yes, do,’ they said –‘the hat does you honour.’ The eldest von Hertzberg took his snuff box in his hand and said: ‘Gentlemen, take a pinch of courage!’ I stepped up to him, took a pinch and said: ‘Yes, courage is what we need.’ Von Unruh followed me and the brother of von Hertzberg, the youngest, took the last pinch. Just as the eldest von Hertzberg had taken his pinch of snuff from the box and was raising it to his nose, a musket ball came and flew straight into the top of his forehead. I was standing right beside him, I looked at him – he cried out ‘Lord Jesus’ – turned around and fell dead to the ground.

It was through this collective sacrifice of its young men – note the presence of three von Hertzberg brothers on one section of the Prussian line! – that the Junker nobility earned its special place within the Frederician state.

The great majority of first-person battle narratives stem from officers, mostly of noble birth, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the phenomenal sacrifice of humbler men in the field. For every officer killed at the battle of Lobositz, more than eighty private soldiers were slain. In a letter to his family, the cavalryman Nikolaus Binn from Erxleben near Osterburg in the Altmark reported twelve deaths among the men from his home district, including an Andreas Garlip and a Nicolaus Garlip who must have been brothers or cousins, and added reassuringly: ‘all those who are not named as dead are in good health.’ On 6 October, five days after the battle, Franz Reiss, a soldier of the Hülsen Regiment, described his arrival at the battlefield. As soon as he and his fellows had formed up in line, he wrote, they had come under heavy Austrian cannon fire:

So the battle began at six o’clock in the morning and dragged on amidst thundering and firing until four in the afternoon, and all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for [preserving] my health. In the very first cannon shots our Krumpholtz took a cannon ball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands. But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was an amazing sight. Now, dear child, just think how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.

In the aftermath of an action the battlefield descended into chaos. To remain wounded on the field could be a miserable fate. In the nights that followed the battles of Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, the battlefield echoed with the shrieks of the Prussian wounded being killed by Cossack light troops of the Russian army. Even if they escaped deliberate brutality, wounded soldiers needed determination and good luck to survive. The Prussian army had a relatively large and well-organized surgical support service by the standards of the day, but in the disorder following an action (especially a lost one), the chances of finding one’s way in time to proper care might be very slim. The quality of treatment varied enormously from surgeon to surgeon and the facilities for handling infected wounds were very rudimentary.

After Leuthen, where a musket ball bored through his neck and lodged itself between his shoulder blades, Ernst von Barsewisch had the good fortune to run into a captured Austrian soldier who happened to be a Belgian graduate of the surgical school at the University of Lyon. Sadly, the Belgian no longer had his fine surgical tools to work with – his Prussian captor had snatched them as booty. Using the ‘very bad and blunt knife’ of a shoemaker, however, he was able to hack the ball out of Barsewisch’s back with ‘ten or twelve cuts’. Less fortunate was Barsewisch’s comrade Baron Gans Edler von Puttlitz, whose foot had been shattered by canister shot and had grown infected while he lay out in the cold untended for two nights and a day. The captured surgeon told him that an amputation of the leg below the knee was his only hope, but Puttlitz was too confused or too terrified to consent. The infection gradually spread and he died a few days later. Shortly before he died, he told Barsewisch that he was his parents’ only child and begged him to be sure that they were informed of the place of his burial. ‘This death affected me greatly,’ wrote Barsewisch, ‘because this was a young person of about seventeen years, and from his wound he had watched his death draw nearer, creeping slowly, hour by hour.’

The Seven Years War, unlike the Thirty Years War of the previous century, was a ‘cabinet war’ fought by relatively disciplined bodies of troops equipped and supplied by their own governments through relatively sophisticated logistical organizations. It was thus not marked by the kind of pervasive anarchy and violence that had traumatized the populations of the German territories in the 1630s and 1640s. But this did not mean that the civilians in occupied areas or theatres of combat were not subject to arbitrary exactions, reprisals and even atrocities. Following their invasion of Pomerania, for example, the Swedes demanded from the neighbouring Uckermark in northern Brandenburg contributions totalling 200,000 thalers, double the amount of contribution raised annually by the king from that province. The Hohenzollern provinces of Westphalia were under French and Austrian occupation for much of the war; here the military authorities imposed an intricate system of contributions and extortions, often supported by the kidnapping of local notables as hostages. French soldiers from the defeat at Rossbach committed numerous excesses as they passed through Thuringia and Hessen. ‘If one wished to relate all of these disorders, one would never get to the end of it,’ one French general reported. ‘Over a forty-league compass, the ground was swarming with our soldiers: they pillaged, killed, raped, sacked, and committed every possible horror…’

Particularly problematic were the ‘light troops’ used by most armies at this time. These units were recruited on a voluntary basis, operated semi-autonomously from the regular army, were not provided with the standard logistical support, and were expected to support themselves entirely through exactions and the acquisition of booty. The best-known examples of such troops were the Russian Cossacks and the exotically clothed Austrian ‘Panduren’, but the French too retained the services of such units. During the first phase of the Russian occupation of East Prussia, some 12,000 light troops made up of Cossacks and Kalmucks rampaged through the country with fire and sword: in the words of one contemporary, they ‘murdered or mangled unarmed and defenceless people, they hanged them from trees or cut off their noses or ears; others were hacked in pieces in the most cruel and disgusting manner…’ During 1761, the Fischer Free Corps, a light unit in French service, broke into East Frisia – a small territory in the north-west of Germany that had fallen to Prussia in 1744 – and terrorized the civilian population with a week of rape, murder and other atrocities. The peasants, drawing on a local tradition of collective protest and resistance, responded with an uprising that reminded some contemporaries of the Peasants’ War of 1525. Only through the deployment of French regular army units stationed nearby could peace be restored in the area.

Conflict at this level of intensity was the exception, not the rule, but in all provinces touched by the war, there were substantially raised mortalities, mainly through the so-called ‘camp epidemics’ that spread from overcrowded troop hospitals. In Kleve and Mark, the mortality for the war years amounted to 15 per cent of the population. In the city of Emmerich, situated on the bank of the Rhine in Kleve, 10 per cent of the townsfolk died during 1758 alone, mainly of diseases contracted from French soldiers fleeing out of north-west Germany. The demographic losses for nearly all of the Prussian lands were breathtaking: 45,000 in Silesia, 70,000 in Pomerania, 114,000 in the Neumark and the Kurmark combined, 90,000 in East Prussia. In all it seems that the war took the lives of about 400,000 Prussians, amounting to roughly 10 per cent of the population.


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