28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig I

General Chasseloup-Laubat (1754–1833). The celebrated engineer who directed French operations at Danzig, Kolberg and Stralsund. At Danzig he was opposed by fellow Frenchman, Bousmard, an engineer whose methods he had studied and absorbed.

The Siege of Danzig. A French map of the siege, indicating the siting of French batteries. Please note the left-hand side of the map is north.

An 800-year-old port at the mouth of the Vistula, Danzig is of major strategical importance. A fortified city of great wealth, crammed with bursting storehouses and magazines, it is a bastion on the Baltic: constituting, in Napoleon’s mind – as Petre notes – ‘a standing menace, whilst in the enemy’s hands.’ In fact, Napoleon is obsessed with Danzig, considering its capture vital for a variety of reasons: first, to deny the port’s facilities to the Russians, who – with the help of the British Royal Navy – might attempt a landing in his rear; second, to remove the threat posed to his left flank by the Prussian garrison; third, to exploit the city’s great strategical and material resources himself. And last – but perhaps not least – to divert attention away from his failure to crush Bennigsen at Eylau. Thus, as Petre states: ‘Scarcely was the battlefield of Eylau cleared when, on 18 February, Napoleon commenced his arrangements for the siege, which had been interrupted by Bennigsen’s advance, necessitating the recall of Lefebvre to guard Thorn.’

Marshal François-Joseph Lefebvre – former commander of the infantry of Napoleon’s Old Guard – is, according to Foord, ‘merely a rough, honest old soldier of little strategic or tactical ability.’ Of humble background (his father was a miller), this tough 52-year-old veteran is a replacement for the unfortunate General Claude Victor, captured while changing horses near Stettin by a party of Prussian soldiers disguised as peasants. Lefebvre knows nothing of siege warfare, but will be aided in his task by Napoleon’s top engineer, General Chasseloup-Laubat. As for Lefebvre’s command, it consists of the 26,000 troops of X Corps. Only some 10,000 of these soldiers are French, the rest being an assortment of foreigners, largely Poles and Saxons. But Lefebvre’s force will continue to grow over the coming months, strengthened by a steady stream of captured Prussian ordnance from the fallen fortresses of Silesia.

Opposing X Corps is a complement of some 16,000 men, augmented by 450 guns, howitzers and mortars. The bulk of the manpower – around 11,000 men and 300 guns – is concentrated in Danzig itself, the remainder strung out in detachments north of the city, tasked with maintaining communications with the Baltic. Despite later claims (from both sides), these garrison troops are not of the first class: but they are well-supplied and ably led by General Count Friedrich Adolf von Kalkreuth (also spelt ‘Kalreuth’, ‘Kalckreuth’ or ‘Kalkruth’ in contemporary sources), a veteran of the Seven Years War. Like Lefebvre, Kalkreuth is no expert when it comes to sieges, and will rely, in his turn, on an experienced advisor. But this guru is none other than the celebrated French émigré, Henri Jean-Baptiste Bousmard, whose treatise on the science of siege warfare, General Essay on Fortification (published in the 1790s and dedicated to the king of Prussia) is Chasseloup’s bible. Thus, the commanding generals will preside over a game of cat-and-mouse between the 58-year-old Bousmard and the 53-year-old Chasseloup: two clever and resourceful men, seemingly sharing the same textbook. But the game will be a lethal one, and only one of the two Frenchmen will survive.

The venue for the Bousmard v. Chasseloup match is a walled city protected by nineteen bastions. Danzig – an old Hanseatic town – was bagged by Prussia in 1793 during the Second Partition of Poland. The city’s inhabitants – Germans and Poles – had enjoyed hundreds of years of municipal autonomy: consequently, Prussian rule was despised. In 1797 a rebellion broke out but was soon crushed, Danzig remaining in Prussian hands.

In 1807, as Petre states: ‘the civil population of Danzig numbered about 45,000. The city had somewhat declined in importance of late years, yet was still a very important port and market. Its fortifications had, in 1806, been much neglected, and were in very bad repair. It was only when the Prussian power collapsed, in the autumn of that year, that a siege began to seem probable. Then every effort was made to repair and strengthen the fortress.’

In fact, Danzig’s fortifications are formidable, its storehouses full, and its approaches covered by boggy ground and several waterways. It will be a difficult nut for Chasseloup to crack. Above the city, the Vistula – flowing from east to west – hugs the northern flank of the fortress. Then, once past Danzig, the river sweeps north in a wide arc, through a vast swampy plain, known as the Nehrung, before emptying into the Baltic a few miles beyond. The navigable Laake Canal cuts through the eastern Nehrung, connecting Danzig with the estuary, thus creating the garrisoned island of Holm, the southern tip of which gazes across the Vistula at Danzig’s northern walls. The mouth of the Vistula is guarded by a small fort at Weichselmunde, opposite the tiny port of Neufahrwasser. Meanwhile, to the east and south of Danzig lies more marshland, intersected by several streams, including the River Mottlau: a tributary of the Vistula, which, running through the centre of the city, bisects it on a north–south axis. To the west – the only practicable line of attack for a hostile army – stand the fortified bastions of the Hagelsberg and the Bischofsberg (armed with forty guns apiece): the first dominating the main approaches to the city; the second forming its south-west corner.

Dabrowski’s victory at Dirschau on 23 February has effectively confined Kalkreuth’s troops to the precincts of Danzig, leaving Lefebvre free to make his advance on 9 March. The next day, having driven in the Prussian outposts, the marshal occupies villages south and south-west of the city. Several days later, the western suburb of Schidlitz is successfully stormed.

But Napoleon wants Danzig’s communications with Weichselmunde and the Baltic cut and orders Lefebvre to encircle the city. Consequently, on 20 March, General Jean-Adam Schramm – operating on Danzig’s eastern flank – leads 2,000 French troops onto the northern bank of the Vistula, and marches west on Weichselmunde. The small French task force succeeds in pushing the Prussian outposts back along the eastern Nehrung and into the fortress of Weichselmunde itself. Speedily reinforced by Lefebvre, Schramm then beats off a sortie from Danzig, and secures a position on the Nehrung north of Danzig: his right anchored on the Baltic, his left on the Vistula. The French stranglehold on the port is tightening. Now Lefebvre feels himself strong enough to open a regular siege.

By 1807 the basic method for beleaguering a city is well-established. The engineers on both sides know what to expect. First, the attackers will attempt to isolate the garrison by enforcing a blockade. Then, at a safe distance, an initial trench or ‘first parallel’ will be dug opposite a section of the city walls. Once completed, saps will advance from this trench until a ‘second parallel’ is completed, and then a third, and so on, until the walls are almost reached. Meanwhile, well-sited batteries will batter the walls facing the trenches, and when a breach is made, the city will be invited to surrender. If the invitation is refused, the attackers will issue from the trenches and storm the breach. Should the fortress fall, a time-honoured tradition – dating back to the Middle Ages – grants victors the ‘right’ to murder the garrison and plunder the town as ‘punishment’ for obliging them to suffer casualties by mounting an assault. So much for the theory.


28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig II

Panoramic view of the Siege of Gdańsk by French forces in 1807.

In practice, Chasseloup – aided by his assistant, François Joseph Kirgener – is faced with a difficult task. Danzig is well-stocked, and as long as ships can reach it from the Baltic, the garrison will never starve or run short of ammunition. The city’s fortifications are sound, and its approaches covered by both natural and artificial obstacles on three sides. Left with little choice but to attack from the west, Chasseloup bites on granite, selecting the great bastion of the Hagelsberg as the focal point of his campaign. But to keep Kalkreuth and Bousmard off balance, a diversionary operation against the Bischofsberg will also be mounted. It will be dangerous work, especially as the trenches creep closer to the city and come within range of shot and shell hurled from the walls above.

On 2 April the ground has thawed enough for Chasseloup’s sappers to start digging opposite the Hagelsberg. This first trench or ‘parallel’ will eventually run for some 1,300 yards (1,200m). The following day sees a see-saw battle for possession of redoubts west of the city. After a bloody hand-to-hand contest, the garrison keeps control. Meanwhile, the digging continues, hampered by collapsing trenches and Kalkreuth’s decision to release dammed floodwaters onto the plain. By 8 April, a second parallel is opened and the sappers are exposed to enemy fire, as well as repeated sorties by the Danzig garrison. In fact, Kalkreuth is conducting a vigorous defence, mounting spoiling attacks on the siege works and disputing every inch of ground. Nevertheless, Chasseloup is determined the trenches must be pushed forward and siege works opposite the Bischofsberg begin. Lefebvre is uneasy about the campaign against the Bischofsberg, which slows the pace of the siege and uses up valuable men and materièl. But Chasseloup is insistent that both forts must be approached, to keep Kalkreuth guessing which one will be assaulted.

On 11 April, the Silesian fortress of Schweidnitz falls to Vandamme and its heavy guns sent north to the besiegers before Danzig. Two days later, Lefebvre receives reinforcements and repulses another sortie by the garrison. By 15 April the second parallel is completed west of Danzig: the besiegers are creeping closer to the city. And to the north, on the Nehrung, French troops under General Gardanne successfully advance along the Laake Canal to cut Kalkreuth’s communication with the sea. Meanwhile, staff officer, Louis Lejeune arrives at Lefebvre’s camp. Although technically an aide-de-camp to Marshal Berthier, Lejeune – a trained engineer – is acting as both a courier and an observer for an impatient Napoleon:

All the best engineer officers of the French Army were collected together under General Chasseloup at the Siege of Danzig, and the operations were conducted with great rapidity, though not fast enough to please the emperor, who, at a distance from the scene of action, did not realize that fresh obstacles were thrown in our way every day by the skill of the directors of the defence.’

On 20 April high winds and snowstorms halt operations before Danzig. But next day, the first big guns arrive at Lefebvre’s camp. Two days later, General Jean-Ambrose Lariboisière – commanding the French artillery – orders a twelve-hour bombardment of the city. Fifty-eight heavy guns open up, smashing buildings and igniting fires. Public morale crashes in a storm of panic, as the cannonades continue over successive days. Meanwhile, during the night of 25 April, Chasseloup’s engineers complete the third parallel before Danzig’s western defences. The besiegers are within musket-shot of the walls and sappers are smashing the palisades of redoubts protecting the city’s approaches. Kalkreuth launches a major counter-attack, and when it is repulsed, the Prussian general is invited to surrender. Kalkreuth refuses to capitulate and the bombardments continue. A few days later, General Gardanne takes the island of Holm on Danzig’s northern flank, killing or capturing the entire garrison. According to Petre: ‘The island was a most valuable prize; it was promptly fortified, and its guns turned against Danzig, the defences of which they took in reverse … The flying bridge connecting Danzig with the island was gallantly cut adrift by a miner named Jacquemart, under a heavy fire.’

But on 10 May, with Danzig encircled and an all-out assault imminent, a fleet of fifty-seven transports appears at the mouth of the Vistula, carrying some 7,000 Russian troops under General Kamenski (spelt ‘Kamenskoi’ in some sources, but no relation to the ex-commander-in-chief). Kamenski has been sent to save Kalkreuth’s skin, his task force sailing from Pillau, near Königsberg, in British ships. Kamenski, so Petre tells us, ‘disembarked on the 11th at Neufahrwasser. He was, till he landed, unaware of the loss of the island of Holm, which seriously compromised his plans.’ So much so, the Russian general resolves to stay-put and dig-in. This passivity plays into Lefebvre’s hands, giving the marshal time to call up Lannes (recovered from his Pultusk wound), at the head of a 15,000-strong ‘Reserve Army’, which includes Oudinot’s élite Grenadier Division.

At 4.00 a.m. on 15 May, Kamenski bestirs himself at last, marching south from Weichselmunde to meet Schramm and Gardanne on the plain north of Danzig. Advancing in four great columns led by Cossacks, Kamenski’s troops are in action within the hour, pushing back Frenchmen, Saxons and Poles. Soon after 5.00 a.m. Schramm is hotly engaged and giving ground. Kamenski pushes on, making repeated attacks, the fury of the fight increasing each minute. But just when a Russian breakthrough seems likely, Lannes’ leading column arrives to rescue the situation. Outnumbered, Kamenski’s force is driven back to the fort of Weichselmunde, leaving some 1,500 dead and wounded on the plain. Kalkreuth’s Prussians remain passive spectators, Kamenski’s offensive collapsing before effective support can be organized.

And so, with Kamenski’s survivors botded up at Weichselmunde, the siege resumes. Louis Lejeune survives the battle on the Nehrung, but brushes with death on his return to Lefebvre’s camp:

During the battle I rode a horse lent to me by Marshal Lefebvre, and on my way back to headquarters in the evening a ball from Bischofsberg shattered a rock beneath me, and the fragments killed my horse on the spot. I remained flat on my face on the ground for some time before I could get up. The effects of the shock and the pain of my bruises soon went off; I was not really wounded, and I was able to drag myself to headquarters, where the rejoicings over the victory soon quite restored me.’

Several days later, Lejeune describes the scene when a British corvette, the Dauntless, enters the Vistula, and sailing past Weichselmunde, attempts to deliver supplies to Kalkreuth’s incarcerated garrison:

on 19 May an English sloop of war with twenty-four guns tried to run the blockade and get into the town by way of an arm of the Vistula which winds through the meadows round Danzig. The bold commander of the vessel hoped to break down every obstacle with discharges of grape shot from his cannon. He had actually got within range of the town, having met with no more formidable obstacles than a few simple booms, which were easily broken through. He was not, however, prepared for the sudden attack opened upon him by several companies of our sharpshooters, who rushed across the meadows and fired a volley into the ship from both sides of the stream, mowing down the sailors and bringing the sloop to a standstill. Without helmsmen, and with sails flapping helplessly, the vessel drifted to the side of the stream and grounded; the soldiers sprang on board and took 150 prisoners as well as the valuable cargo of weapons, ammunition, and provisions which the commander had intended for the use of the garrison of the beleaguered city.’

Cut off from the sea, the Danzig garrison is doomed, and on 20 May Kalkreuth opens tentative peace negotiations. He is offered honourable, even generous, terms by Lefebvre – a sign, perhaps, of Napoleon’s need to close the siege quickly – including the right to march his garrison out of the city, ‘with arms and bag-gage, drums beating, colours flying, matches lighted, with two pieces of light artillery, six pounders, and their ammunition waggons, each drawn by six horses.’ Furthermore, a safe passage is guaranteed to Kalkreuth’s officers, on condition they swear not to bear arms against France for twelve months from the date of surrender. Kalkreuth signs, but inserts a clause stipulating that capitulation will only come into effect if the city is not relieved by noon on 26 May.

But Lefebvre – running out of patience and fearful of another Allied attempt to relieve the city – decides to storm Danzig as soon as possible, as described by Louis Lejeune:

Marshal Lefebvre was as impatient as we were to get into the town and to put an end to the tedious operations … One day the marshal, angry at all the delays, took me by the arm and began banging with his fist at the base of a wall, pierced by the sap, shouting in his Alsatian brogue, “Make a hole here, and I’ll be the first to go through it.” Meanwhile the walls were falling under our bombardment, and a practicable breach had at last just been made. Troops were ready for the assault, and the decisive blow was to be struck the next morning …’

On 23 May, however, events take an unexpected turn: Kamenski’s Russians re-embark at Weichselmunde and sail back to Pillau, while the ethnic Poles among the Prussian garrison start to desert. Then, Danzig’s shopkeepers appear at the city gates, setting up stalls and selling wine to Lefebvre’s troops at thirty-two sous a bottle. It is clear everyone is sick of the siege. Soon the soldiers of both sides are fraternizing, merrily getting drunk together. Finally, the arrival of Marshal Mortier with a further 12,000 French troops decides the issue and Kalkreuth announces his desire to quit. Thus, Danzig is spared the trauma of a bloody assault, and on 27 May the defenders march out and the besiegers march in, led by Chasseloup’s sappers.

In his official report to Frederick William, Kalkreuth blames mass desertion for the fall of Danzig: though it is only after the capitulation that large numbers – some 2,000 Pomeranian Poles forced to fight for Prussia – go over to the French. But it is reasonable to assume that falling morale – rather than dwindling numbers or supplies – is a factor in the Prussian surrender, as Petre notes:

From famine or shortness of supplies or ammunition the garrison had never suffered. Enormous quantities of stores of every description remained in the place, and were of the utmost service to the French. Whether Kalkreuth should not have held out longer is a moot point. The Hagelsberg would probably have been stormed with great slaughter on both sides …’

And so, despite orders from Frederick William to defend Danzig to the last, Kalkreuth opts to save lives by capitulating in the face of lengthening odds. He has lost some 3,000 men during the siege from sickness and enemy action. Among the dead is engineer Bousmard, killed by his own countrymen. But Kalkreuth is not disgraced, the Prussian king quickly promoting him to field marshal. Equally gratifying – perhaps more so – is public praise from Napoleon, who considers Kalkreuth’s defence of Danzig masterly.

But then, Napoleon could afford to be generous to his enemies. In fact, with Danzig’s coffers at his mercy, he could afford to be generous to everyone, each soldier of X Corps being awarded a bonus of 10 francs. Lefebvre, meanwhile, is sent a box of chocolates. The gruff marshal – perhaps baffled at first – is delighted to find 300 banknotes inside, each of 1,000 francs denomination (according to Blond, soldiers will refer to cash as ‘Danzig chocolate’ for years to come). A year later, Napoleon will make Lefevbre duke of Danzig, with a gratuity of two and a half millions. Meanwhile, having scored a major military, political and financial coup at the cost of some 6,000 men (1,500 of them Poles), a gleeful Napoleon announces the fall of Danzig in his 67th Bulletin of 29 May 1807:

Danzig has capitulated. That fine city is in our possession. Eight hundred pieces of artillery, magazines of every kind, more than 500,000 quintals of grain, well-stored cellars, immense collections of clothing and spices; great resources of every kind for the army … Marshal Lefebvre has braved all; he has animated with the same spirit the Saxons, the Poles, the troops of Baden, and has made them all conduce to his end.’

Augustus II Friedrich Wettin

August II Grand-Duke of Saxony and King of Poland shaking hands with the King of Prussia in 1728. By 1756, friendship between the two nations was history. – Source: de Silvestre, Dresden, Wikipedia

In 1674, after a divided election, one of the best Polish military commanders, Jan Sobieski, was elevated to the throne. He rebuilt the army, signed a treaty with France, and planned to subjugate Prussia and to strengthen the Polish position in the Baltic region. The magnates, however, were more interested in Ukraine. The Commonwealth returned to an anti-Turkish alliance with the Habsburgs. In 1683 a military expedition led by Jan III Sobieski saved Vienna, which had been besieged by the Ottomans. As a result of this new war with the Turks, Poland recovered its three lost southern provinces in 1699. The king, however, died in 1696, disliked by the nobles, who opposed the royal family’s plans to introduce a hereditary monarchy in Poland.

Not only was the 1697 royal election divided, but for the first time a candidate from a clear minority became king. Most nobles voted for Prince Conti of France, but the Elector of Saxony, Augustus II Friedrich Wettin, supported by a smaller group of nobility, came to Poland with his army and took power. Saxony was blossoming under his government, and he impressed the Polish nobles by converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism. He had ambitious plans and intended to realize them using Poland as a springboard.

Augustus wanted to strengthen royal power in the Commonwealth and to gain Livonia and Courland for his family as a hereditary property. He promised several monarchs various Polish territories in exchange for their support. In 1700 Saxony joined a Russian-Danish anti-Swedish coalition to recover Livonia, taken from Poland by Sweden in the seventeenth century. Formally, the Commonwealth did not participate in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, but most of its operations took place on Polish territories and devastated them. In 1704 Charles XII of Sweden ejected Augustus from Poland and put the palatine of Poznań, Stanisław Leszczyński, on the Polish throne. In 1706 Augustus, defeated in Saxony, renounced all claims to the throne, but his supporters in the Commonwealth fought together with Russian armies against the Polish supporters of the Swedes and Leszczyński. In 1709 Charles XII suffered a major defeat at Poltava in Ukraine. The Swedes were subsequently driven from the Commonwealth, controlled now by the Russians.

Augustus returned to Poland and tried to ensure his absolute power, which led to a conflict with the nobility. Russias tsar, Peter the Great, mediated the dispute, dictated a settlement, and forced both sides to accept it in 1717 during the so-called Silence Sejm, when none of its members dared to utter a word. Augustus renounced his absolutist aspirations and sent his Saxon troops back to Saxony; the army of Lithuania was reduced to 6,000 men and that of Poland to 18,000. The nobility was guaranteed its former privileges, including the liberum veto. Although Russia took Livonia, its troops stayed in the Commonwealth, which now became a Russian protectorate.

During the Great Northern War, Polands territories were devastated by the Russian, Swedish, and Saxon armies, which lived off the land. Poor harvests in 1706. 1708 and the Great Plague, which raged until 1711, completed the destruction. Lithuania alone lost about one-third of its population.

In 1733 Augustus II was succeeded on the Polish throne by his son, Augustus III. Russian armies intervened against the candidacies of Portuguese Prince Emanuel and Stanisław Leszczysski, and won the War of Polish Succession. The new king rarely visited the Commonwealth, left it in the hands of his favorites, and subordinated Polish interests to the Wettin dynastic interests. Russia, supported by Prussia, in turn guaranteed what was called the Golden Freedom of the Polish nobility.

Minden 1759 I

The day before Minden fell (11 July) Ferdinand received another carping letter from Frederick, chiding him for his Fabian tactics. Exhorting him to remember Rossbach, Frederick admonished his brother-in-law that it was better to join battle with the enemy and lose than demoralise the troops by constant retreat; in a particularly nasty jibe, Frederick suggested that Ferdinand was a second Cumberland. At the same time George II was growing anxious about the lack of good news from Germany and was also starting to nag him for results. The effect on a man already suffering self-doubt can be imagined. His particular current anxiety was that the French would move on Hanover and cut him off from his communications with Frederick; perhaps the Prussian king had spoken more truly than he knew and it was now to be his (Ferdinand’s) fate to suffer Cumberland’s 1757 humiliation. This was the moment when his secretary, Christian Heinrich Philipp Edler von Westphalen, stiffened his resolve with a famous letter, urging Ferdinand to follow his own lights and not just agree with the last person he spoke to. From a secretary, this sounds at first like impertinence, but Westphalen had already shown that, when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to waive protocol and to go beyond the bounds of his formally subordinate station. Devoted to Ferdinand, having been with him at the battles of Lobositz, Prague and Rossbach, Westphalen was the Prince’s chief planning officer and strategist, a devotee of boldness and imagination as against the sound space-time logistics of the military manuals. Ferdinand trusted him, listened to him and always took his advice seriously. On this occasion his response to Westphalen’s written homily was as decisive as his secretary could have wished. Ferdinand decided he would make no attempt to retake Münster but would march to the Weser river and establish himself on both sides of the river, daring Contades to dislodge him.

Contades though, exhibited the usual inertia of French commanders in Germany in the 1750s. Excessively circumspect, by covering all possible options he left himself with insufficient troops to mount an offensive. Even the capture of Minden was something of an embarrassment to him, as his distribution of numbers left him in no real position to take advantage of it. Nonetheless he decided that the town gave him another impregnable base from which to operate, so he dug in there. Ferdinand then tried all the ruses he knew to get Contades to leave his Minden position and fight before French reinforcements arrived, but Contades refused to take the bait. There were constant skirmishes along the Weser and both sides’ big guns blazed away pointlessly at each other. After failing to coax Contades out of his prepared positions, Ferdinand tried to threaten his communications at Minden by a march on Lübbecke. This operation he entrusted to his favourite commander, the twenty-four-year-old Erbprinz of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who had won Ferdinand’s undying respect and affection by serving under him even after his father (the Duke of Brunswick) had forbidden it. Ferdinand’s thinking was that Contades would have to deal with this threat either by turning south or giving battle. When the Erbprinz with his force of nearly 10,000 men brushed the French aside at Lübbecke on 28 July, Contades decided this was a challenge he could not ignore and sent the Duc de Brissac to intercept him. Brissac was told to buy time until reinforcements, expected under the command of the veteran Lieutenant-General, the Comte de St-Germain, arrived, guaranteeing overwhelming numerical superiority. The vanguards of the two armies collided near Bünde on 31 July, but this did not halt the Erbprinz’s probe and soon he had advanced as far as Kirchlengern and Quernheim. Now in serious alarm at the threat to his communications, Contades realised that inaction was no longer an option. But would he plump for retreat or battle? Ferdinand made contingency plans for either eventuality, detaching a liaison force under General Gilsa to make sure he was in constant touch with the Erbprinz, but meanwhile disposing his army so that it could operate at a moment’s notice in the Minden plain.

Contades had been in Minden for sixteen days, in a position of great strength, with his right resting on the Weser and Minden and his left covered by the Bastau marshes. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Bastau and Weser, Minden looked out to the north-west over a plain where on the horizon could be seen the villages and hamlets of Hahlen, Stemmer, Kutenhausen and Maulbeerkamp; the principal features on the skyline were a windmill and a cemetery. As one headed north and east from Hahlen, the landscape became more choppy, broken up by smallholdings, plantations and orchards abutting the hamlets. Contades’s idea was to recall Armentières from the protracted siege of Lippstadt, leaving Chevreuse to invest it and with the Armentières and St-Germain forces to overwhelm Ferdinand. Contades was irritated that the Brunswick prince had given him the slip since Bergen and wanted to finish him off in one go. His preference was to wait for Ferdinand to attack him, but he was under the same sort of nagging pressure from Belle-Isle and Versailles as Ferdinand was experiencing from Frederick and Berlin. He wanted to win the glory of being the French commander who made the definitive conquest of Hanover, and it was also in his mind that Versailles needed a decisive breakthrough in west Germany so that it could switch some of the 100,000 troops there to the invasion of the British Isles.

Contades therefore decided to launch a surprise attack on Ferdinand. But first he had to extricate his troops from the bottleneck – perfect for defence but not offence – between the Bastau marshes and Minden and this, he decided, was best done at night. Because of the difficult terrain, the infantry would have to be on the flanks of the cavalry instead of the other way round as in normal circumstances. Meticulous planning was necessary for the surprise attack, since while this night manoeuvre in unorthodox formation on a narrow front was going on, Broglie’s troops would have to be brought over from the other side of the river. At 6 p.m. on 31 July, therefore, Contades summoned his generals and issued his orders. Broglie was to march at dusk, cross the Weser by a stone bridge, proceed through Minden and link up with the artillery and eight battalions of Grenadiers. Situated on Contades’s right, at dawn he would launch a sudden attack of unparalleled ferocity, exposing Ferdinand’s left flank. The main army meanwhile would cross the Bastau by bridge and draw up, ready for daybreak, with the infantry on the flanks and the cavalry in the centre; artillery would cover the cavalry by enfilading fire from both flanks. Between Broglie’s corps and the right of the main army, a third column, eight battalions strong under General Nikolai (yet another veteran who would have to wait until his sixties to receive a Marshal’s baton) would support Broglie’s left and make sure the enemy could not drive a wedge between Broglie and Contades. Nikolai, whose forty-seventh birthday it was on the morrow, hoped to celebrate with a notable victory. Contades’s left meanwhile would be protected against flank attack by the Duc d’Havre and four battalions. Making sure that proper contact was maintained with the Duc de Brissac in the reserve, d’Havre would initiate the action by feinting across the causeway towards Ferdinand’s right just before dawn.

The plan might have worked had not Ferdinand almost simultaneously decided that he would launch a surprise attack on the French after a night march. The army was to be ready to march at 1 a.m., the right was to seize the Hahlen windmill and the left to occupy the hamlet of Stemmer. The best scholarship discounts the idea that Ferdinand was forewarned of French intentions by a peasant who brought him a package containing Contades’s battle orders; what is not explained in the traditional story is how a peasant with anti-French sentiments could have been entrusted with top-secret documents – and ones, moreover that were in clear and not coded. The most likely explanation is that Ferdinand simply intuited what Contades intended and beat him to the punch. By this time he too probably wanted a decisive confrontation. The strain on him of the chivvying and carping George II and Frederick was not assuaged by an extremely difficult relationship with the British commander, Lord George Sackville.

Estimates of Sackville’s character range from the moderately critical to the outright denunciatory. According to Lord Shelburne, who knew him well, Sackville was the avatar of all the vices: he was incompetent, cowardly, an intriguer, a vindictive enemy, a lover of low company and an unbalanced individual who swung violently from spurious optimism to false pessimism. The reference to ‘low company’ was code for the consistent canard that Sackville, even though he was married and would sire five children, was a homosexual. Even his friends conceded that he was a difficult man, reserved, haughty and socially isolated even among his peers and equals. Relations between Ferdinand and Sackville by 31 July 1759 were icy, and it is clear that at one of the many conferences Ferdinand liked to convene, Lord George had given deep offence by something he had said. The most plausible explanation is that Sackville expressed his frustration with the constant retreating before the French and threatened to pull the British troops out of the campaign. The threat could not be presumed to be idle, for in the War of Spanish Succession the great Duke of Marlborough had done just that to his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The upshot of the two converging night marches was that by dawn on 1 August Contades’s army was drawn up along a line stretching from Hahlen to Maulbeerkamp and Ferdinand’s from Hartum to Stemmer. The British troops during their night march had noticed that the fields and hedgerows were teeming with wild red and yellow roses, so they picked the flowers and put them in their hats. Broglie’s corps completed the march as planned, made contact with the enemy left at about 5 a.m. and opened fire. Lieutenant-General Georg August von Wangenheim, the Hanoverian commander who enjoyed the best relations with the British – he had been a battalion commander in England in 1756–57 during the invasion scare – was taken by surprise as a heavy pre-dawn thunderstorm drowned the noise of the approaching attackers. But the French plans began to unravel almost immediately. Instead of pressing home his advantage, Broglie waited for Nikolai to come up in support, giving Wangenheim time to get his big guns ready. There followed a pounding artillery duel, in which Broglie’s leading troops, the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties. By 6 a.m., with Wangenheim’s artillery gaining the advantage, Broglie sent Nikolai to try to loop round the enemy and occupy Kutenhausen. But, cautious like all French commanders, he first reconnoitred and seems to have persuaded himself that a German cavalry charge was imminent.

Contades, realising that his plans were already behind schedule, sent a mounted messenger to find out why Broglie had not advanced. Broglie then wasted further time by galloping over to Contades’s headquarters to explain his fears. In the meantime Contades, as dithering as his second-in-command, became alarmed by a supposed threat to his left, so told Broglie to return and contain the enemy right, until the situation on the left wing was sorted out; he even discussed with Broglie contingency plans for withdrawal. So, only two hours into the battle, things had already gone seriously awry; instead of launching a dawn attack, Broglie was now in limbo and even thinking of retreat. He could scarcely feel pleased with the morning’s work. He should not have waited for Nikolai, but attacked Wangenheim without delay; since Wangenheim was caught unawares, Ferdinand’s left would then have been turned. Broglie showed himself indecisive: he mistook a movement by Wangenheim’s men when taking up their position as an attack and therefore decided to wait for Nikolai. And so Broglie’s advance, on which the whole battle plan of Contades was supposed to turn, petered out. The unintended consequence was that he spent the rest of the battle containing Wangenheim – a stalemate that was compatible with Ferdinand’s tactics, but not with Contades’s.

Meanwhile Contades’s infantry had been delayed crossing the Bastau. They saw the sky lit up by flashes of gunfire and assumed that Broglie’s attack was proceeding as planned. The consequence was that the Comte de Lusace, on the French left, commanding fifteen battalions of Saxons, came to a halt near Hahlen at dawn, in close contact with another sixteen French battalions who were already in the village. This was the precise moment when Ferdinand, unaware that the enemy was present in strength, ordered forward Karl, Prinz von Anhalt-Bernburg and his men to occupy the village. Luck was with the Germans that morning. As they stormed forward into a potential death-trap, houses on the western side of the village caught fire, probably from incendiary shells. The wind caught up the fire and fanned it into the faces of the French defenders, who were driven back by the fierce heat and blinding smoke. The first British troops seriously engaged in battle in Germany now came into play as Foy’s Light Infantry Battalion collided with the French at the windmill just north of Hahlen. Seeing his attack now well under way on the right, Ferdinand ordered Wangenheim on the left to advance, and also gave the signal to Spőrcken’s corps on the right centre to close the gap left as Anhalt advanced.

General Freiherr von Spőrcken was, at sixty-one, the oldest officer on the field that day, an unspectacular plodder as a soldier but very popular with his men. Although nominally a German column, Number Three column (Spörcken’s) was actually comprised largely of British troops, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (51st Foot) and the other troops commanded by General Waldegrave and Colonel Kingsley, six regiments all told. Spörcken’s column came on at the double, at first hidden by woods, then deploying as it emerged from the sylvan darkness. To his alarm Ferdinand noticed Spörcken’s men getting ahead of the rest of the army and sent word for them to slow down. They made a brief halt in a copse but then recommenced their advance at the same rapid pace. Swerving to the left, and thus not hitting their intended target, they caught the left flank of the French cavalry. So on Ferdinand’s right, the situation was that the leading British and Hanoverian infantry were not only ahead of the rest of their comrades but had cut across them and were beginning to crowd them out. Nobody knows exactly why Spörcken’s men decided to fight virtually at running pace. Some say the orders were garbled in transmission because of language problems, but since Spörcken was in command this hardly makes sense. Others say the British wanted to show the other regiments their mettle, as they had been criticised for being raw troops. Doubtless a combination of élan and naivety caused the near-fiasco. Having dislocated the order of battle and being caught alone out in the open, they should have been severely punished and defeated in detail. But luck was with Ferdinand in all sectors this morning.

The battle for Hahlen now settled into a grim slugging match between the big guns of the French and those of Spörcken. This was a critical moment in the battle for, as Spörcken’s men stumbled towards them, the French infantry should have been able to seize the big guns before the artillery duel began. Unaccountably they failed to do so – later it was said they had been blinded by smoke and dust from the battle. That Ferdinand’s artillery was able to engage the French big guns was a hugely significant development, as the French were thereby prevented from sweeping away the opposition facing their own cavalry. Had these German guns not come into play at this juncture, the right flank of the British infantry would have been at the mercy of the French guns, causing heavy casualties and possibly affecting the entire result of the battle. In a letter to his mother written on the afternoon of the battle, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery of the 12th Regiment of Foot explained the atmosphere that morning:

We advanced more than a quarter of a mile through a most furious fire from a most infernal battery of 18-pounders, which was at first upon our front, but as we proceeded, bore upon our flank, and at last upon our rear. It might be imagined, that this cannonade would render the regiments incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount almost any difficulty.

British Forces in Western Germany 1757-59

The Battle of Krefeld on a painting by Emil Hünten.

Map of the Battle of Krefeld on June 23 1758.
Source: Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, volume III by the German Grosser Generalstab

Rarely had military fortunes changed so rapidly. In September 1757 the French thought they had won definitively in western Germany and only a few mopping-up details remained. By May 1758 the tables were turned, Ferdinand had an army 40,000 strong and France was floundering. Richelieu’s replacement on the western front proved an even greater disaster than his philandering predecessor. Now in his fiftieth year, Louis de Bourbon-Condé, Comte de Clermont, a prince of the blood, was an oddity in that he had been destined for holy orders but then given a papal dispensation to become a soldier, after which he had fought at Dettingen, Fontenoy and Raucoux during the War of Austrian Succession. The peculiarity of his position was that he retained his clerical benefices as Abbot of St Germain-des-Prés and was known mockingly by his troops as the ‘Général des Bénédictines’. Evidently Clermont had a line in gallows humour, for it is said that he wrote to Louis XV as follows on taking up his command: ‘I found Your Majesty’s Army divided into three parts. The part which is above ground is composed of pillagers and marauders; the second part is underground; and the third is in hospital. Should I retire with the first or wait until I join one of the others?’

Clermont was hardly exaggerating. French losses in the winter campaign amounted to more than 16,000 in dead, wounded, prisoners and deserters with another 10,000 sick. But as one of the great aristocrats of the ancien régime, Clermont had pull. With the able collaboration of Belle-Isle at the War Ministry, he made good the numbers. By May he could muster 32,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, and Belle-Isle promised him he would have an army nearly double that size by the end of June. Clermont was an efficient if unimaginative soldier and he was taken unawares by the energetic Ferdinand, who crossed the Rhine near the Dutch border on 1–3 June after constructing a pontoon bridge. Madame de Pompadour, now secure in Louis XV’s favour and always keen to take the rest of the Bourbon family down a notch or two, wrote to him witheringly: ‘What a humiliation, monsieur, to allow the enemy to build a bridge across the Rhine and land 6,000 men a day on the other side.’ But Clermont’s humiliation was not yet complete. Despite the reassurances from his friend Belle-Isle that Ferdinand was now dangerously exposed, Clermont could make no impression on him. He did at least hold his own in the indecisive battle at Rheinberg on 12 June 1758 but nine days later Ferdinand won a hard-fought victory at Krefeld. Faced with the threat that Ferdinand might invade the Netherlands, Belle-Isle had to detach to Clermont’s aid a second French army, which was supposed to be helping Maria Theresa and the Austrians in Bohemia.

Seven thousand British troops joined Ferdinand after Krefeld, but the Anglophone and German-speaking troops did not meld seamlessly. Differences in culture and military tradition were compounded by the language barrier, except in the case of the officer class who usually spoke French to one another. The British troops were indisciplined, prone to illness and lacked the hygiene of their German counterparts while their officers were touchy and arrogant, inclined to treat the Hanoverians as natural inferiors. There were numerous niggling items of discord between the two sides: the Germans, for example, resented the extra forage required by the horse-loving British. The choice of British commander was perhaps especially infelicitous. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough, though modest and generous, was ignorant, careless and insouciant, and was a particularly poor diplomatic choice in that in the previous war he had complained vociferously about the behaviour of German troops. But Marlborough died before Krefeld, in October 1757, and the British command fell to his deputy – an even more disastrous appointment, as it turned out.

At forty-two, Lord George Sackville, second son of the Earl of Dorset, was sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hypersensitive to criticism. A heavily set, melancholy-looking individual, with clear blue eyes, protruding lower lip and an ugly snout of a nose, Sackville was a scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and had fought at Fontenoy with Cumberland (also later in the Jacobite rising and under Wolfe in Scotland). MP for Dover since 1741, he was an important political figure whom Pitt and Bute had wanted as their Secretary of State for War in 1757. But the great barrier to Sackville’s political and military advancement was the hatred of George II. Sackville had attached himself to the rival court clustered round the King’s hated eldest son Frederick and his son George (later George III). Sackville’s drive and energy were not matched by tact or an ability to make himself popular. His joining the Anglo-German army was a case in point. Leicester House favoured military raids on the French coast and was strongly opposed to German entanglements, but by accepting the position with Marlborough Sackville showed poor political nous. His appointment was simply Pitt’s way of co-opting Leicester House into a German adventure but the Prince of Wales did not see it that way. Sackville simply weakened his status with Bute and Leicester House without commending himself to George II. He made fresh enemies without making any new friends.

Although in retrospect the partnership of Prince Ferdinand and Lord Sackville was an accident waiting to happen, in 1758 Sackville confined himself to complaining about Ferdinand’s Fabian policy and the continual retreats. After Krefeld, though, even his mouth was shut. Krefeld was a setback to France almost as serious as Rossbach. In England, where Ferdinand was lionised as a hero, Pitt realised the potential value of the western front. Properly reinforced, Ferdinand’s Anglo-Hanoverian army could pin down huge French forces, not only preventing them from fighting Prussia on the eastern front but also making it impossible for Versailles to reinforce its beleaguered garrisons in India and North America. Expertly managed by the Duke of Newcastle, Parliament voted to send to Germany another five battalions of infantry and fourteen squadrons of cavalry. After a further embarrassment with the fall of Düsseldorf (July 1758), Clermont meanwhile was replaced by the fifty-four-year-old Louis-Georges Erasme, Marquis de Contades, who had a long and distinguished military career, beginning in Italy and Corsica in 1734–35, extending through the war of 1740–48 and most recently taking in the battles of Hastenbeck and Krefeld.

Contades showed more respect for Ferdinand than Clermont had, and played cat-and-mouse with him, probing and making contact with his vanguard, but never allowing Ferdinand’s main army to get close to him. There was stalemate as both sides faced each other across the Erft river from 14 to 24 July, but the French grew stronger every day as Belle-Isle made good his promises about increased numbers. Ferdinand, still waiting for the British reinforcements before making a decisive move, resolved to withdraw and put the Rhine between himself and the French, but Contades moved north swiftly to hem him in between the confluence of the Roer and Meuse rivers. Ferdinand was now in deadly peril, in imminent danger of having his communications cut, and Contades came within an ace of a stunning victory, but he narrowly failed to take the all-important bridge at Mehr that would have sealed Ferdinand’s doom.

Belle-Isle now decided that the only way to finish off Ferdinand before he became even more powerful with extra contingents from Britain was to use a second army against him. This force was commanded by the vanquished Marshal of Rossbach, Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise. Another of the great French aristocrats, Soubise was a member of the influential Rohan family, had been Louis XV’s aide-de-camp in the War of Austrian Succession and had served as Governor of Flanders and Hennegau. Something of a French Cumberland, Soubise was notorious for the catastrophe at Rossbach but his many supporters at court would talk up a minor victory at Lutterberg in Hesse rather as Cumberland’s cronies had portrayed his walk-over victory at Culloden as a glittering triumph of the military art. The truth was that, aged forty-three, Soubise was a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent and owing everything to his being a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, who assiduously pushed for his promotion far beyond his intrinsic abilities.

Realising Ferdinand’s military calibre, Belle-Isle urged caution and close coordination between the armies of Contades and Soubise. Resentful and envious of each other, Contades and Soubise each waited for the other to act and refused to collaborate on a detailed strategy.

September found both of them writing peevishly to Belle-Isle to know what the other proposed to do. Belle-Isle fulminated at his two generals for being the passive dupes of Ferdinand, warned that French military honour was being compromised, and advised them that France was becoming the laughing stock of Europe. Finally Soubise stirred himself and began marching towards Hanover. But he seems to have taken fright at his own decisiveness, feared he was over-exposed and, blaming Contades for having been slow to support him, withdrew to Kassel. There, stiffened by the Due de Fitzjames, the timid Soubise finally felt strong enough to give battle. Marginally victorious at Lutterberg on 12 October – though some critics thought the battle drawn – he failed to support Contades when he in turn finally made a move and threatened Münster, an important allied base. This was another timid probe, carried out too late and with too small forces to be a serious threat.

By the end of 1758 all of Belle-Isle’s efforts had produced a null result in west Germany. Despite all the reinforcements he had thrown into the western front, the French armies were again suffering numerical shrinkage and under-equipment. That winter Belle-Isle wrote to the future Duc de Choiseul (then Comte de Stainville, French ambassador in Austria): ‘Two-thirds of our infantry are without clothes and consist either of men who have had no rest for fifteen months, or of recruits who are not strong enough to withstand the cold and rain of this late season.’ Meanwhile his past, present, future, actual and putative generals spent most of their energy intriguing against each other and trying to discredit or belittle each other in the eyes of Louis XV: Soubise, Richelieu, d’Estrées, Broglie, St-Germain, Contades and Clermont were only some of the principals involved in the Machiavellian and disgraceful game, for the Dauphin himself had petitioned his father hard to be allowed to succeed Clermont as Commander-in-Chief. The truth was that Louis XV had no one of the calibre of Marshal Saxe in the last war, or even of Lowendahl, and some Jeremiahs lamented that in France military science had gone into a tail-spin. Ferdinand, by contrast, had been a brilliant success. At the beginning of 1758 the French had occupied most of Hanover but by the end they occupied not an inch of it. Understandably George II was the great champion of Ferdinand. In September he awarded him £2,000 a year for life and in December Frederick of Prussia appointed him a Field Marshal. But Ferdinand seemed to some critics to be running out of ideas, and it was noteworthy that he went into winter quarters in mid-November 1758 and did not try to repeat his exploits of the previous year.

On 4 February 1759 Soubise, appointed commander of the army projected for the invasion of England, handed over to the forty-year-old Duc de Broglie. Victor François, Duc de Broglie, would prove to be the most capable French army commander in the Seven Years War, and the year 1759 would have gone better for France if he had been confirmed as supreme commander in Germany. He inherited a much healthier situation than at the beginning of 1758 for, under Belle-Isle’s energetic leadership, the two French armies in Germany had been extensively re-equipped and retrained. Broglie’s Army of the Main contained fifty squadrons of cavalry and fifty battalions of infantry – a total of 31,000 men. Contades’s Army of the Lower Rhine was much larger, with ninety-one squadrons and 100 battalions (66,000 men). With this army of nearly 100,000 men, Belle-Isle intended to drive the pestilent Ferdinand across the Weser river. With Broglie’s army in support, Contades was to cross the lower Rhine in June, capture Münster and Lippstadt and sweep the enemy before him. The obvious snag was that Ferdinand might take the offensive first. To preempt this and give themselves a sound base of operations, the French seized the free city of Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve. They used an underhand trick to secure admission, then overpowered the garrison while the citizens were sleeping. Frankfurt became the base for French operations during the rest of the war; it was easily defended and could be supplied by the river.

Five miles north-east of Frankfurt the French fortified the strong natural position of Bergen covering the approaches from Kassel and sought to make it all but impregnable. This single fact determined allied strategy for 1759. Ferdinand strengthened his bases at Münster and Lippstadt, with subsidiaries at Nienburg, Hameln Stade and Hamburg, and patiently built up his total numbers to nearly 72,000 by April 1759, including two new companies sent from England. Originally he had been planning to attack the French in Hesse but that scheme was aborted when Frederick of Prussia told him he had no troops to spare. Lacking the manpower to tackle Hesse, Ferdinand now played cat and mouse with the French in a winter campaign lasting through January-February 1759, but found himself outpointed by Broglie. Initially threatened on his right flank, Broglie neatly turned the tables on Ferdinand by trying to punch through his right. Perhaps realising that he faced an opponent of real military calibre, Ferdinand finally sheered off after a face-saving, protracted and confusing (confused?) war of manoeuvre. At length he made up his mind to attack the main French strength at Frankfurt. He left Münster on 22 March, determined to test to the limit the strength of the French position at Bergen.

French military planners had not been exaggerating when they boasted that Bergen was the dream defensive position, difficult to outflank and high enough to provide an overview of any approaching enemy forces while providing plenty of cover. Two miles north-east of Frankfurt was where Broglie intended to begin drawing up his forces. The battleground he selected was adjacent to flat and marshy country on the right which ran to the steep escarpment topped by Bergen. On the left the terrain was not so steep. Wooded and striated by streams, with open country between the woods and Bergen, it was cut across by two sunken roads, impeding any attack from the east. Bergen itself was enclosed by a fortified wall, eighteen feet high and three feet thick, outside which were farms, orchards and enclosures, surrounded by banks and hedges. In front was the hill of Am Hohen Stein, offering some protection to an attacker on its eastern slope; but the western slope, extending to the scarp on the right and the woods on the left, was devoid of cover. North-west of Bergen, 1,000 yards away and set on a knoll, was a tower, the Bergen Warte, dominating Bergen and the 1,000 yards of open land between it and the village. South of Bergen the escarpment ran westwards until it hit the River Main. Here Broglie awaited Ferdinand’s coming with some 30,000 men, eight battalions in Bergen itself and another thirteen held in reserve. On his left, behind the woods, were the Saxons; in the centre, behind the Bergen Warte, were the cavalry; the artillery was in the centre, between the sunken roads. Ferdinand, relying on false estimates of enemy strength from his scouts and an irrational belief that the French were not present in strength, was confident that Broglie could not hold his position and proposed to attack 30,000 seasoned defenders with a numerically inferior force, computed at 24,000–27,000 troops.

Ferdinand began by sending General von Gilsa into the orchards, where he quickly cleaned out the French. Broglie, commanding a panorama of the battlefield from his obsevation post on the Bergen Warte, ordered his reserves to counterattack. Emerging in a cloud from behind the walls of Bergen, they quickly repulsed the enemy. The seesaw battle in the orchards continued when Ferdinand ordered his Brunswickers into the fray and they in turn began to push the French back. One hundred yards from the walls the French dug in and a furious struggle commenced. Sensing that this was the moment to commit the last of his reserves, Broglie gave the signal to his veterans who decisively repelled the Brunswickers. Ferdinand next ordered his artillery to come to the aid of the Brunswickers but his gunners were caught by a murderous fire from the French artillerymen at the western end of the sunken road. Ferdinand’s principal lieutenant, Johann Kasimir, Prince of Isenburg, rallied his men for another charge but was counterattacked on the flanks; he fell, mortally wounded, and his men broke and fled. Ferdinand now expected an all-out assault but Broglie had no intention of going over onto the attack, as this would mean leaving his strong position and meeting the enemy in the open. This gave Ferdinand a welcome breathing space, so once again he rallied his men before withdrawing them to the Am Hohen Stein, vainly hoping that Broglie would pursue him there. When Ferdinand’s big guns were in position, he prepared for a final attack but cancelled the assault when he saw movements on the French side indicating an imminent charge. Broglie, though, was simply strengthening his left flank by positioning more artillery there and moving up his last six reserve battalions from the Bergen Warte. A period of phoney war developed, with the artillery exchanging shots and each side waiting for the other to make the first move, and so it continued until dusk. Ferdinand withdrew under cover of night but had sentries posted at dawn, waiting for what seemed like an inevitable attack. But it never came. Broglie, having been left on the field and with 1,800 casualties against Ferdinand’s 2,500, claimed the victory.

Ferdinand withdrew to the north, still in dread that Broglie would strike his slow-moving column; he was especially vulnerable now, with a tired, hungry and demoralised allied army. But the Anglo-Hanoverians were left to recoup in peace, as Broglie made no attempt to exploit his victory and indeed huddled fearfully near Frankfurt, apprehensive that Ferdinand would attack again. Both sides were left to ponder the implications of French success in the first campaign of 1759. Broglie’s performance was efficient rather than brilliant, since he fought from a well-nigh impregnable position, outnumbered the enemy in men and guns and had fresh troops who were not afraid of Ferdinand since they had not been involved in the 1758 defeats under Clermont and Contades. His failure to pursue Ferdinand was deplorable and showed once again that the tradition of Condé, Turenne, Saxe and Lowendahl was dead. Broglie had many enemies at court, who immediately tried to spread the rumour that his victory was really a defeat. The friends of the Prince de Soubise were particularly forward in this regard and even spread the canard that Broglie had abandoned his field hospital during the battle. Soubise’s champion was Madame de Pompadour and she in turn had the ear of the King. Broglie would not get his Marshal’s baton for a while yet. But if Broglie had been excessively timid, Ferdinand had been rash, complacent and over-confident, and perhaps the victories of 1758 had made him gravely underrate the French. That seems the most likely explanation for his extraordinary decision to make a frontal attack in a piecemeal fashion and without proper artillery support, though the false estimates produced by his scouts hardly helped. Ferdinand did not relish the task of reporting to Frederick, but for once the Prussian king did not nag him mercilessly, contenting himself this time with the suggestion that Ferdinand should at once increase his complement of heavy guns. Secretly Ferdinand blamed Frederick for his defeat, since the Prussian preoccupation with the eastern front meant that he had not been able to open his offensive at the beginning of March, as he wanted.

April–July 1759 was a very bad patch for Ferdinand, and now for the first time his Achilles heel became manifest. He cultivated a persona of professionalism and unflappability, but his mask of serene courtesy concealed anxiety and insecurity; some have speculated that he had a chip on his shoulder about Frederick, that Brunswick always felt itself to be in the shadow of Prussia and suffered the same feelings of inferiority that Poland has always had about Russia. Studies of the accident-prone invariably show depression lurking in the shadows, and it is surely significant that on 30 June, while riding with his aide-de-camp the Duke of Richmond, Ferdinand fell off his horse into a deep water-filled ditch and was almost drowned before being rescued.

Ferdinand’s principal anxiety was that when the French marched north in June on the summer campaign, they would have an army twice as strong as his. His difficult relationship with Frederick simply made his problems worse, for when he asked the King’s advice, Frederick soon lost patience with his ‘defeatism’: the King’s replies were initially cordial, shortly became peevish and thereafter downright insulting. The beginning of the summer campaign underlined Ferdinand’s worst fears. Advancing slowly but surely, the French took Münster and then Minden. The Marquis d’Armentière’s first attempt to capture Münster was beaten back with heavy losses, but he brought up reinforcements, forcing the defenders back into the citadel where, after a perfunctory defence, the garrison of 3,600 surrendered. Armentière then proceeded to Lippstadt to lend his weight to the siege being conducted there by the Duc de Chevreuses. Minden was another French triumph. Learning that the town was weakly garrisoned, Broglie sent his brother (the Comte de Broglie) with 1,500 infantry and 1,200 cavalry to seize it; the coup was successful but Minden was then looted in a way not seen since the Thirty Years War and it was with difficulty that the French commanders restored order.

Rise of Prussia 1740

Frederick William I, the eccentric King who collected a private army of Giants.

Prussia was also poorly endowed with economic resources. With the exception of the Westphalian territories – Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg – with their mixed and relatively prosperous agrarian economies and higher level of urbanization, the Hohenzollern lands were poor and backward, and contained little rural industry. Mostly subsistence agriculture, with small surpluses, prevailed throughout the central provinces of Brandenburg and Pomerania. Contemporaries styled Brandenburg `the sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’, so wretched was its soil. The Kingdom of East Prussia, separated until 1772 from the Hohenzollern heartlands by several hundred miles of Polish territory, was little – if any – better, with equally poor soil and an inhospitable climate. Its commercial economy also provided an unpromising basis for great-power status. Grain and grain-based products were exported from East Prussia and, to a lesser extent, from the monarchy’s heartlands. But commercial activity was at a low ebb, and largely driven by the demands of the Prussian state, while poor internal communications meant that its territories were bypassed by the major continental trade routes. The urban sector was similarly underdeveloped, at least by western European and even western German standards.

The very list of the widely scattered territories ruled by the Hohenzollerns in 1740 highlights another major obstacle to Prussia’s political rise. Her possessions were exposed and scattered across half the continent: from enclaves in Westphalia through the heartlands of Brandenburg, Pomerania and Magdeburg in central Germany, astride the rivers Elbe and Oder, to distant East Prussia. The resulting problems of self-defence, in the face of threats from hostile neighbours and during a period when the acquisition of territory was the principal aim of all foreign policy, were considerable: the eastern border of East Prussia lay some 750 miles distant from the westernmost possessions in the Rhineland, a particularly great distance in an era during which communications were slow and unreliable. As Voltaire remarked, Frederick was really `King of the border strips’. All the great powers faced wide-ranging and dispersed political commitments, as a consequence of their territorial extent. W hat made Prussia’s position unique was the very limited resources available to support such wide-ranging involvement.

Territorial dispersal, together with the very limited demographic and economic resources, were always serious obstacles to Prussia ever securely establishing herself as a great power. Yet Frederick also inherited considerable assets when he succeeded his father on 31 May 1740. Foremost among these was an army unusually large for a country of its size and population. Successive Hohenzollern rulers, aware of the vulnerability of their possessions, had built up a large military force for self-defence. Its creation had shaped domestic developments since the Great Elector’s accession in 1640, and during Frederick William Fs reign it ordinarily consumed around 70 per cent of the state’s annual revenue in peacetime. At Frederick’s accession, this force was some 80,000 strong, impressive on the barrack square, but untested in combat. With the exception of some operations in the Rhineland in 1734, during the War of the Polish Succession, it had not fired a shot in anger since the siege of Stralsund in 1715. The last important Hohenzollern victory had been gained as long ago as 1675, when the Great Elector won an unexpected success over the renowned Swedish army at Fehrbellin, though Prussian contingents had fought impressively in the Allied armies during the War of the Spanish Succession.

This powerful army was supported, and to a considerable degree made possible, by a system of conscription, which had taken its final shape in 1733. The famous cantonal system enabled a first-class army to be maintained on the scanty available resources and contributed significantly to Prussia’s political emergence. An officer cadre was provided by the territorial nobility: under Frederick William I, the Junkers had come to dominate the military commands and, to a lesser extent, the civil administration. He also bequeathed to his son a war-chest (Staatsschatz) of eight million thalers in gold coin, wrapped up in sacks and stored in the basement of the royal palace in Berlin. Finally, Frederick inherited an admired and relatively efficient administrative system, the centrepiece of which was the General Directory, set up in 1723. Within the limitations of eighteenth-century government, this was relatively successful in extracting the men, money and agrarian produce needed to support the army and pay the other expenses of the Prussian state.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that the military and administrative foundations which had been laid by 1740, together with the degree of social integration achieved under Frederick William I, would provide a strong basis for Prussia’s eighteenth-century career as a great power. But these advantages, in the estimation of most contemporaries, were insufficient to overcome the drawbacks, above all Prussia’s territorial vulnerability and her basic poverty in people and economic resources. This was her Achilles’ heel, and it preoccupied Frederick the Great throughout his reign. Eighteenth-century Prussia always lacked the resources required to establish herself securely as a great power. The achievement of her rulers, and especially of Frederick himself, was to make her a first-class state on a material base more appropriate to a country of the second or even third order. Even by the king’s death in 1786 and after the important acquisitions of Silesia, East Friesland and West Prussia, the Hohenzollern monarchy remained only the thirteenth-largest European state in terms of population and the tenth in terms of its geographical extent, though its army ranked fourth (or even third) in size.

There was more to the status of a great power, however, than resources: these were only one factor in a complex equation. The eighteenth-century states-system was based upon a considerable degree of reciprocity. If established great powers treated a state as one of their number, then that country ipso facto became a member of Europe’s political elite. It thus resembled a British gentlemen’s club: election by the existing members was a precondition for admission. Prussia became a great power through her startling military and, to a lesser extent, political successes between 1740 and 1763, despite lacking the essential material base. Her eighteenth-century preeminence was thus founded upon sand. It was only after 1815 that the Hohenzollerns gained the resources to support the leading European role to which they aspired and which they would play after the middle of the nineteenth century. The territorial settlement established by the Congress of Vienna enormously enhanced Prussia’s demographic and economic power, and endowed her with a much stronger strategic position, after the loss of most of the eastern provinces gained by the three partitions of Poland-Lithuania during the eighteenth century and their replacement by substantial and wealthy territories in western Germany.

Mid-eighteenth-century Prussia had one additional advantage that proved decisive. This was the personality of her remarkable king, Frederick II (widely known as `the Great’ from the end of the Seven Years’ W ar onwards, if not actually earlier). Political leadership was always important and sometimes decisive within the competitive states-system of eighteenth century Europe, and never more so than where Prussia was concerned. Resources and external recognition were vital in the creation of a great power. But there was another essential quality, which existed at a conceptual and philosophical level. To become a member of Europe’s political elite, a state – or, rather, its ruler and the m onarch’s advisers – had to think and act like a great power.

In Prussia’s case, the crucial moment in this transition was Frederick the Great’s accession at the end of May 1740. His predecessor had accepted Prussia’s secondary political role, pursuing essentially limited objectives – such as the established Hohenzollern dynastic claims to the western German enclaves of Jillich and Berg (which were located next to the dynasty’s Rhineland possession of Cleves). Frederick William I had always operated within a relatively narrow and prescribed political framework and had usually been content to follow the lead of the Emperor, Charles VI. The contrast after his son’s accession was striking and significant. From his earliest days upon the Hohenzollern throne – indeed, from his days as crown prince – Frederick the Great thought and acted like the ruler of a first-class power, and within a quarter-century he had secured this status for Prussia. Believing that the political status quo was not an option and that territorial expansion was essential to overcome Prussian poverty and strategic vulnerability, the young king pursued the expansionist aims which he believed to be the logical conclusion of his father’s impressive domestic achievements. His political vision was far wider than that of his predecessors, encompassing the whole European diplomatic chessboard. This was apparent in an immediate enlargement of Hohenzollern aims – demonstrated in the invasion of Silesia at the very end of 1740, little more than six months after Frederick had ascended the throne – which transcended the purely dynastic and largely German objectives that had driven policy under Frederick William I. Central to this was Frederick’s determination that his state would be politically independent, rather than – as under his own father – subject to outside influences in the conduct of its foreign policy.

Prussia’s eighteenth-century trajectory as a great power is inextricably bound up with the career and reign of Frederick the Great. By his political vision, his military successes and his diplomatic skills, he made his kingdom into a first-class state, while all his life aware that Prussia lacked the resources to sustain this role and that it would prove to be transient. His decisive political leadership was the result of remarkable abilities and an ego to match.

It was facilitated by a silent revolution in Prussian government shortly after Frederick’s accession, which gave the new king complete control of Berlin’s diplomacy. Until 1740, day-to-day responsibility for Prussia’s foreign policy had been exercised by the Kabinettsministerium, under the king’s overall direction. 4 Set up in 1728, and known as the Kabinettsministerium after 1733, it was organized – like all Hohenzollern government – on a collegial basis. It embodied the assumption that two or more advisers should together discuss policy, meet diplomats, correspond with Prussia’s own representatives in other capitals and conduct negotiations, all directly supervised by the king. In the early weeks of Frederick the Great’s reign, these arrangements were altered. Confident in his own abilities and anxious to demonstrate them, and openly contemptuous of those who had served his father, whom he held responsible for Prussia’s political subservience during that reign, Frederick took over complete and direct responsibility for Prussian foreign policy, which he retained until the very end of his life. The experienced officials in the Kabinettsministerium and especially the leading adviser Heinrich von Podewils, found their status and responsibilities downgraded to that of mere secretaries. They were mostly excluded from the formulation of policy, at least towards the major states, and while they continued to hold audiences with foreign diplomats, these became largely formal in nature: their own ignorance of Prussian policy meant that there was nothing to discuss. Policy was instead drawn up and executed by the king himself, who conducted the bulk of correspondence with Prussia’s own diplomats and also negotiated personally with foreign representatives in Berlin. Since – in addition to acting as his own foreign minister – Frederick was also commander-in-chief of the army, there was an unusual degree of coherence and unity in Prussian decision-making, in contrast to the divided counsels which prevailed in the capitals of rival powers. Rapid and incisive decision making was to be one foundation of Prussia’s political rise.

Frederick William and Fehrbellin in 1675



Frederick William and Fehrbellin in 1675.

In December 1640, when Frederick William acceded to the throne, Brandenburg was still under foreign occupation. A two-year truce was agreed with the Swedes in July 1641, but the looting, burning and general misbehaviour continued. In a letter of spring 1641, the Elector’s viceroy, Margrave Ernest, who carried the responsibility for administering the ruined Mark, offered a grim synopsis:

The country is in such a miserable and impoverished condition that mere words can scarcely convey the sympathy one feels with the innocent inhabitants. In general, We think that the cart has been driven so deep into the muck, as they say, that it cannot be extricated without the special help of the Almighty.

The strain of overseeing the anarchy unfolding in Brandenburg ultimately proved too much for the margrave, who succumbed to panic attacks, sleeplessness and paranoid delusions. By the autumn of 1642, he had taken to pacing about in his palace muttering to himself, shrieking and throwing himself to the floor. His death on 26 September was ascribed to ‘melancholy’.

Only in March 1643 did Frederick William return from the relative safety of Königsberg to the ruined city of Berlin, a city he scarcely recognized. Here he found a population depleted and malnourished, and buildings destroyed by fire or in a parlous state of repair. The predicament that had bedevilled his father’s reign remained unsolved: Brandenburg had no military force with which to establish its independence. The small army created by Schwarzenberg was already falling apart and there was no money to pay for a replacement. Johann Friedrich von Leuchtmar, a privy councillor and the Elector’s former tutor, summarized Brandenburg’s predicament in a report of 1644: Poland, he predicted, would seize Prussia as soon as it was strong enough; Pomerania was under Swedish occupation and likely to remain so; Kleve in the west was under the control of the Dutch Republic. Brandenburg stood ‘on the edge of the abyss’.

In order to restore the independence of his territory and press home his claims, the Elector needed a flexible, disciplined fighting force. The creation of such an instrument became one of the consuming preoccupations of his reign. The Brandenburg campaign army grew dramatically, if somewhat unsteadily, from 3,000 men in 1641–2, to 8,000 in 1643–6, to 25,000 during the Northern War of 1655–60, to 38,000 during the Dutch wars of the 1670s. During the final decade of the Elector’s reign, its size fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000. Improvements in tactical training and armaments modelled on French, Dutch, Swedish and imperial best practice placed the Brandenburg army close to the cutting edge of European military innovation. Pikes and pikemen were phased out and the cumbersome matchlock guns carried by the infantry were replaced by lighter, faster-firing flintlocks. Artillery calibres were standardized to allow for the more flexible and efficient use of field guns, in the style pioneered by the Swedes. The foundation of a cadet school for officer recruits introduced an element of standardized professional formation. Better conditions of employment – including provision for maimed or retired officers – improved the stability of the command structure. These changes in turn improved the cohesion and morale of the non-commissioned ranks, who distinguished themselves in the 1680s by their excellent discipline and low rates of desertion.

The improvised forces assembled for specific campaigns during the early years of the reign gradually evolved into what one could call a standing army. In April 1655, a General War Commissioner (General-kriegskommissar) was appointed to oversee the handling of financial and other resources for the army, on the model of the military administration recently introduced in France under Le Tellier and Louvois. This innovation was initially conceived as a temporary wartime measure and only later established as a permanent feature of the territorial administration. After 1679, under the direction of the Pomeranian nobleman Joachim von Grumbkow, the General War Commissariat extended its reach throughout the Hohenzollern territories, gradually usurping the function of the Estate officials who had traditionally overseen military taxation and discipline at a local level. The General War Commissariat and the Office for the Domains were still relatively small institutions in 1688 when the Elector died, but under his successors they would play a crucial role in toughening the sinews of central authority in the Brandenburg-Prussian state. This synergy between war-making and the development of state-like central organs was something new; it became possible only when the war-making apparatus was separated from its traditional provincial-aristocratic foundations.

The acquisition of such a formidable military instrument was important, because the decades that followed the end of the Thirty Years War were a period of intense conflict in northern Europe. Two foreign titans overshadowed Brandenburg foreign policy during the Elector’s reign. The first was King Charles X of Sweden, a restless, obsessive figure with expansionist dreams who seemed bent on trumping the record of his illustrious predecessor Gustavus Adolphus. It was Charles X’s invasion of Poland that started the Northern War of 1655–60. His plan was to subdue the Danes and the Poles, occupy Ducal Prussia and then march south at the head of a vast army to sack Rome in the manner of the ancient Goths. Instead, the Swedes became bogged down in a bitter five-year struggle for control of the Baltic littoral.

After the death of Charles X in 1660 and the ebbing of Swedish power, it was Louis XIV of France who dominated Brandenburg’s political horizons. Having assumed sole regency after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, Louis expanded his combined wartime armed forces from 70,000 to 320,000 men (by 1693) and launched a sequence of assaults to secure hegemony in western Europe; there were campaigns against the Spanish Netherlands in 1667–8, the United Provinces in 1672–8 and the Palatinate in 1688.

In this dangerous environment, the Elector’s growing army proved an indispensable asset. In the summer of 1656, Frederick William’s 8,500 troops joined forces with Charles X to defeat a massive Polish-Tartar army in the battle of Warsaw (28–30 July). In 1658, he changed sides and campaigned as an ally of Poland and Austria against the Swedes. It was a sign of Frederick William’s growing weight in regional politics that he was appointed commander of the Brandenburg-Polish-imperial allied army raised to fight the Swedes in 1658–9. A chain of successful military assaults followed, first in Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland and later in Pomerania.

The most dramatic military exploit of the reign was Frederick William’s single-handed victory over the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675. In the winter of 1674–5, the Elector was campaigning with an Austrian army in the Rhineland as part of the coalition that had formed to contain Louis XIV during the Dutch wars. In the hope of securing French subsidies, the Swedes, allies of the French, invaded Brandenburg with an army of 14,000 men under the command of General Karl Gustav Wrangel. It was a scenario that awakened memories of the Thirty Years War: the Swedes unleashed the usual ravages on the hapless population of the Uckermark, to the north-east of Berlin. Frederick William reacted to news of the invasion with undisguised rage. ‘I can be brought to no other resolution,’ the Elector told Otto von Schwerin on 10 February, ‘than to avenge myself on the Swedes.’ In a series of furious despatches, the Elector, who was bedridden with gout, urged his subjects, ‘both noble and non-noble’, to ‘cut down all Swedes, wherever they can lay their hands upon them and to break their necks [… ] and to give no quarter’.

Frederick William joined his army in Franconia at the end of May. Covering over one hundred kilometres per week, his forces reached Magdeburg on 22 June, just over ninety kilometres from the Swedish headquarters in the city of Havelberg. From here, the Brandenburg command could establish through local informants that the Swedes were strung out behind the river Havel, with concentrations in the fortified cities of Havelberg, Rathenow and Brandenburg. Since the Swedes had failed to register the arrival of the Brandenburg army, the Elector and his commander Georg Derfflinger had the advantage of surprise, and they resolved to attack the Swedish strongpoint at Rathenow with only 7,000 cavalry; a further 1,000 musketeers were loaded on to carts so that they could keep pace with the advance. Heavy rain and muddy conditions impeded their progress but also concealed them from the unsuspecting Swedish regiment at Rathenow. In the early morning of 25 June, the Brandenburgers attacked and destroyed the Swedish force with only minimal casualties on their own side.

The collapse of the Swedish line at Rathenow set the scene for the Battle of Fehrbellin, the most celebrated military engagement of the Elector’s reign. In order to restore cohesion to their position, the Swedish regiment in Brandenburg City pulled back deep into the countryside with the intention of sweeping to the north-west to join up with the main force at Havelberg. This proved more difficult than they had expected, because the heavy spring and summer rains had transformed the marshes of the area into a treacherous waterland broken only by islands of sodden grass or sand and criss-crossed by narrow causeways. Guided by locals, advance parties of the Electoral army blocked the main exits from the area, and forced the Swedes to fall back on the little town of Fehrbellin on the river Rhin. Here their commander, General Wrangel, deployed his 11,000 men in defensive fashion, setting the 7,000 Swedish infantry in the centre and his cavalry on the wings.

Against 11,000 Swedes the Elector could muster only around 6,000 men (a substantial part of his army, including most of his infantry, had not yet arrived in the area). The Swedes disposed of about three times as many field guns as the Brandenburgers. But this numerical disadvantage was offset by a tactical opportunity. Wrangel had neglected to occupy a low sandhill that overlooked his right flank. The Elector lost no time in positioning his thirteen field guns there and opening fire on the Swedish lines. Seeing his error, Wrangel ordered the cavalry on his right wing, supported by infantry, to take the hill. For the next few hours the battle was dominated by the ebb and surge of cavalry charge and counter-charge as the Swedes attempted to seize the enemy guns and were thrown back by the Brandenburg horse. A metaphorical fog of war shrouds all such encounters; it was thickened on this occasion by a literal summer mist of the kind that often gathers in the marshes of the Havelland. Both sides found it difficult to coordinate their forces, but it was the Swedish cavalry that gave way first, fleeing from the field and leaving their infantry – the Dalwig Guards – exposed to the sabres of the Brandenburg horse. Of 1,200 Guards, twenty managed to escape and about seventy were taken prisoner; the rest were killed. On the following day, the town of Fehrbellin itself was seized from a small Swedish occupation force. There was now a great fleeing of Swedes across the Mark Brandenburg. Considerable numbers of them, more perhaps than fell on the field of battle, were hacked to death in opportunist attacks by peasants as they made their way northwards. A contemporary report noted that peasants in the area around the town of Wittstock, not far from the border with Pomerania, had slain 300 Swedes, including a number of officers: ‘although several of the latter offered 2000 thalers for their lives, they were decapitated by the vengeful peasants.’21 Memories of the ‘Swedish terror’ still vivid in the older generation played a role here. By 2 July, every last Swede who had not been captured or killed had left the territory of the Electorate.

Victories of the kind achieved at Warsaw and Fehrbellin were of enormous symbolic importance to the Elector and his entourage. In an era that glorified successful warlords, the victories of Brandenburg’s army magnified the prestige and reputation of its founder. At Warsaw, Frederick William had stood in the thick of the fighting, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. He wrote an account of the event and had it published in The Hague. His notes on the battle formed the basis for the relevant passages in Samuel Pufendorf’s history of the reign – a comprehensive and sophisticated work that marked a new departure in Brandenburg historiography. All this bore witness to a heightened historical self-consciousness, a sense that Brandenburg had begun to make – and to narrate – its own history. In his ‘royal memoirs’, a text intended for the eyes of his successor, Louis XIV observed that kings owe an account of their actions ‘to all ages’. The Great Elector never unfolded a cult of historicized self-memorialization to rival that of his French contemporary, but he too began consciously to perceive himself and his achievements through the eyes of an imagined posterity.

At Warsaw in 1656 the Brandenburgers had shown their mettle as coalition partners; at Fehrbellin nineteen years later the Elector’s army, though outnumbered and forced to advance at lightning speed, prevailed without aid over an enemy with an intimidating European reputation. Here too the Elector, now a stout man of fifty-five, stayed at the centre of the action. He joined his riders in assaults on the Swedish lines until he was encircled by enemy troops and had to be cut free by nine of his own dragoons. It was after the victory at Fehrbellin that the soubriquet ‘the Great Elector’first appeared in print. There was nothing particularly remarkable in that, since broadsheets extolling the greatness of rulers were commonplace in seventeenth-century Europe. But unlike so many other early-modern ‘greats’ (including the abortive ‘Louis the Great’, propagated by the sycophantic pamphleteers of the sun-king; ‘Leopold the Great’ of Austria; and ‘Maximilian the Great’, usage of which is now confined to die-hard Bavarian monarchist circles) this one survived, making Elector Frederick William the only non-royal early-modern European sovereign who is still widely accorded this epithet.

With Fehrbellin, moreover, a bond was forged between history and legend. The battle became a fixture in memory. The dramatist Heinrich von Kleist chose it as the setting for his play Der Prinz von Homburg, a fanciful variation on the historical record, in which an impulsive military commander faces a death sentence for having led a victorious charge against the Swedes despite orders to hold back, but is pardoned by the Elector once he has accepted his culpability. To the Brandenburgers and Prussians of posterity, Frederick William’s predecessors would remain shadowy, antique figures imprisoned within a remote past. By contrast, the ‘Great Elector’ would be elevated to the status of a three-dimensional founding father, a transcendent personality who both symbolized and bestowed meaning upon the history of a state.