Historical Tales: 5—German - Charles Morris

Scenes From the Seven Years' War

The story of Frederick the Great is a story of incessant wars, wars against frightful odds, for all Europe was combined against him, and for seven years the Austrians, the French, the Russians, and the Swedes surrounded his realm, with the bitter determination to crush him, if not to annihilate the Prussian kingdom. England alone was on his side. Russia had joined the coalition through anger of the Empress Elizabeth at Frederick's satire upon her licentious life; France had joined it through hostility to England; Austria had organized it from indignation at Frederick's lawless seizure of Silesia; the army raised to operate against Prussia numbered several hundred thousand men.

For years Frederick fought them all single-handed, with a persistence, an energy, and a resolute rising under the weight of defeat that compelled the admiration even of his enemies, and in the end gave him victory over them all. To the rigid discipline of his troops, his own military genius, and his indomitable perseverance, he owed his final success and his well-earned epithet of "The Great."

The story of battle, stirring as it is, is apt to grow monotonous, and we have perhaps inflicted too many battle scenes already upon our readers, though we have selected only such as had some particular feature of interest to enliven them. Out of Frederick's numerous battles we may be able to present some examples sufficiently diverse from the ordinary to render them worthy of classification, under the title of the romance of history.

Let us go back to the 5th of November, 1757. On that date the army of Frederick lay in the vicinity of Rossbach, on the Saale, then occupied by a powerful French army. The Prussian commander, after vainly endeavoring to bring the Austrians to battle, had turned and marched against the French, with the hope of driving them out of Saxony.

His hope was not a very promising one. The French army was sixty thousand strong. He had but little over twenty thousand men. While he felt hope the French felt assurance. They had their active foe now in their clutches, they deemed. With his handful of men he could not possibly stand before their onset. He had escaped them more than once before; this time they had him, as they believed.

His camp was on a height, near the Saale. Towards it the French advanced, with flying colors and sounding trumpets, as if with purpose to strike terror into the ranks of their foes. That Frederick would venture to stand before them they scarcely credited. If he should, his danger would be imminent, for they had laid their plans to surround his small force and, by taking the king and his army prisoners, end at a blow the vexatious war. They calculated shrewdly but not well, for they left Frederick out of the account in their plans.

As they came up, line after line, column after column, they must have been surprised by the seeming indifference of the Prussians. There were in their ranks no signs of retreat and none of hostility. They remained perfectly quiet in their camp, not a gun being fired, not a movement visible, as inert and heedless to all seeming of the coming of the French as though there were no enemy within a hundred miles.

There was a marked difference between the make-up of the two armies, which greatly reduced their numerical odds. Frederick's army was composed of thoroughly disciplined and trained soldiers, every man of whom knew his place and his duty, and could be trusted in an emergency. The French, on the contrary, had brought all they could of Paris with them; their army was encumbered with women, wig-makers, barbers, and the like impedimenta, and confusion and gayety in their ranks replaced the stern discipline of Frederick's camp. After the battle, the booty is said to have consisted largely of objects of gallantry better suited for a boudoir than a camp.

The light columns of smoke that arose from the Prussian camp as the French advanced indicated their occupation,—and that by no means suggested alarm. They were cooking their dinners, with as much unconcern as though they had not yet seen the coming enemy nor heard the clangor of trumpets that announced their approach. Had the French commanders been within the Prussian lines they would have been more astonished still, for they would have seen Frederick with his staff and general officers dining at leisure and with the utmost coolness and indifference. There was no appearance of haste in their movements, and no more in those of their men, whose whole concern just then seemed to be the getting of a good meal.

The hour passed on, the French came nearer, their trumpet clangor was close at hand, every moment seemed to render the peril of the Prussians more imminent, yet their inertness continued; it looked almost as though they had given up the idea of defence. The confidence of the French must have grown rapidly as their plan of surrounding the Prussians with their superior numbers seemed more and more assured.

But Frederick had his eye upon them. He was biding his time. Suddenly there came a change. It was about half-past two in the afternoon. The French had reached the position for which he had been waiting. Quickly the staff officers dashed right and left with their orders. The trumpets sounded. As if by magic the tents were struck, the men sprang to their ranks and were drawn up in battle array, the artillery opened its fire, the seeming inertness which had prevailed was with extraordinary rapidity exchanged for warlike activity; the complete discipline of the Prussian army had never been more notably displayed.

The French, who had been marching forward with careless ease, beheld this change of the situation with astounded eyes. They looked for heaviness and slowness of movement among the Germans, and could scarcely believe in the possibility of such rapidity of evolution. But they had little time to think. The Prussian batteries were pouring a rain of balls through their columns. And quickly the Prussian cavalry, headed by the dashing Seidlitz, was in their midst, cutting and slashing with annihilating vigor.

The surprise was complete. The French found it impossible to form into line. Everywhere their columns were being swept by musketry and artillery, and decimated by the sabres of the charging cavalry. In almost less time than it takes to tell it they were thrown into confusion, overwhelmed, routed; in the course of less than half an hour the fate of the battle was decided, and the French army completely defeated.

Their confidence of a short time before was succeeded by panic, and the lately trim ranks fled in utter disorganization, so utterly broken that many of the fugitives never stopped till they reached the other side of the Rhine.

Ten thousand prisoners fell into Frederick's hands, including nine generals and numerous other officers, together with all the French artillery, and twenty-two standards; while the victory was achieved with the loss of only one hundred and sixty-five killed and three hundred and fifty wounded on the Prussian side. The triumph was one of discipline against over-confidence. No army under less complete control than that of Frederick could have sprung so suddenly into warlike array. To this, and to the sudden and overwhelming dash of Seidlitz and his cavalry, the remarkable victory was due.

Just one month from that date, on the 5th of December, another great battle took place, and another important victory for Frederick the Great. With thirty-four thousand Prussians he defeated eighty thousand Austrians, while the prisoners taken nearly equalled in number his entire force.

The Austrians had taken the opportunity of Frederick's campaign against the French to overrun Silesia. Breslau, its capital, with several other strongholds, fell into their hands, and the probability was that if left there during the winter they would so strongly fortify it as to defy any attempt of the Prussian king to recapture it.

Despite the weakness of his army Frederick decided to make an effort to regain the lost province, and marched at once against the Austrians. They lay in a strong position behind the river Lohe, and here their leader, Field-Marshal Daun, wished to have them remain, having had abundant experience of his opponent in the open field. This cautious advice was not taken by Prince Charles, who controlled the movements of the army, and whom several of the generals persuaded that it would be degrading for a victorious army to intrench itself against one so much inferior in numbers, and advised him to march out and meet the Prussians. "The parade guard of Berlin," as they contemptuously designated Frederick's army, "would never be able to make a stand against them."

The prince, who was impetuous in disposition, agreed with them, marched out from his intrenchments, and met Frederick's army in the vast plain near Leuthen. On December 5 the two armies came face to face, the lines of the imperial force extending over a space of five miles, while those of Frederick occupied a much narrower space.

In his lack of numbers the Prussian king was obliged to substitute celerity of movement, hoping to double the effectiveness of his troops by their quickness of action. The story of the battle may be given in a few words. A false attack was made on the Austrian right, and then the bulk of the Prussian army was hurled upon their left wing, with such impetuosity as to break and shatter it. The disorder caused by this attack spread until it included the whole army. In three hours' time Frederick had completely defeated his foes, one-third of whom were killed, wounded, or captured, and the remainder put to flight. The field was covered with the slain, and whole battalions surrendered, the Prussians capturing in all twenty-one thousand prisoners. They took besides one hundred and thirty cannon and three thousand baggage and ammunition wagons. The victory was a remarkable example of the supremacy of genius over mere numbers. Napoleon says of it, "That battle was a master-piece. Of itself it is sufficient to entitle Frederick to a place in the first rank of generals." It restored Silesia to the Prussian dominions.

There is one more of Frederick's victories of sufficiently striking character to fit in with those already given. It took place in 1760, several years after those described, years in which Frederick had struggled persistently against overwhelming odds, and, though often worsted, yet coming up fresh after every defeat, and unconquerably keeping the field.

He was again in Silesia, which was once more seriously threatened by the Austrian forces. His position was anything but a safe one. The Austrians almost surrounded him. On one side was the army of Field-Marshal Daun, on the other that of General Lasci; in front was General Laudon. Fighting day and night he advanced, and finally took up his position at Liegnitz, where he found his forward route blocked, Daun having formed a junction with Laudon. His magazines were at Breslau and Schweidnitz in front, which it was impossible to reach; while his brother, Prince Henry, who might have marched to his relief, was detained by the Russians on the Oder.

The position of Frederick was a critical one. He had only a few days' supply of provisions; it was impossible to advance, and dangerous to retreat; the Austrians, in superior numbers, were dangerously near him; only fortune and valor could save him from serious disaster. In this crisis of his career happy chance came to his aid, and relieved him from the awkward and perilous situation into which he had fallen.

The Austrians were keenly on the alert, biding their time and watchful for an opportunity to take the Prussians at advantage. The time had now arrived, as they thought, and they laid their plans accordingly. On the night before the 15th of August Laudon set out on a secret march, his purpose being to gain the heights of Puffendorf, from which the Prussians might be assailed in the rear. At the same time the other corps were to close in on every side, completely surrounding Frederick, and annihilating him if possible.

It was a well-laid and promising plan, but accident befriended the Prussian king. Accident and alertness, we may say; since, to prevent a surprise from the Austrians, he was in the habit of changing the location of his camp almost every night. Such a change took place on the night in question. On the 14th the Austrians had made a close reconnoisance of his position. Fearing some hostile purpose in this, Frederick, as soon as the night had fallen, ordered his tents to be struck and the camp to be moved with the utmost silence, so as to avoid giving the foe a hint of his purpose. As it chanced, the new camp was made on those very heights of Puffendorf towards which Laudon was advancing with equal care and secrecy.

That there might be no suspicion of the Prussian movement, the watch-fires were kept up in the old camp, peasants attending to them, while patrols of hussars cried out the challenge every quarter of an hour. The gleaming lights, the watch-cries of the sentinels, all indicated that the Prussian army was sleeping on its old ground, without suspicion of the overwhelming blow intended for it on the morrow.

Meanwhile the king and his army had reached their new quarters, where the utmost caution and noiselessness was observed. The king, wrapped in his military cloak, had fallen asleep beside his watch-fire; Ziethen, his valiant cavalry leader, and a few others of his principal officers, being with him. Throughout the camp the greatest stillness prevailed, all noise having been forbidden. The soldiers slept with their arms close at hand, and ready to be seized at a moment's notice. Frederick fully appreciated the peril of his situation, and was not to be taken by surprise by his active foes. And thus the night moved on until midnight passed, and the new day began its course in the small hours.

About two o'clock a sudden change came in the situation. A horseman galloped at full speed through the camp, and drew up hastily at the king's tent, calling Frederick from his light slumbers. He was the officer in command of the patrol of hussars, and brought startling news. The enemy was at hand, he said; his advance columns were within a few hundred yards of the camp. It was Laudon's army, seeking to steal into possession of those heights which Frederick had so opportunely occupied.

The stirring tidings passed rapidly through the camp. The soldiers were awakened, the officers seized their arms and sprang to horse, the troops grasped their weapons and hastened into line, the cannoneers flew to their guns, soon the roar of artillery warned the coming Austrians that they had a foe in their front.

Laudon pushed on, thinking this to be some advance column which he could easily sweep from his front. Not until day dawned did he discover the true situation, and perceive, with astounded eyes, that the whole Prussian army stood in line of battle on those very heights which he had hoped so easily to occupy.

The advantage on which the Austrian had so fully counted lay with the Prussian king. Yet, undaunted, Laudon pushed on and made a vigorous attack, feeling sure that the thunder of the artillery would be borne to Daun's ears, and bring that commander in all haste, with his army, to take part in the fray.

But the good fortune which had so far favored Frederick did not now desert him. The wind blew freshly in the opposite direction, and carried the sound of the cannon away from Daun's hearing. Not the roar of a piece of artillery came to him, and his army lay moveless during the battle, he deeming that Laudon must now be in full possession of the heights, and felicitating himself on the neat trap into which the King of Prussia had fallen. While he thus rested on his arms, glorying in his soul on the annihilation to which the pestilent Prussians were doomed, his ally was making a desperate struggle for life, on those very heights which he counted on taking without a shot. Truly, the Austrians had reckoned without their foe in laying their cunning plot.

Three hours of daylight finished the affray. Taken by surprise as they were, the Austrians proved unable to sustain the vigorous Prussian assault, and were utterly routed, leaving ten thousand dead and wounded on the field, and eighty-two pieces of artillery in the enemy's hands. Shortly afterwards Daun, advancing to carry out his share of the scheme of annihilation, fell upon the right wing of the Prussians, commanded by General Ziethen, and was met with so fierce an artillery fire that he halted in dismay. And now news of Laudon's disaster was brought to him. Seeing that the game was lost and himself in danger, he emulated his associate in his hasty retreat.

Fortune and alertness had saved the Prussian king from a serious danger, and turned peril into victory. He lost no time in profiting by his advantage, and was in full march towards Breslau within three hours after the battle, the prisoners in the centre, the wounded—friend and foe alike,—in wagons in the rear, and the captured cannon added to his own artillery train. Silesia was once more delivered into his hands.

Never in history had there been so persistent and indomitable a resistance against overwhelming numbers as that which Frederick sustained for so many years against his numerous foes. At length, when hope seemed almost at an end, and it appeared as if nothing could save the Prussian kingdom from overthrow, death came to the aid of the courageous monarch. The Empress Elizabeth of Russia died, and Frederick's bitterest foe was removed. The new monarch, Peter III., was an ardent admirer of Frederick, and at once discharged all the Prussian prisoners in his hands, and signed a treaty of alliance with Prussia. Sweden quickly did the same, leaving Frederick with no opponents but the Austrians. Four months more sufficed to bring his remaining foes to terms, and by the end of the year 1762 the distracting Seven Years' War was at an end, the indomitable Frederick remaining in full possession of Silesia, the great bone of contention in the war. His resolution and perseverance had raised Prussia to a high position among the kingdoms of Europe, and laid the foundations of the present empire of Germany.