If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. — Rudyard Kipling

Frederick the Great - George Upton




The Dawn of Peace

The King entered upon another year with serious anxiety, for he could not escape the conviction that the longer the war continued the worse was his situation. His army was continually dwindling away. The old and tried troops, with which he had almost done wonders at the beginning of field operations, were now nearly all gone. His former sources of money had also run dry. Saxony, which until now had helped him greatly with its generous contributions, had paid out its last mark, and Prussia was so utterly exhausted that it could do nothing in any direction. With the enemy it was different. They confronted him with renewed strength and increased numbers. The combination of the two great armies was the most serious danger to his small force. It was by this combination that the fall of Schweidnitz was hastened. Frederick saw no prospect of victory anywhere, and yet the truth of his saying, "When necessity is greatest, help is nearest," was confirmed at that very time.

The Empress Elizabeth of Russia, a faithful ally of Maria Theresa, died January s, 1762. Both empresses, in alliance with France, had sworn to ruin the King of Prussia. Elizabeth's successor was Peter III, who was friendly to the King, and who at the very beginning of the war expressed his regret that Russia had taken part in hostilities against the King whom he greatly esteemed for his heroism. Frederick knew this, and hence was inclined to regard the death of the Empress as a fortunate event which would make for his success. He reckoned rightly, for hardly had Peter ascended the throne before he sent a messenger with orders to his army to retire from all of Frederick's provinces, to release all prisoners without further ceremony, and hand over the contents of the great storehouses in Pomerania to the people living there without cost.

In place of a bitter enemy, the King had a warm friend in Russia. On May fifth, Peter made peace with Prussia; and not only this, but soon afterward he sent Czernichef with his twenty thousand men to join the Prussians. When this was known, Sweden, which had also been a party to the alliance, out of deference to Russia, decided to forego the pleasure of making war upon Prussia any longer. It did not waste any time in acquainting Frederick with its wishes. In fact, the proposition was made so suddenly that the great King facetiously said to the messenger who brought it:

"I was not aware I had been at war with Sweden. To be sure, I have heard of some dealings which my General Belling has had with that people, but they shall have peace if they wish it." The treaty of peace with Sweden was concluded May twenty-second.

How suddenly the aspect of his affairs changed! All at once Frederick was free from all danger, and was in a position to attack once more. Up to this time his weakness had forced him to act on the defensive. Now he was able to take the offensive, and make a stout resistance to his remaining enemies. He did not wait long, but marched his army with its Russian re-enforcement into Silesia, to expel the Austrians and save that province from the enemy. Daun was seized with consternation when he heard of the King's advance. He hastily fell back, took a new position on the Burkersdorf hills, and entrenched himself as well as he could. It was Frederick's firm intention to attack the enemy at that point, and he had even fixed the day upon which he would measure strength with the foe, but an entirely unexpected as well as unfortunate event occurred, which frustrated all his plans and menaced both him and the Fatherland.

After ruling six months, Peter was dethroned by conspirators, and died shortly afterward. His wife, Catharine, was made regent by the dominant party. The shrewd Frederick may have anticipated such an occurrence, for, in all his letters to the young Emperor, he gave him much fatherly advice, and particularly entreated him to be prudent in his administration, and conciliatory in all his relations to his wife. This was a fortunate thing for the King, for when the ambitious Empress read this correspondence she was so deeply touched by Frederick's attitude toward her that she hastened negotiations for peace, declared she would have nothing to do with the war, and furthermore ordered her armies to return home at once.

The friendly sentiments of the Empress were very agreeable to Frederick, and yet he was greatly disappointed, as the Empress' order came just at the time he was about to strike a blow at the enemy. It was necessary to strike quickly, and yet he must act very cautiously. He knew the weak side of General Czernichef, his love of gold, and with this inducement he persuaded him to make a show of marching out with his army and occupying a threatening position, with the understanding that after three days he should return home. It was a rash act on the general's part, and one that might easily have cost him his head; but his good-will to the King, and his avarice, overcame all scruples. Frederick, happy that his wishes were now realized, vigorously attacked the enemy at Burkersdorf, while the Russians held their position, as agreed, a little distance off. Daun, who was ignorant of this arrangement, feared Czernichef and his strong force more than he did the King, and sent a considerable force against him. This was just what Frederick wished. This division of the enemy's strength made the battle easier, and the result was a complete victory for the Prussians. When the Austrians approached, the Russians retired, and on the day after the battle they began their homeward march.

Frederick now set out for Schweidnitz, and most skilfully and closely invested that fortress. His impatience at the slow progress of his laborers excited him to such a degree as to threaten serious physical consequences, and one day he decided to be bled in the open field. He inquired if there were a surgeon near by, and one was brought. The King alighted, took off his coat, seated himself; and the operation began. The cut was already bleeding, when a shell struck near the King, and sprinkled him and the surgeon with blood. The surgeon fled as fast as he could, leaving the King sitting. The latter was perfectly composed, and ordered him to come back and bandage the cut, adding some of his very emphatic threats. The surgeon finally returned in a very uneasy frame of mind. "I know your heart is in the right place; bandage the cut," said the King. Half scared to death, the surgeon did as he was ordered with trembling hands, after which the King mounted and rode away.

Notwithstanding all of Frederick's blustering the laborers made slow progress on account of the hardness of the soil, which the King did not take into consideration. He visited his displeasure principally upon his engineers. He spoke very harshly with a staff captain of that corps about the trenches, and at last in a burst of temper exclaimed: "Go to the d—1!"

The officer quietly withdrew, but the King called him back and said: "I wish that you would take charge of the work and then it may get on."

The officer at once replied: "Your Majesty, I am gratified that you will allow me to have a leg or an arm shot off before I leave the service, but I have great need of both, and beside, it will save Your Majesty the expense of carrying me back home."

The King was not displeased at his boldness, but laughed and ordered him back to work and handsomely remembered him.

The investment was now rapidly pushed on all sides and the fall of the fortress was inevitable. At this time Frederick had his headquarters at Peterswaldau, not far from Reichenbach, where he was much surprised by a sudden attack from the besieged. After the Austrians were driven back the Prussians strengthened their position, and the King decided that on the following day he would celebrate the victory by a general parade of the army. Frederick rode out from Peterswaldau with the Prussian princes to view the spectacle. A colonel from Schwerin, seeing him approach, rode quickly forward to receive his orders, but had the misfortune to be thrown from his horse, which stumbled. He was uninjured, and his horse waited quietly for him. The colonel remounted and galloped to meet the King as if nothing had happened. As they met, the King said: "You have had a fall!"

"Yes, but not from your favor."

"No," was the King's reply, "only out of the saddle into the sand."

The storming of Schweidnitz was successful and Frederick looked for important results to come from its fall, especially hoping it would revive the old battle spirit of his troops. This proved to be the case. Almost immediately came the glad tidings that Prince Henry, on the twenty-ninth of October, had completely routed the enemy in a sanguinary battle at Freiberg, Saxony. This was the last battle in the Seven Years' War, and good fortune did not again desert Frederick. As gloriously and successfully as he had maintained himself against the Austrians and Russians did Henry in the last year of the war maintain himself against the French, notwithstanding the meagre help he received. Though often forced to fall back, yet he always managed to advance again and successfully cope with the enemy. He so misled them by his extraordinary craftiness that his marches and counter-marches were a puzzle to the French. It was due to his military discipline and strategic skill that he won victories over a much stronger force at Billingshausen, Wilhelmsthal, and Luttenberg. Next he captured the capital at Cassel, November 1, 1762, and was preparing to take advantage of the favorable season to drive the French over the Rhine, when his plans were interrupted by an unlooked-for event. France asked for peace, and the King made no delay in seizing the opportunity to secure what he had long desired. The treaty between France, England, and Prussia was formally negotiated February 10, 1763.