Maria Theresa of Austria - George Upton

The Second Silesian War

Although she had prepared for it carefully, Maria Theresa could not look forward with much confidence to this new struggle, which began in the Spring. Khevenhuller was dead, and she had shed tears of sorrow and gratitude for him, which the brave old soldier had well deserved from his sovereign. She felt the loss of his strong support in this war, upon which France, who heretofore had merely been an ally of the enemies of Austria, had now entered on her own account, in league with Spain.

The campaign began in the Netherlands, where a well-organized French army under capable leadership was arrayed against the combined forces of Austria, Holland, and England, the latter being under various commands and far inferior in numbers. The advantage, therefore, was decidedly with the French. To offset this, an Austrian force was sent to invade Alsace, which was occupied by French and Bavarian troops. It was led by Prince Charles of Lorraine and brave old Father Traun," as the soldiers called the old Count, who was universally beloved by them. In the Netherlands fortune favored the French; in Alsace, the Austrians. Prince Charles of Lorraine marched triumphantly into Lorraine, and his light cavalry made inroads as far as the environs of Luneville, where he was checked by fresh forces under able generals sent from France to oppose his victorious advance.

Such was the state of affairs beyond the Rhine when the second Silesian war involved Maria Theresa in fresh troubles. Frederick II, who was anxious about the safety of his newly acquired possessions, had taken advantage of the peace further to strengthen his army and make all his preparations for a campaign. Moreover, he understood how to fill the public treasury without seeming to impair the resources or prosperity of the people—certainly a great and rare art.

At this important juncture, when Maria Theresa's attention was fully occupied in the Netherlands and in Alsace, he had a well-equipped army of one hundred and twenty thousand men, an abundance of stores and ammunition, and, above all, plenty of money at his command, which Montecuculi rightly called the first, second, and third requirements for conducting a war, and of which Austria had never possessed a surplus, least of all now.

Frederick's apprehensions concerning Silesia were strengthened by the fact that, since the peace of Breslau, Maria Theresa's power had increased to such an extent that with the assistance of her allies she might easily plan to reconquer the province whose loss she had never forgotten; indeed, he felt sure this would be the case. He followed one of his own precepts when he took up the sword again, that it is always the greatest folly not to anticipate a disaster, if one hopes to avert it." Nevertheless, he clearly realized the advantages of an alliance with the neutral German, princes, and tried hard to bring it about; and when this plan failed, he joined forces with France, the Emperor Charles VII, and others, thus insuring the success of his plans.

Maria Theresa's heart sank when she heard of this, but trust in God and the justice of her cause sustained her, as these words of hers prove: "God knows my right; He will protect me as He has hitherto done!" Many letters were exchanged between Frederick and herself, each charging the other with breaking their treaty; but it was of no avail. War was finally declared, ostensibly in behalf of the Emperor Charles VII, and Frederick's army, one hundred thousand strong, invaded Bohemia, while a part of it was sent to guard Kurmark and Silesia. Saxony was stunned when Frederick without further ceremony crossed its frontiers, and made some fruitless attempts at resistance, but Zieten cleared the way with his hussars, and in an incredibly short time Frederick was before Prague.

Maria Theresa called out the militia of the country to meet the danger; but of what avail was the militia against the invincible Prussians? Where should she turn for aid in her extremity but to her loyal Hungary? She hastened to Presburg, where once more her words and her beauty kindled a blaze of enthusiasm and devotion, and almost as if sprung from the earth forty thousand Hungarians stood ready to fight for her; thirty thousand more formed the reserve, and ten thousand were hurriedly despatched to Bohemia to oppose Frederick. This was the work of the old Palatine Palffy, who was no longer able to do any fighting himself. Maria Theresa wrote him that charming letter which will ever remain a model in the art of saying much in few words, and with it sent her finest horse, a costly jewelled sword, and a valuable diamond ring. She wrote:

"MY FATHER PALFFY,I send you this horse, which is worthy of being mounted only by the noblest of my subjects; accept also this sword to defend me against my enemies, and keep this ring as a token of my lasting affection.


The sending of the letter and the gifts was soon known all over Hungary, and its effect upon a people so easily roused to enthusiasm, and at the same time ready to devote themselves to her cause with the last drop of their blood, may well be imagined. Before help could arrive, however, Frederick had taken Prague, and several other important cities also fell into his hands. The friends of Maria Theresa began to lose courage, but not she! When the Hungarians arrived, she forced Saxony into some decisive course and recalled Prince Charles of Lorraine to Bohemia.

Notwithstanding the difficulty of such an undertaking against so powerful an adversary, Prince Charles met with brilliant success, and the troops from Alsace were aided by auxiliary forces from Saxony. Old Count Traun found the plan of cutting Frederick off from Prague and conquering him by starvation an excellent one, and proceeded to carry it out in a masterly manner. Frederick sought to force his adversary into a battle, but the latter continually evaded him. Traun's light horsemen harassed his troops on every side and captured his provision train, while the Bohemians, with their Queen's soldiers, buried the stores in the ground and then made their escape in the forests. Frederick was beside himself with rage. His soldiers, suffering from hunger and every discomfort, quarrelled among themselves and deserted in large numbers, and at last, though much against his will, he was obliged to begin a retreat.

Thus the Austrians again came into possession of Bohemia, with but trifling losses; and old "Father Traun," thinking it wise to follow the Prussians, even entered Glatz and Upper Silesia. Already it began to seem as though Maria Theresa might regain her beloved Silesia, when all at once the tables were turned.

The army imprudently had been allowed to scatter. The troops from Saxony had withdrawn and other divisions had been despatched elsewhere, when the Prussians suddenly turned and assumed the offensive, and Traun was obliged to retreat to Moravia. The Austrians struck a few more vigorous blows, and the campaign ended in both armies going into Winter quarters. Although she had been obliged to yield some advantages to Frederick, the campaign on the whole had resulted decidedly in Maria Theresa's favor. Frederick was disposed therefore to make peace, and signified his willingness to do so, but Maria Theresa rejected his overtures, since she had formed a new alliance with England, Holland, and Saxony, and now had a prospect of retrieving her losses and winning back Silesia, the lost jewel that had been torn from her crown.

With this bright outlook for the future, the Spring campaign was just beginning, when the Emperor Charles VII died, January 20, 1745. This event completely changed the aspect of affairs, and the imperial crown, once possessed by her own house, seemed to Maria Theresa a prize worth any effort could she but see it placed upon the head of her consort.

Little heed was paid to the unfortunate Emperor's advice to his son, Maximilian Joseph, to make peace with Austria and banish all hopes of the imperial crown from his heart. The young Elector was only too ready to listen to ambitious schemers, but before the earth was fully decked with living green, all his hopes had perished. The victories of the Austrians compelled him, as they once had done his father, to fly from Munich. Then for the first time he realized the wisdom of his father's counsel, and refused to listen any longer to those who advised him to continue the struggle. He sued for peace, which was concluded on April 22, 1745, at Fussen. Austria restored all his conquered territory to him, while he renounced his claims to the succession, acknowledged Maria Theresa's rights under the Pragmatic Sanction, and promised her husband his vote at the imperial election. The Empress' heart beat high with joy, for this broke the alliance known as the Frankfort Union," and Frederick II now stood alone. His situation became even more threatening when Russia announced that she would permit no attack on Saxony, which amounted to an unequivocal if tacit declaration that in such a case she would join the league that had been formed in Warsaw between Austria, England, Holland, and Saxony, called the Quadruple Alliance."

Frederick now concluded it was better to seek peace than to enter the lists against such odds; but all his attempts at negotiation were frustrated, notwithstanding the advantageous character of the conditions he offered. Maria Theresa was determined to have Silesia back again, but he would not agree to that. She then tried to win over Saxony, and in that she succeeded brilliantly. The prospect looked dark for Frederick II, for he also was in need of money. The royal plate had already found its way secretly to the mint, to reappear in silver coins, but that was insufficient. The King did not attempt to conceal the fact from himself that he stood on the edge of a precipice, but a spirit like his was not to be daunted by fear of threatening spectres.

The campaign finally reopened under these altered conditions. Maria Theresa sent eighty thousand of her troops, with thirty thousand Saxons, to take possession of Silesia. This army was in high spirits, for it was rumored all over the country that Frederick was completely discouraged and disheartened by the misfortunes of the last campaign. No one suspected that he himself had caused this report to be circulated. He wanted to entice the Austrians across the mountains, and they walked into the trap. Frederick had taken up a position that would enable him to fall upon the enemy as it emerged from the mountains, and he awaited Prince Charles with perfect calmness and confidence. His concealed position completely deceived the Austrians; they supposed the small band of Prussians, which they had discovered from a mountain top, to be part of the rear-guard of the army retreating to Breslau.

When Frederick crossed the stream at Striegau on the morning of the fourth of June, his troops encountered two battalions of Saxons, who were not a little startled to meet with Prussians there. They halted to wait for the rest of the army to come up with them, but it had scarcely made its appearance when Frederick opened a murderous artillery fire. The Austrian cavalry hurled itself upon the Prussians, but was soon thrown into wildest confusion and totally routed. The two Saxon battalions that had led the way were almost entirely cut to pieces, and the Austrians who followed shared the same fate. The Prince of Lorraine was thoroughly deceived, for he supposed the cannonading and fire of musketry came from the Saxons who were capturing Striegau. It did not occur to him, therefore, to send relief, for he still imagined the Prussians in full retreat toward Breslau. When at last he discovered the Saxons in disorderly flight and realized what had happened, he hastened to place his troops in order of battle, but before this could be accomplished the Prussians had attacked and routed them. Nothing was left for him, after five hours' hard fighting, but to turn about and escape by way of Hohenfriedberg. They were not pursued, for Frederick's army was too exhausted after the struggle. It was a terribly disastrous battle for Austria and Saxony, and for Frederick a victory which did not produce the results it seemed to promise.

Prince Charles withdrew to Bohemia, and took up a strong position there with the Saxons. Frederick followed, but did not dare to attack him while he was so strongly intrenched, and remained there inactive for three months, while the Austrians had as little desire to assume the offensive before the arrival of re-enforcements.

All this time the war in Flanders had been blazing fiercely, and the French had gained several victories over the allies. The King of England, George II, who had been placed in a very trying position by France, was anxious for Maria Theresa and Frederick to make terms with each other, and tried his best to bring it about. An agreement was actually drawn up, but when Maria Theresa found that the King of England had guaranteed the possession of Silesia to Frederick, she firmly refused to have anything more to do with it. Rather would she—and these were her own words—"part with the gown from her back than Silesia." She attached but little importance to the lost battle of Hohenfriedberg, and had perfect confidence in the judgment and bravery of Prince Charles of Lorraine and the loyalty of her Hungarians. Moreover, the prospects were good that the imperial crown would fall to her husband's lot. How then could she resign herself to the thought of sacrificing her beloved Silesia?

Her consort, Francis Stephen, was indeed elected Emperor and crowned under the name of Francis I, and thus Maria Theresa's dearest wish was fulfilled. She had fresh hope and courage, and a vigorous prosecution of the war was ordered.

The plans of George II of England came to naught, and Frederick resumed hostilities, for the Empress would never consent to give up Silesia; but he knew his task was a hard one. In Silesia the Hungarians had taken Kosel. A part of his army was sent to recapture it and drive them out, in which it was successful. Another detachment went to join old Dessauer at Halle, to oppose the Saxons who were threatening Brandenburg. Frederick had but twenty-two thousand men to oppose a superior force of Austrians, and delay had placed them at a disadvantage; for it had enabled the enemy to approach so near that an attack could not be avoided. He determined therefore to change his position and move farther away; but just as he was about to put this plan into execution, Charles of Lorraine began his assault. It was on the morning of September 30, 1745, near Sohr. Frederick still had time to dispose his troops; then he hurled his cavalry against the Austrians. This was the beginning of a battle that resulted in a brilliant victory for the Prussians, for the infantry with magnificent bravery followed the example of the cavalry. For five days Frederick's army camped undisturbed on the battlefield, and then moved toward Silesia to go into Winter quarters.

Once more there were hopes of peace, but it was not yet to be. In Vienna a Winter campaign had been determined on. The army was to advance directly to Berlin under the Prince of Lorraine. One division on the Rhine was to unite with Saxony in driving the Prussians from Halle, and then join the main army before Berlin. Maria Theresa's secret plans were betrayed, however, to the King of Prussia, and that enabled him to set every lever in motion to thwart her projects, in accordance with his favorite method, "anticipate the disaster." It was dangerous work for him, for Russia had promised to support Saxony in case of attack from Prussia, and the warning was repeated when Frederick announced his purpose; but strong measures were necessary, and he departed to join the main body of his army in Silesia. Here he learned that Prince Charles and the Saxons had invaded Upper Lusatia. After seeing that the Silesian frontier was well protected, therefore, he hastened with all possible secrecy to Lusatia and met the enemy at Kunersdorf. His sudden attack was successful, and put an end to all hopes of taking Berlin by surprise. The unexpected appearance of the Prussians and their victory disheartened the Austrian army, and Prince Charles retreated to Bohemia.

Nor was this defeat all. Frederick summoned old Dessauer to Saxony, advanced against Dresden, and made an offer of peace to Saxony, but it was rejected. The sword had to settle the question, which it speedily did. The battle of Kesselsdorf was decisive; a bad blunder of the Saxons gave the victory to Prussia, and obliged Prince Charles to seek safety with his army. The defeated Saxons abandoned their capital, and Frederick entered Dresden, December 18, 1745. This opened the way for peace, and terms were made soon afterward by which Frederick definitely acknowledged Maria Theresa's right to the electoral vote of Bohemia and the validity of her husband's election as Emperor, but retained possession of Silesia.

Thus Austria, great as her losses had been in this war, had at least gained what the Empress so earnestly desired; but at the same time had been again obliged to leave Silesia in the *hands of Prussia and put a good face on the matter. Saxony, on the other hand, had felt the full weight of the conqueror's hand, and was glad to come out of it so cheaply after all. The treaty of Dresden also securely settled various other affairs of Maria Theresa's at home, which had been disturbed by the long and ruinous conflict.