Frederick II and a ‘Land Grab.’ II


Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg by Carl Röchling


Prague in 1744

This revival of Austrian fortunes was not to the liking of Frederick of Prussia at all. By the beginning of 1744 he was becomingly increasingly anxious that Britain and Austria might force a peace settlement on France that would cost him Silesia. He claimed to have in his possession a copy of a letter from George II to Maria Theresa stating ‘Madam, that which is good to receive is good to return’. Also alarming was the defection of Saxony to the enemy camp in December 1743, which revived the nightmare of a Saxony-Silesia-Poland bloc. On the other hand, Frederick had not rested on his laurels, using the period of peace to bring his army up to 140,000, to improve the cavalry and to form a war-chest of 6,000,000 talers, or enough–so he (wrongly) thought-for two campaigns. Only too well aware that his thinly resourced state must be at a disadvantage in any prolonged war of attrition, his strategy was to deliver sharp shocks to gain limited objectives in short wars. On this occasion, the war began brilliantly with the invasion of Bohemia and the capture of Prague on 16 September 1744 but nearly ended in disaster, as he greatly underestimated the dangers of a winter campaign in hostile territory. With his army melting away through desertions, he was forced to retreat back into Silesia, there to await the inevitable Austrian retribution.

The decisive battle came on 4 June 1745 at Hohenfriedberg when Frederick’s army of about 55,000 routed roughly the same number of Austrians and Saxons in four-and-a-half hours of savage fighting, capturing 7,000 and killing 4,000 for the loss of just over 1,000 Prussians. It was enough to save Silesia and to secure peace with Great Britain but not yet enough to bring the Austrians to the negotiating table. Only after further Prussian victories at Soor on 30 September, at Katholisch-Hennersdorf on 22 November and at Kesselsdorf on 15 December, which led to the capture of Dresden, could Maria Theresa be persuaded that, for the time being at least, Silesia would have to be abandoned. On Christmas Day 1745 the Peace of Dresden was signed, by which Frederick gained Silesia from Austria and a million talers from Saxony. In return, he recognized the election of Maria Theresa’s husband Francis as Holy Roman Emperor, which had occurred without Prussian participation the previous May. Frederick returned to Berlin to a hero’s welcome; it was from this time that he acquired the sobriquet ‘the Great’. He himself knew that he owed his triumph more to the army created by his father than to his own leadership, although an unusually favourable international situation helped, not to mention a good slice of luck. ‘From now on I shan’t hurt a fly, except to defend myself’, he wrote. It was to prove easier said than done.

Meanwhile, on the western front the Austrians were also finding the war heavy going. Although George II’s victory at Dettingen in 1743 had expelled them from Germany, the French found campaigning in the Austrian Netherlands much more congenial. Beginning in 1744 their armies, commanded by the maréchal de Saxe, an illegitimate son of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, won one victory after another, most spectacularly at Fontenoy near Tournai on 11 May 1745 in the presence of their king. When the battle was over, Louis XV and the Dauphin made a triumphal procession from one regiment to another to be fêted. It was undoubtedly the high-point of the reign. Shortly afterwards, the outbreak of the second great Jacobite rising sent most of the British contingents rushing back across the Channel. In the course of the next two campaigns Saxe’s army completed the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands and set about invading the Dutch Republic.

All this success should have allowed Louis XV to impose the sort of settlement his predecessor had achieved in 1678–9. Unfortunately, in other theatres, the war did not go so well. In Italy the Austrians and their Sardinian allies had achieved total control by the end of 1746, while in Great Britain the Jacobite rising came to an abrupt end at Culloden on 16 April 1746. Overseas, the capture of Madras by the French East India Company was counterbalanced by the loss of Cape Breton Island and Louisbourg. Growing British maritime supremacy brought a blockade of French trade and fears that the French sugar-islands in the Caribbean would be conquered. With neither side able to land a knockout blow and all combatants suffering from varying degrees of financial exhaustion, a settlement was painfully worked out and eventually signed at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) on 18 October 1748. Almost a decade of fighting across the globe did not yield a commensurate amount of territorial change. Outside Europe, Britain and France exchanged their Canadian and Indian conquests. On the continent, the French restored to the Dutch and the Habsburgs all their conquests in the Low Countries. Their only territorial gain was by proxy, Louis XV’s son-in-law Don Philip of Spain acquiring the Italian duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. So at long last, after thirty years of scheming, Elizabeth Farnese had succeeded in setting up her two sons by Philip V as independent sovereigns. Not surprisingly, a settlement that left France empty-handed, despite all Saxe’s great victories, was deeply unpopular, ‘bête comme la paix’ (as stupid as the peace) passing into everyday speech as an expressive simile.

Some consolation might be drawn from the humbling of the Habsburgs, indeed one French envoy at the Aachen peace conference proclaimed that ‘France has achieved her great aim, the humiliation of the House of Austria’. Certainly Maria Theresa was very bitter about her treatment at the hands of her notional allies, the British-as bitter as her father had been back in 1714. A longer-term perspective would have yielded some consolation to soothe her wounded pride. At least she had survived the dark days of 1740–1 when the very existence of the Monarchy was in doubt. If she had had to give up Silesia to Prussia, Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla to Don Philip, and a small portion of the Duchy of Milan to Sardinia, the great bulk of her bulky empire had been preserved, despite the adverse military verdict. With her husband given international recognition as Holy Roman Emperor, there was every reason to hope that the house of Habsburg-Lorraine would be as long-lived as its predecessor.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the loss of Silesia to Prussia, for it was populous (about 1,000,000 inhabitants), economically advanced (a flourishing textile industry and excellent water communications) and fiscally productive (yielding about 25 per cent of the total tax revenue of the Austrian and Bohemian lands). To lose all that was bad enough, but the damage did not stop there. As Silesia had formed an integral part of the economies of the neighbouring provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, they too suffered serious and lasting damage. Moreover, the fact that this great asset had passed to Prussia doubled the depth of the wound: if all the various resources of Silesia were added together and expressed by the algebraic symbol ‘x’, then the power relationship between the Habsburg Monarchy and Prussia changed as a result of its transfer not by ‘x’ but by two times ‘x’, for what had been taken away from the one was added to the other. The same applied to its strategic position. In the hands of the Habsburgs, Silesia was a tongue of territory stretching into northern Germany; its loss not only reduced Habsburg influence there, it also put Prussian armies within 100 miles (160 km) of Prague and 130 miles (210 km) of Vienna. The great victor of the War of the Austrian Succession was undoubtedly Frederick the Great. He had established his supremacy over his great rivals for the domination of northern Germany-Hanover and Saxony-and was now challenging Austria for the mastery of the whole German-speaking world. As Spain and the Dutch Republic had clearly forfeited their great-power status, Prussia joined France, Great Britain, Austria and Russia to form a pentarchy of states capable of acting independently in international affairs.

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