The Beginning of the Seven Years’ War

Prince Anton Wenzel Kaunitz

The reversal of the alliances

Austrian Chancellor Prince Anton Wenzel Kaunitz had already seen the possibilities and his presence earlier in Paris gave him the opportunity to soften up the French court further, not least through contact with the influential mistress of the French King, Madame de Pompadour. Here Kaunitz deployed flattery, opening a correspondence between the French Marchioness and his own Empress which so indulged the Frenchwoman that she became the most ardent supporter of an Austro-French alliance. From the beginning Maria Theresa fully supported Kaunitz’s vision of a dramatic ‘Renversement des alliances’.

Recalled to Vienna, Kaunitz pursued his policy with vigour. He worked hard to lull London into believing the ancient alliance was solid while inflaming tensions wherever possible between Prussia and England. Gradually London began to suspect Austrian intentions but Kaunitz still managed to temporise. In order to secure France, Kaunitz had to break with England but he dare not do this without having assured himself of France’s support. The negotiations on troop numbers in the Netherlands proved fertile ground for spinning things out. As the Duke of Newcastle had pointed out, the Austrian Netherlands was ‘a kind of common country’ shared by Austria, Britain and the Dutch. It was also London’s commercial door to the Continent.

In 1755 matters came to a head and the Empress listed her grievances against the English court and the maritime powers, noting that she ‘has never had the satisfaction of seeing her allies do justice to her principles’. Further, she responded to London’s claims that England had spent so much blood and treasure to support the House of Austria by pointing out: ‘to those efforts England owes its present greatness, riches and liberty’.

London’s statesmen began to realise something was moving and peremptorily demanded a guarantee of military aid to Hanover in the event of French aggression, to ‘display the real intentions of the court of Vienna’. Kaunitz simply referred them to the Empress’s note, knowing full well that this would provoke the King of England to turn to Prussia and thus assist further the rupture between Berlin and Paris.

The nurturing of an alliance with France was only the keystone of Kaunitz’s new diplomatic architecture. He intended to secure more allies to destroy the King in Prussia. To this end his negotiations with Russia promised parts of Prussia and Pomerania to the Empress Elizabeth in return for a Russian army descending on Frederick. In another set of negotiations, part of Pomerania was vouchsafed to Sweden in return for a Swedish army crossing the Prussian frontier. Saxony, the arch-enemy of Prussia, would also join in the war.

Kaunitz at this stage could not know if this deadly constellation would prove fatal for Prussia or even guarantee the return of Silesia but if this remarkable diplomatic revolution could be achieved he realised that the war which would follow from it would annihilate Frederick’s armies and, if not utterly destroy his country of barely five million, it would almost certainly prevent Prussia from menacing Austria and indeed Europe for a hundred years. From his sleepy baroque castle in Moravia, from which avenues lined with fruit trees spread out for miles in the direction of Vienna, Kaunitz polished and worked on his plan.

These negotiations were conducted with great secrecy. At a suitable moment, and with the Empress’s backing, Kaunitz summoned the Council of State to announce his plans to the ministers and the Emperor. Maria Theresa feigned ignorance of the entire stratagem, aware that Kaunitz’s proposal was not only brilliantly unorthodox but likely to incur considerable disapproval. Once again Maria Theresa was supporting wholeheartedly a gifted man whose intellectual vision was infinitely greater than her own. Her judgement of character as in the case of Van Swieten was, however, faultless: Kaunitz was the diplomatic genius of the age.

When the day came for Kaunitz to propose his plan, he had barely announced his intentions when the Emperor, Maria Theresa’s husband Francis Stephen, rising up with great emotion brought his fist firmly down on the table and exclaimed, ‘Such an unnatural alliance is impracticable and shall never take place.’ The monarch instantly left the room. This was not a promising beginning but Maria Theresa was nothing if not mistress in her own house and she encouraged Kaunitz to proceed with the details in Francis’s absence. After affecting much interest, the Empress resolved to bring her husband round and spoke with such enthusiasm for Kaunitz’s plans that no minister dared to contradict them.

In the event London panicked and signed a treaty with Prussia in January affording Maria Theresa the moral high ground of accusing England of ‘abandoning the old system’ first with this new Convention of Westminster. On 13 May 1756 she expressed her disappointment with England to the British envoy. Not by one breath did she admit that two weeks earlier at Versailles Austria and France had signed their own treaty whereby Austria promised to defend French dominions in Europe (though maintaining neutrality towards England), while France was to aid Austria without any exception. France and Austria, enemies for three hundred years now found themselves, to their own astonishment, placed in close proximity and all the rules of political calculation hitherto held as immutable were at one stroke demolished. In modern parlance Kaunitz and Maria Theresa had really thought ‘outside the box’.

Not that it should be imagined Prussia was to be an innocent victim in all this. Frederick had already admitted ‘I very much should like to tear Bohemia away from her’ and he envisaged a renewal of hostilities that would destroy Habsburg hegemony once and for all. Prussia would take Bohemia, Bavaria would revive her claims to Upper Austria and Tyrol, France would dismember the Netherlands and Sardinia would absorb Lombardy.

Fortunately for Austria, Frederick, whatever his talents, possessed none of the gifts of Kaunitz. The King in Prussia soon realised that the Convention of Westminster was a fatal diplomatic blunder that had bought him neither time nor a credible ally on the mainland of Europe. England could not help Prussia against the deadly alliance that was threatening to encircle Frederick. There was no naval dimension to renewed campaigning in Silesia and not even any British troops to create a distraction.

Only a preventative war launched with rapidity could possibly stave off the fatal constellation gathering around his country and thus Frederick, like Germany in 1914, was to launch a quick assault on a neighbour, in this case Saxony, in the hope of seizing the initiative in a multi-front war. Frederick saw that Austria had not completed her preparations and so determined to fight a limited campaign to knock out his most implacable foe. With Vienna humbled, the coalition against him would fall apart. Demanding an unambivalent statement of Habsburg intentions, he received as he expected an utterly unsatisfactory response. Maria Theresa simply replied: ‘In the present crisis I deem it necessary to take measures for the security of myself and my allies which tend to the prejudice of no one.’ Austria had no intention of violating any treaty but neither would she bind herself by any promise which might prevent her acting ‘as circumstances required’.

This was all Frederick needed. The Prussian Canton system of conscription efficiently and rapidly brought Frederick’s army up to about 150,000 men. Speed and aggression were the watchwords of this force and its supreme commander. Meticulous planning was another quality. The destruction of Saxony was to be accompanied by a merciless but premeditated pillaging of its resources to support the Prussian war effort. Of the country’s 6 million thaler annual revenue 5 million were to be sequestered for the Prussian military machine. This annual ‘tribute’ alone would secure the survival of the Prussian economy and represented a third of the total of the Prussian war effort. The Prussian army moved swiftly at the end of August 1756 to occupy Dresden and bottle up the Saxon army in the fortress of Pirna. In a matter of days the Kingdom of Saxony was looted and systematically stripped of her wealth.

Frederick’s personal responsibility for the destruction and exploitation that followed was immense. His vindictiveness was unlimited towards those who had crossed him and he appears to have taken great delight in ordering the Prussian Freikorps’ detonation of the Saxon statesman, Count Brühl’s schloss, with the proviso of course that it should appear that he knew nothing of the pillage. Even the British representative at Frederick’s court commented after the wanton sacking of Hubertsburg castle that these actions demonstrated ‘a meanness that I am really ashamed to narrate’.

The Prussian irruption into Saxony was the price Maria Theresa appeared willing to pay to maintain the moral high ground and show up Frederick as an unambiguous aggressor and breaker of treaties. But Frederick, who had published his own manifestos of half-truths and dubious history, was uninterested in such niceties. He pushed on into Bohemia hoping to compel the Saxons in Pirna to give up any hope of relief, capturing Teschen and Aussig an der Elbe (Dečin and Usti nad Labem in modern Czech) along the north-western Bohemian frontier. To counter this audacious move was an Austrian army of 32,465 troops supported by a corps of some 22,000 under Piccolomini, all of them under the newly promoted Field Marshal Maximilian Ulysses Browne.

Maximilian Ulysses Browne

Browne’s defence of Bohemia

Browne’s task was initially to relieve Pirna but Frederick’s blitzkrieg made the defence of Bohemia his first priority. A plan was devised to check and hold the Prussians in an engagement while relief to the Saxons was organised through the difficult but picturesque terrain of the mountains of ‘Saxon Switzerland’ via a ‘flying column’. On 1 October 1756, Browne skilfully deployed a force of Croatian irregulars on the tangled slopes of the volcanic Lobosch hill. Behind this was the right flank of his army but most of his troops were cunningly concealed behind the marshy banks of the Morellen stream. The Prussian King fell for the trap. Believing the Croats were simply the rearguard of an army moving away from him he ordered the Duke of Bevern to clear the hill and thus enable the rest of the Austrian army to be attacked in the flank.

The Battle of Lobositz that ensued was to remain a bitter memory for Frederick for the rest of his life. As Bevern advanced to drive the Croats from their positions, he was met by a murderous rapid fire from skirmishers in concealed positions, which brought his infantry to a standstill. If this was not enough to do more than irritate Frederick, he was suddenly given a vivid example of the progress made with Liechtenstein’s artillery reforms. As Frederick ordered his cavalry to chase what he thought was a retreating Austrian cavalry division, the Austrian horsemen led their Prussian pursuers directly on to the guns of the Habsburg batteries drawn up behind the Morellen stream. These opened fire with case at 300 paces with devastating effect. The Prussian horse was cut down in a matter of seconds and soon fled in utter disorder. It could not be rallied, even when Frederick ordered his own infantry to fire at them to prevent them throwing his entire centre into disarray.

A second cavalry charge fared little better and as the fog cleared around midday Frederick became demoralised. He was aware that his heavy cavalry had ceased to exist as an effective fighting arm so he promptly removed himself from the battlefield, leaving Field Marshal Keith to save what could be saved. The Croats were now being supported by regular Austrian units under Lacy and the Prussian infantry attack stalled and began to waver. But at this moment, as so often in warfare, the fate of individuals decided the day. Lacy was wounded and carried from the battle, with a dispiriting effect on his troops. Keith seeing the Austrian offensive falter organised a vigorous counter-attack and began rolling up the Austrian infantry. Browne seeing his advance guard in difficulties ordered them to withdraw, covering it with the main part of his force, which effectively halted any attempt by the Prussians at pursuit and brought the battle to an end. Prussian casualties were noticeably higher than the Austrian losses, which were computed at 2,873. Keith had saved the day for Frederick and his army was in undisputed possession of the battlefield once Bevern had driven out the remaining Croats, but it had been at a terrible cost.

As an officer attached to Frederick noted:

On this occasion Frederick did not come up against the same kind of Austrians he had beaten in four battles in a row. He was not dealing with people like Neipperg or the blustering Prince Charles of Lorraine. He faced Browne who had grown grey in the service and whose talent and experience had raised him to one of the heroes of his time. He faced an artillery which Prince Liechtenstein had brought to perfection at his own expense. He faced an army which during ten years of peace had attained a greater mastery of the arts of war.

Meanwhile Browne stole away with 9,000 men through the wooded hills on the left bank of the Elbe and in a series of impressive forced marches, unheard of in an Austrian army of five years earlier, arrived opposite the Saxon troops. But these were too demoralised to provide any opportunities to rally and they consistently failed to communicate with Browne, forcing him to return to Bohemia. Shortly after this the Saxons surrendered to the Prussians, giving Austro-Saxon cooperation a very poor name.

Frederick had hoped to establish his winter quarters but the Battle of Lobositz despite the Frederician propaganda had in fact been a draw. Browne now commanded the country around Frederick’s forces and used his irregular troops to harry and plunder Prussian lines of communication so that the King in Prussia had little choice but to withdraw his army back to Saxony for the winter. The Austrian army had certainly not failed its first test.

The Saxon army on the other hand met a fate which was considered highly innovative for the time. It was simply incorporated into the Prussian army. Only the officers were allowed the ‘choice’ between swearing loyalty to Prussia and incarceration. This step, heartless, bold and cynical, caused protests even in Prussia. Frederick saw them off with the comment: ‘I take pride in being original.’ In fact, from a practical point of view, it would turn out to be a grave error. The Saxons proved notoriously unreliable in battle fighting for their Prussian masters. More than two-thirds deserted while the incorporation of a nation’s entire fighting force into new uniforms, oaths and drills under Prussian command was rightly and widely seen at the time as sinister proof of Prussian expansionary tendencies.

Moreover, in France any lingering sympathy for Frederick was strongly dissipated by his behaviour in Saxony. The Dauphin after all was married to the daughter of the Elector. But Frederick was like many cruel cynics utterly oblivious to the effects of his behaviour. Nowhere was this to have more devastating consequences for him than with regard to Russia. Lulled by the wildly over-optimistic reports of the incompetent and boorish British envoy Charles Hanbury Williams, Frederick was encouraged to think that bribing the Russian minister Bestuzhev would secure Russian neutrality. On Hanbury’s advice he ordered the transfer of the payment and even denuded his units in East Prussia, so convinced was he by the Englishman’s dispatches. On Christmas Day the news, an unwelcome Christmas present, arrived. The payment notwithstanding, Russia was preparing to put an army of 100,000 into the field against Prussia the following spring.

Frederick invades Bohemia again

Again Frederick was persuaded that Bohemia was the key to his strategy. He had to seize the initiative and commit his entire army to nothing less than a four-pronged invasion of Bohemia to deliver, in his words, the ‘Grand Coup’. On 18 April 1757 this formidable invasion force crossed the frontier at four points, causing panic and consternation throughout Bohemia. The ‘final reckoning’ between the two pre-eminent dynasties of the German speaking lands was at hand.

After some debate, one Austrian army under Charles of Lorraine fell back on Prague to await the arrival of another, under Daun. So concerned was Kaunitz at the turn of events and disagreements between Lorraine and his brilliant subordinate Ulysses Browne that he set off with his personal physician from Vienna to Prague to instil some sense of coherence into Austrian strategy, which seemed to be crumbling before Prussia’s blitzkrieg. But Kaunitz left too late. On 6 May two Prussian armies effected their conjunction and now were marching on Prague to face an outnumbered foe.

Lorraine and Browne would have to fight alone without Daun. They drew up their troops east of Prague where today the heavily built up suburb of ŽiŽkov runs along raised ground. Frederick ordered his infantry to shoulder muskets to speed up their march and outflank the two Austrian lines but Browne immediately spotted the movement and deployed his second line in a 90-degree shift to confront the Prussians, opening fire on the massed Prussian infantry still in the act of deployment. Several Prussian regiments were completely overwhelmed and the Saxon regiments broke and fled. As Field Marshal Schwerin attempted to rally his infantry he fell in a hail of musket balls from the Austrian line which, in parade ground drill, was advancing and halting to fire a volley every fifty seconds. The Austrian artillery meanwhile had come into action and was rapidly depleting the Prussian infantry who were bogged down in soft wet ground.

At this point it looked as if the Prussians would be thrown back. Frederick once again fled the battlefield, blaming stomach cramps and fearing the worst, but Browne fell from his horse wounded by a cannonball and the Austrian attack faltered. The Prussian cavalry led by Ziethen’s ‘new’ Hussars showed that there was not much difference in quality between the imitation and the real thing. Striking the Austrian cavalry in the flank, the Prussians scattered their opponents and opened a gap in the angle between the Austrian infantry’s original and new lines. The crisis of the battle had arrived and Charles of Lorraine fainted at this moment with chest pains and had to be carried from the field. The Austrian attack ground to a halt and by mid-afternoon, faced with a weakening front, the regimental commanders chose to conduct a fighting withdrawal into the city, covered by cavalry. Thanks to the near-suicidal rearguard action of the Austrian cavalry somehow the army avoided annihilation and retreated successfully behind the walls of the city. Once again the Prussians had won but their casualties were higher than the Austrians’ (14,400 compared to the Austrians’ 13,400, of whom nearly 5,000 were prisoners).

Frederick, recovering from his brief panic, was confident that the Siege of Prague would be completed before any Austrian reinforcements could arrive and he interpreted the news of Kaunitz leaving Vienna as a sure sign that the Austrian Chancellor was coming to negotiate personally with him. Despite his extravagant powers of self-deception, Frederick was not utterly negligent, and he dispatched a screen of 25,000 men under Bevern to watch for any Austrian relief force.

On 7 May the relief force and its commander Daun were greeted by a fanfare announcing Kaunitz’s arrival. The two men had great confidence in each other and agreed a strategy to relieve Lorraine in Prague by retreating first to Kolín where forces could be gathered to give Daun the capacity to engage the Prussians on his own terms. Kaunitz would return to Vienna immediately to organise the reinforcements. Both men were critical of the sluggish concentration of Lorraine’s early movements and realised that the next weeks could decide the fate of their monarchy.

Kaunitz arrived back in Vienna on the morning of 11 May and went straight in his muddied boots to the Empress, brushing past the near-apoplectic protests of the Court Chamberlain, Khevenhueller who was, like so many of his family, unimpressed by any departure from official protocol. The Konferenz ‘in mixtis‘ of privy councillors and War Cabinet members cooled their heels while Kaunitz spent two hours with Maria Theresa apprising her of the details of the reverse at Prague and the urgent need to reinforce Daun.

The Chancellor drew up an 18-point plan to reinforce Daun, which was rapidly endorsed by the Empress and thus implemented without further delay. Within two weeks Daun’s force numbered more than 50,000 men and 156 guns. By the end of the first week of June he could even risk taking the offensive, and orders to this effect were dispatched from Vienna.