The Seven Years’ War: Why Frederick Won I


Leibgarde battalion at Kolin, 1757.


Contemporary painting of the Battle of Rossbach.

Frederick may not have been triumphalist after the Treaty of Hubertusburg, but everyone else in Europe knew that he had every right to be. As the French Foreign Office conceded when sending a new envoy to Prussia in 1772, for Frederick the Peace of Hubertusburg had been “glorieuse.” The Seven Years’ War had been many things for many countries; for Prussia it had been “The Third Silesian War,” an existential struggle about great-power status. Ranke summed this up well:

If one could establish as a definition of a great power that it must be able to maintain itself against all others, even when they are united, then Frederick had raised Prussia to that position. For the first time since the days of the Saxon emperors and Henry the Lion [1129–95] a self-sufficient power was found in northern Germany, needing no alliance, dependent only upon itself.

Moreover, this third Silesian war was also the final Silesian war. As Austria had failed to win back the province, despite the support of France, Russia, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire, there was no prospect of ever achieving that in the future. Kaunitz’s aim “to reduce the house of Brandenburg to its original rank of a second-rate power” had to be abandoned. Even before the war ended, in March 1762, Maria Theresa had told her ambassador in France, Prince Starhemberg, that reconquest was “a chimerical idea and impossible to achieve.” By that time, the best she could hope for was the county and fortress of Glatz, and even that proved unattainable.

The account of the seven campaigns of 1756–62 has indicated some of the reasons for their outcome; it is now time to pull the threads together. The first concerns Saxony. Frederick’s preemptive strike of August 1756 looks very much like a gamble that failed. Held up longer than expected by local resistance, he did not have enough time to deliver a mortal blow against the main enemy before the end of the campaigning season. Moreover, it activated what until then had been merely a defensive alliance between France and Austria, obliging the former to come to the latter’s aid. But was it so “lunatic,” as has often been asserted?5 It is clear that the French would have joined in an aggressive war against Prussia anyway. It was even more obvious that the Russians were determined to attack and had only been deterred from acting in 1756 by Austria’s insistence on the need for delay.

There were three more positive reasons for Frederick’s decision. The first was strategic. For the Austrians, the obvious invasion route into Brandenburg was down the river Elbe through Saxony. As Berlin was unfortified and no more than two or three days’ march from the Saxon frontier, Prussian occupation of the Electorate provided a badly needed buffer.6 It was all the more necessary for Frederick to get in first, for Saxon hostility was intense. Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, was tied to the House of Habsburg by marriage (he had married a daughter of the Emperor Joseph I); by religion (a convert to Catholicism, he showed all the zeal of the neophyte); and by resentment at having been betrayed and exploited during the first two Silesian wars. Greed had prompted him to join Prussia and Bavaria in the attempted partition of Maria Theresa’s inheritance in 1740, but by 1744 he was back in the Austrian camp, a sadder if not wiser man. He was both led and kept there by his chief minister, Count Heinrich von Brühl, who nursed a personal hatred of Frederick that was heartily reciprocated. The Saxons hoped that their share of the spoils when Frederick was crushed, as seemed inevitable in 1756, would be a land-bridge across Silesia to link Saxony to Poland. For his part, Frederick had only the greatest contempt for his neighbor, dismissing Augustus as “the successor of kings from whom he has inherited only pride” and likening his state “to a ship without a compass, a prey to wind and waves.”

Secondly, and as a necessary corollary, an immediate occupation of Saxony was an enormous logistical advantage, allowing the river Elbe to be monopolized along virtually its entire navigable length. Crucial here was the great Prussian fortress of Magdeburg on the Elbe just north of the Saxon frontier, which Frederick’s predecessors had made the biggest and strongest in the kingdom.

Not only did it dominate the Elbe crossing, it was also the gateway to the lowlands of Lower Saxony, and allowed the domination of Hanover and Mecklenburg as well as Saxony. In the course of the Seven Years’ War it proved to be “of incalculable value” in the view of Jürgen Luh, while Christopher Duffy has written that without it, Prussia would almost certainly have gone under. From Magdeburg up the Elbe were sent the shiploads of food, forage and ammunition that kept the Prussian armies in the war zone. If the river upstream had been in Austrian hands, this great asset would have been a liability of equivalent severity.

Finally, and most importantly, the seizure of Saxony opened up the richest province in Central Europe to the Prussian foragers. In the course of the next six and a half years, it was bled white to sustain Frederick’s war effort. Every state, of course, did the same to the territories it occupied in the course of a war. What singled out Frederick’s treatment of Saxony was its intensity, duration and success. This was a result of careful planning. Even before the invasion had been launched, a detailed instruction had been issued to Friedrich Wilhelm von Borcke, the official from the General Directory appointed to supervise the operation. He was authorized to take control of every source of public revenue in the conquered territories, while reassuring Saxon taxpayers that it was not the Prussians’ intention to ruin them. Indeed, it was promised that less would be paid than under the previous regime, for a flat tax yielding 5,000,000 talers would replace the great diversity that was estimated to have extracted appreciably more than that in the past. Receipts would be issued for requisitioned food or forage and would be taken into account when assessing taxation. Borcke and his small team of Prussians conscripted the local Saxon officials into their administration and went to work with a will, although never efficiently enough for their exacting royal master. It has been estimated that at least a third of Frederick’s total costs during the war were covered by the involuntary sacrifices of the Saxons, in other words the single largest source of income. Moreover, it was significantly greater than anything France or Russia managed to squeeze out of the Prussian territories in the west (Cleves, Mark, etc.) or east (East Prussia), respectively. By putting experienced bureaucrats in charge of the operation Frederick maximized the returns. Needless to say, his stated commitment not to inflict ruin on his new subjects could not be honored in wartime. He himself famously observed that Saxony was like a flour sack, for no matter how often one hit it, a puff always came out. When Prince Henry proved too considerate to the local population, the task of requisitioning was reassigned to three civilian specialists, prompting the prince to complain that three villains had been authorized to loot and pillage.

The control of the Elbe through possession of Saxony was mirrored by the control of the river Oder through possession of Silesia. Just as the preemptive strike of August 1756 had brought occupation of the Saxon fortresses, so had the preemptive strike of December 1740 put the Silesian fortresses into Frederick’s hands. Indeed, it has been argued cogently by Peter-Michael Hahn that the fundamental reason for Frederick’s military success during his reign was that early conquest. So when the Third Silesian War began in earnest, he was already in a strong position.

The Austrians on the other hand were handicapped by serious structural problems. Neither Bohemia nor Moravia was as fertile as Silesia or Saxony, nor were they as well equipped with navigable rivers. The routes up into the Bohemian mountains from their main base at Königgrätz were relatively straightforward, but coming down the other side through the narrow ravines that served as passes was much more problematic and in winter often impossible. And once any Austrian army reached the Silesian plains, it was confronted by Prussian fortresses, the most formidable being Neisse, Glatz and Schweidnitz. That was why the losses of Glatz in 1757 and again in 1760 and Schweidnitz in 1761 were regarded by Frederick as such serious blows—and their recaptures such causes for celebration. It also explains why he was so insistent that he must have Glatz back when peace was negotiated. It was the fortresses not the battles which kept Silesia in Prussian hands. Other fortresses of importance were Colberg on the Baltic, Küstrin on the Oder east of Berlin, Stettin at the mouth of the Oder and Magdeburg on the Elbe. Together, this network of “mighty nails,” as Frederick described them, bound the provinces together and allowed him to exploit his central position and to fight on “interior lines.” This latter concept, much favored by military historians, is really a matter of common sense: a defender in a central position enjoys a natural advantage over several converging enemies because their lines of supply and communication lengthen while his own shorten. Frederick demonstrated this on several occasions during the war, most spectacularly in 1757 with Rossbach followed by Leuthen. It is all the more remarkable therefore that he was so cavalier in his treatment of fortresses. This was well put by Carlyle: “Nothing so surprises me in Friedrich as his habitual inattention to the state of his Garrisons, he has the best of Commandants and also the worst: Tauentzien in Breslau, Heyde in Colberg, unsurpassable in the world; in Glatz a d’O; in Schweidnitz a Zastrow, both of whom cost him dear.”

Another obvious but important asset enjoyed by Frederick was unity of command. As he was both absolutist head of state and commander-in-chief of the army, he concentrated all authority in his own person. His actual presence meant not only that his own orders were implemented forthwith but also those issued by subordinates acting in his name. Consequently, he could move very much more quickly than his opponents at both the strategic and the tactical level. He was very well aware of this, extolling the feats of similarly advantaged predecessors—Charles XII of Sweden, for example, “that Alexander of the North, who would have resembled the Macedonian conqueror in all respects if he had had the same luck.” There was no need for Frederick to consult ministers or ask parliament for funds! For him the gap between decision, order and implementation was prolonged only by the shortcomings of his agents (although they were plentiful). How different was the situation at Versailles, St. Petersburg or Vienna. Even such a strong and intelligent ruler as Maria Theresa found herself in toils, having to consult her husband Francis I (who was after all the Holy Roman Emperor), her son Joseph, her chancellor Kaunitz, and all the other grandees who sat on her Council.

At the other two allied courts, the vicious combination of weak rulers and strong factions made decision-making incoherent. So timid, irresolute and secretive was Louis XV that he had developed a personal and clandestine foreign service, the “secret du roi,” which was often at odds with the official institution. So a French envoy might find himself in the difficult situation of receiving two instructions, both signed by his royal master but incompatible in content. The senior French generals in Germany—the Duc de Broglie, the Marquis de Contades, the Prince de Soubise—seem to have spent as much time maneuvering against each other as against Prince Ferdinand. Although more energetic, the Tsarina Elizabeth was frequently immobilized by illness and just as susceptible to court intrigue. As a result there was a different commander-in-chief for each of the five campaigns the Russians fought. That the last of them, Count Alexander Borisovich Buturlin, was appointed because he had once been the tsarina’s lover graphically encapsulates the Russian military underperformance. Not only could he not read a map, he had no battlefield experience.

The importance of unity of command seems self-evident. Georg Friedrich von Tempelhoff, who served in the Prussian army throughout the war, first as an artilleryman and later as an officer, and wrote a six-volume history of the conflict, stated firmly that “it is the army led by its sovereign which enjoys the decisive advantage. Even the greatest general cannot and may not risk what a king who stands at the head of his troops can venture.” That was ruefully recognized by Field Marshal Daun, who had better reason than most to complain about the handicap of disunity of command. His main objective was the defense of the Habsburg Monarchy and that meant first and foremost keeping the army intact; as he wrote: “An army can soon be ruined but not so quickly put together again, and without armed force, the Monarchy has no means of support.” Napoleon, a keen student of the Seven Years’ War, agreed. From an early stage in his career, after observing the disunity of the allied coalition against revolutionary France, he saw that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Looking back on his military career, he proclaimed: “Unity of command is the most important thing in war.” However, the fact that Napoleon was languishing in exile on St. Helena when he uttered those words should give pause for further thought. Unity of command had allowed him to conduct the Austerlitz campaign, but it had also allowed him to enforce a misguided strategy in Spain in 1808, Russia in 1812, Saxony in 1813 and Belgium in 1815. Similarly, for Frederick unity of command made Hohenfriedberg, Rossbach, Leuthen and Torgau possible, but also Kolin, Hochkirch, Kunersdorf and Maxen. Unity of command proved to be a double-edged sword. When it worked, it could turn opportunity into triumph. But it could also elevate a reverse into a disaster. This was doubly dangerous for Frederick because, as we have seen, he was an inveterate risk-taker, a gambler who liked to call “Va banque!” During the dark days of the summer of 1760, he wrote to the Marquis d’Argens: “Our affairs are taking a terrible turn; whether I like it or not, I must now embark on a great adventure and play double or quits.”

To continue Frederick’s metaphor, it could be said that the cards with which he played the first two Silesian wars were inherited, as he freely admitted. By the time the third war ended, he had been on the throne for almost a quarter of a century and it must be conceded that he was dealing from a pack he had drawn himself. Not that he was a great innovator. Rather he took the “walking battery” bequeathed by his father and Old Dessauer, polished and refined it further and greatly increased its size. As with the civilian administration, he imitated but also intensified his father’s personal attention to business. Drill, drill and more drill; training, training and more training; exercises, exercises and more exercises—that was the lot of the Prussian soldier of all ranks. Special attention was paid to loading drill—a daily ritual—with the result that a Prussian musketeer could fire at a rate of rather more than twice a minute, which meant that a battalion could fire twelve times a minute, by some margin the fastest rate in Europe. The Austrian General Neipperg lamented that the Prussian infantry had fired five times before his own men had got off two shots. Frederick’s experiences in the Seven Years’ War did not change his mind on this point, all evidence of the importance of cold steel notwithstanding. In his Political Testament of 1768 he emphasized that battles are won by superior firepower, that therefore the infantry that loads fastest will prevail and so daily practice was essential.

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