Joseph II and His Generals in 1779.


The War of the Bavarian Succession- Prussian Soldiers.


Before the Seven Years’ War, Frederick’s imperial strategy was largely negative. But when Joseph’s brief enthusiasm for his imperial office faded away in the early 1770s, he could see the opportunities for more positive action. As the Habsburg gamekeeper turned poacher, the Hohenzollern poacher could—perhaps even had to—turn gamekeeper. The first climax in this reversal of roles came with the death of the Elector of Bavaria. Frederick’s immediate response was cautious.

As he wrote to the Dowager Queen of Denmark, he would follow the advice of the Emperor Augustus: festina lente (“Make haste slowly”). That did not mean he would be passive. According to the French envoy, the Chevalier Gaussen, when news arrived that an Austrian army had entered Bavaria in support of Joseph’s claims, he exclaimed: “These people must think I am dead, I shall prove the contrary.” With the Turks about to declare war on Russia (or so he believed) and France and Spain about to join in the American war, the melting pot was bubbling over. Crucial in the Bavarian business, he realized, was going to be the attitude of the other Wittelsbach heirs, led by the Elector of the Palatinate, Karl Theodor. So Count Goertz was sent off to Mannheim to find out whether the latter had already done a deal with the Austrians.

He had. Afraid that he might lose the whole inheritance, Karl Theodor had signed a convention recognizing Austrian claims to most of Lower Bavaria, the duchy of Mindelheim in Swabia and the Bohemian fiefs in the Upper Palatinate (northern Bavaria). Further negotiations were envisaged to round off the Austrian acquisitions. There was much back-slapping in Vienna, where Maria Theresa hailed Kaunitz as “the greatest statesman in Europe” and Joseph congratulated himself on having pulled off a famous diplomatic coup. They also looked forward to acquiring later all of Bavaria in exchange for Habsburg territory in southwestern Germany and the Netherlands. Given all they knew about Frederick, one wonders how they could have miscalculated so badly. Did they really imagine he would have allowed such a shift in the German balance of power to go unchallenged? He may have referred to himself in a letter to Prince Henry as an “old carcass” but simultaneously was issuing orders to get the army ready. The foreign office was told to prepare a protest against the “injustice and violence” of Austrian conduct with a view to initiating “a kind of negotiation” to keep things ticking over until the spring. On the pretext of bringing forward the usual military reviews, the Silesian regiments were told to be in position by 1 April. As he told one of his generals on 26 January, it looked very much as though war was inevitable.

So it proved. The Austrians might have ensnared Karl Theodor, but as he too had no heir of his own, the consent of the next Wittelsbach in line, Karl August, Duke of Zweibrücken, was also needed. Luckily for Frederick, he was a hopeless spendthrift, financially dependent on French subsidies to stay afloat, and the last thing his paymasters wanted was Austrian expansion in Germany. In February 1778, the French foreign minister, Vergennes, made it known that the Austrians were on their own. On 24 March they were informed that the proposed Bavarian partition was not covered by the treaty of 1756 and that no French diplomatic or military assistance would be forthcoming. This was very bad news for Joseph and Kaunitz, always more forward in their policy than Maria Theresa. It ruled out the complete exchange and made problematic even the retention of what Karl Theodor had conceded already. Even though he could not induce his Russian ally to provide military support, Frederick fancied his chances in a straight contest with Austria. As he observed to Finckenstein in April, in the previous war he had held off so many powers all at once, that just the one should not prove a problem. So he felt able to move decisively. Mobilization was ordered on 18 March, and on 6 April he left Potsdam for Silesia. Three months of diplomatic maneuvering followed but, after receiving an evasive reply to his latest ultimatum, on 3 July Frederick declared war and two days later crossed the frontier.

What followed for Prussia was inglorious in the short term, satisfactory in the medium term and alarming in the long term. Frederick was sixty-six years old when he went off to war for the last time and was in particularly frail health. He was so weak, recorded General von Schmettau, that he could barely sit on his horse, even at walking pace. That did not stop him from going straight on the offensive (thus anticipating Prussian armies in 1792, 1806, 1813, 1866, 1870, 1914, 1939 and 1941). He had every reason to be confident. Unlike in 1756, the Austrians had no allies to create diversions to the west, north and east, while Frederick was reinforced by 22,000 Saxons supporting their own ruler’s claim to part of the Bavarian inheritance. So the ensuing stalemate was a terrible disappointment. Prince Henry’s army on the western front achieved an early success, crossing into Bohemia via passes wrongly thought to be impassable, taking Marshal Laudon by surprise and forcing him back to Münchengrätz. Perhaps because he disapproved of the war in the first place, Henry then went on the defensive. Meanwhile, Frederick’s eastern army was making no progress at all in Moravia. The Austrians under Marshal Lacy took up a strong defensive position on the Upper Elbe to the north of Königgrätz and sat it out. It may be recalled that Frederick had written about his disastrous campaign of 1744: “It must be allowed that it is more difficult to make war in Bohemia than in any other country.” Thirty-four years later it was just as difficult and for all the same reasons, or rather even more difficult because the military gap between the two combatants had narrowed appreciably in the meantime.

As autumn approached, supplies were getting lower, the desertion rate was getting higher and the weather was getting worse. Snowfall at the beginning of September heralded an early and hard winter. In the middle of the month Prince Henry began to retreat back to Saxony, blaming an acute shortage of provisions, and Frederick followed to Silesia at the beginning of October. There had been no battle, only low-level skirmishing in which the Prussians usually came off worse. Three months of inaction had brought Frederick’s army only demoralization, disease and desertion, which combined to reduce his army by 40,000. This was the inglorious part. But Frederick had done enough to achieve his political objective, which had always been the main object of the exercise. He had been helped by sharp divisions within the opposing camp. So anxious was Maria Theresa to avoid war that, even after Frederick had invaded, she sent him a personal plea from a mother whose “maternal heart” was distressed to see two of her sons and a son-in-law going off to war. She also sent Baron Thugut as a special envoy to the Prussian camp to try to find a compromise solution. Understandably, Joseph was outraged at his mother going behind his back: “We are telling him [Frederick] that all the forces of the Monarchy are nothing and that, when he wants something, we’re obliged to consent…I declare I find the action as injurious as possible.”

Divided and incoherent, the Austrian triumvirate was no match for Frederick’s solo voice. The attempt to make a renunciation of the Bavarian claim conditional on him giving up his (much better founded) reversionary interest in Ansbach and Bayreuth was particularly clumsy, serving only to advertise the weakness of the Austrian position. It is pointless to speculate what might have happened if the war had resumed in 1779. By November 1778, Maria Theresa had had enough. As she told Count Mercy, her ambassador at Versailles, the experience of the Seven Years’ War and the much stronger financial resources of Prussia disqualified any thought of a war of attrition. Austria had already spent 100,000,000 gulden just to get to this point and the treasury was bare. By this time, a way out was being offered by the other two great continental powers. With France now fully engaged in war with Great Britain, it was the tsarina who took control of events. When the war began, Frederick had been angered by her refusal to send military assistance on the grounds that Prussia had not been attacked on its own territory, a view that was technically correct but hardly in keeping with the spirit of the alliance. She made amends in October by sending Prince Repnin on a diplomatic mission to seek to mediate, with the further instruction to liaise with Frederick on military assistance if the Austrians proved obdurate. The simultaneous dispatch of 30,000 soldiers to western Poland added the necessary muscle.

The negotiations conducted by the Franco-Russian mediators dragged on through the winter and into the spring, as the two sides sniped at each other both verbally and literally. “Never did there exist so strange a mixture of Warfare and Negotiation,” commented the British ambassador in Vienna. Not until 13 May 1779 did a treaty signed at Teschen in Saxony bring the war formally to an end. In territorial terms, Elector Karl Theodor of the Palatinate got the most, namely everything he had ceded in his treaty with Austria of 3 January 1778, apart from a modest strip of territory to the east of the river Inn with a population of about 120,000. This was named the “Inn Quarter” by Emperor Joseph and was all he had to show for his efforts. As in the case of the Polish Partition, the real victor was Frederick. Not only had he averted a game-changing shift in the German balance of power, he also now had a great-power guarantee of his own succession to Ansbach and Bayreuth. In 1772 West Prussia had been worth a lot more than Galicia, and now in 1779 Ansbach and Bayreuth were worth a lot more than the Innviertel. Also flushed with success was Catherine, rewarded for her mediation with the status of guarantor of the treaty. As the Treaty of Teschen renewed the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, this not only raised Russia to equal status with France but also opened the way for further intervention in imperial affairs.

So far, so good, but the long-term prospects for Frederick’s Prussia were alarming. The army’s performance had been dismal, as many of the participants recorded. “The Prussian army bears no resemblance to what it was before. There is no life in the generals and as for the officers, they are all demoralized and nowhere can the least order be found” was one verdict. Prince Henry complained that several of his subordinate generals were unfit for service and simply a burden: von Britzke was eighty years old and physically unable to go to war; Lossau had been carrying a bullet in his head since the battle of Torgau in 1760 and had no memory; old age made Kleist immobile; three of the major-generals were well over seventy; the general supposed to be commanding the rearguard could only travel by carriage; and so on. The quality of the rank-and-file was also thought to be deteriorating, not least because increasing numbers of native Prussian subjects were exempted from military service. For all his emphasis on the need for service and duty, Frederick could never bring himself to clear out the dead wood—and neither could his successors until the catastrophe of 1806 forced their hand.

Queen Luise famously remarked after that event that Prussia “had fallen asleep on the laurels of Frederick the Great,” but in reality it was Frederick who had dozed off after 1763. In 1767 he wrote to Prince Henry that the Seven Years’ War had “ruined the troops and destroyed discipline” but that he was making good progress in restoring the situation and that in three years everything would be back to normal. The campaign of 1778 disproved that forecast. During the second half of his reign the size of the army increased but there was no equivalent qualitative increase.

On 4 May 1779, Frederick’s negotiator at Teschen, Baron Johann Wilhelm von Riedesel, reported that the French and Russian mediators had predicted that the treaty about to be signed would guarantee a “stable, secure and long-lasting” peace in Germany. They also summed up the outcome of the episode as follows: Frederick had demonstrated how quickly and resolutely he responded to Austrian usurpations; France and Russia had shown how effective their diplomatic intervention could be; the Austrians would need at least fifteen years to repair their tattered finances; and Joseph’s undoubted territorial ambitions in the Balkans would be restrained by the knowledge that Russia would intervene to put a stop to any expansion. In his reply, Frederick agreed that Germany would remain undisturbed so long as France, Russia and Prussia acted together, but could not resist adding that he was naturally a skeptic and quoted the wise advice from the Norman father to his son: “Have trust!” “But whom should I trust, father?” “No one!”

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