The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. — Marcus Aurelius

Frederick the Great - George Upton




The Camp at Bunzelwiltz

The next year began less fortunately than 1760 closed. The enemy determined to crush Frederick by weight of numbers. It was a long time, however, before military operations commenced. The King's forces had been so weakened that he dared not take the aggressive without reserves to fall back upon. Nor did the enemy dare to attack singly. Every effort was made to overwhelm him by united strength. With this end in view, in August, seventy-two thousand Austrians under General Laudon joined the Russians, making a total of one hundred and thirty thousand men, while Frederick's army was hardly fifty thousand strong. Frederick had never before confronted so strong a combination.

At the beginning of Spring the King left Saxony for Silesia, most of which was in the enemy's possession. The march was made swiftly, for the Austrians were establishing strong positions here and there. One day, about noon, he approached a Saxon village near the Bohemian frontier, in the vicinity of which an entrenched position was held by a detachment under the command of an Austrian captain. As soon as he noticed the King's arrival at the village, he began a vigorous fire. Frederick was leaning against a shed, deep in thought, and at first seemed to pay no attention to the firing. His aides besought him to leave, as the place was too dangerous.

"The bullet which is to hit me," said the King, "will come from above."

A few minutes later a shot struck a post three yards away, quickly followed by a second. Remarking, "They are growing too discourteous," he ordered the destruction of the nest. The entrenchment was stormed and the captain and his men were made prisoners. The Prussian soldiers took his watch, purse, and whatever else of value he had about him, and at last cut off the gold ornaments on his hat. This he pronounced an insult, and demanded to be taken to the King. After a respectful greeting, the King said:

"Your servant, my dear Captain. What can I do for you?" The captain complained of his ill treatment.

"Do you not know the usages of war?" said the King. "This is not a processional. Thank God that you escaped with your life. My people are very considerate after all."

The captain was surprised at the light manner in which the King spoke, for, as he afterward said, he had always supposed the conqueror of Silesia to be a strong, imperious man.

The march was immediately resumed, and whenever Austrians showed themselves they were dispersed. Too weak to attack the Austrians at that time investing Schweidnitz, the King kept on to Bunzelwiltz, a very favorable position not far from Schweidnitz, where an entrenched camp was established in such a scientific and formidable manner that it looked like a fortress. The work of entrenching was rushed at every point, and officers joined hands with the soldiers in the work. Earthworks were also constructed in the churchyard in the village of Jauernick by soldiers sent for that purpose, who worked under the supervision of an officer.

As they were throwing up the earth an old box was struck. They did not remove it with the usual care, but broke it open a little and found there was money in it. They would have instantly pounced upon it, but the officer drove them back and took the box himself, assuring them he would divide the money fairly when the work was done. They were satisfied with this, and the box was placed by the church door. The officer quietly retired to an unseen position, took off his stockings and went back with bare feet in his boots. He then took the box, shook the money out when unobserved, placed the stockings on the bottom of it and threw in what money it would hold.

When the men were through with their work they asked for the box. The officer brought it at once, emptied out the money, and showed them there was nothing more in it but some old rags. There was great dissatisfaction, however, for they suspected the captain was not dealing fairly with them; seeing which, he threatened them with a stick. At this juncture the King came up to inspect the work. He asked what the matter was. They related the whole occurrence to him, whereupon he requested them to show him the box, the money, and the pretended old rags. An old grenadier, who had the latter in his hands, said: "Your Majesty, these are not old rags, but a pair of linen-thread stockings with a name on them."

Thereupon he showed them to the King, who clearly enough saw the name "V—"on them. The King summoned the officer and asked his name. He answered "V—."

"Well," said the King to the men, "don't you see the money belongs to him? His ancestors buried it here. Here is his name on the stockings, as plain as if it were put there recently. Stupids, what do you mean? Give the officer his money. I will have the box filled with genuine two-groschen pieces, and they shall be divided equally among you. Will that satisfy you?"

"Oh, yes, Your Majesty," was the answer of all. They were all the better satisfied as the coins in the box were mostly little old copper pieces. In this way the King saved the officer from the embarrassment naturally consequent upon discovery of dishonesty, and left him standing speechless and ashamed.

The defences were at last completed, and in that strong position Frederick awaited whatever might happen. As he was situated he could not undertake an attack, and was forced to act upon the defensive. Unusual precautions were taken in the camp. During the day the men slept by turns, and at night officers and men were awake and ready for action. As a rule the King left his tent every night, betook himself to a battery, and there awaited the morning under the open heavens. One night, as he was sitting upon the ground by the fire, enveloped in his cloak, he seemed to be tired and somewhat sleepy. A soldier of the Wolfersdorf regiment, noticing it, said to him: "I will make Your Majesty a pillow."

"How will you do it?" said the King.

The soldier took off his knapsack and fixed it so the King could rest his head upon it. He could not sleep, however, and so he talked with the soldier about his native land, his service, and other things. The latter asked the King several rather bold questions, which he answered very affably. The following conversation occurred between them:

SOLDIER. "If Your Majesty should be taken prisoner, how could you get released, as you are a King?"

KING. "As a general, not otherwise."

SOLDIER. "Hm! I don't believe that. You are more than a general."

KING. "No! With the army I am only a general."

SOLDIER (shaking his head). "They would get rich booty if they took you."

KING. "Oh, no, they would not. I have not a groschen in my pockets."

SOLDIER. "Your Majesty is trying to deceive me."

KING. "No! I tell you I have not a kreutzer "(and to convince him, the King emptied his pockets). "There! do you not see I am right?"

SOLDIER. "That is strange, but—you have a beautiful ring, which certainly is worth something."

KING. "Well—and what do you think it is worth? Give a guess." (Saying this, the King held up the ring for his examination.)

SOLDIER. "The ring may well have cost ten thousand thalers."

KING. "Fool! I will let you have it for five hundred thalers, and even then make money."

SOLDIER. "I would not believe that to all eternity. It is not true."

KING. "Certainly it is. Look here—I will count up the cost. This little stone here is perhaps worth three hundred and some odd thalers. The large one in the middle is a table diamond, which at the utmost did not cost over thirty thalers, and the rest of the ring, outside of the plain setting, is of no value."

SOLDIER. "I certainly wouldn't have believed it."

Day had dawned in the meantime. The King arose and ordered an aide, who had come up to make report, to give the soldier a Friedrich d'or, saying at the same time, "Are you convinced now that I have no money?"

Frederick often availed himself of the darkness to ride about and see what was going on. Once the King and Zieten, riding early in the morning, came to a little wood. Seeing no signs of an enemy Frederick began whistling softly, as was often his habit when not talking. All at once, as they ascended an eminence, Zieten noticed some of the enemy's troopers in the distance, wearing white cloaks.

"Be quiet, Your Majesty. Quick, put my white undercoat over your shoulders and ride slowly. They will think we are friends coming to meet them."

This evidently was the Austrians' opinion, for they seemed to be directing their course straight toward them; but suddenly the King and Zieten put spurs to their horses, changed their direction, and fortunately escaped. The King laughed and said: "My dear Zieten, that was a neat trick. Now, can I go on with my whistling?"

As was always his habit, the King continued to share all dangers and privations with his soldiers. Like them, he ate out of tin dishes and the hard ground was his bed whatever the weather might be.

"Take along a bundle of straw," he once said, as he started for a ride through the camp, "so that I won't have to lie on the bare ground, as I did last night."

The King was forced to remain inactive for three weeks in this distressing situation, for the combined Russian and Austrian forces were stretched out until they shut him in on all sides. He was in a critical condition. His stores were giving out and his troops were getting uneasy. He resolved therefore to risk a decisive stroke. It was fortunate for him that Laudon did not have supreme command, else he would have been crushed. The larger part of the army was under command of the Russian Field-Marshal Butterlin, who disliked Laudon and frequently quarrelled with him. This of course prevented cooperation. If one favored attacking, the other would refuse; if one gave an order to assault at a certain point, the other would issue an exactly contrary order.

In this dissension lay the possibility of the King's escape, though he did not know it, for he had never heard even a hint of their enmity. His situation appeared to him desperate enough. Whichever way he turned he saw no prospect of escape. This greatly disturbed him. With an anxious heart he often hurried to old Zieten's little hut for consolation. This brave general confidently looked for better days in the future. His devotion and loyalty to the King never permitted him to doubt the success of his undertakings. In sheer desperation, the King would often say: "It cannot be done; it is impossible."

Whenever he said this, Zieten would reply: "Have courage, Your Majesty. Everything will come out right." Once he said this with so much assurance that the King quickly asked: "Have you secured the help of some new allies?"

"No," replied the general, "only our old help from above, which will never forsake us."

"Ah!" sighed the King, "the days of miracles are over."

"There is no need of miracles," replied the pious old hero. "He is on our side and will not let us be defeated."

Brave Zieten spoke truly, for three weeks afterward the Russians suddenly broke camp and departed. The cause was partly the disagreement between Butterlin and Laudon, but the principal reason for the sudden exit was the difficulty of procuring subsistence for man and beast. Silesia had been the scene of war so long and had been so ravaged that its people had to kill most of their animals for food and had been living for some time in a most wretched plight. It was manifestly impossible therefore to feed this great army. To save his, the Russian general had no alternative but to break camp and hurry off to Poland. How delighted was the King when he saw that he was freed from the enemy's investment! It was with a strange feeling he left the prison from which he had never expected to escape alive.

The close of the year, however, brought fresh trouble. The fortress of Schweidnitz, in Silesia, at last fell into the hands of the Austrians, and this strengthened the Russian force at Colberg, in the East. Frederick's immediate situation was not very enviable in any sense, for there had been a lack of subsistence for his troops for a long time, resulting in general discontent as well as disobedience. His financial resources were also wellnigh exhausted. But what made him most despondent was the great shrinkage of his numerical strength and the apparent impossibility of making it good. It was no longer possible to maintain discipline among his troops after they had been reduced to the bare necessities. The Garde du Corps  and gens d'armes, who had been most loyally devoted to the King, now loudly asserted that if they were attacked, they would surrender. Such was the spiritless condition of his army! Is it any wonder the King was dejected as he contemplated the situation? Only his feeling of duty and his love for the Fatherland helped him to bear this heavy burden of trouble and care. In a letter written immediately after the taking of Schweidnitz, he says:

This painful duty of service to the Fatherland is a heavy burden. With sadness I see its glory dimmed, its people despairing of deliverance, and devastation everywhere. Fatherland! Beloved name! Thy sorrows have moved me to devote the last remaining energies of my unfortunate life to thy rescue. Away with fruitless complaints—I will again take the field. Patriotism inspires me. A new day is dawning. I will revenge the State and end its troubles. I will forget my own distress and think only of it. My strong arm shall be its support. Notwithstanding his inclinations one must swim with the current, die for Fatherland, or accomplish his purposes."