Frederick the Great - George Upton

Frederick's Defeat and Seydlitz's Surprise

The Austrians fled into the city of Prague, which was closely invested by the Prussians and bombarded with red-hot shot. The people suffered greatly, and the prospect of approaching famine compelled them to make many sacrifices. The Austrian army had about given up everything for lost and was on the point of capitulating, when news reached them that Field-Marshal Daun, with a strong force of sixty-six thousand men, was on the way to their relief. Frederick marched out to meet him with thirty-two thousand men, the very flower of his army, hoping with this comparatively small force to check his advance.

The two armies speedily met, and a battle began at Kollin. At the outset fortune favored the Prussians. The hussars cut their way through the enemy's lines so furiously that Daun was on the point of retreating. At this juncture, however, the King decided, in the very midst of the battle, to change his excellent original plan. Prince Moritz of Dessau and several other generals differed from him, and when at last he announced his decision, they refused to obey, for (hey foresaw it must lead to disaster. Drawing his sword for the first time, he rushed up to them, sternly reminded them of their duty, and ordered them back to their commands. The result was mismanagement and confusion in handling the troops. The Austrians and Saxons took advantage of this, and rushed into the gaps—for the Prussians were no longer in solid columns—and soon were the victors. The latter left fourteen thousand dead and wounded on the field. The remainder made an orderly retreat, and Daun did not venture to pursue them.

Bitterly disappointed, Frederick raised the siege of Prague and fell back with his shattered army to Nurnberg. They were obliged to dismount many times on the way to water the horses, and on one of these occasions an old trooper brought Frederick a refreshing draught of water in his steel cap, and handing it to him, said in the heartiest way, "Drink, Your Majesty, and let battles be battles. You are living—that is good. The Almighty also lives, and He will give us victory again."



The King looked at him and replied with a quiet smile: "Do you really think so, old fellow?"

The trooper nodded assent, and soon they were on the march again. The King was in an unusually gloomy mood, and at such times no one ventured to disturb him. When they reached Nurnberg he went off by himself without saying a word to none, and sat down upon an old waste-pipe, where he remained some time in deep thought, scratching curious figures in the sand with a stick. Observing this, his officers stepped more quietly and watched him with much curiosity. Suddenly he rose said to those about him, " Gentlemen, it is time for action. We must not loiter."

Without showing any sign of his great disappointment over his defeat, he issued the necessary commands, and his aides were at once busy in distributing them. Even the appearance of his splendid guard, which had been so sorely treated at Kollin that out of a thousand men only two hundred were unharmed in the fight, did not disturb his composure in the least.

"Children," he said with much feeling, "you have had a hard day. But have patience, dear friends; I will make it all right yet."

The King's enemies were joyful over the news of his defeat at Kollin, and decided it would be wise to attack him on all sides. In the east the Russians invaded Prussia with one hundred thousand men. The Swedes, to prove their bravery, attacked Pomerania, but were driven back by General Belling. General Lehwald, however, was less fortunate in his operations against the Russians, as he had an army of only thirty-two thousand men. He was over-powered in an engagement at Grossjagerndorf and compelled to retreat. The Russians might easily have advanced to Brandenburg had they followed ii their advantage, but their General Apraxin fell hack still nearer the eastern Prussian frontier. This extraordinary movement can only be explained in one way. Apraxin had received express orders from he warlike Empress Elizabeth to press operations with vigor, but he had also been instructed by Grand Duke Peter to go slow and take matters easily, for he much preferred to have Frederick a good neighbor in the future than an enemy.

Thus the King's lucky star shone brightly when everything was darkest. He also received gratifying assurances of love and devotion from his own people. In Pomerania and Brandenburg they vied with each other in making good the losses of men and horses at Kollin. Frederick would have been delighted with these assurances had not fresh troubles overtaken him. His sorrow over the tragedy at Kollin was followed by bitter grief; occasioned by the death of a brother and his beloved mother. His great sorrow, as well as his greatness of soul, is shown in his letters of that time, one of which closes with the words, "But I, threatened with the storm, and notwithstanding the approaching ruin, must act, live, and die as a King."

The French, meanwhile, who had crossed the Rhine and invaded Westphalia, one hundred thousand strong, were giving the King much trouble. His Anglo-German auxiliary army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, and much weaker than the French, had been utterly defeated by them at Hastenbeck on the Weser.

The French now swarmed over Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick, and Westphalia, and destruction and ruin attended them wherever they appeared; for it had been decided in Paris to devastate Prussia and all the provinces which had remained faithful to the King. The French army, which at the beginning operated in two divisions, was now united with the imperial troops for the purpose of attacking Saxony, which was held by Frederick. The French afterward divided again, at Erfurt, into two bands, one of which under Prince Soubise levied contributions on Gotha and Weimar, while the other, under Marshal d'Estrees, levied still heavier contributions upon the city of Halle. From this point, one division of troops, led by the Duke of Ayer, pressed forward to Halberstadt and made inroads even as far as Magdeburg. Those were troublous times for the old mark.

Frederick, who was in upper Lusatia, was informed of the threatening operations of the enemy. He hastened forward by forced marches, strengthened his army by the corps of ten thousand men at Dresden under Prince Moritz, and with his comparatively small force advanced to the Saale by way of Grimma and Pegau. Bold General Seydlitz was in the advance with a thousand dragoons to clear the region of roving marauders. His brave troopers on September 7 appeared before Pegau, but found the gate on the farther side of the stone Elster bridge blocked and held by a large force of the enemy. Seydlitz had no infantry, but he ordered a hundred of his dragoons, for whom no horse was too wild, no ditch too wide, and who were splendidly trained, to dismount. They did so and stormed the gate, and then, carbines in hand, the troop drove the enemy at a gallop through the city. Seydlitz observed an Austrian hussar regiment in battle-order on the other side of the city. Although greatly outnumbered, without an instant's delay he dashed through their closed ranks with such fury that he captured three hundred and fifty of them and hotly pursued the others. The flying enemy attempted to make a stand on the bridge at Kosen and attack Seydlitz, but they were quickly dispersed.

Meanwhile Soubise and his French generals were occupying the castle at Gotha, and living there in luxurious style. His eight thousand troops were quartered in the market-place and other sections of the city and living upon the best of the land at the land's expense. Seydlitz, who was aware of this, decided to arrange a little surprise for them with the help of his merry troopers. Soubise and his generals were entertaining some foreign guests at an entertainment, for which extraordinary preparations had been made. The tables were loaded with the choicest viands, and costly wines flowed in streams. The guests were greatly enjoying the superb banquet, the charm of which was heightened by the presence of beautiful ladies, when suddenly Seydlitz and his hussars appeared at the gate. Everything was in confusion at once. The officers hurriedly left the festive scene, donned their gayly plumed hats, rushed out of the hall pell-mell, and fled in a panic. It never occurred to anyone, though they were eight thousand strong, to offer the slightest resistance to the little Prussian band.

Seydlitz, who could not think of making an effective pursuit with his few worn out soldiers, contented himself with a short chase of the French. Covered with dust and sprinkled with foam after the sudden bold rush into the city, he and his officers laughed heartily at the deserted tables decked out so lavishly for the enemy. With lively jokes and many a rollicking troopers' song, the bold heroes refreshed themselves with the choice dishes and wines the duke's cooks had provided so lavishly, and passed the hours of the afternoon and night in the most hilarious and satisfied manner. An eyewitness says:

"Only a few French soldiers were taken prisoners, but an army of servants, lackeys, cooks, hair-dressers, actors, and chambermaids, chests full of perfumes and pomades, powder-boxes and hair-nets, parasols and dressing-gowns, as well as a mass of those knick-knacks which are indispensable to French elegance, fell into the hands of the troopers, who examined their plunder with astonishment and fared royally upon the delicacies and wines found among the equipages and cooks' wagons, which Seydlitz turned over to his troopers. The other stuff he sent on to the French the next day free of charge, as Prussian troopers had no use for it."

Frederick, in the meantime, with his little army, about twenty-two thousand strong, had reached Erfurt, by way of Grimma and Naumburg, where he learned from Seydlitz that the fugitive enemy were occupying a strong position at Eisenach.'

The situation was so uncertain that he decided not to venture far from Saxony and the Elbe. Believing that in his position he could resist the French advance, he sent Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick with four thousand men to Halberstadt to rid its people of the enemy's exactions, and Prince Moritz of Dessau with eight thousand men into the region between the Mulde and Elbe to watch the movements of the Austrians.

When he heard of the departure of these forces Soubise's courage revived. He decided to advance and regain his former position. He also plucked up courage to place himself at the head of his army. With his strong force of eight thousand men he approached Gotha. As soon as Seydlitz, who had been re-enforced by about fifteen thousand men, noticed this move of the enemy, he fell back, and pretended to seek shelter in a ravine. He ordered his troopers to dismount, fasten their sabres to their carbines, and spread themselves out in a long line near their horses. Thus extended, with the hussars in front and the dragoons dismounted and in position on the hillside, they presented from a distance the appearance of long lines of infantry. The French, believing the entire Prussian army was in front of them, fled precipitately. Seydlitz's troopers pursued them, and captured three officers and one hundred and fifty men. Truly the Prussians had no reason to fear such an enemy! As a result of the ruse, the French did not stop running until they were far away from Gotha.

About this time the Austrian general Haddick made a descent upon Berlin and levied a considerable war contribution, beside making a demand for twenty-four pairs of fine gloves, which he intended to present to his Empress. He obtained all that he demanded, including the gloves; but the Berliners showed a fine sense of humor in the trick they played upon him—for on his return home he learned that they were all for the left hand! Frederick, who received the news of the descent when it was too late to prevent it, decided at least to cut off Haddick's return, and advanced with four thousand men to the Elbe, leaving Field-Marshal Keith, with five thousand men, to guard the Saale. Other divisions were sent to Weissenfels and Merseburg. After the King's withdrawal from Thuringia, the French and the imperial troops also abandoned their position at Gotha, and advanced to Merseburg and Leipsic with the intention of occupying Saxony. Keith, in the meantime, however, had notified the King of the approach of the enemy, who, recognizing the danger, at once turned, drove the French before him, and made a halt between Weissenfels and Merseburg. This position, however, was insecure, for the greatly superior enemy was bent upon surrounding and capturing the King's little force. Indeed, Soubise carried his audacity so far that he sent word to his King that Frederick could no longer escape him and that he expected soon to have the honor of bringing him a prisoner to Paris. How bitterly he was deceived!