Frederick the Great - George Upton

The Most Dreadful Day in Frederick's Life

The year 1758 came to its close, and after a survey of his military operations it must be said that Frederick, notwithstanding many disasters, had made great headway against the legions of his enemies. He had again beaten them back and gloriously ended the year's campaign. His generals had also shown great skill in military operations. Belling, in particular, had bravely held his ground, and driven the Swedes back to Stralsund and the island of Rugen. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had been equally successful in his campaign against the French.

At the commencement of this year, war broke out first in Westphalia. The French attempted to overwhelm Duke Ferdinand by superior numbers. They despatched two strong armies against him, one of which went to Frankfurt and the other to Dusseldorf. The Duke decided to attack the army at Frankfurt, and fought a stubborn battle at Bergen. The French were in such strong position that the Prussians could not dislodge them, but were forced to fall back. The enemy pursued on foot and, harassed by superior numbers, they were forced to retreat to Bremen on the Weser. The enemies of Prussia held a jubilee. They were now certain that Westphalia, Hesse, Brunswick, and Hanover would be held by the French for all time, and that a sufficient force of commissioners would be sent over from Paris to establish French dominion over these fine German provinces. The Duke, however, did not entertain any such idea, for suddenly he again took the offensive and attacked the other army while on its way from Dusseldorf.

Ferdinand came upon the French camp at Minden and gave battle on the plains near that city, August 1, 1759. The attack began at the village of Todtenhausen. Count Wilhelm of Buckeburg, commanding the Prussian artillery, had taken a strong position. His fire played such havoc in the close ranks of the French that they were forced to fall back. The artillery was the first to retreat and the cavalry followed its example, which left great gaps in the ranks of the infantry and created much disorder. The Duke lost no time in following up his advantage. He ordered Sackville, the English general, to attack the enemy with his cavalry. There had been bad feeling between the two leaders for some time, so that concerted action between them was wellnigh impossible. As it was, the English general held back long enough to lose the advantage of the critical moment, so that the enemy, who could not have escaped annihilation had the attack been promptly made, had time enough to get into order and effect a retreat. As it was, however, seven thousand prisoners were captured, and twenty-five cannon and several standards fell into the hands of the Prussians. The French were pursued for some distance, and did not find safety until they reached their camp at Frankfurt.

The news of this brilliant victory surprised the King just as he was in the midst of preparations for a terrible struggle with the enemy. He was in a strong position at Landeshut, and to the great astonishment of his enemies he remained there quietly until the middle of the year, apparently waiting to see what the Russians and Austrians were going to do. They had improved the intervening time in strengthening their depleted ranks, and now proposed to move against the Prussians in a body and with largely increased numbers.

Frederick, all this time, was not unmindful of their plans, and considerably strengthened his own army; but even then he had only half as many troops as the enemy. The larger part of his choicest soldiers had been left on the field of honor, and it was with much anxiety that he regarded further campaigning. When news came of the Russian advance he was ignorant from what direction the attack would be made, as they were approaching the Brandenburg frontier in several divisions. To strengthen themselves and get in readiness for the great task awaiting them, it was decided that the brave Austrian General Laudon should unite his force of twenty thousand men with their force.

Frederick, who was apprised of their plans, attempted to thwart them, and sent Generals Dohna and Wedell against them, but they were driven back, and the Austro-Russian combination was effected. The King had not believed this possible, and he was greatly surprised, therefore, by the news that the combined army, seventy thousand strong, was advancing to the Oder with designs upon Frankfurt, the capital, the road to which was open. The King now made his plans to frustrate the movement, and ordered the rapid advance of his army. He felt a fatal presentiment, and before he set out left his will with Prince Henry, and committed the administration of the kingdom to him in case anything happened to himself. He made all his arrangements with the same care that one displays when about to engage in a hazardous task. He provided for every emergency, and cautioned his brother against making a dishonorable peace after his death. With such gloomy thoughts as these the King advanced to meet his enemy.

On the eleventh of August, 1759, Frederick encountered his enemies fifty miles from Berlin. They were strongly entrenched at Kunersdorf and surrounded by batteries of cannon, whose yawning mouths threatened death and destruction to anyone who came near them. Notwithstanding the great superiority of the enemies' numbers and the exceeding strength of their batteries, the King decided to attack the combined armies August 12. At that very time a courier from Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick arrived with the good news of the victory at Minden. The King now was in such confident mood that he ordered the courier to put off his return a few days, so that he could send back an equally joyful message of victory.

Toward noon the signal was given for attack, and the battle began with good fortune on the Prussian side. Encouraged by their King, the brave troops displayed again that heroic courage which had aroused universal admiration. They paid no attention to the awful fire which was devastating their ranks; with utter contempt for death they charged battery after battery, until the Russian left wing could no longer withstand their assaults. It was driven from its position and seventy cannon fell into their hands. It was a sign that the Goddess of Victory this time favored the Prussians.

By this time the day was nearly spent, and the soldiers, exhausted by their long struggle, aroused the sympathy of their leaders. Some of the oldest and most experienced of them urgently appealed to the King to stop the battle and spare the soldiers, as the enemy was retreating. Frederick, however, remained unmoved. He was not contented with the advantage he had gained. No, he would immediately annihilate the enemy. He ordered Seydlitz to cut his way through them with the cavalry. It was in vain, however, that Seydlitz explained he was holding Laudon in check on the right wing of the Russians. It was in vain that he assured the King the meadows before them were so swampy that horses and riders would be stuck in the bogs if they ventured there. All that he said was of no avail.

"Do your duty and execute the orders of your King," replied Frederick, firmly.

Seydlitz saluted and obeyed, but the soundness of his suggestions was realized only too soon. The ground shook under the squadrons as they got into motion, and soon they were floundering in the swamp. As if they were anticipating just such an inconsiderate movement, the Russians and Austrians furiously assaulted their immovable enemy, and such bloodshed ensued that the green meadows were crimsoned. Seydlitz himself was carried off the field wounded. The tired-out Prussians were panic-stricken. All fled who could, and the commands even of their highest officers were ineffective to stay the retreat. The Prussian army was not only defeated, it was destroyed. The battle was irretrievably lost, the ruin was complete. Pursued by the enemy, the unfortunates sought protection, and found it only in the darkness of the night.



The King had been conspicuous in his efforts to avert this disastrous defeat. He was in the very thick of the battle and did his utmost to keep the troops in line and encourage them. His attention was called to the danger he was in and he was besought to be more careful, but he emphatically refused, saying: "No! We must all strive for victory together, and I must do my duty like everyone else."

In the main attack two horses were shot down under him. Mounting a third, a bullet passed through his overcoat and shattered a gold case in his waistcoat pocket. All his efforts, however, were useless. His exhortations had lost their customary inspiring effect. Throwing away weapons and accoutrements, everyone sought safety in flight. He was not only compelled to witness the abandoning of the cannon captured from the Russians, but to mourn the loss of one hundred and sixty-five pieces of Prussian artillery. The situation became more and more desperate, and at last, realizing all was lost, he exclaimed in utter despair: "Is there not a cursed bullet for me to-day?"

When night came on, he was almost the only living soul on the wide battlefield. His army was partly scattered about the surrounding country; the rest of it had been put to flight.

Frederick stood on the bloody field like one dazed, and it was only by chance he was saved from capture by some Russians and Austrians who approached the spot where he was standing. Captain Prittiwitz, his fortunate star, happened to be passing near by, with forty hussars. Lieutenant Belten suddenly exclaimed: "Captain Prittiwitz, yonder stands the King."

The captain immediately turned his horse and rode forward with his men to the King, who was standing with folded arms upon a sandy hillock and alone, save for a single attendant who held his horse. His sword was sticking in the sand in front of him. The captain had considerable trouble in persuading the King to mount his horse, for at that instant Frederick was on the very verge of despair. To the appeal of the captain, he replied: "Leave me, Prittiwitz; I am lost."

"Not yet, Your Majesty," answered Prittiwitz; "you are still King of Prussia and commander of an army of brave soldiers."

"Well, if you think so, forward."

The hussars surrounded Frederick and made their way to the Oder, with roving bands of Cossacks continually swarming about them. Prittiwitz kept off the insolent pack and shot their leader off his horse. After the Muhl was safely crossed there was no further trouble, and the King was left uninjured at a ferryman's hut. He thanked the captain, ordered that gifts be distributed among the hussars, and gave instructions to see that he remained undisturbed until he had time to collect himself; for he was still overmastered by his calamity. He wrote to his minister, Finkenstein, in Berlin:

"Provide for the safety of the Queen and the royal family at Magdeburg, and do all you can for them."

A few hours later, he sent the following message to him:

"It is a terrible disaster. I shall not survive it. The consequences of the battle will be worse than the battle itself. I have no further resources and, to tell the truth, I consider everything lost. I shall not survive the destruction of the Fatherland. Adieu forever."

That was the most dreadful day in the life of the great King.

It is not surprising, however, that the King was in such a despondent mood, for on that very evening he could not have assembled five thousand men of his magnificent army. Twenty-six thousand were killed, wounded, or prisoners, and the others were scattered in flight. But the Russian army also suffered dreadfully. "If I should fight one more such battle," said its commanding general, "I should take the news of it to St. Petersburg myself with a staff in my hand." It was not long, however, before Frederick regained his composure. It was characteristic of him that he was always the greatest when things were going badly. Messengers flew to Berlin and Custrin with orders that artillery should be despatched to him as quickly as possible. He collected his fugitive troops, re-enforced them with other detachments, and within a short time an army of eighteen thousand men was at his disposal. The most important thing for him now was to rouse the courage of his officers. To this end he sent for the messenger who had brought the news of the victory in Westphalia, and said to him in their hearing: "You have seen what has been going on here. Hurry back, and if you find the enemy is not in Berlin or Magdeburg, tell the Duke not much has yet been lost."

In view of Frederick's plight and the general condition of his affairs, this message must have seemed ridiculous, for he had not a sufficient force in readiness to stay the victorious advance of the Russians or to defend the capital and the country. This was known abroad also, for word was sent from Paris to the Russian general that the King of Prussia must be exterminated, and Berlin and the whole Mark of Brandenburg devastated. The Austrian Field-Marshal Daun also urged the Russians to make a rapid advance. Soltikow, their commander, however, did not move, and when further urged by Daun, almost suppliantly, to hurry forward, he simply wrote to him:

"I have won two battles, and am waiting before I advance again for news of a second one from you. It is not fair that my Emperor's army should have to do all the work."

Of course this jealousy among the enemy's leaders was of the greatest advantage to the King and the Fatherland. The Russians were in position at Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, and it was not until they were stirred up on all sides that they moved at all. When they did, they could not find subsistence, and at the end of October they went back again into Poland, which relieved the Prussians of one imminent danger.

Field-Marshal Daun in the meantime had been held in check in Saxony in a most masterly way by Prince Henry. The Prince was one of the ablest generals of his time, and his brother, the King, fully recognized it. He said of him once, "He is the only general who has not made a mistake during the entire war." Beside his strategic talent, he had engaging personal qualities which commended him to friend and foe alike. To him was assigned the duty of watching over the Electorate of Saxony. It may well be believed that he was an unwelcome visitor in the enemy's country, but he was greatly respected by the Saxons, and years after this they told with much emotion how this noble Hohenzollern in 1759, one day in harvest-time, when a sudden storm threatened to ruin their cornfields, allowed the peasants of a Saxon village to use his own horses for getting in their corn. He specially displayed his brilliant qualities in preventing Field-Marshal Daun from effecting a union with the Russians. By swift and skilful marches he kept Daun moving here and there, then suddenly eluded him, and destroyed a number of storehouses with supplies sufficient to have maintained fifty thousand soldiers for six months. This caused such a scarcity of subsistence and fodder that the indignant troops began to complain, and Daun had to fall back to a better position. The Mark of Brandenburg was safe, but other misfortunes were in store for Frederick. Dresden was in the hands of the enemy as one of the immediate results of the battle of Kunersdorf. When hardest pressed, Frederick wrote the commander in the Saxon capital to save if possible the seven millions of treasure in the money chests and evacuate with honor, for he could not send him help. This occurred immediately after the disastrous battle.

When Frederick was himself once more, he changed his mind, but alas! it was too late. Dresden was already lost to the Prussians. Frederick stamped with rage and declared he would retake it. He at once ordered the army to move into Saxony, although the inclement season of the year had begun. Prince Henry begged the King to spare his troops during the Winter and put off any large undertakings he had in view, but it was all in vain. The King would not listen to him. He ordered General Finck to attack the enemy's rear with fifteen thousand men and force him to retreat. Every tactician foresaw the disastrous consequences. All his generals were of opinion that the attack would end calamitously, and so it turned out. Finck had hardly reached Maxen, November 21, 1759, before the tables were turned. Instead of being the attacking party, he himself was attacked on all sides. Terrible slaughter ensued. The Prussians resisted the attack with their customary bravery, but finally had to succumb. The army was nearly wiped out, as eleven thousand of them were taken prisoners. Never before had a year been so disastrous for Frederick as was 1759. Never before did a year close more gloomily for him.