Frederick the Great - George Upton

Frederick's Defeat at Hochkirch

The King was in more cheerful humor after the brilliant victory at Zorndorf. The carrying out of his battle plans had demanded all his physical and mental ability, but he was not so absorbed in his victory that he forgot his old soldier. Shortly after the battle, he happened to meet Corporal Beek, who had escaped unhurt.

"Well," said the King to him with great cordiality, "your son is going to be looked after."

Beek soon learned that this was true. A messenger who carried the news of the victory to Berlin, when he returned, brought him a letter from his wife, telling him that her son had been taken from her by royal command and placed in the Gymnasium, where he was to be clothed, maintained, and educated at public expense. The old corporal wept tears of joy on receiving the news, and blessed the King who had such a fatherly interest in his soldiers.

A few days before the battle of Zorndorf a letter from the Austrian Field-Marshal Daun fell into the hands of the King. It warned the Russian commander of the proposed attack, and added that he ought not to go into battle with such a wily enemy, but should cautiously maneuver and hold him in check until the Austrians could get possession of Saxony. The letter disclosed the enemy's plans. After the victory, the King wrote to Daun:

"You did well to warn the Russian general against a wily enemy whom you know better than he. He made a stand and has been defeated."

A bolt from the clear sky could not have alarmed the Austrian field-marshal more than these words from the much-feared King, and his alarm increased when the rumor spread that he was approaching. The report was true. The energetic hero hurried forward as rapidly as the condition of his army would permit, so as to reach Saxony and bring relief to his brother, Prince Henry, who was hard-pressed by the Austrians. His plan was to drive the Austrians from Neisse, which had been besieged by them for a long time; but Daun, as soon as he was aware of Frederick's approach, withdrew in alarm and entrenched himself in a strong position.

The King had no intention of attacking the enemy in his stronghold. He paid not the slightest attention to him, but as if in utter contempt took a position right before his eyes at Hochkirch, where, on October 14, 1758, the battle occurred. The King evidently carried his audacious plan too far. He even allowed his enemy to go on entrenching himself without once disturbing him. The day before the sudden attack made by the Austrians he observed that they were throwing up defences upon a mountain side, opposite one of the wings of his army, as boldly and openly as if they expected no interference. The Prussian general in command of that wing sent an aide to the King's headquarters with information of the enemy's operations. The King said to the aide:

"What good news bring you?"

The aide expressed his misgivings, and asked if his Majesty would order them to open fire on the enemy. The commander of the nearest battery had assured them the enemy was in range.

"No, no," replied the King, "pay no attention to them. I shall catch them in the morning."

He took his leave, but just as he was going out the King called him back.

"Listen! Have you any idea what a cannon-shot might cost me?

The question surprised the aide, but he knew the King would prefer the best answer he could make than no reply at all, so he said:

"One shot might cost Your Majesty a Friedrich d'or."

"Well," continued the King, "and how many Friedrich d'ors do you suppose those fellows over there are worth?" At last the King said: "Well, you may fire a few shots, nothing more."

This was done, but the firing was useless.

Notwithstanding the insecure position of his army, the King had so little fear of attack that his generals felt it their duty to warn him and to try to dissuade him from his purpose. The camp was so poorly protected that Field-Marshal Keith one day said: "If the Austrians do not attack us here, they deserve to be hanged."

"Oh," replied the King, "let us hope they are more afraid of us than of the gallows."

The Austrian general's plans were so well made that the proud King had to expiate his contempt in defeat. On the 14th of October, before daybreak, Daun surrounded Hochkirch, in the vicinity of which the Prussians were encamped. They were resting in fancied security when they were suddenly roused by the dreadful thunder of cannon. The whole army was thrown into confusion. Soldiers ran over each other and could hardly find their weapons. In a wild scramble they tried to form in line, but no one could find his comrade, for the enemy's grapeshot was strewing the ground with bodies. The confusion knew no bounds; everyone was rushing about shouting and panic-stricken, the officers were powerless to check the tumult and disorder.

Zieten and Seydlitz, expecting the enemy's attack, had not allowed their men to leave their horses through the night. They endeavored to do something, but in the darkness they could not distinguish friend from foe, or escape the murderous fire which mowed down the Prussian ranks as if they had been rows of corn. Never did the sun rise upon a more dreadful spectacle. They turned their eyes away from it, and many of the grizzled warriors could not restrain their tears as they looked upon the awful sight. The signal for retreat was sounded, and notwithstanding the terror and confusion of the scene it was executed in such a masterly manner that Daun was astonished. He did not attempt to pursue, but fell back to his camp as if nothing had occurred. The Prussian loss was excessive. More than nine thousand bodies were lying in that narrow camp area. Beside this, they lost one hundred cannon and nearly all their tents and baggage.

The King had to summon up all his courage. At eleven o'clock that morning he had sadly gazed from an eminence at the fragments of his shattered army. He forced himself to assume a cheerful air, for he knew that all eyes were fixed upon him and that his soldiers were looking to him for consolation and fresh assurance. Therefore he appeared unmoved, and when General Von der Goltz joined him he said, in a facetious way: "My dear Goltz, they did not wake us up very politely."

"Excuse me, Your Majesty," replied the General, "we do not usually talk by day about the things which trouble us in sleep."

"You are right," said the King, "hut some bright day I will return the incivility of these gentlemen who woke us up so rudely." Though only joking, the King had spoken prophetic words.

We know from the statements of those most intimate with him how deeply Frederick felt this matter. As, after the defeat at Kollin, his troubles were increased by the news of the death of his beloved mother, so now, in the very hour of his defeat at Hochkirch, he heard the sad news of the death of his sister Wilhelmina, the sharer of his youthful troubles. But painful as this news was, when he reflected upon the dangers impending over the Fatherland he controlled his grief and devoted himself to his kingly duties.

Some days after this, October 17, the King summoned all his generals and staff officers and thus addressed them: "You are aware, gentlemen, that the army has suffered from a surprise. The darkness of the night was accountable for it. You must now consider our situation. We are in upper Lusatia. Our property, our wives, our children are far behind us. If we weaken in the least, all will be lost. An immediate battle is inevitable. Rather than submit, I will be buried with the rest of my army. I suppose that every one of you thinks as I do. He who does not, can be spared; he can go home immediately. Is there such an one among you?"

All present hastened to assure the King that they would do their duty as they had always done it. Frederick listened to their declaration with much satisfaction, and replied: "I am delighted, gentleman, to find the same devotion and self-sacrifice you have always shown. I thank you for it."

His heavy losses at Hochkirch greatly troubled Frederick, but he consoled himself with the thought of his next great battle. At this time he wrote to a friend:

"The affair of October 14 ought to have decided the campaign, but it was nothing more than a scratch. A great battle must decide our fate. In all likelihood we shall have one very soon and then, with the result in our favor, we can rejoice. It has required many troops and much skill to get us thus far along."

While Frederick was occupied with his great plans to avenge his defeat, Daun remained quietly in his camp on the lookout, rejoicing over the disaster and confident that the Prussians had had enough of it. On the other hand, the King, who was always prompt in decision, sent speedy couriers to his brother Henry, in Saxony, with instructions for him to march into upper Lusatia with his seven thousand men and join his command. Meanwhile he kept a sharp watch upon the enemy. One Autumn morning, about daybreak, as he was riding out in search of information, attended by some under-officers, the fog grew so dense that they could only see a few paces ahead of them. They rode along a carriage road, the King having the idea that by turning to the right they could avoid the enemy's outposts. Adjutant von Oppen, however, noticed that they had already gone too far. "Upon my soul, Your Majesty," said he, "we are already too far to the left and are certainly behind the enemy's outposts." Scarcely had he said the last word, when an Austrian hussar appeared at their right to see who was talking. The King, with his usual presence of mind, advanced to the Austrian and coolly asked:

"Hussar, where does this road lead?"

The hussar saw at once they were Prussians, but he was so struck by the tone of voice and looks of the King, as well as by his coolness, that he stood as speechless and motionless as a statue. With the utmost composure, the King remarked: "Gentlemen, proceed. The hussar does not know." They rode quickly away under cover of the fog, which put an end to further observations. Frederick often related this incident afterward and laughed heartily over it.

Prince Henry soon arrived with his re-enforcements. Thus strengthened, the King by skilful maneuvers succeeded in getting round the Austrians without their knowledge, and reaching Silesia, where the enemy was again trying to secure a foothold. Upon Frederick's appearance, however, the enemy retired. He believed he could drive the Austrians out of Neisse without serious effort and make himself master of Silesia. Daun was not a little surprised at the news. He was greatly astonished at the shrewdness of his adversary, and was much chagrined that the disaster at Hochkirch had not been of the least advantage to him. He longed to perform some great deed, and, as nothing better suggested itself to him, he decided to march into Saxony and wrest Dresden from the hands of the Prussians. But he reckoned without his host. Perhaps he believed that he could accomplish his purpose by merely demanding the surrender of the city. But he made a sad mistake. Schmettau, the commander, was not alarmed, and replied to the demand for surrender: "I will defend myself from street to street and finish up in the ruins of the Elector's palace." When Daun received this emphatic reply and was convinced that Schmettau meant what he said, he quickly withdrew, so that he should not be surprised by the King, and went into Winter quarters in Bohemia.