Frederick the Great - George Upton

The Siege of Olmutz

The year 1757, which had been so abundant in Prussian victories, drew to its close. Without remaining longer in Bohemia, the King made a forced march into Silesia,—where several cities and strongholds had again fallen into the enemy's hands,—not alone to drive the enemy out at that unfavorable season, but for the more important purpose of seeking winter quarters. As the Prussians were continually harassed on the march by the enemy's skirmishers, the King ordered night marches, so as to ensure the security of the sutlers' stores and baggage from the marauders. After marching all night, the army would halt at daybreak, the cavalry dismount, and the infantry sleep as much as possible under the circumstances. One morning the King, after dismounting, said: "How nice it would be if we had some schnapps!" Several, who had bread and brandy, rushed up to him and offered him their little store.

The King smiled with genuine satisfaction at the generosity and self-sacrificing spirit of his soldiers, and said: "Children, if I could drink brandy I would take it with pleasure. But I thank you for your love, and will not forget this day which has been such a happy one for us all." Then he turned to his staff, and said: "There is no happier King in the world than I." He ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Von Wacknitz to make a list of his guards, and at Breslau a Friedrich d'or  was given to each man. Notwithstanding these fatiguing marches, the King found his soldiers so eager for active duty that he decided to take advantage of their enthusiasm and attack the enemy without delay. Breslau, with its strong garrison of sixteen thousand men, surrendered, and this placed the King once more in possession of all Silesia except Schweidnitz. He now permitted his brave troops to go into winter quarters, as they so well deserved, while he spent the Winter in Breslau.

With the first approach of Spring the King was on the alert. When all was in readiness for moving, he mustered his guard on the Schweidnitz meadows. As they were assembling he noticed a seven-year-old lad who was actively engaged in drilling a dozen other boys, who had sticks for horses. The King laughed at the sport, and after watching them a little while, said: "That boy will be a good soldier some day." The next time he observed him, he saw that the little leader had exerted himself so vigorously in making an attack that he was bleeding profusely from the nose. The boy, however, mounted his stick again and renewed the attack with vigor. The King called to him: "My child, go home and wash off the blood."

The boy replied with much dignity: "Oh, no! that won't do, for it will throw everything into disorder. I am not yet killed; I am only wounded."

The King in surprise asked, "What is your name?"

"Kneuschke," replied the boy.

"So? And what does your father do?"

"He is a gardener."

The King made a note of it, and thenceforward paid the gardener five thalers a month, to be applied toward his son's education.

Satisfactory as everything appeared, Frederick was not unmindful of the dangers to which he was exposed. He would have been willing to make terms of peace if this had been satisfactory, but his haughty enemies did not stop to consider what serious losses their far abler adversary could inflict upon them, even with a smaller force. The more victories he won, the more implacable was their animosity toward him, and the more firmly convinced were they that sooner or later they would crush him; for they were sure that he could not hold out long against their united strength, and that in the end he would have to abandon the struggle from mere exhaustion. The King seems to have divined their schemes. About this time he wrote to a friend:

"'What do you say to this alliance against the Margrave of Brandenburg? What would the great Elector have said if he had known that his grandson would have been fighting Russians, Austrians, nearly all Germany, and a hundred thousand Frenchmen? I do not know whether I am strong enough to withstand them and whether it would be a disgrace for me to submit, but I am certain that my enemies will gain no honor from my defeat."

After a careful survey of the situation, the King decided it would not be incompatible with honor to offer terms of peace to his enemies. They regarded the offer as a sign of weakness, rejected it, and entered upon a fresh campaign of even more active hostility.

Frederick did not hesitate. He rallied all his strength, repaired the losses incurred in previous battles, and confronted the powerful enemy with a splendidly equipped army. Unfortunate Saxony, which was completely in his hands, had to contribute a large sum of money, as well as clothing and recruits. Unexpected help also came from another quarter. The battle of Rossbach had aroused great enthusiasm in Europe, particularly in England, where there was strong sympathy with Prussia. Parliament unanimously voted to assist its brave ally. It sent him twelve thousand men, placed the Hanoverian army, which was in excellent condition, at his disposal, and united it with the forces from Hesse, Brunswick, and Gotha, making an army thirty thousand strong. This fresh body of troops, after such severe losses as he had met, was a welcome gift to the King. Parliament also promised to send four million thalers, with the understanding that an able leader should be selected for the new corps. It could not have sent more acceptable help, for the King needed money as well as men at this time, when the war was about to be resumed with renewed vigor on all sides.

Necessity forced him to make from ten to twelve millions of debased coin out of his four million thalers, as he had no other way of meeting his war expenses. He appointed Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, who was universally regarded as a superior soldier, in command of the thirty thousand. Like the King, he, too, understood how to oppose a large army with a smaller one. Indeed, he was an expert in that direction. He drove the French, who had overrun West Germany, across the Rhine, inflicted heavy losses upon them in their retreat, and captured eleven thousand prisoners. Not satisfied with this achievement, he kept control of the river, and fought a battle with the French, June 23, at Crefeld, in which they were routed. Seven thousand more prisoners fell into his hands and hundreds of bodies covered the battlefield. Notwithstanding these disasters, the French a little later made another attempt to invade Germany, which was thwarted in such a masterly manner that at the close of the year they were content to stay on their own side of the German river. The Duke then made his headquarters in Munster and from there held the enemy in check.

While Duke Ferdinand was thus disposing of the French in the west, the King decided to attack the strong fortress at Schweidnitz, the only one remaining in the hands of the Austrians. On the march thither, while riding through a narrow defile, he found the artillery badly tangled up. While rushing about to hasten movements, he ran against a wheel and split one of his boots so badly that he could hardly keep it on. Impatient at the accident, he ordered an aide to find a shoemaker who could stitch up the boot. After considerable search a dragoon was found, who came, bringing his tools with him. The King, dismounting, and seating himself upon a hillock, said: "Can you mend my boot?"

"I will see, Your Majesty. I have mended a good many."

"Well, hurry up, so that I can go on."

The dragoon began work, at the same time growling to himself: "Hm! These boots have done service enough to warrant a new pair."

"What is that you are saying?"


"But I want to know."

"Well, I think your boots have honestly done all the service they can. It is no wonder they rip. They are worn out."

"So? How long think you boots must last?" '

"Must  last—that is a different thing; but I can easily tell you how long they can  last—three years."

"Old fool, they are not as old as that yet. But tell me how a shoemaker can be a good dragoon."

"You might have seen how, at Hohenfriedsberg."

"To be sure I was, and I have soled Austrians so that many will remember me for a long time. When I make shoes, I am a shoemaker; and when I ride a horse, I am a dragoon—and Heaven help those who get into my hands?"

"Gently, gently, Mr. Shoemaker, I am in your hands. Be merciful with me." When the dragoon had finished, the King swiftly rode forward, placed himself at the head of his troops, and the march was resumed.

Frederick's fortunate victory so discouraged the Austrian troops that the Schweidnitz garrison, although amply provisioned, made but a feeble resistance, and surrendered in a few days at discretion. All Silesia was once more in possession of the King. To make Maria Theresa appreciate his strength he extended the area of his operations into Moravia and laid siege to the city of Olmutz, a suburb, as it were, of Vienna. It was an undertaking, however, as fruitless as it was unfortunate. The siege was long protracted, for the besiegers were not only hampered by lack of sufficient artillery, but of ammunition, which had to be hauled over morasses and through deep defiles. In consequence, the King had plenty of leisure for excursions into the neighboring country. Upon one of these occasions he rode about the country of Glatz in company with General Seydlitz. Passing through a defile, the King noticed, some distance away, a collection of people, whom at first glance he took to be a detachment of Austrians. Seydlitz, who had unusually sharp eyes, was of opinion that Fouquet had fixed his limits there and stationed these people so that the enemy's troops could not cross them without his knowledge. The King and Seydlitz rode up and found that the people were peasants of the country, whom Fouquet had placed there to watch the line.

"Are you Prussians?" asked Frederick.

"No," they replied, "we are Fickets." (Fouquet was called "Ficket "by the common people.)

"You can see now," said the King to Seydlitz, laughing, "who is master here, and that I don't count for much."

Notwithstanding this, the King continued riding about the country, and one day made a discovery which disturbed him not a little. He heard that the Countess Gran, wife of a staff officer of the garrison, had made a vow to the Virgin, at the Jesuit church, that she would present her a beautiful robe when the siege of Olmutz was raised. He immediately ordered a robe made of the richest material for the Madonna, and sent it to the Jesuits with the message that as he had heard of the Countess's useless vow, and as he was as mindful of the amenities of life as she, he did not wish our dear Lady should be the loser. As events might take another turn, he was simply carrying out what the Countess might not be able to perform. The Jesuits, delighted with his gift, came in procession to thank him, and exhibited the robe to strangers as a proof of the King's pious sentiments.

The King at this time evidently intended to press the siege with vigor and capture Olmutz. The Austrians by themselves would not have troubled him, but he soon heard the unwelcome news that the Russians had captured Custrin and committed frightful excesses. He was, therefore, forced to consider the raising of the siege. His final decision was hastened by the information that a detachment of the enemy had captured a convoy of ammunition and supplies at Domstadt, which had been sent him from Silesia. With extreme reluctance he summoned all his generals and regiment and battalion commanders to headquarters. When they were all there, he advanced into their midst and said:

"Gentlemen, the enemy has found an opportunity to destroy a convoy coming to us from Silesia. Owing to this fatal blow, I must raise the siege of Olmutz, but, gentlemen, you must not conclude that all is lost on that account. No, you may be sure that everything will be made good, and in such a way that the enemy will have something to think about. You must persuade your commands not to grumble about it. I hope you will not be disappointed yourselves, and should I,—though I do not expect it,—find that anyone else is, I shall punish such an one severely. I shall move immediately, and wherever I find the enemy I shall attack, however he may be posted and whether he has one or several batteries; but," tapping his brow with his stick, "I shall never do anything unreasonable or rash. I am confident that every one of my officers and soldiers will do their duty when the time comes, as they have always done in the past."

The King's words had a marked effect upon his generals. Frederick dismissed them with a cordial handshake and that gracious and friendly manner which captivated everyone. He parted from them with their assurance that he could rely upon their help under any circumstances. The siege was raised and the retreat was a masterly exhibition of generalship. It had to be made through Bohemia, as Field-Marshal Daun occupied the road through Silesia. Daun was taken by surprise. The hussars performed excellent service by covering the retreat through defiles and over mountains. The King rode at the head of the cavalry day and night, so as to be on the alert against surprise by the enemy. Swamps and hollows were not looked upon as obstacles. Artillery and cavalry were forced to find some way over them. Once, in the darkness of the night, the King, riding in front of the vanguard, came to a steep descent, some four or five hundred feet to the bottom. The skirmishers, with a Bohemian peasant who served as guide, were some distance in advance. For this reason the King, who was anxious to lose no time and to take advantage of the darkness, called a halt and notified the whole army of the situation. The cavalry had to dismount so as to reach the valley. One under officer who was in the lead hesitated on the edge of the descent, fearing that his horse would slip, and groped about himself for a footing while all the others were ready to go down. The King grew impatient over the waste of time.

"You must have even poorer eyes than I," he said with some anger, "for you stumble around like a blind man. Come here and hold fast to my coat-tails and I will get you down, and the army will not be delayed any longer." The officer did as he was bid and safely reached the bottom, like the others, with no greater harm than a few bruises.