Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. — G. K. Chesterton

Frederick the Great - George Upton




The Battle of Prague

Frederick improved the winter of 1756 by increasing the strength of his army and putting it in complete readiness for the field; for it was evident that the enemy, enraged at the glorious victory at Lobositz, would put forth its utmost efforts to crush him. Emperor Francis I, upon the pretext that Frederick had broken the peace by the invasion of Saxony, induced the German imperial princes to place an army of sixty thousand men in the field, designated the Reichs Army.

Frederick was confronted in all by half a million fighting men, while he could only muster the comparatively small force of about two hundred thousand. The disparity was great, and any other in his place would have been disheartened at once at the prospect before him, but Frederick did not waver or retreat. He relied upon his own indomitable spirit, the strong attachment and devotion of his officers, and above all upon his valiant, well-trained soldiers, every one of whom would have sacrificed his life for him. With such troops he could well afford to risk battle with an enemy greatly superior to him in numbers.

Without unnecessary waste of time, Frederick invaded Bohemia in the Spring of 1757. On the first night of the march, he decided to lodge with a peasant in a village near the frontier. Everything requisite was sent on in advance, and a royal servant notified the peasant that the King would sleep there I hat night. When the time came, the peasant went to his door to see the sovereign and his festive array. After waiting for some time he saw a man in a blue cloak, accompanied by two officers, dismount at his door. He asked this person whether he was one of the King's people; if so, he undoubtedly could be accommodated by his neighbors.

"I am not in the service of the King," was the reply of the man, who was none other than Frederick himself, but he has invited me to supper with him."

"If that is the case, be so good as to come in, but brush off your boots, and clean up."

Various other generals and adjutants shortly drove up and saluted the King. The peasant, not knowing what to make of it, became alarmed and retreated into a corner. The King noticed his movement and said, "Stay here, sir, until the King arrives."

At last the peasant began to smile in a shame-faced way. "I know well enough who you are," he began. "You think I am a fool. This gentleman is the King himself."

Frederick smiled, and then entered the hut with some of his generals. The peasant thereupon came forward, shaking his head doubtfully, and when he had sufficiently regained composure, said to one of the attendants: "That is too simple a dress for the King of Prussia. Surely that gentleman could not oppress his peasants."

The next morning Frederick set off again in search of the enemy, who was in position on the heights around Prague. Before reaching that city, he had to march through the Pascopol pass. By way of precaution he sent one hundred and fifty hussars ahead to ascertain if the way was strongly guarded. Hearing a few shots, the hussars rode back to the King and reported that all the approaches to the city were securely defended by hussars and pandours  (Hungarian soldiers). Frederick, who had already been informed to the contrary, sternly rebuked the commanding officer, and gave his own order, "Hussars! follow me. March!" They speedily brought in twenty pandours  and seven hussars, who were found hiding in the bushes. The pass was difficult to travel, but it was unprotected, and on the same day the army got through safely and soon reached Prague, where the attack was to be made. The situation seemed favorable, as pasture land of unusual verdure appeared to stretch far in the distance; but Field-Marshal Schwerin advised the King to be cautious, for the meadow might be full of swamp-holes and bogs, in which cavalry and cannon might easily be mired. He also asked that his troops might have a short rest after their long and weary march; but, once having formed his plans, Frederick would listen to no suggestion of change.

"No, no," said he, "I must attack the enemy to-day, cost what it may. The fresher fish, the better fish."

The old Field-Marshal, notwithstanding his dismal forebodings, exclaimed: "Well, then, the battle must and shall be fought to-day. I will attack the Austrians here or wherever else I find them."

Frederick ordered the charge. Like the plunging billows of the sea the cavalry, with Schwerin at their head, hurled themselves upon the enemy; but the result was just what the veteran Field-Marshal had feared. Cannon and cavalry were hampered in their movements by the swampy ground, and while trying to extricate themselves were also exposed to a murderous fire from the enemy's batteries on the surrounding heights. Whole ranks of gallant Prussians were mowed down. It seemed impossible to fill the gaps, but at this juncture, Schwerin, then seventy-three years of age, seized a standard from a captain, and with the shout, "On, children, on, let those who are not cowards follow me!" rushed forward. The brave old hero, however, had hardly gone ten paces when he fell, mangled by four grape-shots.

General Manteuffel took the standard from the hand of his dead friend and shouted, "Avenge the death of a great man! On, my children! Bravely on!" Nothing now could restrain the Prussians, who were furious with rage at the death of Schwerin. Notwithstanding the storm of fire which cruelly devastated their ranks, they heeded neither wounds nor death. They scaled the heights and deluged them with the enemy's blood. Frederick himself quickly ended the battle. He observed a gap in the enemy's centre, rushed in with three battalions, and held his position in the very thick of the fight. His soldiers fought like lions, and soon the victory was won. But at what a cost! Eighteen thousand brave Prussians were lying dead or wounded on the field, without counting the noble Schwerin, "who alone," as Frederick said, "was worth an army of ten thousand men." Such was the battle of Prague (May 6, 1757), one of the bloodiest struggles in the Seven Years' War.