Frederick the Great - George Upton

The Victory of Torgau Surprises Frederick

Cavalry and infantry were so exhausted by the bloody work that the King granted them a three hours' rest. Frederick went through the camp-lines, where there was great rejoicing over the victory, one of the most important results of which was the reawakening of the old battle spirit. There had not been such a glorious event since the disaster at Kunersdorf. He commended their valor, and assured them they should be rewarded at the proper time. The regiment which had lost its decorations at the close of the battle before Dresden behaved so bravely that the King uncovered his head before its commander and cordially thanked him. One old gray-bearded warrior, hoping that the King, while in this gracious mood, might restore to the regiment its trophies and side-arms, stepped forward and pleaded for them. The King quietly listened and then with much emotion replied:

"Yes, children, you have done handsomely. I thank you. You shall have everything back. All is forgotten and forgiven. But this day I shall never forget."

Loud cheers filled the air at the regiment's good fortune. After they were rested they formed on the field, strewn with the debris of battle, took the cannon and prisoners along, and made a three hours' march on that same day. This one victory placed Silesia, partly captured from the Austrians, in Prussian hands.

The King pursued the Austrians vigorously, and used his utmost endeavors to force them from their position. In one of his movements it became necessary to burn a village in the Silesian hills, to keep the Austrians from occupying a certain height. An officer, whose mother belonged in the village, happened to receive the order to burn it, and performed his duty without a moment's hesitation. This induced the King to interest himself in the family. He not only reimbursed her generously, but every time he met the officer he remembered the occurrence and inquired about his mother's health. The unconditional surrender of Silesia made that country very dear to him. He used to call it "The Pearl of his Crown," and used his utmost efforts to free it from the hated enemy.

Greatly to his disappointment, he was suddenly compelled to abandon further pursuit, for he learned that the Mark was in danger of falling into the enemy's hands. Forty-eight thousand Austrians and Russians had set out to capture Berlin, and reached the frontier unchecked. They knew that the weak city garrison was in no condition to resist the advance of such a strong army. The Prussian Residence actually fell into the hands of the Russian General Tottleben, October 4, 1760. Reports of cruelties practised by the Russians on the march had preceded their coming, and the people were greatly apprehensive of violence. Their apprehensions, however, were needless, as Tottleben was a very noble and humane man and exerted himself constantly to suppress all acts of violence.

In reality, the Russians conducted themselves courteously as compared with the Saxons and Austrians, who committed outrageous acts of violence and vandalism. For eight days they gave free rein to their rapacity and maltreatment, when suddenly the rumor spread and was publicly talked about that the King was approaching. Its effect was electrical. Taking all they could lay hands on, they hurriedly made off, for they feared his wrath. When Frederick heard that the mere rumor of his approach had so alarmed the enemy, he laughed loudly and said in the presence of his men: "And such louts as these would cope with us Prussians!"

He liked to joke with his soldiers, and took it in the best of humor when they joked back with him. On the march from Silesia to the Mark, which was a very quick one, the King often said to them when they were tired: "Straighten up, children, straighten up," meaning that they should march straighter and in better order.

"Fritz, we can't do it," was the reply; and one hussar, whom the King had personally addressed, said to him: "Fritz, I can't do it; I can't pull up my boots," at which the King laughed heartily.

It was on such intimate footing as this that the King stood with his men. He also knew just what demands he could make of them. They willingly made their utmost exertions on the long, hard marches. They would gladly die for him. He naturally shared all their troubles and deprivations. He had good reason therefore to write these words to one of his friends:

"You can have no conception of our dreadful fatigues. This movement is worse than any of its predecessors. Sometimes I do not know which way to turn. But I will not weary you with the recital of my troubles and anxieties. All my happiness is buried with the loved and revered ones to whom my heart clings. The close of my life is full of sorrow and pain."

As already said, Frederick found no enemy in Charlottenburg and its vicinity. Daun had fallen back to Saxony and taken a strong position at Torgau, so that by skilfully distributing his force he could drive back the Prussians and hold almost the whole country. Frederick found himself in a very bad position. The Russians were on the Oder in his rear, and in front the Austrians occupied an almost impregnable position. Under such circumstances it was difficult to find a safe way out. He hastily decided to move against the Austrians, but was at once deterred from so doing when he found their position was impregnable. It was now really a question of life or death. The King realized only too well that he could hardly have found a more disagreeable situation, but he did not disclose his anxiety. He forced himself to conceal his real feelings under a mask of cheerfulness rather than risk losing everything. It is even asserted indeed that in the last years of the Seven Years' War, when Frederick saw that the strength of his army was steadily diminishing while his enemies maintained their numbers, he carried opium with him with which to take his life if at last he had to succumb to their united strength. He said to a friend at this time:

"I shall never see the moment that forces me to make a disadvantageous peace. Either I will bury myself under the ruins of the Fatherland, or, should fate forbid me that consolation, I will put an end to my troubles when I no longer can bear them. I have acted according to the inner voice of conscience and honor, which guides and has always guided my steps, and my conduct will always be grounded on those principles. I sacrificed my youth to my father, my riper years to the Fatherland; now I think I have the right to dispose of my old age. I have said to you, and I repeat it, never will I put my hand to a disadvantageous peace. I am determined to finish this campaign and to venture the most desperate things, for I will conquer or honorably die."

How heavily his anxiety wore upon him at this time is shown in another letter to a friend, in which he says:

"I am slowly wasting away; I am like a living body gradually growing speechless, and losing limb by limb. Heaven help us! We need it. You always talk of me and my dangers. Do you not know it is not necessary for me to live? It is only necessary to do my duty and fight for the Fatherland and save it if possible."

In such a despondent mood as this was the King in the presence of the enemy at Torgau! What was to be done? If he quietly abandoned the place to the enemy, he must spend the Winter in his own country, already nearly exhausted. If he attacked and was defeated, he would lose all Prussia. He must venture everything, but before acting he decided to summon all his generals for a consultation. This took place on the morning of November 3, 1760. General Zieten, one of his most trusted friends, did not immediately appear, which greatly disturbed the King.

"Gentlemen," he said to them, "we can do nothing, for one of our number is not here."

He anxiously looked in the direction whence Zieten should come. At last the old general came riding up. Frederick hastened to meet him, embraced him, and said:

"Come, my dear Zieten, I have been anxiously waiting for you, for to-day will be a memorable one. Either I shall conquer or I shall end my troubles, for my position is very critical."

"What!" said the pious old Zieten, as he dismounted and stroked his beard, "do you doubt the help of God? He has stood by us often and will do so to-day. Your soldiers are full of courage. They trust their God."

These words restored the King's confidence. "Well, my dear Zieten," he replied, "if you think it all right, we will face the inevitable."

Taking Zieten's arm, they withdrew from the others for a time and had a confidential interview, after which he returned in better spirits. It was decided to attack, and the aides were soon flying in all directions, carrying the orders to the generals. The attack began that day.

The Prussian army was in two divisions, one led by the King, and the other by Zieten, who got in the rear of the enemy to attack his entrenchments. The King's division consisted of ten thousand grenadiers and was posted in some woods in battle order. When Frederick advanced with his vanguard upon Daun's entrenchments he was greeted by a murderous fire from two hundred cannon, so directed that even before the troops reached the enemy's lines they were almost unfitted for action, as they were deafened by the terrible crashes of the artillery. Notwithstanding the din and confusion, the King retained his composure, and turning to one of his generals, said: "What a horrible cannonading! Did you ever hear anything like it?"

The effect was frightful. In a short time nearly all the brave grenadiers were shot down. Their places were filled by fresh regiments and the cavalry was ordered to advance, but it was useless. Nothing could withstand that murderous fire. In the mean time Frederick himself was exposed to the greatest danger. Shots ploughed up the earth so near him that his horse was very restive. At last he had to make a show of composure. He rode from the first rank to the second, and came to a dragoon regiment.

"Well, children, how goes it?" he asked.

Some answered, "Badly, Your Majesty; we are standing here letting them shoot us down, and we cannot defend ourselves."

"Wait a little," said the King to them, "the firing will soon cease; then we will attack them."

While saying these words a cannon-ball came so close to him that his horse jumped to one side, knocked over a drum, and seemed about to run away with him. The King smiled, and said to the drummer:

"You tell the Austrians if they don't soon march off, I will take their guns away from them."

A new attack was ordered, but the Austrians resumed their destructive fire. At this crisis the King noticed there was a great gap on the right wing, between the Garde du Corps  and the gens d'armes. He rode where the shots were falling thickest, to strengthen the weak spot. When this had been done, he remained there a short time, watching with his glass one of the batteries which was playing havoc with the Garde du Corps. A corporal of the fourth company remarked to a guard: "If we have got to stand here and be shot at, because they won't let us attack, give me a pinch of snuff."

The guard took his box from his pouch, and as he was lifting the cover, a cannon-ball shot off his head. In the most cold-blooded way, the corporal turned to his second neighbor and said: "Well, now, you give me a pinch; that one has gone to the devi1."

While Lieutenant von Byern, who afterward became leader of a cuirassier regiment, was speaking with the man about the accident, another ball killed his horse. The King, who had been watching them closely, rode up to the lieutenant, and then said to the corporal: "You have the proper coolness of a soldier. I shall remember you."

The corporal was overjoyed because the King had honored him by addressing him, which aroused his hope of promotion.

The Garde du Corps  suffered greatly in this battle, for they were exposed to the fire of the battery already mentioned, and every discharge killed some of them. The King greatly deplored it, but he could not relieve them right away. He rode up to them and said in a tone of deep sympathy: "Children, only have patience for a few minutes. Things will quickly change."

At that instant a shot came close to the King and killed the file leader of the fourth company of the second squadron. His next neighbor said to the King: "Be careful of yourself, Your Majesty, and ride to a safer place. It is more important you should live than we."

The King turned a grateful look to the speaker and said: "My dear son, I thank you for your honest intentions and goodwill. I shall not forget you."

Hardly had the King gone when a shot killed this honest man on the spot.

The attack was renewed by the Prussians, but their valor was of no avail against the strongly entrenched enemy. Night was approaching, but the Austrians had not been dislodged from their position. Firing was still kept up vigorously on both sides, and the combatants were shot down in rows. Frederick himself did not escape untouched. A bullet stunned him, and with the words, "I am killed," he fell. Two of his aides instantly ran up to him and searched for the wound, but his thick pelisse had saved him. Opening it, they found that the bullet had passed through his heavy clothing, but had not pierced his body. The King speedily came to himself and coolly said: "It is a matter of no consequence." The bullet, however, had made a bad contusion on his breast.

As night came on, confusion spread through the ranks, and Frederick was not a little disturbed about the result of the battle. He looked upon it as lost, and the Austrians were rejoicing over the victory they supposed they had gained. Both sides, however, were premature in their conclusions, for almost immediately the situation took on a new aspect.

In carrying out his orders, Zieten had had to contend with almost insuperable obstacles before he could get to the place to which he had been assigned. After almost superhuman exertions he reached, toward evening, the Suptitz heights. His soldiers dragged their cannon by hand and planted them on a hill near the enemy. With drums beating and cannon thundering, Zieten advanced to the attack, and at the very first onset captured a battery, causing great alarm and confusion among the Austrians. Field-Marshal Daun rallied all his forces and tried to drive the Prussians out of his entrenchments, but the effort was fruitless. Zieten, clearly realizing what was at stake, so continuously pressed his assaults that the Austrians could not withstand them. They began to waver, and General Daun was so badly wounded that he had to be carried from the field. This new misfortune increased their panic, and Zieten gave them no chance to get over it. He hurled his entire force upon them, and the victory was won.

The King, meanwhile, knew nothing of Zieten's successful attack and its important results, as the intervening darkness cut off his view of the field. Fancying the battle was lost, or at least that the victory was doubtful, he rode to the neighboring village of Elsnitz, where he went into a church, as all other places were filled with wounded. It was a very cold night. While tired-out, shivering soldiers sought rest and warmth by the watch-fires, Frederick sat upon the lowest step of the altar and by the dim light of a lamp wrote his orders for attack on the following day, for he was determined to make the battle decisive, whatever the cost. It was hardly daybreak when he mounted his horse and rode out of the village. He had not gone far when he saw a cavalry troop approaching, with Zieten at its head. In the tone of an officer reporting, he said to the King, "The enemy is beaten and has retreated."

Frederick was much excited by the announcement. With the activity of a boy, he jumped from his horse, Zieten following his example, and embraced his faithful general. Zieten cried like a child. Then the two rode back to the field, by different routes, to acquaint the troops with the joyful news and thank them for the bravery they had shown.

The King rode along the front, from the left to the right wing, and approached the generals who were gathered about the watch-fire. Frederick dismounted and joined the brave officers and men of his division, who were waiting for dawn to renew the attack upon the Austrians if they had not retreated. The King talked much with his soldiers and praised them for their valor. The grenadiers, knowing his amiability and condescension, crowded nearer and nearer about him. One of them, with whom the King had several times conversed and to whom he had often given money, was bold enough to ask him where he had been during the battle. They were accustomed to seeing him at their head, leading them into the thickest of the fight. This time, however, not an eye had seen him, and it was not right for him to forsake them. The King replied most graciously to the grenadier, saying that during most of the battle he had been at the left wing of the army and therefore could not be with his own men. While saying this, he unbuttoned his blue overcoat, as he was getting too warm. As he did so, the grenadier noticed a bullet falling from his clothes and saw the wound on his breast through the rent in his uniform. Excitedly he shouted: "Thou art still the old Fritz! Thou sharest every danger with us. For thee we would die gladly. Long live the King! Three times three!"

There was the greatest enthusiasm as Frederick rode up and down the line, shaking hands with this and that old graybeard and addressing a kindly word to everyone. On this occasion the old grenadiers were smoking wretched tobacco in their stub pipes right under his nose. An officer, who knew his dislike of tobacco, said to them, "Step back a little. His Majesty cannot endure tobacco smoke."

"No, children, stay where you are," replied the King, with a kindly smile. "I don't mind the smell."

He was thus gracious to his soldiers—for it was well known that he was averse to tobacco all his life—and in this and other ways was constantly manifesting his regard for them.

The loss of life at Torgau was very great on both sides. The Austrians lost twenty thousand men beside fifty-five cannon and twenty-seven standards, and the Prussians suffered almost as severely. Frederick, writing about it to a friend, said:

"We have just defeated the Austrians. They have lost an extraordinary number as well as we. This victory will perhaps allow us a little rest this Winter and that is about all. Next year we must begin anew. I have been hit by a shot, which grazed my breast, but it is only a bruise,—little pain, but no danger,—therefore I shall be as busy as ever."

Large as was the number killed in this battle, it was compensated for by its important results, for Prussia was saved and Saxony was once more freed from the Austrians. The Russians had retired again into Poland, and the Swedes had sought refuge in the farthest corners of Pomerania. The King decided to make his Winter quarters in Leipsic. On his way there, he reached a Saxon village near Wittenburg and took lodgings with a preacher. Delighted with the honor conferred upon him, he went to the door to meet the King, and said: "Come in, thou blessed of the Lord! Why dost thou stand outside?"

The King regarded the preacher, a venerable old man, with a kindly smile, and said to him: "How many taxpayers are there in this village?"

The preacher was so astonished at the question that he could hardly reply, although he knew the number very well. At last he collected his wits and said: "Twenty-two."

"And how much do they raise?"

The preacher stated the amount of grain in bushels as nearly as he could.

"Has the village suffered much during the war?"

"In the last eight weeks, Your Majesty, your troops and the Austrians have alternately foraged here. We are about at the end, for we only have our lives and cabins left."

"Who represented the Austrians here?"

"General Luzinsky."

"Where did he stop?"

"I had the honor of entertaining him in my house as well as I could."

"So? Did you also call him 'blessed of the Lord ' when he came?"

"By no means, but I could not curse him."

"Oh, yes! You are a Saxon. Now I shall see whether I bring more blessings to this village than Luzinsky."

The King was shown to his room, and made much of the preacher, who greatly entertained him. When he departed he paid him a hundred Friedrich d'ors, and left an order that if Prussian troops came to the village they should take nothing, and should pay for everything they got outside their quarters.

Frederick always liked to talk with the country clergy. He resumed his march to Leipsic in more cheerful spirits, but did not enter the city at once. He had his night's lodgings at a parson's house in one of the villages near Leipsic. He was kept awake all night, for the house was overrun with mice, which made much noise in his room. Frederick arose at daybreak, called the pastor, and said: "Listen! Do you know anything about interpreting dreams?"

"Not particularly, Your Majesty, for I am not much of a believer in them."

"You may not believe in them, but many a dream has a real meaning. I will tell you of mine. I dreamed your rooms were full of mice. What does that signify?"

"I don't know."

"Well, I think Heaven means me to understand by this that my commissaries are good at plundering."

"Oh, no, Your Majesty, I fear your dream was the result of natural causes; for, alas! I am very much plagued by these vermin in my house and I do not know how to get rid of them."

"So? then I must be wrong. Now you take this Friedrich d'or and buy yourself a mouse-trap. Perhaps then I may sleep better the next time I come."

Frederick's enemies continued hoping that the time would come, in the execution of their plans, when they should find him exhausted by the weakness of his forces; and prospects indeed seemed to point that way. Doubtless he gained much by the victory at Torgau, but his situation still was a difficult one. He greatly deplored the losses his army had suffered, for he saw no way of replacing them. Signs of discontent were also beginning to appear among his troops because they were not regularly paid. This induced him, immediately after the battle at Torgau, to abandon his original plan of retaking Dresden. The following conversation shows how serious he was in this purpose. Immediately after the victory a grenadier asked: "Your Majesty, shall we now go into good Winter quarters?"

"We must first retake Dresden. After that, I will look out for you and you shall be satisfied."

In view of dissatisfactions among the soldiers and the approach of cold, rainy weather, the King decided, at the close of the year 1760, to go into Winter quarters.