Frederick the Great - George Upton

Seydlitz Saves the Day at Zorndorf

Notwithstanding obstacles of the kind related in the last chapter, which were frequent in that region, the progress v of the army was not checked and Silesia was reached. The King left the larger part of the army at Landeshut with Field-Marshal Keith, for the protection of Silesia, and pushed on by exhausting marches under the scorching sun to the relief of Count Dohna, who was in great danger from the attacks of the Russians. The latter, leaving devastation in their wake, had invaded Prussia as far as Custrin, as already mentioned. This place they had captured after great destruction, and they also forced it to pay a heavy contribution in money. Trampled fields and burning villages marked the route of the northern barbarians. The unfortunate inhabitants of cities and villages, driven from house and home, wandered in bands, seeking shelter and help. Deeply touched by the indescribable wretchedness of his countrymen, Frederick marched all the more rapidly until he came up with the Russians at Zorndorf. A little stream alone separated the two armies.

As so much depended upon securing an accurate idea of the whole situation, the exact position as well as numbers of the enemy, the King, attended by an aide, a servant who carried his spyglass, and a groom, rode to the bank of the stream, dismounted and bade his servant also alight. Resting his glass upon the latter's shoulder, he began making observations. The moment the Russians saw him, they opened a continuous fire from the nearest battery, the shot striking so near the King as to cover his coat with dirt. He calmly continued his observations without moving his glass or a change in the expression of his face. At last his aide thought it was his duty to remind him of the danger to which he was exposed. He stepped up, gently pulled the skirts of the King's coat, and said: "Your Majesty is in too great danger here. See how the shots are striking all around you. Your coat and hat are covered with dirt."

It was some little time before the King replied. At last he turned to the aide, saying with the utmost coolness: "If you are afraid, you can ride back "; and then resumed his observations at once. After he had seen all he wished, he said to his servant: "Now you can pack up." With these words he mounted his horse and leisurely rode away under a very shower of shot, talking in the meanwhile with his aide on various matters, utterly indifferent to danger.

The ruin caused by the Russians so infuriated the King that he decided upon a battle to the death, and issued orders that none of the barbarous enemy should be spared.

It was in the early morning of August 25, 1758, that the Prussian army, thirty-two thousand strong, confronted, in battle array, an enemy greatly exceeding it in strength, for the Russians numbered fifty-two thousand men. After all preparations for the battle had been made, and as the Prussians were marching out of camp, the King conversed with officers and the rank-and-file upon various matters as they passed by, with as much composure as if it were a parade. He was somewhat surprised at an old corporal in the grenadier battalion of the Berlin garrison, named Beek, whose very bald head was covered with the grenadier's cap while his wig was hanging from his knapsack. The King rode up to him and noticed that the old man was still very active.

"My friend," said he, "it is high time somebody looked after you. Have you had an education?"

"No, Your Majesty, I have learned nothing; I can neither read nor write. I had to be a soldier when I was very young, and I am of no use except to be shot at."

"How long have you been in the service?"

"Forty-four years already, and yet I am perfectly sound. If the war lasts long enough, however, my time to die will come. I don't care for that, for I have always lived the soldier's life. There is only one thing that troubles me. If it were not for that, Your Majesty, I shouldn't care if I were shot to-day. I would die right willingly."

The King listened attentively and then asked: "Well, what troubles you?"

"Your Majesty, I have an only boy who is making some progress. His mother has taught him to read quite well, and I would be glad to have him learn whatever is proper for him, and go to some good school, so that he will know more than I do. That will help him when he goes out into the world, I cannot afford to give him anything out of my allowance."

"Where is your son to be found?"

The father gave him his son's residence, and told his name, and then the King rode away. A few minutes after this the battle began.

The Russians were formed in a huge quadrilateral. The Prussian artillery played havoc with this dense, unwieldy mass, for Captain Moller that day had one hundred and seventeen cannon and howitzers. Seydlitz was chief in command of all the cavalry. The Russian general, Fermor, opened the battle prematurely by a sudden attack with his cavalry, which dashed upon the Prussians with loud cheers. Seydlitz did not neglect his opportunity. With his characteristic energy he repulsed the cavalry and hurled back the enemy's infantry. The ensuing confusion, greatly increased by the dust, smoke, and furious battle cries, was so great that the Russian rear guard fired upon their own men. Dreadful slaughter followed, but the Russians stood as if rooted to the earth and fought like lions. At last, by the aid of invincible courage and judicious leadership, the Prussian army weakened the enemy, but as yet without decisive result. An eyewitness describes the further progress of the battle as follows:

"Fiercely blazed the noonday sun upon the exhausted troops, who had been on their feet since four o'clock in the morning. The cavalry was particularly fatigued, for it had been engaged at the most dangerous points. Both men and animals needed refreshment, which could only be procured for a short time back of the village of Zorndorf, where Seydlitz's squadrons had been stationed. The King was anxious to make the battle decisive, and therefore, in the afternoon, ordered it to be renewed. The Russian army stood ready in battle order. Fifteen thousand infantry, twelve ranks deep, occupied a strong position, and one hundred cannon covered their flanks and poured a deadly fire into the approaching Prussian regiments. Their onset was checked, and they fell back. The fate of Prussia and its heroic King hung in the balance. Seydlitz, who had formed his cavalry in three divisions, recognized the danger and rushed forward. He had his sixty-one squadrons in such shape that they could make repeated assaults upon the obstinate enemy. The first division was composed of eighteen squadrons of cuirassiers, assisted by a fine regiment of carbineers and a corps of gens d'armes. At a hundred yards away were three regiments of dragoons in the second division, which supported the first and filled up gaps. The third division, two hundred and fifty yards distant, consisted of three regiments of hussars, whose duty it was to capture artillery, take charge of prisoners, and destroy broken battalions.

"In order to save the badly weakened men and horses as much as possible, Seydlitz ordered that at first all movements should be made in slow and regular time; but at the final ' March, march,' they should not spare the spur, but hurl themselves upon the enemy with all possible force and fury. The powerful body began its slow movement, greatly hindered by the retreating battalions of Dohna's infantry. With clear, far-reaching voice Seydlitz ordered,' Make ready for attack! ' for the Russian shots were already falling among them. Quickly followed the first 'March, march,' order, blown by two hundred trumpeters, but the squadrons moved forward at an easy gallop. Nearer and nearer, enveloped in dense clouds of dust, they rushed upon the Russian colossus. Then came the thunder-shock. Grapeshot made frightful havoc in the Prussian ranks. At last the trumpeters sounded the final 'March, march,' and with all their force the Prussian centaurs hurled themselves upon the enemy's bayonets. With incessant and irresistible fury the whole sixty-one squadrons repeatedly charged. The cannon were captured, men were mowed down. Suddenly firing ceased. Death came by cut and thrust. Darkness and the complete exhaustion of men and horses ended the slaughter."

Frederick was jubilant over his brilliant victory. One hundred and three cannon, twenty-seven standards, and the money chests were the spoils of the day, but ten thousand Prussians were left upon the field of honor. On this day, Seydlitz and his cavalry had rescued the Fatherland and saved Prussia's military glory. He had performed miracles of bravery, and when the infantry wavered it was his cavalry which put the enemy to flight. The King himself acknowledged this, for when he was, congratulated upon the great victory he turned to Seydlitz, and said: "But for this man things would have looked bad for us by this time."