Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to
the tempestuous sea of liberty. — Thomas Jefferson

Maria Theresa of Austria - George Upton




Battles of the Seven Years' War

True to his practice of boldly meeting an impending danger, Frederick preferred to open hostilities himself, rather than leave it to his enemies. Why should he hesitate to kindle the flames of war in the land of so bitter an enemy as the Elector of Saxony (also King of Poland) had shown himself to be? Without any formal declaration having been made, therefore, he proceeded to invade Saxony with an army of sixty thousand men in three divisions. His advance, as usual, was rapid; all places of importance were seized, and on September 10, 1756, he entered Dresden. The Elector fled to the fortress of Konigstein, which was considered impregnable, and at the foot of which the Saxon army of seventeen thousand men, all told, was in position.

The Queen alone remained in Dresden. She had the key to the secret archives, and when Frederick ordered them to be seized she placed herself before the door of the room in which they were kept, declaring they should never be taken except by force. She was pushed aside, however, the chests were broken open, and Frederick found the documents, copies of which had been sent him by the traitor already mentioned, and which furnished proof of the secret alliance against him. With the exception of this violence, which, in truth, the august lady had brought upon herself, she was treated with the greatest respect. The poor country fared worse. Although pillage was strictly forbidden, Saxony had to bear all the oppression of a conquered country and meet levies of all kinds. Frederick emptied the arsenals, confiscated all the state revenues, and treated Saxony as if it were part of his own dominions; but he spared the people wherever it was possible. Ignoring the protests of the Emperor and also of France, he pursued his own course, and worked for his own ends firmly and resolutely.

The position which the Saxon troops held at the foot of Konigstein was unassailable. The only way to vanquish them was by starvation, so the King left them well surrounded and marched with his army into Bohemia to prevent any assistance reaching the Saxons from that quarter. There were two Austrian armies in Bohemia—one under the command of Marshal Browne, at Kollin; the other under General Piccolomini at Olmutz, and later at Koniggratz. Browne was Saxony's nearest hope of rescue; but Frederick's sudden and unexpected appearance in Bohemia took him by surprise and found him unprepared for action. Several weeks elapsed, in fact, before he was ready to move, and Frederick made good use of the time. Moreover, the Minister of War, regarded as the most conservative of the Austrian field-marshals, wished to spare the army as much as possible, and to threaten Frederick for the advantage of Saxony without exposing it to long marches and changes of position.

Browne sent a force of eight thousand to Losowitz under Count Wied, while he himself left Kollin and took up a position near Budin. Wied's vanguard met the Prussians at Peterswalde, September tenth; and Browne was forced into an engagement. The battle was fought near Losowitz, October, 1756, but was not decisive, both generals claiming the victory. Meanwhile, the famished Saxons at Konigstein were in terrible straits. They had made an ineffectual effort to escape, and a second attempt was scarcely more successful, for their new position was no better than the one they had abandoned. The Prussians again surrounded them, and Browne, who had hurried forward hoping to rescue the beleaguered army, was compelled to retreat, leaving the unfortunate Saxons with no choice but to lay down their arms and surrender themselves with all their artillery to Frederick.

This blow crushed Saxony's hopes of further resistance, but the King of Prussia, more magnanimous than might have been expected considering his many reasons for irritation against that country, granted neutrality to Konigstein and its occupants. The Elector wisely preferred, however, to retire to Warsaw, and Frederick, for reasons of his own, took good care that he should meet with no interference from Prussian troops on the way thither.

These events closed the campaign. Browne remained in Bohemia and the King went into Winter quarters in Saxony, leaving part of his troops in Silesia. Maria Theresa took the loss of Saxony very much to heart, for she was thereby deprived of a faithful ally. Her army had suffered little and accomplished less, but at least it had escaped great dangers and was safe, and this was some cause for congratulation in Vienna; for, considering the unprepared condition in which the opening of the campaign had found Browne, the outcome might easily have been different and his troops have shared the fate of Saxony's.

At all events, Maria Theresa had received a fresh warning to be on her guard against such an adversary, who appeared with the swiftness of an arrow where he was least expected, and was rarely to be found when he was looked for. With her usual energy she urged on the preparation of the army, and bestowed upon the task all the care and devotion of a mother for her children. But, busied as she was with affairs at home, she was none the less mindful of the value of neighborly help in time of need,—an emergency always to be considered where Frederick the Great was concerned. As a fact, he himself had unconsciously done more for her than her best friend could have accomplished; for the summary methods he had resorted to in Saxony, in defiance of the customary rights of nations, was unprecedented and greatly incensed other rulers, especially the Elector, shut up in his fortress of Konigstein like a bird in a cage, with no hope of escape save by the favor of Frederick and his assurance of safety from attack by Prussian troops, who, to put it mildly, would scarcely have treated him with courtly politeness.

Many of these sovereigns were, no doubt, thinking "What has befallen Saxony might also happen in our own lands any day"; and if it came to the actual question whether such a fate were merited or no, their consciences might not have altogether acquitted them. Be this as it may, there was a general feeling of resentment among them, and the tendency of popular report to magnify matters did its part toward helping Maria Theresa by intensifying the feeling against Frederick. Even the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation condemned his conduct and joined the ranks of his enemies. Frederick, however, understood the nondescript character of the Imperial army too well to be disturbed by this, and his able and active adversary was also sufficiently aware of it to urge on her own preparations the more actively. If the Imperial army had been her only dependence, there would have been little hope for her; but the French alliance had proved most satisfactory, and promised to be of the greatest service to her in the event of the dissolution of the German union. Indeed, its assurance of help was now all the more certain because Frederick's actions were calculated to increase the hatred of France for him.

Sweden also allied itself to France, and Russia had promised to support Austria with an army of one hundred thousand men. With three additional armies, even though Sweden's strength did not count for much, and a total force of four hundred thousand, Maria Theresa's prospects looked very bright, and it was not to be wondered at that her eyes were fixed confidently and expectantly on her beloved Silesia. Prince Charles of Lorraine was put in command of the Austrian army, and under him was Marshal Browne, the former commander-in-chief in Bohemia. This completely altered the plan of campaign that Browne had laid out, and the rapid movements of the active enemy had to be met with the slow-moving and cumbersome army of the allies. After careful and judicious consideration, it was agreed that the best way of utilizing the cooperation of the allied armies was to close in on Frederick from every side, and thus destroy his forces and completely crush him. Was the King aware of this plan? It seems probable from the plans which he adopted. Prince Charles and Browne occupied strong positions and calmly waited for the Prussian attack, while Daun was stationed some distance to the rear—a fact that caused Frederick some uneasiness.

The first battle of the campaign took place in the neighborhood of Prague on May 6, 1 757. The Austrians seemed to have the advantage at first, for their artillery caused deadly havoc among, the Prussians. The gallant Schwerin, seeing the danger, seized the colors of his regiment and rode at full speed against the enemy, urging his men on with shouts of encouragement. A shot found its way to his heart almost instantly, but his words still rang in every ear, his brave example was before every eye, and his death filled every heart with a thirst for revenge. The battle was fierce and bloody, and resulted in a victory for the Prussians; but it was not a decisive one, and Schwerin's fall was a serious blow to them. Frederick said when informed of his death, He was worth ten thousand men to me!" The King was greatly depressed by this loss, and also by the fact that the greater part of Maria Theresa's army was safe within the walls of Prague, which looked like a speedy close to the campaign. Moreover, Daun's division was still fresh, and free now to join the rest of the army, another advantage in their favor.

There was nothing left for Frederick but to lay siege to Prague; but as it promised to be a long and tedious affair for him, he ruthlessly bombarded the city and invoked the aid of two terrible allies—fire and famine. Every day increased the horrors of the situation in Prague. Prince Charles made every effort to encourage and cheer the soldiers and the citizens and persuade them to hold out by promises of speedy relief, but their own sufferings were more powerful arguments than any of his representations. The citizens lost heart, and the troops were continually committing acts of violence and becoming mutinous, so that Prince Charles was finally compelled to have a gallows erected in the public square to warn the marauders. Matters were desperate, when Daun approached with orders from Maria Theresa to relieve the distressed city at any cost.

The case was urgent, for the army and city might soon fall into Frederick's hands, a result he was confidently reckoning upon. Daun must be driven from the neighborhood in order to accomplish it, and how to do that without weakening his besieging army was the problem that confronted him. With his usual skill, however, he solved it by hastening forward with a small detachment to join the Prince of Bevern's division, and with him advancing to meet Daun. The battle of Kollin was the result of their meeting. It was a desperate struggle, and a disastrous defeat for the hitherto victorious King of Prussia. Daun was the victor and Prague was saved.

Maria Theresa received the news with a jubilant heart, and hastened at once with the Emperor to inform the Countess Daun of her husband's victory in person. Nor was this enough. To celebrate the day she established the "Order of Maria Theresa," which was to be won only by deeds of bravery in battle, and which by the infrequency of its bestowal was held as the highest possible honor in the Austrian army. The first cross of the order glistened upon the breast of Daun. As a still further expression of her joy and exultation, the Empress had a jubilee medal coined in commemoration of her victory.

The results of the battle of Kollin were far reaching. The popular belief in Frederick's invincibility received a severe blow, and the courage of his soldiers sank in proportion as that of the Austrians rose. Maria Theresa's forces were continually receiving additions, while the Prussian army began to dwindle. Matters looked somewhat brighter along the Rhine, but the Imperial army with a French auxiliary force was advancing to the rescue of Saxony, and Frederick was forced to march hurriedly into Thuringia to meet them, leaving his army in Saxony and Lusatia under competent generals.

Soubise, so famous for his agility in retreat, fell back at Frederick's approach, and Erfurt opened its gates to him. A few days later Seydlitz surprised the French at Gotha, and drove them away in what might be called headlong flight; for in the ducal palace Seydlitz found the dishes still smoking on the table as they had been left, and he and his officers sat down with a good appetite to enjoy the meal the hungry Frenchmen had been so easily frightened away from. This little exploit of the cavalry afforded unbounded delight to the King and his soldiers, and served as a prelude to what was to follow at Rossbach.

Nothing could equal the scorn with which the French in their overwhelming conceit regarded Prussia's little army; indeed, some of the officers went so far as to question whether it were not derogatory to their honor to engage in serious conflict with such a paltry force. But when the battle really began they took to their heels in a manner that scarcely has its equal in history. Of the noble Imperial army it can only be said that the greater part of it left the field without firing a shot. It was a rabbit-hunt, not a battle of men, in which the Prussians played the parts of hunters and drivers at the same time, with Seydlitz for a leader. That doughty baron's only regret was that he had not been able to catch the gallant Soubise himself; but the swiftest horse could scarcely have done that!

To prove that even flight may lead to glory Prince Soubise, whom even the French themselves had nicknamed "Prince Sottise," received a Field-Marshal's staff after this. The riddle is easily solved, however,—Pompadour! The French continued their flight as far as the Rhine, until they were sure Frederick had been left far behind.

The Austrians had been victorious since the battle of Kollin. Bevern's and Winterfeld's forces had been defeated. Silesia was almost within their grasp, a result they hoped to see accomplished before the end of the campaign. But Frederick had other plans. The battle of Rossbach had restored Saxony to him, but matters had come to the point when he must regain his hold on Silesia or lose all the advantage he had won.

In twelve days he crossed the whole breadth of his dominions, and effected a union with Bevern's force in Silesia. This gave him about thirty-three thousand men, and with these troops, many of them exhausted by their long march, he faced an Austrian army of double their strength near the village of Leuthen. Here the Austrians met a crushing defeat; they lost twenty-six thousand five hundred men, killed or taken prisoners, one hundred and sixteen cannon, fifty-one standards, and four thousand commissary, baggage, and ammunition wagons, beside forfeiting the results of all their former victories. Whole regiments were annihilated or taken prisoners. The contemptuous designation of the Prussian army as the "Potsdam Night-watch Parade" was terribly avenged, and the precept was brought home to the Austrians, as it had been to the French at Rossbach, that "pride goeth before a fall"!

And Maria Theresa?

It was a bitter disappointment she was called upon to bear. She had looked upon Silesia as her own once more; she had seen her army triumph over the enemy; her heart had been full of joy and gratitude,—and now!

Nevertheless, in spite of these misfortunes, her brave spirit did not quail; her faith in the justice of her cause was unshaken. She redoubled her exertions to strengthen the army and make up the terrible losses it had suffered. But were there not quiet hours when with clasped hands she raised her tearful eyes to Heaven in prayer, as a relief to her oppressed heart? Being but a woman, and a devout and pious woman, it must have been so.

The third year of the war began in the early Spring: what terrible sacrifices it was to cost! What bloodshed and suffering, what distress and misery to thousands! Yet there was no thought of peace. Still must the sword reap its deadly harvest, like the scythe in the ripe grain-field, and Maria Theresa was powerless to prevent it. Her funds were low, their replenishment very difficult; and what vast sums were required to fill the gaps that Leuthen alone had caused! Bohemia was exhausted, little dependence could be placed upon the other states for help, and the treasury was slow in filling. She saw nothing but difficulties ahead, and, worst of all, the people were disheartened. The feeling against Prince Charles of Lorraine became so strong that he was forced to resign; but for once the ministry of war, which usually bore the blame of all mistakes and disasters, escaped the unsparing censure that was universally expressed against the commander-in-chief. Count Daun was appointed in his place, and hastened to Vienna to consult upon plans for the new campaign.

A few preliminary skirmishes resulted in favor of the Austrians, but the first important event was the loss of Schweidnitz, their last hold in Silesia. The garrison, reduced by want and distress, were taken prisoners by Frederick, who then advanced against Olmutz. From thence to Vienna was but a step, and one that was seriously considered by many of the Prussians. But Maria Theresa had again put the right man in the right place—two men, indeed, who proved themselves worthy of her confidence, Daun and Laudon. Daun's great skill lay in his choice of positions, and he possessed a caution and deliberation that often put Frederick's patience to the test and defeated his plans. He made no move until he was satisfied as to the fitness of his army, which consisted largely of new troops; but when his preparations were complete he marched to the assistance of Olmutz, which Frederick had besieged. He cut off the supplies of the Prussians by attacking and destroying a heavy train of provisions and ammunition which Frederick was anxiously expecting and depending upon. This loss, together with a sudden attack by Daun, forced the Prussians to raise the siege and retreat. Olmutz was saved.

Maria Theresa was greatly relieved, for she realized the importance of Olmutz, and was correspondingly grateful to her commander-in-chief, whose services she had already had good cause to value. She built fresh hopes, too, on the invasion of Brandenburg by the Russians, which obliged Frederick to divide his forces to meet this new danger. Leaving part of his army to oppose Daun, he marched rapidly against the Russians, who were ravaging Prussia. He defeated them with great slaughter at Zorndorf, wreaked a terrible vengeance upon them, and then returned to Saxony, where he was much needed, for his brother Henry was there and was hard pressed by Daun and the Imperial army. Daun employed his usual tactics in making his own position secure, while his light cavalry continually harassed the King's troops, and in avoiding the decisive action into which Frederick was anxious to force him.

Frederick pitched his camp at Hochkirchen, on a plain directly opposite Daun, a position protested against by all his generals and of which Keith said, If the Austrians leave us here in peace, they all ought to be hanged!" The King paid no attention, however, to this good advice. Dawn's eagle glance was not one to overlook an opportunity that lay within his grasp, but his deliberation seemed to imply that he did not intend to accept the bold challenge, and Frederick had already decided to break up his camp, when Daun suddenly fell upon it in the early morning (October 14, 1758) while the Prussians were still asleep. A desperate struggle followed, at first in total darkness. Then the daylight struggling through a heavy mist, with flames from the burning village, lit up the scene of slaughter where the Austrians had the foe at their mercy. Had not Frederick's army maintained its discipline so well, but a small part of it would have escaped.

It was a brilliant victory for Daun, but he committed a grave error in not following it up, as his adversary would not have failed to do. Too late he realized the folly of allowing his irrepressible foe to escape, only to rally his forces and drive the Austrians from Silesia. Daun hoped to retrieve this blunder by achievements in Saxony. He had the advantage there and advanced to attack Dresden, but the Prussian General Schmettau set fire to the suburbs and showed signs of such vigorous resistance that, rather than see the city destroyed, Daun abandoned the attack and withdrew into Bohemia.

The results achieved by the allied armies in other quarters were not remarkable. Daun by his victory at Hochkirchen bore off the honors of this campaign, nor did he lack laurels in recognition of his services. He had a mistress who rewarded right royally.

Maria Theresa needed the winter's rest to strengthen her position both at home and abroad. Some new alliances and a renewal of the old ones seemed to promise well for the future. Russia made fresh preparations on land and sea; an agreement was made with Sweden and Denmark by which they were to close the passage of the strait against the English, and the Imperial army bestirred itself to repair damages.

Nor did Frederick neglect this opportunity to replenish his treasury, which was much in need of it, and to increase and improve his army.