On January 10 Frederick sent to his ministers in Berlin some secret instructions: “If I am killed, affairs must continue without the slightest alteration.... If I have the bad luck to be captured, I forbid the smallest consideration for my person, or the slightest attention to anything I may write in captivity.”25
It was a useless gesture, for without his military genius Prussia was lost. His only hope lay in facing his foes one at a time before they could unite. The French were not yet ready for battle, and perhaps the regiments that England was sending to Hanover could hold them for a while. The Austrians were accumulating in nearby Bohemia and Moravia immense magazines of arms and provisions to equip their armies for an invasion of Silesia. Frederick decided first to capture those precious stores, fight the Austrians, then march back to face the French. He led his own force from Saxony, and ordered the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern from East Germany, and Marshal Schwerin from Silesia, to advance into Bohemia and meet him in the hills overlooking Prague from the west. It was so done; the magazines were captured; and on May 6, near Prague, 64,000 Prussians met 61,000 Austrians under Prince Charles of Lorraine in the first great battle of the war.
The issue was decided not by numbers, nor by strategy, but by courage. Schwerin’s regiments, under Austrian fire, marched waist-deep, shoulder-deep, through morasses. For a time they lost heart and turned in flight; then Schwerin, aged seventy-three, rallied them, wrapped the colors about his body, rode straight in the face of the foe, was struck by five balls at once, and fell dead. His men, loving him almost more than they feared death, charged in fury against the enemy, and turned defeat into victory. The slaughter on both sides was enormous, and Frederick’s losses included four hundred officers and his best general; in this war generals did not die in bed. The 46,000 surviving Austrians retired into their citadel in Prague, and prepared to resist siege.
But Frederick found siege difficult, for Marshal Leopold von Daun, ablest of the Austrian commanders, was coming up from Moravia with another 64,000 men. Leaving part of his army to blockade the citadel, Frederick marched eastward with 32,000 troops, and met the advancing masses at Kolin (June 16). The odds against him were too great, and the generalship of Daun was in this case superior to his own. Two of Frederick’s generals disobeyed his orders, causing confusion; Frederick lost his temper, and shouted to his retreating cavalry, “Would you live forever?”26 The infantry, overwhelmed by carnage, refused to advance. Frederick, despondent, withdrew from the field, leaving 14,000 Prussians dead, wounded, or prisoners. He led his 18,000 survivors back to Prague, abandoned the siege, and returned with his remnants toward Saxony.
At Leitmeritz he rested his army for three weeks. There, on July 2, he received word that his mother, Sophia Dorothea, had died. The iron man of war broke down, wept, and secluded himself for a day. Perhaps he wondered, now, whether his assault on Silesia, seventeen years before, had been a foolish tempting of Nemesis. He shared his grief with his sister Wilhelmine, margravine of Bayreuth, whom he loved beyond any other soul. On July 7, his pride nearly spent, he sent her a desperate appeal:
Since you, my dear sister, insist upon undertaking the great work of peace, I beg you to be good enough to send M. de Mirabeau to … offer the favorite [Mme. de Pompadour, formerly Cotillon IV] as much as 500,000 crowns for peace.... I leave it all to you … whom I adore, and who, although far more accomplished than I, is another myself.27
Nothing came of this approach. Wilhelmine tried another way: she wrote to Voltaire, then living in Switzerland, and begged him to use his influence. Voltaire transmitted her proposal to Cardinal de Tencin, who had opposed the Franco-Austrian alliance. Tencin tried and failed.28 The allies were sniffing the scent of victory. Maria Theresa talked now of completely dismembering Frederick’s realm: not only must Silesia and Glatz be restored to her, but Magdeburg and Halberstadt were to go to Augustus III, Pomerania was to revert to Sweden, and Cleves and Ravensburg were to reward the Elector Palatine.
Her hopes seemed reasonable. A French “army of the Dauphine” had entered Germany; part of it, under Pompadour’s favorite general, the Prince de Soubise, was coming to join with the Imperial army at Erfurt; another part, under Maréchal d’Estrées, advanced to meet a Hanoverian force under George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland. Near the village of Hastenbeck the French so badly defeated this army (July 26) that the Duke signed at Kloster-Zeven (September 8) a “convention” by which he promised to keep his Hanoverian troops from any further action against France.
Word of this humiliating capitulation may have reached Frederick at approximately the same time as news that a Swedish army had landed in Pomerania, and a Russian army of 100,000 men under Marshal Stepan Apraksin had invaded East Prussia and overwhelmed a force of 30,000 Prussians at Gross-Jägersdorf (July 30). These reverses, added to his own debacle in Bohemia, almost destroyed Frederick’s hope of overcoming enemies so numerous and so fortified with reserves of materials and men. Having abandoned the morality as well as the theology of Christianity, he fell back upon the ethics of the Stoics, and meditated suicide. To the end of the war he carried on his person a phial of poison; he was resolved that his foes should never take him except as a corpse. On August 24 he sent to Wilhelmine a semihysterical paean to death:
And now, ye promoters of sacred lies, go on leading cowards by the nose; … to me the enchantment of life is ended, the charm disappears. I see that all men are but the sport of Destiny, and that if there do exist some Gloomy and Inexorable Being, who allows a despised herd of creatures to go on multiplying here, he values them as nothing; he looks down upon a Phalaris crowned and a Socrates in chains, upon our virtues and our misdeeds, upon the horror of war and the cruel plagues that ravage the earth, as things indifferent to him. Wherefore my sole refuge and only haven, dear sister, is in the arms of death.29
She answered (September 15) by vowing to join him in suicide:
My dearest brother, your letter, and the one you wrote to Voltaire, … have almost killed me. What fatal resolutions, great God! Ah, my dear brother, you say you love me, and yet you drive a dagger into my heart. Your letter … made me shed rivers of tears. Now I am ashamed of such weakness. … Your lot shall be mine. I will not survive either your misfortunes or those of the House I belong to. You may calculate that such is my firm resolution.
But after this avowal let me entreat you to look back at what was the pitiable state of your enemy when you lay before Prague. It is the sudden whirl of Fortune for both parties. … Caesar was once the slave of pirates, and became lord of the earth. A great genius like yours finds resources even when all seems lost. I suffer a thousand times more than I can tell you; nevertheless hope does not abandon me.... I must finish, but I shall never cease to be, with the most profound respect, your Wilhelmine.30
She appealed to Voltaire to support her plea, and early in October, in his first letter to Frederick since 1753, he seconded her arguments:
The Catos and Othos, whose death your Majesty thinks noble, had nothing else they could do but fight or die. … You must keep in mind how many courts there are that see in your invasion of Saxony a violation of international law. … Our morality and your situation are far from requiring such an act [as suicide]. … Your life is needed; you know how dear it is to a numerous family. … The affairs of Europe are never long on the same basis, and it is the duty of a man like you to hold himself in readiness for events.... If your courage led you to that heroic extremity it would not be approved. Your partisans would condemn it, your enemies would triumph.31
To which Frederick replied in prose and verse:
Pour moi, menacé du naufrage,
Je dois, en affrontant l’orage,
Penser, vivre, et mourir en roi—
“as for me, menaced with shipwreck, I must, confronting the storm, think, live, and die like a king.”32
Between poems (always in French) he searched for the French army; now he longed for a battle that would settle for him the question of life or death. At Leipzig, October 15, he sent for Johann Christoph Gottsched (who wrote verses in German), and tried to convince him that German poetry was impossible. So many explosions—Knap, Klop, Krotz, Krok; so many gutturals, so many consonants—even in the professor’s name five in a row; how could you make a melody with such a language? Gottsched protested; Frederick had to prepare for another march; but ten days later, back in Leipzig, he received the old poet again, found time to listen to a Gottsched ode in German, and gave him a gold snuffbox as a parting token of good will.
During that literary interlude more bad news came: a force of Croats under Count Hadik was advancing upon Berlin, and rumor said that Swedish and French battalions were converging upon the Prussian capital. Frederick had left a garrison there, but far too small to buffet such an avalanche. If Berlin should fall, his principal source of supplies in arms, powder, and clothing would be in the hands of the enemy. He hurried with his army to rescue the city and his family. On the march he received word that no French or Swedish force was moving toward Berlin; that Hadik, halting in the suburbs, had exacted a ransom of £ 27,000 from Berlin, and had led his Croats contentedly away (October 16). There was other comforting intelligence: the Russians under Apraksin, racked with disease and famishing for food, had withdrawn from East Prussia into Poland. Less pleasant messages informed Frederick that the main French army under Soubise had entered Saxony, had plundered the western cities, and had united with the Imperial army under the Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The weary King turned back in his tracks, and led his troops to the vicinity of Rossbach, some thirty miles west of Leipzig.
There his tired army, reduced to 21,000 men, came at last face to face with the 41,000 troops of France and the Reich. Even so, Soubise advised against risking battle; better, he said, to continue evading Frederick and wearing him out with fruitless marches until the overwhelming superiority of the allies in manpower and materials should force him to yield. Soubise knew the breakdown of discipline in his ranks, and the lack of enthusiasm, in the mostly Protestant soldiers of the Reichsarmee, for fighting against Frederick.33Hildburghausen pleaded for action, and Soubise gave in. The German marshal led his men on a long detour to attack the Prussians on their left flank. Frederick, watching from a housetop in Rossbach, ordered his cavalry under Seydlitz to execute a countermovement against the right flank of the enemy. Screened by hills, and proceeding with disciplined speed, the Prussian cavalry, 3,800 strong, charged down upon the allied troops and overcame them before they could re-form their ranks. The French came up too late, and were shattered by the Prussian artillery; in ninety minutes the crucial battle of Rossbach was over (November 5, 1757). The allies retreated in disorder, leaving 7,700 dead on the field; the Prussians lost only 550 men. Frederick ordered the prisoners to be well treated, and invited the captured officers to share his table. With French grace and wit he excused the limited fare: “Mais, messieurs, je ne vous attendais pas sitôt, en si grand nombre” (But, gentlemen, I did not expect you so soon, in so great number).34
Military men on all sides marveled at the disproportion of the losses, and at the superior generalship that had made this possible. Even France confessed admiration, and the French people, so lately allied with Prussia, could not yet look upon Frederick as their foe. Did he not speak and write good French? The philosophes applauded his victories and claimed him as their champion of free thought against the religious obscurantism that they were fighting at home.35 Frederick responded to the gallant emotions of the French by saying, “I am not accustomed to regard the French as enemies.”36 But privately he composed—in French—a poem expressing his pleasure at having given the French a kick in the cul, which Carlyle delicately translated as “the seat of honor.”37
England rejoiced with him, and put new faith in her ally. London celebrated his birthday with bonfires in the streets, and devout Methodists acclaimed the infidel hero as the savior of the one true religion. Pitt had been brought back to head the government (July 29, 1757); henceforth he was the unswerving support of the Prussian King. “England has taken long to produce a great man for this contest,” said Frederick, “but here is one at last!”38 Pitt denounced the Convention of Kloster-Zeven as cowardice and treason—though the King’s son had signed it; he persuaded Parliament to send a better army to protect Hanover and help Frederick (October); and whereas it had voted only £ 164,000 for Cumberland’s “Army of Observation,” now it voted £ 1,200,000 for an “Army of Operations.” Pitt and Frederick united in choosing, as leader of this new force, Frederick’s brother-in-law and military pupil, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, thirty-six years old, handsome, cultured, brave, who played the violin so well, said Burney, that “he might have made his fortune by it.”39 Here was an instrument nobly fit to play second fiddle to Frederick’s flute!