Frederick had not much leisure for rejoicing. A French army under Richelieu still held much of Hanover. On the very day of Rossbach 43,000 Austrians laid seige to Schweidnitz, the principal stronghold and storehouse of the Prussians in Silesia; Frederick had left 41,000 men there, but they had been reduced by desertion and death to 28,000; these were poorly led by the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern, who ignored the King’s order to attack the besiegers; on November 11 he surrendered the fortress, yielding to the Austrians 7,000 prisoners, 330,000 thalers, and provisions sufficient to maintain 88,000 men for two months. The victors, amplified to 83,000 troops by union with forces under Prince Charles and Marshal Daun, went on to Breslau; on November 22 they overwhelmed a small force of Prussians; Breslau fell, and most of Silesia was now restored to the triumphant Maria Theresa. Frederick might well feel that his victory at Rossbach had been annulled.
But that victory had renewed his courage, and he no longer spoke of suicide. His army too had recovered from its marches and battles, and seemed usefully resentful of the ravages with which French soldiers had desecrated Protestant churches in Saxony. Frederick appealed to his men to help him recapture Silesia. They marched 170 miles in twelve wintry days through difficult terrain. En route they were joined by the remains of the Prussian forces that had been defeated at Schweidnitz and Breslau. On December 3 Frederick, with 43,000 men, sighted the 72,000 Austrians who were encamped near Leuthen on the road to Breslau. That evening Frederick addressed his captains in a speech prefiguring the martial harangues of Napoleon:
It is not unknown to you, gentlemen, what disasters have befallen here while we were busy with the French and Imperial armies. Schweidnitz is gone, … Breslau is gone and all our war stores there; most of Silesia is gone. … My embarrassments would be beyond recovery if it were not for my unbounded confidence in your courage, your constancy, and your love for the Fatherland. … There is hardly one among you who has not distinguished himself by some conspicuous deed of valor.... I flatter myself, therefore, that in the coming opportunity you will not fail in any sacrifice that your country may demand of you.
This opportunity is close at hand. I should feel that I had accomplished nothing if Austria were left in possession of Silesia. Let me tell you, then, that I propose, in defiance of all the rules in the art of war, to attack the army of Prince Charles, three times as large as ours, wherever I find it. The question is not of his numbers or the strength of his position; all this, by the courage of our troops, and the careful execution of our plans, I hope to overcome. I must take this step, or all will be lost; we must defeat the enemy, or we shall lie buried under his batteries. So I read the case; so I shall act.
Make my determination known to all officers of the army; prepare the men for the work that is to come, and tell them that I feel justified in demanding exact fulfillment of orders. For you, when I reflect that you are Prussians, can I think that you will act unworthily? But if there should be one or another among you who dreads to share all dangers with me [here Frederick looked into each face in turn], he can have his discharge, this evening, and shall suffer not the least reproach from me. . . .
I knew that none of you would desert me. I count, then, absolutely on your faithful help, and on certain victory. Should I not survive to reward you for your devotion, the Fatherland must do it. Return now to camp, and report to your troops what you have heard from me.
The cavalry regiment that does not at once, on receipt of the order, throw itself upon the enemy I will, directly after the battle, unhorse, and make it a garrison regiment. The infantry battalion that even begins to hesitate, no matter what the danger may be, shall lose its colors, its swords, and the gold lace from its uniforms.
And now, gentlemen, good night. Soon we shall have beaten the enemy, or we shall see each other no more.40
Heretofore the Austrians, following a Fabian policy, had avoided battle with Frederick, hesitating to pit their troops and generals against Prussian discipline and Frederick’s tactical genius; but now, inspired by superior numbers and recent victories, they decided, against the advice of Marshal Daun, to face the King in battle. And so, on December 5, 1757, the human pawns of dynastic rivalry—43,000 against 73,000—advanced upon each other’s swords and guns in the greatest battle of the war. “That battle,” said Napoleon, “was a masterpiece. Of itself it suffices to entitle Frederick to a place in the first rank among generals.”41 He sought first to gain the hills, from which his artillery could fire over the heads of his infantry into the enemy’s ranks. He deployed his troops in an oblique order anciently used by Epaminondas of Thebes: separate columns were to move at approximately forty-five-degree angles to strike the enemy sidewise and so disorder his line of defense. Frederick pretended to be aiming his strongest pressure against the Austrian right; Prince Charles weakened his left wing to reinforce the right; Frederick poured his best troops upon the diminished left, routed it, and then turned to attack the right wing on its flank, while the Prussian cavalry rode down upon that same wing from concealment in the hills. Order triumphed over disorder; the Austrians surrendered or fled; 20,000 of them were taken prisoner—a catch unprecedented in military history;423,000 more were left dead, and 116 pieces of artillery fell into Prussian hands. The Prussians too lost heavily—1,141 dead, 5,118 wounded, 85 captured. When the carnage was over Frederick thanked his generals: “This day will bring the renown of your name, and of the nation, to the latest posterity.”43
The victor pursued his victory with passionate resolve to regain Silesia. Within a day after the battle his army besieged the Austrian garrison in Breslau; Sprecher, its commander, posted placards through the town proclaiming instant death for anyone who breathed a word of surrender; twelve days later (December 18) he surrendered. Frederick took there 17,000 prisoners and precious military stores. Soon all Silesia, except heavily garrisoned and fortified Schweidnitz, was back in Prussian hands. Prince Charles, humble before Daun’s silent reproaches, retired to his estate in Austria. Bernis and other French leaders advised Louis XV to make peace; Pompadour overruled them, and replaced Bernis with the Duc de Choiseul as minister for foreign affairs (1758); but France, suspecting that she was fighting for Austria while sacrificing her colonies, lost heart for the war. Richelieu showed so little enthusiasm, so little fervor in pursuing his advantage in Hanover, that he was recalled from his command (February, 1758).
He was replaced by the Comte de Clermont, an abbé licensed by the Pope to keep his benefice while playing general.44 The French evacuated Hanover before the resolute advances of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick; they yielded Minden to him in March; soon all Westphalia was freed from the French, who there too had made themselves hated by plunder and desecration.45 Ferdinand marched west and, with half as many men, defeated Clermont’s main force at Krefeld on the Rhine (June 23). Clermont yielded his post to the Duc de Contades; the defeated army was joined by Soubise with new French levies and the survivors of Rossbach; before this united force Ferdinand withdrew to Münster and Paderborn.
Encouraged by a season of victories, England signed (April 11) a third treaty with Frederick, promising him a subsidy of £670,000 by October, and pledging herself against a separate peace.46 Meanwhile Frederick, his own Prussia having been taxed to exhaustion, taxed Saxony and other conquered territory likewise. He issued debased currencies, and (like Voltaire) hired Jewish financiers to make profitable deals for him in foreign exchange.47 By the spring of 1758 he had rebuilt his army to 145,000 men. In April he attacked and recovered Schweidnitz. Eluding the main Austrian army (reconstituted under Daun), he moved south with 70,000 men to Olmütz in Moravia; if he could capture this Austrian stronghold he hoped to march against Vienna itself.
But about this same time 50,000 Russians under the Count of Fermor swept over East Prussia and attacked Cüstrin, only fifty miles east of Berlin. Frederick abandoned the siege of Olmütz and hurried north with 15,000 men. On the way he learned that Wilhelmine was critically ill; he stopped at Grüssau to send her an anxious note: “O you, dearest of my family, you whom I have most at heart of all beings in this world—for the sake of whatever is most precious to you, preserve yourself, and let me have the consolation of shedding my tears on your breast!”48
After days and nights on the march he joined a Prussian force under Count zu Dohna near Cüstrin. On August 25, 1758, with 36,000 men, he faced Fermor’s 42,000 Russians at Zorndorf. His favorite tactic of a flank attack was here made impossible by marshy ground; Fermor proved as resourceful in command as Frederick, and the Russians fought with a courage and pertinacity that the Prussians seldom encountered in the Austrians or the French. Seydlitz and his cavalry won whatever honors could come from a day of rival butchery. The Russians retreated in good order, leaving 21,000 dead, wounded, or captured; the Prussians lost 12,500 killed or wounded, and 1,000 prisoners.
But who could continue to fight on so many fronts at once? While Frederick was in the north Daun had led his army to a junction with the Imperial regiments, and was now besieging Dresden, where Frederick had left a garrison under Prince Henry. A force of 16,000 Swedes marched through Pomerania, joined the Russians in ravaging a great part of the Mark of Brandenburg, and might with them endanger Berlin again. A new army of 30,000 Austrians and Hungarians, under General Harsch, entered Silesia and headed for Breslau. Which of the three capitals should be defended first? Reorganizing his dispirited and now rebellious troops, Frederick marched them twenty-two miles a day across Prussia into Saxony, and reached his beleaguered brother just in time to discourage Daun from attack. After giving his men two weeks’ rest, he set out to drive Harsch from Silesia. At Hochkirch in Silesia Daun blocked his path. Frederick pitched camp close to the enemy, and waited four days for provisions to arrive from Dresden. Suddenly, at five o’clock on the morning of October 14, 1758, Daun, whom Frederick had relied upon to avoid the initiative, fell upon the Prussian right wing. The movement of the Austrians had been concealed by a thick fog, the Prussians were literally caught napping; they had no time to form the tactical lines that Frederick had designed. Frederick exposed himself recklessly in his efforts to restore order; he succeeded, but too late to retrieve the situation. After five hours of battle, 37,000 pawns against 90,000, he gave the signal for retreat, leaving on the field 9,450 men, to the Austrian loss of 7,590.
Again he contemplated suicide. With so able a general as Daun leading the Austrians, with so able a general as Saltykov forming a new Russian army, and with his own forces declining in number, quality, and discipline, while his foes could make up any loss, it seemed clear that a Prussian victory could come only through a miracle; and Frederick did not believe in miracles. On the day after Hochkirch he showed to his reader, de Katt, an Apology for Suicide which he had composed, and said, “I can end the tragedy when I choose.”49 On that day (October 15, 1758) Wilhelmine died, leaving instructions that her brother’s letters to her might be laid on her breast in her tomb.50 Frederick appealed to Voltaire to write something in her memory; Voltaire responded well, but his ode to the“âme héroïque et pure”51 could not match the simple fervor of the King’s tribute in his Histoire de la Guerre de sept ans:
The goodness of her heart, her generous and benevolent inclinations, the nobility and elevation of her soul, the sweetness of her character, brought together in her the brilliant gifts of the mind with a foundation of solid virtue. … The tenderest and most constant friendship united the King [Frederick wrote in the third person] and this worthy sister. These ties had been formed in their earliest childhood; the same education and the same sentiments had further bound them, and a mutual fidelity in every test had rendered these ties indissoluble.52
Spring brought new French armies into the field. On April 13, 1759, at Bergen (near Frankfurt-am-Main), a French force ably led by the Duc de Broglie gave Ferdinand of Brunswick a taste of defeat, but Ferdinand redeemed himself at Minden. There (August 1), with 43,000 Germans, English, and Scots, he routed 60,000 French under Broglie and Contades so decisively, and with relatively so little loss, that he was able to send 12,000 troops to Frederick to make good the weakening of the King’s army by a disastrous campaign in the east.
On July 23 Saltykov’s 50,000 Russians, Croats, and Cossacks overwhelmed at Züllichau the 26,000 Prussians whom Frederick had left to guard the approaches from Poland to Berlin; nothing there now stood in the way of a Russian avalanche upon the Prussian capital. The King had no choice but to rely upon his brother to hold Dresden against Daun, while he himself marched to face the Russians. Reinforced on the way, he was able to muster 48,000 men, but meanwhile 18,000 Austrians under General Laudon had joined the Russians, raising Saltykov’s total to 68,000. On August 12, 1759, these two armies—the largest masses of expendable human flesh since the competitive slaughters of the War of the Spanish Succession—fought at Kunersdorf (sixty miles east of Berlin) the most merciless, and for Frederick the most tragic, battle of the war. After twelve hours of fighting he seemed to have the advantage; then Laudon’s 18,000 men, who had been kept in reserve, fell upon the exhausted Prussians and drove them into a rout. Frederick dared every danger to rally his troops; three times he led them personally to the attack; three horses were shot under him; a small gold case in his pocket stopped a bullet that might have ended his career. He was not happy over his escape; “Is there not,” he cried, “one devil of a ball that can reach me?”53 His soldiers begged him to retire to safety, and soon they gave him every example. He appealed to them: “Children, don’t abandon me now, your king, your father!” But no urging could get them to advance again. Many of them had fought six hours under a burning sun, and without time or chance for a cup of water. They fled, and at last he joined them, leaving behind him 20,000 captured, wounded, or dead, against an enemy loss of 15,700. Among the mortally wounded was Ewald von Kleist, the finest German poet of that age.
As soon as Frederick could find a place to rest he dispatched a message to Prince Henry: “Of an army of 48,000 men I have at this moment not more than 3,000, and I am no longer master of my forces.... It is a great calamity, and I will not survive it.” He notified his generals that he was bequeathing his command to Prince Henry. Then he dropped upon some straw and fell asleep.
The next morning he found that 23,000 fugitives from the battle had returned to their regiments, ashamed of their flight, and ready to serve him again if only because they longed to eat. Frederick forgot to kill himself; instead he reorganized these and other poor souls into a new force of 32,000 troops, and took a stand on the road from Kunersdorf to Berlin, expecting to make a last attempt to protect his capital. But Saltykov did not come. His men, too, had to eat; they were in enemy country and found foraging dangerous, and the line of communications with friendly Poland was long and hazardous. Saltykov thought it was time for the Austrians to take their turn against Frederick. He gave the order to retreat.
Daun agreed that the next move should be his. Now, he felt, was the time to take Dresden. Prince Henry had withdrawn a force from that city to go to Frederick’s help; he had left only 3,700 men to guard the citadel, but powerful defenses had been raised to stave off attack. The new commander in Dresden, Kurt von Schmettau, was a loyal servant of the King, but when he received word from Frederick himself, after Kunersdorf, that all seemed lost, he gave up hope of successful resistance. An Imperial army, fifteen thousand strong, was approaching Dresden from the west; Daun was actively cannonading the city from the east. On September 4 Schmettau surrendered; on September 5 a message reached him from Frederick that he should hold out, that help was on the way. Daun, with 72,000 men, now made Dresden his winter quarters. Frederick came up to nearby Freiberg and wintered there with half that number.
The winter of 1759-60 was exceptionally severe. For several weeks snow covered the ground to the knee. Only the officers found shelter in homes; Frederick’s common soldiers lived in makeshift cabins, hugged their fires, laboriously cut and brought wood to feed them, and themselves had scarcely any other food than bread. They slept close together for mutual warmth. Disease, in both camps, took almost as many lives as battle had done; in sixteen days Daun’s army lost in this way four thousand men.54 On November 19 Frederick wrote to Voltaire: “If this war continues much longer, Europe will return to the shades of ignorance, and our contemporaries will become like savage beasts.”55
France, though immeasurably richer than Prussia in money and men, was near bankruptcy. Choiseul nevertheless equipped a fleet to invade England, but it was destroyed by the English at Quiberon Bay (November 20, 1759). Taxes were multiplied with all the ingenuity of governments and financiers. On March 4, 1759, the Marquise de Pompadour had secured the appointment of Étienne de Silhouette as controller general of finance. He proposed curtailment of pensions, a tax on the estates of nobles, the conversion of their silver into money, and even a tax on the tax-collecting farmers general. The rich complained that they were being reduced to mere shadows of their former selves; thenceforth silhouette became the word for a figure reduced to its simplest form. On October 6 the French treasury suspended payment on its obligations. On November 5 Louis XV melted his silver to give good example; but when Silhouette suggested that the King should get along without the sums usually allotted him for his gambling and games, Louis agreed with such visible pain that Choiseul vetoed the idea. On November 21 Silhouette was dismissed;
Like almost every Frenchman, the King felt that he had had enough of war; he was ready to hear proposals of peace. Voltaire had sounded out Frederick on the matter in June; Frederick replied (July 2): “I love peace quite as much as you could wish, but I want it good, solid, and honorable”; and on September 22 he added, again to Voltaire: “For making peace there are two conditions from which I will never depart: first, to make it conjointly with my faithful allies; … second, to make it honorable and glorious.”56 Voltaire transmitted these proud replies (one dated after the debacle at Kunersdorf) to Choiseul, who found in them no handle for negotiation. And faithful ally Pitt, who was busy absorbing French colonies, how could he make peace before he had built the British Empire?