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Second Silesian War: The Rise of Prussia

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Political Background

After Prussian victories at Mollwitz and Chotusitz, the hard-pressed Austrian Habsburgs agreed to make peace with King Frederick II of Prussia. According to the Treaty of Berlin, Maria Theresa ceded most of Silesia to Frederick. The latter agreed to withdraw from the anti-Habsburg alliance that threatened to partition the domains of Maria Theresa. The duplicity of Frederick angered his allies; however, for the time being, their hands were full as they fought against the Austrian armies who were converging on them. With the withdrawal of Prussia from the conflict, the Habsburgs were able to redeploy their troops fighting Frederick into other conflict zones and achieved success. By the end of 1743, the troops of Maria Theresa recaptured Bohemia and were occupying Bavaria also, forcing Emperor Charles Albert to seek refuge in Frankfurt.

The Austrian troops pushed as far west as the Rhine and fought against the French for most of 1744. Parallel to the military actions, frantic diplomatic activity was going in at the courts and embassies of the monarchs of Europe, and each side tried to build alliances to strengthen its position.

Frederick watched diplomatic developments worriedly, and his fears of an overwhelming Austro-British-Hannoverian-Russian alliance convinced him that he needed to reenter the conflict, rejoin his old allies and find new ones willing to fight against the Habsburgs.

Frederick soon found the allies he wanted, and Prussia was joined by Bavaria, Hesse-Kassel, Sweden and the Palatinate in an alliance known as the League of Frankfurt. The alliance took up the cause of Emperor Charles Albert and pledged to secure the lands of the Emperor, Bohemia included here, whose titular King Charles Albert was since 1741.

At the same time, Prussia renewed its alliance with France, and the two agreed to attack Maria Theresa. France pledged to attack the Austrian Netherlands, while Frederick was intent on attacking Bohemia.

The Second Silesian War Begins

As Frederick frantically tried to enlist new allies, he did not neglect his army either and continued to rigorously drill his soldiers, most importantly his cavalry, with whose performance he was most displeased during the First Silesian War.

The Prussian army mobilized during the summer of 1744, and an army of 70,000 men entered Bohemia in three columns. The King personally took command over the western column, while he left his veteran commanders Schwerin and Leopold von Anhalt Dessau in command of the other two columns. The three armies converged toward Prague and reached the city in early September.

The siege was a rather short one, and Prague surrendered on September 16. With Prague secured, the Prussians moved further south into Bohemia, however, the Prussian’s early successes were soon over and they were faced by the Austrian army of the Rhine, which made a much more rapid comeback to defend Bohemia than was expected by Frederick or any of his commanders.

When Prince Charles of Lorraine heard of the Prussian attack, he retreated from the Rhine with haste and the passivity of the French allowed the Austrians to retreat without too much trouble. Maria Theresa scored a diplomatic win too, as Saxony agreed to join Austria against Prussia, and a contingent of around 20,000 Saxons joined the Austrian army.

Upon receiving news of the arrival of a force that was around equal to his own, Frederick ordered his forces to withdraw from the south towards Prague. Frederick wanted to force a decisive battle from his enemies, but the Austrians and Saxons were intent on avoiding battle with the formidable Prussian infantry and decided to harass their enemies and target their supply lines.

As supplies started to become scarce, the Prussian withdrew from more and more territory, and before the year was over, they were completely pushed out of Bohemia. Worse than being pushed out from Bohemia was the fact that the Prussian army suffered catastrophic losses—according to some, they lost upwards of 20,000-30,000 men to desertion. The Austrians seemingly succeeded in diminishing their enemies without even the need to fight a battle.

1744 ended badly for the Prussians, and Austria was on the ascendency.

Emperor Charles Albert, the ally of Frederick the Great

Emperor Charles Albert, the ally of Frederick the Great

The Campaign of 1745

The Austrian military successes of late 1744 were followed by Austrian diplomatic successes in the early months of 1745. Britain, Austria, Saxony and the Dutch Republic agreed to an alliance, and thanks to the cash subsidies of the maritime powers, Saxony pledged to mobilize 30,000 men against Prussia. Maria Theresa and her Saxon allies were seemingly eager to punish the Prussian upstart and reduce the threat from him once and for all.

Frederick’s alliance received a blow in this period, as Emperor Charles Albert of Bavaria died in January 1745; thus, with the death of the Emperor, Frederick’s League of Frankfurt, which was supposedly defending Albert, lost its purpose. This became even clearer when the late emperor’s son decided to come to terms with Vienna and exited the conflict.

A joint Austro-Saxon army entered Silesia in June through the mountains, and the Prussians were all too happy to allow the Austrians to push ahead, right into their trap for them. Thanks to his reformed light cavalry Frederick received up-to-date information about the whereabouts of the enemy army and made his plans based on the intelligence he received from the Zieten Hussars.

Frederick decided to confront his enemies near a village called Hohenfriedberg. Learning from his past mistakes, he decided to use the element of surprise to his advantage. He ordered his army to march against their enemies at night, fall on the unsuspecting Saxons first and then crush the outnumbered Austrians.

Prussian infantry advancing at Hohenfriedberg

Prussian infantry advancing at Hohenfriedberg

The Battle of Hohenfriedberg

The Prussians moved on their enemies in the dark and intentionally left their campfires ablaze to deceive the Austrians and the Saxons. However, the seemingly excellent plan of the king ran into trouble very early.

To reach their enemies, the Prussians needed to cross the Strigau river; however, the crossing point was too narrow, and it caused a bottleneck that slowed down the deployment of the Prussian army.

The Prussian surprise was also given away by the tough Saxon resistance on the two hills that were just ahead of their camp, as the fighting alerted the Saxons that the Prussians were attacking. Still, the quick thinking of De Moulin, who led the Prussian vanguard, saved the situation as he decided to bypass the hills and fell on the Saxon camp. He quickly routed the Saxons, who were unable to deploy properly in such a short time.

The Prussians routed the Saxons before their Austrian allies could deploy and assist them, which left the Austrians alone to continue the battle against the more numerous Prussians. Still, despite their numerical disadvantage, the Austrians resisted fiercely. Still, they were eventually overwhelmed by the combined onslaught of the Prussian infantry and the reformed cavalry, especially the Bayreuth Dragoons, distinguished themselves exceptionally.

The battle ended as a decisive Prussian victory, and they inflicted more than 13,000 casualties on their enemies, while they suffered not even 5,000.

Frederick was soon called Frederick the Great after Hohenfriedberg, and he made sure that everyone knew what a victory he achieved, one such was not seen since Blenheim (in 1704), he claimed.

 Carl Röchling: The Battle of Hohenfriedeberg on June 4, 1745. Prussian Grenadier battalions beat the Saxon Guard.

Carl Röchling: The Battle of Hohenfriedeberg on June 4, 1745. Prussian Grenadier battalions beat the Saxon Guard.

Aftermath of Hohenfriedberg

The defeated allies retreated from Silesia, and Frederick followed them into Bohemia, facing off his enemies near the river Elbe. Though Frederick chased the Austrians into their territory, he was eager to secure peace by now. He was met by the unexpected stubborn resistance of Maria Theresa, who was not backing down just yet.

Britain seemed more reasonable than the Austrians, and they came to an accommodation with Prussia at the Convention of Hannover. According to their agreement, Britain acknowledged Prussia’s acquisition of Silesia; in exchange, Frederick promised not to seek further territories from Maria Theresa.

While Britain and Prussia seemingly came to an agreement, Maria Theresa secured the votes her husband needed to become the new Holy Roman Emperor, and Francis of Lorraine became Emperor Francis I in September 1745.

Battle of Soor and Kesseldorf

In the months following Hohenfriedberg, the field army under the command of Frederick diminished to only around 20,000 men as his army dwindled through attrition, and he sent away large parts of it also to garrison other parts of Bohemia. The Austrian commander Charles of Lorraine tried to surprise the Prussians at the Battle of the Soor, but despite being outnumbered 2-1, the Prussians prevailed.

Charles tried to imitate Frederick’s earlier success at Hohenfriedberg, but his surprise march on the Prussian camp was detected quickly when the Austrians emerged from the woodland, and the Prussian army deployed in no time to meet their enemies, ultimately driving them off the field.

Despite suffering another defeat Maria Theresa and her Saxon allies were unwilling to give up just yet and planned an ambitious offensive against Berlin. Frederick soon received news of their movements and split his command into two to meet the challenge. The forces under his command fell on the army of Prince Charles of Lorraine at the Battle of Hennersdorf and scattered one pincer of the attacking army.

The Saxon pincer of the attacking force was met by Prince Leopold, and he decisively defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Kesseldorfs. Prince Leopold was reluctant to wage war in early winter, no doubt fearing his army could disintegrate the way it did a year earlier. Still, constant pressure from the king pushed the veteran commander to storm the strong Saxon positions.

The End of the War

After their victories, the Prussians marched toward Dresden and occupied the Saxon capital on December 18, 1745. Frederick sent envoys to his enemies, once again offering peace, and this time even the stubborn Empress was left with no choice but to agree.

Peace was made a week later, and the Treaty of Dresden brought an end to the Second Silesian War. Frederick succeeded in solidifying his control over Silesia. Still, he abandoned his allies for the third time in five years, and his betrayal was not forgotten by his former allies, especially the French.

Sources

Duffy, Christopher. (2017). Frederick the Great: A Military Life. Routledge.

Clark, Christopher. (2009). Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia. Belknap Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler