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The First Silesian War: The Rise of Prussia

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Political Background

In October 1740, Emperor Charles VI of Austria, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, died. He was the head of the Habsburg Imperial family, and his death threatened to throw his dynasty into turmoil and upset the balance of power in Europe in a major way. Charles died without a male heir, and despite his efforts to smoothen the succession of his daughter Maria Theresa to the throne, the succession looked to be anything but smooth. According to Salic Law, a woman could not inherit from her father, but Charles believed he solved this problem with the Pragmatic Sanction, an agreement according to which the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire would respect the succession of Maria Theresa.

The princes of the empire were happy enough to go along with the idea while Charles was alive, but questions remained about whether they would accept it once he was dead. Furthermore, Maria Theresa was not the only remaining Habsburg alive after the death of Charles either, as the Emperor’s nieces, the daughters of his older brother, the former Emperor Leopold, were both alive and well. Even more importantly, they had two very ambitious husbands, the electors of Saxony and Bavaria.

These two figures were not the only ambitious German princes either. The new king of Brandenburg-Prussia, the young Frederick II, was also following the events closely, and he laid his eyes on the rich Austrian province of Silesia. The rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia, the Hohenzollerns dynasty, had claims to some duchies in Silesia. Given the chance, Frederick fully intended to use these claims to better his country’s position. His legal claims may have served as his cassus beli (an act or situation provoking or justifying war); however, stone-cold realpolitik was behind his ambitions.

On the one hand, he probably felt confident about his chances of snatching Silesia from the Habsburgs. He inherited one, if not the best army in Europe, from his father, Frederick William II. On the other hand, he also feared that his ambitious neighbours might preempt him if he was to wait around for too long. The elector of Saxony was also the king of Poland-Lithuania. If he succeeded in acquiring Silesia for himself, he would have been able to unite his two realms and dangerously surround the domains of Frederick.

The War Began

Once Charles was dead, Frederick lost no time and ordered his army to mobilize. He sent an ultimatum to Maria Theresa to cede Silesia willingly to him. He would serve as a guarantor for the rest of her domains, pay a cash subsidy, and vote for Maria Theresa’s husband in the Imperial elections. In his typical fashion, he did not even bother to wait for an answer before he led his army into Silesia and overran the province in a matter of weeks.

Despite its great size and population, the military administration of the Habsburg Empire was still very primitive. Their inefficiency was masked in the previous decades by the military genius of Eugene of Savoy. However, by this time, Prince Eugene was dead, and the armies of Austria were scattered thinly around the huge empire.

When Frederick invaded Silesia with his army of 27,000 men, he only faced some 8,000 Habsburg troops who had no option but to retreat into key fortifications and wait for reinforcements. With most of the province secured by the end of January 1741, the Prussians retired into winter quarters, and the king left for Berlin.

The Austrian garrisons were resisting the forts of Brieg, Neisse and Glogau, however, during the winter months, a crucial weakness of the Prussian armies became clear to Frederick and the Austrians. The Prussian infantry was incredibly disciplined and was, without doubt, the best in Europe. On the other hand, the cavalry was et inferior to their Austrian counterparts, and they had the better of the Prussians in the small war of raids and counterraids.

Once the weather turned a bit better and snow started to melt, the Prussians left their winter quarters and stormed Glogua, leaving the Austrians with only two strong points in Silesia. Not conceding defeat just yet, Maria Theresa sent an army of 20,000 men into Silesia to retake the province, and this force took the Prussians by surprise.

The Austrians marched to the rear of the Prussians by which move they threatened the lines of communications of Frederick and were on their way to relieve the siege of Brieg at the same time. The Prussians captured Austrian soldiers and received intelligence from the locals also, so they found out that the Austrians were situated near the village of Mollwitz.

The Battle of Mollwitz and the Ceasefire of 1741

The Prussians stole the march on the Austrians and closed up to their enemies to a close distance without the Austrian troops detecting them at all. Field Marshall Schwerin advised the young king to attack immediately; however, Frederick chose to ignore the advice of his veteran commander and rather ordered his army to deploy into formation.

It proved to be a costly mistake that nearly cost Frederick greatly. Under fire from the Prussian cannons, the Austrian cavalry charged the Prussian cavalry where the king was stationed and pushed them off the field. The Austrians then continued their attack against the Prussian infantry. Field Marshall Schwerin, seeing that some of the troops began to shoot without orders, was already preparing for the worst and advised the king to leave the field while he still had time.

Frederick obliged and ignominiously retreated from his first battle. Schwerin took over command and succeeded in salvaging the situation mostly thanks to the iron discipline of the Prussian infantry, which drove off the Austrian cavalry and then fell on the Austrian infantry.

Mollwitz ended in a Prussian victory, but it was a near run, and Frederick knew this perfectly. After the battle, he began to reform his cavalry, which, according to him, was so awful that no officer could use them effectively.

Still, despite the inconclusive nature of the victory at Mollwitz, other powers began to join against Austria, and soon enough, Prussia was joined by France, Bavaria, Saxony, Spain and Savoy, all claiming parts of the Habsburg possessions. The alliance became known as the League of Nymphenburg, and the allies threatened to partition up or greatly reduce Maria Theresa's domains.

Maria Theresa received a boost to her cause when the Hungarian Estates accepted her succession to the throne of Hungary, and the Hungarian nobility pledged to support their new Queen. The Habsburgs began to recruit a new army in Hungary and Bohemia, but they needed time, and in mid-1741, it looked like time was something that the Habsburgs did not have. A Saxon army marched into Bohemia, a joined Spanish-Neopolitan force moved against Habsburg domains in Italy, while most dangerously, a joint Franco-Bavarian army was converging towards Vienna.

Frederick wanted to snatch Silesia from Maria Theresa, but he did not want to see the destruction of the Habsburgs, so he opened negotiations with her in the autumn of 1741, and the two sides came to a secret agreement, the Convention of Klein-Schellendorf. According to this secret agreement, the sides would uphold the pretence of war, but in reality, the conflict between the two sides seized, which allowed the Habsburgs to redeploy their troops from Silesia to Austria and Bohemia.

Frederick receiving the pledge of the Silesian Estates

Frederick receiving the pledge of the Silesian Estates

Prussia Reenters the War

With the Prussians out of the way, the main danger for France was the Franco-Bavarian force converging towards Vienna. Luckily for Maria Theresa, the allies decided rather to attack Bohemia and besieged Prague. The city fell in November 1741, and Charles Albert of Bavaria was not much later crowned King of Bohemia.

Seeing the rapid progress his “allies” were making in Bohemia, Frederick decided to reenter the conflict and ordered his armies to attack Bohemia and Moravia. Frederick motivated his invasion by the treachery of the Austrians, who violated the secret nature of their agreement. The Prussians attacked in December, and Field Marshall Schwerin captured the capital of Moravia Olmutz in a few weeks, while another army led by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau moved into Bohemia.

The Imperial elections were held in January 1742, and Elector Charles Albert became the first non-Habsburg emperor since 1437. In the meantime, the Austrians were not idle either, as Maria Theresa sent an army to Bavaria, which overran most of the province and even captured Munich, leaving Charles Albert emperor, but without a kingdom.

Frederick, in the meantime, agreed with his Saxon and French allies to march further into Moravia and threaten the Imperial capital; however, his allies proved uncooperative, and the supply problems and harassment from Habsburg irregulares forced Frederick to call off the advance and retreat into Silesia and Bohemia. Simultaneously as the Prussian offensive faltered, Maria Theresa sent his brother-in-law with an army to Bohemia to recapture Prague.

Frederick split his army into two and marched towards Bohemia to block the Austrian advance. His column marched past the Austrians, however, and the column of Prince Leopold clashed with the Austrian cavalry near the village of Chotusitz. Leopold soon realised he was up against the main Austrian army. He sent word to Frederick to march to his aid immediately and deployed his men into battle formations.

Leopold deployed his infantry in front of the village Chotusitz and his cavalry on the two sides of the village. He also deliberately left space between his troops to leave space for the reinforcements to deploy. The battle began in the early morning of May 17, 1741. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Prussians held their own until reinforcements with Frederick arrived and turned the battle decisively in their favour. The Austrian commanders were surprised by the appearance of Prussian reinforcements and decided to retreat in good order while they still had the chance to do it.

The Prussian cavalry still performed quite poorly, and Frederick decided that it was in no shape to launch a pursuit of the Austrians, who retreated from the battle with their army damaged but still intact. The battle was a narrow Prussian victory only, as both sides suffered similar casualties, and both sides were still capable of fighting each other another time.

Aftermath

Despite the inconclusive nature of the Prussian victory, Frederick succeeded in thwarting Austrian attempts to reclaim Prague for the time, and the British allies of Maria Theresa put heavy pressure on her to come to an agreement with Frederick and concentrate her efforts against his other enemies.

The two sides made peace, if only a temporary one, later that year. According to the Treaty of Breslau (actually signed in Berlin), Maria Theresa ceded most of Silesia to Frederic. In exchange for peace, the latter withdrew his armies from Habsburg territories, giving the Austrians a much-needed respite to concentrate against the rest of their enemies.

Sources

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

Clark, Christopher. (2009). Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947. 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