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Who Was Frederick the Great?
Frederick the Great was one of the most charismatic and successful rulers of 18th century Europe. He was an enlightened ruler, a brilliant military leader, and one who left his country in a much stronger position than when he took the throne from his father.
Yet the road of Prussia to the table of the Great Powers of Europe was a rocky one. War dominated the first 23 years of Frederick’s rule, and he very nearly led his country into a disaster during the Seven Year’s War.
Frederick the Great's Rival Maria Theresa
Frederick’s main rival throughout his long reign was Empress Maria Theresa. When Maria Theresa succeeded his father, the emperor Charles, to the throne of the Habsburg Empire, tensions in Europe quickly rose. According to Salic Law, the succession of the empress was illegal, and all the hard work of his father in ensuring the succession of his daughter was instantly questioned by some of the Great Powers. Frederick used the opportunity to invade the rich Silesia and conquered it from his Habsburg rivals. Maria Theresa tried to take back the province for years, but all her efforts were eventually vain. When the War of the Austrian Succession ended, Maria Theresa was forced to concede defeat for the time being.
From 1748 to 1756, European powers were licking their wounds and improving their militaries in anticipation of the next war.
France's Abandonment of Prussia
Much changed in the political sphere of European power politics also. Frederick was a huge Francophile, and during the previous war, he allied himself to France. Austria was backed by Britain, the traditional enemy of France. Late in the war, Austria also enlisted the help of Russia, but the lateness of the Russian entrance to the conflict limited their impact.
Things turned on their head in 1756. In an event known as the Diplomatic Revolution, Frederick allied himself to Britain. Austria persuaded France to abandon Frederick and join Austria and Russia.
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Frederick the Great was known as the?
- Soldier King
- Old Fritz
- Old Fritz
Frederick the Great: Prussia's Fabulous King
The Seven Years' War Begins
Frederick saw the writing on the wall and decided to act first. Britain and France were already at war, and he believed war was inevitable. He knew it perfectly well that the combined manpower of France, Austria, and Russia was more than enough to overwhelm him. He attacked, no doubt hoping to defeat his enemies before they could converge on him with numbers he had no hopes of defeating.
He invaded the pro-Austrian Saxony in the summer and autumn of 1756. The Saxons put up a tough fight and cost Frederick much more time than anticipated. The delay allowed the Austrians to invade southern Silesia and block Prussian entrance into Bohemia in late 1756.
In early 1757 Frederick pushed into Northern Bohemia, but an unexpected defeat at the Battle of Kolin threw back the Prussian advance. By autumn 1757, things were not looking good for the British-Prussian alliance. Britain’s continental outpost Hannover was defeated by a French invasion, which threatened the western borders of Prussia itself. Sweden, opportunistically, decided to enter the war, no doubt in the hopes of chopping off some Prussian spoils in Pomerania.
The Russians advanced into Eastern Prussia and took over Memel. However, luckily for Frederick, the supply problems the Russians endured did not allow them to mobilise anywhere near as much manpower as they were capable of in theory. While the Austrians succeeded in pushing back Frederick’s advance into Bohemia and were making advances in Silesia itself.
A lesser man might have thrown in the towel and asked for peace. It would have been a rational decision, as the odds stacked up against Prussian were very unfavourable.
Despite the odds, Frederick acted with his characteristic stealth and decisiveness. He marched with a part of his army North to meet and defeat the French. When the two armies came into contact, the combined Franco-German army far outnumbered the Prussian army of Frederick.
Despite being outnumbered 44,000 to 22,000, Frederick routed his enemies at the Battle of Rossbach in November 1757. The Prussian victory brought back the fighting spirit of the Hanoverians, and King George II of England subsequently tore up the previous agreement he made with his enemies.
The victory at Rossbach gave the Prussians a secure Western flank, but the southern flank in Saxony and Silesia was still in disarray. Not wasting any time celebrating his victory, Frederick was forced to march his troops south to fight against his Austrian enemies.
The Battle of Leuthen
The two armies came into contact just a few miles of Breslau (modern Wroclaw) near the village of Leuthen.
This battle was even more imbalanced in numbers than the one fought at Rossbach a month earlier. Frederick only had around 36,000 men at his disposal, while his Austrian enemies had 66,000. He was also severely outgunned by the Austrians, who had about 250 guns, to Frederick’s 167.
Nonetheless, the situation was not as bleak as it initially looked. The Prussian troops were very well trained and drilled, and they were capable of producing a fire rate that the Austrian infantry had no hope of replicating. The Prussians also knew the region's terrain very well, as it was sitting next to their former fortress Breslau and was used before the war as a training ground for the army.
The Prussians knew that facing the Austrians head-on would be extremely risky and could lead to an outright catastrophe. So Frederick chose a different approach. He decided to faint an attack on the Austrian right flank while giving the impression of retreating and disappearing behind the hills that blocked the view of the Austrians.
While the Austrian right flank was under attack, the Prussians marched all the way south of the Austrian left flank. As they did this behind the cover of the hills, the careless Austrians, who seemingly forgot that they had scouts, had no idea what the Prussian intentions were.
Once the Prussians faced the Austrian left, they attacked with full force. The Austrian commander earlier in the battle also sent some of the reserves from the left to his right flank as a response to the Prussian faint attack, which further weakened the Austrian left.
As the Prussians were pushing back the Austrians, the Austrian commander was slow to realise what was going on, and by the time he knew what was happening his left was retreating.
The rest of the Austrian army marched to the aid of their left flank, but the length of their line, over 8 km long, meant that they needed time to arrive. This time allowed the Prussian advance to halt and re-supply themselves with ammunition.
In a long-drawn-out battle, the Prussians defeated the Austrians and forced them to abandon the field in the end. At the cost of 6,000 casualties, Frederick inflicted 22,000 on his Austrian rivals and forced them to retreat for the time being.
Only 2 days after his victory at Leuthen, Frederick besieged the fortress of Breslau and captured it in two weeks. The loss of Breslau meant that Prussia recaptured Silesia, and despite the unfavourable odds they faced only a few months earlier, they were still standing and fighting.
Seven Years' War Summary and Map
Duffy, Christopher. (2017). Frederick the Great: A Military Life. Routledge.
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