As readers of my work will know, I am something of a fan of Napoleon and Wellington in particular, but perhaps less well known is my fascination with several other great generals of world history, and none (or few) more so than Frederick the Great.
Oddly, Frederick and his campaigns and battles are not very well known, indeed you would have to go far to find someone who knows more than the absolute basics. Napoleon steals all of the glory and then Hitler managed to overshadow anything good about Germany at all! When I wrote the last volume of my seven-book series on Frederick, therefore, I really had to do my homework. But boy, was it rewarding!!
So I thought it would be fun to dedicate a post to “Old Fritz” himself and tell you, the reader, why he was indeed “Great”.
1/ He had a miserable upbringing – Frederick’s father wanted a son who could make Prussia into a great military power-house. Unfortunately for him, his eldest son Frederick turned out weak of stature, slightly effeminate in his ways, studious and determined to become a flautist. His father upbraided him constantly in public, punished him often and even sought to have his younger son succeed him. When he was a boy, Frederick ran away from home with his best friend, but being captured and returned home, Frederick’s father forced him to watch his best friend beheaded and then imprisoned him for a while as a punishment; an act which would haunt Frederick for the rest of his life in recurring nightmares and visions.
2/ His genius for war was spotted early – Frederick’s father took him to war with him in the hope of stirring some martial ardour into his son, although by this time, he deemed young Frederick as a lost cause. It was only Prince Eugene of Savoy – the commander-in-chief and one of the greatest generals of all time who spotted the talent of the young man, and when asked if he thought his son would ever amount to anything, Eugene told the king flatly that he would one day be not just a good soldier but a great general. Prince Eugene himself undertook to give the young Frederick as few lessons in the art of war, and his gentle manner worked where his father’s beatings had not. Frederick later said he owed everything to the brief education given to him by Prince Eugene of Savoy.
3/ His first battle was a disaster – The battle of Mollwitz was to be Frederick’s first battle in command, and being wholly ignorant of how to command such an action, it turned into a shambles. Despite arriving behind the Austrian army, who were all asleep and in camp (an advantage gained by pure accident) – Frederick deployed his men for battle too early and too far away, giving the startled Austrians more than enough time to raise the alarm and turn about to face him. At the first charge of Austrian cavalry, Frederick’s own cavalry was swept from the field and his infantry line started to roll back from the right flank. In the panic, Frederick was sent by his generals to flee the field as the battle was lost. He rode almost into the arms of some roving Croatian irregulars and fled back the way he had came, finding refuge in a flour mill, emerging later coated head to foot in flour. When he returned to the battlefield, he was informed that against all expectations, his army had won the battle. He never forgave the men who made him leave the field, but hereafter he devoted himself to learning the art of war.
4/ He was an accomplished writer and musician – Frederick became one of the most enlightened men of his time through study, and became a prolific writer and musician. He undertook the first written history of Charles IX of Sweden, wrote his famous book “The Anti-Machiavel” and several large tomes on the history of the house of Brandenburg. He also jousted in letters with the great Voltaire, the two enjoying a tempestuous relationship. Musically, Frederick also produced four symphonies and over a hundred sonatas, and his head was carried at a permanent tilt due to his constant playing of the flute.
5/ He dug up his battles from history books – Through endless study of his subject, Frederick looked for a way to give himself an advantage over his more numerous enemies; something from the ancient past which could be applied in modern times, and he found it by combining the ‘manoeuvre battles’ of Cyrus the Great (notably Thymbra) with the ‘oblique order battle’ of Epaminondas of Thebes (notably Leuctra and Mantinea) – a tactic which saw him crush his opponents in many great battles by concentrating his entire strength against one wing of his enemy’s much larger armies, producing such victories as Sohr, Rossbach, Leuthen and Liegntitz with what he termed the ‘Schwehrpunkt’ manoeuvre.
6/ He fought alone for seven years – During the Seven Years’ War, Frederick successively fought and beat the armies of Austria, Russia, France and Sweden. Of these, the Austrians were his most ardent opponents; the Russians the toughest. His tiny army was forced to run from one corner of his domains to the next to stave off disaster after disaster; “Always running!” as he used to say, yet despite having a small army and being surrounded from all sides, he still managed to win the war against all expectations.
7/ He was saved by two miracles – The first and second ‘Miracle of the House of Brandenburg’ were what saved him from inevitable annihilation. The first occurred after his crushing defeat at Kunersdorf by the combined armies of Austria and Russia, after which his army disintegrated and Frederick gave up command of the army and prepared to abdicate. Then the impossible happened; the Russians, short of supplies, simply left Prussia and went home instead of marching to Berlin, and the Austrians, left alone, marched south again, leaving Frederick able to take the field once more. The second miracle occurred when Russia changed sides and joined him at Burkersdorf for the last battle of the war. Suddenly a messenger came fresh from Russia with the news that Russia had pulled out of the conflict completely and that the Russian army must march away, leaving Frederick with his small army to confront the more numerous Austrians alone. Luckily, he persuaded the Austrian commander to delay and hit upon a plan for the Russian army to stand to attention against one Austrian flank and not to fight, but to merely stand and watch, forcing the Austrians to deploy half of their forces to meet them whilst he attacked the other. The plan worked and the Russians had a marvellous view of the battle whilst the Austrians opposed to them stood confused and wondering why they simply just stood there!
8/ He was a noted wit – Frederick was never at a loss for something funny to say, and whilst fighting desperately for his survival, still bombarded Europe with disparaging cartoons and mock plays typically aimed at Marie-Louise Empress of Austria and the Madame de Pompadour – the mistress of the French King who were portrayed as two wanton bitches in heat. When Sweden pulled out of the war against him, he was recorded as laughing; “Oh, was I at war with Sweden?” and even in his later years, he used to baffle visitors to his palace by pretending to be the gardener. Once, upon being pressed by one of his generals to inform him of his plans, Frederick winked, waved him over and asked “Can you keep a secret?” – “Yes sire!” said the man, eager to be taken into his King’s confidence; “Good,” said Frederick, “so can I.”
9/ He was a master statesman – Frederick was not just a great military commander, but also a great King, statesman and ruler. He set up infrastructure and agriculture in Prussia, reclaimed great tracts of swampland along the river Oder for cultivation, introduced the potato to Prussia and set up schools and academies often at his own expense. He referred to himself as ‘King of the beggars’ and passed a law which allowed the most humble peasant access to his King for arbitration in disputes, resolving everything from private quarrels to arguments between neighbours over land. His opinion was sought by the entire civilised world, and he always gave his opinion bluntly and honestly. One little-known fact is that after America gained independence from Britain, the American Congress wrote to him and begged him to offer his own brother Prince Henry as the King of America (they don’t teach you that in school, now do they?) in fact they asked twice and Frederick refused twice, also blocking his brother’s acceptance of an offer to become King of Poland. In the instance of Poland, Frederick saw that it would inevitably drag him into a war with neighbouring Russia, whilst Henry as King of America would doubtless upset France or Britain and again cause another war, neither of which Prussia needed for stability.
10/ He was the first celebrity of modern Europe – In his old age, Frederick became the greatest and most famous attraction in Europe, being visited by royalty, nobles, army officers and peasantry alike. His door was always open, and he greatly enjoyed conversing with everyone who came to see him. Notable visitors to his table were Gideon von Loudon – the Austrian Field-Marshal who had battled him throughout the seven years’ war, Kutusov – a Russian Major whom Frederick convinced not to give up his profession (and who later was to be beaten by Napoleon at the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino) and Alexandre Berthier (later Napoleon’s chief of staff, Marshal of the Empire and Prince of Neuchatel and Wagram) who had been present at Yorktown and who gave Frederick a lively account of it. One more notable visitor was Sir John Moore – later to be the hero of Corunna, and one of Frederick’s grenadiers even showed him how to fire five shots in a minute with a musket in the Prussian style. Years later, this was to be Moore’s own party trick.
11/ His last words – Frederick’s last recorded words were “Cover the dog, he’s shivering.” He lay in bed with his favourite Italian Greyhound, and it was noted that it was a warm night, but yet the dog was definitely shaking. Frederick’s orderly did as he was bid, but the next morning found him dead. The clock in Frederick’s room stopped at the exact moment of his death. It has never been wound since.
12/ Napoleon visited his tomb – Napoleon worshipped Frederick, but had a desire to surpass him and declared that though he loved his memory, he would tear down all that Frederick had built. In 1806 Napoleon destroyed the Prussian army at the battle of Jena, captured Berlin and took up residence in Frederick’s old office before expressing a wish to visit his tomb. Upon entering the crypt, Napoleon walked forward slowly and in awe before turning to his generals and declaring; “Hats off, gentlemen! If he were alive, we would not be here.”
Can anyone deny that he was not great?
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