History Highlights, prussia

Although at war with Austria, Russia, France, and Sweden, Frederick did not ever expect to lose a battle.


It was in the frenzied fighting in 1757 at the Battle of Kolin that Frederick the Great is said to have bawled at Manstein’s flinching Prussian infantry “Dogs! Do you want to live forever?” The surrounded Prussians in a rearguard battle are depicted in this painting by Richard Knötel.

Prussia lost this battle, but losing was a new experience that Frederick the Great had not encountered before the Battle of Kolin. Although he was vastly outnumbered and simultaneously at war with Austria, Russia, France, and Sweden, four of the great powers of the time, he did not expect to lose a battle.

Frederick suffered a period of near despair in the summer of 1757, exacerbated by news of the death of his mother Queen Sophia Dorothea on 28th June 1757. Frederick was aware that his terrible defeat at Kolin encouraged his various foes to move against him. The Swedes stood poised to invade Pomerania… the Russians were approaching the far side of the Oder… the French were moving towards Prussian territory from the Rhine…and the Austrian army was supporting the French attack.

Despite this seemingly hopeless situation Frederick shook off his despair. One of the most striking features of Frederick the Great was his extraordinary ability to recover from disaster and reconstitute the resilient Prussian army. This is what he proceeded to do… Frederick left the Duke of Bevern with 40,000 troops in Silesia to cover Daun’s Austrian army and marched with 20,000 soldiers at incredible speed to meet the French in battle at Rossbach. And the Austrians one month later at Leuthen. Amazingly, Frederick’s Prussian army, outnumbered by 2 to 1, inflicted crushing defeats on the French and Austrians, a mere 5 months after the disaster at Kolin.

The whole situation in Germany was reversed. Rossbach is considered one of Frederick’s greatest strategic masterpieces. He crippled an enemy army twice the size of the Prussian force while suffering negligible casualties. His artillery also played a critical role in the victory, based on its ability to move rapidly responding to changing circumstances on the battlefield. Finally, his cavalry contributed decisively to the outcome of the battle, justifying his investment of resources into its training during the eight-year interim between the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession and the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War.

The battle at Leuthen was Frederick’s greatest victory, an assessment shared by many at the time because the Austrian Army was considered to be a highly professional force. The key to victory was the pre-battle operational maneuvers. Frederick was able to hide his intentions, achieve complete surprise and strike a massive blow at the enemy’s weakest sector. With these victories, Frederick once again established himself as Europe’s premier general and his men as Europe’s most accomplished soldiers.

Hugo Ungewitter, “Frederick the Great and his staff at the Battle of Leuthen”
Battle at Leuthen, by Richard Knotel

Frederick the Great surprising enemy officers at the local fortress.

After the end of the Seven Year War in 1763, Prussia was a great power whose importance could no longer be challenged. Frederick the Great’s personal reputation was enormously enhanced. A number of nations sent officers to Prussia to learn the secrets of Prussia’s military power. Prussia became one of the most imitated powers in Europe.

However, the war weakened Prussia. First, lands and population were devastated and second, the Prussian Army was depleted. Frederick soon solved the first problems with agrarian reforms and encouragement of immigration. But the Prussian Army had taken heavy losses…particularly the officer corps…and Frederick could not afford to rebuild the Army to what it was before the war.

After Frederick’s death, during the war with France in 1792–1795, the Prussian Army did not fare well against revolutionary France, and in 1806, the Prussians were annihilated by the French at the Battle of Jena. It was only after 1806 when the Prussian government brought in reforms to recover from the disaster of Jena that Prussia’s rise to greatness continued later in the 19th century.


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