Frederick the Great was a commander who repeatedly, even joyfully, risked everything on a single day’s battle – his army, his kingdom, often his very life. At a battle near Berlin in 1759, he probably came closest to losing his life. The image shown here depicts that moment…it is an excerpt from an old tapestry by Werner Peiner… showing Frederick in danger at Kunersdorf, in Brandenburg.
Prior to this moment, King Frederick II achieved his usual victory in the first battle, but instead of resting his exhausted troops, he decided immediately upon a second battle to totally destroy his enemies…the combined Austrian and Russian Armies. Instead, it turned into a rare defeat for Frederick. Afterwards, he erroneously thought his army was completely decimated and that this meant the end for himself and for Prussia.
He stood alone on a small hill with his rapier sticking in the ground before him, determined to either hold the line against the whole enemy army alone or to die. Cavalry Captain Ernst von Prittwitz came to the king’s rescue with his 200 strong squadron and convinced Frederick to leave. He barely escaped capture and was wounded by gunfire. According to legend, one bullet struck his chest but it was stopped by the heavy silver tobacco case in his pocket.
On the field that evening Frederick wrote to his brother: “This morning at 11 o’clock I have attacked the enemy. …All my troops have worked wonders, but at a cost of innumerable losses. Our men got into confusion. I assembled them three times. In the end I was in danger of getting captured and had to retreat. My coat is perforated by bullets, two horses of mine have been shot dead. My misfortune is that I am still living”.
Unknown to Frederick at the moment was that the enemy did not follow through. They did not attack Berlin. Additionally, 26,000 men who were thought to have perished actually were dispersed and returned to Berlin four days later. An elated Frederick pronounced the situation a “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg”.
As usual, Frederick rebounded and continued fighting and winning for another 4 years of the 7 Year War. Frederick remained a commander who was always on the offensive, and he allowed his well-trained generals free reign. Frederick once quipped, “A general considered audacious in another country is only ordinary in Prussia; our general is able to dare and undertake anything it is possible for men to execute.”
At the end of the Seven Years War, Prussia gained no new territory but held onto Austria’s former State of Silesia. More importantly, German states now held Prussia in esteem and Russia switched from an enemy to an ally. Prussia was universally deemed a new European Great Power.