14 October 1758, 50 miles east of Dresden during the Seven Years’ War, Frederick the Great was decisively defeated by an Austrian army under Count von Daun at the Battle of Hochkirch.
“Do you think I take any pleasure in this dog's life, in seeing and causing death in people unknown to me, in losing friends and acquaintances daily, in seeing my reputation ceaselessly exposed to the caprices of fortune, in spending the whole year with uneasiness and apprehension, in continually risking my life and my fortune? I certainly know the value of tranquility, the charms of society, the pleasures of life, and I like to be happy as much as anybody. Although I desire all these good things, I will not buy them with baseness and infamy. Philosophy teaches us to do our duty, to serve our country faithfully at the expense of our blood and of our repose, to commit our whole being to it.“ (Frederick the Great in a letter to Voltaire, 1747)
|Adolph von Menzel’s (1815 – 1905) imagination of the Battle of Hochkirch from his illustrations for |
Franz Kugler’s “Geschichte Friedrichs des Grossen“ (History of Frederick the Great), ca 1840.
After the war in 1763, Frederick, now the Great, der Alte Fritz, Old Fritz, admitted to his brother that he, Prince Henry, was Prussia’s only general who had never made a mistake. Contemporary military doctrine taught that fighting more than five battles during a year of campaigning was, at least, rash. Frederick, however, gambled and by 1758, during the course of the Third Silesian War, as the Seven Years’ War was known on the Continent, the king had fought already twelve of them against the Imperials, the Austrians and the Russians. “Mein Bruder will immer bataillieren, das ist seine ganze Kunst“ (my brother always seeks battle, that's what pulls him through), Henry remarked, not without a tinge of jealousy, and after the disastrous defeat at Kolín in 1757, where Old Fritz had lost half his army, Silesia and his nimbus of invincibility, his gambling streak and tendency of “bataillieren” against reasonably impossible odds took on quite dangerous proportions. Success did no longer show that he was right. However, after driving the Russians out of the Mark (Margraviate) Brandenburg by winning the Battle of Zorndorf in August, Frederick thought his lucky streak would last for one more throw and he marched back to Saxony to tackle the Austrian army, twice the size of his own under field marshal Count von Daun, who had already defeated him once at Kolín.
|Hyacinth de La Pegna: "The Raid on Hochkirch" (around 1760)|
Frederick’s cavalry general von Seydlitz mentioned that the Austrians all deserved to be hanged if they didn’t attack the Prussians under such favourable conditions and ordered his horses to remain saddled when the army set up camp near the village of Hochkirch. Old Fritz thought he’d surprise Daun and had thrown all caution to the wind. Unfortunately, his advance and the area had already been thoroughly reconnoitred by major-general Laudon’s light troops and at five o’clock in the morning, his Pandurs, skirmishers from Slavonia, overwhelmed the Prussian picket line, fell upon the still sleeping Prussians, followed by a cannonade of Daun’s 400 pieces of artillery and a general charge of Austrian infantry and Laudon’s cavalry. Pressed into Hochkirch’s narrow lanes by Austrian caseshot and grapeshot fired from their own captured guns, Frederick’s grenadiers died in their hundreds and their blood literally flew through the village’s streets. Today, a street near Hochkirch’s church is still called “Blutgasse”, bloody lane. The battle was lost before Frederick fully realised what had hit him. However, quickly organised defence lines drawn together at the graveyard of Hochkirch held Daun’s men to allow the Prussians at least an orderly withdrawal from the field and the Austrian field marshal refrained from a pursuit after his casualties, 8,000 men, about one tenth of his army, were about as high as the Prussians’. Frederick, however, had lost one fourth along with his complete artillery park and a few of his best generals, his friend field marshal James Keith, a Scottish émigré from Peterhead among them, whose men had held the entire Austrian army for about half an hour.
|“Gunners! Where are your pieces?” – “The devil took them at night!” - “Then we surely take them back by day, eh, lads?”|
There is a caricature drawn in the19th century glorifying tradition showing Old Fritz ahorse, asking his battered troops: “Gunners! Where are your pieces?” – “The devil took them at night!” - “Then we surely take them back by day, eh, lads?” In reality, Frederick the Great was certainly not in the mood for joking after Hochkirch. For the next three years, Prussia and the House of Hohenzollern was teetering at the edge of disaster, culminating with Laudon’s and the Russian general Saltykow’s decisive victory at the Battle of Kunersdorf in 1759 and Frederick, suffering from severe depressions, seriously considered suicide. However, Prussia was saved by two miracles, Laudon’s decision not to pursue the fleeing Prussians because Prince Henry’s troops where still in the field, the “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg”, and the death of Empress Elizabeth II of Russia and her successor and admirer of Frederick Peter III’s withdrawal from the war in 1762. Peace between Austria and Prussia, re-establishing the “status quo ante” before the war, was concluded in 1763.
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