Our perception of Prussia at the height of its powers may colour our view of perhaps its most significant leader, Frederick. Indeed that he is always known as ‘the great’ may also mislead the casual observer into believing that here was a mighty and archetypal conqueror warrior hammered into being on some mythical Teutonic anvil. In reality nothing could be farther from the truth. He had a brutal upbringing that sought to suppress—vainly as it turned out—every cultural sensitivity which came naturally to him. His father all but despised him and it was not until late in his life that he recognised Frederick’s potential. Prussia itself was something of an underdog in the 18th century. It sat uneasily close to the great Austrian empire of the Hapsburgs and was ever in danger—by virtue of its place on the European continent—of being swallowed up by greater powers. Frederick’s greatness surely came from the fact that against all the odds he did not allow that to happen and, furthermore, laid the foundations for a nation that in its turn would shake Europe. The Seven Years War was a globally significant conflict, that presented difficult decisions for the vulnerable Prussian, where defeat and destruction were ever possible. It is true that the battles Frederick fought did not all go his way—often as a result of his own errors. Nevertheless, through example, fine leadership, determination, perseverance and resolution Frederick led his nation through campaigns and into battles the significance of which are well regarded by military men, strategists and students of military history to this day.
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Unable to provide adequate means of defence at all points where attack was threatened, Frederick resolved to concentrate his forces against his principal antagonist, and to strike a severe blow at Austria as early in the year as possible. As soon as the snow was melted, and the roads had become practicable, an immense Prussian army poured into Bohemia through the passes of the Metal and Giant Mountains. As in 1744, it marched in three columns converging on Prague; two came from Saxony led by the king and the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern, the third from Silesia, under the command of Marshal Schwerin, who, at the advanced age of seventy-two, retained the vigour and energy of youth. The Austrians never divined Frederick’s design until it was almost ripe for execution.<br>
Affecting great trepidation, he had masked his real intentions, and lulled the suspicions of the enemy to rest, by putting Dresden in a state of defence, marking out camps in its vicinity, and erecting palisades and abattis on the roads from Bohemia. Concluding that he meant to content himself with maintaining Saxony, the Austrians on their side made preparations for an invasion of the electorate, later on in the year when their allies had taken the field. The news of the Prussian advance came on them like a thunderclap. Their troops, scattered through Bohemia, had to fall back on Prague in such haste that they were unable to carry off or destroy their magazines. In the first days of May, the bulk of their army was collected on the Ziscaberg, a hill to the east of the city. It was no longer commanded by the skilful and experienced Browne. The partiality of Maria Theresa for her brother-in-law had placed the incompetent Prince Charles at its head, and Browne, who was really a great commander, was subordinated to the court favourite.<br>
Meanwhile the Prussian columns were rapidly closing in on Prague. Frederick had appointed May 4 as the day on which all were to assemble before the city; on the 6th, if the Austrians stood their ground, they were to be attacked and (such was his self-confidence!) beaten. Schwerin was a day behind the time, and, on uniting his column with a portion of the king’s early on the morning of the 6th, begged that his soldiers might be allowed a day’s rest, as they had been on foot since midnight, and had made forced marches for three days. Frederick, however, refused to be diverted from his intention of attacking that very day, influenced, there is little doubt, not only by the knowledge that a second Austrian army, under Count Leopold Daun, was hovering in the neighbourhood, and might at any time effect a junction with Prince Charles, but perhaps still more by an obstinate determination to carry out his programme to the letter.<br>
The Austrian position was very strong. On the north, where Frederick and Schwerin were, the Ziscaberg was unassailed from its steepness. The eastern slope was much more gentle, but its brow was well defended by redoubts, and its base protected by marshy ground intersected by rivulets and by a string of fishponds, from which the water had been drawn off, and which from a distance looked like green pasturage, but were really a treacherous quagmire. Frederick determined, after reconnoitring, to attempt the Ziscaberg on this side, and brought his troops round accordingly. The Austrians, who were originally posted along the crest of the hill facing northwards, shifted their ground on perceiving his design, and wheeled their right wing round, until it was at right angles to the first position, so as to front the attack instead of being taken in flank, as would otherwise have happened.<br>
The battle began at 10 a. m., (May 6), and for three hours raged with the utmost fury round Sterbohol, a farmstead on the lower slopes of the Ziscaberg. The Prussian infantry pressed impetuously forward, toiling through the marshy ground, and mowed down by the well-served Austrian artillery. Again and again they charged, and were as often repulsed, till Schwerin, maddened by the sight of his own regiment in retreat, snatched the colours from the ensign and rushed forward crying, “This way, my children.” Almost immediately he fell, struck by five case-shot balls. The king himself brought up the second line, and, after strenuous efforts, Sterbohol was carried.<br>
At the same time the Austrian centre was pierced by a bold attack of General Mannstein up the steep hillside, at the point where their right wing made an angle with the main body, while the cavalry on their extreme right was routed by Ziethen’s hussars. Their ranks were thrown into utter confusion. Prince Charles, while endeavouring to rally his flying squadrons, was seized with a spasm of the heart, which rendered him unconscious; Browne had already been carried mortally wounded from the field. The battle was lost to the Austrians, and, though the fresh troops of the left wing still made a gallant resistance, they were gradually forced back into Prague.<br>
It was not till eight o’clock that the fighting was all over on the bloodiest day that had been seen in Europe since Malplaquet. The Prussians had purchased their victory dearly, with the loss of at least 12,500 of their finest troops, besides old Schwerin, who, as Frederick said, alone was worth above 10,000. The Austrians lost 13,000, including prisoners. The numbers engaged on each side were about equal, the Austrians being 65,000, the Prussians 64,000. The victory might have been more complete but for an unlucky accident. A considerable portion of the Prussian army had been left on the west bank of the Moldau to guard the line of communications, and prevent an outbreak of the Prague garrison on that side. 15,000 of these, under Prince Maurice of Dessau, were to have crossed the Moldau, above Prague, in order to fall upon the Austrian rear, and intercept the fugitives; but Maurice’s pontoon-bridge proved too short, and he was unable to get over the river.