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Frederick the Great and the War of Austrian Succession

Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia trained his son, Frederick, to be a hardy soldier. But Frederick disliked rifle shooting and horseback riding. Unlike his father, he was interested in French literature. He enjoyed poetry and music and, like some others of the Enlightenment, he scoffed at religion. His father thought him soft, frivolous and unmindful of his duties. And when Frederick refused to put his signature on a Right to Succession, for a few moments his father strangled him.

In 1730, at the age of eighteen, Frederick tried running away to England. He and a friend who had helped him were caught, and Frederick's father had him tried by a court martial and sentenced to death, and he had Frederick's friend beheaded in his presence. The father threatened his son with execution if he were disobedient again. Frederick languished in prison for a while. But by 1735, at the age of twenty-three, he had recovered from his disgrace and was serving in his father's army, fighting against the French near the Rhine during the war of Polish Succession.

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia

Crown Prince Frederick, age 38 in the year 1740

Frederick at age 68

Frederick at 68, in 1780, conqueror having had six horse shot from under him. A painting by Anton Graff

Frederick William died on May 31, 1740 at the age of fifty-two, and Frederick became Frederick II. (His grandfather had been Frederick I.) Still with a bent towards the Enlightenment, Frederick allowed Christian von Wolff to return from exile. Wolff had annoyed his fellow professors of the university at Halle by his attachment to intellectual currents from France. Wolff had been interested in improving society. He had opposed torture and prosecuting people for witchcraft. He had been a hero to students at Halle, and authorities at the university supported by Frederick William had driven him into exile. But now, Wolff returned to the university in triumph and with acclaim.

Frederick began doing what he could to make his city, Berlin, a center of research, learning, art and culture. He was corresponding with Voltaire, pursuing his interest in literature, and he kept his mind on matters political. He described his rule as a sort of contract with his subjects, with himself as first servant of the state, duty bound to promote well-being and security. And seeing the world filled with others eager to expand their power, he saw, as had his father, that a strong military was vital for security.

The Outbreak of War

Other deaths by heads of state occurred in 1740, which helped destabilize Europe regarding the question who should rule where. The Empress of Russia, Anna, died, succeeded by an infant, Ivan VI, who was to reign for little more than one year. The death of the Habsburg monarch, Charles VI, occurred on October 20, 1740, after a short illness said to have been caused by eating mushrooms. Charles not having had a son, rule passed to his eldest daughter, the dutiful and religiously devout Maria Theresa, then 23, who acquired the titles of Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Bohemia and Queen of Hungary.

Europe's rulers had no fear of Frederick at this time. He was known for having been a crown prince who despised war, loved reading, wrote bad verse and preferred to play the flute rather than review his troops. Maria Theresa's husband, Francis Stephen, also had no fear of Frederick. He had recently attended Frederick's wedding and considered him a friend.

Frederick was aware of Austria's economic and military weakness, made more apparent during the War of Polish Succession. Frederick was another monarch affected by the lack of a firm consensus as to who should rule where. Following the tradition of empire that existed within Europe, he decided that the time was right to expand his rule southward into Silesia, an area that would double the number of his subjects to six million. Silesia was relatively advanced in industry, rich in agriculture and mineral wealth, and Protestant – unlike the Habsburg monarchy that presently ruled there. It was an area that included principalities claimed by Frederick's family, the Hohenzollerns: Liegnitz, Brieg, Wohlau and Jägerndorf. Frederick believed that Silesia should be his reward for the support he planned to give Maria Theresa and for his vote, as an elector, in selecting her husband, Francis, as the new Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick wanted to take his reward rather than wait for it because he had inherited his father's distrust of Habsburg promises in exchanging favors and because he believed that the Habsburgs did not take Hohenzollern power seriously enough.

By the end of November, much of Europe was aware of Frederick's troop concentrations. French authorities sent Voltaire on a courtesy visit to report of Frederick's intentions. But Frederick refused to answer Voltaire's questions.

On December 16, Frederick asked his generals to think of "the good name of Prussia" which their forefathers had earned on the battlefield. Then he and his army marched into Silesia. And not having announced his intentions paid off. In the coming weeks he and his army took over Silesia without serious opposition.

In the Habsburg mansion in Vienna, Maria Theresa was aghast. Rather than accept Frederick's proposal of friendship and help, she sent troops to reconquer Silesia. A showdown battle occurred on April 10, 1741, in Silesia at Mollwitz. Austria's cavalry fell apart when attempting to ride down Frederick's infantry. Frederick's troops had a five to three advantage in rapidity of fire, and they drove off the Austrian infantry. News of Frederick's success at Mollwitz traveled across Europe, awakening all of Europe that Brandenburg-Prussia was a power to be reckoned with.

The War Broadens

French strategists were delighted to see a division between Brandenburg-Prussia and Austria. Austria's defeat at Mollwitz inspired France to seek a treaty with Fredrick. Frederick was happy to have France as an ally against Habsburg hostility, and in signing a defensive treaty with the French he promised to cast his vote for their mutual friend Charles Albert of Bavaria rather than for Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, for Holy Roman Emperor.

In June, Maria Theresa was shoring up what support she could. She dressed in Hungarian attire, sailed eighty kilometers down the Danube River to Bratislava on a ship bedecked in Hungary's national colors. When greeted by Hungarian nobles and churchmen she was a picture of dignity and simplicity. She reassured the Hungarians of their autonomy and won their support for her as their queen.

At the end of July 1741, France's ally, Bavaria, attacked the Austrians upriver from Bratislava, at the town of Passau, and the war entered a new phase. Maria Theresa wanted support from her ally, Russia, but Russia was having succession problems and was occupied by a threat from Sweden. Sweden was allied with France and declared war on Russia on August 4. The political party in power in Sweden, the Hats, believed that the time was right to win back from Russia the territories Sweden had lost in the Great Northern War of 1700-21.

In August, Maria Theresa returned to Bratislava and won Hungarian regiments for her armies. In September, the Russians, despite problems in the ruling family, defeated the Swedes in Finland at Wilmanstrand, but rather than help the Austrians, the Russians would remain occupied with the Swedes in Finland. Also in September, a French and Bavarian army was pushing into Maria Theresa's Bohemia, which includes the city of Prague. Meanwhile Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had turned his back on his former allies Russia and Austria, and he had joined the alliance of France, Bavaria and Brandenburg-Prussia. He wished to be on the winning side and was hoping for a reward of more territory. His troops from Saxony joined forces with an army of French and Bavarians, and in late November they took Prague.

Hearing news of her loss of Prague, Maria Theresa burst into tears. She was only a little more than twenty-four years-old, pregnant with her fifth child and surrounded by elderly male advisors of questionable competence. She was outdoing them in planning and resolve, complaining that her pregnancy prevented her from mounting a horse to lead her troops.

The Year 1742

Austrian troops were withdrawn from Italy to meet challenges closer to home, and the Italian wife of Spain's King Philip, Elizabeth Farnese, who was running foreign policy, sought advantage from this and was again hoping to win back territory in Italy. In November (1741), a fleet of Spanish ships landed 14,000 men in Italy at Orbetello. And at the end of January, they landed 12,800 more at Spezia – unopposed.

Also in January, 1742, the Holy Roman Empire's electors selected Charles Albert emperor. He also declared himself King of Bohemia, and Maria Theresa sent troops to retake Bohemia. To help Charles, Frederick led an army, augmented by French and Saxon troops, into Maria Theresa's Moravia, just south of Silesia. He went deep into enemy territory and cursed himself for his inadequate planning and lack of provisions. His French troops left him to help in the fighting near the Rhine, and Frederick retreated to Bohemia.

Frederick's financial reserves were running out, and Britain thought it was a good time for Maria Theresa to make peace with Frederick – in order for her to better combat France and Spain. In May, Maria Theresa's army clashed with Frederick's army in Bohemia at Chotusitz. Frederick won, and this helped persuade Maria Theresa to agree with the British. A treaty between her and Frederick was drawn, Maria Teresa agreeing to Frederick's hold on Silesia except for parts of southern Silesia called Jagerndorf and Troppau, which Frederick agreed would go to the Habsburgs.

Maria Theresa pursued her war against Spain, France and Bavaria, while Russia, in August, was taking Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland. Sweden capitulated, and Russia proposed an independent Finland as a buffer between it and Sweden.

Meanwhile, according to Voltaire, all Europe "had its eyes on Prague," which was now being held by 25,000 French troops, surrounded by an Austrian army of around 70,000. Civilians in the city were suffering, and the French were eating their horses. The French sent troops to the rescue, and the Austrians shifted their forces around to meet that force. Winter set in, and in mid-December around 14,000 of the French in Prague sneaked passed the Austrian lines, leaving behind their sick and wounded.

The Austrians moved into Prague and allowed France's sick and wounded to return home. The Austrians took reprisals against people in Prague whom they suspected of having collaborated with the French. Jews were among the suspects, and Maria Theresa banished Jews from the city and from all her territories. Some others suspected of collaboration with the enemy received fines or loss of property. Some were sentenced to life imprisonment, to maiming, or to death. But Maria Theresa, being a woman of generosity and having a soft heart, commuted the death sentences.

Britain Leads an Anti-Bourbon Alliance

The War of Austrian Succession wasn't over yet. Great Britain had been at war with Bourbon-ruled Spain since 1739 – the War of Jenkins' Ear – over the mistreatment of English seaman. The War of Jenkins' Ear was merging with the War of Austrian Succession. Britain had been technically at peace with France since 1713, but friction between the two powers still existed in the Americas and India. Britain was still aligned with Austria, and now that Maria Theresa and Frederick were at peace, Britain signed a defensive treaty with Brandenburg-Prussia, happy to keep the French and Frederick apart and to have Frederick's good will regarding security for Hanover – which belonged to Great Britain's King George II, the last British monarch to have been born outside Britain.

Britain also signed a defensive treaty with Russia, and in the spring of 1743 it brought the Dutch into the alliance, Britain wanting as large an alliance as possible against Spain and France.

In April, an allied force of 20,000 British, 20,000 from the Austrian Netherlands, 16,000 from Hanover, and around 6,000 Germans from Hesse, were camped at Mainz by the Rhine River. They were waiting for the arrival of their military leader George II. An Austrian force was moving into Bavaria while the French there were withdrawing and burning villages to the ground. In Bavaria the city of Munich surrendered to the Austrians in early June. King George arrived at Mainz in mid-June, and the allied force marched south, meeting and defeating the French late that month in northwest Bavaria at the village of Dettingen, the French suffering around 4,000 casualties and the allied force half that many. News of their defeat at Dettingen brought despondence to the French while in England and Austria people rejoiced. Then King George's force, short of supplies, retreated northward 200 kilometers to Hanau.

Great Britain hoped to split the Charles VII of Bavaria from France and urged Maria Theresa to settle with Charles, and the British urged her to settle with Charles Emmanuel of the House of Savoy and Sardinia. Maria Theresa ceded to Charles Emmanuel territory at her expense – Vigevano (24 kilometers southwest of Milan), Piacenza (60 kilometers southeast of Milan) and a few other places, while Charles Emmanuel agreed to recognize Maria Theresa's rule in the Duchy of Milan. The British, Charles Emmanuel and Maria Theresa agreed that if the Bourbons were defeated, the Habsburgs would regain the kingdom of Naples and the House of Savoy would regain Sicily. The agreement was signed in September in the town of Worms, by the Rhine River, and became known as the Treaty of Worms.

Bourbon-ruled France responded by signing a treaty with Bourbon-ruled Spain – the Treaty of Fontainebleau – family togetherness. France declared war on Charles Emmanuel of the House of Savoy, and France chose all out war against Great Britain. France prepared to invade Britain and looked forward to a rising of Catholics there and toward returning a Catholic of the Stuart family to the British throne. On March 7, 1744, a gale tore apart the French fleet in the English Channel, and the French dropped their plans to invade. But they formally declared war on both Great Britain and Hanover. And in May they formally declared war on Austria.

Frederick Chooses More War

None of this was too tedious for Frederick. He was alarmed over the Treaty of Worms not having recognized his hold on Silesia. He believed that Maria Theresa did not really accept his hold on Silesia and that Great Britain's George II disliked him. He feared Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, becoming Holy Roman Emperor in place of Charles VII. He disliked the shift of August III of Saxony and Poland back to the side of Austria. His solution: side with the French against Austria. In June 1744, Frederick and the French struck another agreement, the French hoping that Frederick would force Austria to withdraw their troops from Italy. The French agreed to attack Austria along the Danube River and to keep Hanover in check, and Frederick agreed to attack in the direction of Vienna.

Frederick carefully planned his move toward Vienna, among other things increasing his military to 140,000 men. In August he led 80,000 of these men across the frontier into Bohemia, his first major target being Prague. The reaction in Austria was outrage, with Frederick's ambassador there having to be protected from angry crowds. The British were mortified and pledged more money to Austria. And Saxony promised Austria 20,000 of its soldiers.

Frederick and his army took Prague from the Austrians in mid-September, Frederick seeing his cousin's head blown away by an Austrian artillery shell. Then Frederick pushed farther south, and the going became tougher. Rather than France helping Frederick as he had expected, France was giving priority to fights along the Rhine. A combined Austrian and Saxon force of 75,000 outnumbered Frederick's army. And, in December, Frederick retreated back to home territory, his invasion a failure. More or less 25 percent of his troops had been lost, many having died of dysentery. His reputation was diminished, and he was angry at the French, believing that they had let him down.

Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia Settle Again

Prussians under Frederick the Great marching into the Battle of Hohenfriedberg

The Prussians under Frederick the Great marching into the Battle of Hohenfriedberg, June 1745. Frederick, in the background, waving his hat, and a soldier in the foreground stopping a bullet. Click to enlarge.

In Munich, in January 1745, Charles VII died, and the coming elections to replace Charles as Holy Roman Emperor looked good for Francis, with many of the electors, including George of Hanover and Maria Theresa, supporting his candidacy.

In May, the French defeated an enemy force including Dutchmen in the Austrian Netherlands at Fontenoy, near the French border in what today is Belgium. Both sides suffered around 2,500 killed. And France had military successes soon afterward to the north in the Austrian Netherlands at Tournai and Ghent. In June, Frederick defeated an Austrian attack in Silesia, at Hohenfriedberg (a little to the west of Mollwitz). In June, George II was facing a rebellion in Britain: the Jacobite rebellion, which was hoping for help from the French. Britain withdrew forces from the Austrian Netherlands and mobilized 30,000 troops against the rebellion.

In late August, Britain and Frederick signed an agreement, George II winning assurance from Frederick that he would respect the territorial integrity of Hanover and support the candidacy of Francis as Holy Roman Emperor. And Frederick won Britain's support for his one big interest: an end to war that left him with Silesia.

In September 1745, Francis elected Holy Roman Emperor. His wife, Maria Theresa, was still reluctant to give up Silesia, but Frederick defeated her army at Soor. And in December, Frederick defeated the Saxons near Dresden. Then Maria Theresa gave in again to British pressure. On Christmas Day, Austria signed the Treaty of Dresden, Austria recognizing Silesia as belonging to Frederick's family, and Frederick recognized Francis as Holy Roman Emperor and the right of all Habsburg lands to remain under the rule of one Habsburg monarch. Frederick also agreed to return to Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, all territory that had been his, in exchange for a large payment of money ( one million crowns).

For Frederick the war of Austrian Succession was over, but Habsburg Austria was still at war with Bourbon France and Spain, the Austrians losing Milan to the Spanish in December. And France was still at war with Austria, the British, Sardinians and the Dutch.

The Final Years, from 1746 to 1748

In March 1746, Austria's ally, the Sardinians, surprised the French force that had been stationed at Asti (100 kilometers southwest of Milan). The French surrendered without resistance. Ten days later France's Spanish ally evacuated Milan. Then King Philip of Spain died and was succeeded by a son by his first marriage, Ferdinand VI, who was less interested than his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Farnese, in Italy and more interested in peace.

In July 1747, the Sardinians and French fought in mountainous territory around 200 kilometers southwest of Milan – the Battle of Assietta – where the French were slaughtered trying to ascend a ridge, losing a quarter of their troops in one day – a total of 5,300 casualties and perhaps 3,700 dead. The war in this area dwindled to a series of small, cross-border raids, while in the Netherlands the French advanced into Dutch territory, overrunning Bergen-op-Zoom in September.

By the second half of 1747 the British blockade of French ports was hurting the French. The British public had been elated by victories at sea against the French and the Spanish but it had become disillusioned by the expense of the war and the elusiveness of a decisive victory. War weariness and depleted finances were making all of the belligerents more interested in peace. In January 1748, Austria and France met to end their war. In April, the British and French representatives met to settle their differences. In October, Britain, France, Spain and the Dutch signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappel, Austria and Sardinia adding their signatures in November. The treaty confirmed Brandenburg-Prussia's hold on Silesia. France agreed to the Habsburgs regaining their part of the Netherlands (Belgium). And the British agreed to return areas in the Americas and India to the French.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.