In 1754, a young Virginia militia officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, renewed the centuries’ long conflict between Britain and France when he ambushed the French at Jumonville Glen in the moraine-carved, serene, and picturesque wilderness of what would become Western Pennsylvania. King George II dispatched troops to the New World, and we would know this conflict as the French and Indian War. Although the war raged in the colonies, in 1756, the conflict had yet to spread to Europe. However that year, George II felt that his ancestral home in central Germany, Hanover, was threatened by France. So he made an alliance with King in Prussia, Frederick I, to protect the small city state.
The new alliance upset the delicate balance of power in Europe at the time. Maria Theresa of Austria, a traditional enemy of France and ally of Britain was upset with George’s new alliance with her rival, Prussia. She desired the return of the rich Polish province of Silesia, which she lost the decade before, and furthermore despised Frederick whom never failed to insult her every chance he got. She made an ostensibly defensive alliance with France in May 1756.
France was also ready for war with Prussia. For twenty years the second most powerful woman in France was Madame de’ Pompadour, the 13th handmaiden to the queen. This doesn’t sound like much but she was intelligent, driven, an economic genius, ran the royal household, and was the highest authority in France on matters of taste and fashion, not to mention the king’s mistress, and the queen’s closest confidant. In the spring of 1755, Frederick insulted her through their mutual friend Voltaire, and Madame de’ Pompadour never forgave him. She was not above using her influence, and the mechanisms of the state, to avenge the insult.
That summer, a third target of Frederick insults also decided the time was ripe to avenge her honor. The wily Empress Elizabeth of Russia loathed Frederick for calling her a “superstitious and indolent voluptuary”. So she put aside Russia’s traditional hostility with France to chasten the insolent Frederick… and take advantage of Prussia’s isolation. In July, 1756, Russia joined the anti-Prussian Alliance, which throughout Europe became known as the “League of the Three Petticoats”.
Frederick, surrounded by three of the most powerful nations in Europe, decided to attack before Prussia was overwhelmed. On 29 August 1756, the Prussian army of Frederick the Great crossed into Saxony to subdue his troublesome smaller neighbor before turning on Austria.
And with it, a remote colonial dispute and the salon games of the affluent, became a world war.
In the early days of the Seven Years War, known in the British colonies of North America as the French and Indian War, Prussia was surrounded and isolated by its enemies France, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Austria. Frederick II, King in Prussia’s only major ally was Great Britain. Unfortunately for Frederick, the British war would be conducted in India, the West Indies, the Americas, and especially on the high seas. King George II could offer no military assistance to the Prussians on the European continent. In 1757, the weight of numbers was immediately felt by Frederick and his small army. His initial invasion of Bohemia to knock Austria out of the war failed, the Russians over ran East Prussia, France steamrolled his small German allies to the west, and Austria was marching on Silesia to the south with a massive army from the heart of their empire.
Frederick however had two big advantages: he had interior lines of communication which allowed him to quickly shift his army to face the different threats, and his army was much more highly trained and disciplined than his opponents’. Knowing the French would be an easier target, he first engaged and mauled the French “mob” at the Battle of Rossbach; lest they fall upon him from behind as he moved to face the much larger and better trained Austrian Army. He then turned to face the Austrians.
At the town of Leuthen (Lutyia in modern Poland), Frederick’s 37,000 man force encountered the 80,000 strong army under Prince Charles of Lorraine. What Charles didn’t know was that the rolling hills around Leuthen were the Prussian Army’s primary drill grounds and maneuver training area. Every one of Frederick’s soldiers, officers and units had spent thousands of hours learning and mastering the rigid tactics of the eighteenth century linear battlefield there. And now they were going to fight a battle on the very ground they’d trained on.
On 5 December 1757, the two armies lined up opposite each other. In the early morning mist and fog common to Central Europe, Frederick disengaged from battle before it really even began. Prince Charles was surprised, but nonetheless let the Prussians leave unmolested, confident that Frederick would have to eventually face him. It would happen much sooner than he expected.
Frederick was just feigning retreat and marched south over the familiar terrain around the Austrians’ left flank without getting lost in the fog, all the while screened by the hills. Once south of the Austrians, Frederick’s entire highly trained army did the 37,000 man equivalent of a “Left Flank, March” and rolled up the Austrians from the south while the Austrians were still facing west. Unable to concentrate any sort of mass to the face the attack, the surprised and confused Austrians broke in short order.
The Seven Years War/French and Indian War would eventually become the planet’s first “World War” but because of the Battle of Leuthen, the next five years of that war would be fought on Prussian and British…and American terms.