4 June 1745

At Hohenfriedberg the Prussian king Frederick II was thirty-three years old and already a seasoned commander, having led his men in battle at Mollwitz in 1741 and Chotusitz a year later. This painting by Johann Schröder (1757–1812) shows the king in a pensive mood after his defeat at Kolin in 1757. By that time, Frederick was widely regarded as an original military theorist as a result of his long experience of warfare.

Frederick II of Prussia – Frederick the Great after this battle – needed a victory in 1745 to stamp his authority on the Prussian army after the disastrous winter campaign of the Second Silesian War. The thirty-three-year-old king was unlike almost any of his European adversaries. Cultured, philosophically inclined and a noted flute player, the diminutive monarch was also fascinated by battle and an avid student of the wars of the past. The victory he sought against the vast military resources of the Habsburg Empire was made possible by the simplest of deceits: a forced march during the night to take the enemy camp by surprise at sunrise. For all the attention later lavished on Frederick’s operational genius, the simplicity of this stratagem was its most significant characteristic.

The war was fought between an upstart Prussia, a state carved out of northeastern Germany over the previous half-century, and the empire of Maria Theresa, whose claim to the Habsburg throne in 1740 had precipitated a general European conflagration against her. Frederick had used the opportunity to seize the Habsburg province of Silesia in southeastern Germany (now Poland) to mark his own accession to the throne. Maria Theresa bowed to reality in 1742 and acknowledged Frederick’s acquisition, but she was never reconciled to it and in 1744 war was resumed. Frederick raised a large army of 140,000 men, some conscripted from the Prussian cantons, others German mercenaries from the smaller German states, all led by a military aristocracy whose status owed more to battle competence than to land ownership or birth. Frederick marched them into Bohemia and occupied Prague, but no army came to engage him. Since winter was approaching and supplies from distant Prussia were difficult to maintain, he had no alternative but to retreat to his kingdom. His forces were demoralized, desertion was rife, and illness and cold depleted the remainder. This was why a victory was so important to him in 1745.

The army he raised for the next campaigning season was much smaller. It included some 42,000 foot soldiers and 17,000 cavalry. He was ready by late May, but he had to entice the enemy to fight rather than simply manoeuvre around him. ‘A battle,’ he concluded, ‘is my only option.’ A large Austrian and Saxon army was camped out in the Bohemian mountains, the Riesengebirge. It comprised around 60,000 men led by Prince Charles of Lorraine. Frederick’s use of deceit began early in June, when rumours and disinformation were spread, intended to reach the enemy camp. He wanted the enemy to believe that his forces were dispersed or even retreating so that they would come down from their secure positions in the heights onto the plain below, where Frederick’s army had more advantage. The Habsburg commanders took the bait and moved towards him. On 3 June 1745, they camped near the village of Hohenfriedberg in the Sudetenland, spread out along a small river. So confident were they that the Prussians were on the run that no temporary fortifications were thought necessary.Frederick had achieved the surprise he needed. He drew his forces quickly together and ordered a night march towards Hohenfriedberg. Camp fires were left burning in case any Austrian spies crept near to reconnoitre. The men were ordered to keep absolute silence and not to smoke. Discipline was harsh in the Prussian army so the men obeyed. The infantry crossed fields while the guns struggled along dirt roads, with the sound of their movements muffled as much as possible. They arrived in front of the enemy camp at sunrise.

Surprise was almost complete, but the camp was much wider than Frederick had realized and his first units ran unexpectedly into enemy infantry. He ushered his cavalry forward, leading by example – the first time he had fought on the battlefield himself. A large force of Austrian and Saxon horsemen quickly found their mounts and met the Prussian charge. A fierce engagement followed in which Frederick had insisted that no quarter be given. The balance gradually turned in his favour. While the horsemen battled each other, the Saxon infantry, encamped on the Habsburg left, formed up and prepared to defend their position. Nine Prussian infantry battalions were ordered to shoulder their muskets and march straight at the fusillade of musket and cannon fire coming from the Saxon ranks. They did so keeping an extraordinary discipline, then at the last moment, only yards from the enemy, they fired their muskets. A confused battle ensued until the Saxons, hoping every minute for reinforcements from their Austrian allies that never came, finally broke at around 7 a.m.By this time, the whole Austrian camp was attempting to come to terms with what had happened and organize a satisfactory defence. Frederick, realizing that his original plan was already compromised, instead ordered the bulk of his foot soldiers, supported by the remaining cavalry, to attack the Austrian lines head-on. They had to cross the small river and as they did so the one bridge collapsed. As the Austrian cavalry advanced, the remaining Prussian cavalry found a ford further downstream and charged to help their stranded comrades. Shocked by the force of the Prussian charge, the Austrian horse broke and scattered.

A nineteenth-century engraving depicts the capture of the Austrian commanders at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg on 4 June 1745 by the Prussian troops of Frederick II. Sixty-seven captured regimental colours were paraded past the Prussian king.

The infantry struggle was intense, with disciplined lines exchanging point-blank musket fire, but at 8.15 some 1,500 horsemen of Frederick’s 5th Bayreuth Dragoons, who had not taken part in the earlier cavalry charge, saw through the smoke of battle an inviting gap opening up in the Austrian lines. They charged at full gallop, crashing into a battalion of Austrian grenadiers who were put to the sword. With no cavalry left, the Austrian line collapsed in minutes and by 9 a.m. the battle was over. The dragoons captured some 67 regimental colours and 2,500 prisoners. Fighting had been brief but savage and 4,700 from the Prussian army were dead or wounded. Austrian and Saxon losses were three times as great. Frederick had the captured colours set up in his headquarters tent, as if he could not quite believe his good fortune.The war ended a few months later with the Peace of Dresden, and Silesia remained for the moment in Prussian hands. Frederick composed a march in honour of his victory. News of Hohenfriedberg made Frederick overnight into a European military celebrity but the victory, which owed much to the element of surprise, was brought about partly through luck and partly through the disciplined fighting power of Prussian units when faced with taking initiatives in their own part of the battle. Deception, however effective it might be, still required a thorough exploitation in combat to make it worthwhile, as Frederick, the philosopher-king, found out in his first battlefield action.