Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz
|A.K.A.||Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr von Seydlitz|
|Birth||3 February 1721, Kalkar, Kreis Kleve, Düsseldorf Government Region, North Rhine-Westphalia|
|Death||27 August 1773, Oława, Oława County, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland (aged 52 years)|
Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Seydlitz (3 February 1721 – 8 November 1773) was a Prussian officer, lieutenant general, and among the greatest of the Prussian cavalry generals. He commanded one of the first Hussar squadrons of Frederick the Great's army and is credited with the development of the Prussian cavalry to its efficient level of performance in the Seven Years' War. Born to a cavalry captain, his father died when he was young. He was mentored by the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, also known as the "Mad" Margrave. His superb horsemanship and his recklessness combined to make him a stand-out subaltern, however, and Seydlitz emerged as a redoubtable Rittmeister (cavalry captain) in the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), also known as the First and Second Silesian Wars.
Seydlitz become legendary throughout the Prussian Army both for his leadership skills and for his sometimes reckless courage. During the Seven Years' War, he came into his own as a cavalry general, known for his coup d'œil, his ability to assess at a glance the entire battlefield situation and to understand intuitively what needed to be done: he excelled at converting the King's directives into flexible tactics. At the Battle of Rossbach, his cavalry was instrumental in routing the French and Austrian armies. His cavalry subsequently played an important role in crushing the Austrian left flank at the Battle of Leuthen. Seydlitz was wounded in battle several times. Badly wounded at the Battle of Kunersdorf in August 1759, he semi-retired, charged with the protection of the city of Berlin. He was not well enough to participate in the annual campaigns until 1761.
Frederick rewarded him with Order of the Black Eagle on the field after the Battle of Rossbach; he had already received the Pour le Mérite for his action at the Battle of Kolin. Although estranged from the King for several years, the two were reconciled during Seydlitz's final illness. Seydlitz died in 1773, and Frederick's heirs included his name on the Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great in Berlin, in a place of honor.
Seydlitz was born on 3 February 1721, in Kalkar in the Duchy of Cleves, where his father, Daniel Florian Seydlitz, was a major of Prussian cavalry with the Cuirassier Regiment Markgraf Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg-Schwedt No. 5. In 1726, his father left military service and moved the family to Schwedt, where he became a forestry master in East Prussia; the father died in 1728, leaving a widow and children in restricted financial circumstances. Limited schooling was available to young Seydlitz; sources differ whether he knew how to speak and write in French, the lingua franca of Frederick's top officers. What is known, however, is that his German was good, and if he knew French, he preferred German and wrote it with a "fine, firm hand, unusually correct, in well-formed sentences and with apt expression," and he knew enough Latin to express himself well. His future sovereign always addressed him in German.
By Seydlitz's seventh year, he could ride a horse well, raced with older boys, and he was, by most accounts, a wild and high-spirited child. At the age of fourteen he went as a page to the court of the Margrave Frederick William of Brandenburg-Schwedt, who had been his father's colonel. The Margrave was a grandson of the Great Elector, and a nephew to both Frederick I of Prussia and Leopold of Anhalt Dessau. Himself a reckless man, the "Mad" Margrave inspired in young Seydlitz a passion for feats of daredevil horsemanship. Seydlitz did not limit these passions to horses: the Margrave once dared him to ride a wild stag, which he did. Seydlitz became a skilled horseman, and many stories tell of his feats, the best known of which involved riding between the sails of a windmill in full swing. Seydlitz remained in his position as a page to the Margrave until King Frederick William appointed him as cornet in the Margrave's Cuirassier Regiment No. 5 (his father's old regiment) on 13 February 1740.
Seydlitz's first months as a cornet were made difficult by the regimental colonel, who considered him a spy for the Margrave, and abused him, sending him on useless errands, and generally making it clear that the cornet was no match for the colonel. Within a year of his commission, the old King died and his son, Frederick II of Prussia, ascended to the throne. Frederick claimed Silesia from the Habsburg's Maria Theresa, and made a broad appeal to arms. The Margrave's regiment played an important role in the ensuing war, during which Seydlitz came to the notice of the King several times times: once, when Frederick asked the caliber of the artillery shelling the Prussian line, opinions were divided and vague. Seydlitz rode in front of the battery, halting in their line of fire. When he saw a ball hit the ground, he picked it up, wrapped it in his handkerchief and presented it to the King.
In May 1742, while stationed with his regiment in Kranowitz during the First Silesian War, the regimental colonel ordered him to take 30 men and hold a village post until infantry came to his assistance; despite heavy fire, the colonel did not send reinforcements. The brigade general took three squadrons of heavy cavalry to relieve Seydlitz, but these were turned back by heavy fire from the Austrian line. Subsequently, Seydlitz was forced to surrender his small unit. He entered into Austrian captivity with several of his closest comrades, including Charles de Warnery.
The King exchanged an Austrian captain for the cornet. Upon Seydlitz's return from captivity, the King offered a choice to wait for the first lieutenancy that became available in a cuirassier regiment, or the immediate command of a troop of hussars, as a captain. Hussars were the newest form of service in the Prussian army, and not as prestigious an assignment as cuirassiers, but Seydlitz chose the immediate promotion. In 1743 the King made him a Rittmeister (captain) in the 4th Hussars. He entirely skipped the rank of lieutenant. With the 4th Hussars, he was stationed in the city of Trebnitz. There, he brought his squadron to a state of conspicuous efficiency.
In August, 1744, the King entered Bohemia, took Prague, and then moved the battlefield to the south of the country. Lieutenant General Count Nassau led the vanguard, and Seydlitz participated with the Natzmer Hussars, commanded by Major Hans Heinrich Adam Schütz, a notoriously violent man. Seydlitz served through the Second Silesian War, and, after Hohenfriedberg, won promotion to major on 28 July at the age of twenty-four.
On 22 May, Hans Karl von Winterfeldt, a good judge of character, reported to the King: "Certainly, at Hohenfriedberg, on the 4 June, he [Seydlitz] captured the Saxon general [Georg Sigismund] von Schlichting personally, after he had cut the reins from him." Seydlitz led his squadron at the Battle of Soor on 30 September, scouting the enemy's position before the battle, and then participating in the action. He was also present in the victorious meeting at Katholisch-Hennersdorf on 23 November, which proved convincingly to Frederick the benefit of close support during a cavalry charge. At the successful action on 27 November, Seydlitz led 15 squadrons in an attack on the Austrian rear guard. The Austrians were dispersed and nearly destroyed.
Development of cavalry tactics
After Frederick concluded the peace on the 25 December 1748, Seydlitz returned with his squadron to Trebnitz. In the intervening years of peace, Seydlitz developed flexible cavalry tactics. He assembled a plan on tactical form and training for the Prussian cavalry and presented it to the King. Frederick approved the procedures and Seydlitz established a rigorous training program. He would leave his own estate by jumping the gate; he required similar horsemanship from all his men, regardless of whether they were cuirassiers, hussars or dragoons. They had to be capable of galloping across broken fields, wheeling in formation and riding in close action. Furthermore, they had to be prepared to support any movement of infantry, or any response from the enemy. Under Seydlitz, Prussian cavalry learned to use only their swords, not the useless pistols or carbines that could not be fired with accuracy or reloaded. Generally, cavalry horses were the sturdy warm-blood Trakehner, from Frederick's stud farm in Trakenhen, East Prussia.
On 21 September 1752, after a successful review in which the different cavalry forms demonstrated their competencies, the King promoted Seydlitz to lieutenant colonel and the commander-in-chief of cavalry and, on 13 October of the same year, to the commander of the Dragoon Regiment Württemberg No. 12, whose staff was at Treptow. Frederick was not satisfied with the regiment's performance, and instructed Seydlitz to "put it back into order". In 1753 Frederick appointed Seydlitz to the command of the 8th Cuirassiers. In his hands, this regiment soon became a pattern to the rest of the Prussian Army's mounted force. In 1755 Frederick promoted him to colonel.
By the start of the next war, the cavalry had become Frederick's pride and joy: it had unrivaled training and an esprit d' corps bolstered by Frederick's confidence in its members, and by their confidence in Seydlitz. Indeed, the King had issued orders that no Prussian cavalry man would allow himself to be attacked without a commensurate response, under penalty of being cashiered; consequently, Prussian cavalrymen were active and aggressive. For the King, Seydlitz's cavalry became the dynamic factor in the army of the state, and would be the tool by which Frederick could challenge empires: the cavalry charge must be impetuous and quick. Seydlitz's cavalry became Frederick's weapon of choice.
Seven Years' War
In May 1757, regardless of the custom of keeping the heavy cavalry in reserve, Seydlitz brought his regiment forward to join the advance guard at the Battle of Prague. Here he nearly lost his life attempting to ride through a marshy pool; his horse became stuck in quicksand and his troopers pulled him away. At the Prussian loss at Kolin in June 1757, he and a cavalry brigade checked the Austrian pursuit by a brilliant charge. Two days later, the King promoted him to major general and awarded him the Pour le Mérite. Seydlitz felt he had deserved the promotion for a long time, for he responded to Hans Joachim von Zieten's congratulations by saying, "It was high time, Excellency, if they wanted more work out of me. I am already thirty-six." Another example of his intrepid leadership and his ability to see at a glance what needed to be done occurred after the Battle of Kolin. The loss at Kolin forced the King to lift the siege at Prague. The King's brother, Augustus William, took command of the army and commanded the retreat from Prague. Seydlitz, with a brigade of ten squadrons, was attached to the advanced corps of Karl Christoph von Schmettau. As Seydlitz's wing entered Lusatia, near the town of Zittau, the Austrians were present in force, and Seydlitz was trapped in the town. Tricking the Austrians into thinking his troop was a foraging party, his cavalry burst on the Austrian cavalry before they could climb into their saddles. Seydlitz led his cavalry in an escape, in close column, and was quickly out of sight.
Battle of Rossbach
On the morning of the Battle of Rossbach, Frederick passed over two senior generals and placed Seydlitz in command of the whole of his cavalry, much to those men's annoyance and to Seydlitz' satisfaction. The battle was one instance in which Seydlitz's coup d'œil became especially apparent, and in which his understanding of the King's objectives led to battlefield success. He watched the French army move for several minutes, while puffing on his pipe; his troopers never took their eyes off him. When he threw his pipe away, this was the signal they had waited for: the massed squadrons surged forward, smashing the unprepared French in the flank. Typically, cavalry action in the mid-eighteenth century meant a single cavalry charge; the cavalry would spend the rest of the action pursuing fleeing troops. At Rossbach, though, not content with this single attack, Seydlitz recalled his squadrons in another charge, and then withdrew into a copse, where they regrouped under cover of the trees. Without waiting for new orders, Seydlitz deployed the Prussian cavalry a third time; this proved a critical factor in the battle. As trained, Seydlitz's squadrons charged headlong into the French columns: a massive wall of horses galloping flank to flank, their riders flashing swords and maneuvering at full speed. By the end of the battle, only seven infantry battalions of Frederick's army had fired a shot; the rest of the victory had been the work of Seydlitz's 38 squadrons and Karl Friedrich von Moller's artillery.
That day, the Prussians took as trophies 72 cannons (62% of the French/Imperial artillery), seven flags, and 21 standards. With some 3,500 horsemen and a couple dozen cannons, plus a portion of Prince Henry's regiment of infantry, the Prussian army had defeated the combined armies of two European powers. The tactics at Rossbach became a landmark in the history of military art. The same night, on the field, the King awarded Seydlitz the Order of the Black Eagle, and promoted him to lieutenant general. Unfortunately, Seydlitz had been wounded during the melée and he remained out of action for four months, nursed by a lady in Leipzig.
Seydlitz rejoined the King in 1758 and on 25 August, at the Battle of Zorndorf, Seydlitz's cavalry again saved the day. He led thirty-six squadrons into a mass of Russian cavalry mingled with infantry. This charge broke the Russian right wing and sent them running for the woods. At the Prussian debacle at Hochkirch, on 14 October 1758, he covered the Prussian retreat with 108 squadrons, and in the disaster of Kunersdorf, on 12 August 1759, he received another severe wound in a hopeless attempt to storm a hill held by the Russians; his 8th Cuirassiers was one of the few intact regiments at the end of the battle. While recuperating in Berlin, he helped organize a defense of the city during the Austro-Russian raid (October 1760). Although he was unable to prevent the Russians from briefly occupying the city, Frederick later praised him for his conduct.
Seydlitz' health frequently kept him off the battlefield and he did not reappear at the front until 1761. Then, he received command of a wing of Prince Henry's army, composed of troops of all arms, and many officers expressed doubts as to his fitness for this command, as his service had been with the cavalry exclusively. He answered his critics with his conduct at Freiberg on 29 October 1762, in which, leading his infantry and his cavalry in turn, he decided the day.
After the Treaty of Hubertusburg (1763) Seydlitz became inspector general of the cavalry in Silesia, where eleven regiments were permanently stationed and where Frederick sent all his most promising officers to be trained. In 1767, Seydlitz was made a general of cavalry.
Seydlitz's later years were marred by domestic unhappiness. During his convalescence in Berlin, on 18 April 1761, he had married Susannah Johanna Albertine Hacke, daughter of Hans Christoph Friedrich Graf von Hacke, and she was eventually unfaithful to him, reportedly due to the syphilis from which he had suffered for decades. He had at least one daughter, according to an early biographer, Anton König, and two according to another biographer, Robert Lawley. The oldest daughter married first to an official from Breslau, and was divorced. She married second to a Polish count, and divorced soon after. She eventually converted to Catholicism, but died in a madhouse in Brieg. The youngest lived to extreme old age and died in poverty near Lausitz.
By the end of the decade, some misunderstanding brought to an end his formerly close friendship with the King. Seydlitz's health had been declining for years and he suffered from recurrent bouts of syphilis; in 1772, after an attack of apoplexy, he completed a couple of stays at Carlsbad to take the waters. While these helped somewhat, his other activities continued without moderation. A subordinate brought him two healthy Circassian girls, whose company he enjoyed but who undoubtedly stressed his tenuous health. In August 1773, in his last illness, Frederick and Seydlitz met again at Seydlitz's home at Minkovsky near Ohlau (now Oława, Poland). The King visited his sickbed, and even persuaded him to take some of his medications, but Seydlitz would not look at him; the illness had already deformed his face. Eventually paralyzed, whether from another stroke or the underlying syphilis, Seydlitz died at Ohlau in Silesia in November 1773.
Seydlitz was generally admired for the superb coup d'œil that allowed him to utilize the cavalry to its full potential. His 19th century biographer, K. A. Varnhagen von Ense, related that Seydlitz lived above all for the service, and promoted the training of his hussars before all else. According to Anton König, who wrote in 1780–1790, Seydlitz performed well at taverns and excelled in practical jokes: one would gather that Seydlitz was a drunkard, a rake, and a savage, but another of his biographers, Bernhard Poten, cited conflicting descriptions offered by Seydlitz's contemporaries, particularly Warnery, as more accurate. Nevertheless, there is some evidence to support König's assertion: Seydlitz was no doubt dependent upon his tobacco and had been since his teenage years, although he smoked a pipe rather than using snuff, as many officers did; he was indeed reckless, as his career testified; he enjoyed the company of women; and Seydlitz indeed suffered from recurring illness.
In 1851, Frederick William IV, Frederick's great-great nephew, included Seydlitz's name on the Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great in Berlin, honoring those who had helped to build the Prussian state. Seydlitz holds a position of honor as one of the four full-sized mounted figures, sharing the first tier of the plinth with the King's brother, his cousin, and Hans Joachim von Zieten. A bronze sculpture installed at Zietenplatz, in Berlin, was created by Anton Lulvès, a copper worker from Hamburg. Finally, SMS Seydlitz, representing the first generation of battlecruiser, was ordered in 1910 and commissioned in May 1913, the fourth such vessel built for the Imperial German Navy's High Seas Fleet.