Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz

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Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz

Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr[1] von Seydlitz (3 February 1721 – 27 August 1773) was a Prussian soldier and one of the greatest German cavalry generals.

Early life[edit]

Seydlitz was born in Kalkar in the Duchy of Cleves, where his father Daniel Florian von Seydlitz, a major of Prussian cavalry,[2] was stationed. After his father's death in 1728 his mother brought him up in straitened circumstances, but at the age of fourteen[3] he went as a page to the court of the Margrave Frederick William of Brandenburg-Schwedt, who had been his father's colonel. During this time under the "Mad" Margrave, Seydlitz conceived his passion for tobacco, women, and feats of daredevil horsemanship.[4] He acquired a superb mastery of horsemanship, and many stories tell of his feats, the best known of which involved riding between the sails of a windmill in full swing.

Military career[edit]

In 1740 Seydlitz received a commission as a cornet in the margrave's regiment of Prussian cuirassiers. Serving as a subaltern in the First Silesian War, he was taken prisoner in May 1742 after so gallant a defence that King Frederick II of Prussia offered to exchange an Austrian captain for him. In 1743 the king made him a captain in the 4th Hussars, and he brought his squadron to a state of conspicuous efficiency. He served through the Second Silesian War, and after Hohenfriedberg won promotion to major at the age of twenty-four. Seydlitz, nine years younger than Frederick the Great, was tall, thin, and a superb horseman. In addition, he was a notorious pursuer of women. He would become legendary throughout the Prussian Army both for his leadership skills and for his courage.

At the close of the war Seydlitz had an opportunity of successfully handling 15 squadrons in front of the enemy, and this, with other displays of his capacity of leading cavalry in the searching tests of Frederick's reviews, secured his promotion in 1752 to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and in 1753 to the command of the 8th cuirassiers. In his hands this regiment soon became a pattern to the rest of the Prussian Army. In 1755 he was made colonel.

Seven Years' War[edit]

The next year, the Seven Years' War broke out. In May 1757, regardless of the custom of keeping the heavy cavalry in reserve, he brought his regiment forward to join the advance guard at the Battle of Prague; he nearly lost his life attempting to ride through a marshy pool. Also, at Kolin in June 1757, at the head of a cavalry brigade, he distinguished himself in checking the Austrian pursuit by a brilliant charge. Two days later, the king made him major-general and awarded him the Orden Pour le Mérite. He 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." Excepting this, Seydlitz was generally admired[by whom?] for his modesty and his virtues, both private and military, with a supreme coup d'œil that allowed him to utilize the cavalry to its full potential.[5]

In the dismal weeks that followed the disaster of Kolin, Seydlitz asserted his energy and spirit in cavalry encounters on four occasions. On the morning of the Battle of Rossbach (1757-11-05), Frederick superseded two senior generals and placed Seydlitz in command of the whole of his cavalry. The battle resulted in the complete rout and disorganization of the enemy. At one point Seydlitz, without waiting for orders, redeployed the Prussian cavalry; this was a crucial factor in the battle. In achieving this result, only seven battalions of Frederick's army had fired a shot - the rest had been the work of Seydlitz and his 38 squadrons. The same night, the king awarded him the Order of the Black Eagle, and promoted him lieutenant-general. Unfortunately, during the melee he had received a wound, and remained out of action for four months.[6] Seydlitz' health was a frequent problem, undermined by his notorious promiscuity under the Margrave,[7] and even the slightest wound incapacitated him.

Seydlitz rejoined the king in 1758, and at the Battle of Zorndorf, Seydlitz's cavalry again saved the day. His thirty-six squadrons of cavalry charged a mass of Russian cavalry mingled with infantry. This charge broke the Russian right wing and sent them running for the woods. At Hochkirch, with 108 squadrons he covered the Prussian retreat, and in the disaster of Kunersdorf, he received a severe wound in a hopeless attempt to storm a hill held by the Russians. During his convalescence he married Countess Albertine Hacke. He rejoined the army in May 1760, but his health was so impaired that Frederick sent him home again. While in the capital, he helped organise a defence of the city during the Austro-Russian Raid on Berlin. Although he was unable to prevent the enemy from briefly occupying the city, Frederick later praised him for his conduct.

Seydlitz did not reappear at the front until 1761. He received command of a wing of Prince Henry's army, composed of troops of all arms, and many doubts were expressed[by whom?] as to his fitness for this command, as his service had hitherto been with the cavalry exclusively. He answered his critics with his conduct at Freiberg on October 29, 1762, in which, leading his infantry and his cavalry in turn, he decided the day.

Later career[edit]

After the Treaty of Hubertusburg (1763) he 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 by him.

Later life[edit]

In 1767, Seydlitz was made a general of cavalry, but his later years were clouded by domestic unhappiness. His wife was unfaithful to him, and his two daughters, each several times married, were both divorced, the elder once and the younger twice. Some misunderstanding brought to an end his formerly close friendship with the king, and only in his last illness, a few weeks before his death, in August 1773, did the two meet again at Seydlitz's home at Minkovsky near Ohlau. Seydlitz died of paralysis at Ohlau in Silesia in November 1773.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Regarding personal names: Freiherr is a title, translated as Baron, not a first or middle name. The female forms are Freifrau and Freiin.
  2. ^ König, Anton Balthasar (1791). Biographisches Lexikon aller Helden und Militärpersonen: Welche sich in preussischen Diensten berühmt gemacht haben [Biographical Dictionary of all those heroes and military figures who have earned fame in the Prussian service] (in German) 4. A. Wever. p. 2. Retrieved 2010-04-20. "Sein Vater [...] war Daniel-Florian von Seydlitz, preuss. Rittmeister beim Marggraf Friedrichschen Regiment [...]" 
  3. ^ Duffy, Christopher. The Military Life of Frederick the Great, Antheneum, New York, 1986. p. 135 ISBN 0-689-11548-2
  4. ^ Duffy, op. cit., p. 136
  5. ^ Duffy, op. cit., p. 136
  6. ^ Duffy, op. cit., p. 144
  7. ^ Duffy, op. cit., p. 136

References[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

  • K. A. Varnhagen von Ense: Das Leben des Generals von Seydlitz. Berlin, 1834
  • Otto von Bismarck: Die kgl. preussische Reiterei unter Friedrich dem Grossen. Karlsruhe, 1837
  • Klaus Christian Richter: Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, ein preußischer Reitergeneral und seine Zeit. Osnabrück: Biblio-Verlag, 1996 ISBN 3-7648-2449-2

External links[edit]