Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815: Seydlitz, Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von

Seydlitz, Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von

Born on 3 February 1721 in Kalkar, in the duchy of Cleve on the lower Rhine in western Germany; died on 27 August 1773, in Ohlau, (now Olawa, Poland) Silesia.

Friedrich Wilhelm was the son of Daniel Florian Freiherr von Seydlitz, a captain in the Prussian dragoon regiment von Sonsfeld Nr 2, stationed at Kalkar, his mother was Luise von Tugendreich. The family came from the Swedish state of Mecklenburg-Schwedt.

Friedrich`s father died in 1728; his widow moved to Freienwalde-an-der-Oder, northeast of Berlin, where he was brought up in straitened circumstances. In 1735, at the age of fourteen, he went as a page to the court of Markgraf Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg-Schwedt (his father's old colonel). Here he acquired mastery of horsemanship as well as a love of tobacco, alcohol and women. In 1740, Seydlitz was commissioned Kornett in the Markgraf Friedrich von Brandenburg-Schwedt's 5th Kürassiers. During the First Silesian War, he served as a subaltern under Oberst von Rochow.

On 20 May 1742, the regiment was camped in Kranowitz near Ratibor (naw Raciborz), today on the northern border of the Czeck Republic. Oberst von Rochow, learning that some 6,000 Hungarian irregulars were approaching the town, sent Seydlitz with 30 men to hold a village in front of his position. The Hungarians attacked and Seydlitz was captured after putting up a brave fight. He was imprisoned in the fortress of Raab, in  western Hungary. When King Frederick II heard of his gallant conduct, he offered to exchange an Austrian captain for him. This was done on 11 June. In 1743, von Seydlitz was promoted to Rittm and Kiech in the HusR von Natzmer Nr 4.

A t the end of the First Silesian War, in 1742, the 4. Hussars was cantoned in Trebnitz, east of Berlin; at the renewd outbreak of war in 1744, the regiment was assigned to the vanguard og GL von Nassau

On May 22 1745, the 4th Hussars attacked an Austrian unit near the town of Katholisch-Hennersdorf near Landeshut (now Kamienna Gora), but were defeated. On June 4 at the battle of Hohenfriedberg (now Gmina Dobromierz, northeast of Landeshut), the 4th Hussars was on the Prussian right wing. During the battle, Seydlitz captured the Saxon General von Schlichting; for this, he was promoted to major. On 30 September that same year, at the battle of Soor, Seydlitz was wounded by a musket ball in the left arm during this hard-fought action, which became an expensive Prussian victory. Later in 1745, Seydlitz was again in action against the Austrian rear guard under General Graf von Burghausen near Zittau, southeastern Saxony and routed them. In 1752, von Seydlitz was promoted to Obstlt. By now, he had forged a reputation of being an exemplary cavalry officer abd he was transferred to DragR Nr 2 (Prinz Ludwig von Württemberg), tasked with bringing it up to standard. This process was repeated in 1753, when he was again transferred, taking command of  KürR Nr 8 (von Rochow) which soon became another  model cavalry regiment. In 1755, he was promoted to Obst. He was by now infected with syphilis, being a notorious womanizer.

In 1756, at the beginning of the Seven Years' War, Seydlitz's regiment took part to the invasion of Saxony, in Ferdinand of Brunswick`s column, which advanced upon Pirna via Leipzig and Dresden. The unprepared Saxon army was concentrated at Pirna southeast of Dresden and was quickly surrounded and blockaded by the Prussians. Seydlitz's regiment now advanced up the River Elbe with the army of Frederick the Great, to intercept an Austrian relief force led by FM Maximilian von Browne. The armies clashed on 1 October, at Lobositz. Seydlitz`s regiment took part to the second Prussian charge which, after initial success, was broken up and he was almost captured. The Prussians were finally victorious and the Saxon army surrendered, due to lack of food.  In 1757, von Seydlitz was attached to the advanced guard of the column of Prince Moritz von Anhalt-Dessau, but did not take part in the battle of Prague on 6 May, as it was on the opposite side of the River Moldau.

Following the Prussian victory at Prague, Seydlitz's KürR Nr 8 accompanied the king, who moved east, to intercept an Austrian relief army of FM Graf Leopold von Daun. On 18 June, at the battle of Kolin, GM von Krosigk's cavalry brigade ( KürR Nr 2, KürR Nr 8 and DragR Nr 1) was ordered to support the faltering Prussian line. Krosigk was killed in this action and Seydlitz assumed command. He counterattacked the Austrian cavalry (DragR Württemberg (later Nr 11) and the Saxon Carabiniers), who were pursuing the defeated units of GM von Pennavaire's brigade. Seydlitz's charge broke the enemy cavalry and overthrew the IR Haller Nr 31. But the battle was lost and the Prussians withdrew after dark, the cavalry regiments of Seydlitz and Ziethen providing the rearguard. On 20 June, von Seydlitz was promoted to GM and awarded the PLM.  

In September 1757, Frederick's army was back in Saxony to oppose the advance of a Franco-Imperial army under the joint commands of the French Prince Charles de Soubise and GL Prinz Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. On September 19, Seydlitz with some 1,800 men had surprised a superior force of 6,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry in Gotha, west of E rfurt. On the morning of November 5, before the battle of Rossbach, Frederick placed Seydlitz in command of his entire cavalry (38 squadrons), thus superseding two more senior generals. The role of Seydlitz in the ensueing battle was decisive. The Franco-Imperial cavalry managed to resist the charge of his first line of 15 squadrons, but Seydlitz immediately launched  his second line (18 squadrons) routing the enemy. He then quickly rallied his squadrons north of Reichardtswerben, advanced south to Tagewerben and launched a decisive assault on the enemy infantry to the west, routing it completely. Seydlitz was wounded in an arm during this battle. He left the army to recuperate which was slow, due to his syphilitic condition. On 20 November, he wa sawarded the HOSA and was promoted to GL.

In 1758 he fought at Hochkirch (14 October) and Zorndorf (24 August). In the latter action, he was given command of the cavalry on the left wing. He refused to obey the initial orders given to him by Frederick and awaited what he considered to be the proper moment to launch a cavalry charge against the advancing Russians. He quickly routed the enemy cavalry; he then rallied and charged the Russian infantry, but failed to break it.

He rallied his cavalry behind Zorndorf, waiting for a better moment to attack. Just when all seemed lost for the Prussians, Seydlitz led 61 squadrons against the Russian cavalry, pushing it back into the marshes by the village of Quartschen. He then returned to rescue the Prussian infantry, forcing the Russians to fall back.

It was von Seydlitz`s rearguard, which saved the Prussian army in a night attack by the Austrians on of 13 / 14 October 1758 at Hochkirch. On August 12 1759, at Kunersdorf about 5 km east of Frankfurt / Oder, the Prussian army faced an Austro-Russian army. Seydlitz and the Prince von Württemberg tried to outflank the enemy left wing around the ponds near the village, but they quickly realised that this area was swampy and not good for cavalry and halted. Frederick repeatedly ordered Seydlitz to charge, whatever the state of the ground. He finally obeyed and was wounded during the charge, which was beaten off. The Prussians were badly beaten, but the Austro-Russians did not follow up their victory. After the battle, Seydlitz was taken to Berlin to recover. On April 18 1760, during his convalescence, he married Susanna Albertina, Gräfin von Hacke.

In May 1760, although not fully recovered, Seydlitz rejoined the king at Meissen, but seeing his condition, Frederick sent him back to Berlin to recover.

In early October of that year, a small Russian corps under General von Todleben crossed the River Oder and threatened Berlin. Seydlitz (even though still sick) opposed any withdrawal; at the head of an improvised force, he routed some Cossacks near Köpenick, just southeast of the capital. However, the arrival of Russian reinforcements obliged the Prussians to abandon Berlin and to withdraw west, to Spandau. The arrival of Prussian reinforcements caused the Russians to withdraw.

On 20 May 1761, Seydlitz reported for duty to Prinz Heinrich in Saxony. He was given an independent command composed of troops of all arms. It was the first time that he had other arms than cavalry under his command and many doubted his ability to handle them. He often operated along with Kleist`s Freikorps. On 25 August, Seydlitz, led his command (15,000 horse and several infantry battalions) to Nauendorf, north of Halle / Saale. He brushed with the Austrians on 26 August and on 2 and 4 September. In October, he commanded a force to head off a French advance on Magdeburg.

In 1762, Seydlitz commanded a division of Prinz Heinrich`s army in Saxony. On 12 May, he took part to the crossing of the Mulda River in southern Saxony. From September 27 to 29, Prince Heinrich stopped several Austian counter-attacks along the river. On October 14 and 15, the Austrians concentrated their attacks on the Prussian right wing. Seydlitz was forced to retire after losing 2,000 men and 10 guns. On 16 October, Prince Henry had to retire to Reichenbach, between Döbeln and Mittweida. Then on October 29, Prince Henry counter-attacked the Austrians at Freiberg on the River Freiberger Mulde, between Chemnitz and Dresden. The allies were entrenched to the eouthwest of Freiberg. Seydlitz commanded the right wing. He led a decisive bayonet charge at the head of two of his grenadier battalions against the Dreikreuzer Heights. Soon the Imperial army was retreating across the Mulda, southeast to Frauenstein, later east to Pirna, on the left bank of the River Elbe, upstream from Dresden. This was the last battle of the war.

After the peace of Hubertusburg, Seydlitz was made Inspector-General of the cavalry in Silesia. The most promising cavalry officers were systematically sent to him to have their tactical skills polished and honed.

In 1767, Seydlitz was promoted to GdK. His later years were clouded by domestic difficulties and he fell out badly with the king. During his last illness, Frederick II visited him a last time. Seydlitz died of paralysis at Ohlau on 27 August 1773.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2012


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