When the winters in Europe were still shaped by the Little Ice Age, it was common for armed armies to retreat to winter quarters and let the war be war.
The year 1678 was no exception.
Once again Sweden faced a coalition whose most important partner was the Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm I.
Sweden, whose military power had exhausted itself in the hegemonic battles over the Baltic Sea, had been lured into a war against the Netherlands by Louis XIV of France in 1672 with subsidies.
Ludwig's partner Friedrich Wilhelm then changed sides and joined the enemies of France.
Since after the painful experiences of the Thirty Years' War, when Brandenburg was an impotent plaything of the powers, he had built up a standing man of 25,000 men, the Brandenburg man was now regarded as a thoroughly serious player on the European stage.
An unusual military triumph would soon document that.
The rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia
At the end of the Thirty Years War Brandenburg was ruined.
But in a few generations his electors and kings made it the second great power in the Holy Roman Empire.
Sweden had already learned in 1674 that Brandenburg was an uncomfortable opponent.
While the elector and his soldiers supported Emperor Leopold's campaign against Louis XIV on the Upper Rhine, a Swedish troop had invaded Brandenburg and plundered the state's winter supplies by taking up quarters there.
When the weather allowed long-range operations again, Friedrich Wilhelm marched back and landed the Swedes at Fehrbellin on June 28, 1675.
His victory over the dreaded victorious power of the Thirty Years' War was followed with great attention throughout Europe.
Three years later, Friedrich Wilhelm set out to besiege the most important positions that Sweden still held in Pomerania.
Stralsund surrendered on October 20, 1678, and Greifswald on November 7.
In order to save what could still be saved from its possessions in Germany, Stockholm deployed an army of a good 12,000 men under Field Marshal Henrik Horn.
It was supposed to move from Livonia into (East) Prussia, lure the elector to the east and at the same time destroy his reserves in the part of his rule in which he was sovereign.
For Poland had meanwhile released Prussia from its feudal subjection.
But the Swedes had miscalculated.
Poland-Lithuania, whose support was counted on, remained neutral even after the peace agreement with the Ottoman Empire.
And Friedrich Wilhelm did not think of adhering to the old rule that armies had to guard their quarters in winter.
Rather, he planned to drive the enemies out of the country “with a quick ride”, as he had done three years earlier, even if gout and colds would make the company a plague for him.
Friedrich Wilhelm I, the Great Elector (1620-1688), laid the foundations for Prussia's great power
Source: Getty Images
While a command of 3,000 men under General Joachim Ernst von Görzke was covering the Prussian capital Königsberg, the elector in Berlin pulled 9,000 men - 5,500 horsemen and 3,500 infantrymen - with 30 guns and turned to “the most daring and most successful winter campaign ever undertaken wrote his biographer Friedrich Foerster.
For hundreds of kilometers it went through snowstorms and frost, which became more severe with every hour that went northeast.
On January 10th, the army and the prince, accompanied by his wife Dorothea von Braunschweig and Lüneburg, met in Marienwerder not far from the Vistula.
From here, Friedrich Wilhelm gave an order that has dug deep into the Prussian culture of remembrance, as he founded the "hunt over the Curonian Lagoon": the governor and councilors of the province were instructed to immediately order 1200 sledges and 700 "unmarried horses", as well as " to provide bread, brandy, beer and salt for eight days for the whole army, which actually succeeded.
At the same time Görzke received the order to pursue the Swedes with 3,000 riders, who suddenly saw themselves driven from their warm quarters and turned to the east.
They reached Tilsit on January 29th.
This sledge, which was on display in the Prussia Collection in Königsberg until 1943, is said to have been used by the Great Elector
Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain
The elector followed them with his army on sledges, first over the icy freshness, then over the Curonian Lagoon.
When a mounted advance command under Colonel Joachim Henniges von Treffenfeld ran up some Swedish units at Tilsit on January 30th, Horn decided to finally withdraw to Livonia with his demoralized troops.
The next day Görzke attacked the Swedes again with his cavalry and Treffenfeld, who lost around 1,300 men and some cannons.
The rest managed to escape, but the army largely disbanded as a result.
Only 1,500 Swedes are said to have returned in military order to the quarters from which they left at the beginning of November.
Plan of the march of the Brandenburg Army across the Curonian Lagoon in 1679
Source: Wikipedia / P.
But the elector also had to pay tribute to the winter.
He had proven that even under adverse climatic conditions, with a well-equipped army, extensive operations could be undertaken.
But the cold and especially the slow supply of food stopped the advance.
At the beginning of February, Friedrich Wilhelm broke off the campaign.
The department that he had assigned to observe the Swedes also turned around shortly before Riga.
The Elector of Brandenburg had once again proven that his disciplined army had become a force to be taken seriously.
At the same time, the winter campaign wove its fame.
“This wild, daring Sweden hunt over fields of ice and snow with a tinkling frost in the silent, wonderfully lonely wasteland of the Nordic coastal landscape, which droned and roared through his army campaign, has always given nourishment to the imagination that loves it, the heroic of human deeds with the to combine the gripping violence of a wild and sublime natural environment, ”wrote the Prussian historian Otto Hintze.
But the great powers acknowledged the “high point in the military-political career” (Hintze) of the elector in their own way.
France was unwilling to give up its partner and co-guarantor of the Westphalian peace order.
And Emperor Leopold I preferred a troubled Swede to an ambitious Brandenburg.
Roman-German Emperor of the modern age
Their title was often greater than their power.
But for centuries the emperors represented the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations.
Almost all of them were Habsburgs.
So, despite his victory in the Peace of Saint-Germain in 1679, Friedrich Wilhelm had to return all conquests in Swedish Pomerania and be satisfied with manageable gains in land and money.
But there was one title left to him that had first made the rounds in the Upper Rhine and has now become naturalized in his countries and beyond: the Great Elector.
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This article was first published in January 2019.
This article was first published in January 2019.