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M. B. Synge

The Boyhood of Frederick the Great

"One of the greatest soldiers ever born."


T HE battle of Pultowa was over. Peter the Great, the Father of his country, Emperor of Russia, had raised his land to a higher rank in Europe.

Another king was now to arise, the king of a country bordering on Russia, who was to raise his country too, to play her part in the world's history. This was Frederick the Great of Prussia. He was born in 1712, five years after Pultowa, at the Palace of Berlin, capital of the kingdom of Prussia.

He was christened Frederick amid great rejoicings, for two little princes had already died—one killed by the noise of the cannon fired for joy over him, the other crushed to death by the weighty dress and metal crown in which he was arrayed for his christening. Little Fritz was brought up by his father with Spartan severity. His food was very plain, for his father meant to make a soldier of him.

"The Prince must from his youth upwards be trained as officer and general, and to seek all his glory in the soldier's profession," the king used to say. A company of 100 boy-soldiers was formed for him, and he was drilled to take command of them, dressed in the Prussian uniform of light blue and a cocked hat. But the boy did not take kindly to soldiering, and no one could guess at this time that he would one day be a great soldier. By the time he was ten years old every moment had been planned out for him by his father.

"Every day Fritz is to be called at six, and rise at once. You are to stand to him, that he do not loiter or turn in bed, but briskly and at once do get up and say his prayers. This done, he shall as rapidly as possible get on his shoes, wash his face and hands, put on a short dressing-gown, and have his hair combed out. Whilst getting combed, he shall at the same time take breakfast of tea, so that both jobs go on at once, and this shall be ended before half-past six. From seven to nine he learns history, from nine to eleven the Christian religion. Then Fritz rapidly washes his face with water, hands with soap and water, puts on clean shirt and coat, and comes to the king."

The rest of the day is mapped out in the same style. But under it Fritz grew self-willed. He refused to have his hair cut according to army regulations; he "combed it out like a cockatoo," which enraged his father,—until one day the Court surgeon was sent with comb and scissors and orders to crop the Prince's hair at once. Daily the little Prince grew more out of favour. In vain his mother pleaded for him.

"I cannot bear him," cried the angry king. "He is shy, he cannot ride or shoot, he is not clean in his person, frizzes his hair like a fool. All this I have reproved a thousand times, but in vain."

Still Fritz kept his own way. One day the king found him playing the flute in a gold-brocaded dressing-gown. After storming angrily for some time at the unhappy Prince, he ordered both dressing-gown and books to be burned.

"Fritz is a piper and a poet," he cried desperately. "He cares nothing for soldiering, and will undo all that I have been doing."

At last the day came when he could not meet Fritz without seizing him by the collar and beating him. The Prince was now eighteen, and his position was unbearable.

"I am in the uttermost despair," he wrote to his mother; "the king has entirely forgotten that I am his son. I am driven to extremity. No longer can I endure such treatment, my patience is at an end. I go and do not return. I shall get across to England. Farewell!"

His sister Wilhelmina urged him to give up his wild plans, but he would not. His escape, however, was badly planned; he was arrested and brought back.

"Why did you run away?" roared his father.

"Because you have not treated me as your son, but as a slave," was the answer.

Then the furious king drew his sword and would have made an end of his son, had he not been stopped by an old general.

"Stab me," he cried, "but spare your son."

The Prince was now sent away to a fortress some sixty miles from Berlin, and lodged in a bare, strong room alone. His sword was taken from him. He was dressed in brown prison clothes and fed on cheap food. His room was opened three times a-day for four minutes at a time. Lights were put out at seven. He had no books, no flute to pass the dreary hours away. He became melancholy and ill, and the king was besought to have pity on him lest he should die.

At the end of a year the king thought fit to visit him. The Prince fell at his father's feet in an agony of grief, which touched even the stony-hearted king.

He was received home again, put back into the army, and slowly won the love and affection of his father.

"I have always loved you," said the king as he lay dying, "though I have been strict with you. God is very good to give me so excellent and worthy a son."

Fritz, with falling tears, kissed his father's hand. The king clasped him in his arms, sobbing, "O my God, I die content since I have such a worthy son and successor."

This was in the year 1740. Much was to happen yet before Frederick the Great succeeded in making Prussia powerful enough to play her own part in the history of Europe.