Sometimes in life, you have no choice but to fight on, and hope that tomorrow will be better. When the odds are against you (which they usually will be), those who continue to fight will always be rewarded. The outcome may different from what you anticipate, but it will usually also be better than you anticipate.
One historical example makes this point.
Frederick II of Prussia (“The Great”) was perhaps the most capable and militarily astute European king of the eighteenth century. His domain, Prussia, was not geographically contiguous; it had parts scattered here and there in northern Europe, and by necessity required a competent army to defend its borders. Geography is the mother of history.
Prussia’s population in 1756 was four million, a large part of which was located in Silesia, a region he had seized by force. He was surrounded by a ring of hostile states. France, Austria, Russia, and even other German states were alarmed by the growth of his power, which threatened to upset the existing balance in central Europe. Maria Theresa, the Austrian monarch, disliked him intensely. He returned the feeling.
Frederick was thus forced to live on his wits, daring, and military aptitude. He was a remarkable man for any era. His youthful years seemed to mark him out as a worthless dandy, but he remade himself by relentless discipline into a king who actually led, rather than reigned. He believed in the need for enlightened authoritarianism, and in his case he was absolutely correct.
His army, bequeathed to him by his father, had grown from 100,000 men to 150,000 men. He had trained it to a level of perfection, such that it could maneuver en masse under combat conditions. He deployed spies in great number among his enemies, knowing that awareness of their moves would be a matter of life and death for him.
Sensing the cordon around him beginning to tighten, he resolved to strike one of them first, in order to deprive them the benefit of combined offensive action. He sought assurances from Austria that he would not be attacked. He received a vague reply, which he expected. He then ordered his forces to occupy Saxony as a measure to protect his western border, officially inaugurating the Seven Years’ War.
Europe branded him the aggressor. He was not concerned. A ruler in his position could not sit idly by while hostile powers conspired to dismember his country. Captured Saxon documents did, in fact, confirm its participation in the anti-Prussian alliance.
Europe’s alliance system now drew in other powers committed to destroying Prussia. England at first signed an agreement supporting Prussia, but when William Pitt was dismissed, London balked in making good on the promise.
Armies were now moving against him from all sides. Francis I, Maria Theresa’s husband, publicly declared Frederick an outlaw. He had only 145,000 men at arms, and would have to fend off 105,000 Frenchmen, 20,000 hostile Germans, 133,000 Austrians, 60,000 Russians, and 16,000 Swedish. Thus the stage was set for one of the most desperate fights for survival in modern European history.
His plan was to attack the weaker states first, and then deal with the stronger ones. He first defeated the Austrians on May 6, 1757 at a desperate battle near Prague. But in response, a huge Russian force invaded East Prussia, and Swedish forces landed in Pomerania. Frederick contemplated suicide, and to the end of the war carried with him a vial of poison.
But Frederick won the Battle of Rossbach, and restored his nerve. Other victories followed, as armies from various nations maneuvered here and there. The war degenerated into a brutal slogging match , as the various belligerents hammered away at each other. Time was not on Frederick’s side; despite his brilliant generalship and tactical genius, he could not long contend with the array of nations against him.
Diplomacy began in 1761, initiated by the British. Popular opinion there was against the war, and Pitt came under strong pressure to cut Frederick loose and leave him to his fate. Pitt resigned on October 5, 1761. His successor and all of Europe thought Frederick was as good as dead.
Even his venerated army was turning against him. A bloody but Pyrrhic victory against the Austrians at Torgau on the Elbe had left 13,120 Prussians dead, and this proved to be nearly the last straw. Frederick led his men personally in battle, and had three horses shot out from under him. His soldiers threatened to mutiny, and if pressed to fight, told him they would surrender to the enemy.
And now there occurred an event that can only be described as a miracle. The Russian empress, Czarina Elizaveta, died suddenly on January 5, 1762. She, along with Maria Theresa, had been his most bitter antagonist. The new czar, Peter III, was a warm admirer of Frederick, seeing him as something of a philosopher-king.
Peter concluded a separate peace with Prussia, followed by Sweden. Russia then actually changed sides and fought alongside Frederick; Peter admired Frederick so much that he put on a Prussian uniform and placed himself at Frederick’s command. Although Peter was later deposed and murdered, Russia had been neutralized.
Peace followed soon after. Europe was exhausted and drowning in debt, but Frederick had accomplished a miracle by surviving. He entered Berlin in triumph, and was hailed as a hero.
There will be many times in our lives when we will be faced with struggle against seemingly impossible odds. The outcome will be in doubt. In such situations, we can only hold on and move forward. We can never know when a stroke of good luck will come.
Sooner or later, everyone’s luck changes who stays in the fight long enough.
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