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The late 18th century grapple for Bavaria was small potatoes on the battlefield but brought in Europe’s diplomatic big guns.

Few outside of academia have ever heard of the 1778–79 War of the Bavarian Succession, and for good reason. There were relatively few casualties (although it wasn’t bloodless), and the name itself hardly stirs the imagination. But the conflict changed European history, and (of considerably less import)
it is the only war named for a tuberous vegetable.

It is remembered in German as the Kartoffelkrieg—the “Potato War.”

As its formal name implies, the conflict emerged from the court politics of the Holy Roman Electorate of Bavaria. When Maximilian III Joseph, Prince Elector and Duke of Bavaria, died in 1777 without issue, a succession dispute broke out between Charles Theodore, Prince Elector and Count of Palatine, and his cousin Charles Augustus, Duke of Zweibrücken. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Habsburgs—who coveted Bavaria and had married Maximilian’s late sister Maria Josepha mainly to establish a foothold—interposed himself in the Wittelsbach family squabble and cut a secret deal. In return for one-third of Charles Theodore’s Bavarian lands, Joseph would support his claim and also find government positions in Vienna for the wayward prince elector’s many illegitimate children. In these negotiations Joseph was playing his own game, as his mother and co-ruler, Empress Maria Theresa, had no interest in Bavaria and even less in a war for control of it.

Meanwhile, Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, Bavaria’s northern neighbor, supported the claim of Charles Augustus—who happened to be the elector’s brother-in-law. Charles Augustus, hoping to enlist an ally in a higher weight class, appealed to Frederick II of Prussia. Frederick, who had already earned his moniker “the Great,” had only a mild interest in Bavaria but was very interested in checking Habsburg ambitions in Germany, so he supported Charles Augustus’ claim. All of the maneuvering constituted one of those dynastic-political squabbles in which it is virtually impossible to keep track of the players without a scorecard. The German expression for such squabbles is Kabinettskriege, or “cabinet wars”—quaint conflicts in which small coalition armies march to and fro while their governments negotiate behind closed doors. Of this particular dispute historian Ernest Flagg Henderson wrote that one would be hard-pressed to find a “manly member of the family” among all the contenders.

Ultimately, the conflict became a test of wills between Frederick the Great and Joseph II. At the time Frederick (also known fondly though somewhat less grandly as “Old Fritz”) was in his sunset years, more interested in reconstructing and enriching his domain after years of war than in enlarging it through still more wars of conquest. Still, he was a bold and innovative ruler willing to push an advantage as far as he could. Among his military innovations was creating an entire government department tasked with administering all things military. He had created the first modern military state.

Frederick’s opposite number, Joseph II, was a self-styled philosopher-king and would-be “great captain.” Both he and Frederick were ostensibly “enlightened rulers,” but that was little more than a catchy appellation. For most of his reign Joseph dwelt in the shadow of two greater contemporaries—his mother, Maria Theresa, and Frederick—and the Prussian thwarted his ambitions in Germany at every turn.

Joseph pictured himself as a field commander cut from the same cloth as Frederick and said late in life that his first desire had always been to be a soldier. In truth he was no great shakes, though his own field marshals—principally Count Franz Moritz von Lacy and Baron Ernst Gideon von Laudon—lacked the courage to tell their headstrong ruler otherwise. Furthermore, Joseph’s army was not nearly as well trained and equipped as the Prussians, despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of Austria’s annual budget went to the army. But the Holy Roman emperor had a particular bone to pick with Frederick. Ever since Frederick had pried Lower Silesia away from the Habsburgs in 1742, Joseph had schemed to get it back. Failing that, he saw Bavaria as the next best thing, a territorial tit for tat.

In January 1778, pursuant to Joseph II’s deal with Charles Theodore, 15,000 of the emperor’s troops entered Bavaria to support the establishment of an Austrian administrative capital at Straubing. An alarmed Saxony, lying between Hohenzollern Prussia and Habsburg Bohemia, quickly allied itself with Prussia and even promised Frederick 20,000 troops in the event of war.

But first came negotiations. For four months diplomats shuttled back and forth among Berlin, Vienna, and Munich (Bavaria). When it became apparent politics would not settle things, Frederick assembled an 80,000-man army and ordered it to the border between Lower Silesia and Bohemia. A second Prussian army under Prince Henry, Frederick’s younger brother, numbering more than 75,000 men, gathered on the Silesian border closer to Saxony. Meanwhile, Joseph ordered practically the entire Austrian army—190,000 men and 600 guns—into Bohemia and Austrian Silesia. Joseph and Frederick joined their respective armies in April to pursue, in the words of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “politics by other means.”

Ironically, the clash for control of Bavaria began not there but in Bohemia, where in early July General Johann Jakob von Wunsch led the Prussian vanguard from Silesia against the fortified town of Náchod. Commanding the Náchod garrison was Friedrich Joseph, Count of Nauendorf. Although greatly outnumbered, the Austrian cavalry captain sallied forth at the head of 50 lightly armed hussars. Nauendorf initially feigned allegiance with Wunsch in order to close in tight before driving back the surprised enemy, the count alone taking credit for having killed seven Prussians. For his bold action the captain won promotion to major and received 12 gold ducats out of Joseph’s own pocket. Nauendorf was just getting started.

A few days later, however, the captain wisely withdrew when the entire Prussian army, with Frederick at its head, crossed the Silesian border and occupied Náchod. Frederick’s vague plan was to drive Austria out of Bohemia. He had miscalculated. Waiting for the Prussians atop the heights across the Elbe River was an Austrian army under Joseph’s nominal command but actually directed by Field Marshal Lacy, a veteran of the 1756–63 Seven Years’ War who had faced Frederick in battle. Stretching more than 9 miles, the Austrian position comprised a triple line of fortifications backed by 600 guns. Lacy’s heavy concentration of artillery behind near-impregnable lines checked Frederick’s signature mobile tactics. His highly disciplined troops and swarms of field guns could not gain an advantage. Instead, they sat in siege lines while dysentery and desertion took a toll.

Meanwhile, a smaller Austrian force under Field Marshal Laudon, who had also fought Frederick, guarded the passes farther west between Silesia and Bohemia. But Prince Henry, who had racked up successive victories during the Seven Years’ War, led his army north, bypassing the Austrians and entering Bohemia at Hainspach. Recognizing the danger, Laudon withdrew behind the Iser River, which saved his army but left the main Austrian force in a vulnerable position, with Henry on its left flank and Frederick at its front. It was the kind of advantage Frederick had exploited for brilliant victories in the past, but this time neither side was eager to bring on a full-scale engagement.

Growing impatient with the Sitzkreig (“sitting war”), Joseph ordered his hard-charging Hungarian hussars on a series of slashing raids behind Prussian lines. In early August the intrepid Major Nauendorf led two cavalry squadrons against a Prussian supply convoy in the Silesian town of Bieberdorf. Casualties were almost nil, but the Austrians captured three officers, 110 men, 476 horses, 240 flour wagons and 13 sutler carts. Nauendorf had flung down the gauntlet, and the Prussians responded in kind, sending their own cavalry deep behind Austrian lines to interdict supply routes. The respective raiders enjoyed success, forcing the main armies to depend largely on local resources for food and fodder. Officers on either side assigned more and more of their men to foraging, while the Bohemians wished a plague on both houses. Thus the summer campaign season dragged on. Prince Henry warned Frederick he would completely exhaust local supplies by the third week of August and recommended wrapping up military operations by then.

The increasingly dire supply situation convinced Frederick, who had a well-earned reputation for tactical brilliance, to consider another way to drive the Austrians from their entrenchments. Were he to cross the Elbe, he might get around the Austrian right at Königgrätz and then launch a coordinated attack with brother Henry on both enemy flanks. Reluctantly, he came to the conclusion such an attack would entail unacceptable losses and expose Henry to a flanking attack by Laudon. In his younger days such odds would not have deterred Frederick, but Old Fritz wasn’t fighting for the survival of Prussia but only for a poor and distant province, and weakening his position would only open the door for Russia and perhaps Sweden to make a grab for more valuable Prussian territory. While not prepared to cede the field, he settled back into the standoff. And as Joseph was convinced he still held the upper hand, the armies held their positions through the summer.

While waiting for the main event, both sides continued their raids and counterraids, interspersed with occasional cannonades that did little damage. Mostly they foraged, scavenging the Bohemian potato crop and roaming ever farther afield to find supplies. According to a story related by later historians, on one occasion Frederick himself went out to reconnoiter and was recognized by a Croatian sniper who drew bead on him. Frederick reportedly caught sight of the man and wagged his finger, as if to say, “Don’t you dare.” Depending on the version one reads, the sniper either withdrew quietly or approached the king and knelt deferentially. The consensus Habsburg hero was Nauendorf, the bold cavalier who won accolades for leading repeated raids far behind Prussian lines.

Meanwhile, in Vienna, Maria Theresa sought a peaceful conclusion to the war through back channels, even asking Empress Catherine the Great of Russia to mediate an end to the stalemate on the battlefield. If diplomacy proved futile, Catherine threatened to send 50,000 troops to assist Frederick, her defensive ally by necessity. Hearing of his mother’s backroom diplomacy, a furious Joseph offered to resign, although it’s unclear whether he meant abdication or just surrendering command of all Austrian armies.

In mid-September Frederick, who remained nervous about leaving his homeland virtually unprotected, broke the impasse by withdrawing much of his army. As he had earlier written in General Principles of War (1748), “On the whole, those wars are useless in which we move too far from our borders.” A month later Joseph followed suit, pulling back most of his own army. Each commander left behind a small force of hussars and dragoons (heavy cavalry) to watch the other. But as both sides continued alternately to raid and forage, the Bohemian people were only nominally better off.

Joseph was not done, however. He appealed to France for 24,000 troops under the terms of the 1756 Treaty of Versailles. The response from Paris was a terse “Non,” but the remaining troops still saw more action that fall than had the full armies in summer. In November Field Marshal Dagobert Sigmund von Wurmser, commander of the wintering Austrian troops, ordered Colonel Wilhelm Klebeck to lead a cavalry assault on the Silesian village of Dittersbach. In the wildly successful raid Klebeck’s men killed 400 Prussians, captured another 400 and made it back safely to their own lines. When news of that and other successful raids reached Vienna, Joseph awarded Wurmser the Knight’s Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa, Austria’s highest decoration, which carried with it lifetime elevation to the nobility.

The raiding persisted into 1779. In mid-January Wurmser himself crossed the Silesian border into Glatz (in present-day Poland), leading five columns supported by howitzers against the fortified Prussian city of Habelschwerdt. Two of his columns stormed the town and captured the garrison, including nearly 1,000 men, three cannon and seven stands of colors. Among the prisoners was Adolph, Landgrave of Hesse-Philippsthal-Barchfeld, a major general in the Prussian army. Wurmser led another column farther north against the blockhouse at nearby Oberschwedeldorf, also seizing its garrison. The Austrians then shelled both villages, setting them afire. The fourth and fifth columns, under Maj. Gen. Ludwig, Baron von Terzi, held back a Prussian counterattack, in the process bagging another 300 prisoners, while Austrian patrols fanned out across the countryside, venturing as far as the Silesian-Prussian border. Declining to further press his luck, Wurmser led his columns home with their spoils. It marked the standout campaign in an otherwise lackluster war.

On March 3, 1779, Austrian cavalry under Nauendorf conducted the last engagement of the conflict, again raiding Bieberdorf. This time the major was at the head of a mixed force of infantry and cavalry and captured the entire garrison. On May 19 a grateful Joseph awarded him the second Knight’s Cross of the war.

That same month the largely absurd Potato War wrapped up at a Silesian negotiating table with the Peace of Teschen. Forcing Austria and Prussia to the table were their respective allies, France and Russia, the latter chiefly interested with preventing a wider European war while preserving their own influence on the Continent. The treaty recognized Charles Theodore as Prince Elector and Duke of Bavaria and handed Prussia the north Bavarian principalities of Bayreuth and Anspach. Against son Joseph’s wishes, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa returned most of lower Bavaria too, keeping only a strip of land southeast of the Inn River, which to Habsburg surprise turned out to have 60,000 inhabitants who were far from happy to find themselves part of the Austrian empire. Saxony received a payout of 6 million guilders to relinquish its claims on Bavaria. But Russia was the biggest winner. Without committing a single soldier or spending a ruble, Catherine the Great had mediated peace between her principal rivals in central Europe, stabilizing the region and strengthening her own empire. Austria, on the other hand, was the big loser. Having expended 65 million florins at a time when the nation’s total yearly revenue was only 50 million florins, it received a small alpine territory populated by a hostile citizenry.

Total casualties in the Potato War are difficult to gauge. Historians agree that disease (cholera and dysentery) and starvation were the principal causes of death. German writers of the 19th century said little about battlefield casualties but claimed tens of thousands had died of disease and starvation. Nineteenth century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote an epic six-volume biography of Frederick the Great, placed the number of dead at about 10,000 on each side. Modern estimates range slightly higher. Gaston Bodart, a 20th century Austrian statistician and expert on his nation’s wars, added the detail that five Austrian generals and 83 other officers, as well as one Prussian general and 87 other officers, died in the war (largely of disease), making it an exceptionally hard conflict on the upper ranks. An estimate of collateral civilian casualties is impossible, as no one bothered to record them.

There are several schools of thought as to how this footnote in the history of warfare came to be called the “Potato War.” One suggests it is because the armies spent more time foraging than fighting. Another points to the fact that the most serious clashes arose over food, not territory. A third insists it’s because the war was fought during the potato harvest season. Perhaps the most appealing, though certainly apocryphal, explanation is that whenever soldiers ran low on ammunition, they resorted to hurling potatoes at each other. At this point, who’s to state its origin with absolute certainty?

The War of the Bavarian Succession was the last for both Maria Theresa and Frederick the Great. Ironically, both of their reigns had begun and ended with wars against the other, but unlike earlier conflicts, neither monarch was ever truly committed to this one. The only person who really wanted a war was Joseph II, who in the end was outvoted and outmaneuvered by his mother. Unknown at the time, Maria Theresa was the last Habsburg to wear the twin crowns of the Holy Roman empire and Austria. Frederick, by virtue of his performances in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and Seven Years’ War (1756–63), had made himself “Great” and Prussia a major player in European politics, but this was the first open clash between Austria and Prussia for dominance in the German states.

The little, forgotten war brought an end to a century and a half of cabinet wars, “games of thrones” among princes great and small for their own little piece of the Continent. It also marked the beginning of Austro-Prussian dualism that kept Germany weak and divided until 1871. Every ruler of Austria after 1779 considered it an article of faith that maintaining Habsburg influence in Germany was the first principle of Austrian foreign policy. Frederick and successors were just as determined that Prussia dominate the German states and Austria remain on its side of the Alps.

The war had diplomatic reverberations far beyond the German states, however. Since France and Austria were united through both treaty and marriage (Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, Maria Theresa’s youngest child), France rightfully should have supported the Habsburg play. But French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes, remained virulently anti-Austrian and had just forged a military alliance with the American colonies against the hated British empire. He did not want his schemes upset by a sideshow war in Europe. With peace on the Continent, Vergennes managed to involve the Dutch, Spanish and Russians in his war against Britain.

Frederick the Great died seven years after the Potato War. His inability to secure victory on the battlefield or even fight a single engagement of consequence had tarnished his formidable reputation. That did not mean he was done with Joseph II, however. In 1785, as one of his last official acts, he put together the Germanic Fürstenbund (League of Princes) to thwart Joseph’s renewed designs on Bavaria. Almost immediately after Maria Theresa’s death in 1780 the Holy Roman emperor made overtures to Charles Theodore, proposing a swap of the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria. The Fürstenbund dissuaded Joseph from his ambitions, and thereafter he promised to abide by the Peace of Teschen. Turning his attention southward, in 1788 he personally led his army into Serbia and Transylvania to drive out the Ottoman Turks. Ironically, Prussia helped broker peace between the empires in the subsequent Treaty of Sistova, signed in 1791. Joseph wasn’t present for that humiliation, having died in 1790. He had asked for the epitaph on his Vienna tomb to read, “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in everything he undertook.” Even that was denied him. 

Richard Selcer is a professor of history at Weatherford College in Texas and an author with 10 books to his credit. For further reading he recommends The Army of Frederick the Great, by Christopher Duffy, and The German Way of War, by Robert Citino.