Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr von Seydlitz (February 3, 1721 - August 27, 1773), Prussian soldier, one of the greatest cavalry generals of history, was born at Calcar in Cleve duchy, where his father, a major of Prussian cavalry, was stationed.
After his father's death in 1728 he was brought up in straitened circumstances by his mother, but at the age of thirteen he went as a page to the court of the margrave of Schwedt, who had been his father's colonel. Here he acquired a superb mastery of horsemanship, and many stories are told of his feats, the best known of which was his riding between the sails of a wind-mill in full swing.
In 1740 he was commissioned a cornet in the margrave's regiment of Prussian cuirassiers. Serving as a subaltern in the first Silesian War, he was taken prisoner in May 1742 after so gallant a defence that King Frederick offered to exchange an Austrian captain for him. In 1743 the king made him a captain in the 4th Hussars, and he brought his squadron to a state of conspicuous efficiency. He served through the second war, and after Hohenfriedberg was promoted major at the age of twenty-four.
At the close of the war he had an opportunity of successfully handling 15 squadrons in front of the enemy, and this, with other displays of his capacity of leading cavalry in the searching tests of Frederick's reviews, secured his promotion in 1752 to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and in 1753 to the command of the 8th cuirassiers. Under his hands this regiment soon became a pattern to the rest of the army. In 1755 he was made colonel.
Next year the Seven Years' War, that was to make his name immortal, broke out. In 1757, regardless of the custom of keeping back the heavy cavalry in reserve, he took his regiment to join the advanced guard, at Prague he nearly lost his life in attempting to ride through a marshy pool, and at Kolin, at the head of a cavalry brigade, he distinguished himself in checking the Austrian pursuit by a brilliant charge. Two days later the king made him major-general and gave him the order pour le merite, which promotion he felt to be no more than his deserts, for to Zieten's congratulations he responded: "It was high time, Excellency, if they wanted more work out of me. I am already thirty-six."
Four times in the dismal weeks that followed the disaster of Kolin, Seydlitz asserted his energy and spirit in cavalry encounters, and on the morning of Rossbach Frederick, superseding two senior generals, placed Seydlitz in command of the whole of his cavalry. The result of the battle was the complete rout and disorganization of the enemy, and in achieving that result only seven battalions of Frederick's army had fired a shot. The rest was the work of Seydlitz and his 38 squadrons. The same night the king gave him the order of the Black Eagle, and promoted him lieutenant-general. But he had received a wound in the mêlée, and for some months he was away from the army.
He rejoined the king in 1758, and at the battle of Zorndorf Seydlitz's cavalry again saved the day and won the victory. At Hochkirch with 108 squadrons he covered the Prussian retreat, and in the great disaster of Kunersdorf he was severely wounded in a hopeless attempt to storm a hill held by the Russians. During his convalescence he married Countess Albertine Hacke. He rejoined the army in May 1760, but his health was so impaired that Frederick sent him home again.
It was not until 1761 that he reappeared at the front. He now commanded a wing of Prince Henry's army, composed of troops of all arms, and many doubts were expressed as to his fitness for this command, as his service had hitherto been with the cavalry exclusively. But he answered his critics by his conduct at the battle of Freyburg (October 29, 1762), in which, leading his infantry and his cavalry in turn, he decided the day. After the peace of Hubertusburg he was made inspector-general of the cavalry in Silesia, where eleven regiments were permanently stationed and whither Frederick sent all his most promising officers to be trained by him.
In 1767 he was made a general of cavalry. But his later years were clouded by domestic unhappiness. His wife was unfaithful to him, and his two daughters, each several times married, were both divorced, the elder once and the younger twice. His formerly close friendship with the king was brought to an end by some misunderstanding, and it was only in his last illness, and a few weeks before his death, that they met again. Seydlitz died of paralysis at Ohlau on the 27th of August 1773.