An attempted breakout by Austrian
prisoners of war from Küstrin
During the Seven Years War it was customary in the early stages for prisoners of war to be exchanged under detailed agreements which listed the value of all ranks in terms of cash or private soldiers (for example in an agreememnt between the Prussians and Austrians of 1741 a Prussian Generalfeldmarschall was held to be worth 3.000 privates or 15,000 Gulden. Such an agreement, a Cartell, would be valid for the term agreed initially, possibly several years. During the Seven Years War this system broke downm, with the Austrians eventually refusing to exchange or ransom prisoners in this way. One conqequence of this was an attempted mass breakout by Austrian prisoners at Küstrin on the Oder in June 1762.
Küstrin had been very severely damaged by a Russian bombardment in 1758. By mid-1762 the remaining citizens were living in suburbs that had not been damaged by the bombardment; these areas also held the quarters of the Prussian garrison, which consisted of 550 men, a mix of garrison infantry and Landmiliz (many of the men were Invaliden. Work was slowly under way on rebuilding the wrecked suburbs.
The garrison had to man the walls of the fortress, and also guard the 5,000 Austrian prisoners of war being held there. These consisted of 4,000 men from the line infantry and cavalry, and 1,000 Croats. The Croats had been captured at the Battle of Prague in 1757, and had been waiting to be exchanged for five years. They were in a wretched condition, with their clothing reduced to rags, and they lay crowded together in casemates where they even lacked straw. They were unable to live off their pay, so they worked for low wages on the building sites around the town.
Eventually the Croats formed a plan to escape from Küstrin. They would overpower the guards, gain control of the fortress, plunder the citizens, and then with arms (including cannon) and ammunition they would march to Kottbus, where an Austrian force would meet them. The other prisoners refused to take part in the actual uprising, but intended to take advantage of any successful outcome themselves. The plan remained secret from the Prussians, although it was known to several thousand men.
On a June morning at 5 AM the Croats began their breakpout attempt by overpowering the guard, taking their weapons and chasing the men away. They then split into three groups: one was to occupy all the town gates, the second was to fetch ammunition from a magazine, the third was to make the guns on the walls unusable. The keys for the magazine could not be found, and the building was so massive that all attempts to break in failed. In the meantime the garrison had been alerted and a Lieutenant Thiele, commanding a guard of 30 men, found a sally port that had been left unguarded. He collected several dozen more men of the garrison and occupied a stretch of wall at an advantageous position. A battle now developed in which the Croats, despite their greatly superior numbers, quickly felt their lack of ammunition. The fortress commandant had been seriously wounded at the beginning of the tumult; Lieutenant Thiele was fatally wounded during the fighting.The Garnisonprediger ("Garrison Chaplain") Bernecke had in the meantime found the two Austrian chaplains, who were praying for the success of the breakout in a safe corner. He convinced then that there was no hope of the plan succeeding, and persuaded them to go with him to and speak to the Croats. The three priests were able to convince the Croats that even if they succeeded in leaving the fortress they would inevitably fall into the hands of a Prussian or Russian detachment (at this stage of the war the Russians had troops with the Prussians). The Croats then laid down their arms and willingly returned to their captivity.
Frederick the Great ordered the execution of the five ringleaders. Every tenth man of the participants (as drawn by lot) received one hundred blows of the stick.All the Austrian prisoners had to witness the punishment.
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©Martin Tomczak 2007