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Maurice, comte de Saxe

Maurice, comte de Saxe (October 28, 1696November 30, 1750), Marshal of France, the natural son of Augustus II of Poland and of the countess Aurora Königsmark, was born at Goslar.

In 1698 the countess sent him to Warsaw to his father, who had been elected king of Poland in the previous year, but on account of the unsettled condition of the country the greater part of his youth was spent outside its limits. This separation from his father made him independent of control and had an important effect on his future career.

At the age of twelve Saxe was present, with the army of Eugene of Savoy, at the sieges of Tournai and Mons and at the battle of Malplaquet, but the achievements ascribed to him in this campaign are chiefly fabulous. A proposal to send him at the close of it to a Jesuit college at Brussels was relinquished on account of the protests of his mother; and, returning to the camp of the allies in the beginning of 1710, he displayed a courage so impetuous as to call forth from Eugene the friendly admonition not to confound rashness with valour.

Saxe next served under Peter the Great against the Swedes. After receiving in 1711 formal recognition from his father, with the rank of count, he accompanied him to Pomerania, and in 1712 he took part in the siege of Stralsund.

In manhood Saxe bore a strong resemblance to his father, both in person and character. His grasp was so powerful that he could bend a horse-shoe with his hand, and to the last his energy and endurance were scarcely subdued by the illnesses resulting from his many excesses. In 1714 a marriage was arranged between him and one of the richest of his father’s subjects, Johanna Victoria, Countess von Loeben, but he dissipated her fortune so rapidly that he was soon heavily in debt, and, having given her more serious grounds of complaint against him, he consented to an annulment of the marriage in 1721. Meantime, after serving in a campaign against the Turks in 1717, he had in 1719 gone to Paris to study mathematics, and in 1720 obtained a commission as maréchal de camp. In 1725 negotiations were entered into for his election as duke of Courland, at the instance of the duchess Anna Ivanovna, who offered him her hand. He was chosen duke in 1726, but declining marriage with the duchess found it impossible to resist her opposition to his claims, although, with the assistance of £30,000 lent him by the French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, whose story forms the subject of Scribe and Legouvé's tragedy, he raised a force by which he maintained his authority till 1727, when he withdrew and took up his residence in Paris.

After the outbreak of the war of the Polish Succession (1733 - 1735) Saxe served under Marshal Berwick, and for a brilliant exploit at the siege at Philippsburg he was in August named lieutenant-general. In the War of the Austrian Succession he took command of a division of the army sent to invade Austria in 1741, and on 19 November 1741 surprised Prague during the night, and took it by assault before the garrison were aware of the presence of an enemy, a coup de main which made him famous throughout Europe. After capturing the strong fortress of Cheb on 19 April 1742, he received leave of absence, and went to Russia to push his claims for the duchy of Courland, but obtaining no success he returned to his command.

Saxe's exploits had been the sole redeeming feature in an unsuccessful campaign, and on March 26 1743 his merits were recognized by his promotion to be marshal of France. From this time he became one of the first generals of the age. In 1744 he was chosen to command the expedition to England in behalf of the Old Pretender, which assembled at Dunkirk but did not proceed farther. After its abortive issue he received an independent command in the Netherlands, and by dexterous manoeuvering succeeded in continually harassing the superior forces of the enemy without risking a decisive battle.

In the following year Saxe besieged Tournai and inflicted a severe defeat on the relieving army of the duke of Cumberland at the battle of Fontenoy, an encounter of which the issue was due entirely to his constancy and cool leadership. During the battle he was unable on account of dropsy to sit on horseback except for a few minutes, and was carried about in a wicker chariot.

In recognition of his brilliant achievement king Louis XV of France conferred on him the Chateau Chambord for life, and in April 1746 he was naturalised as a French subject. Thenceforward to the end of the war he continued to command in the Netherlands, always with success. Besides Fontenoy he added Rocoux (1746) and Lawfeldt or Val (1747) to the list of French victories, and it was under his orders that Marshal Lowendahl captured Bergen op Zoom. He himself won the last success of the war in capturing Maastricht in 1748. In 1747 the title formerly held by Turenne, "Marshal general of the King’s camps and armies", was revived for him. But on 30 November 1750 he died at Chambord "of a putrid fever". In 1748 there had been born to him a daughter, one of several illegitimate children, whose great-granddaughter was George Sand.

Saxe wrote a remarkable work on the art of war, Mes Reveries, which though described by Carlyle as "a strange military farrago, dictated, as I should think, under opium", is in fact a classic. It was published posthumously in 1757. His Lettres et mémoires choisis appeared in 1794. His letters to his sister, the princess of Holstein, preserved at Strassburg, were destroyed by the bombardment of that place in 1870; thirty copies had, however, been printed from the original. Many previous errors in former biographies were corrected and additional information supplied in Carl von Weber’s Mon/I, Graf von Sachsen, Marschall von Frankreich, nach archivalischen Quellen (Leipzig, 1863), in St René Taillandier’s Maurice de Saxe, étude histonique d’après les documents des archives de Dresde (1865) and in C. F. Vitzthum’s Maurice de Saxe (Leipzig, 1861). See also the military histories of the period, especially Carlyle’s Frederick the Great.

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