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The Right Words in the Wrong Order Such was the reputation of the Prussian army in the days of the Frederick the Great that even foreigners wanted to join.

In two parts

?1740-86 King George II 1727-1760 to King George III 1760-1820 Music: Franz Joseph Haydn

By Wilhelm Camphausen (1818–1885), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

Frederick the Great of Prussia, by Wilhelm Camphausen.

About this picture …

Frederick II ‘the Great’, King of Prussia (r. 1740-1786), as painted by Wilhelm Camphausen (1818-1885) in 1880. King William Frederick brought him up to be a severe and soldierly prince, with predictably disastrous results. Frederick, sensitive and artistic, became so desperate that he attempted to flee to England with his tutor, only to be apprehended and forced to watch as his mentor was beheaded. Yet when he assumed the crown in 1740, he set himself to study military matters, and so excelled that he established Prussia as a serious player on the European stage by astute generalship and statecraft, and earned his title of ‘the Great’. Frederick hoped to be regarded as an enlightened monarch by posterity, but his reputation has been scarred by Adolf Hitler’s admiration for him and by the very military campaigns he forced himself to master.

The Right Words in the Wrong Order

Part 1 of 2

Frederick the Great ruled Prussia, in what is now northern Germany and Poland, from 1740 to 1786. He established Prussia as a serious force in European politics, and was justly proud of his troops. His army’s reputation attracted recruits from outside the country, and according to ‘Mr Addison’ (not the essayist of an earlier generation), this brought its own little embarrassments.
Original spelling

FREDERICK,* whose chief pleasure was in the proficiency of his troops in military discipline, whenever a new soldier made his first appearance in the guards, asked him three questions. The first was, How old are you? The second was, How long have you been in my service? (as the guards were recruited out of the flower of the marching regiments); and the third was, If he received his pay and his cloathing as he wished?

A young Frenchman, who had been well disciplined, offered himself to enter the guards, where he was immediately accepted, in consequence of his experience in military tactics. The young recruit did not understand the Prussian language, so that his Captain informed him, that when the King saw him first on the parade, he would make the usual enquiries of him in the Prussian language,* therefore he must learn to make the suitable answers, in the form of which he was instructed. As soon as the King beheld a new face in the ranks, taking a lusty pinch of snuff, he went up to him; and, unluckily for the soldier, he put the second question first, and asked him how long he had been in his service?

Jump to Part 2

* ‘Mr Addison’ possibly hoped that unwary patrons of bookshops would assume he was the famous essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719). In that case, this Frederick would have been King Frederick I, who died in 1713. However, our ‘Mr Addison’ belonged to a much later generation. He self-published his collection of anecdotes in 1795, and included among them stories from the French Revolution of 1789. This ‘anecdote of the late King of Prussia’ must surely refer to Frederick the Great, who had passed away in 1786.

* That is, German.


A Frenchman, handpicked for the life guards of Frederick the Great of Prussia, knew no German. His Captain wondered how he would answer the three questions that the king reliably put to every new recruit: his age, his length of military service, and his satisfaction with pay and clothing. At length, he decided to coach him in the appropriate replies. (60 / 60 words)

Part Two

Carl Röchling (1855–1920), via WIkimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

The Prussian advance at the start of the Battle of Hohenfriedeberg on June 4th, 1745.

About this picture …

Prussian troops advancing at the start of the Battle of Hohenfriedeberg on June 4th, 1745. It was a decisive victory for Frederick’s men, as they rebuffed an attempt by Austria and Saxony to curtail Prussian ambitions. Frederick occupied the Saxon capital of Dresden, and by the Treaty of Dresden that December the Saxons acknowledged Prussian dominance and restored to Frederick the populous and heavily industrialiased region of Silesia, which Frederick had seized five years before in a brilliant coup. Now it was that people began to speak of the 33-year-old King as ‘Frederick the Great’.

The soldier answered as he was instructed, Twenty-one years, an* please your Majesty.

The King was struck at his figure, which did not announce his age to be more than the time he had been in his service. How old are you? says the King in a surprize. He answered, One year, an please your Majesty. The King still more surprized said, Either, you or I must be a fool. The soldier taking this for the third question, relative to his pay and cloathing, says, Both, an please your Majesty.

This is the first time, says Frederick, still more surprized, that I have been called a fool at the head of my own guards. The soldier’s stock of instruction was now exhausted, and when the Monarch still pursued the design of unravelling the mystery, the soldier informed him that he could speak no more German; but that he would answer in his native tongue. Here Frederick perceived the nature of the man’s situation, at which he laughed very heartily, and advised the young man to apply himself to learning the language of Prussia, and mind his duty.

Copy Book

* The word ‘an’ in this case is a conjunction equivalent to ‘if’, originally from Middle English. Using ‘an’ in this sense is now obsolete. Readers of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel novels, set in the same era, will nonetheless be used to it.

* That is, German.


Unluckily, the King shuffled his questions, and thus heard that the fresh-faced Frenchman had seen twenty-one years’ military service, yet was one year old. ‘One of us is a fool’ muttered Frederick. ‘Both’ replied the Frenchman eagerly, hoping to express satisfaction with pay and clothing. Happily the confusion was soon cleared up, the king laughing as heartily as anyone. (59 / 60 words)


From ‘Interesting Anecdotes, Memoirs, Allegories, &c’ (1795) by Mr Addison (pseudonym).

Suggested Music

Symphony No. 100 G major (‘Military’)

4: Finale: Presto

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Performed by the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen.

Media not showing? Let me know!

Transcript / Notes

The Symphony is one of twelve composed for London audiences. No. 100 was performed during the composer’s second visit to London, in 1794 to 1795.

How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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