03 July 2006

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great (1712-86) took a personal interest in his armed forces, but particularly in his new young officers. He made it a habit to ask every new officer three questions. The first was: ‘How old are you?’ The second: ‘How long have you been in my service?’ And the third: ‘Are you satisfied with your pay and treatment?’

One day Frederick was making his way among the latest batch of recruits when he reached a young Frenchman who, for reasons best known to himself, had decided to enlist in the Prussian army. The Frenchman didn’t know a word of German, but his commanding officer, knowing that Frederick would want to talk to the new recruit, taught him the three answers he needed in order to respond to Frederick’s three questions.

On the appointed day the new recruits assembled on the parade ground and Frederick made his way along, asking each man the usual three questions, but for reasons which no-one ever discovered when the King came to the French recruit he decided to ask the second question first.

He asked: ‘How long have you been in my service?’ The young recruit, who’d been trained to respond by rote, thought that this must be the first question and replied: ‘Twenty-one years’. The King was astonished, the soldier being clearly far too young to have served for that long. He then asked: ‘How old are you?’ ‘One year’ was the inevitable answer. Even more astonished, the King said: ‘Well, one of us has taken leave of our senses’

Thinking this was the third question, the soldier said: ‘Both, if it please your worship’.

- Tom Quinn, ‘Military’s Strangest Campaigns and Characters’, London, 2006.

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