By taking a small country and transforming it into a major player in European politics, Frederick had emulated Gustavus. However, the many improvements Gustavus implemented became standard practice in European armies; other than the development of horse artillery later in the Seven Years’ War, such was not the case with Frederick’s legacy. Although military leaders from across the Continent came to Prussia, all they seemed to take away were the trappings of military power, rather than the practice of it. “In Europe generally military men sought to express their admiration for things Prussian by imitating every conceivable external of Frederick’s army, rather as a savage might adorn himself with the feathers of an eagle in an attempt to endow himself with the creature’s qualities,” Duffy argues. Few men anywhere at any time would so dedicate themselves to the management of details in the depth and breadth of the military.
I find that Frederick’s strengths were best shown in the principles of the offensive, mass, surprise, simplicity, and morale. In his 1747 instructions to his generals, prepared after the War of the Austrian Succession, Frederick writes: “I have often said that for Prussians I would choose only unassailable positions or else I would not occupy them at all, for we have too many advantages in attacking to deprive ourselves of them gratuitously.” In other words, since perfect defensive positions were few and far between, the nature of the Prussian military argued against going on the defensive. Indeed, everything about the training of the Prussian military was about the best way to attack the enemy. Even in the battles where he was attacked, as at Soor, Frederick launched his forces onto the offensive as quickly as the enemy had been stalled. “Like the Romans,” Dodge writes, “he laid down one rule: Never wait for your opponent’s attack. If you are on the defensive, let this be still of an offensive character in both campaigns and battles.” His instruction to the infantry to close with the bayonet rather than “amusing” themselves by firing their muskets was intended to close the gap between the two forces as quickly as possible. His instructions to his cavalry were to get their horses to the gallop as quickly as possible in order to close more quickly as well as to build momentum. Even at his first battle, Mollwitz, whence he had to flee for his life, his army began the battle on the attack even though it finished it victoriously on the defense. As David Chandler asserts, “He taught the importance of offensive action. ‘War is only decided by battles,’ he declared, in marked contrast to earlier generals.”
At Hohenfriedberg Frederick marched through the night to catch the Austrians and Saxons unawares at daybreak. At Rossbach the French thought they were on the offensive, but it was Frederick’s charging cavalry and rapidly deploying infantry that won the day. At Leuthen the Austrians were deployed, awaiting him with superior numbers, and he launched the classic example of the oblique attack. Ten years before the battle he had written that troops in entrenchments were at the disadvantage: “It is because whoever is enclosed in them is restricted to one ground and whoever attacks can maneuver freely; he who attacks is bolder then the one who defends himself.” Find the weak point and throw the weight of your force there—it was a lesson Napoleon learned well.
The main failing of Frederick’s use of the offensive, however, was his lack of willingness in almost all cases to engage in pursuit.
Related to the proper use of mass on the battlefield is maneuver (getting the mass of your troops to the right place at the right time) and economy of force (use the minimum number of troops necessary for diversions and holding actions). Since in none of the three battles discussed did Frederick choose the battlefield (other than partially so at Rossbach), then maneuver (“places the enemy in a position of disadvantage,” as the U.S. Army Field Manual phrases the principle) can’t fully be exploited. One could argue, however, that by their placement on these three battle-fields, Frederick’s enemies virtually placed themselves at a disadvantage. Neither does economy of force always apply, as secondary objectives were not held by minimum forces other than at Leuthen. So in following up on the principle of the offensive discussed above, selection of the target on the battlefield becomes the most important aspect of Frederick’s victories.
Indeed, the objective of his ongoing project to perfect the oblique attack is a lesson in where to employ the mass of one’s force: at the point where the enemy is at the greatest numerical disadvantage. The goal of the oblique was to mass Prussian forces on a flank, where only the endmost enemy units were able to engage the attacking force. Hohenfriedberg was a battle of roughly equal forces, but Frederick’s goal from the instant he knew the Austro-Saxon deployment was to strike both flanks. The Prussians achieved surprise as well as local superiority in numbers on both the enemy flanks there, the flanking units being cavalry. Hence the attacking Prussians were not only able to strike a smaller frontage of troops but they were also able to avoid the bulk of the Austrian artillery fire. At Rossbach, his cavalry force overall was smaller than the allied horse troops, but by striking them while still in march formation, the Prussians in the wider attack formation overwhelmed the allied frontage. When the infantry came into action the story was the same: the Prussian infantry deployed in line across the path of the allied force and was able to bring concentrated fire on their much narrower front lines. In both cases, defeat and retreat of the frontline troops led to disorganization and rout of the troops to the rear.
At Leuthen the Prussians were able to strike the enemy flank twice. The infantry to the south easily began to roll up the Austrian left flank with vastly superior forces at the point of attack, bringing about “perhaps the greatest day in the history of the Prussian army.” When the Austrians redeployed and their cavalry tried to implement their own flanking attack, they found themselves the victims instead of the instigators, thanks to Driesen’s cavalry force, which had trailed the main body of the Prussian army and was opportunely located to crush the Austrian counterattack. Frederick could not take credit for Driesen’s attack, but the concept had been pounded into his subordinates for years so the counter-counterattack is, in retrospect, really not too surprising. As Archer Jones points out, “In his other offensive battles he had less success that at Leuthen, but in every one he attempted to assail the enemy from an unexpected direction where he could anticipate finding the foe weaker than in front.”
When it comes to the principle of surprise, given the relatively minor attention Frederick gave to scouting and intelligence gathering, it would seem likely he would be surprised much more often than his opponents. At the strategic level this is true, but on the battlefield he was usually able to catch the enemy off balance. As Bevin Alexander writes, “The real challenge is to deliver a blow without being first thwarted or deflected by the enemy, who may recognize the decisive point as quickly as the attacker. A commander’s principal problem, therefore, is disguising his intention so as to keep his opponent from subverting his effort by some decisive action of his own.” In his initial battle at Mollwitz Frederick made the mistake of deploying too slowly and forfeiting the element of surprise, but the discipline and determination of his infantry was sufficiently unexpected to enable them to defeat the Austrians. At Chotusitz his flank attack in the middle of the battle, with a force hidden in dead ground, shocked the Austrians and forced their withdrawal. At Hohenfriedberg his intelligence was perhaps the best it ever was, especially with his placement of a double agent with the ear of the Austrian commander. Here Frederick caught the Austro-Saxon force completely unprepared for any Prussian force in its area. His attack at dawn was certainly one of the primary factors in the Prussian victory.
Rossbach, however, was one of the greatest examples of battlefield surprise anywhere, anytime. His enemy was convinced the Prussians were in full retreat. The troops in Soubise’s headlong dash never expected the cavalry wall they ran into. The use of the terrain to screen Prussian movements was rarely more masterful, and the sudden appearance of the infantry deployed across their front was nearly as much a factor in the rout of the allied infantry as was the concentrated Prussian musket fire. A French officer said it all: “Never did Army behave worse; the first cannon-salvo decided our rout and our shame.” Finally, the use of the terrain as well as the diversionary feint completely fooled Daun and Prince Charles at Leuthen. The ability to oblige the enemy to commit his reserves early to the wrong part of the battlefield is a dream all generals share and few realize. Dodge notes how “Frederick held Hannibal up as a pattern. ‘Always,’ said the king, ‘lead the enemy to believe you will do the very reverse of what you intend to do.’”
Unfortunately for Frederick and Prussia, Leuthen was the last time he was able to implement his oblique attack. By that point the Austrians were learning his tactics and deploying to avoid it, primarily by refusing their flanks and denying him the exposed flank he needed. Over time he adapted to the changes with greater firepower rather than the elan on which he had long trusted.
Possibly the most excellent talent Frederick possessed was his coup d’oeil, his ability to instantly read the terrain and the enemy’s positions. For him, like the blind Jan Žižka, the best battle map was in his head. In his Instructions he mentions the need to use this talent both on the march and when the enemy is deployed; this foreshadowed Rossbach and Leuthen: “The coup d’oeil is of great importance … when you encounter the enemy on your march and are obliged to choose ground on which to fight instantly. … The judgment that is exercised about the capacity of the enemy at the commencement of a battle is also called coup d’oeil.”
This capacity to absorb all the key elements of terrain and enemy positions meant that Frederick could develop a plan almost instantly. Although the training for and execution of the oblique attack was complicated and required precision, Frederick’s battle plans were never complex. “His was no hard and fast system,” Dodge asserts. “He did what was most apt. His battle plans were conceived instantly on the ground. What was intricate to others was simple to him and to the Prussian army.” Although he scouted the enemy position in advance at Hohenfriedberg, he decided on and implemented the deployments at both Rossbach and Leuthen in a matter of minutes.
Frederick was also masterful in his ability to maintain troop morale. On the surface, someone not familiar with military training might think that the Spartan discipline imposed on the Prussian soldier would break his spirit rather than motivate it. After all, it was Frederick who famously opined that the soldiers needed to fear their officers more than they did the enemy. Of course the opposite occurs: ability to overcome difficulty creates pride and self-confidence. All elite soldiers know this. This is why the Prussian army was the creme de la creme of eighteenth-century armies. To this end, Frederick did not create the famous Prussian discipline, but he perfected what he had inherited from his father and grandfather.
As we have seen with other generals, to be effective one needs to show his men he is willing to share their burdens and their dangers. A less disciplined army may have rejected Frederick’s leadership in the wake of his debut at Mollwitz, but they followed their orders, and at Chotusitz and Hohenfriedberg they learned that their soldier-king was a man of determination. As Samuel Lewis notes, “Although his army was disciplined, experienced, and confident, he nevertheless clearly expressed what was required of every officer and man, both in camp and on the battlefield. He cared for and protected his force even though he was of royal blood.” Frederick was never one to put on airs; he was famous for his unkempt uniform. He kept his men better fed and supplied than most generals of the time, either carrying food with the army in his own lands or living off the land in enemy territory.
He also knew that his role was, at times, to be the actor. Historians debate whether his actions prior to Leuthen were the results of personal exhaustion or well-implemented psychology. He walked softly, he did not berate defeated soldiers (although some of their generals were punished), he provided extra food and drink. He walked among the men and engaged them with unwonted familiarity, even though there are stories of blunt talk from some of his troops. He was even called “Old Fritz” to his face by men in the ranks. But he knew the value of his presence. It may not have been worth 40,000 men, as Wellington was supposed to have said about Napoleon, but since the days of ancient Greece men have respected the leader who stands among them. Frederick wrote to his nephew, “You cannot, under any pretext whatever, dispense with your presence at the head of your troops, because two thirds of your soldiers could not be inspired by any other influence except your presence.” He did not lead from the front like Alexander or Belisarius, but he put himself in harm’s way on many occasions. It paid off. Biographer David Fraser remarks that Frederick had “the divine spark of leadership, the gift of communicating energy and inspiring confidence in tired, frightened, dispirited men. … Frederick, the Prussian soldiers knew, was always where the fight was the hottest, was watching every shift, every twitch of the battle with the eye of a master, was asking no more of any man that he would hazard himself. … Frederick thought fast, decided fast, spoke and wrote fast. All bore witness to his extraordinary calm in moments of crisis.”
For the remainder of the Seven Years’ War Frederick’s defeats outnumbered his victories, and some of his losses were severe. However, he and his army managed to survive the setbacks and come out of the war with both territory and reputation intact. His contributions to warfare and his smashing victories were sufficient to earn him the “Great” sobriquet. “No one else accomplished what he was able to do with linear tactics,” Dupuy asserts. “[H]e achieved the utmost possible within the limits set by technology and by the political and social conditions of Prussia in the eighteenth century.” The greatest contemporary tribute to Frederick was the mass of foreign soldiers who went to Prussia to learn from the master who, as noted above, mainly grasped the trappings of power instead of the reasons behind it. Ritter asserts that “[a]fter the Seven Years War he occupied the same position among the generals of Europe that once had been Prince Eugene’s: Frederick was the universally admired, studied, and emulated preceptor of modern war.”
Frederick, however, declined in his advancing years as the army became a shell of its former self. “The brotherhood of endurance faded in peacetime, as discipline became an end in itself instead of a means of making war,” Showalter writes. “The fellowship of arms eroded as the King’s capriciousness broke careers without hope of redress. By the mid-1770s the army was focused on Frederick not as king, not as commander in chief, but as totem.”
The great tragedy of his accomplishments was that they were so good the Prussians would not change as time passed. In his glory days Frederick could see what was necessary and adapt, as he did with his cavalry and artillery, but his successors did not. Instead, they gloried in the mystique, which was ultimately shattered by Napoleon in 1806 at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt. His spirit, however, continued to motivate generations. The cavalry tactics used by Napoleon and others came from Prussian roots; the obsession with massed firepower dominated German military thinking through World War II; Moltke depended greatly on maneuver and mobility in his victory in the Franco-Prussian War a century after Frederick’s time. In these imitators and many others, Frederick’s success as a commander is continually reestablished.