The Seven Years’ War: Why Frederick Won II


Frederick reviews his troops.

To enforce this iron regime, Frederick’s hypercritical eye was never far away. No one was safe, no one knew when or where he was going to pop up. And when he did, he was very much hands-on, riding with the cavalry, for example, when it charged on maneuvers, to make sure his orders were being followed. Even the cadets at the Berlin Military Academy might expect to find him appearing at examination time to ensure rigor and ask his own questions. In peacetime, the military year began in February with exercises held simultaneously in Brandenburg, Magdeburg and Pomerania, followed by major reviews held at Berlin and Potsdam in May, Magdeburg in June, Stargard in Pomerania in July, and Silesia in August or September. During an actual campaign, Frederick’s personal attention was legendary. Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, who served in the Prussian army during the war, recorded:

The king himself set an example of ceaseless vigilance. One was never safe from him, as little in the most desolate places as in the most dangerous, as little on a starlit night as during the most terrible thunderstorm, and he had succeeded in making both senior and junior officers fear him more than enemy bullets, so that the mere possibility of a visit was enough to redouble vigilance. Often he made his inspections without revealing his presence.

In three areas Frederick improved his inheritance. We have already seen that right at the start he transformed the regular cavalry of cuirassiers and dragoons. Subsequently, he greatly increased the numbers and importance of light mounted troops in the shape of hussars, who had numbered only around 1,000 in 1740. The deadly effectiveness of the Croats operating with the Austrian armies demanded imitation. In quantitative terms, the response was certainly impressive—by the end of the reign about 9 percent of the total military strength comprised hussars—but qualitatively much less so. The autonomy, independence and relaxed discipline of the light troops did not accord well with the Prussian ethos. So the new units were quickly reined in and turned into something barely distinguishable from the regular cavalry. After 1756 Frederick did however allow the formation of so-called “free battalions,” quasi-private gangs of quasi-criminals, who could cause havoc behind enemy lines but also became notorious for their looting and other offenses. In 1778 a British observer, Nathaniel Wraxall, reported from Vienna:

It is in the irregular forces which Maria Theresa can bring into the field, that she possesses a great superiority over her adversary. The Croats and Hungarians, fierce, undisciplined, and subjected to scarcely any military laws, are attached to the House of Austria by prejudices and predilections of religion, manners, and education, peculiar to themselves. Frederic has no troops of a similar description to oppose to them, equally faithful and loyal. The Croat rarely or never deserts.

More impressive were the improvements he made to his artillery. In this department, Frederick William I had lagged a long way behind the rest of Europe and Frederick had to sprint to catch up. Improved casting techniques, lighter barrels and carriages, more mobility and standardization of calibers and parts had brought a massive increase in the number of pieces deployed on the battlefield. In the Thirty Years’ War, each side had boasted no more than a couple of dozen; at Malplaquet in 1709 the Austro-British allies fielded over a hundred against the sixty of the French. In his Political Testament of 1768, Frederick complained that he had inherited just one field artillery battalion, which he immediately doubled. This early initiative was not followed through, however. The expansion announced in 1744 was not implemented after the peace, with the result that in 1756 the Prussian army had no more artillery than ten years before. Moreover, the quality was poor. The arms manufacturers of Berlin and Breslau had not yet developed the modern technique of boring out a solid core (rather than casting over a core). So now Frederick found himself on a steep learning curve, as in battle after battle it was the cannon not the musket that inflicted the heaviest casualties. But learn he did. By the last year of the Seven Years’ War he had 662 pieces of artillery available, not counting the heavy siege guns. Moreover, he had also proved himself an innovator by introducing a horse artillery unit consisting of six six-pounders, each pulled by four horses and serviced by three NCOs and forty-two artillerymen. It was lost at Kunersdorf, promptly replaced, lost again at Maxen and replaced again. From June 1759 Prince Henry had his own similar unit, which he did not lose. The effectiveness of this ultramobile artillery was advertised when it was imitated, first by the Austrians—hitherto leaders in artillery development—and then by other European armies. Frederick was now a firm believer in the battle-winning potential of artillery, as he told his generals in his treatise on “Fortifications and tactics” of 1771, for example. So important did he consider it, indeed, that he moved the training center for gunners to Berlin, so that he could keep an eye on it.

In the final analysis, success or failure in the war depended on the infantry. As the accounts of the seven campaigns have shown, the Prussians were by no means invincible. Of the sixteen major battles, they lost eight. Nevertheless, despite being usually outnumbered, often heavily, they were still standing at the end of the 1762 campaign when their enemies had given up. The fearful casualties suffered during the bloodbaths of 1757 and 1759 meant that many, if not most, of the highly trained veterans who had marched off in August 1756 had been killed or invalided out by the time the fifth campaign began. As each year passed, it became more difficult to fill the gaps during the winter, so that each campaigning season began with fewer men than the year before. With so much of the Holy Roman Empire shut off from the recruiting sergeants by enemy armies, it was the cantonal system at home which had to bear the brunt. Increasingly, the conscripts it sent to the armies were younger and less well trained. This did not mean they were ineffective. As the engagement at Domstadl in June 1758 showed, raw recruits could give a good account of themselves, even in defeat. Expedients such as the impressment of prisoners of war, on the other hand, proved to be self-defeating, as they were notoriously unreliable and deserted or surrendered at the first opportunity. By the end of the war, “almost all” soldiers still at the colors were native-born Prussians. Well might Frederick record with gratitude after the war that “these cantons constitute the pure essence of the state.” It had been his ability to keep on raising armies that had seen him through.

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” wrote Erasmus. Nowhere is that more true than in the fuzzy-edged field of military history, where every generalization is qualified and every plus countered by a minus. The Prussian infantryman looted, deserted, cheated, ran away and even on occasion disobeyed, but of his relative superiority there is too much contemporary evidence to be ignored. Ulrich Bräker, a Swiss who had been tricked into joining the Prussian army and was anything but well intentioned towards it, recorded that when he and his comrades first saw action at Lobositz in October 1756, “our native-born Prussians and Brandenburgers set about the Austrians like furies. I myself was so violent and excited that I felt neither fear nor horror but blazed away with all my ammunition until my musket was red-hot and I had to hold it by the strap; although I don’t think I hit a living soul and all my shots went wild.” Major General Henry Lloyd, who had served in the Austrian army and had firsthand experience of the Seven Years’ War, described the Prussian army as “a vast and regular machine…They have a facility in maneuvering beyond any other troops…and their victories must be ascribed to this chiefly for all the genius of the leader can do nothing without it, and almost everything with it.”

The familiar image of the Prussian rank-and-file is of mindless automatons programmed by brutal discipline to advance into the jaws of death without flinching. Frederick himself bore responsibility for this by issuing his famous (and often repeated) instruction that the soldiers should be taught to fear their officers more than the enemy. By devoting the whole of the first chapter of his General Principles of War of 1748 to the problem of desertion and identifying fourteen ways in which it could be reduced, he announced the essentially coercive nature of his army. Even an observer as well disposed to Frederick as the French General Guibert believed that the non-Prussians in the army, who he thought counted for 50 percent of the rank-and-file, would desert at once if not deterred by the near-certainty of capture and the horrific punishment that followed. Frederick’s army on the march was “a mobile prison.”

More recently, however, this grim picture has been much modified. Life in the ranks has been shown to be not just terror, privation and violence. There is also evidence of loyalty or even devotion to Frederick and Prussia more generally. Much of this is anecdotal, and so has to be taken with a good pinch of salt, but not all of it. When the Austrians tried to recruit from the 11,000 prisoners of war they were holding in camps in Styria, they got only a feeble response, and none at all from the native-born Prussians, despite the conditions in which they were being held. It has long been known that the Prussian soldiers were better fed than their enemies, thanks to their ability to fight on interior lines and the relative efficiency of their logistics. Ensign von Barsewisch, who served throughout the war and saw action at Rossbach, Leuthen and Torgau, claimed:

We were never short of bread, and it frequently happened that we had a surplus of meat. It is true that coffee, sugar and beer were often not to be had even at high prices, while in Moravia we sometimes ran out of wine. But in Bohemia we had local wine in plenty, especially in the camp at Melnik in 1757. You know how things are in wartime: if you want to be really comfortable, you ought to stay at home.66

Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, who also served during the war, agreed: “The Prussian army was never without pay, never without bread or forage, very rarely without vegetables and even more rarely without meat.” The half-pound of meat issued each week to every soldier is reported to have attracted many starving deserters from the allied armies to the Prussian camps.

How many went the other way? There were certainly episodes when thousands took flight, the retreat from Moravia in 1744 being the most notorious. On the other hand, even a catastrophic defeat did not lead to the permanent dissolution of the army. Within two days of Kunersdorf, for example, most survivors had returned to the colors and reformed as disciplined units ready to fight another day. Recent research has shown that the harshness of Prussian discipline has been exaggerated and that the soldiers were motivated by honor, esprit de corps, professionalism, Protestantism and patriotism as well as fear.

The relative quality of the rank-and-file was repeated in the echelons above. Although impossible to prove, it is at least very likely that an important advantage enjoyed by Frederick was the number and quality of his noncommissioned officers. There were fourteen per company, more than double the rate of the Austrian army, mostly the literate sons of free peasants. They were encouraged by the prospect of winning commissioned rank and even noble status if they distinguished themselves in wartime. A legend in his own lifetime was the fifty-year-old grenadier David Krauel, who was first over the ramparts of the Ziskaberg fortifications at Prague on 12 August 1744 and was rewarded with an immediate commission and ennoblement as “Krauel von Ziskaberg.” These commoners were joined by nobles, all of whom had to start as ensigns, performing the duties and sharing the quarters of the other NCOs and receiving the pay of a sergeant. An anonymous English report composed after the Seven Years’ War stated that “the vigor of the Army is in the Subalterns and Non-Commissioned Officers, who are undoubtedly the best in the world.”

The same report went on to observe that “it seems to decline as the ranks ascend, and as other qualifications than those of mere execution become requisite.” This verdict seems much less justified. On many occasions in Frederick’s battles, as he himself ruefully admitted, initiatives launched by subordinates proved decisive. Most of the officers were native Prussians, most were nobles from the same sort of background, they had all had the same education and training, apart from those who had risen from the ranks, and consequently enjoyed a much greater cohesion than their colleagues in other armies.76 Convinced that “the valor of the troops consists solely in the valor of the officers,” Frederick used both stick and carrot to keep his officers on their toes. At the annual reviews, any deemed to be incompetent, unfit or too old were weeded out, sent off to garrison regiments and replaced by the best ensigns. Moreover, no matter what their rank or status, they were obliged to be on duty with their regiments for most of the year, even in peacetime. It was this requirement which most impressed French observers, accustomed to a world in which many officers spent most of their time at Versailles or on their estates. No matter how august his background or elevated his rank, the Prussian officer had to share the privations of his men. In July 1753, Count Lehndorff visited Frederick’s brother August Wilhelm, who was with his cavalry regiment at Kyritz, west of Neuruppin. He recorded in his diary:

The town is terrible, it really is a miserable dump, and so is the house in which the Prince lives. It is comic to find him in a room whose furniture consists of a wooden table and three chairs. There are no curtains! His kitchen-boy in Berlin is better housed. But the Prince is devoted to training his regiment and is very satisfied. He is very kind to his officers and as a result is extraordinarily loved by them. And this is what distinguishes our army from all the others: our princes are soldiers themselves and have to put up with just the same hardships as the common soldiers do.

The example was set right at the top. As we have seen, at home at Sanssouci or in the Potsdam Town Palace, Frederick was positively self-indulgent. But once he took the campaigning trail, or even went on peacetime exercises, quite a different regime was followed. Anticipating Napoleon, he went out of his way to impress on all ranks that he was one of them, that they were all in it together, sharing the dangers, the discomforts and the triumphs. This meant riding with the men, talking to them in dialect, visiting them as they sat around the campfire, laughing at their jokes, however crude, sleeping under canvas at the center of the camp, remembering their names, and so on. Although it can be assumed that he drew the line at joining them on church parade, he allowed his pious subordinates to organize prayer meetings and the troops to sing Lutheran hymns. According to the Prussian soldier Johann Friedrich Dreyer, he and his comrades sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as they went into battle and “Now Thank We All Our God” if they survived. Before the battle of Leuthen, Frederick even joined in himself, to sing:

Do not be faint-hearted, O little band,

Although your enemies are of the will

To upset you completely,

And seek your downfall, of which

You are most distressed and perplexed:

It will not last long.

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