Your Excellency will already know [… ] of the Resolution the new King has taken of increasing his army to 50,000 men. [… ] When the state of war [i.e. military budget] was laid before him, he writt in the margen these words, I will augment my Forces to the number of 50,000 men which ought not to allarme any person whatsoever, since my only pleasure is my Army.
When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather.
Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as ‘lange Kerls’ or ‘tall lads’) at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service. Their likenesses were memorialized in individual full-length oil portraits commissioned by the king; executed in a primitive realist style, they show towering men with hands like dinner plates plinthed on black leather shoes the size of plough shares. The army was, of course, an instrument of policy, but it was also the human and institutional expression of this monarch’s view of the world. As an orderly, hierarchical, masculine system in which individual interests and identities were subordinated to those of the collective, the king’s authority was unchallenged, and differences in rank were functional rather than corporate or decorative, it came close to actualizing his vision of an ideal society.
Frederick William’s interest in military reform predated his accession to the throne. We see it in a set of guidelines that the nineteen-year-old crown prince proposed to the Council of War in 1707. The calibres of all infantry guns should be the same, he argued, so that standard-issue shot could be used for all types; all units should employ the same design of bayonet; the men in each regiment should wear identical daggers on a model to be determined by the commanding officer; even the cartridge pouches were to be furnished according to a single design, with identical straps.49 One of his important early innovations as a military commander was the introduction within his own regiment of a new and more rigorous form of parade drill intended to heighten the manoeuvrability of unwieldy masses of troops across difficult terrain and to ensure that firepower could be delivered consistently and to the greatest effect. After 1709, when Frederick William witnessed Prussian troops in action at the Battle of Malplaquet during the War of the Spanish Succession, the new drill was gradually extended through the Brandenburg-Prussian forces as a whole.
The king’s chief preoccupation during the early years of the reign was simply to increase the number of troops in service as fast as possible. At first, this was accomplished largely through forced recruitments. The responsibility for raising troops was transferred from the civil authorities to the local regimental commanders. Operating virtually without restraint, the recruiting officer became a figure of fear and hatred, especially among the rural and small-town population, where he prowled in search of tall peasants and burly journeymen. Forced recruitments often involved bloodshed. In some cases, prospective recruits even died at the hands of their captors. Complaints poured in from the localities. In fact so dramatic was the first phase of forced recruitments that it prompted a wave of panic. ‘[His Majesty] makes use of such hasty means in levying of [his troops] as if he was in some very great danger,’ wrote William Breton, the British envoy, on 18 March 1713, scarcely three weeks after the new king’s accession, ‘that the peasants are forced into the service and tradesmen’s sons taken out of their shops very frequently. If this method continues, we shall not long have any market here, and many people will save themselves out of his Dominions…’
Faced with the mayhem generated by forced recruiting, the king changed tack and put an end to the practice inside his territories. In its place he established the sophisticated conscription mechanism that would come to be known as the ‘canton system’. An order of May 1714 declared that the obligation to serve in the king’s army was incumbent upon all men of serving age and that anyone fleeing the country in order to avoid this duty would be punished as a deserter. Further orders assigned a specific district (canton) to each regiment, within which all the unmarried young men of serving age were enrolled (enrolliert) on the regimental lists. Voluntary enlistments to each regiment could then be supplemented from enrolled local conscripts. Finally, a system of furloughs was developed that allowed the enlisted men to be released back into their communities after completion of their basic training. They could then be kept on until retiring age as reservists who were obliged to complete a stint of refresher training for two to three months each year, but were otherwise free (except in time of war) to return to their peacetime professions. In order to soften further the impact of conscription on the economy, various classes of individual were exempted from service, including peasants who owned and ran their own farms, artisans and workers in various trades and industries thought to be of value to the state, government employees and various others.
The cumulative result of these innovations was an entirely new military system that could provide the Brandenburg-Prussian Crown with a large and well-trained territorial force without seriously disrupting the civilian economy. This meant that at a time when most European armies still relied heavily on foreign conscripts and mercenaries, Brandenburg-Prussia could raise two-thirds of its troops from territorial subjects. This was the system that enabled the state to muster the fourth largest army in Europe, although it ranked only tenth and thirteenth in terms of territory and population respectively. It is no exaggeration to say that the power-political exploits of Frederick the Great would have been inconceivable without the military instrument fashioned by his father.
If the canton system provided the state with a greatly enhanced external striking power, it also had far-reaching social and cultural consequences. No organization did more to bring the nobility into subordination than the reorganized Brandenburg-Prussian army. Early in the reign, Frederick William had prohibited members of the provincial nobilities from entering foreign service, or indeed even from leaving his lands without prior permission, and had a list drawn up of all the sons of noble families aged between twelve and eighteen years. From this list a cohort of boys was selected for training in the cadet school recently established in Berlin (in the premises of the academy where Gundling had once worked as professor). The king persevered with this policy of elite conscription despite bitter protests and attempts at evasion by some noble families. It was not unknown for young noblemen from recalcitrant households to be rounded up and marched off to Berlin under guard. In 1738, Frederick William inaugurated an annual survey of all young noblemen who were not yet in his service; in the following year he instructed the district commissioners to inspect the noble sons of their districts, identify those who were ‘good looking, healthy and possess straight limbs’ and send an appropriate annual contingent for enlistment in the Berlin cadet corps. By the mid-1720s there were virtually no noble families in the Hohenzollern lands without at least one son in the officer corps.
We should not see this process simply as something that was unilaterally forced upon the nobility – the policy succeeded because it offered something of value, the prospect of a salary that would assure a higher standard of living than many noble households could otherwise afford, an intimate association with the majesty and authority of the throne, and the status attaching to an honourable calling with aristocratic historical connotations. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the establishment of the canton system represented a caesura in the relationship between the crown and the nobilities. The human potential locked within the noble landed estate was now placed even more securely within the state’s reach and the nobility began its gradual transformation into a service caste. Samuel Benedikt Carsted, pastor of Atzendorf in the Duchy of Magdeburg and sometime field chaplain in the Brandenburg-Prussian army, was thus right when he observed that the canton system constituted ‘the final proof that King Frederick William had acquired the most comprehensive sovereignty’.
An influential view has it that the cantonal regime created a sociomilitary system in which the hierarchical structures of the conscript army and those of the noble landed estate merged seamlessly to become one all-powerful instrument of domination. According to this view, the regiment became a kind of armed version of the estate, in which the noble lord served as the commanding officer and his subject peasants as the troops. The result was a far-reaching militarization of Brandenburg-Prussian society, as the traditional rural structures of social domination and disciplining were permeated with military values.
Reality was more complex. Examples of noble landlords who were also local commanders are very rare; they were the exception rather than the rule. Military service was not popular among peasant families, who resented the loss of labour that occurred when young men were taken away for basic training. Local records from the Prignitz (to the north-east of Berlin) suggest that the evasion of military service by flight across Brandenburg’s borders into neighbouring Mecklenburg was commonplace. In order to escape service, men were prepared to resort to desperate measures – even professing their willingness to marry the women in their villages upon whom they had fathered illegitimate children – and they were sometimes supported in these efforts by noble landowners. Moreover, far from bringing a mood of submission and obedience to the estate community, the active and inactive duty soldiers were often a disruptive element, prone to exploit their military exemption from local jurisdiction against the village authorities.
Relations between local communities and the military were beset with tension. There were numerous complaints about the tyrannical behaviour of regimental officers: exemptions were sometimes disregarded by the officers who came to ‘collect’ recruits, reservists were called up during the harvest season despite regulations to the contrary, and money was extorted in bribes from peasants seeking marriage permits from their local commanders (in some areas this latter problem was so pronounced that there was an appreciable rise in the rate of illegitimate births). There were also complaints from the landlords of noble estates, who naturally resented any unwarranted meddling in the affairs of the peasants who constituted their workforce.
Despite these problems, a kind of symbiosis developed between regiments and communities. Although only a fraction of the eligible male population (about one-seventh) was actually called up, nearly all the men in rural communities were listed on the regimental rolls; in this sense, the cantonal system was based upon the principle (though not the practice) of universal conscription. Exemptions came into play only once the enrolments had taken place. All reservists were required to wear their full uniforms in church and they were thus an ever-present reminder of the proximity of the military; it was not unknown for enlisted men to gather voluntarily in town and village squares in order to practise their drilling. The pride that many men felt in their military status may have been sharpened by the fact that the exemption system tended to concentrate enrolments among the less well-off, so that there was a tendency for the sons of landless rural labourers to serve while those of the prosperous peasants did not. Soldiers and reservists thus gradually came to constitute a highly visible social group within the village, not only because the uniform and a certain (affected) military bearing became crucial to their sense of importance and personal worth, but also because the conscripts tended to be drawn from among the tallest of each age group. Boys shorter than 169 cm were sometimes called up for service as porters and baggage handlers, but, for most, diminutive stature was a free ticket out of military service.
Did the canton system heighten morale and cohesion within serving regiments? Frederick the Great, who knew the Prussian army as well as anyone and observed the canton system at work during three exhausting wars, believed that it did. In his History of My Own Times, completed in the summer of 1775, he wrote that the native Prussian cantonists serving in each company of the army ‘come from the same region. Many in fact know or are related with one another. [… ] The cantons spur on competition and bravery, and relatives and friends are not apt to abandon each other in battle.