Stagnation of the Later 18th Century Prussian Army

FREDERICK II (1712-1786). Known as Frederick the Great. King of Prussia, 1740-1786. Frederick the Great returning from Manoeuvres. Oil, 1787, by Edward Francis Cunningham.


So far, so good, but the long-term prospects for Frederick’s Prussia were alarming. The army’s performance had been dismal, as many of the participants recorded. “The Prussian army bears no resemblance to what it was before. There is no life in the generals and as for the officers, they are all demoralized and nowhere can the least order be found” was one verdict. Prince Henry complained that several of his subordinate generals were unfit for service and simply a burden: von Britzke was eighty years old and physically unable to go to war; Lossau had been carrying a bullet in his head since the battle of Torgau in 1760 and had no memory; old age made Kleist immobile; three of the major-generals were well over seventy; the general supposed to be commanding the rearguard could only travel by carriage; and so on. The quality of the rank-and-file was also thought to be deteriorating, not least because increasing numbers of native Prussian subjects were exempted from military service. For all his emphasis on the need for service and duty, Frederick could never bring himself to clear out the dead wood—and neither could his successors until the catastrophe of 1806 forced their hand. Queen Luise famously remarked after that event that Prussia “had fallen asleep on the laurels of Frederick the Great,” but in reality it was Frederick who had dozed off after 1763. In 1767 he wrote to Prince Henry that the Seven Years’ War had “ruined the troops and destroyed discipline” but that he was making good progress in restoring the situation and that in three years everything would be back to normal. The campaign of 1778 disproved that forecast. During the second half of his reign the size of the army increased but there was no equivalent qualitative increase.


By the time of the War of the First Coalition the Prussian Army was still by and large identical with the one of Frederick the Great. Recruitment was based on regimental districts and was confined to the lower classes and the peasantry. Additionally, “foreign” (non-Prussian, though usually German) mercenaries were needed to bring the Prussian Army to the astonishing peacetime strength of nearly 230,000 men (out of a population of 8.7 million). Officers were taken almost exclusively from the nobility and gentry (Junker) so that the army replicated and reinforced the social structure of rural Prussia, while the towndweller stood aside. Far from being a national force that could rely on patriotic feelings for the motivation of its soldiers, the Prussian Army, like many others under the ancien régime, had to enforce discipline mainly by threat of brutal corporal punishment, and desertion was a constant problem. Service was for life; in reality that usually meant twenty years, unless invalided out.

In spite of suggestions primarily of junior officers to implement more progressive concepts, the unreformed army also relied heavily on linear tactics to exploit the massed musketry of its heavy infantry. Innovations like more flexible tactics, light infantry, permanent divisions or corps of mixed arms, and a general staff in the modern sense of the word were known and discussed, but by the 1790s not yet implemented or still in their infancy.

The Prussian army had not merely been defeated; it had been ruined. In the words of one officer who was at Jena: ‘The carefully assembled and apparently unshakeable military structure was suddenly shattered to its foundations.’ This was precisely the disaster that the Prussian neutrality pact of 1795 had been designed to avoid.

The relative prowess of the Prussian army had declined since the end of the Seven Years War. One reason for this was the emphasis placed upon increasingly elaborate forms of parade drill. These were not a cosmetic indulgence – they were underwritten by a genuine military rationale, namely the integration of each soldier into a fighting machine answering to one will and capable of maintaining cohesion under conditions of extreme stress. While this approach certainly had strengths (among other things, it heightened the deterrent effect upon foreign visitors of the annual parade manoeuvres in Berlin), it did not show up particularly well against the flexible and fast-moving forces deployed by the French under Napoleon’s command. A further problem was the Prussian army’s dependence upon large numbers of foreign troops – by 1786, when Frederick died, 110,000 of the 195,000 men in Prussian service were foreigners. There were very good reasons for retaining foreign troops; their deaths in service were easier to bear and they reduced the disruption caused by military service to the domestic economy. However, their presence in such large numbers also brought problems. They tended to be less disciplined, less motivated and more inclined to desert.

To be sure, the decades between the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9) and the campaign of 1806 also saw important improvements. Mobile light units and contingents of riflemen (Jäger) were expanded and the field requisition system was simplified and overhauled. None of this sufficed to make good the gap that swiftly opened up between the Prussian army and the armed forces of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In part, this was simply a question of numbers – as soon as the French Republic began scouring the French working classes for domestic recruits under the auspices of the levée en masse, there was no way the Prussians would be able to keep pace. The key to Prussian policy ought therefore to have been to avoid at all costs having to fight France without the aid of allies.

In the aftermath of the shockingly unexpected defeats at Jena and Auerstädt (fought simultaneously on 14 October 1806) at the hands of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Prussian Army collapsed almost completely. Of its sixty regiments of infantry, most of which had seen a continuous existence of up to two centuries, fifty-one dissolved or went into captivity, never again to be rebuilt. That collapse-and the Treaty of Tilsit (9 July 1807), which reduced Prussia’s population and territory by half-forced the country to disarm radically, burdened it with crippling indemnities, and triggered the series of so-called Prussian Reforms (Preussische Reformen). Taken together, they attempted a complete overhaul of state, economy, army, and society to make Prussia fit for survival in the nineteenth-century struggle of nation-states.


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