The Prussian army and the armed forces of revolutionary France

The inadequacies of the Prussian army had been exposed in the period 1792–95 when, as part of the first coalition, it encountered the then pre-Napoleonic French revolutionary army of mostly untrained volunteers and lost.

Valmy 1792

France was fortunate that her enemies were slow in reacting, the more so since her troops were split into a multiplicity of armies, each covering a fraction of one of her several frontiers. This gave her a complicated command structure, further confused by personal animosities and incompetent direction from the centre. It was not until 19 August that 55,000 Prussians, with 16,000 Austrians in distant support, crossed into France at Longwy. Their commander, Ferdinand of Brunswick, a hero of the Seven Years’ War, disapproved of his orders, which were to march on Paris, and advanced with a deliberation which bordered on lethargy. He announced that it was impracticable to advance beyond the Meuse and was only drawn further forward by the unsolicited surrender of the fortress of Verdun.

On 20 September, Ferdinand found himself opposed by a French force drawn up near Valmy. There were nearly 60,000 of them, partly regulars from the Armée du Rhin under Kellermann, partly volunteers from the Armée du Nord under Dumouriez. The regulars put up an impressive front and they were superbly supported by their gunners. When the Prussian army had suffered 184 casualties from artillery fire, Ferdinand declared the French position impregnable and set out to evacuate France. He was not pursued and took even longer in retreating to Longwy than he had spent in advancing from that place.

On paper the Prussian army had a strength of more than a quarter of a million men. Not all of these could be found in practice and after deducting some garrisons, the field force available amounted to 175,000, to which could be added 20,000 Saxons, that country having been overawed into concluding an alliance with her large northern neighbour. If ten years of ignominious neutrality had hurt the pride of her officer corps, it had not persuaded them to modernize their army to cope with the new conditions of war. As befitted the heir to the victorious traditions of Frederick the Great it was magnificently fitted to fight the wars of the mid-eighteenth century.

No other army kept its ranks so straight, manoeuvred in so precise (or so slow) a fashion and fired such impressive (or such inaccurate) volleys. Learning from its experience in the War of Bavarian Succession, it had equipped itself with so elaborate a supply train that it regarded a day’s march as being exceptionally satisfactory if 20 kilometres could be covered, a fifth less than any other major army. True to the eighteenth-century tradition it was largely composed of mercenaries  at least 80,000 of its men were not Prussian nationals. Its commanders too were men of the Seven Years’ War. The nominal head was Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, nephew to Frederick the Great, who had seen action at Valmy. His chief subordinates, Prince Frederick of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen and General von Ruchel. The King’s chief military adviser, von Mollendorf, was 70, while Frederick William himself, who presided at the Councils of War, was only 36 but had all the indecision of a dotard.

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.

Saxon Army

Generally regarded as a mediocre fighting force, the Saxon Army fought extensively throughout the Napoleonic Wars, almost entirely in the capacity of an ally of the French. The army of this impoverished central European electorate played only a minor role in the War of the First Coalition, in which it served on the Rhine front. It did not see action again until 1806, and then only as an uneasy ally of Prussia. Like the army of its much more powerful neighbor, the Saxon Army continued to wear uniforms and employ tactics practically unchanged since the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). In 1806 the army numbered 19,000 men, organized into one battalion of the elite Leib-Grenadier Garde and twelve regiments of the line, all dressed in white coats, belts, and breeches, with black gaiters and bicorn hats-straight out of the age of Frederick the Great. The cavalry was variously composed between 1806 and 1815, but at the beginning of this period comprised four heavy (cuirassier) and five light (chevauléger, uhlan, and hussar) cavalry regiments. There were also foot and horse artillery batteries, a corps of engineers, and garrison infantry.

The Saxons fought at the decisive Battle of Jena, where they acquitted themselves well, but changed sides after the campaign, joining the group of central European states bound in alliance with France known as the Confederation of the Rhine.


In 1771, Augustus George became the last Margrave of Baden-Baden when he died without sons. All his territories passed to his 6th cousin twice removed and nearest heir – the Margrave of Baden-Durlach, Charles Frederick (reigned 1738–1811). For the third and last time, all the Badener lands became united under a single ruler.

Although Baden was finally united, its domains were fragmented and widespread on both sides of the Upper Rhine River, with the total area of 1,350 sq mi (3,500 km2). When Charles Frederick became the Margrave in 1738, he made it his personal mission to fill the gaps in his territories. His first opportunity came in 1792, when war broke out between France and Austria. The Badeners fought for Austria, leaving Baden devastated when they lost. Their cavalry was very good but the infantry was mediocre in this period.

Charles Frederick had to pay an indemnity and cede his territories on the left bank of the Rhine to France. He had his second chance a few years later, as an enemy of Napoleon, on the side of Alexander I, the Tsar of Russia. In 1803, because of the efforts of the Tsar, the Margrave gained the Bishopric of Constance, parts of the Rhenish Palatinate, and several other smaller districts, thereby gaining the dignity of an Elector-Prince.

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