LEIPZIG (BATTLE OF THE NATIONS)

h08c
Germany_Leipzig

16–18 October 1813

johann-peter-krafft-victory-declaration-to-the-allied-monarchs-after-the-battle-of-leipzig-in-1813-1816-fc3bcrstlich-fc3bcrstenbergische-sammlungen-donaueschingen

Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)-‘victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813’-oil on canvas-1813   Berlin-Deutsches Historiches Museum. The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was fought between Napoleon and the three Allied armies that had been approaching the city for several days: the Army of Bohemia (Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg), the Army of Silesia (General Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher), and the Army of the North (former French marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden). Napoleon suffered a major defeat, which decided the campaign in Germany. He then fell back from Saxony to France.

Battle_of_Leipzig_11
1052px-Leipzig_Battle.svg

Battle of Leipzig, October 16 actions.

1052px-Leipzig_Battle_2.svg

Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions.

Forces Engaged

Allied: 57,000 Prussians (Army of Silesia). Commander: Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. 160,000 Austrians and Russians (Army of Bohemia). Commander: Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. 65,000 Swedes and Russians (Army of the North). Commander: Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte.

French: 160,000 men. Commander: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Importance

The battle at Leipzig marked the beginning of true European cooperation against Napoleon. Allied victory broke his power, leading to the invasion of France and Napoleon’s abdiction the following year.

Historical Setting

After Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia at the end of 1812, during which he lost the bulk of the half-million-soldier army with which he invaded, no one in Europe expected him to recover so quickly. He reached Paris well before the news of the Russian fiasco and was able to immediately build another army by robbing future conscription rolls. That meant that most of the enrollees in the new Grande Armée were barely of military age, but they were nonetheless enthusiastic. Napoleon transferred some veterans out of Spain to stiffen the ranks with experienced fighters and then marched east toward the countries that he had long dominated and who were now organizing against him.

As Napoleon previously had conquered one European country after another, he had forced them into alliance with him. In the wake of the Russian campaign, many of those countries withdrew from their compacts. Although that weakened Napoleon’s hold on northern and eastern Europe, he needed to fear his former allies only if they combined. In early 1813, that seemed somewhat doubtful, as Russia, Prussia, Austria, and a few German principalities such as Saxony eyed each other with suspicion. They looked past the immediate danger of Napoleon’s new army to which power might try to fill the vacuum left by the French emperor’s demise, and that fear of the future almost stopped any short-term cooperation. The primary figure attempting to coordinate an anti-French alliance was Austrian Foreign Minister Karl von Metternich. He had held his post since 1807 and had brokered a marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise, daughter of Austria’s Emperor Francis I. In 1813, however, to bring Napoleon down, Metternich was eager to subvert the alliance that he had arranged. Convincing Russia, Prussia, and the other European powers to agree was a slow process. Still, in March, he organized the Sixth Coalition: Austria, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, and Great Britain. Soon 100,000 men were in position between Dresden and Magdeburg.

Napoleon planned to reconquer these enemies in the same way he had conquered them in the first place, by attacking each separately before they could join and present him with overwhelming numbers. He had two major problems to overcome, however. The first was the inexperience of most of his army; the second was the lack of cavalry, most of which had perished in Russia. Without the cavalry, the gathering of intelligence was severely curtailed, and thus his ability to locate enemy forces and defeat them in detail was hampered. Still, he was active in late spring and summer 1813.

On 2 May, Napoleon defeated a Prussian force outside Leipzig at Lützen, but the lack of cavalry meant that he was unaware of an enemy force on his flank until they attacked. He beat them back and occupied Leipzig, but failed to win decisively. The French quickly marched on Dresden and captured that city and then fought the Russians nearby at Bautzen on 20–21 May. Again Napoleon drove his enemy from the field, but again was unable to destroy them. In the two battles combined, both sides lost about 38,000 men each. Soon Napoleon learned of large armies marching on his position from north, south, and east, so he negotiated a truce on 4 June that lasted just over 2 months.

In that time, he continued to mass and resupply his forces, as did his enemies. Metternich met with Napoleon for 9 hours on 26 June in Dresden, but no negotiated peace settlement could be reached. Metternich offered a lasting peace on the basis of Napoleon ceding almost all the territory he had captured outside France’s natural borders. That would mean giving up the desired French border of the Rhine River, as well as French conquests in Italy and Spain. Napoleon, not surprisingly, refused. Metternich later claimed that, to brand Napoleon as the aggressor, he made a reasonable offer that he knew would not be accepted. Napoleon knew he could not accept such an offer and remain emperor of France because his people would not allow their European empire to be taken away from them without a fight. By the time the truce ended on 16 August, both sides had amassed immense forces.

The Battle

Napoleon had 300,000 men in Germany, but he placed a corps in a defensive position at the port city of Hamburg to threaten the Prussian rear and a corps at Dresden (southeast of Leipzig) near the Bohemian (Czech) border. In standard Napoleonic fashion, he had his remaining units spread out to live off the land as much as possible, but near enough together to support one another in case of attack. The allies decided that the best strategy would be to harry Napoleon’s subordinates, defeating them as often as possible while avoiding a major battle until overwhelming forces could be arrayed against him.

This they proceeded to do: Swedish Crown Prince Bernadotte (a former marshal of Napoleon) defeated Napoleon’s Marshal Oudinot at Grossbeeren, south of Berlin, on 23 August; Prussia’s Marshall Gebhard von Blücher beat Marshal Macdonald at Katzbach on 26 August. The enemy being in too many places at once, Napoleon exhausted himself and his men marching and countermarching to aid his subordinates. When he heard of an Austrian attack on Dresden, he forced his young army on yet another rapid move. He beat back the assault, but his worn out troops could not follow up the victory. More such battles took place in September and early October, and then the French withdrew back to Leipzig before allied pressure on all fronts.

On 15 October, Napoleon turned to face Blücher’s advancing Prussians from the north, but soon had to face about and deal with the larger Austrian Army of Bohemia approaching from the south. The Army of Bohemia numbered 160,000 Austrians and Russians commanded by Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. When day broke on 16 October 1813, the field upon which Napoleon had chosen to deploy his men was covered with mist. Both sides had massed artillery, and that weapon did the most damage. The village of Wachau was the scene of most of the fighting, and it changed hands three times during the course of the day. By noon, Prince Karl’s troops held the town, and then Napoleon launched his own attack. The land across which the armies fought was crossed by a number of streams, marshes, and woods and was perfect for defense. Napoleon, however, wanted to break the Austro-Russian line with massed artillery and then turn left and roll up the allied armies arrayed in a semicircle to the east of Leipzig. Early in the afternoon, he began pummeling the Austro-Russian force with his artillery. After an hour, he ordered his cavalry under Marshal Murat to attack. Murat’s 10,000 men easily pushed back the first enemy troops they encountered, but Russian Czar Alexander quickly ordered his reserves to shift to the southern flank. When they arrived, the French cavalry was exhausted, and the Russian cavalry drove them off the field, restoring the Army of Bohemia’s lines.

As Napoleon attempted to break through in the south, he held the northern flank with minimal force. Marshal Marmont defended the town of Mockern against Blücher’s Prussians in a bitterly fought struggle. Neither Prussian nor French soldiers showed any mercy, and few prisoners were taken by either side. Marmont held the town most of the day, but in the afternoon a chance Prussian cannonball found a French ammunition wagon and the explosion not only demoralized the French troops but wounded Marmont so badly that he had to be evacuated. By day’s end, the Prussians were in possession of the ruins of Mockern.

When the sun set on 16 October, Napoleon had failed to break through the Army of Bohemia and found himself in danger of losing Leipzig to the Prussians. On the next day, however, little fighting took place. Both sides received reinforcement, however, so the battle was merely delayed. For the allies, the Swedes of Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte finally arrived. Had he made haste and been available on 16 October, the numbers may well have been sufficient for the northern French flank to have been overwhelmed and Napoleon trapped. His arrival, however, boosted the allied armies to 300,000 men and almost 1,500 cannon. After a halfhearted attempt at opening negotiations, Napoleon prepared to stage a fighting withdrawal. On 18 October, fighting was once again intense, and he pulled his forces back into Leipzig after a unit of Saxons under French command defected to the Prussians. That night, he ordered his men to retreat westward down the only road available, through the town of Lindenau, where the only available stone bridge across the Elster River was located. It was very narrow, however, and a bottleneck quickly formed. Napoleon ordered a force of 30,000 to remain as a rear guard, but they were unable to retreat across the Elster because of the premature destruction of the bridge. Many French troops died on the bridge or in attempts to swim across the river, and the rear guard was annihilated.

Results

Napoleon’s star, already sinking after the Russian campaign of 1812, finally set at Leipzig. Going into battle with an army less than adequately trained hurt him badly, and the loss of more than 60,000 dead, wounded, and prisoners reduced his force to 100,000 as he retreated toward France. Harassment and desertion whittled that number down to 60,000 by the time he had reached Paris. He still held the throne, but it was only a matter of time before he was forced to step down. The allies, although they also lost about 60,000 men, could better afford such casualties. They also picked up more allies. Bavaria abandoned Napoleon on 18 October, and the Netherlands as well as the collection of principalities that Napoleon had organized into the Confederation of the Rhine both rebelled against his rule in November. On 8 November, the allies once again offered a peace settlement returning France to borders behind the Alps and well back from the Rhine, and foolishly Napoleon rejected the offer. Therefore, on 21 December 1813, the allied armies crossed the Rhine and invaded France. During the first 3 months of 1814, a string of battles was fought across northern France, climaxing in the battle for Paris on 30 March. Napoleon abdicated unconditionally on 11 April and was exiled to the small island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

Napoleon had shown in those battles of early 1814 his traditional abilities to maneuver and win, but each battle depleted his already small forces. After Leipzig, it was a numbers game he could not win. Had he played his cards differently at Leipzig, however, the battle’s outcome could have been altered. Instead of leaving thousands of men defending Hamburg and Dresden, a concentration of forces could have given him the strength he needed to win. Marmont’s force holding the northern flank against the Prussians was woefully small, and with a greater attacking force against the Army of Bohemia in the south he might have broken through and won the battle. As stated earlier, the allies were cooperating but mutually suspicious; a defeat at Leipzig may have crumbled the united front and given Napoleon much more bargaining power.

The allied victory, however, strengthened Metternich’s hand and the result, in 1815, was the Concert of Europe, dedicated to maintaining a balance of power in Europe. That cooperative effort kept European countries from gaining too much individual power and kept them from fighting each other until the Crimean War in 1854. Not until the 1880s did that balance of power begin to fall apart with the ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany. The victory at Leipzig not only proved that Napoleon could and would be beaten, but that European nations could and would profitably cooperate.

Action at Saalfeld, (10 October 1806)

The first major confrontation in the 1806 campaign between French and Prussian forces. Marshal Jean Lannes, faced by a smaller force under the command of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Hohenzollern, was given the task of taking Saalfeld. A combination of French tactical initiative and poor Prussian deployment led to the defeat of the Prussian force and to the death of Prince Louis.

Early in the Prussian campaign, Prince Louis commanded the advance guard of Frederick Louis, Prince Hohenlohe’s corps of the Prussian army and was given orders to hold Saalfeld. Lannes, conversely, had instructions to take Saalfeld, provided the enemy were discovered to be numerically inferior to his forces. Lannes duly sent out cavalry patrols to ascertain the strength of the enemy. Prince Louis had deployed his force in three lines, outside the town, but he had made little attempt to occupy the villages on his flanks. The ground was also broken up by a number of streams running in steep ravines down to the river Saale. The river itself was directly to the rear of the Prussian position. As Lannes advanced from the wooded hills to the south of Saalfeld, he was able to observe the entire enemy position. Initially he deployed in skirmish order the first of his troops to arrive on the battlefield, and they quickly advanced under the cover of the ravines. He also deployed a battalion composed entirely of the elite companies (grenadiers and voltigeurs) of his infantry to pin down the Prussians defending Saalfeld.

The French then seized the villages that flanked the Prussian line and began to issue an effective fire on the exposed lines of troops. This bombardment continued for about two hours. By now Lannes had received reinforcements and was determined to attack the Prussian right wing. Prince Louis, realizing that his line of communications was threatened, weakened his center in order to deploy troops onto a low ridge to the right of his main line, called the Sandberg. He then took the decision to launch an attack in the center against a screen of French skirmishers. The troops in the center were Saxons, and despite their bravery in attack they were repulsed by the skirmishers on their flanks and fresh French troops to their front. Having blunted the enemy advance, Lannes began an artillery bombardment before launching his own assault. French troops attacked the Sandberg, which allowed a combined infantry and cavalry assault to be delivered against the Prussian center. The four Saxon battalions there quickly broke.

In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Prince Louis led five squadrons of his own cavalry forward, in the course of which he was killed in single combat by a French sergeant of hussars. The Prussian force was now broken, and in the cavalry pursuit that followed nearly thirty guns were taken, together with 1,500 prisoners. The Prussian survivors were forced to rally 4 miles to the north of Saalfeld. The French victory began to dispel the myth of Prussian invincibility and provided a vital morale boost for the French army prior to the decisive battles to be fought at Jena and Auerstädt only days later.

Wargame: Preparation for Saalfeld 1806

Königgrätz: Battle of Eagles

The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.

In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.

Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Königgrätz/Sadowa/ on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Königgrätz. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines.

At Königgrätz the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘

Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:

Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.

He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Königgrätz the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.

This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Königgrätz the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Königgrätz was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.

After Königgrätz

The victory of Sadowa made General von Moltke a celebrity, though an unlikely one. Intellectual, thin, clean-shaven, crisp and dry in speech and writing, he had the air more of an ascetic than a warrior. Although a gifted translator, he was so taciturn that the joke went that he could be silent in seven different languages. In 1867 he accompanied the king to the Paris Exhibition, was presented with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and had conversations with French marshals Niel and Canrobert. The social niceties over, he returned to his office in Berlin to devote his thought to the problems of waging war against France. As professional military men, both he and Niel privately believed that a war between France and the North German Confederation was inevitable. As Niel once put it, the two countries were not so much at peace as in a state of armistice.

It was Moltke’s job, as it was Niel’s, to ensure that his country was ready when the test came, and he went about his task diligently. As a conservative Prussian, he saw France as the principal source of the dangerous infections of democracy, radicalism and anarchy. As a German, he shared the nationalist belief that Germany could become secure only by neutralizing the French threat once and for all.

Following the war of 1866, the Prussian army became the core of the Army of the North German Confederation. Under War Minister Roon’s direction, integration of the contingents of the annexed states into the Prussian military system proceeded without delay. As Prussian units were regionally based, other states’ forces were readily accommodated into the order of battle while respecting state loyalties. Thus troops from Schleswig-Holstein became IX Corps of the Confederation Army, those of Hanover X Corps, those of Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt XI Corps and the forces of Saxony XII Corps. In addition to the manpower provided by this regional expansion, the new army could call upon the enlarged pool of trained reserves produced by Roon’s earlier reforms. While maintaining an active army of 312,000 men in 1867, the Confederation could call on 500,000 more fully trained reservists on mobilization, plus the Landwehr for home defence. Once the southern states’ forces were included following the signing of military alliances, the numbers available swelled still further. By 1870 Germany would be able to mobilize over a million men.

The world had hardly seen such a large and well-disciplined force. Its backbone was the Prussian army, combat-hardened and commanded by experienced leaders, which had won the 1866 campaign. The post-war period allowed time to make promotions, weed out unsuitable commanders, and learn lessons of what could have been done better. The time was well used.

For instance, Prussian artillery had not performed as effectively as hoped against the Austrians for several reasons: faulty deployment, lack of coordination with other arms, technical failures, and want of tactical experience in handling a mixture of muzzle-loading smoothbores and the new breech-loading steel rifled cannons. All these deficiencies were addressed. At the king’s insistence, Krupp’s steel breech-loaders became standard, this time with Krupp’s own more reliable breech blocks. From 1867 General von Hindersin required gunners to train hard at a practice range in Berlin until firing rapidly and accurately at distant targets became second nature. Batteries also practised rushing forward together in mass, even ahead of their infantry, to bring enemy infantry quickly under converging fire. Time and again, this would prove a devastating tactic. If the Battle of Waterloo proverbially was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is small exaggeration to say that Sedan was won on Germany’s artillery ranges. The proficiency of German gunnery was to astound the French in 1870.

Less spectacular but equally important in conserving the lives of German troops were improvements to the medical service. The huge numbers of wounded after Königgrätz had swamped the medical services. Disease and infection had spread rapidly in overcrowded field hospitals. In 1867 the best civilian and military doctors were called to Berlin, and their recommendations for reform were implemented over the next two years. The medical service was put in charge of a Surgeon General and army doctors were given enhanced authority and rank. Sanitary arrangements for the health of troops in the field were revised and their enforcement became part of the regular duties of troop commanders, who were also issued with pamphlets explaining their responsibilities under the 1864 Geneva Convention. Troops were issued with individual field-dressings to staunch bleeding. Medical units were created and all their personnel issued with Red Cross armbands. The units included stretcher-bearers trained in first aid who would be responsible for evacuating the wounded from the front to field hospitals. From there evacuation to base hospitals would be by rail using specially fitted out hospital trains. Once back in Germany, where the new Red Cross movement was taken very seriously, the wounded would be cared for with the help of civilian doctors assisted by volunteer nurses recruited and trained under the active patronage of Queen Augusta. Yet there would be no conflict of authorities in wartime, nor any room for civilian volunteers wandering about the combat zone under their own devices. The work of civilian doctors and nurses would be directed by a central military authority in Berlin. Like the artillery, the medical service was transformed between 1866 and 1870 by a systematic approach to overcoming the problems experienced in modern war.

This approach was epitomized by the General Staff itself under Moltke’s direction. In 1866 the General Staff had established itself as the controlling brain of the army and had won confidence by its success. It recruited only the very best graduates from the Army War College, and had expanded to over one hundred officers, who were assigned either to specialist sections or to field commands. Its task was to ensure that the army in wartime operated like a well-oiled machine to a common plan. It worked effectively because it was well integrated with the command chain and avoided unnecessary centralization. Army corps were responsible for carrying out their part of the plan. The commander of every major unit had a chief of staff who was in effect Moltke’s representative. Many senior commanders had themselves done staff duties, just as General Staff officers were required periodically to move to operational duties so that they understood the problems of field commanders. Germany’s 15,000 officers were expected to show initiative in achieving objectives laid out in a general plan, and to understand their duty to support other units in pursuit of it. Moltke organized regular staff rides and war games to provide his officers with experience in solving command problems, together with related skills like map reading in the field. Intelligence on French forces and plans was continuously gathered and updated.

Jena-Auerstädt Campaign (1806) Part I

The stunning speed with which Napoleon overthrew the much-vaunted Prussian army in the fall of 1806 was dramatic, even by the standards this great captain set. Following on from his decisive defeat of the Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz in December 1805, Napoleon now established himself as master of central Europe with the Jena- Auerstädt campaign, ending attempts by Russia to play a significant role in European affairs for several years.

Since the Treaty of Basle of 1795, Prussia had maintained a policy of neutrality with France, but the incessant expansion of the Napoleonic Empire caused friction in government circles in Berlin and led to increasing calls for war with France. The war party in Prussia grew in influence.

When war broke out between Britain and France in 1803, General Adolphe Mortier occupied Hanover and disbanded its army. Prussia, supposedly the defender of north Germany, did not oppose this act. Effectively, the Treaty of Basle had ceased to have force. King Frederick William III did everything he could to avoid giving Napoleon cause for a confrontation and ignored suggestions that he should mobilize a corps of observation. When the War of the Third Coalition of Austria, Russia, Britain, and Sweden began in 1805, Napoleon sought to ensure Prussia’s neutrality by offering it Hanover. Frederick William was tempted but rejected this offer, as Napoleon made recognition of his conquests in Italy a prerequisite. Russia also put pressure on Frederick William, demanding the right of passage through Prussian territory for its forces. Caught in the middle, part of the Prussian army was mobilized that September.

Hardly had this mobilization begun when a French corps under Marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte violated Prussian neutrality. This corps marched from Hanover southward through the Prussian enclave of Ansbach on 3 October, looting and pillaging as it went. This caused considerable outrage in Prussia and led to calls for war. The Russians were finally allowed passage through Prussian territory. Around 180,000 Prussian troops were placed on a war footing.

Napoleon needed to act quickly, and act quickly he did. His rapid maneuvers caused an Austrian force in southwest Germany under Feldmarschalleutnant Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich to capitulate at Ulm. While Prussia was trying to negotiate an armed peace, the French moved on Vienna. By the Treaty of Potsdam, concluded on 3 November, the Prussians agreed to enter the war with an army of 180,000 men, including contingents from Saxony and Hesse, should Napoleon refuse to make peace within four weeks of the departure from Berlin of the Prussian envoy Christian Graf von Haugwitz. Napoleon kept him at arm’s length until after his victory at Austerlitz on 2 December. The strategic situation now having been so fundamentally changed, Haugwitz agreed to an exchange of territory with Napoleon, ceding the Prussian possessions of Ansbach, Cleves (Kleve), and Neuchatel (a Prussian enclave in Switzerland) in return for Hanover. But peace had come at a price. The acquisition of Hanover led Prussia into a dispute with Britain, its only potential ally in Europe now. Prussia was now isolated.

Seeing his chance, Napoleon started to goad Prussia into war. Joachim Murat, a French marshal and the Grand Duke of Berg, seized Prussian territory at Verden and Essen, in western Germany. French troops massed in Berg, threatening Prussia. Napoleon had suggested that Prussia should form a North German Confederation, but he then prevented it from carrying this out. Having induced Frederick William to accept Hanover, Napoleon then commenced peace negotiations with Britain, offering to return this territory. He did so without Prussia’s knowledge, but the Prussian ambassador in Paris discovered it. This was the final provocation and the immediate cause for war.

Despite the gravity of the situation and the obvious, growing threat from France, Prussia entered this war ill prepared, and it lacked unity both in the government and in the higher command of the army. Frederick William did not have the strength of character or the authoritative demeanor necessary to impose his will on the arguing generals and politicians. The constant bickering hampered all operations. Nevertheless, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, irritated by the failure of his negotiations with Napoleon, promised to help, but his forces were far away. Britain too offered aid but moved slowly. Sweden declared its support but could do little. All that joined Prussia immediately was a contingent from Hesse and the reluctant Saxon army.

On 9 August 1806 the Prussian forces were ordered to mobilize. They entered this conflict with great expectations. Although the army had not been to war for ten years, its leaders had observed the development of warfare in the ensuing campaigns and had introduced a number of reforms. However, these attempts at modernization were underfunded and achieved less than was necessary. Napoleon’s army had been fully trained at the camp at Boulogne, and its veteran cadres were flushed with the great victories of 1805. Napoleon’s well-honed forces faced the army Europe respected above all others. The stage was set for the forthcoming War of the Fourth Coalition.

Strategically and politically, Prussia’s position was not straightforward. France was one of Europe’s most populous countries at this time, with a population of nearly 30 million. Prussia had the resources of only 8.7 million people, 2.5 million of whom were Poles, many of whom had only become Prussian subjects through the recent partitions of their country. Russia’s support was essential, but Russia was considered an unreliable ally. There were rumors it was discussing peace with Napoleon, but these rumors were quashed on 3 September when a report arrived in Paris that Alexander had rejected Napoleon’s overtures. As a result, Napoleon now refused to remove his troops from southern Germany and began his preparations for war.

The Prussians feared Napoleon would strike first. France’s occupation of the left bank of the Rhine left General Gebhard von Blücher’s men in Westphalia out on a limb. The fate of Mack’s Austrians the previous year must have been fresh in everybody’s minds. Plans were made to withdraw Blücher’s men over the river Elbe, but this would have left the Hessians in an exposed position and caused the Saxons consternation. Blücher also considered that his Westphalians would be reluctant to leave their home area, and he feared many would desert. Instead, the Prussians decided to concentrate to the fore, furthest away from the Russians. This would exacerbate the general strategic weakness of their position.

The Prussians raised a field army of seven corps of varying strengths: the Westphalian, the Hanoverian, the Magdeburg, the 1st Reserve, the Silesian, the West Prussian, and the Pomeranian. The fortresses of Magdeburg, Hamlin, and Nienburg were placed in a state of defense. To increase the mobility of the army, much of the heavier artillery pieces were left behind and the baggage train was reduced to a minimum. However, these measures were taken too far, for large parts of the army ran out of ammunition. The East Prussians were not mobilized, as they were needed to keep an eye on the Russians.

After some deliberations, the main part of the Prussian forces, around 65,000 men, were placed under the command of Charles, Duke of Brunswick, while Friedrich Ludwig Fürst Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen (known as Hohenlohe) was given command of a Prusso-Saxon corps of around 45,000 men. A corps of 34,000 men was left to cover Westphalia and Hesse, and 18,000 West Prussians were left in reserve. Brunswick and Hohenlohe were deployed facing Napoleon’s forces concentrating in southern Germany.

On 26 September 1806 Prussia sent an ultimatum demanding the immediate withdrawal of the French armies across the Rhine and Napoleon’s assent to the formation of the promised North German Confederation under Prussian leadership. Napoleon did not bother to respond, so on 8 October Prussia declared war. Napoleon was better prepared for this eventuality, having kept the Grande Armée in Germany for that very purpose. He concentrated his 180,000 men on the river Main, determined to strike at Berlin before help could arrive from Russia.

Napoleon was now assembling his IV (under Marshal Nicolas Soult), VI (under Marshal Michel Ney), and VII (under Marshal Pierre-François-Charles Augereau) Corps in Franconia. On 3 October Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps arrived in Bamberg and Marshal François Lefebvre’s V Corps was moving to join them. The Prussians moved into Saxony to meet them. Napoleon’s plan was simply to locate and destroy the Prussians before any assistance from the Russians could arrive. An advance from southern Germany on Berlin would isolate the Prussians in the west, forcing them to withdraw.

The Prussians, only 145,000 strong, decided to seek victory alone rather than fall back toward the east and await the arrival of the tsar’s forces. The difference in numbers was not in itself decisive, but there is only one thing worse than dividing one’s army into two before the enemy, and that is dividing it into three, which is precisely what the Prussians did. Frederick William had not been able to get Brunswick to collaborate with Hohenlohe, so each was allowed to take the measures he considered appropriate. A third force of 15,000 men under General Ernst Friedrich Wilhelm von Rüchel was also formed. They faced 180,000 of Napoleon’s veterans under a unified command. The resulting confusion diminished the chances of a successful outcome.

Napoleon now moved into Saxony marching in three columns. Soult (IV Corps) led the right column, about 40,000 men strong, with Ney (VI Corps) and the Bavarian contingent following him. It moved via Hof on Plauen. Bernadotte (I Corps) led the center column, about 70,000 men, with Davout (III Corps), much of the Reserve Cavalry, and the Imperial Guard following him. They moved from Kronach in the direction of Schleiz. The V Corps, now under Marshal Jean Lannes, led the left column, about 50,000 men, followed by Augereau (VII Corps). They moved toward Saalfeld and crossed the frontier on 8 October.

Fortunately for Napoleon, the Prussians had neglected to block the passages through the Thüringian Forest. The Grande Armée’s three columns formed into a bataillon carré (battalion square), which would allow it to counter any offensive actions from the Prussians. The column attacked would simply fight a delaying action, falling back if necessary, allowing the remaining columns to swing into action against the Prussian flank. That day ended with Lannes’s column moving toward Saalfeld and Soult’s moving toward Hof. Matters were going well for Napoleon. The unity of command and the greater experience of recent warfare gave the French a considerable advantage.

The lack of a single command and of a clear objective hindered Prussian countermoves. The first sign of what was to come took place at Saalfeld on 10 October. Here, Lannes overwhelmed and defeated an exposed Prusso-Saxon force of around 8,000 men under the youthful and impetuous Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was killed in action. This body of men was the vanguard of Hohenlohe’s corps. It had been outnumbered 2 to 1 in this combat, so the result was to be expected. However, the death of the popular prince at the hands of a French hussar caused consternation in both the army and the nation. The frictions between the Prussians and the Saxons increased. The rot began to set in.

Expecting the Prussians to fall back on Gera to cover Leipzig, Napoleon marched north in the hope of catching the Prussian corps individually. His cavalry patrols located the main Prussian force further to the north or west, not to the northeast. No Prussians were sighted in Gera or on the river Elster. Napoleon concluded that the Prussians were to the west and would offer battle around Erfurt, so he ordered his columns to wheel to the left.

Brunswick declined to hold the line of the river Saale. Hohenlohe fell back on Jena, while Brunswick advanced on Weimar. Bernadotte wheeled toward the center column, while Davout passed through Naumburg. By taking this crossing at the river Unstrut, the French had cut off the Prussians’ intended line of retreat and their communication with Berlin. Their council of war now decided to fall back on Leipzig via Auerstädt, the Kösen Pass, Freyburg, and Merseburg. Hohenlohe was ordered to protect the flank of the main body, occupying the village of Kapellendorf, halfway between Weimar and Jena.

Not expecting to face the Prussians in battle for a few days yet, Napoleon reacted quickly to news of sightings of their actual positions and movements. Believing the main body of the Prussians was on the far side of Jena, he decided to strike, calling in the support of parts of the right column to join the left and center.

The battles of Jena and Auerstädt were confused affairs. At Auerstädt, Brunswick, with 50,000 men, bumped into Davout’s force of 27,000 men blocking his line of retreat. Davout’s successful defense of Hassenhausen is legendary. He repelled Brunswick, who was mortally wounded, leaving his men leaderless.

Napoleon met what he considered the main Prussian force at Jena. He started the affair with around 55,000 men against Hohenlohe’s 40,000 Prusso-Saxon corps. Another 40,000 men had joined Napoleon by noon, and weight of numbers told. Rüchel’s force of 15,000 men arrived too late to play much of a part other than to get caught up in the confusion of retreat. Although driven back in disorder, the Prussians had not disgraced themselves, but Napoleon pursued with vigor, turning the retreat into a rout. Napoleon considered that his victory at Jena had expunged the stain of the French defeat at Rossbach during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Jena-Auerstädt Campaign (1806) Part II

This painting of Pierre Vafflard (1777-1837) shows the removal of Rossbach columns by the French, four days after the battle of Jena. The symbol is one that cannot be clearer: Napoleon avenged the defeat that Frederick II of Prussia had inflicted on the army from Louis XV to this meme place 49 years earlier. One of the two columns will be taken to Paris.

The destruction of the Prussian forces in these twin battles caused considerable demoralization. While certain battalions and squadrons did everything possible to hold together, the army no longer had a leader to reverse its fortunes. What made matters worse was that the great fortresses that might have checked the French advance and given the field army a chance to rally and reorganize capitulated without so much as firing a shot. Spandau, Stettin, Küstrin, and Magdeburg surrendered, breaking Prussia’s back. On 25 October the French entered Berlin.

The painter Charles Meynier represents, four years after the events, Napoleon’s entry into Berlin, October 27, 1806. Surrounded by Chasseurs of his guard and followed by his marshals, the Emperor passes under the triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate. The crowd displays very various emotions from pain to curiosity and admiration. No resistance is registered. The real awakening of the Prussian patriotic feeling will occur several years later.

Three days later, the remnants of Hohenlohe’s force, 10,000 men, capitulated at Prenzlau. The only force that had shown much spirit was one that gravitated toward Blücher. It fought its way to the Baltic coast before being forced to surrender at Rackau near Lübeck on 7 November. Only East Prussia and some fortresses along the Baltic coast now held out against Napoleon.

Prussia was now utterly broken. The losses the Prussians suffered in the two battles are difficult to determine exactly. However, the Prussians lost around 10,000 killed or wounded at Jena, along with 15,000 prisoners, 34 colors, and 120 guns, against a loss to Napoleon of around 5,000 men. At Auerstädt, the Prussian losses were around 15,000 dead and wounded, 3,000 prisoners, and 115 guns, while the French lost 7,000 dead and wounded. After the whirlwind pursuit, the Prussians no longer had an army and had lost control of all their territory west of the Oder River.

Immediately after the Battle of Jena, Napoleon had demanded the cession of all Prussian territory west of the Elbe River. However, after the ignominious capitulation of so many key fortresses, he further demanded that Prussia accept French occupation of all Prussian territory up to the Vistula River and that all uncaptured fortresses should surrender. Frederick William refused these terms and fell back into East Prussia, hoping to secure the help of Russia.

The Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (Friedrich August) III who had supported the Prussians previously, now submitted to Napoleon. In return, he was made king of Saxony as Frederick Augustus I and joined the Confederation of the Rhine.

Napoleon now entered East Prussia, having gained a large number of Polish recruits by promising the restoration of their country’s independence. He besieged the important fortress of Danzig (now Gdansk) at the mouth of the Vistula. It held out until 24 May 1807. The Pomeranian fortress of Kolberg under General August von Gneisenau successfully resisted until the end of the war.

In the Battle of Eylau of 8 February 1807 Napoleon lost 35,000 of his veterans in a bloody stalemate with a Russian army under General Levin Bennigsen, supported by a corps of Prussians. The relatively easy victories of Napoleon’s earlier campaigns were not to be repeated. The Allies undertook to continue the war by the Treaty of Bartenstein of 26 April. However, Prussia was too weak to do much, Britain was committed to various colonial adventures, and Sweden hardly got involved. As Austria remained neutral, Napoleon now concentrated on dealing with Russia. His victory over Bennigsen at Friedland on 14 June ended the military phase of the war. It was concluded with the Treaty of Tilsit of 9 July 1807.

Napoleon took the opportunity of reducing the nation that had once been his greatest threat to the status of a second-rate power. Prussia lost all its territory west of the Elbe, which was included in a new Kingdom of Westphalia with Napoleon’s brother Jérome Bonaparte as king. Much of its Polish territories were included in the new Duchy of Warsaw under the king of Saxony. Prussian ports were closed to British commerce, extending the Continental System established by the Berlin Decrees of 21 November 1806. The tsar could have argued for more lenient treatment for Prussia, but secret clauses to the treaty allowed Russia to gain territory at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. That compensated for Napoleon’s gains in central Europe.

This peace settlement was payment to Prussia for its pursuit of a policy of neutrality with France. For over ten years, Prussia had allowed the burden of the defense of Germany to fall on Austria’s shoulders. Even then, it was not too late to change this. Had Prussia wholeheartedly committed itself to supporting Austria and Russia in 1805, then Napoleon’s empire may well have ended then. Even in 1806 Russia was considered a potential enemy, so an inappropriate strategy of an aggressive defense was implemented, allowing Napoleon to strike first, quickly and decisively. Prussia played into Napoleon’s hands and paid the price.

The Treaty of Tilsit marked the zenith of Napoleon’s power. Russia and France had effectively divided the continent of Europe between them. Only Britain, master of the seas, remained opposed to Napoleon. As a result of its folly, Prussia was to suffer several years of humiliation and was not to resume its opposition to France until 1813.

Prussia

The Kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia, with its capital at Berlin, was a central European state, part of whose territories were included in the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of Brandenburg was a prince elector of the empire. As well as the core provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania, East Prussia, and Silesia, the king of Prussia also ruled over enclaves in western Germany and acquired substantial gains during the Partitions of Poland toward the end of the eighteenth century. Ruled by the House of Hohenzollern, Prussia had risen from relative obscurity in the early eighteenth century to become a great power, thanks largely to the wars of conquest undertaken by Frederick the Great. This increase in status put Prussia in the position of being a rival to Austria for hegemony in Germany.

Prussia’s population in 1795 was around 8.5 million inhabitants, including 2.5 million Poles. Following the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807, Prussia was left with around 5 million inhabitants. Territorial gains after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 increased this to about 10.3 million. The population was largely rural; the capital and principal city, Berlin, had about 172,000 inhabitants. The economy was largely agrarian based; some three-quarters of the population were farmers. Prussia was devastated by the costs of the war and the indemnity demanded by the French after the defeat in 1806. The national debt increased from 55 million taler in 1806 to 206 million taler in 1816.

The territorial gains made in western Germany in 1815 changed Prussia’s strategic position in Europe, taking it from being a central European power with an eye toward the East to one leaning more to the West. As well as sharing a border with Russia and Austria, Prussia now had a common frontier with France. The new territories in the Rhineland were economically more advanced and rich in natural resources but did not enjoy a territorial link with the main part of Prussia to the east. The settlement made in Vienna in 1815 determined the pattern of European politics for the coming hundred years.

Although Prussia enjoyed considerably fewer resources than its larger neighbors, it was nevertheless one of Europe’s great powers and able to raise substantial military forces when required. The Prussian Army had a good reputation for its effectiveness on the field of battle, its professionalism, especially of its officer corps, and its aggressive spirit. Other armies copied its methods. Despite that, the Prussian Army suffered the most devastating defeat of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the campaign of 1806.

Prussia committed substantial forces to the earlier campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars. An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded France in the fall of 1792. It took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun before being halted at Valmy on 20 September. Prussian forces fought in the Rhineland for the next three years, acquitting themselves well against the invading French, with their light forces performing particularly well. The costs of this war drained the Prussian economy, and because there were easier pickings in the East, the Prussians withdrew from the war with the Treaty of Basle in 1795. This separate peace with France began a decade of Prussian isolation that ended with the catastrophe of 1806.

The Prussian Army did mobilize its forces toward the end of 1805, but the planned intervention in the War of the Third Coalition did not come to fruition because Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz on 2 December preempted this. Having conquered Austria and thrown Russia’s army out of central Europe, Napoleon next turned his attention to Prussia. He goaded Prussia into a war in unfavorable circumstances in the fall of 1806, the Prussian army suffered a severe defeat at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt on 14 October, and any chance of continuing the war vanished in the wake of the highly effective pursuit undertaken by Napoleon’s forces and the capitulation of several important fortresses. The Treaty of Tilsit concluded the following summer reduced Prussia to a second-rate power subservient to Napoleon’s wishes.

The years that followed were marked by economic devastation caused by the reparations demanded by Napoleon and the costs of supplying an army of occupation. Patriots such as Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg, Heinrich Freiherr vom Stein, Gebhard von Blücher, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and August von Gneisenau plotted and conspired against the French. Secret societies prepared the country’s intellectuals both mentally and physically for an uprising.

The unrest became apparent in 1809, with a regiment of hussars commanded by Ferdinand von Schill staging an uprising in support of the Austrians, who were now at war with France. Frederick William III considered it untimely to risk all for a confrontation with Napoleon and did what was necessary to suppress the discontent. A group of dissatisfied officers, including Karl von Clausewitz, left the army in protest in 1812, when a contingent of 20,000 Prussians marched under the command of General Johann von Yorck with Napoleon into Russia. Fortunately for the Prussians, they were allocated to the left wing of the Grande Armée, so they did not suffer the fate of the main body on its retreat from Moscow. Yorck allowed his corps to become separated from the French at the end of 1812 and withdrew it from the war with Russia with the Convention of Tauroggen (28 December 1812). This act of rebellion sparked the uprising in northern Germany that developed into what became known as the War of Liberation.

Having signed an alliance with Russia at Kalisch on 28 February 1813, Prussia went to war with France a month later. Although outnumbered by Napoleon’s forces, the Prusso-Russian army acquitted itself well in the spring campaign of 1813, fighting the battles of Lützen and Bautzen. Joined by Austria that fall, the Allies were overwhelmingly victorious at Leipzig in October. With Napoleon now driven out of Germany, the Allies pressed on to Paris in the spring of 1814. An army of Russians and Prussians under Blücher played a significant part in these events, fighting battles such as Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Craonne, Laon, and Vauchamps.

In 1815 the lion’s share of the fighting was to fall on the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, which fought three battles in a whirlwind campaign, at Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo, before blazing its way to Paris, taking a number of French fortresses in its path. Appropriately, it was Blücher’s Prussians that first entered Paris in 1815, marking the end of the Napoleonic era.

The Beginning of the Seven Years’ War

Prince Anton Wenzel Kaunitz

The reversal of the alliances

Austrian Chancellor Prince Anton Wenzel Kaunitz had already seen the possibilities and his presence earlier in Paris gave him the opportunity to soften up the French court further, not least through contact with the influential mistress of the French King, Madame de Pompadour. Here Kaunitz deployed flattery, opening a correspondence between the French Marchioness and his own Empress which so indulged the Frenchwoman that she became the most ardent supporter of an Austro-French alliance. From the beginning Maria Theresa fully supported Kaunitz’s vision of a dramatic ‘Renversement des alliances’.

Recalled to Vienna, Kaunitz pursued his policy with vigour. He worked hard to lull London into believing the ancient alliance was solid while inflaming tensions wherever possible between Prussia and England. Gradually London began to suspect Austrian intentions but Kaunitz still managed to temporise. In order to secure France, Kaunitz had to break with England but he dare not do this without having assured himself of France’s support. The negotiations on troop numbers in the Netherlands proved fertile ground for spinning things out. As the Duke of Newcastle had pointed out, the Austrian Netherlands was ‘a kind of common country’ shared by Austria, Britain and the Dutch. It was also London’s commercial door to the Continent.

In 1755 matters came to a head and the Empress listed her grievances against the English court and the maritime powers, noting that she ‘has never had the satisfaction of seeing her allies do justice to her principles’. Further, she responded to London’s claims that England had spent so much blood and treasure to support the House of Austria by pointing out: ‘to those efforts England owes its present greatness, riches and liberty’.

London’s statesmen began to realise something was moving and peremptorily demanded a guarantee of military aid to Hanover in the event of French aggression, to ‘display the real intentions of the court of Vienna’. Kaunitz simply referred them to the Empress’s note, knowing full well that this would provoke the King of England to turn to Prussia and thus assist further the rupture between Berlin and Paris.

The nurturing of an alliance with France was only the keystone of Kaunitz’s new diplomatic architecture. He intended to secure more allies to destroy the King in Prussia. To this end his negotiations with Russia promised parts of Prussia and Pomerania to the Empress Elizabeth in return for a Russian army descending on Frederick. In another set of negotiations, part of Pomerania was vouchsafed to Sweden in return for a Swedish army crossing the Prussian frontier. Saxony, the arch-enemy of Prussia, would also join in the war.

Kaunitz at this stage could not know if this deadly constellation would prove fatal for Prussia or even guarantee the return of Silesia but if this remarkable diplomatic revolution could be achieved he realised that the war which would follow from it would annihilate Frederick’s armies and, if not utterly destroy his country of barely five million, it would almost certainly prevent Prussia from menacing Austria and indeed Europe for a hundred years. From his sleepy baroque castle in Moravia, from which avenues lined with fruit trees spread out for miles in the direction of Vienna, Kaunitz polished and worked on his plan.

These negotiations were conducted with great secrecy. At a suitable moment, and with the Empress’s backing, Kaunitz summoned the Council of State to announce his plans to the ministers and the Emperor. Maria Theresa feigned ignorance of the entire stratagem, aware that Kaunitz’s proposal was not only brilliantly unorthodox but likely to incur considerable disapproval. Once again Maria Theresa was supporting wholeheartedly a gifted man whose intellectual vision was infinitely greater than her own. Her judgement of character as in the case of Van Swieten was, however, faultless: Kaunitz was the diplomatic genius of the age.

When the day came for Kaunitz to propose his plan, he had barely announced his intentions when the Emperor, Maria Theresa’s husband Francis Stephen, rising up with great emotion brought his fist firmly down on the table and exclaimed, ‘Such an unnatural alliance is impracticable and shall never take place.’ The monarch instantly left the room. This was not a promising beginning but Maria Theresa was nothing if not mistress in her own house and she encouraged Kaunitz to proceed with the details in Francis’s absence. After affecting much interest, the Empress resolved to bring her husband round and spoke with such enthusiasm for Kaunitz’s plans that no minister dared to contradict them.

In the event London panicked and signed a treaty with Prussia in January affording Maria Theresa the moral high ground of accusing England of ‘abandoning the old system’ first with this new Convention of Westminster. On 13 May 1756 she expressed her disappointment with England to the British envoy. Not by one breath did she admit that two weeks earlier at Versailles Austria and France had signed their own treaty whereby Austria promised to defend French dominions in Europe (though maintaining neutrality towards England), while France was to aid Austria without any exception. France and Austria, enemies for three hundred years now found themselves, to their own astonishment, placed in close proximity and all the rules of political calculation hitherto held as immutable were at one stroke demolished. In modern parlance Kaunitz and Maria Theresa had really thought ‘outside the box’.

Not that it should be imagined Prussia was to be an innocent victim in all this. Frederick had already admitted ‘I very much should like to tear Bohemia away from her’ and he envisaged a renewal of hostilities that would destroy Habsburg hegemony once and for all. Prussia would take Bohemia, Bavaria would revive her claims to Upper Austria and Tyrol, France would dismember the Netherlands and Sardinia would absorb Lombardy.

Fortunately for Austria, Frederick, whatever his talents, possessed none of the gifts of Kaunitz. The King in Prussia soon realised that the Convention of Westminster was a fatal diplomatic blunder that had bought him neither time nor a credible ally on the mainland of Europe. England could not help Prussia against the deadly alliance that was threatening to encircle Frederick. There was no naval dimension to renewed campaigning in Silesia and not even any British troops to create a distraction.

Only a preventative war launched with rapidity could possibly stave off the fatal constellation gathering around his country and thus Frederick, like Germany in 1914, was to launch a quick assault on a neighbour, in this case Saxony, in the hope of seizing the initiative in a multi-front war. Frederick saw that Austria had not completed her preparations and so determined to fight a limited campaign to knock out his most implacable foe. With Vienna humbled, the coalition against him would fall apart. Demanding an unambivalent statement of Habsburg intentions, he received as he expected an utterly unsatisfactory response. Maria Theresa simply replied: ‘In the present crisis I deem it necessary to take measures for the security of myself and my allies which tend to the prejudice of no one.’ Austria had no intention of violating any treaty but neither would she bind herself by any promise which might prevent her acting ‘as circumstances required’.

This was all Frederick needed. The Prussian Canton system of conscription efficiently and rapidly brought Frederick’s army up to about 150,000 men. Speed and aggression were the watchwords of this force and its supreme commander. Meticulous planning was another quality. The destruction of Saxony was to be accompanied by a merciless but premeditated pillaging of its resources to support the Prussian war effort. Of the country’s 6 million thaler annual revenue 5 million were to be sequestered for the Prussian military machine. This annual ‘tribute’ alone would secure the survival of the Prussian economy and represented a third of the total of the Prussian war effort. The Prussian army moved swiftly at the end of August 1756 to occupy Dresden and bottle up the Saxon army in the fortress of Pirna. In a matter of days the Kingdom of Saxony was looted and systematically stripped of her wealth.

Frederick’s personal responsibility for the destruction and exploitation that followed was immense. His vindictiveness was unlimited towards those who had crossed him and he appears to have taken great delight in ordering the Prussian Freikorps’ detonation of the Saxon statesman, Count Brühl’s schloss, with the proviso of course that it should appear that he knew nothing of the pillage. Even the British representative at Frederick’s court commented after the wanton sacking of Hubertsburg castle that these actions demonstrated ‘a meanness that I am really ashamed to narrate’.

The Prussian irruption into Saxony was the price Maria Theresa appeared willing to pay to maintain the moral high ground and show up Frederick as an unambiguous aggressor and breaker of treaties. But Frederick, who had published his own manifestos of half-truths and dubious history, was uninterested in such niceties. He pushed on into Bohemia hoping to compel the Saxons in Pirna to give up any hope of relief, capturing Teschen and Aussig an der Elbe (Dečin and Usti nad Labem in modern Czech) along the north-western Bohemian frontier. To counter this audacious move was an Austrian army of 32,465 troops supported by a corps of some 22,000 under Piccolomini, all of them under the newly promoted Field Marshal Maximilian Ulysses Browne.

Maximilian Ulysses Browne

Browne’s defence of Bohemia

Browne’s task was initially to relieve Pirna but Frederick’s blitzkrieg made the defence of Bohemia his first priority. A plan was devised to check and hold the Prussians in an engagement while relief to the Saxons was organised through the difficult but picturesque terrain of the mountains of ‘Saxon Switzerland’ via a ‘flying column’. On 1 October 1756, Browne skilfully deployed a force of Croatian irregulars on the tangled slopes of the volcanic Lobosch hill. Behind this was the right flank of his army but most of his troops were cunningly concealed behind the marshy banks of the Morellen stream. The Prussian King fell for the trap. Believing the Croats were simply the rearguard of an army moving away from him he ordered the Duke of Bevern to clear the hill and thus enable the rest of the Austrian army to be attacked in the flank.

The Battle of Lobositz that ensued was to remain a bitter memory for Frederick for the rest of his life. As Bevern advanced to drive the Croats from their positions, he was met by a murderous rapid fire from skirmishers in concealed positions, which brought his infantry to a standstill. If this was not enough to do more than irritate Frederick, he was suddenly given a vivid example of the progress made with Liechtenstein’s artillery reforms. As Frederick ordered his cavalry to chase what he thought was a retreating Austrian cavalry division, the Austrian horsemen led their Prussian pursuers directly on to the guns of the Habsburg batteries drawn up behind the Morellen stream. These opened fire with case at 300 paces with devastating effect. The Prussian horse was cut down in a matter of seconds and soon fled in utter disorder. It could not be rallied, even when Frederick ordered his own infantry to fire at them to prevent them throwing his entire centre into disarray.

A second cavalry charge fared little better and as the fog cleared around midday Frederick became demoralised. He was aware that his heavy cavalry had ceased to exist as an effective fighting arm so he promptly removed himself from the battlefield, leaving Field Marshal Keith to save what could be saved. The Croats were now being supported by regular Austrian units under Lacy and the Prussian infantry attack stalled and began to waver. But at this moment, as so often in warfare, the fate of individuals decided the day. Lacy was wounded and carried from the battle, with a dispiriting effect on his troops. Keith seeing the Austrian offensive falter organised a vigorous counter-attack and began rolling up the Austrian infantry. Browne seeing his advance guard in difficulties ordered them to withdraw, covering it with the main part of his force, which effectively halted any attempt by the Prussians at pursuit and brought the battle to an end. Prussian casualties were noticeably higher than the Austrian losses, which were computed at 2,873. Keith had saved the day for Frederick and his army was in undisputed possession of the battlefield once Bevern had driven out the remaining Croats, but it had been at a terrible cost.

As an officer attached to Frederick noted:

On this occasion Frederick did not come up against the same kind of Austrians he had beaten in four battles in a row. He was not dealing with people like Neipperg or the blustering Prince Charles of Lorraine. He faced Browne who had grown grey in the service and whose talent and experience had raised him to one of the heroes of his time. He faced an artillery which Prince Liechtenstein had brought to perfection at his own expense. He faced an army which during ten years of peace had attained a greater mastery of the arts of war.

Meanwhile Browne stole away with 9,000 men through the wooded hills on the left bank of the Elbe and in a series of impressive forced marches, unheard of in an Austrian army of five years earlier, arrived opposite the Saxon troops. But these were too demoralised to provide any opportunities to rally and they consistently failed to communicate with Browne, forcing him to return to Bohemia. Shortly after this the Saxons surrendered to the Prussians, giving Austro-Saxon cooperation a very poor name.

Frederick had hoped to establish his winter quarters but the Battle of Lobositz despite the Frederician propaganda had in fact been a draw. Browne now commanded the country around Frederick’s forces and used his irregular troops to harry and plunder Prussian lines of communication so that the King in Prussia had little choice but to withdraw his army back to Saxony for the winter. The Austrian army had certainly not failed its first test.

The Saxon army on the other hand met a fate which was considered highly innovative for the time. It was simply incorporated into the Prussian army. Only the officers were allowed the ‘choice’ between swearing loyalty to Prussia and incarceration. This step, heartless, bold and cynical, caused protests even in Prussia. Frederick saw them off with the comment: ‘I take pride in being original.’ In fact, from a practical point of view, it would turn out to be a grave error. The Saxons proved notoriously unreliable in battle fighting for their Prussian masters. More than two-thirds deserted while the incorporation of a nation’s entire fighting force into new uniforms, oaths and drills under Prussian command was rightly and widely seen at the time as sinister proof of Prussian expansionary tendencies.

Moreover, in France any lingering sympathy for Frederick was strongly dissipated by his behaviour in Saxony. The Dauphin after all was married to the daughter of the Elector. But Frederick was like many cruel cynics utterly oblivious to the effects of his behaviour. Nowhere was this to have more devastating consequences for him than with regard to Russia. Lulled by the wildly over-optimistic reports of the incompetent and boorish British envoy Charles Hanbury Williams, Frederick was encouraged to think that bribing the Russian minister Bestuzhev would secure Russian neutrality. On Hanbury’s advice he ordered the transfer of the payment and even denuded his units in East Prussia, so convinced was he by the Englishman’s dispatches. On Christmas Day the news, an unwelcome Christmas present, arrived. The payment notwithstanding, Russia was preparing to put an army of 100,000 into the field against Prussia the following spring.

Frederick invades Bohemia again

Again Frederick was persuaded that Bohemia was the key to his strategy. He had to seize the initiative and commit his entire army to nothing less than a four-pronged invasion of Bohemia to deliver, in his words, the ‘Grand Coup’. On 18 April 1757 this formidable invasion force crossed the frontier at four points, causing panic and consternation throughout Bohemia. The ‘final reckoning’ between the two pre-eminent dynasties of the German speaking lands was at hand.

After some debate, one Austrian army under Charles of Lorraine fell back on Prague to await the arrival of another, under Daun. So concerned was Kaunitz at the turn of events and disagreements between Lorraine and his brilliant subordinate Ulysses Browne that he set off with his personal physician from Vienna to Prague to instil some sense of coherence into Austrian strategy, which seemed to be crumbling before Prussia’s blitzkrieg. But Kaunitz left too late. On 6 May two Prussian armies effected their conjunction and now were marching on Prague to face an outnumbered foe.

Lorraine and Browne would have to fight alone without Daun. They drew up their troops east of Prague where today the heavily built up suburb of ŽiŽkov runs along raised ground. Frederick ordered his infantry to shoulder muskets to speed up their march and outflank the two Austrian lines but Browne immediately spotted the movement and deployed his second line in a 90-degree shift to confront the Prussians, opening fire on the massed Prussian infantry still in the act of deployment. Several Prussian regiments were completely overwhelmed and the Saxon regiments broke and fled. As Field Marshal Schwerin attempted to rally his infantry he fell in a hail of musket balls from the Austrian line which, in parade ground drill, was advancing and halting to fire a volley every fifty seconds. The Austrian artillery meanwhile had come into action and was rapidly depleting the Prussian infantry who were bogged down in soft wet ground.

At this point it looked as if the Prussians would be thrown back. Frederick once again fled the battlefield, blaming stomach cramps and fearing the worst, but Browne fell from his horse wounded by a cannonball and the Austrian attack faltered. The Prussian cavalry led by Ziethen’s ‘new’ Hussars showed that there was not much difference in quality between the imitation and the real thing. Striking the Austrian cavalry in the flank, the Prussians scattered their opponents and opened a gap in the angle between the Austrian infantry’s original and new lines. The crisis of the battle had arrived and Charles of Lorraine fainted at this moment with chest pains and had to be carried from the field. The Austrian attack ground to a halt and by mid-afternoon, faced with a weakening front, the regimental commanders chose to conduct a fighting withdrawal into the city, covered by cavalry. Thanks to the near-suicidal rearguard action of the Austrian cavalry somehow the army avoided annihilation and retreated successfully behind the walls of the city. Once again the Prussians had won but their casualties were higher than the Austrians’ (14,400 compared to the Austrians’ 13,400, of whom nearly 5,000 were prisoners).

Frederick, recovering from his brief panic, was confident that the Siege of Prague would be completed before any Austrian reinforcements could arrive and he interpreted the news of Kaunitz leaving Vienna as a sure sign that the Austrian Chancellor was coming to negotiate personally with him. Despite his extravagant powers of self-deception, Frederick was not utterly negligent, and he dispatched a screen of 25,000 men under Bevern to watch for any Austrian relief force.

On 7 May the relief force and its commander Daun were greeted by a fanfare announcing Kaunitz’s arrival. The two men had great confidence in each other and agreed a strategy to relieve Lorraine in Prague by retreating first to Kolín where forces could be gathered to give Daun the capacity to engage the Prussians on his own terms. Kaunitz would return to Vienna immediately to organise the reinforcements. Both men were critical of the sluggish concentration of Lorraine’s early movements and realised that the next weeks could decide the fate of their monarchy.

Kaunitz arrived back in Vienna on the morning of 11 May and went straight in his muddied boots to the Empress, brushing past the near-apoplectic protests of the Court Chamberlain, Khevenhueller who was, like so many of his family, unimpressed by any departure from official protocol. The Konferenz ‘in mixtis‘ of privy councillors and War Cabinet members cooled their heels while Kaunitz spent two hours with Maria Theresa apprising her of the details of the reverse at Prague and the urgent need to reinforce Daun.

The Chancellor drew up an 18-point plan to reinforce Daun, which was rapidly endorsed by the Empress and thus implemented without further delay. Within two weeks Daun’s force numbered more than 50,000 men and 156 guns. By the end of the first week of June he could even risk taking the offensive, and orders to this effect were dispatched from Vienna.

Wilhelm Stieber I

Having provided us with Clausewitz, Germany supplied an antidote in the guise of Wilhelm Stieber (1818–92). Not from Prussia himself, Stieber was born in Merseburg, Saxony, and had an English mother named Daisy who claimed descent from Oliver Cromwell. In 1820 the family moved to Berlin where his father held a position in the church. Naturally enough, Stieber was also expected to enter the church and so his father paid for him to study theology at Berlin University. While there he became interested in the case of a young Swedish janitor who had been accused of burglary. In those days anyone could defend an accused person in court. So, believing him innocent, Stieber took up the case and won the Swede’s acquittal.

This first taste of legal process opened Stieber to the possibility of a future outside the church. While his father continued to subsidize his studies, Stieber secretly began taking courses in law, public finance and administration. When Stieber eventually revealed his preference for a career in law, his father all but disowned him. Stieber was thrown out of the family home and his funds were cut off. This was a pivotal moment in the young man’s career. To continue with his studies, Stieber needed an income.

This necessity led him to work as a secretary to the criminal court and Berlin Police Department. Through this vocation Stieber was introduced to the work of Berlin police inspectors, who occasionally took him on arrests. He was immediately hooked on criminal investigation, so, after graduating as a junior barrister in 1844, Stieber applied for and was granted a place as a Berlin police inspector. He was quickly given a chance to impress. The Minister of the Interior asked for Stieber to be sent undercover into Silesia to conduct an investigation into an alleged ‘workers’ conspiracy’. Posing as a landscape artist named Schmidt, he quickly identified the ringleaders of the so-called ‘Silesian Weavers’ Uprising’ (4–6 June 1844) and under orders from Berlin had them rounded up and arrested.

However, it was during the riots of 1848 – the year of revolutions – when Stieber really came to the fore. With Berlin on the verge of rebellion, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV (ruled 1840–61) rode out onto the streets of the capital in an attempt to calm his subjects. He was quickly surrounded by an unruly mob and appeared in danger of being pushed from his mount. There are many different versions of what happened next, but Stieber’s memoirs recall how he seized a banner from one of the protestors and stood in front of the king’s horse, making a path through the crowd for him to pass. Shouting ‘The King is on your side – Make way for your King!’ Stieber managed to get the king back to the palace gates where the guards carried him to safety. In some accounts Stieber is said to have arranged the whole thing as a stunt to gain popularity with the king. Stieber claims the man he saved was in fact an actor posing as the Prussian monarch. Whatever the truth, the event certainly brought Stieber into the spotlight. When in November 1850 the notorious revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel was sprung from jail, a section known as the ‘Criminal Police’ was formed with cross-district jurisdiction – Stieber was its commander.

More significant was the king’s approval of Stieber’s assignment to monitor German communists attending the international industrial exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in October 1851. Stieber travelled to London again using the alias of Schmidt, but this time posing as a newspaper editor covering the exhibition. Enjoying the right to freedom of speech and assembly in the liberal British capital, a German newspaper editor named Karl Marx had been organizing an ‘International Communist League’. Stieber went to visit Marx, claiming to be carrying family news to a fictitious colleague, Friedrich Herzog, who was believed to be a member of the Communist League. Unsurprisingly, Marx had never heard of Herzog and unwisely told Stieber to consult with a German named Dietz who held records of the communist movement.

Before Stieber went looking for Dietz he chatted to Marx for a while. Talking of his own background, he told Marx he had studied medicine and was editor of a Berlin medical publication. On learning he had a medical background, Marx asked Stieber if he knew a good cure for haemorrhoids. He went on to say that it would be impossible for him to sit and write except for a medication made up by Dietz, himself a former apothecary. Confirming this was the same Dietz holding the League’s records, a plan hatched in Stieber’s mind. Bidding farewell to Marx he went to Dietz’s address, but not before forging Marx’s signature on a note reading: ‘Please bring me some medication and the files at once.’ Posing as a physician named Dr Schmidt, Stieber duped Dietz into handing over four volumes of information on the Communist League’s activities across the globe.

From London Stieber travelled to Paris where the communists appeared strongest and best organized. A few days after arriving, a man turned up in his apartment calling himself Cherval. He was a communist and had been sent to retrieve the stolen records. When Stieber refused to hand them over, Cherval drew a dagger and attacked him. Knocking his assailant unconscious with a chair, Stieber handcuffed him and interrogated him. Cherval was in fact a German who had adopted a French name on arriving in the country. Stieber promised to drop the charges relating to his attack if Cherval would spill the beans on his co-conspirators. The communist obliged and a number of significant arrests were made.

Returning to Germany, Stieber’s information led to yet more members of the Communist League being arrested. In reward for his efforts, in January 1853 Stieber was made director of the Security Division at Berlin. Thereafter he embarked on a number of police-related cases which are outside the scope of this study except in one respect. Through his investigations he became fascinated with the world of high-class prostitutes and their rich clientele, who were often high-ranking officers and members of government. He quickly realized that these men would be extremely vulnerable if the prostitutes were agents of a foreign power:

To my amazement, I discovered that among the prostitutes who frequented these brothels, there were actually many who had acquired a certain amount of education through their constant association with their highly-placed visitors, so they could recite lines by Virgil and Horace and often commanded an entire catalogue of legal and military concepts; and to my horror, found among them women who appeared to have been predestined to become spies… Some of them had already made a regular business out of enticing intimate, compromising information out of married men in the highest reaches of society and then extorting large sums of money from them by threatening to reveal these secrets to their wives.

Thinking it best to have these women on his side, to win them over Stieber helped establish a ‘Prostitutes Recovery Fund’. The whole vice trade became much more regulated and in return for his favour, prostitutes began to supply Stieber’s officers with information relating to crimes. Before long they had became the best police spies in the city.

Everything was going well for Stieber until 1857, when the king was declared insane after suffering a brain tumour. The throne passed to a regent, the king’s liberal-minded brother Wilhelm. With his royal protector out of the picture, Stieber’s many enemies had him imprisoned and ransacked his apartments looking for documents that might compromise their own positions. Unfortunately for them Stieber escaped from his cell and rescued the documents, which he knew would save his neck. Arguing his case in public through the newspapers, Stieber claimed that to accuse him of wrongdoing was to accuse the king himself. His accusers quickly drew a line under the business and Stieber was largely exonerated, albeit left without an appointment and put on half pay.

Continuing his work against communists and anarchists, Stieber went to St Petersburg. With him he took his dossiers on Russian revolutionaries working abroad in London and Paris. Arriving at a time when the Russian secret services were at an embryonic stage, Stieber was asked for advice on dealing with radicals living abroad. Stieber’s solution was to track down ex-pat Russian criminals, forgers and blackmailers and, in return for immunity from prosecution, these would be paid to spy on the radicals.

But Prussia was never far from Stieber’s mind. His rehabilitation came when in 1863 he uncovered a plot to assassinate the newly appointed Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck (1815–98). He was introduced to Bismarck by August Brass, founder of the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, who recommended him despite his unpopularity. The plot may have been a ruse on Stieber’s part, but Bismarck took it seriously enough. An assassination attempt was indeed attempted by a Russian revolutionary named Bakunin, but with the benefit of hindsight it does appear a somewhat stage-managed affair. Bakunin ended up shooting a dummy of Bismarck, and Stieber’s men were miraculously right on hand to arrest him. Charges were not pressed against the Russian, who was quietly slipped out of Prussia never to return. Stunt or not, Bismarck was impressed and from that moment, Stieber became his chief problem-solver.

Bismarck set a special mission for Stieber, one far more important than any he had thus far attempted. Bismarck’s greatest legacy would be the unification of the independent German states into a single political entity – Germany. However, at the time these independent German states looked to Austria for leadership rather than Prussia. Before any unification could take place, there would have to be a showdown with Austria. Bismarck wanted Stieber to observe and report upon Austria’s military preparedness.

The most commonly told story about Stieber is that, following Bismarck’s request, he went into Austria disguised as a harmless pedlar. By day he rode from village to village selling religious statuettes; at night he frequented inns, discretely selling pornographic cartoons to drinkers. Months later, having toured the country and built up maps of the military defences and stores, he returned to Berlin to make his report. So accurate were his findings that Bismarck and General von Moltke were able to confidently plan a lightning campaign which saw Austria defeated in seven weeks.

The story is a good yarn and is perhaps based on some elements of truth. However, it grossly over simplifies the true scale of Stieber’s operations and downplays his true genius, which was the organization of intelligence gathering. After asking him to spy on Austria, Bismarck gave Stieber ten days to formulate a plan for establishing a network of spies there. Undaunted by the scale of the task, Stieber applied the same patient methodology common in police detective work to military espionage.

Through analyzing past methods, Stieber realized that traditional methods of espionage had produced only limited results. Amateur spies did not have the technical knowledge to collect intelligence of real relevance. Also, in previous wars only small numbers of spies had been employed, making it easier for enemy counter-espionage services to concentrate their resources and pick them up or to feed them false intelligence. Stieber wanted to flood Austria with an ‘army’ of observers, draining police resources to the point where surveillance became unfeasible. If a single agent was caught they would know almost nothing about the other spies and even if several were caught they would have so little idea of the grand scheme of things that the damage would be negligible.

Austria would be divided into districts, each with a ‘home base’ set up and controlled by a ‘resident spy’. To avoid suspicion, ‘resident spies’ would not be foreigners, but natives of the district. Their districts would also be quite small so they would not have to make any unusual travel which might be noticed. Their first duty would be to recruit a network of informers throughout their assigned district and collect their reports. These reports would be sent to a central headquarters in Prussia where they would be assessed. Always kept up to date, the processed data would be passed on to the appropriate political or military authorities, enabling them to respond accordingly. However, when very important information came in from the resident spies, special agents would be sent into Austria to investigate it further. With the groundwork already done by resident spies, the job of these special agents would be much easier.

Wherever possible Stieber wanted the ‘resident spies’ to be recruited from among local journalists. If this was not possible, then the resident spy was to attempt to at least use journalists among his informants. While generals in the Crimean and American Civil Wars had been frustrated by the interference of the press, Stieber had recognized how powerful journalists were becoming and how they had a right to ask questions without causing suspicion. Through their profession they would have already made contacts in government and military circles – contacts that were like a tap waiting to be turned on. But why would normally reputable journalists spy for Prussia? Stieber knew that the weak point of most journalists was that they were always short of cash.

Bismarck approved of the plan and went one step further, allowing Stieber to form a Press Bureau. The king had already expressed concern how the London-based Reuter’s Telegraph Company had a monopoly on the news and as such controlled public opinion. He wanted a Prussian news service and so Stieber entered the perhaps yet murkier world of news management.

The observation service began in Austria under cover of ‘press activities’. One immediate problem was in funding the rapidly growing network of spies. In solving this issue, Bismarck proved himself as wily as Stieber, telling him to recruit captured forgers and counterfeiters from Berlin prisons. They were careful not to print so much Austrian money the economy would be destabilized, but just enough for funding never to be a problem.

With Austrian counter-espionage duties handed over to inept, retired police officers, Stieber’s agents were able to uncover a great deal of important facts, namely:

•     Austria also desired a united Germany, with a federation of states and them at the head. They believed this was achievable partly because most of the independent German states were, like them, Catholic, while Prussia was largely Protestant.

•     Austria did not expect a war and was totally unprepared for one.

•     The Austrian people were against war.

•     Austria would take two weeks longer than Prussia to mobilize its armies.

•     Austrian weapons were outdated and no match for the new Prussian ‘needle guns’.

Armed with these facts, Bismarck asked Stieber to stir up the Austrian population by spreading false stories in the Austrian press. The idea was to make the Austrian government so unpopular at home that it provoked them into declaring war on Prussia. At the same time, Bismarck asked Stieber to stir up trouble among the many different ethnic groups in the Austrian empire. Stieber hired 800 agitators from among Czech and Slovak dissidents who would start uprisings in Hungary, Dalmatia and Moravia should war be declared. He also made plans for a ‘Hungarian Freedom Legion’ made up of Austrian army deserters who would attempt to break Hungary away from Austria.

Wilhelm Stieber II

With war looming, Bismarck ordered Stieber to shut down his intelligence service in Austria so that there would be no clues that Prussia had spied on Austria in peacetime.5 Stieber’s concluding report to Bismarck included the allegation that Austrian emperor Franz Joseph had begun using a double on public occasions because of his fear of assassination. Additionally, two of the emperor’s closest advisors were highly paid Prussian agents and his wife was in love with an 18-year-old stable groom, while many members of his court had become opium addicts.

On 23 June 1866, ten days before the outbreak of the war, Stieber was placed in charge of protecting the king, Bismarck and the supreme Prussian headquarters on campaign, ensuring its safe movement through occupied terrain. To this end he formed a ‘Secret Field Police’ which accompanied headquarters through the war.

Although Stieber’s intelligence went a good way to deciding to go ahead with the war, it perhaps proved less effective during the actual conflict. The Austrians, Stieber noted, showed unexpected resolve and the Hungarian uprising was quickly quashed. If anything, the victory over the Austrians at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866 was more due to the superiority and rapid-fire of the new Prussian rifles than any great intelligence coup. At the end of the war, although Stieber was officially appointed a ‘privy councillor’, his failure to raise a Hungarian rebellion greatly rankled him.

The bitter tinge left after failure in Hungary would not fester for long, as Stieber was given even greater scope to build on his successes and failures during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). After defeating Austria, Bismarck decided upon the need for war against France and asked Stieber to spy on the country, primarily to warn of any French first strike. Bismarck told Stieber that money would be no object this time, as he had secretly confiscated funds from the Kingdom of Hanover, one of a number of smaller states incorporated into Prussia’s German empire, or Reich. Euphemistically dubbed the ‘funds of the Central News Bureau’, the use of the Hanoverian money meant that the costs of Stieber’s operations would not appear on the official Prussian defence budget and therefore his entire operation would remain secret from everyone.

In November 1869 Bismarck sent Stieber to Paris and had him investigate the new French Chassepot rifle and the much-dreaded mitrailleuse – an early form of machine gun. Stieber quickly learned the Chassepot rifle worked on the same principles as the Prussian needle gun and did not constitute as much a leap in technology as the French were boasting. The same applied to the mitrailleuse, which appeared to have been based on existing models dating back several decades. The mitrailleuse, Stieber reported, required a crew of three who could attain a rate of fire in the region of 1,000 rounds in three minutes with 66 per cent accuracy at 1,000 paces. However, the gun was prone to jamming and there was a high rate of misfire with its cartridges. Stieber also had serious doubts about its effectiveness against moving targets. His report concluded that the Prussians should fear it less than had previously been supposed.

While in Paris, this time posing as a journalist named Schmidt, Stieber began setting up a network of spies across France. Helping him with this task were several of the best agents from the war with Austria. Although Stieber knew that the easiest way to recruit spies was through the use of blackmail, he found this type of spy to be the least reliable. Instead he targeted officers and officials who needed large sums of money to pay off gambling debts and those who had been passed over for promotion, dismissed or otherwise disgraced. By making a systematic investigation into the finances of people with access to sensitive information, Stieber was able to draw up a list of those most in need of cash. He then arranged for them to receive a loan through a Hanoverian banking house with irresistible terms of credit. Once they accepted the terms of the loan agreement, they were well and truly in Stieber’s pocket.

Through these means, perhaps the most important piece of intelligence Stieber gained was that French troops were scattered round the globe defending the colonies or protecting the Papal States from the Italians. If France went to war, it would take time to recall these soldiers. Stieber predicted it would take France two full weeks to mobilize just 100,000 men against Germany. Bismarck told Stieber his information represented an ‘invitation to the German soldier’s boot.’

Stieber returned to Berlin, where his records office received thousands of dossiers on Frenchmen who might, with the right inducements, betray their homeland. Investigating other prominent people, Stieber began to build up detailed pictures of their lives, colleagues, wives, mistresses, secretaries, friends, house servants, recruiting as many as possible as spies. Stieber’s agents in Berlin also pored over lists of military and civil service promotions, always on the alert for those passed over time and time again. Once a potentially disgruntled candidate was identified, Stieber would send one of his undercover agents to recruit him.

Several of the major espionage coups were performed by an agent Stieber identified only by the initials ‘FM’. This agent reputedly made contact with and recruited a group of elite spies, all high-ranking opponents of the reign of French emperor Napoleon III. Stieber gave FM a free hand in running these spies and was rewarded with faith in the agent’s abilities when FM gained a copy of the French army’s deployment plans in the event of a war with Prussia. Having learned the location of these plans, FM obtained them by posing as a decorator and bluffing his way into the War Ministry with a ladder and a tin of paint. Once in the room, FM set up his tools and made a copy of plans in between decorating the walls.

The infiltration of agents into France proved much easier than with Austria. The operation was so successful even Stieber was surprised how many Frenchmen appeared willing to pass secrets to Prussia. He realized that these Frenchmen did not view their actions as treasonous, but saw themselves as liberators speeding up the end of an unpopular imperial regime. He boasted that even with agents in every significant military and political office in France, not a single one was discovered.

When hostilities commenced on 17 July 1870 Stieber took a very active role in the war and was given greater authority and more resources than during the Austro-Prussian War – including French-speaking officers. Bismarck again asked him to create a ‘field security police force’ to protect the king and his advisors. Added to this would be his duty to provide the German army with information on the enemy, to counteract the threat of enemy spies and to supervise what we might now call ‘embedded reporters’ – journalists travelling with the army. Stieber was also responsible for the supervision of postal traffic, which gave him a means to practise censorship.

A typical day for Stieber would begin with the arrival of couriers with reports and questions for him to answer. He could not neglect the news management of the war – press publications had to be supervised and foreign journalists provided with stories portraying the Prussian cause in a sympathetic light. Letters had to be checked and censored so as not to spread alarm at home, and all personally addressed mail arriving for the king, Bismarck and others had to be opened, looking for bombs or poison. During the night, or very early in the morning, reports from secret agents in the field would arrive, forcing Stieber to survive on an average of just two hours’ sleep a night with whatever he could snatch during the day. Twice a week he met with the king who asked for a summary of reports from agents in enemy territory. These reports were usually evaluated by comparing them with reports in the French press – other agents sending the French newspapers for Stieber’s scrutiny. Lastly, as suspected enemy spies were picked up, Stieber would interrogate them.

As the Prussian military juggernaut rolled into France, something of Stieber’s ruthless character is revealed in a letter to his ‘dear good wife’ dated 18 August 1870. In it he explained how French partisans were dealt with by the Prussian army:

Yesterday a French peasant fired on a wagon carrying Prussian wounded. But the joker was unsuccessful: two of the wounded still had good legs; they rushed into the house from where the shot had come and took the lad. They hung him from a rope suspended under his arms and slowly fired 34 times until he was dead. He was left there the whole day as an example.

Stieber began to use his spies to observe enemy troop movements. French soldiers, the spies reported, were extremely confident and expected a swift victory, so much so that their generals had not issued them with French maps, only ones of Germany. Spies were established in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons and Orléans, with others kept nearby so that Stieber could send them to where they were most required.

Stieber had a spy on Marshal MacMahon’s staff, who reported the French move to raise the siege of Metz. This information allowed Prussians under von Moltke to set a trap, which when sprung saw the French shut up in the fortress of Sedan. Here Stieber’s agents related the incredible news that Emperor Napoleon III was trapped inside the fortress with his soldiers. The French emperor was forced to surrender on 2 September along with 104,000 men. While Napoleon III went into exile in Britain, the Prussian king headed for Versailles to await the surrender of Paris, which was put under siege on 19 September.

Arriving at Versailles on 5 October a large crowd of ‘idle folk’ came out to meet the Prussian king, having been rounded up by Stieber. Among the onlookers were several curious foreigners, but the majority were Prussian secret police agents. From that time on, Prussian agents multiplied in the town with extraordinary abundance. Bismarck’s quarters were placed under strict guard, with police agents patrolling the street night and day. Stieber oversaw the surveillance of the town and began arbitrary and brutal arrests using the secret police. His officers and spies were notorious, searching and maltreating even the most upstanding of Versailles’ citizens.

On 13 and 14 October Stieber made detailed enquiries into the organization of the French police. His intention was to incorporate French police sergeants into the Prussian police with their wearing an armband in Prussian colours. Although the police sergeants did collaborate, they insisted on wearing armbands in the French tricolour for identification. Better assistance came from the local prostitutes Stieber protected in return for information. Stieber asked the prostitutes to inform on Prussian soldiers as much as on their French clientele.

Throughout their stay in Versailles the abuses continued. One of Stieber’s most trusted men, Lieutenant Zernicki, caused a scene when he asked the mayor of Versailles for 11lb (5kg) of candles to be taken to Stieber’s quarters at 3 Boulevard du Roi. When the candles did not arrive, Zernicki went to the town hall and threatened to put the mayor and the rest of the municipal council in prison. When one of the councillors asked Zernicki who he thought he was, the Prussian drew his sabre and called in some guards. Two of the councillors were seized and dragged off and were only saved when the local French commander went directly to Bismarck. Although Zernicki was told to keep clear of the town hall in future, he was soon promoted to captain for his activities in Versailles.

During the siege of Paris, Stieber faced and thwarted French attempts at aerial espionage. French balloons leaving the city had to be stopped because they were carrying messages to unoccupied parts of the country. For example, one balloon, the Galilée, was brought down by troopers of the Prussian 14th Hussars. Onboard were found 924lb (420kg) of letters and newspapers from the besieged city. The balloon’s aeronautes were taken to prison and then sent to Prussia to face a court martial. Because the balloons traversed the Prussian forward posts, the occupants were deemed technically to be spies and thus faced the death penalty. When dealing with balloons, Stieber found the newly invented Krupp anti-balloon cannon a double-edged sword. The guns proved so effective the balloonists were now almost always killed and were thus unavailable for interrogation. Later, when carrier pigeons replaced the balloons, the Germans sent hunting hawks after them and many messages were retrieved from round the necks of dead birds.

More decisive was Stieber’s investigation on secret communications between Versailles and Paris. His spies tracked down an extensive system of underground passages, which were being used to supply Paris with food. Every night up to 300 wagons passed through these tunnels with their wheels wrapped in cloth to prevent them making a noise. This discovery explained spy reports from inside the city that Paris had ample provisions for a siege. Stieber reported his findings to Bismarck, also pointing out that morale at home was plummeting because of the stalemate. With no end to the siege in sight, the order was given to open fire and bombard Paris. Until then the Prussians had refrained from indiscriminate firing on the city, but when they did results were almost instantaneous. After 5 January Prussian heavy-calibre artillery fired 10,000 shells into the city, destroying over 200 buildings. Stieber’s spies in the city reported that the storehouses had burned and people were killing cats and dogs for meat – they even reported the establishment of a rat market.

On the night of 23/24 January, Stieber’s agents inside Paris reported that a high-ranking person was coming out to negotiate. Stieber galloped back to his quarters and made arrangements to host the expected negotiations. After disguising his agents in civilian clothes, he prepared overnight lodgings for the French. ‘We lit a good fire,’ he wrote, ‘prepared two beds and, as the French believed that, like Versailles, we were dying of hunger, I did everything possible to procure some good food, desserts, pastries and so on.’ When the vice-president, Jules Favre, arrived at Stieber’s lodgings to spend the night, he had his agents watch him through the night, spying on Favre through a hole in the wall.

On 26 January an armistice was signed with very stiff conditions for the Parisians. Their forces had to disarm, abandon their fortifications and make a payment of 200 million francs within two weeks. When the Prussians entered the city, Stieber took French hostages whom he made walk ahead of the soldiers as ‘human shields’. Worse was to follow for France. On 1 March the treaty of Bordeaux was ratified, with France agreeing to pay a levy of 5 billion francs, and giving Alsace and parts of Lorraine to Germany. It was a disastrous conclusion to the war, which ultimately paved the way for further conflicts in the 20th century.

On 6 March the business was over. Stieber handed police matters back over to the French authorities and set out for home. For his much underrated part in the campaign Stieber received the Iron Cross. Schulmeister would have understood his pride in receiving it. On 17 March Stieber arrived in Berlin with the emperor and continued to manage the ‘Central News Bureau’. Although his attention was primarily fixed on the Social Democrat movement, he nonetheless expanded his espionage networks at home and abroad. As word of Stieber’s activities began to come to light after the Franco-Prussian War, so began the popular fear of ‘the German spy menace’.

The German secret service leading up to and during WWI was described by one of the most successful Allied spies during the war – a Netherlands-based businessman named Charles Lucieto. He considered the espionage system established by Germany as ‘gigantic’. Based in the Thiergarten in Berlin, the service consisted of three separate branches: political, naval and military.

The political branch was directly attached to the kaiser’s cabinet and was broken down into sections, each dealing with a single country. As its name implies, the function of the political branch was to gather intelligence on the political world that might be used to the profit of the Reich. The directors of this service had direct access to the kaiser, who maintained a lively interest in affairs of espionage. Its agents were the elite, usually drawn from the military and naval branches. Although it included members of the nobility, agents originated from all classes and sometimes even the criminal world. Agents were expected to obey selflessly and punctually and if for any reason the agent was ‘scorched’ – that is to say exposed – he could count on no official protection or acknowledgement. Because of this, such agents were paid extremely well from a ‘Black Chest’ for which the directors of the service were never called to account.

The intelligence arm of the Imperial German Navy was composed of four separate sections, including an Intelligence Branch, which was responsible for running agents and making reconnaissances. It also contained a Military-Political Branch, a Foreign Navies Branch and an Observation and Cryptanalytic Service, which, as the importance of radio interception became realized in the run-up to the First World War, grew into a large 458-man organization based in Neumünster.

The military branch of the secret service came under the direct supervision of the secretary of war and was responsible for supplying all military intelligence required by the German general staff. The service was divided into sub-divisions, each possessing both civilian and military agents. The agents were themselves divided into three classes.

The ‘Directors of Operations in foreign lands’ were the highest type of spy. Often retired officers, these were able to speak several languages fluently and were educated in technical and military matters, including topography, fortification and strategy. The Directors of Operations were expected to go after key enemy personnel, using blackmail to obtain the secrets desired by the general staff. In addition they were to supervise ‘Resident Agents’, corroborating and evaluating their reports, and maintaining contact through messenger spies, who ferried questionnaires and responses to and from the directors.

Separate from them were the ‘agents charged with special missions’. On entering the secret service, these agents were given a crash course of technical and engineering training by officers of the general staff. Once they had passed a stringent examination the agents were given posts in German embassies abroad. Independent from other spies, they were given great freedom to carry out their mission as they saw fit. The information they collected was encoded and sent to Berlin either with the diplomatic mail or by the embassy’s military attaché.

The ‘Resident Agents’ were the most numerous type of secret agent employed by the Germans. They were German nationals placed at the head of businesses or were self-employed and thus free to go off without attracting the attention either of friends or employers. Their commercial enterprises served as ‘cloaks’ for their espionage operations. Their businesses were often subsidized by the German secret service, which, by means of bogus business deals, was able to make payments to the spy. Although the intelligence they brought in was generally of low-grade importance, the sheer scale of it ensured the German military was kept informed of troop movements, fortification building and so on.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Stieber is said to have flooded France with such resident spies, with at least 15,000 operating there before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The first wave came in the guise of farm hands who began purchasing land and setting themselves up as farmers in their own right, by preference situated in the regions along the German border. More spies arrived as domestic servants, school teachers, professors and travelling salesmen. With money provided by the general staff, Stieber bought into the hotel industry, ensuring the largest and most prestigious international hotels were in German hands. Attracting a clientele of politicians, diplomats, generals and other members from the cream of society, German agents posing as hotel workers or prostitutes were in a prime position to overhear, steal or copy their secrets.

Stieber was behind the much publicized disgrace of the four-times French Minister of War, General de Cissey (1810–82). The general had been captured during the Franco-Prussian War and taken to Hamburg, where, although a prisoner of war, he enjoyed considerable day-to-day freedom. While captive, de Cissey took a German lover, the Baroness de Kaulla. After being repatriated at the end of the war, de Cissey became minister of war. A short time later Mademoiselle de Kaulla arrived in Paris to reignite the love affair. Unknown to the general, the baroness was working for and receiving funds from Stieber, who was very interested in de Cissey’s plans for restructuring the French army.

The matter came to a head in 1880 when the radical newspaper Le Petit Parisien accused de Cissey – now a senator – of communicating information to the Germans through his mistress, who they exposed as a spy. Although the editors were convicted of criminal libel and charges of treason could not be proved, it was shown that de Cissey had misappropriated the secret funds of his ministry and he was forced to resign. The great irony in this affair was that de Cissey had been the prime mover in creating a special section to counter German espionage and prevent a surprise attack.

One of Stieber’s most notorious achievements was the ‘Green House’, a high-class bordello in Berlin. Stieber staffed the ‘resort’ with police agents who monitored their patrons, drawn as they were only from ‘people of consequence’. Pandering to every imaginable vice, depravity and perversion, patrons were only admitted by invitation. However, these gratifications came at a price. Stieber would keep a file on each patron and when a favour was required, he would blackmail them by threatening to reveal their indiscretions.

A rare blip came late in Stieber’s remarkable career and involved a journalist. It concerned the news management of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 – a conference set up to agree the balance of power in the Balkans. The topics of debate were delicate and Bismarck wanted to keep them out of the newspapers. Not to be thwarted, the editor of The Times, John Delane, sent his Paris correspondent, Henri de Blowitz, to cover the story. Despite the presence of Stieber’s agents, who kept everyone under surveillance, a series of detailed ‘scoops’ began appearing in The Times. They began with the first day’s agenda and finished when a full copy of the agreement (the Treaty of Berlin) was published in The Times, almost as it was being signed.

Although Blowitz was suspected from the start, the secret police could not find any evidence of him meeting with anyone present at the debate. The truth did not come out until Blowitz’s memoirs were published in 1903. Before the conference opened, the journalist made an arrangement with one of the clerical staff. This ‘mole’ would write reports of the day’s proceedings and conceal them in the lining of his hat. He was then to hang the hat on a hat rack in the Kaiserhof Hotel. Blowitz – wearing an identical hat – would simply walk in, hang up his hat, dine and afterwards pick up the other hat on leaving.

Having succeeded where Pinkerton failed, by making the shift from police detective to military intelligence gatherer, Stieber must be viewed as one of the great spymasters in history. However, like so many other practitioners of the secret services, Stieber has been to a large degree demonized both at home and abroad. Despite his successes and although he was decorated many times, Stieber was an embarrassment to the Prussian military establishment. As early as 1867 von Moltke had established a rival intelligence bureau of his own. Many recognize in him the beginnings of the Nazi police state and more still have compared him to the propagandist Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945). He is routinely portrayed as a deviant and proverbial Bogeyman. The distaste he routinely inspires led one author to describe his rise to prominence as being ‘like some mushroom growth, up the backstairs of fashionable Berlin.’ When Stieber died, stricken by arthritis in 1892, his funeral, they say, was very well attended – not from well-wishers, but by people who wanted to make sure he was really dead.