The Victory of Ligny: A Vanished Triumph

Battle of Ligny by Theodore Yung

Once again, Napoleon succeeded in surprising and destabilizing his enemy. He moved his forces to the frontier without the knowledge of the enemy, and at dawn on June 15 he seized Charleroi.

Having no inkling of this, Wellington and Blücher were shocked. The former even panicked slightly. Instead of moving toward Blücher as agreed, he took steps to move closer to the embarkation ports, a truly British reflex. The deception had produced its fruits.

The Prussian commander was less affected by the appearance of the French due to a base treason. General Count Louis de Bourmont, commander of a French division and an ex-émigré who had been generously pardoned, deserted to the enemy and revealed the entire campaign plan to Blücher, who could not conceal his contempt for the deserter. Aided by this information, Blücher assembled all his forces around Ligny, where he decided to give battle.

Napoleon’s scheme of maneuver was as simple as usual: attack and fix Blücher at Ligny with Grouchy’s force; take him in reverse, moving Ney’s group from Quatre Bras; and exploit the results with the main reserve under the direct orders of the emperor. But things did not go according to plan on June 16.

At 8 a.m. on Friday, 16 June Napoleon was informed that the whole of the Prussian army seemed to have assembled at Sombreffe, so he left for the extreme right flank of his forces to check for himself, arriving at Fleurus at 11 a.m. Sure enough, the Prussians were there, so he ordered Marshal Ney, who he assumed would take the Quatre Bras crossroads with relative ease, to despatch a large body of his force to him to help rout the Prussians.

By the time Ney received Napoleon’s rather florid instructions — ‘The fate of France is in your hands. Thus do not hesitate even for a moment to carry out the manoeuvre’— he was no longer capable of carrying them out. For if Wellington had been relatively slow in concentrating his forces upon Quatre Bras, fearing that it might be a feint of Napoleon’s, Ney had been still more dilatory, and by the time he started to try to take the crossroads the British reserve had already begun arriving there after a thirty-mile march. Although the credit for saving Quatre Bras must go to the initiative of General Constant Rebecque, the Dutch chief of staff, who was early on the scene and recognised its strategic importance, the actual outcome of the battle of Quatre Bras itself was due to Wellington himself.

Wellington had set out from Brussels at 3 a.m., and by 11 a.m. he was conferring with Blücher at the Brye windmill overlooking the battlefield of Ligny. It is said that he trained his telescope on Napoleon, the first time he had ever set eyes on the man with whose name his fame was to be forever inextricably linked. They had both been born on islands, they had both attended French military academies and spoke French as their second language; they were the same age, born within three months of one another in 1769; they both excelled at topography and chose Hannibal as their ultimate hero, yet they had never hitherto faced one another across a field of battle. Nor were they destined to on 16 June, since Wellington only had time to give Blücher his considered opinion as to the Prussian displacements before being called off to command the defence of Quatre Bras.

The Duke politely criticised Blücher’s decision to present the whole Prussian army to Napoleon’s view — and artillery — in the old Continental manner, explaining his own preference of trying to conceal soldiers behind the reverse slopes of hills. ‘My men prefer to see the enemy,’ replied the proud, brave, but in this case also foolhardy Prussian. Wellington’s private estimation as he rode off was: ‘If they fight here, they will be damnably mauled.’ Sure enough, when Napoleon attacked, they were.

Marshal Ney, the veteran of seventy battles, might have won the splendid soubriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’in numerous engagements, but he was not an impressive commander when left in overall charge, and there were also fears that he had been suffering from a form of ‘combat fatigue’or ‘battle stress’ ever since the gruelling Russian campaign of 1812, when he had been left to command the French rearguard after Napoleon had fled back to Paris. He had certainly become highly unpredictable by 1815, and was quite possibly simply burnt out as a soldier. Napoleon once complained that Ney understood less than the youngest drummer boy in the French army, and certainly piled complaint on complaint upon his actions — and inactions — during the Waterloo campaign when he was exiled on St Helena.

Ney, who had fallen for Wellington’s tactic of concealing his troops in the Peninsular War, only attacked at Quatre Bras late and half-heartedly, even though Wellington was not on the battlefield in the early stages and had not hidden any troops. Nor had Ney yet received Napoleon’s urgent request that he send the bulk of his force to Ligny. Instead two battles — at Ligny and Quatre Bras — developed simultaneously only about seven miles from each other. Ney had too often in the Peninsula seen the ill-effect of attacking British infantry head on, and quite possibly feared that the crossroads of Quatre Bras hid another Wellingtonian deception, in the way that in 1810 the use of topography had won him the battle of Busaco against Marshal Masséna.

Believing that Ney could manage to take Quatre Bras with the troops already under his command, Napoleon sent a message to General Drouet d’Erlon, who was on his way to reinforce Ney from Gosselies with the 1st Corps, to march to the battlefield of Ligny instead, where fierce house-to-house combat had developed. By 5 p.m. Blücher’s force was hard-pressed, and he had to commit his reserves to the struggle, a dangerous moment for any commander when facing Napoleon. Had the French emperor been able to fling d’Erlon’s fresh troops into the battle, a rout would have been assured. But no such force was there, not least because d’Erlon had been counter-ordered by Ney to march to Quatre Bras instead. As it was, d’Erlon arrived on neither battlefield in time to affect the outcome of either engagement. The greatest living authority on the campaigns of Napoleon, Dr David Chandler, has stated that the importance of the non-appearance of d’Erlon’s corps at Ligny and Quatre Bras was crucial, since ‘in either … its intervention could have been decisive’.12

By the time nightfall had descended on the battlefield of Quatre Bras it was clear that there was a stalemate, with both sides in much the same position they had occupied before Ney had originally attacked. Over 9,000 lives had been lost — roughly equally on each side — to no significant strategic advantage to either.

Yet over at Ligny a few miles to the east it was a very different picture. Even despite d’Erlon’s non-appearance, Napoleon had conclusively given Blücher the damnable mauling that Wellington had predicted. The Emperor had delayed launching an attack by his Imperial Guard — the crack regiments nicknamed ‘Les Invincibles — until 7.30 p.m., but when he had — preceded by a huge artillery bombardment — it had proved decisive. Crying ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ the Guard had charged the Prussian centre with bayonets, supported by brigades of cavalry. Although Blücher personally counterattacked with only two brigades of cavalry, the French could not be turned back.

Darkness turned the defeat into a rout. Sixteen thousand Prussians were killed or wounded at Ligny, and around 8,000 Rhinelanders deserted the colours that night and simply returned home. Nonetheless the decision was taken by Blücher’s chief of staff General August von Gneisenau — in Blücher’s absence, because the marshal could not be found — that the army should act in a completely counter-intuitive way. Instead of retreating eastwards towards Liège and Prussia, the Prussians would instead go north to Wavre, where they could stay in touch with the Anglo-Allied army. Gneisenau was an Anglophobe, but he had nevertheless made the crucial decision of the campaign, one that Wellington himself hardly exaggerated when he described it as ‘the decisive moment of the century’.

If Gneisenau had returned to Prussia, Wellington would probably have had to retreat north towards Antwerp and the Channel ports and probably re-embark the British army back to the United Kingdom, as had happened on so many other equally humiliating occasions over the past quarter-century. The Royal Navy were used to shipping defeated British forces back from a Napoleon dominated Continent, and this time would have been no different. Yet with the Prussians still in the field, and liaising closely, there was still the prospect that they could pull off the coup that Napoleon missed at Ligny, that of bringing a fresh force onto the battlefield at the psychologically vital moment.

The Prussian retreat northward necessitated Wellington making a similar manoeuvre, giving up the crossroads that had been so hard fought over only the previous day. He could not risk having the combined forces of Napoleon and Ney fall upon him, so Saturday, 17 June was spent retreating to a highly defensible position some miles to the north, on the slopes of Mont St Jean, which — despite the best efforts of generations of French historians — will always be generally known as the battlefield of Waterloo. Old Blücher has had a damned good licking and gone back to Wavre, eighteen miles,’ Wellington said. ‘As he has gone back, we must go too. I suppose in England they’ll say we have been licked. Well, I can’t help it.’It had happened enough in the past; whenever Wellington had made tactical retreats in the Peninsula there had never been a shortage of those he termed ‘croakers’, especially among the radical Whigs in the parliamentary opposition, keen to suggest that he had been defeated.

The French, too, were happy to argue that Wellington had been ‘licked’. Napoleon sent back a report of the battle of Ligny to be printed in the official government newspaper Le Moniteur which suggested that the united Prussian and Anglo-Allied armies had been defeated. The propaganda sheet duly obliged and there were celebrations in the French capital.

As for Drout d’Erlon, he wobbled all day between Ney and Napoleon without taking part in the fighting at Ligny or at Quatre Bras. After the incomplete victory of Ligny, everything had to be done over.



“Der Alte Fritz”
Frederick the Great leading the Prussians at Zorndrof.
Painting by Carl Röchling

One other state especially benefited from the new society in Europe organized around the balance of power by the territorial states. Prussia was best able to exploit the revolution in technology and tactics in warfare, as Britain was best able to benefit from the commercial advantages of relative tranquility on the continent and of maritime expansion beyond. Prussia, by happenstance as much as planning, had been shaped by its ruling family into an instrumental, highly effective territorial state seeking its aggrandizement in carefully selected limited wars, always adding territories that would increase rather than divert the power of the center, avoiding dynastic overextension, and above all, separating the person of the ruler from the state that he and the state’s system of bureaucracy served. This last, of course, is the constitutional watermark of the territorial state, and contrasts sharply with its constitutional predecessor.

The kingdom of Prussia began its modern course in 1618, when the electorate of Brandenburg and the duchy of Prussia were united under a Hohenzollern prince. Prussia was hitherto a small state on the Baltic in Poland, to the east of the Vistula, once inhabited by Lithuanian tribes who were conquered and converted by the Knights of the Teutonic Order. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Brandenburg electorate had played an insignificant role until the succession of Frederick William, known as the Great Elector. It was he who transformed the electorate into a kingly state, observing the example of Louis XIV. At the Peace of Westphalia, the Great Elector was able to gain valuable accessions of contiguous territory, and in 1653 he secured a small grant to raise an army of a few thousand men from the estates in which the landed aristocracy was the main voice;* in return, the nobility were confirmed in their privileges and were given full jurisdiction within their lands and a guarantee of preferment as to official posts; in addition, the towns were confirmed in their judicial immunities and guild rules. To finance the army the estates agreed to the assessment by royal officials of land values on which a modest tax was levied—the Gener-alkriegskommissariat. In so doing the estates compromised their traditional right to tax themselves. Frederick William promptly used this reform to leverage higher taxes; when some estates objected, he levied taxes by force. By these measures he was able to create a highly centralized absolutist monarchy and its necessary accompaniment, a standing army, which by 1672 was 45,000 strong. Virtually all state resources were subordinated to the building up of the army. The royal bureaucracy responsible for levying taxes to support the army extended its control over many aspects of Prussian commercial life: in the towns where the tax was raised by an excise on goods, and in the country where levies against harvests and rents supplied revenue, these Prussian officials constituted a supervisory arm of the king and intensified the increasing centralism of Prussian economic life. The Prussian victory against the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675 had shaken Europe,  and the Great Elector’s successor, Frederick III, was recognized as King Frederick I of Prussia by the emperor. Superficial as this recognition may appear to us, it fulfilled a prerequisite for the formation of a territorial state by giving to the subjects of the Prussian crown a common name. Frederick’s son resumed the policy of strengthening the army.

This figure is well known to historians from Macaulay’s description: Frederick William I did indeed, it seems, walk into private houses and inspect the family dinner, and cane idlers when he happened to meet them on the street, and did fly into inexplicable rages as well as fits of depression. But he also first introduced universal conscription into military service, while exempting the bourgeois taxpayers, taking care to send peasant soldiers back to their farms at harvest time, and nurturing a textile industry with state purchases. By the time of his death in 1740, Prussia had a highly efficient bureaucracy, large financial reserves, and the fourth largest army in Europe (although the state ranked only tenth in territory and thirteenth in population).

In the same year, 1740, the Austrian emperor Charles VI died. With Charles, the male line died out and the throne passed to his daughter Maria Theresa. The last years of Charles’s reign had been clouded by his fears for her succession, and so he had persuaded the other European powers to subscribe to the Pragmatic Sanction, an agreement according to which they promised to observe and defend the integrity of Austrian possessions under Maria Theresa. Among the signers was Frederick II, the new king of Prussia.

Nevertheless, without warning, Frederick invaded Silesia, an Austrian possession that lay between the Brandenburg and Prussian lands of his state. In the ensuing three wars, he managed to retain Silesia, despite overwhelmingly adverse odds, and thereby almost doubled the size of his small kingdom. The following excerpt is from Frederick’s memorandum on the matter to his ministers:

Silesia is the portion of the [Austrian] heritage to which we have the strongest claim and which is most suitable to the House of Brandenburg. The superiority of our troops, the promptitude with which we can set them in motion, in a word, the clear advantage we have over our neighbors, gives us in this unexpected emergency an infinite superiority over all other powers of Europe…. England could not be jealous of my getting Silesia, which would do her no harm, and she needs allies. Holland will not care, all the more since the loans of the Amsterdam business world secured on Silesia will be guaranteed. If we cannot arrange with England and Holland, we can certainly make a deal with France, who cannot frustrate our designs and will welcome the abasement of the [Austrian] house. Russia alone might give us trouble. If the empress lives,… we can bribe the leading counsellors. If she dies, the Russians will be so occupied that they will have no time for foreign affairs… All this leads to the conclusion that we must occupy Silesia before the winter and then negotiate. When we are in possession we can negotiate with success.

To this remarkable document, Craig and George say only, “This memorandum really requires no comment. Here is a mind completely dominated by Staats raison, a mind that admits no legal or ethical bonds to state ambition.” Although this term translates to “reasons of state,” it has a connotation unique to the territorial state, in contrast to raison d‘état and to ragione di stato, which, as we have seen, reflect their respective constitutional origins. Staats raison is a rationale given on behalf of the State, an imperative that compels its strategic designs (such as the seizure of a proximate province for geostrategic reasons). It identifies the state with the country, the land. The raison d‘état is a reason invoked on behalf of a king, justifying his acts as being those imposed on him by the State (such as aid to Protestant princes by a Catholic king); it identifies the king with the State when he takes on the role of the state. Ragione di stato are reasons that distinguish the state code of behavior from the moral code of the prince (such as deceit or treachery) when the state takes on the role of the prince and the prince is relieved of his moral obligations as an individual. Each phrase, though it translates into the same English words, belongs to that constitutional order within which it acquired use—the territorial state, the kingly state, and the princely state, respectively.

Frederick’s seizure of Silesia had profound effects on the future of Germany, for when Austria lost Silesia, with its large population and important commercial resources, the western half of the Austrian empire ceased to be predominantly German, and Prussia became the primary force in Germany. Two further wars confirmed Frederick’s gains: the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 – 1748), in which various states abandoned the Pragmatic Sanction and joined Prussia in a bid for Austrian territories in the Netherlands, Italy, and Bohemia, and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), in which Prussia was supported only by Hanover and Great Britain (which took the war to North America and India, where British success was finally achieved). The Prussia of the Great Elector who inherited parcels of territory along the vulnerable north German plain, repeatedly crossed and recrossed by brutal mercenaries of every contending power in the Thirty Years’ War, had become one of the great powers of Europe in little more than twenty years. Moreover, the Great Elector’s Prussia, which had been so carefully modeled on the French kingly state, was transformed by his great-grandson, now called Frederick the Great, into a territorial state of singular intensity. It was Frederick, who entertained no self-doubts about his role at the apex of Prussian political society, who nevertheless described himself not as the incarnation of the State but as its “first servant.”

What sort of power was the Prussian state? It was highly stratified; it carefully husbanded its resources; it emphasized loyalty to the State rather than to the dynasty; it encouraged economic growth in manufactures, trade, and agriculture rather than stripping these enterprises of their wealth for the Crown; and it derived all of these imperatives from a desire to create and maintain an army well beyond what most observers would have regarded as its means. In Frederick’s view, the State must assure a careful balance between classes within the State, and between economic power and the diversion of economic resources to the military. To accomplish this he insisted that only members of the nobility could serve as officers, and that noble lands could not be sold to peasants or townsmen; that peasant lands must not be absorbed by bourgeois or noble acquisition, and that only those peasants who could be spared from agricultural duties should be recruited to the army; and that townspeople were most useful to the state as producers of wealth and thus “should be guarded as the apple of one’s eye.” Frederick’s soldiers felt no great loyalty to him as a person. Indeed, in his political memoir, he confides that, during the first Silesian wars, “he had made a special effort to impress upon his officers the idea of fighting for the country of Prussia.”

In all of these respects, Frederick the Great typified the ruler of a territorial state. His objectives were territorial and statist, rather than dynastic and personal or religious. It is intriguing that even the training of troops reflected the attributes of the state Frederick created, but not so surprising because the state itself had been crafted to provide resources and a structure for warfare. This is evident in the iron discipline that Frederick instilled in the Prussian forces. The goal of this discipline was to make the army into an instrument that could respond to a single strategic will. Frederick once remarked that his soldiers must be more afraid of their officers than of their enemies. Officers and men must understand that every act “is the work of a single man.” “No one reasons, everyone executes.” Men who are trained to march smartly can also turn quickly and in unison in battle. At Lentzen, Frederick’s men suddenly began a flank attack with an about-face. An army thus trained can achieve tactical mobility, becoming skilled in quickly shifting from marching order to battle order, remain steady under withering fire, and, most important, respond to a unified strategic vision. An army trained in this way, Frederick repeatedly said, could provide full scope to the art of generalship.

What kind of generalship was that to be? The answer is consistent with the answer to the question “what kind of statesmanship does the territorial state exact from its leaders?” Strategy, which is the art of the general, is the answer to the question posed by constitutional imperatives, the objects of the statesman. But constitutional imperatives, like the constitutional order itself, change in response to the demands of innovations acquired by strategy. A state that presents a new model, constitutionally, like the territorial state—which identifies the State with the land of its people—will succeed or fail depending on how it is able to adapt new forms of strategy to serve that model. And these new strategic forms will inevitably impose themselves on the constitutional order. The strategic innovations of Frederick and the Prussian state were so dramatically successful that they changed the shape of warfare—and of the State itself—for all Europe. Palmer observes of this new form:

Battle, with troops so spiritually mechanized, was a methodical affair. Opposing armies were arrayed according to pattern, almost as regularly as chessmen… on each wing cavalry, artillery fairly evenly distributed along the rear, infantry battalions drawn up in two parallel solid lines… each… composed of three ranks each rank firing as at a single command while the other two reloaded…

According to Frederick, marching order was determined by battle order: troops should march in columns so arrayed that by a quick turn the column presented itself as a rank, firing in lines with cavalry on its flanks. Because a battle order of long unbroken lines was as vulnerable as it was murderous, Frederick designed the “oblique order,” which involved the advance of one wing by successive echelons while the other wing remained steady, minimizing exposure to the weaker end. This either gained a quick victory by a flanking attack, rolling up the enemy’s line or, if failing, tended to minimize losses as the hitherto static wing maneuvered to cover the withdrawal of the extended wing. Such a general tends to avoid cataclysmic engagements; he looks for set battles, preferably sieges, and tries to acquire fortresses. Forts, Frederick wrote, were “mighty nails which hold a ruler’s provinces together.” Generalship of this kind is after all territorial, both tactically and strategically: “To win a battle means to compel your opponent to yield you his [territorial] position.”

These military ideas were a dimension of Frederick’s overall views as a statesman, and it was Frederick who succeeded William III as the model of the territorial state leader. He carefully maneuvered to augment his state with territory that would actually contribute to the wealth or territorial integrity of the state—rather than vindicate dynastic claims—and that could be gained at reasonable costs in concert with the other powers of Europe. The most striking example of this was the result of the First Partition of Poland, whereby, only nine years after the end of the Seven Years’ War, Prussia, Austria, and Russia made substantial territorial acquisitions while avoiding conflict. Frederick gives us his view of this incident in his History of My Own Times:

This was one of the most important acquisitions which we could make, because it joined Pomerania and Eastern Prussia; as it rendered us masters of the Vistula we gained the double advantage of a defensible frontier to the kingdom and the power to levy considerable tolls on the Vistula, by which river the whole trade of Poland was carried on.

Once this vital property was gained—it closed Prussia’s territorial gap along the Baltic coast—Frederick immediately moved to improve it. Craftsmen, artisans, manufacturers, educators were all sent to colonize the area; marshes were drained; the Vistula was connected to the Oder and to the Elbe by a great canal.

Frederick was both a beneficiary and a strong supporter of the Utrecht system, even if he had made his debut on the European stage by a successful coup de main within that system.

The ambitious should consider above all that armaments and military discipline being much the same through Europe, and alliances as a rule producing an equality of force between belligerent parties, all that princes can expect from the greatest advantages at present is to acquire, by accumulation of successes, either some small city on the frontier or some territory which will not pay interest on the expense of the war [required to take it].

He saw clearly enough that war should be undertaken in proximity to one’s own frontiers, because of the “difficulty of providing food supplies at points distant from the frontier, and in furnishing the new recruits, new horses, clothing and munitions of war.” Above all, he relied on forces that, however well-drilled, had no moral enthusiasm or political conviction. For this reason he could not rely on his armies to live off occupied countries because they would desert if dispersed to forage, and their morale would collapse if their supplies were not regularly refreshed. For the same reason, his alliances were solely matters of strategic calculation, and thus he could never depend on support from ideologically sympathetic local parties in the countries he invaded. In order to preserve the authoritarian constitutional structure of the Prussian state, Frederick dared not excite the energy that lay dormant in nationalism. Indeed, this was the challenge of the territorial state: to make the State, rather than the person of the king, the object of constitutional and strategic concern without permitting the people to claim the State as their own. “My land,” “my country,” but not “my nation.” All of this stands in stark contrast to the style of warfare epitomized by Frederick the Great’s successor as the leading commander in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte.



Battle of HohenfriedbergAttack of Prussian Infantry, 4 June 1745, by Carl Röchling.

In contrast to the absolutism of the kingly state, the territorial state was a state of definite limits. We have seen this to be the case in the composition and maintenance of its armies. The governments of territorial states were limited in the revenue base they could derive from their subjects because the territorial state depended for its legitimacy on a compact with the estates of the realm, and not on the axiomatic dynastic rights of an absolute ruler. Nor could these governments draw on the entire human resources of the state: typically the aristocracy was privileged to officer the army and the state. (The kingly state was more meritocratic in this respect.) The people, insofar as they were a material factor in the strategic calculations of the territorial state, were simply taxable assets to be encouraged, and not too much disturbed, by the occasional warfare of the state. Frederick the Great wrote that he “wanted to fight [his] wars without the peasant behind his plow and the townsman in his shop even being aware of them.” The role of the citizen did not require that he take part in war. Sound political economy counseled that armies should be composed of men who were the least necessary, economically, to the well-being of the state. The aristocratic officer corps scarcely demanded from the marginal persons they commanded any of the characteristics of esprit that the officers expected of themselves. Rather they relied on good physical care, medical attention, adequate housing, and regular pay to motivate their troops. The rise of large standing armies under the kingly state had resulted in the systematic use of billeting. Troops were assigned to private houses, taverns, and stables. After the Seven Years’ War, however, the new territorial states of Europe increasingly housed their forces in barracks, isolated from the surrounding populations. It was expected that enlisted men would freely desert if allowed to reconnoiter in small parties and that both officers and men would change sides if presented with the promise of more attractive employment.

Professional armies were expensive and the extensive drill required by eighteenth century tactics meant that the territorial state had a great investment in each soldier. Large-scale pitched battles were seldom risked. Marshal Saxe in his Reveries de Guerre (1732) made the much-quoted statement: “I do not favor pitched battles, especially at the beginning of a war, and I am convinced that a skillful general could make war all his life without being forced into one.” Armies in Europe at this time became, in Clausewitz’s words, like “a State within a State, in which the element of violence gradually faded away.”

The delimited territorial state thus produced a delimited warfare, fought with limited means for limited objectives. Wars of position prevailed over wars of attrition, and precisely because battles were so deadly they were largely avoided and were not decisive when they occurred. Thus even though there were technological breakthroughs, particularly in the ability to deliver firepower, and therefore casualty rates rose appreciably during this period, the abundant possibilities for decisive military action ironically prevented the hegemony of any one state. Small sovereignties that had been active participants in earlier eras however—Cologne, Wurtemberg, Münster, Bremen, Genoa, Hesse—virtually disappeared. War became an activity of the Great Powers because only they could control territory significant enough to finance its defense in an era in which territory itself was the medium of exchange of power.

Prior to the arrival of the territorial state, rights of succession had been the principal source of interstate dispute. These were legal rights, based on ancient titles, marriages, cessions, that didn’t merely provide the monarch with a patrimony, but established his right to rule. As Holsti has put it, “The territories that reverted to a prince, king or queen were less significant than the rights that inhered in them.” But in the eighteenth century, concerns for succession began to relate less to the right to rule—who had the better claim to succeed—than to the power to control territory. To paraphrase Luard slightly, control over territory no longer resulted from a credible claim; the claim resulted from a credible control over territory. We have only to compare the careful preparations of Louis XIV to place a Bourbon prince on the throne of Spain—the thwarted dowry, the Spanish wife, the secret agreement with the other principal contending family—with Frederick’s casual pretexts regarding his Silesian claims. Once he decided to move against Austria, Frederick directed a subordinate to work up a case that Silesia really belonged to Prussia; on being presented with the results, Frederick replied with amusement that the official had proved to be a good charlatan.

Indeed even in the selection of monarchs, sorting out the dynastic priority among competing legal claims became subordinated to aligning the decision with overriding strategic purposes. Dynasts themselves in this era ceased to think of territory in terms of family patrimony but rather as a commodity—the currency of great power relations that it had become. Dynastic rights were now fig leaves for territorial claims.

This was the era of the great territorial partitions: in 1772 of Poland by Russia, Austria, and Prussia; in 1773, of Swedish possessions by Russia, Denmark, and Prussia. Territory could be traded to avoid or terminate a war, disregarding entirely its legal associations with family compacts, marriages, and titles. In place of the princely pursuit of titles and their appurtenant rights, once the coin of European patrimonial conflict, states struggled to gain or hold territory per se. Territorial conflicts became the chief source of war in this period, not simply because land was essential to national power—providing a population from which to conscript, a base of revenue and trade—for this had always been the case, but rather because legitimacy too now came from the sheer control of territory. A state that could consolidate its holdings, shedding noncontiguous family properties that were vulnerable to predation, could build itself a strategic position of relative invulnerability, and this alone was enough to assure its position among the other powers of Europe. Otherwise, it faced steady losses of its territory, even the threat of partition by a coalition. The balance of military technology and tactics was such that no state could hope for the wholesale patrilineal annexation of another—the vindication of a dynastic claim—yet every state was vulnerable to having a province picked off at its borders. The stereotypical view of eighteenth century conflict as indecisive reflects, as Jeremy Black effectively showed, an oversimplification of the political context.

18th century conflicts do appear inconclusive because they were frequently coalition conflicts and… coalition warfare could inhibit a determination to achieve decisive results. [Moreover] governments did not necessarily wish to make their allies too powerful by weakening their rivals excessively.

This reticence lay in the nature of the constitutional basis for the territorial state and not in a lack of decisive military technology or ambition.

Pikemen had been hitherto used to protect musketeers from attack by cavalry and by other pikemen; now bayonets fulfilled this role and more because they added a firepower the pike could not provide. It had always been difficult to maintain the necessary ratio between pikemen and musketeers once a battle began; the bayonet effectively solved this problem. The deployment of the flintlock musket, in which powder was ignited by a spark caused by the striking of flint on steel, produced a lighter, more reliable weapon that, with the aid of cartridges, doubled the rate of fire. Both of these changes swept through the armies of Europe: Prussia adopted the bayonet in 1689, one year after Louvois had instructed Vauban to produce a prototype; Denmark followed suit in 1690. At the battle of Fleurus that year some Imperial units attracted universal attention when they repulsed repeated French cavalry charges though unsupported by pikemen and armed only with muskets. The French abandoned the pike in 1703, the British the next year. The Austrians adopted the flintlock in 1689, the Swedes in 1696, the Danes and the British by 1700.

From the late seventeenth century onward, especially in Prussia, Holland, and Britain, a new kind of regime was supplanting the king-centered states of which Louis XIV’s was exemplar. The primacy of infantry fire made a well-trained and well-disciplined force more valuable than ever but, constitutionally, the state that fielded that force had to justify doing so on some basis more substantial than the vanity of the monarch. During this period, successful military powers were changing the compact that legitimated the state, and this, in the field relationship I have been describing, led to strategic innovation. The crises of legitimacy that brought William of Orange to the British throne and crushed the reign of James II epitomized this change, but it was going on in many states.

The new order was distinguished by a view of the State as a solar system rather than the reflection of the personality of a sun king. Hume expresses this point of view in his 1753 essay “Commerce,” in which he takes up Machiavelli’s subject, the State, and transforms it into a marveling disquisition on the state as an invisible mechanism, enabling growth and the creation of wealth. No less a champion of this idea, though it may be shocking to say so, was Frederick the Great, who ceaselessly portrayed himself as the servant of the State, frugally husbanding its material assets and prudently attending to the increase of its efficiencies. This era, the Age of the ancien regime—before the dawning of an acute national self-consciousness but after the mannered rejection of the hubristic pyrotechnics of the kingly state—was characterized by the adroit use of strategic and tactical positioning.

Its military aspect was in perfect harmony with the constitutional modesty of its regimes. If, at other turns of the wheel, a strategic innovation or constitutional cataclysm signaled the new era, the introduction of the territorial state came with the exhaustion that followed the end of the vast European civil conflict, the Thirty Years’ War. We can almost date its inception to the beheading of the monarch of the English kingly state, Charles I, in 1649.

The territorial state was characterized by a shift from the monarch-as-embodiment of sovereignty to the monarch as minister of sovereignty. A striking example of this occurred in the well-known “Diplomatic Revolu-tion” of 1748, in which reasons that related entirely to perceptions of the national interests concerned were allowed to predominate over the dynastic traditions of the Bourbon and Habsburg houses, and as a consequence, France and Austria found themselves allies for the first time.

In the period after Utrecht a number of decisive changes occurred, in terms of army size, weapons, and most especially the administration of the armed forces, their training and control by the State. Thus it can be argued that the constitutional imperatives of the territorial state were partly the cause, and not merely the consequences of these changes. The period from 1660 to 1760 saw a significant increase in the number of men permanently under arms in Europe, an increase that is more dramatic once we recall that for most of this period European population figures were static. Greater administrative capability was felt in the field: for example, the Austrian conquest of Hungary from 1683 relied on the creation of a series of magazines. Large-scale mapping took place as surveys grew in importance, an obvious consequence of the territorial state’s preoccupations.

But not every state was able to reconstruct itself along such constitutional lines; in Poland, for example, the nobility was unable to reconcile itself to fidelity to the State as an entity of which the monarch was the first steward, and it simply destroyed the state structure that might otherwise have successfully resisted partition. Everywhere that control of the troops—everywhere the state monopoly on legitimate violence—fell from the hands of the State, the advantages of this military revolution eluded the country, as happened in Sweden and Hungary. Yet even the rigid stability of the successful territorial states would soon be shaken by a new, more dynamic constitutional form and its accompanying strategic whirlwind.


Leuthen, 1757: Victory for Quality


…furthermore called his generals and senior field grade officers to his tent where he delivered a rousing speech, calling on them to do their duty and uphold their honour, explaining his basic plan to attack the Austrians at Breslau.






The summer and autumn of 1757 were not kind to Frederick. He had been forced to abandon his invasion of Bohemia after lifting his siege of Prague and had suffered a sharp defeat at Köln, before retiring to Saxony. Moreover, he found himself with more enemies when France, Sweden and Russia all declared war against him, and without his key ally, as Britain withdrew from the war in order to preserve her territorial interests in Hanover. Frederick was, however, able to stabilize the situation in Saxony with a decisive victory over a large force of French and Imperial troops at Rossbach on 4 November. The victory had tremendous implications internationally, bringing Britain back into the war and with her the cash subsidies to support Prussia, and the help of her troops in northern Germany.

But Frederick still had problems on his eastern flank. His forces in Silesia, the casus belli back in 1740, under the command of the duke of Bevern, were on the run. They had been defeated by an Austrian army under Charles of Lorraine and the veteran commander Field Marshal Leopold Daun outside of Breslau on 22 November and were driven back across the River Oder. Shortly thereafter Bevern himself was captured. Frederick had already begun moving to re-inforce his army in Silesia with 18 battalions of infantry and 23 squadrons of cavalry. He sent Hans von Ziethen, the commander of Prussia’s hussar regiments, to keep Bevern’s force together until he arrived. On 2 December, Frederick joined Ziethen and his troops. His original plan was to get Bevern’s forces ready for combat and attack the Austrians at Breslau, but the overall strategic situation forced Frederick to move almost immediately.

The stage was set for the Battle of Leuthen, which was fought just three days later. In this battle Frederick demonstrated the effectiveness of the Prussian army when led by a commander who understood its capabilities. In the course of this battle Frederick used the great manoeuvrability of his infantry to execute his oblique order of attack and to concentrate his outnumbered troops against one wing of the enemy. It also demonstrated the firepower that the well-disciplined Prussian infantry could deliver in the attack. Frederick’s first task was to restore confidence to the officers and men of Bevern’s command. The king strolled through the Prussian camp, talking to the troops, offering encouragement, and giving promises of rewards for merit in the action that was ahead of them. He likewise told the officers that they could redeem themselves in the battle they were about to fight. Frederick also encouraged interaction between the forces that had been defeated in Silesia and those returning from Saxony, flushed with the victory of Rossbach the previous month. Frederick hoped that the veterans of Rossbach would help raise the morale of the rest. He also took particular care to look after the comforts of his men, distributing additional rations and spirits to the troops to fortify their strength and courage. He furthermore called his generals and senior field grade officers to his tent where he delivered a rousing speech, calling on them to do their duty and uphold their honour, explaining his basic plan to attack the Austrians at Breslau. But he also promised punishments for failure, noting that cavalry regiments that failed to charge would be dismounted and downgraded to garrison service, and infantry regiments that did not press the attack would be disgraced, losing their colours, swords and having the facings cut from their uniforms.

Frederick allowed his troops to rest on 3 December but the next day advanced on Breslau. While on the march Frederick learnt that the Austrians had left the city and had deployed their army around the village of Leuthen. Frederick had looked for a decisive battle to restore the situation in Silesia and was grateful to Charles and Daun for this move. The Austrians certainly had reason to be confident since they outnumbered the Prussians by nearly two to one, with great advantages in both infantry and artillery. The Austrians had some 66,000 men and more than 200 artillery pieces, compared to the Prussian’s 39,000 men and 170 guns. Moreover, about two-thirds of the Prussians had been part of Bevern’s force, which they had already defeated. Frederick seems mistakenly to have believed the Austrians were comparable in strength to his own forces.

The Austrians were encamped along a front about five kilometres (four and a half miles) long between the small hamlets of Nippern and Sagschiitz, with the village of Leuthen behind their lines. Charles and Daun seemed ready to give Frederick an open battle, relying on their numbers to give them the victory. The Prussians made their advance to the battlefield beginning about 4 AM, and were deployed in two large infantry columns each flanked by a column of cavalry. There was also a sizeable advance guard of light infantry, including some rifle-armed Jager, and hussars led by the king himself.

Battle is Joined

The action began with the Prussian advanced guard easily brushing aside a small force of Saxon dragoons and Austrian light horse, taking 200 captive. Frederick ordered these men to be paraded past the army as it advanced, to raise the morale of his troops. As Frederick viewed the long white lines of Austrian troops deployed in front of Leuthen the great size of the enemy’s army became clear to him and it was plain that they had the numerical edge. But, using the coup d’oeil for which he was famous, he noted two key features of the battlefield’s topography. The first was that the Austrian left had not taken advantage of some marshy ground to anchor their left flank, which was consequently left exposed, although they had hastily constructed some barricades and redoubts for their batteries there. Moreover, there was a small ridgeline that ran in front of the Austrian left, which could be used to conceal his movements in front of the Austrian left flank.

Frederick quickly determined to take advantage of the vulnerable Austrian flank and to use the low ridges to mask his manoeuvre. To keep the enemy occupied, the Prussian cavalry of the left wing supported by some of the Prussian foot would feign an attack to keep the Austrian centre and right wing distracted. The idea of splitting an inferior force and marching a large part of it across the length of the enemy’s line, all the while presenting the flank of advancing columns to musket and artillery fire, might have seemed suicidal, but because of the nature of the terrain and the speed and manoeuvrability of the Prussian infantry Frederick was willing to take the risk. By 11 AM Frederick had made his deployments, with his left-flank cavalry, supported by a small force of infantry, slowly advancing against the right flank of the Austrian line. The Austrian commander there immediately called for assistance, assuming that his flank was the object of Frederick’s main assault. Charles and Daun responded by shifting their reserves to support the right, and galloped over to the right wing to oversee the engagement in person. In the meantime, the bulk of the Prussian infantry and their right-wing cavalry had begun their movement across the front of the Austrian line. The infantry, formed in two columns, moved with amazing speed due to their disciplined cadenced marching. In less than two hours they had started to form a line of battle at right-angles to the Austrian left flank, with the right-hand units extended slightly behind the Austrian line. The assault troops consisted of three excellent line infantry battalions, supported by a column of four additional battalions, three of grenadiers and one more from a crack line regiment. There were also 20 heavy twelve-pounder guns in support. The majority of the remaining Prussian infantry were deploying en echelon behind the assault force and spreading out to its left. Frederick retained 53 squadrons and six battalions in reserve. What made this manoeuvre possible was the low ridgeline that obscured the Prussians’ movements. The position was strengthened by the fact that the Austrian commanders had moved over to their left flank, and so were even less likely to discern Frederick’s intent. Indeed, although they noticed the Prussians moving behind the hill, they could not determine numbers or directions and assumed them to be in retreat. By 1 PM Frederick’s forces were in position and ready to begin the assault.

Where the Prussian attack hit the Austrian left the troops were composed mostly of soldiers of varied quality from those minor German states whose contingents were combined to form the Reichsarmee. They were under the command of General Franz Nadasdy, a bold Hungarian hussar general. The Prussians advanced on the troops of the Reichsarmee and engaged them in a fierce firefight, routing the Württembergers and pushing them back into the Bavarians, who joined in the rout. The firepower delivered by the assault troops must have been crushing – they were running out of ammunition by the time the supporting units arrived. Fortunately Frederick had brought ammunitions wagons with him. These units drew more cartridges and remained in the battle line. Nadasdy tried to restore the situation by attacking the Prussian foot with his dragoons and hussars, but he was countered by the 53 squadrons of Prussians from Frederick’s reserve under the command of Ziethen. The Prussian cavalry overthrew the Austrians. Rather than pursuing the cavalry, they turned to complete the destruction of Nadasdy’s broken infantry, taking over 2000 Württembergers and Bavarians prisoner.

Having realized that the attack on the right was a diversion, Charles and Daun tried to turn their centre 90 degrees to face the advancing Prussians. The Austrian line was to be anchored on the village of Leuthen itself. But there was little time to plan the redeployment and units were sent in piecemeal, not properly deployed into firing lines. The manouevre was much more difficult for the Austrians, who did not manoeuvre in the closed columns of the Prussians. As they performed it they were subjected to intense Prussian musketry and the fire of 40 twelve-pounders now moved up to the high ground overlooking Leuthen. At about 3:30 the Prussian infantry began their assault against the new Austrian position. After a sharp struggle they cleared Leuthen, which had been admirably defended by a few Austrian units and a Wiirzburg regiment of Reichsarmee troops. Another Austrian cavalry charge was made but was driven back by the Prussian cavalry. At this point, the Austrian army broke. Frederick attempted a pursuit but the weather, time of day and exhaustion of his troops prevented this being very effective.

Leuthen was a great victory for Frederick but it was also a costly one. Frederick lost 6000 men, nearly one-fifth of his forces. He in turn inflicted 10,000 killed and wounded, took more than 12,000 prisoners, and captured more than 100 cannon. A further 17,000 Austrians surrendered when Breslau capitulated later in the month. Leuthen demonstrated just what could be accomplished in the age of linear warfare with an army as disciplined as that of Prussia, especially when commanded by one of the ‘Great Captains’ of the period.



01APPYHD; King Frederick William I Of Prussia Inspecting His Giant Guards, Known As The Grand Grenadiers Of Potsdam, Although Most Called Them The Potsdam Grenadiers Or Potsdam Giants.

King Frederick William I Of Prussia Inspecting His Giant Guards, Known As The Grand Grenadiers Of Potsdam, Although Most Called Them The Potsdam Grenadiers Or Potsdam Giants.

Your Excellency will already know [… ] of the Resolution the new King has taken of increasing his army to 50,000 men. [… ] When the state of war [i.e. military budget] was laid before him, he writt in the margen these words, I will augment my Forces to the number of 50,000 men which ought not to allarme any person whatsoever, since my only pleasure is my Army.

When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather.

Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as ‘lange Kerls’ or ‘tall lads’) at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service. Their likenesses were memorialized in individual full-length oil portraits commissioned by the king; executed in a primitive realist style, they show towering men with hands like dinner plates plinthed on black leather shoes the size of plough shares. The army was, of course, an instrument of policy, but it was also the human and institutional expression of this monarch’s view of the world. As an orderly, hierarchical, masculine system in which individual interests and identities were subordinated to those of the collective, the king’s authority was unchallenged, and differences in rank were functional rather than corporate or decorative, it came close to actualizing his vision of an ideal society.

Frederick William’s interest in military reform predated his accession to the throne. We see it in a set of guidelines that the nineteen-year-old crown prince proposed to the Council of War in 1707. The calibres of all infantry guns should be the same, he argued, so that standard-issue shot could be used for all types; all units should employ the same design of bayonet; the men in each regiment should wear identical daggers on a model to be determined by the commanding officer; even the cartridge pouches were to be furnished according to a single design, with identical straps.49 One of his important early innovations as a military commander was the introduction within his own regiment of a new and more rigorous form of parade drill intended to heighten the manoeuvrability of unwieldy masses of troops across difficult terrain and to ensure that firepower could be delivered consistently and to the greatest effect. After 1709, when Frederick William witnessed Prussian troops in action at the Battle of Malplaquet during the War of the Spanish Succession, the new drill was gradually extended through the Brandenburg-Prussian forces as a whole.

The king’s chief preoccupation during the early years of the reign was simply to increase the number of troops in service as fast as possible. At first, this was accomplished largely through forced recruitments. The responsibility for raising troops was transferred from the civil authorities to the local regimental commanders. Operating virtually without restraint, the recruiting officer became a figure of fear and hatred, especially among the rural and small-town population, where he prowled in search of tall peasants and burly journeymen. Forced recruitments often involved bloodshed. In some cases, prospective recruits even died at the hands of their captors. Complaints poured in from the localities. In fact so dramatic was the first phase of forced recruitments that it prompted a wave of panic. ‘[His Majesty] makes use of such hasty means in levying of [his troops] as if he was in some very great danger,’ wrote William Breton, the British envoy, on 18 March 1713, scarcely three weeks after the new king’s accession, ‘that the peasants are forced into the service and tradesmen’s sons taken out of their shops very frequently. If this method continues, we shall not long have any market here, and many people will save themselves out of his Dominions…’

Faced with the mayhem generated by forced recruiting, the king changed tack and put an end to the practice inside his territories. In its place he established the sophisticated conscription mechanism that would come to be known as the ‘canton system’. An order of May 1714 declared that the obligation to serve in the king’s army was incumbent upon all men of serving age and that anyone fleeing the country in order to avoid this duty would be punished as a deserter. Further orders assigned a specific district (canton) to each regiment, within which all the unmarried young men of serving age were enrolled (enrolliert) on the regimental lists. Voluntary enlistments to each regiment could then be supplemented from enrolled local conscripts. Finally, a system of furloughs was developed that allowed the enlisted men to be released back into their communities after completion of their basic training. They could then be kept on until retiring age as reservists who were obliged to complete a stint of refresher training for two to three months each year, but were otherwise free (except in time of war) to return to their peacetime professions. In order to soften further the impact of conscription on the economy, various classes of individual were exempted from service, including peasants who owned and ran their own farms, artisans and workers in various trades and industries thought to be of value to the state, government employees and various others.

The cumulative result of these innovations was an entirely new military system that could provide the Brandenburg-Prussian Crown with a large and well-trained territorial force without seriously disrupting the civilian economy. This meant that at a time when most European armies still relied heavily on foreign conscripts and mercenaries, Brandenburg-Prussia could raise two-thirds of its troops from territorial subjects. This was the system that enabled the state to muster the fourth largest army in Europe, although it ranked only tenth and thirteenth in terms of territory and population respectively. It is no exaggeration to say that the power-political exploits of Frederick the Great would have been inconceivable without the military instrument fashioned by his father.

If the canton system provided the state with a greatly enhanced external striking power, it also had far-reaching social and cultural consequences. No organization did more to bring the nobility into subordination than the reorganized Brandenburg-Prussian army. Early in the reign, Frederick William had prohibited members of the provincial nobilities from entering foreign service, or indeed even from leaving his lands without prior permission, and had a list drawn up of all the sons of noble families aged between twelve and eighteen years. From this list a cohort of boys was selected for training in the cadet school recently established in Berlin (in the premises of the academy where Gundling had once worked as professor). The king persevered with this policy of elite conscription despite bitter protests and attempts at evasion by some noble families. It was not unknown for young noblemen from recalcitrant households to be rounded up and marched off to Berlin under guard. In 1738, Frederick William inaugurated an annual survey of all young noblemen who were not yet in his service; in the following year he instructed the district commissioners to inspect the noble sons of their districts, identify those who were ‘good looking, healthy and possess straight limbs’ and send an appropriate annual contingent for enlistment in the Berlin cadet corps. By the mid-1720s there were virtually no noble families in the Hohenzollern lands without at least one son in the officer corps.

We should not see this process simply as something that was unilaterally forced upon the nobility – the policy succeeded because it offered something of value, the prospect of a salary that would assure a higher standard of living than many noble households could otherwise afford, an intimate association with the majesty and authority of the throne, and the status attaching to an honourable calling with aristocratic historical connotations. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the establishment of the canton system represented a caesura in the relationship between the crown and the nobilities. The human potential locked within the noble landed estate was now placed even more securely within the state’s reach and the nobility began its gradual transformation into a service caste. Samuel Benedikt Carsted, pastor of Atzendorf in the Duchy of Magdeburg and sometime field chaplain in the Brandenburg-Prussian army, was thus right when he observed that the canton system constituted ‘the final proof that King Frederick William had acquired the most comprehensive sovereignty’.

An influential view has it that the cantonal regime created a sociomilitary system in which the hierarchical structures of the conscript army and those of the noble landed estate merged seamlessly to become one all-powerful instrument of domination. According to this view, the regiment became a kind of armed version of the estate, in which the noble lord served as the commanding officer and his subject peasants as the troops. The result was a far-reaching militarization of Brandenburg-Prussian society, as the traditional rural structures of social domination and disciplining were permeated with military values.

Reality was more complex. Examples of noble landlords who were also local commanders are very rare; they were the exception rather than the rule. Military service was not popular among peasant families, who resented the loss of labour that occurred when young men were taken away for basic training. Local records from the Prignitz (to the north-east of Berlin) suggest that the evasion of military service by flight across Brandenburg’s borders into neighbouring Mecklenburg was commonplace. In order to escape service, men were prepared to resort to desperate measures – even professing their willingness to marry the women in their villages upon whom they had fathered illegitimate children – and they were sometimes supported in these efforts by noble landowners. Moreover, far from bringing a mood of submission and obedience to the estate community, the active and inactive duty soldiers were often a disruptive element, prone to exploit their military exemption from local jurisdiction against the village authorities.

Relations between local communities and the military were beset with tension. There were numerous complaints about the tyrannical behaviour of regimental officers: exemptions were sometimes disregarded by the officers who came to ‘collect’ recruits, reservists were called up during the harvest season despite regulations to the contrary, and money was extorted in bribes from peasants seeking marriage permits from their local commanders (in some areas this latter problem was so pronounced that there was an appreciable rise in the rate of illegitimate births). There were also complaints from the landlords of noble estates, who naturally resented any unwarranted meddling in the affairs of the peasants who constituted their workforce.

Despite these problems, a kind of symbiosis developed between regiments and communities. Although only a fraction of the eligible male population (about one-seventh) was actually called up, nearly all the men in rural communities were listed on the regimental rolls; in this sense, the cantonal system was based upon the principle (though not the practice) of universal conscription. Exemptions came into play only once the enrolments had taken place. All reservists were required to wear their full uniforms in church and they were thus an ever-present reminder of the proximity of the military; it was not unknown for enlisted men to gather voluntarily in town and village squares in order to practise their drilling. The pride that many men felt in their military status may have been sharpened by the fact that the exemption system tended to concentrate enrolments among the less well-off, so that there was a tendency for the sons of landless rural labourers to serve while those of the prosperous peasants did not. Soldiers and reservists thus gradually came to constitute a highly visible social group within the village, not only because the uniform and a certain (affected) military bearing became crucial to their sense of importance and personal worth, but also because the conscripts tended to be drawn from among the tallest of each age group. Boys shorter than 169 cm were sometimes called up for service as porters and baggage handlers, but, for most, diminutive stature was a free ticket out of military service.

Did the canton system heighten morale and cohesion within serving regiments? Frederick the Great, who knew the Prussian army as well as anyone and observed the canton system at work during three exhausting wars, believed that it did. In his History of My Own Times, completed in the summer of 1775, he wrote that the native Prussian cantonists serving in each company of the army ‘come from the same region. Many in fact know or are related with one another. [… ] The cantons spur on competition and bravery, and relatives and friends are not apt to abandon each other in battle.


Prussian Fortunes 1760 Liegnitz and Torgau

After four campaigns of ceaseless activity and intense stress, during which he had had to witness tens of thousands of dead and dying, all victims of his ambition, Frederick was beginning to feel the strain. Rarely healthy at the best of times, he was now increasingly prone to disabling bouts of illness, with gout and hemorrhoids to the fore. So fierce had been the attack of gout and attendant fever the previous autumn that his journey to Silesia at a crucial time had to be delayed. He had told Prince Henry: “I shall fly to you on the wings of patriotism and duty, but when I arrive you will find only a skeleton,” although he added that his feeble body would still be activated by his indomitable spirit. By January 1760 the spirit had wilted too. He wrote to d’Argens to thank him for the trouble he was taking to publish his “twaddle,” but asked how he could be expected to write good verse when his mind was “too disturbed, too agitated, too depressed.” There was no prospect of securing peace, he cried, and one more defeat would deliver the coup de grâce. Weighed down by care, surrounded by implacable enemies, life had become an insupportable burden…and so he went on in the same vein lamenting his fate.

It was not quite yet a case of “darkest before dawn,” because Frederick had one even more tenebrous moment to survive. His overall strategy remained the same—to keep control of Saxony and Silesia—and so did his prime objective—the recapture of Dresden. How many troops he had at his disposal is a matter of dispute. The best guess is that he never had more than 110,000 on active duty, so his numerical inferiority was of the order of at least two to one. That disparity increased on 23 June when General de la Motte-Fouqué was overwhelmed at Landeshut by a greatly superior Austrian force under Laudon, losing 2,000 on the field of battle and another 8,000 in prisoners of war. Fewer than 1,500 managed to escape. Once again, a Prussian general had obeyed his royal master well but not wisely. Frederick had had second thoughts about his original order to hold Landeshut come what may, but his change of heart came too late to save Fouqué’s corps.

Back in Saxony, Frederick had been very active but without achieving anything. All his attempts to bring either Lacy or Daun to battle failed. So did his siege of Dresden, which began on 19 July only to be abandoned four days later. Three days after that, the Austrians showed him how a siege should be conducted when Laudon’s army took the great Silesian fortress of Glatz by storm. Admittedly, Dresden had been garrisoned by 14,000 veterans commanded by the determined Major General Macguire (sic), whereas the luckless Glatz commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Bartolomei d’O (also sic), had only 3,000 ill-motivated Saxons and Austrian deserters at his disposal. That did not save him from court-martial and execution when he eventually returned from Austrian captivity. The difference between the two defenses showed that the greater demographic resources of the Austrians were beginning to make themselves felt.

Frederick’s situation was now perilous in the extreme. He was losing control of both Saxony and Silesia and was running out of men, thanks to his own numerous mistakes. To make matters worse, a Russian corps under General Chernyshev had crossed the Oder and was advancing through Silesia to join up with Daun. Nothing, it seemed, lay between the allies and total victory but a few weakly defended Silesian fortresses. As soon as he had taken Glatz, Laudon moved off to Breslau, the greatest prize of all, confident that he could repeat his triumph. Now at last chinks of light began to shine through the gloom for Frederick: his commander at Breslau, General Bogislav Friedrich von Tauentzien, proved to be made of sterner stuff than his colleague d’O at Glatz; in a lightning march which took his army corps of around 35,000 over a hundred kilometers in three days, Prince Henry marched to Breslau’s relief; and the Russians failed to link up with Laudon. Meanwhile, Frederick had embarked on an epic march from Saxony to Silesia, which took up the first week of August, not so much pursued as accompanied by the main Austrian army commanded by Daun and a subsidiary corps under Lacy. So close were the three armies that they appeared to be one force. Urged on by Maria Theresa and Kaunitz, who demanded a battle to finish Frederick off, it was Daun’s intention to force an engagement on the Katzbach, a tributary of the Oder, north of Breslau.

That was what Daun got, on 15 August, but not in the manner he had expected. As his combined forces of 90,000 enjoyed a three-to-one superiority, he was confident he could encircle and eliminate Frederick’s army, which was camped a couple of kilometers northeast of Liegnitz. On this occasion, Frederick was not caught napping. On the contrary, during the night of 14–15 August he moved his army to the north, leaving his campfires burning to confuse the enemy. So when it began to get light shortly after 3 A.M., it was General Laudon who was taken by surprise. Expecting to be supported by Lacy and Daun, who were supposed to be advancing from the west and south, respectively, and unaware that he was facing the main Prussian army, Laudon attacked. Decimated by artillery, then taken in the flank, the Austrians were forced back to the Katzbach. By 6 A.M. the battle was all over. It had been short but sharp. It cost Laudon around 10,000, including 4,000 prisoners of war, among them two generals and eighty officers, and eighty-three pieces of artillery. The Prussians lost 775 dead and 2,500 wounded, most of them to two late cavalry charges which covered the Austrian withdrawal.

As the battles of the Seven Years’ War went, Liegnitz was not a particularly grand affair. Most of the Austrians never fired a shot in anger. Yet its importance was colossal. This was a battle Frederick had to win, or rather it was a battle he could not afford to lose. If Daun and Lacy’s hammer had smashed down on Laudon’s anvil, as had been intended, the Prussians in between would have been pulverized, to an even greater extent than at Kunersdorf. Any remnants would have been mopped up by a Russian force under Chernyshev which Saltykov had promised to send across the Oder on the 15th. In the event, the Russians now prudently went east rather than west, while Daun and the Austrians moved off to besiege the fortress of Schweidnitz to the west of Breslau. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that Liegnitz was a pivotal moment in the Seven Years’ War. It brought to an end a sequence of military defeats stretching back to Hochkirch nearly two years previously (although some of Frederick’s subordinate generals, notably Prince Henry, had won minor engagements in the interim). Napoleon was not the first to realize the importance for an army’s morale of the belief that luck (also known variously as Providence, Fortune and God) was on its commander’s side. As Jomini observed, Liegnitz restored “toute sa force morale.” It also restored his reputation among the powers. The British secretary of state, Lord Holderness, wrote: “The superior genius of that great prince never appeared in a higher light than during this last expedition into Silesia. The whole maneuver is looked upon here as the masterpiece of military skill.” This was the best chance the Austro-Russians had had since Kunersdorf of bringing the war to an abrupt end and they knew it. Thereafter their offensive never regained momentum.

In the short term, this brief but violent flurry of activity was followed by several weeks of stalemate, as Daun and Frederick maneuverd around each other in the hills of western Silesia. At the end of September, Frederick complained to Prince Henry that he was getting nowhere. Daun was in one camp, Frederick in another, and both were invulnerable. The impasse was broken further north by an unusually vigorous if brief initiative on the part of the Russians, spurred on by the French military attaché in their camp. In the first week of October, a force led by Chernyshev occupied Berlin, where they were joined by 18,000 Austrians and Saxons detached from Daun’s army. Although this was an expensive and disagreeable experience for the inhabitants, and a good deal of vandalism was perpetrated at the palaces of Charlottenburg and Schönhausen, the three-day occupation had no military consequences. The main casualties were the fifteen Russian soldiers killed during an incompetent attempt to blow up the powder mill. As Showalter has commented, “It was a raid as opposed to an operational maneuver.”

Liegnitz did nothing to repair Frederick’s personal morale. He lamented to Prince Henry that his resources were too narrow and shallow to resist the overwhelming numerical superiority of his various enemies, adding, “And if we perish, you can date our eclipse to that pernicious affair at Maxen.” He now had to realize that the ever-cautious Daun had got the better of him in Silesia and that he must march back to Saxony if the campaign was not to end in total failure. It was in a grim mood that he set out, telling Prince Henry on 7 October that “given my present situation, my only motto can be: conquer or die.” Daun was also under pressure from Vienna, from which an increasingly impatient Maria Theresa sent an express order to maintain control of Saxony against Frederick and to seek the necessary battle no matter what the circumstances. In the event, Frederick took the battle to him, on 3 November at Torgau to the northeast of Leipzig, where the Austrians had taken up a strong defensive position. If they could not be dislodged, Saxony and its resources would be lost. To attack head-on invited a disaster along the lines of Kunersdorf, so Frederick embarked on an imaginative outflanking movement designed to take the bulk of his army—24,000 infantry, 6,500 cavalry and fifty twelve-pound guns—to attack the Austrians in the rear. Their attention would be diverted to their front by a smaller force of 11,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry commanded by General von Zieten. The drawback turned out to be the long march needed to get the main army into position. Too much could and did go wrong, so that it all took too long and allowed Daun to take effective counteraction.

The battle that ensued was even more ferocious than previous encounters between the two sides. Frederick himself was stunned when hit by a spent bullet and had to be carried from the field for a time. What turned out to be the bloodiest victory of his career was won by a combination of individual initiatives by junior officers at crucial moments and the timely advance of Zieten’s corps. Until almost literally one minute to midnight, the result was in the balance. Indeed, Daun had already sent off a courier announcing a victory when the tide turned, a mistake which caused intense despondency in Vienna when the initial rejoicing turned to ashes. The losses on both sides were horrific. In a letter to Prince Henry written the following day, Frederick claimed that in this “rough and stubborn” battle he had inflicted 20,000 to 25,000 casualties. He did not even mention his own. When his adjutant, Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst, produced the final score some days after the battle, Frederick told him: “It will cost you your head, if this figure ever gets out!” It cannot be known just how high it really was, the estimates ranging from 16,670 to 24,700, but even the lowest exceeded the Austrian total (which Frederick greatly exaggerated).

Although he talked up his victory, Frederick was not in a victorious mood. The losses had been so heavy that in the future such offensive tactics simply could not be afforded. As he wrote to d’Argens on 5 November, he had secured a period of peace for the winter but that was all. Five days later he added that the Austrians had been sent back to Dresden but from there they could not be dislodged for the time being. He went on:

In truth, this is a wretched prospect and a poor reward for all the exhaustion and colossal effort which this campaign has cost us. My only support in the midst of all these aggravations is my philosophy; this is the staff on which I lean and my only source of consolation at this time of trouble when everything is falling apart. As you will see, my dear marquis, I am not inflating my success. I am just telling it like it is; perhaps the rest of the world will be dazzled by the glamour a victory bestows, but “From afar we are envied, on the spot we tremble.”

This was just the sort of gloomy mood in which he had begun the year. He was perhaps being too hard on himself; 1760 had been a decidedly better year than 1759. The Austrians and Russians had failed to combine effectively, he had won two major engagements and the only net loss was the fortress of Glatz. A more judicious assessment would be given by Clausewitz. While disagreeing with those who saw the campaign as a work of art and a masterpiece, he did find admirable

the King’s wisdom: pursuing a major objective with limited resources, he did not try to undertake anything beyond his strength, but always just enough to get him what he wanted…His whole conduct…shows an element of restrained strength, which was always in balance, never lacking in vigor, rising to remarkable heights in moments of crisis, but immediately afterwards reverting to a state of calm oscillation, always ready to adjust to the smallest shift in the political situation. Neither vanity, nor ambition, nor vindictiveness could move him from this course, and it was this course alone that brought him success.

Much less satisfactory was the situation on the western front. French losses overseas in 1759 forced them to seek victory in Germany as a bargaining counter for the eventual peace negotiations. A large army of around 150,000 was unleashed in June 1760. Prince Ferdinand was forced back from Hessen and much of Westphalia, despite winning a number of engagements. Victory at Warburg on 31 July could not stop the French taking Göttingen a week later, although that proved to be the limit of their advance into Hanoverian territory. More ominous in the long term for Frederick was the diminishing enthusiasm on the part of his British allies for the continental war. They had achieved virtually all their war aims in North America, the Caribbean and India and were now looking for an early end to what had become a ruinously expensive war. Moreover, the death of George II on 25 October brought to the throne a king who the previous year had referred to Hanover as “that horrid Electorate which has always liv’d upon the very vitals of this poor Country.” It could be only a matter of time before the invaluable British subsidies to Frederick were halted. In December the Prussian representative in London, Knyphausen, warned Frederick of the growing opposition in Parliament to the continental war and corresponding enthusiasm for a separate peace with France.



The test of state power that really mattered was its ability to sustain a standing army. Prussia not only had a big one, it came to be synonymous with militarism. In the eighteenth century, however, this status was of recent origin. In 1610, when the Elector Johann Sigismund instructed his militia to conduct training exercises, the timorous soldiers declined on the ground that firing their guns might frighten their women. Alas, this pleasing sense of priorities did not serve Brandenburg well when the Thirty Years’ War erupted eight years later. For a state stretched out across the North German Plain with no natural frontiers, security could only come from a strong army. The attempt by the Elector Georg Wilhelm (r. 1619–40) to stay out of the conflict ended in disaster. In 1630 he sent an emissary to his brother-in-law, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who had just landed in Pomerania, asking him to respect Brandenburg’s neutrality. Gustavus Adolphus replied tartly that in an existential struggle between good and evil (Protestant and Catholic), noncommitment was not an option. Georg Wilhelm’s great-great-grandson, Frederick, provided a withering account of this episode in his Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg, as he described how the Elector’s ministers bleated pathetically, “What can we do? They’ve got all the big guns” as they counseled surrender to the Swedes. During the last two decades of the war, Brandenburg was repeatedly fought over by the various combatants, losing between 40 and 50 percent of its entire population.

Georg Wilhelm’s son, Frederick William, who succeeded him in 1640 at the age of twenty, had learned the lesson that it was better to be predator than prey. Later in his reign he observed to his chief minister Otto von Schwerin: “I have experienced neutrality before; even under the most favorable conditions, you are treated badly. I have vowed never to be neutral again as long as I live.” By 1646 he had managed to scrape together an army of 8,000, which allowed him some sort of scope for independent action in the dog days of the Thirty Years’ War. His reward came in the final peace settlement. Although bitterly disappointed not to make good his claim to western Pomerania and the all-important mouth of the Oder, he did secure the impoverished eastern part, together with three secularized prince-bishoprics (Kammin, Halberstadt and Minden) and the reversion of the wealthy and strategically important archbishopric of Magdeburg, of which he eventually took possession in 1680. Frederick William was now in a self-sustaining spiral: the more troops he had at his disposal, the more easily he could extract money from the Estates, and the more money he was able to extract, the more troops he was able to recruit. He was assisted by the decision of the Holy Roman Empire in 1654 that princes could raise taxes to maintain essential garrisons and fortifications. By the time he died in 1688 he had a standing army of 31,000 at his disposal.

It was also more securely under his command. Until late in his reign he had been obliged to rely on private warlords to supply him with troops. In 1672 General Georg von Derfflinger, who had been born in Austria and had served in several different armies, including the Swedish, declined an order from the Elector because his contract had not specified unconditional obedience. Three years later, on 18 June 1675, Derfflinger was second-in-command to Frederick William at the battle of Fehrbellin, the first major victory won by a Brandenburg army solely through its own efforts. Although the numbers involved on each side were modest—12,000 to 15,000—its significance was recognized by contemporaries when they awarded Frederick William the sobriquet “The Great Elector.” His great-grandson observed: “He was praised by his enemies, blessed by his subjects; and posterity dates from that famous day the subsequent elevation of the house of Brandenburg.”

Although during the next three years the Great Elector’s army pushed the Swedes out of Germany, it brought him scant reward when peace was made. Real power rested in the hands of the big battalions, and they were commanded by the French King Louis XIV, who intervened at the negotiating table to rescue his Swedish allies. All that Frederick William had to show for five years of successful campaigning was a modest frontier adjustment and the cession by the Swedes of their right to a share in the tolls of the Brandenburg part of Pomerania. All the conquered territory had to be handed back. On a medal struck to mark the peace, the disappointed Great Elector had inscribed Dido’s lines from Virgil’s Aeneid addressed to the as-yet-unborn-Hannibal—exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (May you arise from my bones, you unknown avenger). Rather oddly, Frederick the Great, who was to play Hannibal to Frederick William’s Dido, did not mention this in his account of the episode.

For all the importance assigned to the Great Elector by his successors, Brandenburg was still only a second- or third-rate power when he died in 1688. It was only towards the very end that he managed to assert sole control of his army and he was still dependent on foreign subsidies to wage war. His observation that “alliances are good but one’s own forces are better” referred to an aspiration not an achievement. The same could be said of his son Frederick III (who dropped two digits to become Frederick I when he gained the royal title of “King in Prussia” in 1701). It used to be thought that the Hohenzollern rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia could be divided into two types—the exceptionally gifted, and the dim and/or unstable. It was Frederick III/I’s misfortune to be sandwiched between two high-achievers (Frederick William the Great Elector and Frederick William I) and also to become the target of some of his grandson Frederick the Great’s most scathing comments. Yet he steered his state safely through the very choppy waters stirred up by the Nine Years’ War (1688–97), the Great Northern War (1700–1721) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). On occasion his army intervened effectively, not least at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, where it played an important role in helping the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene win a crushing victory over the French. By 1709 Frederick had increased his army to 44,000, the largest in the Holy Roman Empire after Austria’s.

In that year it was also present in strength at the battle of Malplaquet when Marlborough and Eugene again defeated the French in the bloodiest engagement of the War of the Spanish Succession. Leading the Prussian contingent were two men who were to make a decisive contribution to Prussia’s military elevation: the Crown Prince Frederick William and General Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau. Despite, or perhaps because of, the carnage, which inflicted 25 percent casualties on the victors, the former always maintained that the day of the battle—11 September 1709—had been the happiest of his life and he always celebrated the anniversary. When he succeeded to the throne in 1713, he and Prince Leopold at once set about increasing the quantity and improving the quality of the army. By a combination of ferocious discipline and incessant drilling, it was turned into a responsive killing machine that could move rapidly across country and then deploy on the battlefield with unprecedented speed. Their innovations included: a metal ramrod, which allowed more rapid rates of fire; an improved bayonet, which was constantly at the ready; and quick-marching in step. In his History of My Own Times, the main beneficiary of these reforms commented on his father’s achievement: “A Prussian battalion became a walking battery whose speed in reloading tripled its firepower and so gave the Prussians an advantage of three to one.” Their grasp of cavalry was much less sure. Frederick William’s notorious obsession with very large soldiers meant that very large—and slow—horses had to be found for them: “giants on elephants” was his son’s dismissive comment. This was based on firsthand experience, for when Frederick first took them to war in 1740, the Austrian cavalry found it all too easy to immobilize their opponents’ gigantic but ponderous horses with one saber slash to the head. Also of dubious military value was Frederick William’s obsession with recruiting giant soldiers for his Guards, which cost four times as much as any other regiment but never saw action.

Overall the quality may have been impressive; the width was much less so. When he came to the throne in 1713, Frederick William could recruit from a total population of only around 1.6 million. At once he abolished the notoriously inefficient militia system and resorted to a mixture of impressment at home and voluntary enlistment from abroad. The unpopularity of the former and the expense of the latter led to a major reform in 1733 by which the Prussian lands were divided into cantons of some 5,000 households, each assigned to a regiment for recruiting. All male children were inscribed on the regimental rolls at the age of ten. Although it was stated firmly that “all inhabitants are born into the service of the country,” numerous groups were exempted: peasant farmers and their eldest sons, immigrants, merchants, manufacturers, craftsmen and those in certain “reserved occupations” such as seafaring. Even so, a good quarter of the total population was inscribed on the cantonal lists and two-thirds of the army could be raised from native resources.

Combined with the relative efficiency of the fiscal and administrative system, this cantonal organization worked well enough to promote Prussia to something approaching the premier league of European military powers. In 1713 the peacetime strength of around 30,000 put the country on a par with Piedmont or Saxony; by 1740 the equivalent figure was 80,000, which outstripped Spain, the Dutch Republic or Sweden and brought it within striking distance of Austria. Frederick the Great commented in his Political Testament of 1768: “These cantons are the pure substance of the state.” Flattering sincerely by imitation, the Austrians followed their enemies’ example, albeit with a long delay, and introduced cantonal recruiting in 1777.