THE ARMY OF FREDERICK WILLIAM OF PRUSSIA

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.

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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.

BUILDING THE PRUSSIAN ARMY

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.

 

Armies that fought in the Waterloo campaign

Each of the three armies that fought in the Waterloo campaign had their own style of organization, constitution and methods; but although some aspects were distinctive, in the wider sense there was considerable similarity in weaponry, composition and modes of operation. While each army had its own particular tactical system in which its troops were trained, some basic principles were universal, and indeed the extent to which the minutiae of the prescribed regulations were followed in combat varied according to circumstance. The basic discipline and the ability to manoeuvre, form line, column and square, advance and retire, skirmish, charge and rally, was essential to maintain any degree of order and cohesion amid the smoke, noise and confusion of battle; but beyond that it was at times impossible to perform the manoeuvres prescribed in the manuals and practised at field-days. This was recognized by experienced officers, as even the author of one drill-manual stated, concerning a fairly complex manoeuvre: ‘This looks well, and has a good effect on a day of parade; but it is too complicated to be attempted with safety in the presence of an enemy.’ Rowland Hill expressed a similar opinion at Talavera when observing his skirmishers retiring in the regulation manner, following prescribed practice but with insufficient speed: ‘Damn their filing, let them come in anyhow’ was his reaction!

The three days’ combat of 16–18 June 1815 culminated in one of the most renowned battles in history. The significance of Waterloo was not primarily because of its epic nature, but because it brought to an end a state of almost continuous conflict that had scarred Europe for the previous twenty-three years. It also marked the final defeat of the dominant personality of that age, an individual so influential that the entire period now bears his name: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Reactions to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo were mixed. Many saw its significance as removing the chief cause of conflict; others mourned the passing of a giant. At one end of the scale was the view articulated by a British visitor to Waterloo some eleven years after the battle, who wrote in a visitors’ book that he experienced there ‘an increased feeling of gratitude to God for having delivered mankind, through the instrumentality of his countrymen, from the most detestable tyrant that ever wielded a sceptre’ (to which a French visitor appended the comment, ‘Chein d’Anglais!’). The alternative view was expressed by one who was ruined by the battle: in his exile at St Helena Napoleon was reminded that it was the anniversary of Waterloo. ‘The recollection of it produced a visible impression on the Emperor. “Incomprehensible day!” said he in a tone of sorrow; “Concurrence of unheard of fatalities! Grouchy! Ney! d’Erlon! Was there treachery, or only misfortune? Alas! poor France!” Here he covered his eyes with his hands.’ (He was perhaps partially correct when he added, ‘Singular defeat, by which, notwithstanding the most fatal catastrophe, the glory of the conquered has not suffered, nor the fame of the conqueror been increased: the memory of the one will survive his destruction; the memory of the other will perhaps be buried in his triumph!’)

The Waterloo campaign was also remembered for the epic nature of its combat, which even some hardened campaigners thought unprecedented in their experience. The comments of John Kincaid were typical: ‘I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns … The field of battle, next morning, presented a frightful scene of carnage; it seemed as if the world had tumbled to pieces, and three-fourths of everything destroyed in the wreck. The ground running parallel to the front where we had stood was so thickly strewed with fallen men and horses, that it was difficult to step clear of their bodies …’ The battle was characterized by extraordinary courage and determination on all sides, a factor remarked upon by those present. A typical expression of this, and of regard for an enemy, was made by Major Horace Churchill, ADC to Rowland Hill, who exclaimed as they watched the French cavalry make repeated charges, ‘By God, these fellows deserve Bonaparte’ as they fought so valorously for him; and, writing six days after the battle, he remarked, ‘I had rather fallen that day as a British infantryman, or as a French cuirassier, than die ten years hence in my bed.’ Frederick Main waring made a comment that might have been echoed by all those who had experienced the three days’ fighting:

‘Waterloo and its glories are remembered but as history. We have, no doubt, many a Wellington yet unborn, but a Napoleon comes not in the lapse of many centuries, and long will it be ere two such armies clash again … Honour, chivalry, bravery, and fidelity, all combined, better or braver troops never went down upon a battlefield than those who perished there!’

Countless histories have covered the events of the Waterloo campaign, and the leading personalities; but fewer have concentrated upon the composition and methods of the armies. Each had its own systems, but the very basics of weapons-handling and the principles of manoeuvre were fairly common to all. It is impossible to provide exact statistics of the strengths of the units engaged in any one of the actions that occurred during the Waterloo campaign. Muster rolls were not often compiled on the very eve of an action, and even where they were, circumstances might render them less than wholly accurate. Even a short period between the recording of a muster and an action would see a number of men absent from the front-line strength of any unit: for example, men detailed to guard the regimental baggage, fallen ill or even temporarily wandered off in search of provisions. An example was provided by the comments of Edward Macready of the British 30th, who claimed that although the ‘morning state’ (muster) of the British army on 18 June indicated his battalion as having 548 rank and file present, no more than 460 were present at Quatre Bras, almost fifty being out of the line as servants and batmen; if correct, when the casualties of 16–17 June were deducted, only about 430 can have been present at Waterloo. Published statistics may be slightly misleading: for example, those quoted by William Siborne in his History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815 (1844 and subsequent editions) are clearly derived from official sources, but in some cases fail to include officers, NCOs and musicians, though these omissions appear not to have been consistent throughout.

Casualty figures are similar: the earliest published statistics were those gathered in the immediate aftermath of the actions and might include some returned as ‘wounded’ whose injuries subsequently proved fatal, and list some as ‘missing’ who might have been dead or wounded, or who had simply become separated from their units and returned subsequently. Such initial statistics, however, even taking into account any unwounded ‘missing’, might be a fair reflection on the state of a unit in the aftermath of an action, for the unwounded ‘missing’ were just as denied to the unit as if they had been casualties, at least until they rejoined.

Casualty statistics, however, represent only one aspect of the consequences of a battle like Waterloo. In mid-July 1815, less than a month after the battle, an English tourist, Charlotte Waldie, visited the battlefield and found ‘a long line of tremendous graves, or rather pits, into which hundreds of dead had been thrown … The effluvia which arose from them, even beneath the open canopy of heaven, was horrible; and the pure west wind of summer, as it passed us, seemed pestiferous, so deadly was the smell that in many places pervaded the field’, while decaying remains protruded from the earth. The whole field ‘was literally covered with soldiers’ caps, shoes, gloves, belts, and scabbards; broken feathers battered into the mud, remnants of tattered scarlet or blue cloth, bits of fur and leather, black stocks and havresacs’; piles of ash from cremations marked places where the dead had been too many to be buried. Items recovered from the field were being sold as tourist souvenirs at La Belle Alliance, but most poignant was a sight that was to become associated, more famously, with other battlefields in Flanders, a century later:

As we passed through the wood of Hougoumont … I was struck with the sight of the scarlet poppy flaunting in full bloom upon some new-made graves, as if in mockery of the dead. In many parts of the field these flowers were growing in profusion: they had probably been protected from injury by the tall and thick corn amongst which they grew, and their slender roots had adhered to the clods of clay which had been carelessly thrown upon the graves. From one of these graves I gathered the little wild blue flower known by the sentimental name of “Forget me not!” which to a romantic imagination might have furnished a fruitful subject for poetic reverie or pensive reflection.

28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig I

General Chasseloup-Laubat (1754–1833). The celebrated engineer who directed French operations at Danzig, Kolberg and Stralsund. At Danzig he was opposed by fellow Frenchman, Bousmard, an engineer whose methods he had studied and absorbed.

The Siege of Danzig. A French map of the siege, indicating the siting of French batteries. Please note the left-hand side of the map is north.

An 800-year-old port at the mouth of the Vistula, Danzig is of major strategical importance. A fortified city of great wealth, crammed with bursting storehouses and magazines, it is a bastion on the Baltic: constituting, in Napoleon’s mind – as Petre notes – ‘a standing menace, whilst in the enemy’s hands.’ In fact, Napoleon is obsessed with Danzig, considering its capture vital for a variety of reasons: first, to deny the port’s facilities to the Russians, who – with the help of the British Royal Navy – might attempt a landing in his rear; second, to remove the threat posed to his left flank by the Prussian garrison; third, to exploit the city’s great strategical and material resources himself. And last – but perhaps not least – to divert attention away from his failure to crush Bennigsen at Eylau. Thus, as Petre states: ‘Scarcely was the battlefield of Eylau cleared when, on 18 February, Napoleon commenced his arrangements for the siege, which had been interrupted by Bennigsen’s advance, necessitating the recall of Lefebvre to guard Thorn.’

Marshal François-Joseph Lefebvre – former commander of the infantry of Napoleon’s Old Guard – is, according to Foord, ‘merely a rough, honest old soldier of little strategic or tactical ability.’ Of humble background (his father was a miller), this tough 52-year-old veteran is a replacement for the unfortunate General Claude Victor, captured while changing horses near Stettin by a party of Prussian soldiers disguised as peasants. Lefebvre knows nothing of siege warfare, but will be aided in his task by Napoleon’s top engineer, General Chasseloup-Laubat. As for Lefebvre’s command, it consists of the 26,000 troops of X Corps. Only some 10,000 of these soldiers are French, the rest being an assortment of foreigners, largely Poles and Saxons. But Lefebvre’s force will continue to grow over the coming months, strengthened by a steady stream of captured Prussian ordnance from the fallen fortresses of Silesia.

Opposing X Corps is a complement of some 16,000 men, augmented by 450 guns, howitzers and mortars. The bulk of the manpower – around 11,000 men and 300 guns – is concentrated in Danzig itself, the remainder strung out in detachments north of the city, tasked with maintaining communications with the Baltic. Despite later claims (from both sides), these garrison troops are not of the first class: but they are well-supplied and ably led by General Count Friedrich Adolf von Kalkreuth (also spelt ‘Kalreuth’, ‘Kalckreuth’ or ‘Kalkruth’ in contemporary sources), a veteran of the Seven Years War. Like Lefebvre, Kalkreuth is no expert when it comes to sieges, and will rely, in his turn, on an experienced advisor. But this guru is none other than the celebrated French émigré, Henri Jean-Baptiste Bousmard, whose treatise on the science of siege warfare, General Essay on Fortification (published in the 1790s and dedicated to the king of Prussia) is Chasseloup’s bible. Thus, the commanding generals will preside over a game of cat-and-mouse between the 58-year-old Bousmard and the 53-year-old Chasseloup: two clever and resourceful men, seemingly sharing the same textbook. But the game will be a lethal one, and only one of the two Frenchmen will survive.

The venue for the Bousmard v. Chasseloup match is a walled city protected by nineteen bastions. Danzig – an old Hanseatic town – was bagged by Prussia in 1793 during the Second Partition of Poland. The city’s inhabitants – Germans and Poles – had enjoyed hundreds of years of municipal autonomy: consequently, Prussian rule was despised. In 1797 a rebellion broke out but was soon crushed, Danzig remaining in Prussian hands.

In 1807, as Petre states: ‘the civil population of Danzig numbered about 45,000. The city had somewhat declined in importance of late years, yet was still a very important port and market. Its fortifications had, in 1806, been much neglected, and were in very bad repair. It was only when the Prussian power collapsed, in the autumn of that year, that a siege began to seem probable. Then every effort was made to repair and strengthen the fortress.’

In fact, Danzig’s fortifications are formidable, its storehouses full, and its approaches covered by boggy ground and several waterways. It will be a difficult nut for Chasseloup to crack. Above the city, the Vistula – flowing from east to west – hugs the northern flank of the fortress. Then, once past Danzig, the river sweeps north in a wide arc, through a vast swampy plain, known as the Nehrung, before emptying into the Baltic a few miles beyond. The navigable Laake Canal cuts through the eastern Nehrung, connecting Danzig with the estuary, thus creating the garrisoned island of Holm, the southern tip of which gazes across the Vistula at Danzig’s northern walls. The mouth of the Vistula is guarded by a small fort at Weichselmunde, opposite the tiny port of Neufahrwasser. Meanwhile, to the east and south of Danzig lies more marshland, intersected by several streams, including the River Mottlau: a tributary of the Vistula, which, running through the centre of the city, bisects it on a north–south axis. To the west – the only practicable line of attack for a hostile army – stand the fortified bastions of the Hagelsberg and the Bischofsberg (armed with forty guns apiece): the first dominating the main approaches to the city; the second forming its south-west corner.

Dabrowski’s victory at Dirschau on 23 February has effectively confined Kalkreuth’s troops to the precincts of Danzig, leaving Lefebvre free to make his advance on 9 March. The next day, having driven in the Prussian outposts, the marshal occupies villages south and south-west of the city. Several days later, the western suburb of Schidlitz is successfully stormed.

But Napoleon wants Danzig’s communications with Weichselmunde and the Baltic cut and orders Lefebvre to encircle the city. Consequently, on 20 March, General Jean-Adam Schramm – operating on Danzig’s eastern flank – leads 2,000 French troops onto the northern bank of the Vistula, and marches west on Weichselmunde. The small French task force succeeds in pushing the Prussian outposts back along the eastern Nehrung and into the fortress of Weichselmunde itself. Speedily reinforced by Lefebvre, Schramm then beats off a sortie from Danzig, and secures a position on the Nehrung north of Danzig: his right anchored on the Baltic, his left on the Vistula. The French stranglehold on the port is tightening. Now Lefebvre feels himself strong enough to open a regular siege.

By 1807 the basic method for beleaguering a city is well-established. The engineers on both sides know what to expect. First, the attackers will attempt to isolate the garrison by enforcing a blockade. Then, at a safe distance, an initial trench or ‘first parallel’ will be dug opposite a section of the city walls. Once completed, saps will advance from this trench until a ‘second parallel’ is completed, and then a third, and so on, until the walls are almost reached. Meanwhile, well-sited batteries will batter the walls facing the trenches, and when a breach is made, the city will be invited to surrender. If the invitation is refused, the attackers will issue from the trenches and storm the breach. Should the fortress fall, a time-honoured tradition – dating back to the Middle Ages – grants victors the ‘right’ to murder the garrison and plunder the town as ‘punishment’ for obliging them to suffer casualties by mounting an assault. So much for the theory.

28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig II

Panoramic view of the Siege of Gdańsk by French forces in 1807.

In practice, Chasseloup – aided by his assistant, François Joseph Kirgener – is faced with a difficult task. Danzig is well-stocked, and as long as ships can reach it from the Baltic, the garrison will never starve or run short of ammunition. The city’s fortifications are sound, and its approaches covered by both natural and artificial obstacles on three sides. Left with little choice but to attack from the west, Chasseloup bites on granite, selecting the great bastion of the Hagelsberg as the focal point of his campaign. But to keep Kalkreuth and Bousmard off balance, a diversionary operation against the Bischofsberg will also be mounted. It will be dangerous work, especially as the trenches creep closer to the city and come within range of shot and shell hurled from the walls above.

On 2 April the ground has thawed enough for Chasseloup’s sappers to start digging opposite the Hagelsberg. This first trench or ‘parallel’ will eventually run for some 1,300 yards (1,200m). The following day sees a see-saw battle for possession of redoubts west of the city. After a bloody hand-to-hand contest, the garrison keeps control. Meanwhile, the digging continues, hampered by collapsing trenches and Kalkreuth’s decision to release dammed floodwaters onto the plain. By 8 April, a second parallel is opened and the sappers are exposed to enemy fire, as well as repeated sorties by the Danzig garrison. In fact, Kalkreuth is conducting a vigorous defence, mounting spoiling attacks on the siege works and disputing every inch of ground. Nevertheless, Chasseloup is determined the trenches must be pushed forward and siege works opposite the Bischofsberg begin. Lefebvre is uneasy about the campaign against the Bischofsberg, which slows the pace of the siege and uses up valuable men and materièl. But Chasseloup is insistent that both forts must be approached, to keep Kalkreuth guessing which one will be assaulted.

On 11 April, the Silesian fortress of Schweidnitz falls to Vandamme and its heavy guns sent north to the besiegers before Danzig. Two days later, Lefebvre receives reinforcements and repulses another sortie by the garrison. By 15 April the second parallel is completed west of Danzig: the besiegers are creeping closer to the city. And to the north, on the Nehrung, French troops under General Gardanne successfully advance along the Laake Canal to cut Kalkreuth’s communication with the sea. Meanwhile, staff officer, Louis Lejeune arrives at Lefebvre’s camp. Although technically an aide-de-camp to Marshal Berthier, Lejeune – a trained engineer – is acting as both a courier and an observer for an impatient Napoleon:

All the best engineer officers of the French Army were collected together under General Chasseloup at the Siege of Danzig, and the operations were conducted with great rapidity, though not fast enough to please the emperor, who, at a distance from the scene of action, did not realize that fresh obstacles were thrown in our way every day by the skill of the directors of the defence.’

On 20 April high winds and snowstorms halt operations before Danzig. But next day, the first big guns arrive at Lefebvre’s camp. Two days later, General Jean-Ambrose Lariboisière – commanding the French artillery – orders a twelve-hour bombardment of the city. Fifty-eight heavy guns open up, smashing buildings and igniting fires. Public morale crashes in a storm of panic, as the cannonades continue over successive days. Meanwhile, during the night of 25 April, Chasseloup’s engineers complete the third parallel before Danzig’s western defences. The besiegers are within musket-shot of the walls and sappers are smashing the palisades of redoubts protecting the city’s approaches. Kalkreuth launches a major counter-attack, and when it is repulsed, the Prussian general is invited to surrender. Kalkreuth refuses to capitulate and the bombardments continue. A few days later, General Gardanne takes the island of Holm on Danzig’s northern flank, killing or capturing the entire garrison. According to Petre: ‘The island was a most valuable prize; it was promptly fortified, and its guns turned against Danzig, the defences of which they took in reverse … The flying bridge connecting Danzig with the island was gallantly cut adrift by a miner named Jacquemart, under a heavy fire.’

But on 10 May, with Danzig encircled and an all-out assault imminent, a fleet of fifty-seven transports appears at the mouth of the Vistula, carrying some 7,000 Russian troops under General Kamenski (spelt ‘Kamenskoi’ in some sources, but no relation to the ex-commander-in-chief). Kamenski has been sent to save Kalkreuth’s skin, his task force sailing from Pillau, near Königsberg, in British ships. Kamenski, so Petre tells us, ‘disembarked on the 11th at Neufahrwasser. He was, till he landed, unaware of the loss of the island of Holm, which seriously compromised his plans.’ So much so, the Russian general resolves to stay-put and dig-in. This passivity plays into Lefebvre’s hands, giving the marshal time to call up Lannes (recovered from his Pultusk wound), at the head of a 15,000-strong ‘Reserve Army’, which includes Oudinot’s élite Grenadier Division.

At 4.00 a.m. on 15 May, Kamenski bestirs himself at last, marching south from Weichselmunde to meet Schramm and Gardanne on the plain north of Danzig. Advancing in four great columns led by Cossacks, Kamenski’s troops are in action within the hour, pushing back Frenchmen, Saxons and Poles. Soon after 5.00 a.m. Schramm is hotly engaged and giving ground. Kamenski pushes on, making repeated attacks, the fury of the fight increasing each minute. But just when a Russian breakthrough seems likely, Lannes’ leading column arrives to rescue the situation. Outnumbered, Kamenski’s force is driven back to the fort of Weichselmunde, leaving some 1,500 dead and wounded on the plain. Kalkreuth’s Prussians remain passive spectators, Kamenski’s offensive collapsing before effective support can be organized.

And so, with Kamenski’s survivors botded up at Weichselmunde, the siege resumes. Louis Lejeune survives the battle on the Nehrung, but brushes with death on his return to Lefebvre’s camp:

During the battle I rode a horse lent to me by Marshal Lefebvre, and on my way back to headquarters in the evening a ball from Bischofsberg shattered a rock beneath me, and the fragments killed my horse on the spot. I remained flat on my face on the ground for some time before I could get up. The effects of the shock and the pain of my bruises soon went off; I was not really wounded, and I was able to drag myself to headquarters, where the rejoicings over the victory soon quite restored me.’

Several days later, Lejeune describes the scene when a British corvette, the Dauntless, enters the Vistula, and sailing past Weichselmunde, attempts to deliver supplies to Kalkreuth’s incarcerated garrison:

on 19 May an English sloop of war with twenty-four guns tried to run the blockade and get into the town by way of an arm of the Vistula which winds through the meadows round Danzig. The bold commander of the vessel hoped to break down every obstacle with discharges of grape shot from his cannon. He had actually got within range of the town, having met with no more formidable obstacles than a few simple booms, which were easily broken through. He was not, however, prepared for the sudden attack opened upon him by several companies of our sharpshooters, who rushed across the meadows and fired a volley into the ship from both sides of the stream, mowing down the sailors and bringing the sloop to a standstill. Without helmsmen, and with sails flapping helplessly, the vessel drifted to the side of the stream and grounded; the soldiers sprang on board and took 150 prisoners as well as the valuable cargo of weapons, ammunition, and provisions which the commander had intended for the use of the garrison of the beleaguered city.’

Cut off from the sea, the Danzig garrison is doomed, and on 20 May Kalkreuth opens tentative peace negotiations. He is offered honourable, even generous, terms by Lefebvre – a sign, perhaps, of Napoleon’s need to close the siege quickly – including the right to march his garrison out of the city, ‘with arms and bag-gage, drums beating, colours flying, matches lighted, with two pieces of light artillery, six pounders, and their ammunition waggons, each drawn by six horses.’ Furthermore, a safe passage is guaranteed to Kalkreuth’s officers, on condition they swear not to bear arms against France for twelve months from the date of surrender. Kalkreuth signs, but inserts a clause stipulating that capitulation will only come into effect if the city is not relieved by noon on 26 May.

But Lefebvre – running out of patience and fearful of another Allied attempt to relieve the city – decides to storm Danzig as soon as possible, as described by Louis Lejeune:

Marshal Lefebvre was as impatient as we were to get into the town and to put an end to the tedious operations … One day the marshal, angry at all the delays, took me by the arm and began banging with his fist at the base of a wall, pierced by the sap, shouting in his Alsatian brogue, “Make a hole here, and I’ll be the first to go through it.” Meanwhile the walls were falling under our bombardment, and a practicable breach had at last just been made. Troops were ready for the assault, and the decisive blow was to be struck the next morning …’

On 23 May, however, events take an unexpected turn: Kamenski’s Russians re-embark at Weichselmunde and sail back to Pillau, while the ethnic Poles among the Prussian garrison start to desert. Then, Danzig’s shopkeepers appear at the city gates, setting up stalls and selling wine to Lefebvre’s troops at thirty-two sous a bottle. It is clear everyone is sick of the siege. Soon the soldiers of both sides are fraternizing, merrily getting drunk together. Finally, the arrival of Marshal Mortier with a further 12,000 French troops decides the issue and Kalkreuth announces his desire to quit. Thus, Danzig is spared the trauma of a bloody assault, and on 27 May the defenders march out and the besiegers march in, led by Chasseloup’s sappers.

In his official report to Frederick William, Kalkreuth blames mass desertion for the fall of Danzig: though it is only after the capitulation that large numbers – some 2,000 Pomeranian Poles forced to fight for Prussia – go over to the French. But it is reasonable to assume that falling morale – rather than dwindling numbers or supplies – is a factor in the Prussian surrender, as Petre notes:

From famine or shortness of supplies or ammunition the garrison had never suffered. Enormous quantities of stores of every description remained in the place, and were of the utmost service to the French. Whether Kalkreuth should not have held out longer is a moot point. The Hagelsberg would probably have been stormed with great slaughter on both sides …’

And so, despite orders from Frederick William to defend Danzig to the last, Kalkreuth opts to save lives by capitulating in the face of lengthening odds. He has lost some 3,000 men during the siege from sickness and enemy action. Among the dead is engineer Bousmard, killed by his own countrymen. But Kalkreuth is not disgraced, the Prussian king quickly promoting him to field marshal. Equally gratifying – perhaps more so – is public praise from Napoleon, who considers Kalkreuth’s defence of Danzig masterly.

But then, Napoleon could afford to be generous to his enemies. In fact, with Danzig’s coffers at his mercy, he could afford to be generous to everyone, each soldier of X Corps being awarded a bonus of 10 francs. Lefebvre, meanwhile, is sent a box of chocolates. The gruff marshal – perhaps baffled at first – is delighted to find 300 banknotes inside, each of 1,000 francs denomination (according to Blond, soldiers will refer to cash as ‘Danzig chocolate’ for years to come). A year later, Napoleon will make Lefevbre duke of Danzig, with a gratuity of two and a half millions. Meanwhile, having scored a major military, political and financial coup at the cost of some 6,000 men (1,500 of them Poles), a gleeful Napoleon announces the fall of Danzig in his 67th Bulletin of 29 May 1807:

Danzig has capitulated. That fine city is in our possession. Eight hundred pieces of artillery, magazines of every kind, more than 500,000 quintals of grain, well-stored cellars, immense collections of clothing and spices; great resources of every kind for the army … Marshal Lefebvre has braved all; he has animated with the same spirit the Saxons, the Poles, the troops of Baden, and has made them all conduce to his end.’

Augustus II Friedrich Wettin

August II Grand-Duke of Saxony and King of Poland shaking hands with the King of Prussia in 1728. By 1756, friendship between the two nations was history. – Source: de Silvestre, Dresden, Wikipedia

In 1674, after a divided election, one of the best Polish military commanders, Jan Sobieski, was elevated to the throne. He rebuilt the army, signed a treaty with France, and planned to subjugate Prussia and to strengthen the Polish position in the Baltic region. The magnates, however, were more interested in Ukraine. The Commonwealth returned to an anti-Turkish alliance with the Habsburgs. In 1683 a military expedition led by Jan III Sobieski saved Vienna, which had been besieged by the Ottomans. As a result of this new war with the Turks, Poland recovered its three lost southern provinces in 1699. The king, however, died in 1696, disliked by the nobles, who opposed the royal family’s plans to introduce a hereditary monarchy in Poland.

Not only was the 1697 royal election divided, but for the first time a candidate from a clear minority became king. Most nobles voted for Prince Conti of France, but the Elector of Saxony, Augustus II Friedrich Wettin, supported by a smaller group of nobility, came to Poland with his army and took power. Saxony was blossoming under his government, and he impressed the Polish nobles by converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism. He had ambitious plans and intended to realize them using Poland as a springboard.

Augustus wanted to strengthen royal power in the Commonwealth and to gain Livonia and Courland for his family as a hereditary property. He promised several monarchs various Polish territories in exchange for their support. In 1700 Saxony joined a Russian-Danish anti-Swedish coalition to recover Livonia, taken from Poland by Sweden in the seventeenth century. Formally, the Commonwealth did not participate in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, but most of its operations took place on Polish territories and devastated them. In 1704 Charles XII of Sweden ejected Augustus from Poland and put the palatine of Poznań, Stanisław Leszczyński, on the Polish throne. In 1706 Augustus, defeated in Saxony, renounced all claims to the throne, but his supporters in the Commonwealth fought together with Russian armies against the Polish supporters of the Swedes and Leszczyński. In 1709 Charles XII suffered a major defeat at Poltava in Ukraine. The Swedes were subsequently driven from the Commonwealth, controlled now by the Russians.

Augustus returned to Poland and tried to ensure his absolute power, which led to a conflict with the nobility. Russias tsar, Peter the Great, mediated the dispute, dictated a settlement, and forced both sides to accept it in 1717 during the so-called Silence Sejm, when none of its members dared to utter a word. Augustus renounced his absolutist aspirations and sent his Saxon troops back to Saxony; the army of Lithuania was reduced to 6,000 men and that of Poland to 18,000. The nobility was guaranteed its former privileges, including the liberum veto. Although Russia took Livonia, its troops stayed in the Commonwealth, which now became a Russian protectorate.

During the Great Northern War, Polands territories were devastated by the Russian, Swedish, and Saxon armies, which lived off the land. Poor harvests in 1706. 1708 and the Great Plague, which raged until 1711, completed the destruction. Lithuania alone lost about one-third of its population.

In 1733 Augustus II was succeeded on the Polish throne by his son, Augustus III. Russian armies intervened against the candidacies of Portuguese Prince Emanuel and Stanisław Leszczysski, and won the War of Polish Succession. The new king rarely visited the Commonwealth, left it in the hands of his favorites, and subordinated Polish interests to the Wettin dynastic interests. Russia, supported by Prussia, in turn guaranteed what was called the Golden Freedom of the Polish nobility.