Prussian Reforms 1806-15

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GERHARD von SCHARNHORST (1755-1813) Chief of the Prussian General Staff.

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Napoleon’s defeats were important, especially for an understanding of the use of force, but his victories over fifteen years were of much greater significance and were astounding by any measure. Moreover, even when finally defeated, Napoleon’s military vision endured: his enemies ultimately all reformed their armies, and whether knowingly or unknowingly did so within the parameters he had established. And this was necessary, since the armies facing the French had problems with both their officers and the ranks. The Prussians are an excellent example of this, and an important one, since their reforms within the Napoleonic model both refined it and created another innovation: their general staff.

Like many of the armies that faced the French, the Prussian army was composed of men thrown into the service and held in check by the fear induced through the power of fierce discipline, symbolized by the frequent use of the lash. The French conscript army also used fierce discipline—but it was not based on coercion by terror. Most of the other recruits to the Prussian army were foreigners, as the home population was deemed more useful tilling the land, working and paying the taxes that would enable the princes to raise such armies. In 1742, Frederick the Great decided that as a general rule, two-thirds of infantry battalions should be composed of foreigners, the remaining third being Prussians. As a result, most battalions were filled with deserters from foreign armies, prisoners of war, criminals and vagabonds, recruited through cunning, violence and the lure of gold. Only savage discipline could hold this heterogeneous mass of soldiers together, without which they would promptly desert. Indeed, desertion was the main concern of military leaders: Frederick II began his General Principles on the Conduct of War, written between 1748 and 1756, with fourteen rules to avoid desertion; tactical and strategic considerations often had to be subordinated to the need to prevent it. As a result, troops were formed in tight lines, scouting patrols were rarely used, and chasing a defeated enemy army was extremely difficult. Marching, let alone attacking by night, or establishing camps close to forests had to be avoided. Soldiers were ordered to watch over their comrades for potential deserters, in times of peace as at war. Even civilians faced heavy penalties for failing to detain deserters and hand them in to the army.

Consider these troops in contrast to Napoleon’s conscripts: troops provided constantly by law, troops willing to fight, troops who could therefore be trusted in any kind of march or manoeuvre. The difference was immeasurable—it extended to the officer class too. As opposed to Napoleon’s new professionals, the Prussians were still largely led by men defined by class rather than capability. Some were foreigners but most were aristocrats drawn from the ranks of the Prussian Junkers. In his writings, Frederick II repeatedly stated that commoners should not receive a commission since their minds tend to be turned towards profit rather than honour. But even families of noble blood were often reluctant to send their sons to the army: although a military career could in time prove to be both glorious and profitable, the academic level of most military schools was hardly superior to primary education. As a result, the average Prussian officer was rarely well educated—a situation which impacted upon the level of Prussian command.

The inadequacies of the Prussian army had already been exposed in the period 1792–95 when, as part of the first coalition, it encountered the then pre-Napoleonic French revolutionary army of mostly untrained volunteers, and lost. These initial losses led to the creation of a war college, the Kriegsakademie, for the study of military theory and practice, headed by one of the most significant reformers of the Prussian army, General Gerd von Scharnhorst. As an experienced soldier, he was already fascinated by these mostly untrained, lowly conscript soldiers and unknown officers, often too of lowly origin, that fought so well and defeated the professional armies of Europe. He and other Prussian military reformers understood the operational flexibility resulting from the idea of the corps d’armée relatively quickly, but then came to realize this was not enough: there was a bigger issue at stake than military organization. It was Scharnhorst who sensed that in some unclear way it had to do with the new revolutionary state—that it was a political issue—which needed far more insight and comprehension than most officers possessed. To begin to broach this complicated matter Scharnhorst introduced liberal studies to the syllabus of the Kriegsakademie, which was an important step in itself, but one that did little to truly reform the army. This was not surprising, given the immensity of the task: the Prussian army was too big and too heavy, its columns like those of Austria and Russia marching only a few miles a day, their existence tied to thousands of cumbersome supply wagons. The army’s tactics too were outdated: recruits were drilled in rigid and slow automated rhythms, in anticipation of a battlefield in which soldiers would deploy in stiff, inflexible lines before firing volleys against volleys fired from an enemy’s equally stiff, inflexible lines. It was this army—facing Napoleon’s more flexible tactics, mass, rapid movement with willing soldiers of high morale, and a focused strategy of decisive victory—that was vanquished at the battle of Jena in 1806. An impressive display of Napoleonic strategy, the battle is not well known—as is Waterloo, for example—which is ironic since it was the defining experience for a generation of Prussian officers, and especially, as we will see, for one Carl von Clausewitz.

Alarmed by the devastating French victories over Austria and Russia in 1805, Prussia mobilized for war in 1806, somewhat overconfident in its capabilities: both the nation and the army were ill prepared psychologically. Napoleon responded quickly, and his Grande Armée—in this case some 200,000 strong, organized in a number of corps and deployed en carré on a converging axis—began moving in early October. His aim was a decisive victory over King Frederick William of Prussia. From the start the campaign did not go well for the Prussian forces. Marshal Murat and Marshal Bernadotte’s corps soon crossed the river Saale and forced General Tauenzien’s division to fall back on General Prince Hohenlohe’s army. Meanwhile, Marshal Lannes achieved a small but stunning victory at Saalfeld, defeating Prince Louis Ferdinand’s corps, killing its commander and taking 10,000 prisoners. With Prussian morale already plummeting, on 10 October the army under Napoleon’s command found Hohenlohe’s rear guard occupying the Landgrafenberg plateau above the town of Jena. Napoleon decided to deploy Marshal Lannes’ corps and the Imperial Guard on this plateau to hold down the enemy’s centre. Marshal Augereau was sent on the right and Marshal Ney on the left to outflank the Prussians on both sides. Meanwhile, Marshal Davout’s corps were sent marching north towards Apolda to complete the encirclement. Napoleon spent part of the night personally supervising the building of a mountain road, to bring troops and artillery pieces up to the plateau. At dawn, the French army was deployed to form a front a mile and a half long. As the dense fog cleared in mid-morning, Hohenlohe, who had believed he was fighting a flank guard, realized his mistake. From cover, the French soon started pounding his forces, which were concentrated on open ground, as he awaited reinforcements. In the early afternoon, Napoleon ordered the advance, committing his 40,000-strong reserve. Facing a gigantic advancing mass of 90,000 infantry and cavalry supported by artillery, Hohenlohe’s troops fled. Before 4 p.m., the battle was over. Half of the French soldiers had not even fired a shot.

Napoleon was convinced he had achieved the decisive victory over the Prussians. In fact, Frederick William had departed the day before with 70,000 troops, heading towards the Magdeburg fortress. The real clash came when this army encountered Marshal Davout’s isolated corps close to Auerstadt. Twenty-six thousand men strong, it only included some 1,500 cavalrymen and forty-four pieces of artillery. The first encounter with Prussian forces came when 600 of Blücher’s cavalry—the same Blücher of subsequent Waterloo fame—galloped out of the fog. The Prussians then launched four successive cavalry charges, each 2,500 men strong. The French troops, who had formed in battalion squares, withstood the assaults. Division after division of Prussian troops were thus checked, and Davout was forced to commit his only reserve: a single regiment. Napoleon had judged the strength and organization of Davout’s corps correctly. At noon, Frederick William decided to fall back in order to join up with Hohenlohe’s army and resume fighting the next day. To his dismay, instead of an army, he was faced with a mass of fugitives fleeing the battlefield of Jena, which he had no option but to join. He left behind 3,000 prisoners, including Clausewitz, and 10,000 dead. Davout had held at bay a force three times the size of his own—for which Napoleon congratulated him but, imperial legend oblige, he ordered that henceforth the two battles would be remembered only as the battle of Jena.

The Prussians were comprehensively defeated because in his campaign Napoleon had approached them in a way from which they could not deduce his intentions in time to react to them. When the armies were in contact he moved faster than they expected and from directions they did not expect, so that when they did react they did so on the basis of a false understanding of the battlefield. Furthermore, their ponderous centralized procedures for command and the insistence that orders were to be obeyed to the letter meant that those closest to the French, who could see what was actually happening, were neither empowered to act nor sufficiently informed to act appropriately.

The peace settlement came only in 1807 at Tilsit, signed on 25 June between Napoleon and the tsar, ally of the defeated Prussian king, on a specially constructed raft anchored in the exact midstream of the river Niemen in East Prussia. In the settlement Prussia lost half its population and territory and effectively became a French satellite. In addition, the Prussian forces were constrained to no more than 42,000 men, with limits on the numbers allowed in each arm or service. Such diminishment and strictures were a further blow for the army, which was still stunned from its humiliating defeats at Jena and Auerstadt. Nonetheless, it was through implementing these strictures that reform was achieved, to lasting effect: over years a different army came into being, with its new “thinking soldier,” the innovative idea of a general staff, and ultimately the theories of On War. These three linked together produced a doctrinal energy, and the nervous system to carry it, that would enable Prussia and then Germany to evolve through the following hundred years—and create a model of command that came to be emulated by many of the leading militaries in the world. This would establish an understanding of the organization and application of force that dominated the battlefield through two world wars—and possibly to this day. And it began with the painful reforms post-Jena.

General Scharnhorst headed the endeavour, backed up by an impressive coterie of generals who realized the need for total reform: of the army, of its officer class and of its operations. At a structural level, the Prussian reformers created six corps, following the French corps d’armée system. Each contained the three types of forces, artillery, infantry and cavalry, and each was organized in brigades some 6,000 to 7,000 strong. They then turned to the issues of men and arms. In order rapidly to increase the army’s numerical strength without openly flaunting the 1807 treaty, the permitted complement of recruits was drafted and rigorously trained for a few months, then sent back home, ready to be called up in time of need—and the next full complement was then called up and trained likewise. This was another emulation of the French system, in this case conscription of physically able men—though with a distinct difference: this was not universal conscription nor, as will be discussed below, was this the conscription of willing patriots of a citizen state, since such a state did not yet exist in Prussia; rather, it was selective conscription for short-term service. As such the Prussians effectively redefined the purpose of conscription: Napoleon was using his levées to sustain his armies in wartime—the citizen was called up to replace the losses of war. The Prussians used conscription to create an army which was small in peacetime but which was also a machine to train men who returned to civil life as soldiers waiting for war—and who could therefore expand the army in time of need. A final change to the army structure was the suspension of the principle of promotion through age in an attempt to instil meritocracy in the ranks. Ability and professionalism became the defining attributes.

Armaments had been heavily depleted at Jena. Repair workshops were therefore created, the main manufacturer in Berlin was enlarged so as to produce 1,000 muskets per month, a new factory was established in Neisse and weapons were purchased from Austria. In three years more than 150,000 firearms became available. Field artillery pieces also needed to be replaced. The eight Prussian fortresses remaining after Tilsit furnished the material to build new ones and factories were reorganized to produce them. In three years the army had field artillery to support forces of 120,000 men. By 1809 the Prussian army had been completely reorganized and its rules, regulations and structure altered. By 1812 these changes enabled Prussia to field an army officially only 42,000 strong but which expanded within the space of a few months to a fully armed force of nearly 150,000. This new conscript army fought successfully in the final Napoleonic campaigns of 1813–15, and as a consequence its structure remained the model for Prussian and then German armies in the decades that followed.

The new Prussian army was a much more flexible and responsive organization than its predecessor. None the less, it had to be reformed within the Prussian state as it existed: an old-style monarchy. The reformers were therefore faced with a dilemma: how to fight a mass army, the French, driven by a national revolutionary ideology, if not with another mass army driven by another national revolutionary ideology? In order to raise such an army it was necessary to inspire and draw the people under arms—or, as the reformers put it, to elicit the “endless forces not developed and not utilized [that] slumber in the bosom of a nation.” Yet such a step could well lead to the democratization of the state and the destruction of the monarchical system through revolution. The officers in charge of remodelling the army were reformers, not revolutionaries, and wished to avoid such an outcome at all costs. This issue was to dog the Prussian military enterprise until a law universal conscription was finally passed in the 1860s, as both a precursor to and part of the wars of German unification that ultimately produced a large state with a fully developed concept of nationality and nationalism, drawing men to patriotic service. In the interim, and especially in the post-Jena period of reforms, the reformers’ attempted solution was to try to ally the traditional dynastic legitimacy of the Prussian king, which had been the driving force of the previous army, to a new emphasis on “national legitimacy” or national pride. This had initially been created by a binding and collective dislike of France and Napoleon following the humiliating defeats—and was then strengthened by the Prussian victory at Leipzig in 1813. This national pride was an idea that the wider population could support and therefore willingly agree to give military service for. In this way it was possible to introduce conscription, even though it was not yet a citizen state. At the same time it was also possible to preserve the traditional social structure, in which princes and the dukes answerable to the king led the armies in the field (unlike the French, who supplanted those aristocrats they had not already guillotined with more professional soldiers) and the Junkers provided the officer class.

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Against this background, the Prussian reformers also dealt with the vital issues of command and leadership. The changes that had already begun with the establishment of the Kriegsakademie now took on greater urgency and depth. Officers were recruited on talent, trained on substance—academic and intellectual syllabi as well as military—and promoted on merit rather than by class, family background or royal clientism. It was the beginning of Prussian military professionalization. As a result, the new brigades and their sub-structures quickly came to be commanded by young and talented leaders. But these leaders and their men were also all of a new model: thinking soldiers who followed the spirit of a command rather than its letter; who were capable of understanding the unfolding battle and responding. Indeed, one way of viewing the disaster at Jena was precisely that of officers strictly following orders rather than taking necessary initiatives within their framework, and of ranks following rigid drills. The “thinking soldier” was not a concept unique to Prussia, and had been actively pursued by the British. Admiral John Byng of the Royal Navy had been tried and executed for failing this test in 1756; he had preferred to follow the letter of his orders rather than their spirit (as a result, the French fleet escaped his clutches). It was an important milestone. In line with Voltaire’s famous comment, “In this country, it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time, to give courage to others,” Byng’s execution had a galvanizing effect on the British officer corps, since it made plain that rank mattered little if an officer failed to fight. A lot might go wrong during an attack on the enemy, but the only fatal error was not to attack at all. General Moore’s reforms and training of the Light Division in 1799–1801 were similarly intended to encourage the active involvement of the rifleman as a “thinking soldier” on the battlefield. As he put it, the aim was to “train the judgement of the officers, so that, when left to themselves, they may do the right thing. They should have no hesitation in assuming responsibility.” What in time made the Prussian pursuit of the concept of the initiative-taking soldier remarkable was its marriage with another of the post-Jena innovations: the general staff. This body sought to address what had been perceived as a disastrous drawback in the Prussian performance throughout the Napoleonic campaigns, namely the lack of a central structure that could coordinate not only among the various military formations but also between the political and military leaderships. In the above description of the battle of Jena, for example, note how the French forces were commanded by marshals whilst the Prussians were all led by princes and dukes—each with his own force, each answering only directly to the king. The need for coherence and professionalization was overwhelming if the Prussian army was to be victorious in the future.

A staff has always been an integral element of any military formation, since every commander has need of assistants; in the Prussian army, for example, each of the princes and dukes had a staff. Until the Napoleonic Wars staffs tended to be devoted to administration, combining the workings of a large household with formal military issues such as supplies, legal systems, organization of troop formations and the carrying of messages in battle. Staff officers were not specially trained, nor were they usually called upon to counsel the military commander. As in other areas, Napoleon wrought the initial change—largely due to his new corps d’armée. With such a dispersed system it became very necessary to have a central body that could act as a form of nervous system connecting all the corps. His solution was a new but not entirely efficient organization of a general staff. As with conscription, it originated in a haphazard arrangement initiated by the Revolution which he liked and then institutionalized. The new mass armies with their equally new commanders needed men to instil order in these well-meaning but wholly disorganized formations. Louis Berthier, a professional soldier who had served in the old imperial army, was the most significant of these. Assigned to the Army of Italy in 1795, he had remarkable skill for organization and centralization—a fact recognized by Napoleon when he took up command. Berthier became head of Napoleon’s military planning staff, responsible for troop supply, personnel and supplies, but his true brilliance lay in an ability to translate the many orders of the emperor into easily understood messages to subordinates. His staff became the central body that organized, aided and passed on directives to all parts of the Grande Armée. But military planning was only part of the duties of Napoleon’s staff, which also combined the functions of a personal household and an imperial administration. This was its main flaw. With the emperor as the sole source of direction, its efficiency diminished as the scale of warfare and his empire increased.

The Prussian model for a general staff was inherently different from the French, and was aimed at creating a wide yet detailed basis for professional planning and command. As such it was conceived by Scharnhorst as an institution of kindred ethos with the Kriegsakademie, and when it was established in 1808 he naturally assumed the role of its first chief. In this capacity he focused upon integrating the new, well-trained middle-ranking officers of common education that the war college was producing into a central body. The Defence Law of 1814, which created permanent staffs for the divisions and army corps, further enhanced the joint utility of the Kriegsakademie and the general staff: by linking up the central body of direction with the fighting formations, a nervous system manned and run by officers of common training started to evolve. This also helped resolve the problem of how to preserve the authority of the monarchy while conducting war with citizen soldiers: by matching a professional general staff, which reached from the strategic to the tactical level, with those appointed to command by the monarch, the royal authority was paralleled with professional competence. Over time this common ethos would be ever more emphasized, as a measure for creating commanders of identical training, thinking and capabilities, all versed in the details of every plan and contingency. However, the routine tasks of the staff and the basis of most professional careers were mapmaking, gathering intelligence, preparing mobilization plans and coordinating railway schedules. For the main purpose of the general staff was preparing for war, mostly at the tactical level. This purpose was clear to the reformers who founded the general staff, but not necessarily to the broader Prussian military, especially the old guard of senior commanders. Following the premature death of Scharnhorst in 1813, and the end of significant campaigns following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, there was a waning of interest in military reform. As a result, the general staff lapsed in significance within the German military for some decades—and more profound reflection was still left to the Kriegsakademie, and most especially to the body of ideas formulated by one of its chief graduates and subsequent directors, Carl von Clausewitz.

Frederick the Great and War I

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When Friedrich II, later called the Great, came to the throne of Prussia in 1740, he inherited a realm both physically and in population a little larger than Portugal, but sprawled all across northeast Germany in little packages, and without any natural barriers to serve as points d’appui for fortresses. An unfortunate heritage of the Thirty Years’ War was the fact that the armies of both sides had marched very much where they pleased, regardless of neutralities, except in those few cases where the neutral had an armed force of his own big enough to insure respect. Johann Georg of Saxony was such a neutral until the Emperor Ferdinand forced him to choose sides; Georg Wilhelm of Brandenburg tried to be such a neutral and found he lacked the means. The lesson was not lost on the strong and imperious Hohenzollerns who followed him and turned the Electorate of Brandenburg into the Kingdom of Prussia, and most especially not on Friedrich II’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm I, not the least strong or imperious of that remarkable line. In addition, Friedrich Wilhelm was a kind of military connoisseur. In his younger days he had personally fought under Marlborough and Eugene at Malplaquet, and had fully accepted the opinion that one of the leading concerns of a royal personage was war.

There were no wars any more, but Friedrich Wilhelm behaved as though he expected one tomorrow morning. A series of financial and administrative economies, including the maintenance of his own court on a scale hardly more elaborate than that of a country gentleman, gave him one of the fattest treasuries of Europe from one of its poorest countries. He used the money to equip an army of 80,000, almost as large as the imperial forces, and equal to 4 per cent of Prussia’s population. In spite of a conscription system and the duty laid on males of noble families to serve in the officer corps from childhood up, little Prussia simply could not furnish that many men. Friedrich Wilhelm’s recruiting agents cruised through the whole of Europe in search of what they wanted, and when the candidates did not come willingly, they were kidnaped. This was especially true of very tall men; in one of those evolutionary specializations that made the head of triceratops almost too heavy to carry, the king devoted vast effort to assembling a regiment of giants for his personal guard. His people even sandbagged and carried off an exceptionally tall Italian priest while he was saying Mass.

The armies of the age of the balance of power were the product of a sharply stratified society, seeking everywhere to improve its productive mechanism. Even in soldier-hungry Prussia the fact that a man was an artisan or a trader exempted him from military service. It was the business of the middle class to pay taxes to support the armies, and the men who made them up were drawn from the lower levels–peasants, vagabonds, the tradeless. As a result, discipline everywhere was of the severest sort; but this severity was carried further under Friedrich Wilhelm than anywhere else in Europe. Flogging through the line was the usual punishment for talking back to an officer; a man who struck his superior was simply shot out of hand without trial. With this discipline went unceasing drill in the Prussian army, day in and day out, till the men moved like machines, on reflex and without even thinking.

Also there went with it a reduction in the number of movements required to load and fire a musket, and a new type of iron ramrod, introduced by Friedrich Wilhelm’s friend and officer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau. In other armies the ramrods were wood.

The rest of Europe regarded these antics with amusement; the regiment of giants was funny, and an army that drilled all the time but never did any fighting was an agreeable royal idiosyncrasy, like a collection of cameos, and about as useful. Indeed, an official report to the Holy Roman emperor said that the Prussian soldiers had been flogged so much that they would infallibly desert at the first fire.

But on October 20, 1740, the Holy Roman emperor died.

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King Friedrich II was twenty-seven at the time of his accession, known for his liberalizing tendencies, his addiction to the arts and sciences, and what was generally considered to be a levity of temper. He abolished torture, proclaimed the freedom of the press and absolute religious toleration, and began writing all over Europe to tempt Voltaire, Maupertuis, anyone with a reputation, to come to Berlin and help set up an academy. He discontinued the regiment of giants, gave orders that in view of a prospective poor harvest the army magazines should be opened and grain sold at low rates. European editorial opinion was that he would reduce the army and maintain one of those German courts shining with reflected French cultural glitter.

All this was before the death of the emperor, Charles VI. He had produced only daughters, but before his death he spent a great deal of time and effort hurrying about Europe to get everybody to sign a document called the Pragmatic Sanction, guaranteeing the Hapsburg succession to the eldest girl, Maria Theresa, who was married to Francis, titular Duke of Lorraine. Everybody did sign, probably most of them with mental reservations, for there were two women with better hereditary claims, the daughters of Charles’ elder brother, Joseph. One was the wife of Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, and the Wittelsbach house had never abandoned its hope of becoming imperial; the other was the wife of Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who did not want the whole heritage, but only a part of it. Spain and Sardinia also had claims of a vague sort; and in the background there was always France, ready to promote anything that would keep the empire weak and divided.

These complications added up to the fact that the Hapsburg empire, made up of a collection of possessions under varying rules of inheritance, was surrounded by expanding states, which saw an opportunity to chip off pieces. But the balance of power and the futility of war to attain decisions had become so well established that nobody did anything practical about it until December 16, two months after Charles VI’s death.

On that date Friedrich marched across the border of the duchy of Silesia at the head of 30,000 men, claiming it as his own.

Legally the claim was of the flimsiest sort. It was rested on a document of 1537, in which the Duke of Liegnitz and the then Markgraf of Brandenburg mutually agreed that if the male heirs of either line ran out the other should inherit. Actually, as everyone recognized at the time, it was a straight case of expanding state, and, moreover, expansion by war. The effect was a transvaluation of values, not instantaneously, but as soon as Friedrich had demonstrated that something important could be accomplished by such means.

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The demonstration was furnished at Mollwitz on 10 April, 1741, on a field blanketed with snow. Friedrich had been masking and besieging fortresses throughout Silesia and his strategy left a great deal to be desired, but he managed to get some 20,000 men to Mollwitz to oppose an approximately equal number of Austrians under Marshal Neipperg. There were several peculiarities about that battle. Although the total forces were nearly equal, the Austrian cavalry outnumbered the Prussian slightly more than two to one, which meant that Austria was similarly deficient in infantry; and the Prussians had sixty field guns against eighteen. King Friedrich, in imitation of Gustavus, took his station with the cavalry of the right wing. In the deployment there was not quite enough room for all the infantry on that wing, so that some of it had to be drawn back at an angle, en potence; and the ground was such that this wing was much forward, nearer the enemy.

The battle was opened by the guns; they galled the horse of the Austrian left so sore that these charged without orders and carried the Prussian cavalry right away–including the king, who took no further part in the proceedings that day. But when the Austrians tried to finish things by turning in on the infantary flank, they found themselves up against something much tougher than they could have imagined. Friedrich Wilhelm’s foot, drilled to the likeness of machines, did not break, but stood in their ranks and shot the horsemen down. Five times Austria tried against that angle of the Prussian right wing, five times the cavalry went back; at the last charge broken, just as the infantry lines came into contact. The battalions en potence swung forward, they overlapped the Austrian left, and with the mechanical Prussians firing five shots with their iron ramrods for every two of their opponents, with the overplus of Prussian artillery cutting holes in the Austrian front, Neipperg’s men could not stand it. They melted away into a wintry twilight, their line collapsing from left to right.

Mollwitz decided Silesia for the time being, and also made in Europe a noise almost as loud as Breitenfeld, for it was the defeat of a mighty empire by a power almost as little regarded as Sicily. The required demonstration was furnished; namely, that the military strength of a state is not necessarily proportionate to its size, and that it was still possible to accomplish something by military means. Forthwith, Charles Albert of Bavaria claimed the whole imperial heritage, Augustus of Saxony-Poland claimed part of it, and their alliance was backed by France with force of arms. This made it practically obligatory for England, already locked with France in a struggle for overseas dominion, to support Austria, and the War of the Austrian Succession began.

But these were only the publicly, immediately decisive events that flowed from Mollwitz. The privately decisive matters, which became the more important in the long run, were that Friedrich, who deserves to rank as a great man, if only because he learned something from every blunder and accident with humility unequaled in history, meditated long and hard over what happened in battle. His infantry had withstood the best cavalry in Europe; very well, infantry trained in the school of Friedrich Wilhelm could turn back any cavalry. His Marshal Schwerin had urged him to leave the field after the first cavalry charge, and then won the battle; very well, he would never leave a battlefield again and Schwerin was in disfavor. Most important of all was the train of accidents that resulted in a heavily weighted Prussian right wing striking the Austrian left at an oblique angle. Friedrich studied military history very hard and had the memory of an elephant; it reminded him of Epaminondas of Thebes, and he never forgot it.

 

Frederick the Great and War II

If you had spoken to an expanding-state dignitary about anything like consent of the governed or plebiscites, he would have thought you out of your mind; but the million or more Silesians conquered by Friedrich at Mollwitz or in the sieges were well content to be Prussian. They were predominantly Protestant, and the Austrian Catholic officials, while not actually oppressing them, made things difficult. Moreover, Prussian administration was more efficient than Austrian; more precise, with a better sense of essential justice. Friedrich had not only made a conquest, he had secured the reconciliation of the conquered.

But there was one person who would never be reconciled to Prussia in Silesia, and that was Maria Theresa, empress and queen. She regarded Friedrich as the most wicked and dangerous man in Europe, and she said so; a reaction not merely of personal pique, but of an underlying sense that his success threatened the whole system of which she formed a part. This opinion was implemented through a long series of diplomatic and military maneuvers. In 1742, at the urging of her British friends, Maria Theresa signed a peace which turned out to be an armistice. It gave Friedrich his Silesia and allowed her to turn on the Bavarians and French. In 1743 the French were disastrously defeated in Bohemia and on the Rhine; Bavaria fell entirely into Austrian hands and Friedrich re-entered the war as the ally of France, more or less to keep the revived Hapsburg power from being turned on him alone. In 1744 he invaded Bohemia and captured Prague, but got himself maneuvered out by attacks on his communications. In 1745 the Austrians, now with Saxony as an ally, counterinvaded Silesia and were well beaten at Hohenfriedberg and Sohr, so that the peace finally signed only confirmed the verdict of Mollwitz.

In every series of campaigns certain features establish themselves on a semi-permanent basis as part of the frame of reference. In the War of the Austrian Succession one of these features was the operations of the Hungarian irregular light cavalry, pandours, who hung in clouds across the front and flanks of every Austrian army. They were barbarians who used to bum towns, raid camps, and cut the wounded to pieces when they found them, but they made communications a problem for every army opposing the Austrian, and they forced the king to fight for his intelligence of enemy movements. As a result he developed his own cavalry service on lines parallel to those given the infantry by Friedrich Wilhelm–careful training, perfect co-ordination, precision of movement–and reared up a group of remarkable cavalry officers, Ziethen, Seydlitz, Rothenbourg. This was not so much a true light cavalry, like the pandours, but an instrument for combat intelligence and battle purposes, and it was the first of its kind.

The infantry did not need improving, only an intensification of its previous status. Friedrich had discovered that his foot could not only fire twice as fast as its opponents, but also that it could maneuver much faster, and on this he based a new system of minor tactics. The infantry was to fire a platoon volley, advance four paces behind the smoke while reloading for the next volley and, when close enough to the bullet-racked enemy line, fall on with the bayonet.

In major tactics every one of his big battles of the war–Chotusitz, Hohenfriedberg, Sohr–was a deliberate repetition of the accident of Mollwitz. In each Friedrich pushed forward a heavily loaded right wing, took the enemy at the oblique, and rolled up his line. There were variations in the individual case, but this was the basic pattern, and it was noted beyond the borders of Prussia.

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This was the military background for the next act. Part of the political background was furnished by the fact that, having obtained what he wanted, Friedrich was opposed to war. “We must get rid of it as a doctor does of a fever.” But there was now on the imperial side Wenzel Anton, Graf von Kaunitz, counselor to Maria Theresa. She had been rather reluctantly willing to accept Bavaria in compensation for the loss of Silesia, but the peace that ended the general war gave her neither, and though her husband secured election as emperor, there remained in her an inextinguishable fund of bitterness against the robber who had taken her province.

Wenzel Anton (who exercised by riding in a hall to avoid fresh air and kept dozens of kittens, which he gave away as soon as they became cats) exploited this bitterness, and he exploited it in the name of the balance of power. He argued that the presence of a new great power in north Germany–and with her army and accession of territory, no one could doubt that Prussia had become one–had deprived Austria of her proper place in Europe and freedom of action. If she was ever to recover either, if the French influence which had become so predominant in Europe through Friedrich was ever to be allayed, Prussia must be destroyed. Austria’s traditional alliance was with the sea powers, England and Holland; but it was hopeless to expect these Protestant nations to support an enterprise against Protestant Prussia. The true line of Austrian policy was therefore in forming an alliance with France and Russia, the former of whom could be repaid in the Netherlands and Italy, and the latter in East Prussia, none of which lands were really part of the empire.

Thus Kaunitz to the empress. It was not hard to talk Russia into the combination, for Russia was perpetually ambitious and, for quite personal reasons, the Russian Empress Elizabeth had conceived a deep dislike for Friedrich. France and some of the lesser states–Sweden, Saxony–came harder, but Kaunitz was a diplomat of almost uncanny skill, who had a goodie for everybody. Also he was aided by the underlying feeling he used with the empress, more a sensation than a statable idea, that the balance of power had been overthrown by the expanding Prussian state, and there was no security for anyone unless this tendency was ruthlessly punished. France signed; and England promptly allied herself with Friedrich–the sea power to furnish money, the Prussians troops for the protection of King George’s Hannover.

These were the roots of the Seven Years’ War, the first of the true world wars, itself decisive in more than one way, but whose importance is often hidden beneath the overlays of later struggles.

The actual fighting began in August 1756, when Friedrich invaded Saxony without a declaration of war, occupied Dresden, and shut up the Saxon army in an entrenched camp at Pirna. His espionage service was exceptionally good; he had a man named Menzel in the Saxon chancellery who, incidentally, was discovered and spent the remaining eighteen years of his life in irons in prison growing a fine crop of hair. Friedrich published the documents Menzel furnished as a justification for his aggression against Saxony. Not that it did much good, since the adroit Kaunitz instantly summoned the Diet of the empire and persuaded all the smaller states to send contingents to an imperial army, which made part of the half million men who began to flow in for the demolition of Prussia.

Friedrich’s aggression succeeded in its first object. Saxony was knocked out, and what was left of its enlisted troops was offered the choice of serving under Friedrich henceforth or going to prison. Friedrich invaded Bohemia for a second time, won a battle under the walls of Prague, threw a blockade around the town and pressed southward until he encountered an army twice the size of his own under Marshal Leopold Josef Daun at Kolin on June 18, 1757.

This officer was probably the best commander Friedrich ever faced. His plan was the same as that of the usual Austrian leader–draw up and await attack, since he lacked the mobility to compete with the Prussians in maneuver. But he chose his position very well, the left on a high wooded ridge, center running across little knolls and swampy pools, and right resting on another hill, with an oakwood on it and a marshy stream running past. Daun was in three lines instead of the usual two; all across the front, in reeds, woods, and tall grass, he scattered quantities of Croat irregular sharpshooters. Friedrich judged the Austrian left unassailable and angled to his own left to make an oblique attack on that wing, with each of what we would call his brigades to follow on in turn, swinging rightward when they reached position to sweep out Daun’s line. The leading formation, Hülsen’s, did break through the extreme flank and drove back the first two Austrian lines; but those that followed had to cross Daun’s front, with the fire from the Croats coming into their flank. One group halted and faced round to drive off these tormentors by firing a few volleys, and the brigade immediately behind, believing that the battle plan had been changed, also faced round and went into action.

That is, they had begun too soon, and in somewhat the wrong place. This should not have been fatal, for Friedrich had a strong column under Prince Moritz of Dessau coming up to form the link between Hülsen and the groups prematurely engaged. But Friedrich chose this moment to lose his temper and order Moritz in at once, using a form of words that caused him also to make contact too soon. The consequence was that Hülsen was isolated. The Austrians counter attacked him, completely broke up his formation, turned in on the flank of the remainder of the Prussian line, and drove Friedrich from the field with 13,000 lost out of 33,000 men.

The allies now thought they had him and began to shoot columns at him from all directions. The Prince of Hildburghausen with the army of the empire, and Marshal Soubise with the French, together 63,000 strong, drove toward Saxony; 17,000 Swedes landed in Pomerania; 80,000 Russians moved in from their side, and Charles of Lorraine, with his own and Daun’s troops, over 100,000, marched on Silesia from the south.

That summer there was fighting all around the circle, with Prussia slowly going down. The Swedes were incompetently led, accomplished nothing against the detachment that faced them, but they still forced Friedrich to make that detachment. The Russians beat a third of their number of Prussians in a battle, but their supply organization broke down, the machine ground to a halt just when it might have taken Berlin, and a large part of the army melted away in desertions. The Austrians, as might be expected, made a war of sieges, but it took 41,000 men to keep them from overrunning everything, and Friedrich could gather barely 22,000 men to meet the incursion of Soubise and Hildburghausen into Saxony.

There was some maneuvering west of the Saale before the two armies faced each other at Rossbach, Friedrich’s at the western terminus of a sausage-shaped complex of low eminences, with the Janus and Polzen hills at his rear. The Austrians were moving in Friedrich’s strategic rear, and however slowly they advanced, he was required to do something. He was proposing to attack the enemy camp, a rather desperate undertaking in a completely open plain dotted with villages, when on November 5 they saved him the trouble.

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Soubise and Hildburghausen had been reading, and from their documents they learned that the King of Prussia won battles by throwing his full strength against the enemy’s left flank. Now they decided to outdo him by hurling their whole army quite around his left and rear to take the hills there and cut his communications. They formed with their cavalry in the vanguard, the infantry in three columns behind, and began a wide sweep around the Prussian left through the village of Pettstädt, with their trumpets blowing.

There were only three defects in this plan. One was that the plain was completely open, and Friedrich had an officer on the roof of the highest building in Rossbach who could observe every move; the second was that the tracks were both sandy and muddy, and the march slow; and the third was that the moving column, in some witless idea of gaining surprise, threw out no scouts or cavalry screen. When word was brought to the king that the enemy had swung through Pettstädt, he calmly finished his dinner, then at the double-quick took up an entirely new disposition. Seydlitz, with all the cavalry, was posted out of sight behind the Polzen hill, with a couple of hussars as pickets atop; the artillery on the reverse slope of Janus, only the muzzles projecting; the infantry behind the guns, most of them rightward. The beginning of the movement and the apparent disappearance of the Prussian force were observed from the allied army; they assumed that Friedrich was retreating, and ordered hurry to catch him.

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As they sped up, at three-thirty in the afternoon, Seydlitz came over Polzen Hill with 4,000 cavalry, “compact as a wall and with incredible speed.” He hit the allied horse vanguard in flank and undeployed; rode right through them, overturned them utterly, and drove what was left from the field. Seydlitz followed till the rout was complete; then sounded a recall and formed in a dip of ground at Tagweben, behind the enemy right rear. The moment their field of fire was cleared the Prussian guns opened on the hapless allied columns, tearing down whole ranks, and as they strove to deploy, Friedrich’s infantry came over Janus Hill, all in line and firing like clockwork. As the writhing columns tried to fall back, tried to get their rear battalions in formation, Seydlitz came out of his hollow and charged them from the rear. It was one of the briefest great battles of record; by four-thirty the allied army was a panic-stricken mob, having lost 3,000 killed and wounded, 5,000 prisoners, and sixty-seven guns. The Prussian losses were 541.

Worst of all for the allies, what was left of their army was so broken that it could never be assembled again. Rossbach was decisive in the sense that it took France out of the war against Friedrich; he had no more fighting to do against the French except by deputy in Hannover. He had cracked the circle of enemies; and he had also achieved a focus for German nationalism and assured the support of England. After the battle Parliament increased his subsidy almost tenfold.

But there was still almost too much for any one man and any one army to do. While Friedrich was eliminating the imperial and French armies from the war, Austria had slowly rolled up all of southern Silesia, beaten the Prussian forces there in battle, and taken Breslau and Schweidnitz, with their huge, carefully assembled magazines. Friedrich turned over command of the beaten army to Ziethen, a thick-lipped ugly little man; picked up his forces at Parchwitz, and hurried forward to offer the Austrians battle.

He now had 36,000 men and 167 guns, of which one big battery was superheavy pieces brought from the fortress of Glogau. Prince Charles and Daun had nearly 80,000. The latter had expected winter quarters, but the news of Friedrich’s approach drew him out of Breslau into a position in double line. The right was under General Lucchesi, resting on the village of Nippern, behind a wood and some bogs, the center at Leuthen village, the left on Sagschütz. The tips of both wings were somewhat drawn back, and General Nadasti, who commanded the left, covered his position with abbates. Forward in the village of Borne was a cavalry detachment under the Saxon General Nostitz, but most of the cavalry were in reserve behind the center.

It may have been that Friedrich had some doubts about the morale of the beaten army Ziethen now commanded; if so, they were dispelled on the freezing dark night of December 4, when he rode through the camp and all the soldiers hailed him with, “Good night, Fritz.” He assembled his generals and told them that what he intended to do was against all the rules of war, but he was going to beat the enemy “or perish before his batteries,” then gave orders for an advance at dawn.

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It struck Nostitz and his detachment through a light mist. Ziethen charged the Saxons furiously, front and flank, made most of the men prisoners, and drove the rest in on Lucchesi’s wing. There was a halt while the mist burned away and Friedrich surveyed the hostile line. He knew the area well, having maneuvered there frequently; rightward from Borne there was a fold of ground that would conceal movement, and he immediately planned to do what the allies had attempted on him at Rossbach–throw his entire army on the enemy left wing. As a preliminary, the cavalry of the vanguard were put in to follow up the Nostitz wreck in the opposite direction. This feint worked; Lucchesi, who like Soubise and Hildburghausen, knew of Friedrich’s penchant for flank attacks, imagined he was about to receive a heavy one and appealed for reinforcement. Prince Charles sent him the reserve cavalry from the center and some of that from the left.

But the storm died down there, and to Charles and Daun, standing near the center, it seemed that this must have been a flurry to cover the retreat of inferior force, for Friedrich’s army had passed out of sight. “The Prussians are packing off,” remarked Daun. “Don’t disturb them!” There is no record of his further conversation down to the moment a little after noon, when Friedrich’s head of column poked its nose from behind the fold of ground and the whole array of horse, foot, and artillery did a left wheel and came rolling down on Nadasti’s flank at an angle of maybe 75 degrees.

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Nadasti, a reasonably good battle captain, charged in at once with what cavalry he had, and succeeded in throwing Ziethen back, but came up against infantry behind, and was badly broken. One can picture the hurry, confusion, and shouting as his whole wing, taken in enfilade by the Prussian volleys, went to pieces. But there were so many of these Austrians that they began to build up a defense around the mills and ditches of Leuthen, and especially its churchyard, which had stone walls. Prince Charles fed in battalions as fast as he could draw them from any point whatever; in places the Austrians were twenty ranks deep, and the fighting was very furious. The new line was almost at right angles to the old and badly bunched at the center, but still a line, heavily manned and pretty solid.

Friedrich had to put in his last infantry reserves, and even so was held. But he got his superheavy guns onto the rise that had concealed his first movement, they enfiladed the new Austrian right wing and it began to go. At this juncture Lucchesi reached the spot from his former station. He saw that the Prussian infantry left was bare and ordered a charge. But Friedrich had foreseen exactly this. The cavalry of his own left wing, under General Driesen, was concealed behind the heavy battery, and as Lucchesi came forward at the trot, he was charged front, flank, and rear, all at once. It was like Seydlitz’s charge at Rossbach; Lucchesi himself was killed and his men scattered as though by some kind of human explosion, while Driesen wheeled in on the Austrian infantry flank and rear around Leuthen. Under the December twilight what was left of them were running.

Frederick the Great and War III

Leuthen was the extremest example of Friedrich’s oblique-order attack and also his most destructive victory. He lost 6,000 men, but the Austrians lost 10,000 in killed and wounded, besides 21,000 prisoners, and two weeks later Breslau surrendered, with 17,000 more. The effect was crushing, but it was not decisive, except locally and in a temporary manner, as to who should hold Silesia until the next campaign.

Austria was unable to get another army into the field until late in the following summer, but in the meanwhile the Russians, who had thus far been trying to assure themselves of the possession of East Prussia, pushed a column into the home counties as far as Frankfurt an der Oder, and Friedrich had to go fight it. He beat it at Zorndorf in a slaughtering battle in August, but by October the Austrians were on foot again, now under Daun, and at Hochkirch they beat the king.

They beat him in the way one would have least expected against so acute a commander, by leaving their watch fires burning while they made a night march and surprised him at dawn. That is, they caught him being careless. And in the following summer, 1759, a combined Austro-Russian army inflicted a paralyzing defeat on Friedrich at Kunersdorf, one in which he lost over 20,000 men–again through his own fault, for he sent his troops into action after two days without sleep, up a steep hill in broiling sun. “Will not some curst bullet strike me?” he cried afterward, and, “I believe everything is lost,” he wrote.

But he had done better than he thought and everything was not lost; neither after Hochkirch nor Kunersdorf did his enemies make any follow-up. They could not; they were too disorganized in terms of lost officers, mingling of regiments, breakdown of supply. They had no such solid basis as the Prussian army; when any of them lost a battle, that particular campaign was over, when they won, it merely went on.

A realization that their sole real asset was numerical penetrated allied minds in 1761, and they adopted a plan of campaign to make numbers count. There were to be three columns, one operating through Saxony under Daun, one through Silesia under the Austrian General Loudon, and a Russian column through Poland. Each was to deplete Friedrich’s resources by eating up the towns. He could maintain only one army large enough to deal with any of the three; whenever he turned against one, the others would keep moving stolidly toward Berlin.

This plan was modified by events. The Russians came slowly through northern Silesia. Daun also was slow, and when Friedrich turned against Loudon, the Austrian marshal thought he saw an opportunity to repeat the surprise of Hochkirch. He swung around toward the northwest of Friedrich’s position at Liegnitz while Loudon marched by a circuit to close him in from the northeast, with the Russians under General Czernicheff pushing up from behind.

But Daun did some careful scouting from the heights above Liegnitz, which not only slowed his march, but attracted Friedrich’s attention. On the night of August 14, 1761, the king turned the Austrians’ trick right around on them, leaving a group of campfires burning and making a fast march along the road Loudon was to occupy. Loudon reached it cross country in the morning; was received by musketry fire, and being already too deeply committed to get out without battle, fought one that cost him 10,000 men and eighty-one guns. Daun reached Friedrich’s former camp only just in time to see the column of smoke rising over the defeat to the north; his pursuit was not a success.

As for the Russians, Friedrich supplied a peasant with a message addressed to his brother, Prince Henri, who was facing them: “Austrians totally defeated today, now for the Russians. Do what we agreed upon.” The peasant was to let himself be taken by Czernicheff and give up the paper to save his own life. There is something peculiarly pleasing about these devices of Friedrich the king; they are so firmly rooted in understanding of the men he was dealing with and so unexpected. This one worked precisely according to prescription. Czernicheff, beset by nameless terrors, marched right away from the area of action and the Russians were next heard of besieging Kolberg on the Baltic coast, which would be more use to them than another victory over Friedrich, anyway.

Two of the three attacking columns were thus eliminated, for Loudon had been so badly knocked about as to be out of it. Friedrich spent some weeks maneuvering in Silesia, but was recalled by the news that Berlin had been taken. He rushed north with his army; it turned out not to be a serious occupation, but a handful of Cossack raiders and a wing of Austrian light cavalry, who dispersed at once. But it was now evident that something would have to be done about the Daun column, which had taken nearly all Saxony and established itself at Torgau, 64,000 strong. By whittling down garrisons Friedrich managed to assemble 45,000 men, and approached the place at the end of October.

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It was not Daun’s intention to fight, except as he had done at Kolin, long ago, on terms that would force the king to attack under every disadvantage. He chose his position very well for the purpose, along a certain Siptitz Hill that runs roughly westward from Torgau. Its southern edge was covered by a deep, wide, muddy brook, the Röhrgraben, a good military obstacle; all around the height were sparse forests of pine, growing out of sand. The lines were so good that Prince Henri had previously held them against this same Daun with much inferior forces, and the Austrians now had no less than 400 guns.

Friedrich moved up toward the installation from the south. It struck him at once that the place was unduly cramped for as many men as Austria had and offered poor opportunities for mounting a counterattack, and he determined to assault it from front and rear simultaneously. Ziethen, with nearly half the army, would take the southern side, across the brook; Friedrich himself would swing by a circuit through the woods in three columns, the outermost one of cavalry.

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The king marched fairly early; it was nearly two in the afternoon when Friedrich, leading the innermost column, reached the edge of the woods, just in time to hear the boom-boom of guns from the southward. To him this meant that Ziethen was already engaged; there was no sign yet of his second column or his third, but he immediately hurled 6,000 grenadiers straight at the Austrian position.

The trouble with any converging-column arrangement is that it is impossible for the commander of one wing to know precisely what is happening to the other. Ziethen’s engagement, in fact, was with some outposts of light troops, who had a few guns south of the Röhrgraben. These retired slowly eastward, in the Torgau direction, drawing the Prussians out of their true line of advance during hours, which caused Friedrich later to rate Ziethen roundly for his stupidity. But this was no help at the moment to the 6,000 grenadiers, who were met by the fire of nearly all the 400 Austrian cannon. Friedrich himself said he never saw anything like it; the Prussian artillery was smashed before it had a chance to load, the grenadiers were cut to pieces. Enough of them survived to reach the Austrian line for some deadly close work, but Daun brought up infantry, drove them out, and even tried a counterattack, which came to considerable grief in a heavy shower of rain. At the end of it not 600 of the 6,000 were left; it was three o’clock and the attack had failed.

Shortly later Friedrich’s second column arrived; there was a pause for reorganization, and at about three-thirty it and the remnants of the first attack went forward again. This was the hardest fighting of the day, along the northwest portion of Daun’s line; the Prussian infantry got in among the guns, and there was hot hand-to-hand work on Siptitz Hill, but Daun summoned his reserves from every quarter and after a long struggle drove the Prussians back again, the king himself wounded.

Not until four-thirty, with the sun down, was the coming of the cavalry, which had gone astray in the woods. Friedrich dauntlessly organized a third attack through gathering dark and smoke, cavalry and infantry together. This storm was at least a partial success: four whole regiments of Austrians were taken, with many of the guns; Daun’s whole left wing was reduced to a jelly-like consistency, and there was confusion all through his lines, but the thing could not be carried forward. Friedrich gave orders to bivouac on the field and try again next day if possible; Daun, himself wounded, sent off a courier of victory that caused all the windows of Vienna to be illuminated.

But at six, under a night grown wet and very cold, there was a sudden glare of red in the sky southward. It was Ziethen, free at last of his preoccupation with the Austrian light forces, trying to close the sound of the king’s guns, and he had taken the village of Siptitz, south of the Röhrgraben, and set the place afire. His men could not cross the stream through the blazing village, but an intelligent officer named Möllendorf found a bridge beyond it, and Ziethen poured through, up a saddle at the southwest angle of the ridge and down on the Austrians, his drums beating the Prussian march, muskets all in line blazing across the dark.

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There is a famous picture of Friedrich, wrapped in his cloak, chin on chest and stick across his knees, waiting in deepest discouragement for the dawn at Torgau. The dawn came before the day, it is said, in the person of Ziethen himself, to tell the king he had won after all, the Austrians were driven through Torgau with a loss of 10,000 men and most of their guns. Daun’s army was a wreck and the allied campaign with it.

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There was some bickering and some maneuvering the next year, with Friedrich on the defensive and neither Austrians nor Russians daring to besiege or attack; and early in 1762 the Tsarina Elizabeth died and Tsar Peter, her successor, made peace with Friedrich and sent a Russian corps to his help, while France could no longer pay subsidies to Austria, and Maria Theresa had to reduce her army to 20,000 men.

It may be put that Torgau ended it. It did not decide the war–probably the one battle that went furthest in that direction was Rossbach–but it decided that Austria could not carry the war to a successful conclusion. And in so doing it established in north Germany a new state and a new type of state, with a standing army, a centralized administration, officials who looked to the building of dams, canals, roads, bridges, internal communications, and who promoted agriculture and internal colonization. Before Friedrich the Great’s death he had settled 200,000 people on previously unoccupied lands; and the efficiency of his administration was such that the other nations of Europe were forced to imitate him if they wished to remain level in the complex game of the balance of power. “It appears,” he said once, “that God has created me, pack horses, Doric columns, and us kings generally to carry the burdens of the world in order that others may enjoy its fruits.” His ideal of peace was to have the government help every citizen; his ideal of war was not to have the civil population know that a war was going on. His seizure of Silesia was doubtless anything but moral; but when he made it stick on the field of battle, he forced the rest of Europe into a new sense of the responsibility of government.

7–12 June 1807: The Battle of Heilsberg

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The Battle of Hellsberg, 10 June 1807. This is Wilson’s battle map of 1810, clearly indicating the formidable line of Russian redoubts on high ground flanking the town.

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Phase 1

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Phase 2

‘I am very happy to see the enemy wished to avoid our coming to him,’ comments Napoleon on hearing of Bennigsen’s attacks along the Passarge. He quits Finkenstein for the front on 5 June, riding in an open carriage surrounded by bodyguards, later switching to horseback. The emperor, with the whole Grand Army in his wake, is riding towards the final showdown with Bennigsen. It is time to make the Polish gamble pay off.

Napoleon approaches Deppen on 7 June. Stretching miles to the rear, his columns advance: toiling up dusty dirt tracks in suffocating heat. Each man is carrying extra cartridges, and supply waggons sag under the weight of artillery ammunition. Since Mohrungen, 15 miles (24km) west of Deppen, the troops have breathed the scent of war: burning houses, rotting corpses. Napoleon finds Deppen a ruin, torched by Bennigsen before turning-tail for Guttstadt. According to Pierre François Percy, Napoleon’s Organizer of Military Heath Services: ‘We stopped for a meal; a beautiful young girl stared hungrily at my hunk of black bread … I offered her a crust; she blushed and put it into her mouth. Eating with difficulty, she turned away and wept. I had given her a glass of brandy, which she swallowed from politeness.’

Napoleon is delighted by developments, but remains puzzled about Bennigsen’s motives: ‘Everything leads to the belief that the enemy is on the move, though it is ridiculous on his part to engage in a general action now that Danzig is taken … The whole thing smells of a rash move.’ Unsure of his enemy’s whereabouts, Napoleon orders Murat forward to find prisoners. On the following day, 8 June, the emperor is presented with captives from Bagration’s rearguard. They tell of Bennigsen’s march on Guttstadt. Napoleon orders an immediate advance, led by Murat’s 12,000 troopers. Among their number is Sous-Lieutenant de Gonneville of the 6th Cuirassiers: ‘We found the villages fearfully devastated, the inhabitants fled or dead in their homes; in one of them there were five corpses side by side, and a child of twelve still breathing. Colonel d’Avenay took him, had him attended to, saved his life, and then kept him as a servant, and left him a sum of sixty pounds by will …’

Murat drives Bagration back on Guttstadt, where, aided by Platov’s Cossacks, the Russian general makes a gallant stand. Bagration holds out until the arrival of Ney’s infantry around 8.00 p.m. Then he slips over the Alle, and melting into the dusk, follows the rest of Bennigsen’s force to Heilsberg.

Napoleon enters Guttstadt on 9 June but does not tarry long. The pursuit is to continue, and Murat’s advance guard will lock horns with Bagration’s rearguard once more. Meanwhile, peasants are recruited to dig defensive ditches and prepare earthworks (in case of a Russian counter-attack), while starving Frenchmen strip their fields bare.

At dawn on 10 June the bulk of the Grand Army quits Guttstadt, striking north-east up the parched road to Heilsberg, some 12 miles (19.3km) beyond. Meanwhile, Murat makes good progress, reaching the outskirts of town before 10.00 a.m. Following him, at some distance, are the corps of Soult and Lannes (leading the ‘Reserve Army’ from Danzig). According to F.D. Logan:

Heilsberg lies in a hollow on the left bank of the Alle, which is crossed here by three bridges. The rising ground, which surrounded the town, had been fortified by the Russians during the spring by a line of redoubts on either bank. The south side of the river was thickly wooded. On the north side, west of Heilsberg, there was a slightly undulating plain across which, and parallel to, the Russian position, flowed the Spuibach. To facilitate communication with either bank Bennigsen had constructed several bridges. The Russian Army was drawn up on both sides of the river, four divisions and most of the cavalry being on the left, and five divisions on the right bank.’

Bennigsen’s position at Heilsberg is unassailable: at least by means of a frontal attack. The Russians hold the advantages of high ground, prepared defences, and superiority of numbers. They cannot be evicted from of Heilsberg at the sword’s point, but must be manoeuvred out by an outflanking operation. But the need for such a finesse is lost on the hothead Murat, who leads his unsupported cavalry to the attack.

As advance guard commander, Murat’s job is to probe Bennigsen’s strength and reconnoitre the ground before Napoleon’s arrival. But having driven the Russians from the outlying village of Launau, he boldly advances to Bevernick, a stone’s throw from Bennigsen’s batteries, overlooking Heilsberg’s western approaches. Here his attack stalls, brought to a halt by Russian artillery fire. Frustrated, and already in a filthy temper, Murat must wait for Soult’s infantry before pressing on.

About 3.30 p.m. General Savary arrives before Bevernick with two infantry regiments and six guns. The village is quickly carried, but Murat’s troopers are scattered by Russian cavalry and the French are halted once more. Meanwhile, the remainder of Soult’s infantry battles forward to Heilsberg, raked by volleys from guns on the opposite bank of the Alle. Progress is painfully slow and Murat – kitted out in a flashy white uniform and red Moroccan leather boots – is reduced to the role of spectator. Having already accused Savary of cowardice – prompting the observation that Murat wanted ‘less courage and more common sense’ – Napoleon’s cavalry supremo decides to take matters into his own hands. With no possible target but Bennigsen’s now passive squadrons, Murat orders a charge, as witnessed by de Gonneville of the 6th Cuirassiers, part of General d’Espagne’s command:

At this moment the grand duke of Berg (Murat) came up to us; he came from our right rear, followed by his staff, passed at a gallop across our front, bending forwards on his horse’s neck, and as he passed at full speed by General Espagne, he flung at him one word alone which I heard, “Charge!” This order, given without any further directions for an attack on sixty squadrons of picked men, by fifteen unsupported squadrons, seemed to me the more difficult to understand, since in order to get at the enemy there was a nearly impracticable ravine to be crossed by twos and fours, and it was then necessary to form under the enemy’s fire 100 paces from his first line. In case of a check we had no possible means of retreat, but the order was given and the thing had to be done …’

And done it is. Altogether, de Gonneville’s regiment charges six times, and by day’s end, each man’s sabre will be dripping with blood. As for Murat, he throws himself into the thick of the fighting, heedless of all danger, as his biographer, Atteridge, describes:

The cavalry was engaged with a superior force of eighty Russian squadrons, and there was hard hand-to-hand fighting. Murat had a narrow escape. Charging beside Lasalle, at the head of the hussars and chasseurs, he had his horse killed under him. He caught and mounted a riderless horse, but was hardly in the saddle again when he was cut off and surrounded by a party of Russian dragoons. He was fighting for his life, when Lasalle in person arrived to the rescue, cutting down several of the enemy. A few minutes later, Murat saved Lasalle’s life in the mêlée: “We are quits now, my dear general,” he said, grasping his hand.’

But the bloodshed continues and Murat has a second horse killed under him. A corporal of cuirassiers offers the marshal his mount, and off Murat gallops, leaving a red Moroccan boot in one of the stirrups of the dead horse.

Napoleon arrives too late to stop Murat’s madness, but even with the emperor present, the folly continues, as Marshal Lannes – appearing around 10.00 p.m. – launches a fruitless assault on Bennigsen’s redoubts under cover of darkness. This act of lunacy – doubtless intended to impress the emperor – results in 3,000 needless casualties to add to the 10,000 already suffered. By 11.00 p.m. the fighting finally fades, both sides leaving the battlefield to the locals, who, like a legion of ghouls, come to strip the dead. Meanwhile, Sous-Lieutenant de Gonneville returns to his bivouac, famished, fatigued, and bloodstained:

The baggage had not come up; we had no bread or anything else to eat. I had a little tea made in a bit of a canister shot case. The ground was covered pieces of these cases, and shot and muskets. The day was spent in burying our dead, and putting the living in order as far as might be … Next day, about five in the morning, the train arrived. We had bread, but very little of it; General Renauld gave me half a bottle of beer, which I shared with Marulaz; since the preceding evening we had been living on the grass, which we plucked and chewed … the emperor passed through us, and was saluted by acclamations to which he seemed to pay no attention, appearing gloomy and out of spirits. We learnt later that he had no intention of attacking the Russians so seriously as had been done, and especially had desired not to engage his cavalry. The grand duke of Berg had been reprimanded for this, and followed the emperor with a tolerably sheepish air. We again passed the night on the field of battle, lying side by side with the dead; then next day we commenced our march, after getting a ration of bread.’

Another hungry soldier is Jean-Baptiste Barrès, who beds down on the battlefield with his comrades of the Imperial Guard: ‘The day closed without result, each side retaining its positions, and we bivouacked on the ground we occupied, amidst the dead of the morning’s battle. We had been twelve hours under arms, without changing our position.’

But there is no rest for Bennigsen. Sick with fever (he fell unconscious from his horse several times during the battle), midnight finds him scribbling his report to the tsar:

This day at noon Bonaparte attacked the Russian Army in the position on the left bank of the Alle with his whole force. A short time before the attack, Prince Bagration was detached to Launau, where he was attacked by a force greatly superior; and was obliged to fall back. A considerable number of troops then received orders to advance from every quarter, while others formed the reserve. The firing began on all points, and the enemy was forced to leave the field of battle to the Russian troops, who acquired new glory on that day. The loss cannot yet be ascertained, but it is very considerable on both sides; and amounts on the part of the French, at least to 12,000 men in killed and wounded …’

At dawn on 11 June the men of both sides meet in silence to remove their wounded and bury their dead. Another costly battle of attrition is expected by all, but suddenly – too late for over 20,000 maimed or murdered men – the rival commanders come to their senses: Heilsberg can only be taken by a turning action. And so, as Napoleon prepares to march around the town’s flanks, Bennigsen prepares to evacuate. Russian guns still boom throughout the day, but as soon as night falls, Bennigsen quits:

finding that the enemy might cut off all provisions from my army in its present position, and detach a corps to Königsberg, I humbly beg leave to state to your royal Majesty, my determination to quit this place tonight, and march to another position near Schippenbeil, in order to be able to protect those behind the Alle, the transport of provisions etc., and in case the enemy marches to Königsberg, to follow him immediately.’

And at 4.00 a.m. on 12 June, the French hit town. On entering Heilsberg, they find piles of provisions, stores and wounded: all abandoned by Bennigsen in his haste to escape encirclement. But Heilsberg cannot be described as a French success. As at Eylau, Napoleon is left in possession of a battlefield, not a decisive victory. As F.D. Logan states: ‘Heilsberg is only one more instance of the failure of a frontal attack carried out by successive assaults and with no attempt at combined action by the different corps. The position was strong and the assailants were inferior in numbers …’

 

PRUSSIAN FOREIGN POLICY IN AN ERA OF REVOLUTION

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The Battle of Valmy was the first major victory by the army of France during the Revolutionary Wars that followed the French Revolution. The action took place on 20 September 1792 as Prussian troops commanded by the Duke of Brunswick attempted to march on Paris.

The Prussian government looked with favourable interest on the Paris events of 1789. Far from shunning the rebels, the Prussian envoy in Paris spent the autumn and winter of 1789–90 establishing friendly contacts with the various factions. The idea – so familiar to later generations – that the Revolution hinged on a fundamental choice between obedience and rebellion, between the ‘providence of God’ and the ‘will of man’, played as yet no part in Berlin’s interpretation of events.

There were essentially two reasons for this indulgent response to the French upheaval. The first was simply that, from Berlin’s perspective, the Revolution represented an opportunity, not a threat. The Prussians were concerned above all with diminishing Austrian power and influence in Germany. Tensions between the two German rivals had risen steadily during the 1780s. In 1785, Frederick II had taken charge of a coalition of German princes opposed to the annexation of Bavaria by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. In 1788, the Emperor had gone to war against the Turks, prompting fears that massive Habsburg acquisitions in the Balkans would give Austria the upper hand over her Prussian rival. But in the summer and autumn of 1789, as Austrian forces pushed back the armies of Sultan Selim III, a chain of revolts broke out across the peripheral territories of the Habsburg crown – Belgium, Tyrol, Galicia, Lombardy and Hungary. Frederick William II, a vain and impulsive man who was determined to live up to the reputation of his illustrious uncle, did his best to exploit the discomfort of the Austrians. The Belgians were encouraged to secede from Habsburg rule and the Hungarian dissidents were urged to rise up against Vienna – there was even talk of an independent Hungarian monarchy to be ruled by a Prussian prince.

Seen against this background, the revolution in France was welcome news, for there was good reason to hope that a new, ‘revolutionary’ French administration would put an end to the Franco-Austrian alliance. As the Prussians well knew, the alliance – along with its dynastic personification, Queen Marie Antoinette – was deeply unpopular with the Austrophobe patriots of the revolutionary movement. Berlin therefore courted the various revolutionary parties in the hope of building an anti-Habsburg ‘party’ in Paris. The aim was to reverse the diplomatic realignment of 1756, isolate Austria, and put an end to the expansionist plans of Joseph II. When a fully fledged revolution broke out in the prince-bishopric of Liège, a strip of territory right in the middle of Belgium, the Prussians supported the rebels there too, in the hope that the upheaval would spread to the adjacent Austrian-controlled areas.

There was also an ideological dimension to this tentative support for revolutionary upheaval. In 1789, a number of the leading Prussian policy-makers, including the minister responsible for foreign affairs, Count Hertzberg – were personally sympathetic to the aspirations of the revolutionaries. Hertzberg was a man of the enlightenment who deplored the incompetent despotism of the Bourbons in France. He saw Prussian support for the insurrection in Liège as entirely in keeping with the kingdom’s ‘liberal principles’. The envoy entrusted with handling Prussia’s affairs in the prince-bishopric, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, was an enlightened official and intellectual (not to mention author of the famous tract supporting the emancipation of the Jews); he was a critic of the episcopal regime in Liège and favoured a progressive, constitutional solution to the dispute between the prince-bishop and the insurrectionists of the Third Estate.

It was above all the threat of a Prussian-backed revolution in Hungary that persuaded Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, to seek an understanding with Prussia. Leopold, a wise and temperate figure, saw at once the folly of pursuing new conquests in the Ottoman Balkans while his hereditary possessions disintegrated behind his back. In March 1790, he despatched a friendly letter to Berlin, opening the door for the negotiations that culminated in the Convention of Reichenbach of 27 July 1790. The two German powers agreed – after tense discussions – to pull back from the brink of war and put their differences behind them. The Austrians undertook to end their costly Turkish war on moderate terms (i.e. without annexations) and the Prussians promised to stop fomenting rebellions within the Habsburg monarchy.

The Convention looked innocuous, but it was more significant than it seemed. The era of bitter Prusso-Austrian antagonism that had structured the political affairs of the Holy Roman Empire since the invasion of Silesia in 1740 was now over, at least for a time, and the two German powers could pursue their interests in concert, rather than at each other’s expense. Following an oscillatory pattern that recalled the days of the Great Elector, Frederick William II abandoned his secret efforts to secure an alliance with Paris and switched to a policy of war against revolutionary France. Foreign Minister Hertzberg and his liberal views fell into disfavour; he was later dismissed. An important role in the new diplomacy went to Frederick William’s trusted adviser and confidant, Johann Rudolf von Bischoffwerder, an exponent of war against the revolution, who was despatched to Vienna in February and June–July 1791. The resulting Vienna Convention of 25 July 1791 laid the foundations for an Austro-Prussian alliance.

The first fruit of the Austro-Prussian rapprochement was a remarkable piece of gesture politics. The Declaration of Pillnitz, issued jointly by the Austrian Emperor and the Prussian king on 27 August 1791, was not a plan of action as such, but rather a statement of principled opposition to the Revolution. It opened by stating that the sovereigns of Prussia and Austria took the fate of their ‘brother’ the King of France to be ‘an object of common interest to all the sovereigns of Europe’, and demanded that the French king be placed as soon as possible ‘in a position to affirm, in the most perfect liberty, the basis of a monarchical government’. It closed with the promise that Austria and Prussia would ‘act promptly’ with ‘the necessary forces’ to obtain ‘the proposed and common goal’. For all the fuzziness of its formulations, this was an unequivocal statement of monarchical counter-revolutionary solidarity. Yet the additional secret articles attached to the Declaration revealed that the dark waters of power politics were still running in their accustomed courses. Article 2 stated that the contracting parties reserved for themselves the power to ‘exchange for their benefit several of their present and future acquisitions’, always in mutual consultation, and article 6 promised that the Emperor would ‘employ willingly his good offices towards the Court of Petersburg and the Court of Poland in order to obtain the cities of Thorn and Danzig [for Prussia]…’

The Declaration fanned the flames of political extremism in the French Assembly, strengthening the hand of the Brissotin faction, who favoured war as a means of restoring French fortunes and furthering the Revolution. During late 1791 and early 1792, the pressure for war accumulated in Paris. In the meanwhile, the Prussians and Austrians defined and agreed their objectives. The plan – under the terms of an alliance concluded on 7 February 1792 – was to launch a chain of enforced territorial transfers on the western periphery of the Holy Roman Empire. The allies would first conquer Alsace, handing one part of it to Austria and the other to the Elector Palatine, who would in turn be forced to yield Jülich and Berg to Prussia.

Whether and from what precise moment the allies seriously intended an invasion of France is unclear, but a military conflict became inevitable on 20 April 1792, when the French government formally declared war on the Austrian Emperor. As they prepared for an invasion, the Prussians and the Austrians assumed the mantle of ideological counter-revolution. On 25 July, the Prussian commander and joint commander of the allied forces, Charles William Ferdinand Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, issued the declaration that came to be known as the Brunswick Manifesto. This inflammatory document, based on a draft composed by vengeful French émigrés, claimed (somewhat mendaciously) that the two allied courts ‘had no intention of enriching themselves by conquest’, promised that all those who submitted to the authority of the French king would be protected, and threatened captured revolutionary guards with draconian punishments. The declaration closed with a note of menace that further radicalized the mood in Paris:

Their said Majesties declare, on their word of honour as emperor and king, that if the Chateau of the Tuileries [where the captive king and his family were housed] is entered by force or attacked, if the least violence be offered to their Majesties the king, queen and royal family, and if their safety and their liberty be not immediately assured, they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of the said outrages to the punishment that they merit.

Accompanying the Austro-Prussian force as it lumbered into France in the late summer of 1792 was a small army of émigrés led by Louis XVI’s brother, the Count of Artois. These proved to be more trouble than they were worth: they were deeply unpopular with the French population and ineffective as a fighting force. Their chief function was to reinforce the counter-revolutionary credentials of the invaders. French peasants and townsfolk from whom food and livestock were requisitioned received promissory notes in the name of Louis XVI together with haughty assurances that the restored king would ‘pay them back’ once the war was over.

In the event, the allied campaign was a fiasco. Prussians and Austrians had never found it easy to coordinate forces on the western periphery of the Empire; the French campaign of 1792 was no exception. Confusion and conflicting priorities dogged the planning of the invasion from the start and the allied advance was stopped in its tracks at the battle of Valmy on 20 September. Here the invading troops found themselves confronted by an impregnably positioned enemy deployed in a broad arc on raised ground. Both sides let fly with their artillery, but it was the French who had the better of it, scoring hit after hit in the allied ranks, until some 1,200 soldiers had been cut down by cannon balls without their units having been able to make any headway at all against the enemy positions. It was the first time that the army of the Revolution had stood to face its enemies. Discouraged by this unexpected display of resolve, the allied forces withdrew from their exposed positions, leaving the French in control of the field.

The Prussians remained formal members of the coalition after Valmy and even fought with some success against the French in Alsace and the Saar. But they never committed more than a small fraction of their resources to these campaigns, because their attention was focused elsewhere. What distracted the men in Berlin were the prospects opening up in Poland. The pattern of internal turmoil and external interference and obstruction that had produced the first partition continued throughout the 1780s. In 1788–91, while the Russians were bogged down in a costly war with the Ottoman Empire, King Stanislaw August and a party of Polish reformers had taken the opportunity to press ahead with changes to the political system. The new Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 created, for the first time, a hereditary monarchy and the outlines of a functioning central government. ‘Our country is saved,’ its authors announced. ‘Our freedoms are assured; we are a free and independent nation; we have shaken off the bonds of slavery and misrule.’

Neither the Prussians nor the Russians welcomed these developments. The creation of an independent Poland ran against the grain of nearly a century of Russian foreign policy. Frederick William II officially congratulated the Poles on their new constitution, but behind the scenes there was alarm at the prospect of a Polish revival. ‘I foresee that sooner or later Poland will take West Prussia from us…’ Hertzberg told a senior Prussian diplomat. ‘How can we defend our state against a numerous and well-ruled nation?’ On 18 May 1792, Catherine II sent 100,000 Russian troops into the kingdom. Having played with the idea of supporting the Polish opposition to the invasion (in the hope of preventing or limiting Russian annexations), the Prussians decided instead to accept a partition offer from St Petersburg. Under the terms of the Treaty of St Petersburg of 23 January 1793, the Prussians received the commercially important cities of Danzig and Thorn and a substantial triangle of territory that plugged the cleft between Silesia and East Prussia and also happened to encompass the wealthiest areas of the Polish commonwealth. The Russians helped themselves to a gigantic terrain comprising almost one half of Poland’s entire remaining surface area. The agreement was manifestly unequal (in the sense that Russia’s portion was four times the size of Prussia’s) but it gave the Prussians more than they had traditionally aspired to and it freed Berlin from any obligation to compensate Austria in the west.

In March 1794, the uprising launched against the partition powers by the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko set the stage for a further and final partition. Although the revolt was directed primarily against Russia, it was the Prussians who first tried to take advantage of it. They hoped, by suppressing the uprising, to stake a claim for further Polish territory on an equal footing with Russia. But with substantial troop deployments still in the west, the Prussians were already seriously over-stretched; after some early successes against the revolt they were forced to pull back and call for Russian help. Seeing their chance, the Austrians, too, joined the fray. After a desperate campaign of mass recruitment, Kosciuszko held off the armies of Russia, Prussia and Austria for nearly eight months, but on 10 October 1794, a Russian victory at Maciejowice to the south-east of Warsaw brought the uprising to an end. The way was now open to the third and last partition of Poland. After bitter quarrels among the three powers, a tripartite division was agreed on 24 October 1795, by which Prussia gained a further tranche of territory encompassing about 55,000 square kilometres of land in central Poland, including the ancient capital of Warsaw, and some 1,000,000 inhabitants. Poland was no more.

The Frontier 1870 I

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Prussian Line Infantry

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French Line Infantry

Forty kilometres east of Metz along the main road lies the town of Saint-Avold, from which several routes lead towards the German frontier. Arriving at Saint-Avold on 29 July, the emperor met the commander of 2 Corps, a general he knew well. Charles Frossard had been tutor to the Prince Imperial, and as a military engineer was thoroughly familiar with the uplands of Lorraine. Before the war he had drawn up plans for the French to block a German advance from the north-east by taking up a defensive line along the formidable heights above the Saar valley. His 28,000 troops were now encamped around Forbach, on the road that leads northeast from Saint-Avold to the frontier, beyond which it continues to the German town of Saarbrücken on the left bank of the Saar. Frossard convinced the emperor that it would be useful to take Saarbrücken and, as the army was not yet ready for a major offensive, Napoleon agreed. Such a move would be a sop to impatient French public opinion and to expectations within the ranks of the army itself, and would signal to Austria and Italy, whom Napoleon still hoped to bring into an alliance, that France was in earnest.

Napoleon gave his orders the next day, 30 July, leaving the operational details to his generals. At a council of war they concluded that it would be unsafe to venture beyond the Saar, and drew up elaborate plans for Frossard’s advance to be supported by demonstrations by divisions of neighbouring corps: Failly’s 5th on his right and Bazaine’s 3rd on his left.

Saarbrücken, then a town of 8,000 people, was overlooked by a chain of low hills to its south, one of which was crowned by the drill-ground of the garrison and a pleasure-garden. The French assaulted these hills in mid-morning of a warm 2 August, and soon discovered that they had taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The position was held only by a battalion of infantry and three cavalry squadrons, who after a sharp fire-fight followed their orders to withdraw if attacked by a superior force. The whole affair was over by midday, witnessed from a distance by Napoleon and the Prince Imperial, whose exploit in picking up a spent bullet was made much of by the jubilant Paris press. Casualties were about ninety men apiece. From the hills they had captured, the French fired their mitrailleuses after the hastily retreating Germans and lobbed shells towards the railway station, which damaged houses in the suburbs, much to the indignation of the German press.

The French made little attempt to occupy the town, and had no thought of exploiting their momentary advantage by funnelling troops across the Saar to engage the heads of the nearest German columns before they could concentrate. Neither did they destroy the telegraph, nor the rail or road bridges across the Saar from which the town took its name. By 5 August, feeling isolated and exposed as reports arrived of the advance of the German First and Second Armies, Frossard asked for and received the emperor’s permission to withdraw to a ridge further south, just inside the French frontier. During a night of pouring rain he marched his men to their new positions, where a storm of an altogether different kind was about to break over them.

German cavalry entered Saarbrücken on the morning of 6 August. Probing southwards, it did not take them long to find the new French position on the wooded heights which took their name from the nearby village of Spicheren, but they concluded that this must be a rearguard left to cover a French retreat. A battle this day was no part of Moltke’s grand strategy, which envisaged a crossing of the Saar on a wide front on 9 August prior to pinning down the French army while German forces turned its flanks. Nor was the infantry of First Army supposed to be anywhere near Saarbrücken, where the roads had been allocated to Second Army. So eager was the elderly General Steinmetz, commanding First Army, to win the glory of attacking the enemy first that he had wilfully disobeyed Moltke’s directives, funnelling his men south of their assigned roads and enraging the commander of Second Army, Prince Friedrich Karl. Thus the nearest infantry unit was 14th Division of First Army, commanded by General von Kameke, who promptly passed through the town and deployed beyond it to drive the French away.

Kameke’s decision might have proved suicidally rash had the French counterattacked promptly and in force, but they remained on the defensive. Even so, the Germans began to suffer heavy losses as they made piecemeal frontal assaults on the central bastion of the French right, a steep red sandstone bluff called the Rotherberg, atop which the French defenders had hastily dug trenches. Under murderous Chassepot fire from the men of Laveaucoupet’s division, the surviving Germans were glad to hug the dead ground around the foot of the Rotherberg. Nor could their comrades-in-arms make much headway against the French left, where Vergé’s division held a gap in the ridge in front of the industrial village of Stiring, home to the foundry that formed part of the empire of the prominent ironmaster Wendel. For hours the Germans struggled to capture a succession of isolated buildings along the poplar-lined road that ran from Saarbrücken to Stiring, including the customs house and the Golden Bream inn. By early afternoon a full-scale battle was under way, with the French having the advantage of numbers and position.

As the afternoon wore on, that balance began to tilt. However ill-tempered the bickering between the headquarters of First and Second Armies had been that morning about rights of way, the German instinct of solidarity took hold at the sound of gunfire. Every commander within earshot headed for the fighting. Messengers and the telegraph summoned others, who poured into Saarbrücken by road and rail, using the bridges that the French had so considerately left intact. Successive changes of command as more senior German generals reached the scene did not detract from the unfolding of a jumbled but determined offensive, with new units being fed into the line wherever they were most needed. By late afternoon the Germans had at least 35,000 men on the field, and their batteries posted on the drill-ground south of Saarbrücken and the adjacent hills were beating down the French artillery and forcing their infantry under cover as shell after shell burst among them. Even in the village of Spicheren, well behind the French right, German shells perforated the walls of the church and school, killing a few of the wounded who had been evacuated there earlier even as overburdened regimental surgeons worked on them.

Eventually German infantry penetrated the forested ravines right and left of the Rotherberg and secured a foothold despite desperate French counterattacks. The French lacked the strength to hold every part of their 5-kilometre line in sufficient force. Back at his headquarters in Forbach where the telegraph was, Frossard exercised little control. The commander of his reserve division, the aptly named General Bataille, took his men forward on his own initiative to plug gaps in the French line, enabling it to hold for the moment. All Frossard’s men were now committed to the fight, but German pressure continued unabated.

Now the French paid for their failure to concentrate their forces. The nearest supporting units, the divisions of Bazaine’s 3 Corps, were five or six hours’ march away. Bazaine, back at Saint-Avold, was apprehensive that the Germans might cross the Saar on a wide front, threatening his troops at any point, and it was not until 1.25 p.m. that Frossard advised him by telegraph that a battle was in progress. Bazaine was later accused of leaving Frossard to his fate out of jealousy for a rival, but he did order his dispersed division commanders to send support. After a meandering march, one got scarcely halfway to the battlefield by dark; another reached it far too late to be of any help; and a third, after taking up a ‘good position’ miles from the fighting, was misled by an acoustic quirk of the wooded hills into believing that the cannonade ahead had ceased, and had his men return to their camps. Years of inquiries and accusations about the responsibilities for the events of that sultry August afternoon lay ahead, but the one certainty was that, in glaring contrast to the German commanders, the French generals had failed to hurry support to the threatened point on time: support that would have restored French numerical superiority and enabled a counterattack.

Thus Frossard’s men, tired out by their lost night’s sleep and six hours of intense fighting, and running low on ammunition, were condemned to fight their battle alone. On the Spicheren ridge the Germans captured the French trenches and hauled some artillery onto the neighbouring hill, forcing the French to give ground. Officer casualties were high on both sides as the fighting swayed back and forth in the smoke-filled woods. Although the Germans could not be dislodged, Laveaucoupet’s men held them in check by a bayonet charge at about 7 p.m.

Meanwhile on the left in Stiring-Wendel fighting continued into the dusk among houses, factories, slag-heaps and loaded coal wagons in the railway-yard, as well as in the nearby forest. In a letter home a Breton soldier, Yves-Charles Quentel, described going into battle there:

When the bugle sounded I was nervous; my poor heart was thumping at the thought of danger. At that moment all the men were under arms, with cartridges issued, awaiting the signal to go. After half an hour of wondering what was happening the command was given to ‘fix bayonets’ … Then we advanced to drive out the enemy. We passed through a foundry where the roofs and sheet-iron rang with bullets then, advancing fifty metres, I was ordered behind a pile of masonry … A short distance from me a chasseur-à-pied had been shot in the legs, while another beside him was dead.

A few soldiers were sheltering behind him. A lieutenant under cover ten yards from me ordered us to advance on the Prussians. I ran forward with twenty of my companions. We dashed across the railway tracks, then took cover behind some enormous cast-iron cylinders. We were protected from bullets coming from straight ahead, but not from those coming in from an angle. At my feet was a captain of chasseurs with a bullet in his head, lying in a pool of blood. Behind him was a colonel who had taken a bullet in the temple that had passed right through his head. It was enough to make you be sick, but I had no time to think …

The merciless contest continued in the blazing village after nightfall.

Meanwhile, events beyond his left flank convinced Frossard of the need to retreat that night. Another German division had crossed the Saar downriver and was bearing down on his rear at Forbach, held at bay only by a thin cavalry cordon and 200 reservists who had just arrived by train and were rushed into the firing line. With the fresh divisions of 3 Corps not yet to hand, Frossard concluded that he should withdraw to a better position, and after dark French buglers sounded the retreat. Left in possession of the field, the Germans could claim a hard-fought victory at a cost of 4,871 men to the French 4,078. Next day they also took possession of the immense stores that Frossard had accumulated at Forbach in preparation for an advance into Germany that now would never take place.

Spicheren was but one half of the double blow dealt to France that fatal 6 August, for in Alsace, 60 kilometres away on the far side of the Vosges, MacMahon’s 1 Corps had also been defeated.