Minden 1759 I

The day before Minden fell (11 July) Ferdinand received another carping letter from Frederick, chiding him for his Fabian tactics. Exhorting him to remember Rossbach, Frederick admonished his brother-in-law that it was better to join battle with the enemy and lose than demoralise the troops by constant retreat; in a particularly nasty jibe, Frederick suggested that Ferdinand was a second Cumberland. At the same time George II was growing anxious about the lack of good news from Germany and was also starting to nag him for results. The effect on a man already suffering self-doubt can be imagined. His particular current anxiety was that the French would move on Hanover and cut him off from his communications with Frederick; perhaps the Prussian king had spoken more truly than he knew and it was now to be his (Ferdinand’s) fate to suffer Cumberland’s 1757 humiliation. This was the moment when his secretary, Christian Heinrich Philipp Edler von Westphalen, stiffened his resolve with a famous letter, urging Ferdinand to follow his own lights and not just agree with the last person he spoke to. From a secretary, this sounds at first like impertinence, but Westphalen had already shown that, when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to waive protocol and to go beyond the bounds of his formally subordinate station. Devoted to Ferdinand, having been with him at the battles of Lobositz, Prague and Rossbach, Westphalen was the Prince’s chief planning officer and strategist, a devotee of boldness and imagination as against the sound space-time logistics of the military manuals. Ferdinand trusted him, listened to him and always took his advice seriously. On this occasion his response to Westphalen’s written homily was as decisive as his secretary could have wished. Ferdinand decided he would make no attempt to retake Münster but would march to the Weser river and establish himself on both sides of the river, daring Contades to dislodge him.

Contades though, exhibited the usual inertia of French commanders in Germany in the 1750s. Excessively circumspect, by covering all possible options he left himself with insufficient troops to mount an offensive. Even the capture of Minden was something of an embarrassment to him, as his distribution of numbers left him in no real position to take advantage of it. Nonetheless he decided that the town gave him another impregnable base from which to operate, so he dug in there. Ferdinand then tried all the ruses he knew to get Contades to leave his Minden position and fight before French reinforcements arrived, but Contades refused to take the bait. There were constant skirmishes along the Weser and both sides’ big guns blazed away pointlessly at each other. After failing to coax Contades out of his prepared positions, Ferdinand tried to threaten his communications at Minden by a march on Lübbecke. This operation he entrusted to his favourite commander, the twenty-four-year-old Erbprinz of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who had won Ferdinand’s undying respect and affection by serving under him even after his father (the Duke of Brunswick) had forbidden it. Ferdinand’s thinking was that Contades would have to deal with this threat either by turning south or giving battle. When the Erbprinz with his force of nearly 10,000 men brushed the French aside at Lübbecke on 28 July, Contades decided this was a challenge he could not ignore and sent the Duc de Brissac to intercept him. Brissac was told to buy time until reinforcements, expected under the command of the veteran Lieutenant-General, the Comte de St-Germain, arrived, guaranteeing overwhelming numerical superiority. The vanguards of the two armies collided near Bünde on 31 July, but this did not halt the Erbprinz’s probe and soon he had advanced as far as Kirchlengern and Quernheim. Now in serious alarm at the threat to his communications, Contades realised that inaction was no longer an option. But would he plump for retreat or battle? Ferdinand made contingency plans for either eventuality, detaching a liaison force under General Gilsa to make sure he was in constant touch with the Erbprinz, but meanwhile disposing his army so that it could operate at a moment’s notice in the Minden plain.

Contades had been in Minden for sixteen days, in a position of great strength, with his right resting on the Weser and Minden and his left covered by the Bastau marshes. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Bastau and Weser, Minden looked out to the north-west over a plain where on the horizon could be seen the villages and hamlets of Hahlen, Stemmer, Kutenhausen and Maulbeerkamp; the principal features on the skyline were a windmill and a cemetery. As one headed north and east from Hahlen, the landscape became more choppy, broken up by smallholdings, plantations and orchards abutting the hamlets. Contades’s idea was to recall Armentières from the protracted siege of Lippstadt, leaving Chevreuse to invest it and with the Armentières and St-Germain forces to overwhelm Ferdinand. Contades was irritated that the Brunswick prince had given him the slip since Bergen and wanted to finish him off in one go. His preference was to wait for Ferdinand to attack him, but he was under the same sort of nagging pressure from Belle-Isle and Versailles as Ferdinand was experiencing from Frederick and Berlin. He wanted to win the glory of being the French commander who made the definitive conquest of Hanover, and it was also in his mind that Versailles needed a decisive breakthrough in west Germany so that it could switch some of the 100,000 troops there to the invasion of the British Isles.

Contades therefore decided to launch a surprise attack on Ferdinand. But first he had to extricate his troops from the bottleneck – perfect for defence but not offence – between the Bastau marshes and Minden and this, he decided, was best done at night. Because of the difficult terrain, the infantry would have to be on the flanks of the cavalry instead of the other way round as in normal circumstances. Meticulous planning was necessary for the surprise attack, since while this night manoeuvre in unorthodox formation on a narrow front was going on, Broglie’s troops would have to be brought over from the other side of the river. At 6 p.m. on 31 July, therefore, Contades summoned his generals and issued his orders. Broglie was to march at dusk, cross the Weser by a stone bridge, proceed through Minden and link up with the artillery and eight battalions of Grenadiers. Situated on Contades’s right, at dawn he would launch a sudden attack of unparalleled ferocity, exposing Ferdinand’s left flank. The main army meanwhile would cross the Bastau by bridge and draw up, ready for daybreak, with the infantry on the flanks and the cavalry in the centre; artillery would cover the cavalry by enfilading fire from both flanks. Between Broglie’s corps and the right of the main army, a third column, eight battalions strong under General Nikolai (yet another veteran who would have to wait until his sixties to receive a Marshal’s baton) would support Broglie’s left and make sure the enemy could not drive a wedge between Broglie and Contades. Nikolai, whose forty-seventh birthday it was on the morrow, hoped to celebrate with a notable victory. Contades’s left meanwhile would be protected against flank attack by the Duc d’Havre and four battalions. Making sure that proper contact was maintained with the Duc de Brissac in the reserve, d’Havre would initiate the action by feinting across the causeway towards Ferdinand’s right just before dawn.

The plan might have worked had not Ferdinand almost simultaneously decided that he would launch a surprise attack on the French after a night march. The army was to be ready to march at 1 a.m., the right was to seize the Hahlen windmill and the left to occupy the hamlet of Stemmer. The best scholarship discounts the idea that Ferdinand was forewarned of French intentions by a peasant who brought him a package containing Contades’s battle orders; what is not explained in the traditional story is how a peasant with anti-French sentiments could have been entrusted with top-secret documents – and ones, moreover that were in clear and not coded. The most likely explanation is that Ferdinand simply intuited what Contades intended and beat him to the punch. By this time he too probably wanted a decisive confrontation. The strain on him of the chivvying and carping George II and Frederick was not assuaged by an extremely difficult relationship with the British commander, Lord George Sackville.

Estimates of Sackville’s character range from the moderately critical to the outright denunciatory. According to Lord Shelburne, who knew him well, Sackville was the avatar of all the vices: he was incompetent, cowardly, an intriguer, a vindictive enemy, a lover of low company and an unbalanced individual who swung violently from spurious optimism to false pessimism. The reference to ‘low company’ was code for the consistent canard that Sackville, even though he was married and would sire five children, was a homosexual. Even his friends conceded that he was a difficult man, reserved, haughty and socially isolated even among his peers and equals. Relations between Ferdinand and Sackville by 31 July 1759 were icy, and it is clear that at one of the many conferences Ferdinand liked to convene, Lord George had given deep offence by something he had said. The most plausible explanation is that Sackville expressed his frustration with the constant retreating before the French and threatened to pull the British troops out of the campaign. The threat could not be presumed to be idle, for in the War of Spanish Succession the great Duke of Marlborough had done just that to his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The upshot of the two converging night marches was that by dawn on 1 August Contades’s army was drawn up along a line stretching from Hahlen to Maulbeerkamp and Ferdinand’s from Hartum to Stemmer. The British troops during their night march had noticed that the fields and hedgerows were teeming with wild red and yellow roses, so they picked the flowers and put them in their hats. Broglie’s corps completed the march as planned, made contact with the enemy left at about 5 a.m. and opened fire. Lieutenant-General Georg August von Wangenheim, the Hanoverian commander who enjoyed the best relations with the British – he had been a battalion commander in England in 1756–57 during the invasion scare – was taken by surprise as a heavy pre-dawn thunderstorm drowned the noise of the approaching attackers. But the French plans began to unravel almost immediately. Instead of pressing home his advantage, Broglie waited for Nikolai to come up in support, giving Wangenheim time to get his big guns ready. There followed a pounding artillery duel, in which Broglie’s leading troops, the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties. By 6 a.m., with Wangenheim’s artillery gaining the advantage, Broglie sent Nikolai to try to loop round the enemy and occupy Kutenhausen. But, cautious like all French commanders, he first reconnoitred and seems to have persuaded himself that a German cavalry charge was imminent.

Contades, realising that his plans were already behind schedule, sent a mounted messenger to find out why Broglie had not advanced. Broglie then wasted further time by galloping over to Contades’s headquarters to explain his fears. In the meantime Contades, as dithering as his second-in-command, became alarmed by a supposed threat to his left, so told Broglie to return and contain the enemy right, until the situation on the left wing was sorted out; he even discussed with Broglie contingency plans for withdrawal. So, only two hours into the battle, things had already gone seriously awry; instead of launching a dawn attack, Broglie was now in limbo and even thinking of retreat. He could scarcely feel pleased with the morning’s work. He should not have waited for Nikolai, but attacked Wangenheim without delay; since Wangenheim was caught unawares, Ferdinand’s left would then have been turned. Broglie showed himself indecisive: he mistook a movement by Wangenheim’s men when taking up their position as an attack and therefore decided to wait for Nikolai. And so Broglie’s advance, on which the whole battle plan of Contades was supposed to turn, petered out. The unintended consequence was that he spent the rest of the battle containing Wangenheim – a stalemate that was compatible with Ferdinand’s tactics, but not with Contades’s.

Meanwhile Contades’s infantry had been delayed crossing the Bastau. They saw the sky lit up by flashes of gunfire and assumed that Broglie’s attack was proceeding as planned. The consequence was that the Comte de Lusace, on the French left, commanding fifteen battalions of Saxons, came to a halt near Hahlen at dawn, in close contact with another sixteen French battalions who were already in the village. This was the precise moment when Ferdinand, unaware that the enemy was present in strength, ordered forward Karl, Prinz von Anhalt-Bernburg and his men to occupy the village. Luck was with the Germans that morning. As they stormed forward into a potential death-trap, houses on the western side of the village caught fire, probably from incendiary shells. The wind caught up the fire and fanned it into the faces of the French defenders, who were driven back by the fierce heat and blinding smoke. The first British troops seriously engaged in battle in Germany now came into play as Foy’s Light Infantry Battalion collided with the French at the windmill just north of Hahlen. Seeing his attack now well under way on the right, Ferdinand ordered Wangenheim on the left to advance, and also gave the signal to Spőrcken’s corps on the right centre to close the gap left as Anhalt advanced.

General Freiherr von Spőrcken was, at sixty-one, the oldest officer on the field that day, an unspectacular plodder as a soldier but very popular with his men. Although nominally a German column, Number Three column (Spörcken’s) was actually comprised largely of British troops, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (51st Foot) and the other troops commanded by General Waldegrave and Colonel Kingsley, six regiments all told. Spörcken’s column came on at the double, at first hidden by woods, then deploying as it emerged from the sylvan darkness. To his alarm Ferdinand noticed Spörcken’s men getting ahead of the rest of the army and sent word for them to slow down. They made a brief halt in a copse but then recommenced their advance at the same rapid pace. Swerving to the left, and thus not hitting their intended target, they caught the left flank of the French cavalry. So on Ferdinand’s right, the situation was that the leading British and Hanoverian infantry were not only ahead of the rest of their comrades but had cut across them and were beginning to crowd them out. Nobody knows exactly why Spörcken’s men decided to fight virtually at running pace. Some say the orders were garbled in transmission because of language problems, but since Spörcken was in command this hardly makes sense. Others say the British wanted to show the other regiments their mettle, as they had been criticised for being raw troops. Doubtless a combination of élan and naivety caused the near-fiasco. Having dislocated the order of battle and being caught alone out in the open, they should have been severely punished and defeated in detail. But luck was with Ferdinand in all sectors this morning.

The battle for Hahlen now settled into a grim slugging match between the big guns of the French and those of Spörcken. This was a critical moment in the battle for, as Spörcken’s men stumbled towards them, the French infantry should have been able to seize the big guns before the artillery duel began. Unaccountably they failed to do so – later it was said they had been blinded by smoke and dust from the battle. That Ferdinand’s artillery was able to engage the French big guns was a hugely significant development, as the French were thereby prevented from sweeping away the opposition facing their own cavalry. Had these German guns not come into play at this juncture, the right flank of the British infantry would have been at the mercy of the French guns, causing heavy casualties and possibly affecting the entire result of the battle. In a letter to his mother written on the afternoon of the battle, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery of the 12th Regiment of Foot explained the atmosphere that morning:

We advanced more than a quarter of a mile through a most furious fire from a most infernal battery of 18-pounders, which was at first upon our front, but as we proceeded, bore upon our flank, and at last upon our rear. It might be imagined, that this cannonade would render the regiments incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount almost any difficulty.

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British Forces in Western Germany 1757-59

The Battle of Krefeld on a painting by Emil Hünten.

Map of the Battle of Krefeld on June 23 1758.
Source: Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, volume III by the German Grosser Generalstab

Rarely had military fortunes changed so rapidly. In September 1757 the French thought they had won definitively in western Germany and only a few mopping-up details remained. By May 1758 the tables were turned, Ferdinand had an army 40,000 strong and France was floundering. Richelieu’s replacement on the western front proved an even greater disaster than his philandering predecessor. Now in his fiftieth year, Louis de Bourbon-Condé, Comte de Clermont, a prince of the blood, was an oddity in that he had been destined for holy orders but then given a papal dispensation to become a soldier, after which he had fought at Dettingen, Fontenoy and Raucoux during the War of Austrian Succession. The peculiarity of his position was that he retained his clerical benefices as Abbot of St Germain-des-Prés and was known mockingly by his troops as the ‘Général des Bénédictines’. Evidently Clermont had a line in gallows humour, for it is said that he wrote to Louis XV as follows on taking up his command: ‘I found Your Majesty’s Army divided into three parts. The part which is above ground is composed of pillagers and marauders; the second part is underground; and the third is in hospital. Should I retire with the first or wait until I join one of the others?’

Clermont was hardly exaggerating. French losses in the winter campaign amounted to more than 16,000 in dead, wounded, prisoners and deserters with another 10,000 sick. But as one of the great aristocrats of the ancien régime, Clermont had pull. With the able collaboration of Belle-Isle at the War Ministry, he made good the numbers. By May he could muster 32,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, and Belle-Isle promised him he would have an army nearly double that size by the end of June. Clermont was an efficient if unimaginative soldier and he was taken unawares by the energetic Ferdinand, who crossed the Rhine near the Dutch border on 1–3 June after constructing a pontoon bridge. Madame de Pompadour, now secure in Louis XV’s favour and always keen to take the rest of the Bourbon family down a notch or two, wrote to him witheringly: ‘What a humiliation, monsieur, to allow the enemy to build a bridge across the Rhine and land 6,000 men a day on the other side.’ But Clermont’s humiliation was not yet complete. Despite the reassurances from his friend Belle-Isle that Ferdinand was now dangerously exposed, Clermont could make no impression on him. He did at least hold his own in the indecisive battle at Rheinberg on 12 June 1758 but nine days later Ferdinand won a hard-fought victory at Krefeld. Faced with the threat that Ferdinand might invade the Netherlands, Belle-Isle had to detach to Clermont’s aid a second French army, which was supposed to be helping Maria Theresa and the Austrians in Bohemia.

Seven thousand British troops joined Ferdinand after Krefeld, but the Anglophone and German-speaking troops did not meld seamlessly. Differences in culture and military tradition were compounded by the language barrier, except in the case of the officer class who usually spoke French to one another. The British troops were indisciplined, prone to illness and lacked the hygiene of their German counterparts while their officers were touchy and arrogant, inclined to treat the Hanoverians as natural inferiors. There were numerous niggling items of discord between the two sides: the Germans, for example, resented the extra forage required by the horse-loving British. The choice of British commander was perhaps especially infelicitous. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough, though modest and generous, was ignorant, careless and insouciant, and was a particularly poor diplomatic choice in that in the previous war he had complained vociferously about the behaviour of German troops. But Marlborough died before Krefeld, in October 1757, and the British command fell to his deputy – an even more disastrous appointment, as it turned out.

At forty-two, Lord George Sackville, second son of the Earl of Dorset, was sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hypersensitive to criticism. A heavily set, melancholy-looking individual, with clear blue eyes, protruding lower lip and an ugly snout of a nose, Sackville was a scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and had fought at Fontenoy with Cumberland (also later in the Jacobite rising and under Wolfe in Scotland). MP for Dover since 1741, he was an important political figure whom Pitt and Bute had wanted as their Secretary of State for War in 1757. But the great barrier to Sackville’s political and military advancement was the hatred of George II. Sackville had attached himself to the rival court clustered round the King’s hated eldest son Frederick and his son George (later George III). Sackville’s drive and energy were not matched by tact or an ability to make himself popular. His joining the Anglo-German army was a case in point. Leicester House favoured military raids on the French coast and was strongly opposed to German entanglements, but by accepting the position with Marlborough Sackville showed poor political nous. His appointment was simply Pitt’s way of co-opting Leicester House into a German adventure but the Prince of Wales did not see it that way. Sackville simply weakened his status with Bute and Leicester House without commending himself to George II. He made fresh enemies without making any new friends.

Although in retrospect the partnership of Prince Ferdinand and Lord Sackville was an accident waiting to happen, in 1758 Sackville confined himself to complaining about Ferdinand’s Fabian policy and the continual retreats. After Krefeld, though, even his mouth was shut. Krefeld was a setback to France almost as serious as Rossbach. In England, where Ferdinand was lionised as a hero, Pitt realised the potential value of the western front. Properly reinforced, Ferdinand’s Anglo-Hanoverian army could pin down huge French forces, not only preventing them from fighting Prussia on the eastern front but also making it impossible for Versailles to reinforce its beleaguered garrisons in India and North America. Expertly managed by the Duke of Newcastle, Parliament voted to send to Germany another five battalions of infantry and fourteen squadrons of cavalry. After a further embarrassment with the fall of Düsseldorf (July 1758), Clermont meanwhile was replaced by the fifty-four-year-old Louis-Georges Erasme, Marquis de Contades, who had a long and distinguished military career, beginning in Italy and Corsica in 1734–35, extending through the war of 1740–48 and most recently taking in the battles of Hastenbeck and Krefeld.

Contades showed more respect for Ferdinand than Clermont had, and played cat-and-mouse with him, probing and making contact with his vanguard, but never allowing Ferdinand’s main army to get close to him. There was stalemate as both sides faced each other across the Erft river from 14 to 24 July, but the French grew stronger every day as Belle-Isle made good his promises about increased numbers. Ferdinand, still waiting for the British reinforcements before making a decisive move, resolved to withdraw and put the Rhine between himself and the French, but Contades moved north swiftly to hem him in between the confluence of the Roer and Meuse rivers. Ferdinand was now in deadly peril, in imminent danger of having his communications cut, and Contades came within an ace of a stunning victory, but he narrowly failed to take the all-important bridge at Mehr that would have sealed Ferdinand’s doom.

Belle-Isle now decided that the only way to finish off Ferdinand before he became even more powerful with extra contingents from Britain was to use a second army against him. This force was commanded by the vanquished Marshal of Rossbach, Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise. Another of the great French aristocrats, Soubise was a member of the influential Rohan family, had been Louis XV’s aide-de-camp in the War of Austrian Succession and had served as Governor of Flanders and Hennegau. Something of a French Cumberland, Soubise was notorious for the catastrophe at Rossbach but his many supporters at court would talk up a minor victory at Lutterberg in Hesse rather as Cumberland’s cronies had portrayed his walk-over victory at Culloden as a glittering triumph of the military art. The truth was that, aged forty-three, Soubise was a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent and owing everything to his being a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, who assiduously pushed for his promotion far beyond his intrinsic abilities.

Realising Ferdinand’s military calibre, Belle-Isle urged caution and close coordination between the armies of Contades and Soubise. Resentful and envious of each other, Contades and Soubise each waited for the other to act and refused to collaborate on a detailed strategy.

September found both of them writing peevishly to Belle-Isle to know what the other proposed to do. Belle-Isle fulminated at his two generals for being the passive dupes of Ferdinand, warned that French military honour was being compromised, and advised them that France was becoming the laughing stock of Europe. Finally Soubise stirred himself and began marching towards Hanover. But he seems to have taken fright at his own decisiveness, feared he was over-exposed and, blaming Contades for having been slow to support him, withdrew to Kassel. There, stiffened by the Due de Fitzjames, the timid Soubise finally felt strong enough to give battle. Marginally victorious at Lutterberg on 12 October – though some critics thought the battle drawn – he failed to support Contades when he in turn finally made a move and threatened Münster, an important allied base. This was another timid probe, carried out too late and with too small forces to be a serious threat.

By the end of 1758 all of Belle-Isle’s efforts had produced a null result in west Germany. Despite all the reinforcements he had thrown into the western front, the French armies were again suffering numerical shrinkage and under-equipment. That winter Belle-Isle wrote to the future Duc de Choiseul (then Comte de Stainville, French ambassador in Austria): ‘Two-thirds of our infantry are without clothes and consist either of men who have had no rest for fifteen months, or of recruits who are not strong enough to withstand the cold and rain of this late season.’ Meanwhile his past, present, future, actual and putative generals spent most of their energy intriguing against each other and trying to discredit or belittle each other in the eyes of Louis XV: Soubise, Richelieu, d’Estrées, Broglie, St-Germain, Contades and Clermont were only some of the principals involved in the Machiavellian and disgraceful game, for the Dauphin himself had petitioned his father hard to be allowed to succeed Clermont as Commander-in-Chief. The truth was that Louis XV had no one of the calibre of Marshal Saxe in the last war, or even of Lowendahl, and some Jeremiahs lamented that in France military science had gone into a tail-spin. Ferdinand, by contrast, had been a brilliant success. At the beginning of 1758 the French had occupied most of Hanover but by the end they occupied not an inch of it. Understandably George II was the great champion of Ferdinand. In September he awarded him £2,000 a year for life and in December Frederick of Prussia appointed him a Field Marshal. But Ferdinand seemed to some critics to be running out of ideas, and it was noteworthy that he went into winter quarters in mid-November 1758 and did not try to repeat his exploits of the previous year.

On 4 February 1759 Soubise, appointed commander of the army projected for the invasion of England, handed over to the forty-year-old Duc de Broglie. Victor François, Duc de Broglie, would prove to be the most capable French army commander in the Seven Years War, and the year 1759 would have gone better for France if he had been confirmed as supreme commander in Germany. He inherited a much healthier situation than at the beginning of 1758 for, under Belle-Isle’s energetic leadership, the two French armies in Germany had been extensively re-equipped and retrained. Broglie’s Army of the Main contained fifty squadrons of cavalry and fifty battalions of infantry – a total of 31,000 men. Contades’s Army of the Lower Rhine was much larger, with ninety-one squadrons and 100 battalions (66,000 men). With this army of nearly 100,000 men, Belle-Isle intended to drive the pestilent Ferdinand across the Weser river. With Broglie’s army in support, Contades was to cross the lower Rhine in June, capture Münster and Lippstadt and sweep the enemy before him. The obvious snag was that Ferdinand might take the offensive first. To preempt this and give themselves a sound base of operations, the French seized the free city of Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve. They used an underhand trick to secure admission, then overpowered the garrison while the citizens were sleeping. Frankfurt became the base for French operations during the rest of the war; it was easily defended and could be supplied by the river.

Five miles north-east of Frankfurt the French fortified the strong natural position of Bergen covering the approaches from Kassel and sought to make it all but impregnable. This single fact determined allied strategy for 1759. Ferdinand strengthened his bases at Münster and Lippstadt, with subsidiaries at Nienburg, Hameln Stade and Hamburg, and patiently built up his total numbers to nearly 72,000 by April 1759, including two new companies sent from England. Originally he had been planning to attack the French in Hesse but that scheme was aborted when Frederick of Prussia told him he had no troops to spare. Lacking the manpower to tackle Hesse, Ferdinand now played cat and mouse with the French in a winter campaign lasting through January-February 1759, but found himself outpointed by Broglie. Initially threatened on his right flank, Broglie neatly turned the tables on Ferdinand by trying to punch through his right. Perhaps realising that he faced an opponent of real military calibre, Ferdinand finally sheered off after a face-saving, protracted and confusing (confused?) war of manoeuvre. At length he made up his mind to attack the main French strength at Frankfurt. He left Münster on 22 March, determined to test to the limit the strength of the French position at Bergen.

French military planners had not been exaggerating when they boasted that Bergen was the dream defensive position, difficult to outflank and high enough to provide an overview of any approaching enemy forces while providing plenty of cover. Two miles north-east of Frankfurt was where Broglie intended to begin drawing up his forces. The battleground he selected was adjacent to flat and marshy country on the right which ran to the steep escarpment topped by Bergen. On the left the terrain was not so steep. Wooded and striated by streams, with open country between the woods and Bergen, it was cut across by two sunken roads, impeding any attack from the east. Bergen itself was enclosed by a fortified wall, eighteen feet high and three feet thick, outside which were farms, orchards and enclosures, surrounded by banks and hedges. In front was the hill of Am Hohen Stein, offering some protection to an attacker on its eastern slope; but the western slope, extending to the scarp on the right and the woods on the left, was devoid of cover. North-west of Bergen, 1,000 yards away and set on a knoll, was a tower, the Bergen Warte, dominating Bergen and the 1,000 yards of open land between it and the village. South of Bergen the escarpment ran westwards until it hit the River Main. Here Broglie awaited Ferdinand’s coming with some 30,000 men, eight battalions in Bergen itself and another thirteen held in reserve. On his left, behind the woods, were the Saxons; in the centre, behind the Bergen Warte, were the cavalry; the artillery was in the centre, between the sunken roads. Ferdinand, relying on false estimates of enemy strength from his scouts and an irrational belief that the French were not present in strength, was confident that Broglie could not hold his position and proposed to attack 30,000 seasoned defenders with a numerically inferior force, computed at 24,000–27,000 troops.

Ferdinand began by sending General von Gilsa into the orchards, where he quickly cleaned out the French. Broglie, commanding a panorama of the battlefield from his obsevation post on the Bergen Warte, ordered his reserves to counterattack. Emerging in a cloud from behind the walls of Bergen, they quickly repulsed the enemy. The seesaw battle in the orchards continued when Ferdinand ordered his Brunswickers into the fray and they in turn began to push the French back. One hundred yards from the walls the French dug in and a furious struggle commenced. Sensing that this was the moment to commit the last of his reserves, Broglie gave the signal to his veterans who decisively repelled the Brunswickers. Ferdinand next ordered his artillery to come to the aid of the Brunswickers but his gunners were caught by a murderous fire from the French artillerymen at the western end of the sunken road. Ferdinand’s principal lieutenant, Johann Kasimir, Prince of Isenburg, rallied his men for another charge but was counterattacked on the flanks; he fell, mortally wounded, and his men broke and fled. Ferdinand now expected an all-out assault but Broglie had no intention of going over onto the attack, as this would mean leaving his strong position and meeting the enemy in the open. This gave Ferdinand a welcome breathing space, so once again he rallied his men before withdrawing them to the Am Hohen Stein, vainly hoping that Broglie would pursue him there. When Ferdinand’s big guns were in position, he prepared for a final attack but cancelled the assault when he saw movements on the French side indicating an imminent charge. Broglie, though, was simply strengthening his left flank by positioning more artillery there and moving up his last six reserve battalions from the Bergen Warte. A period of phoney war developed, with the artillery exchanging shots and each side waiting for the other to make the first move, and so it continued until dusk. Ferdinand withdrew under cover of night but had sentries posted at dawn, waiting for what seemed like an inevitable attack. But it never came. Broglie, having been left on the field and with 1,800 casualties against Ferdinand’s 2,500, claimed the victory.

Ferdinand withdrew to the north, still in dread that Broglie would strike his slow-moving column; he was especially vulnerable now, with a tired, hungry and demoralised allied army. But the Anglo-Hanoverians were left to recoup in peace, as Broglie made no attempt to exploit his victory and indeed huddled fearfully near Frankfurt, apprehensive that Ferdinand would attack again. Both sides were left to ponder the implications of French success in the first campaign of 1759. Broglie’s performance was efficient rather than brilliant, since he fought from a well-nigh impregnable position, outnumbered the enemy in men and guns and had fresh troops who were not afraid of Ferdinand since they had not been involved in the 1758 defeats under Clermont and Contades. His failure to pursue Ferdinand was deplorable and showed once again that the tradition of Condé, Turenne, Saxe and Lowendahl was dead. Broglie had many enemies at court, who immediately tried to spread the rumour that his victory was really a defeat. The friends of the Prince de Soubise were particularly forward in this regard and even spread the canard that Broglie had abandoned his field hospital during the battle. Soubise’s champion was Madame de Pompadour and she in turn had the ear of the King. Broglie would not get his Marshal’s baton for a while yet. But if Broglie had been excessively timid, Ferdinand had been rash, complacent and over-confident, and perhaps the victories of 1758 had made him gravely underrate the French. That seems the most likely explanation for his extraordinary decision to make a frontal attack in a piecemeal fashion and without proper artillery support, though the false estimates produced by his scouts hardly helped. Ferdinand did not relish the task of reporting to Frederick, but for once the Prussian king did not nag him mercilessly, contenting himself this time with the suggestion that Ferdinand should at once increase his complement of heavy guns. Secretly Ferdinand blamed Frederick for his defeat, since the Prussian preoccupation with the eastern front meant that he had not been able to open his offensive at the beginning of March, as he wanted.

April–July 1759 was a very bad patch for Ferdinand, and now for the first time his Achilles heel became manifest. He cultivated a persona of professionalism and unflappability, but his mask of serene courtesy concealed anxiety and insecurity; some have speculated that he had a chip on his shoulder about Frederick, that Brunswick always felt itself to be in the shadow of Prussia and suffered the same feelings of inferiority that Poland has always had about Russia. Studies of the accident-prone invariably show depression lurking in the shadows, and it is surely significant that on 30 June, while riding with his aide-de-camp the Duke of Richmond, Ferdinand fell off his horse into a deep water-filled ditch and was almost drowned before being rescued.

Ferdinand’s principal anxiety was that when the French marched north in June on the summer campaign, they would have an army twice as strong as his. His difficult relationship with Frederick simply made his problems worse, for when he asked the King’s advice, Frederick soon lost patience with his ‘defeatism’: the King’s replies were initially cordial, shortly became peevish and thereafter downright insulting. The beginning of the summer campaign underlined Ferdinand’s worst fears. Advancing slowly but surely, the French took Münster and then Minden. The Marquis d’Armentière’s first attempt to capture Münster was beaten back with heavy losses, but he brought up reinforcements, forcing the defenders back into the citadel where, after a perfunctory defence, the garrison of 3,600 surrendered. Armentière then proceeded to Lippstadt to lend his weight to the siege being conducted there by the Duc de Chevreuses. Minden was another French triumph. Learning that the town was weakly garrisoned, Broglie sent his brother (the Comte de Broglie) with 1,500 infantry and 1,200 cavalry to seize it; the coup was successful but Minden was then looted in a way not seen since the Thirty Years War and it was with difficulty that the French commanders restored order.

Rise of Prussia 1740

Frederick William I, the eccentric King who collected a private army of Giants.

Prussia was also poorly endowed with economic resources. With the exception of the Westphalian territories – Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg – with their mixed and relatively prosperous agrarian economies and higher level of urbanization, the Hohenzollern lands were poor and backward, and contained little rural industry. Mostly subsistence agriculture, with small surpluses, prevailed throughout the central provinces of Brandenburg and Pomerania. Contemporaries styled Brandenburg `the sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’, so wretched was its soil. The Kingdom of East Prussia, separated until 1772 from the Hohenzollern heartlands by several hundred miles of Polish territory, was little – if any – better, with equally poor soil and an inhospitable climate. Its commercial economy also provided an unpromising basis for great-power status. Grain and grain-based products were exported from East Prussia and, to a lesser extent, from the monarchy’s heartlands. But commercial activity was at a low ebb, and largely driven by the demands of the Prussian state, while poor internal communications meant that its territories were bypassed by the major continental trade routes. The urban sector was similarly underdeveloped, at least by western European and even western German standards.

The very list of the widely scattered territories ruled by the Hohenzollerns in 1740 highlights another major obstacle to Prussia’s political rise. Her possessions were exposed and scattered across half the continent: from enclaves in Westphalia through the heartlands of Brandenburg, Pomerania and Magdeburg in central Germany, astride the rivers Elbe and Oder, to distant East Prussia. The resulting problems of self-defence, in the face of threats from hostile neighbours and during a period when the acquisition of territory was the principal aim of all foreign policy, were considerable: the eastern border of East Prussia lay some 750 miles distant from the westernmost possessions in the Rhineland, a particularly great distance in an era during which communications were slow and unreliable. As Voltaire remarked, Frederick was really `King of the border strips’. All the great powers faced wide-ranging and dispersed political commitments, as a consequence of their territorial extent. W hat made Prussia’s position unique was the very limited resources available to support such wide-ranging involvement.

Territorial dispersal, together with the very limited demographic and economic resources, were always serious obstacles to Prussia ever securely establishing herself as a great power. Yet Frederick also inherited considerable assets when he succeeded his father on 31 May 1740. Foremost among these was an army unusually large for a country of its size and population. Successive Hohenzollern rulers, aware of the vulnerability of their possessions, had built up a large military force for self-defence. Its creation had shaped domestic developments since the Great Elector’s accession in 1640, and during Frederick William Fs reign it ordinarily consumed around 70 per cent of the state’s annual revenue in peacetime. At Frederick’s accession, this force was some 80,000 strong, impressive on the barrack square, but untested in combat. With the exception of some operations in the Rhineland in 1734, during the War of the Polish Succession, it had not fired a shot in anger since the siege of Stralsund in 1715. The last important Hohenzollern victory had been gained as long ago as 1675, when the Great Elector won an unexpected success over the renowned Swedish army at Fehrbellin, though Prussian contingents had fought impressively in the Allied armies during the War of the Spanish Succession.

This powerful army was supported, and to a considerable degree made possible, by a system of conscription, which had taken its final shape in 1733. The famous cantonal system enabled a first-class army to be maintained on the scanty available resources and contributed significantly to Prussia’s political emergence. An officer cadre was provided by the territorial nobility: under Frederick William I, the Junkers had come to dominate the military commands and, to a lesser extent, the civil administration. He also bequeathed to his son a war-chest (Staatsschatz) of eight million thalers in gold coin, wrapped up in sacks and stored in the basement of the royal palace in Berlin. Finally, Frederick inherited an admired and relatively efficient administrative system, the centrepiece of which was the General Directory, set up in 1723. Within the limitations of eighteenth-century government, this was relatively successful in extracting the men, money and agrarian produce needed to support the army and pay the other expenses of the Prussian state.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that the military and administrative foundations which had been laid by 1740, together with the degree of social integration achieved under Frederick William I, would provide a strong basis for Prussia’s eighteenth-century career as a great power. But these advantages, in the estimation of most contemporaries, were insufficient to overcome the drawbacks, above all Prussia’s territorial vulnerability and her basic poverty in people and economic resources. This was her Achilles’ heel, and it preoccupied Frederick the Great throughout his reign. Eighteenth-century Prussia always lacked the resources required to establish herself securely as a great power. The achievement of her rulers, and especially of Frederick himself, was to make her a first-class state on a material base more appropriate to a country of the second or even third order. Even by the king’s death in 1786 and after the important acquisitions of Silesia, East Friesland and West Prussia, the Hohenzollern monarchy remained only the thirteenth-largest European state in terms of population and the tenth in terms of its geographical extent, though its army ranked fourth (or even third) in size.

There was more to the status of a great power, however, than resources: these were only one factor in a complex equation. The eighteenth-century states-system was based upon a considerable degree of reciprocity. If established great powers treated a state as one of their number, then that country ipso facto became a member of Europe’s political elite. It thus resembled a British gentlemen’s club: election by the existing members was a precondition for admission. Prussia became a great power through her startling military and, to a lesser extent, political successes between 1740 and 1763, despite lacking the essential material base. Her eighteenth-century preeminence was thus founded upon sand. It was only after 1815 that the Hohenzollerns gained the resources to support the leading European role to which they aspired and which they would play after the middle of the nineteenth century. The territorial settlement established by the Congress of Vienna enormously enhanced Prussia’s demographic and economic power, and endowed her with a much stronger strategic position, after the loss of most of the eastern provinces gained by the three partitions of Poland-Lithuania during the eighteenth century and their replacement by substantial and wealthy territories in western Germany.

Mid-eighteenth-century Prussia had one additional advantage that proved decisive. This was the personality of her remarkable king, Frederick II (widely known as `the Great’ from the end of the Seven Years’ W ar onwards, if not actually earlier). Political leadership was always important and sometimes decisive within the competitive states-system of eighteenth century Europe, and never more so than where Prussia was concerned. Resources and external recognition were vital in the creation of a great power. But there was another essential quality, which existed at a conceptual and philosophical level. To become a member of Europe’s political elite, a state – or, rather, its ruler and the m onarch’s advisers – had to think and act like a great power.

In Prussia’s case, the crucial moment in this transition was Frederick the Great’s accession at the end of May 1740. His predecessor had accepted Prussia’s secondary political role, pursuing essentially limited objectives – such as the established Hohenzollern dynastic claims to the western German enclaves of Jillich and Berg (which were located next to the dynasty’s Rhineland possession of Cleves). Frederick William I had always operated within a relatively narrow and prescribed political framework and had usually been content to follow the lead of the Emperor, Charles VI. The contrast after his son’s accession was striking and significant. From his earliest days upon the Hohenzollern throne – indeed, from his days as crown prince – Frederick the Great thought and acted like the ruler of a first-class power, and within a quarter-century he had secured this status for Prussia. Believing that the political status quo was not an option and that territorial expansion was essential to overcome Prussian poverty and strategic vulnerability, the young king pursued the expansionist aims which he believed to be the logical conclusion of his father’s impressive domestic achievements. His political vision was far wider than that of his predecessors, encompassing the whole European diplomatic chessboard. This was apparent in an immediate enlargement of Hohenzollern aims – demonstrated in the invasion of Silesia at the very end of 1740, little more than six months after Frederick had ascended the throne – which transcended the purely dynastic and largely German objectives that had driven policy under Frederick William I. Central to this was Frederick’s determination that his state would be politically independent, rather than – as under his own father – subject to outside influences in the conduct of its foreign policy.

Prussia’s eighteenth-century trajectory as a great power is inextricably bound up with the career and reign of Frederick the Great. By his political vision, his military successes and his diplomatic skills, he made his kingdom into a first-class state, while all his life aware that Prussia lacked the resources to sustain this role and that it would prove to be transient. His decisive political leadership was the result of remarkable abilities and an ego to match.

It was facilitated by a silent revolution in Prussian government shortly after Frederick’s accession, which gave the new king complete control of Berlin’s diplomacy. Until 1740, day-to-day responsibility for Prussia’s foreign policy had been exercised by the Kabinettsministerium, under the king’s overall direction. 4 Set up in 1728, and known as the Kabinettsministerium after 1733, it was organized – like all Hohenzollern government – on a collegial basis. It embodied the assumption that two or more advisers should together discuss policy, meet diplomats, correspond with Prussia’s own representatives in other capitals and conduct negotiations, all directly supervised by the king. In the early weeks of Frederick the Great’s reign, these arrangements were altered. Confident in his own abilities and anxious to demonstrate them, and openly contemptuous of those who had served his father, whom he held responsible for Prussia’s political subservience during that reign, Frederick took over complete and direct responsibility for Prussian foreign policy, which he retained until the very end of his life. The experienced officials in the Kabinettsministerium and especially the leading adviser Heinrich von Podewils, found their status and responsibilities downgraded to that of mere secretaries. They were mostly excluded from the formulation of policy, at least towards the major states, and while they continued to hold audiences with foreign diplomats, these became largely formal in nature: their own ignorance of Prussian policy meant that there was nothing to discuss. Policy was instead drawn up and executed by the king himself, who conducted the bulk of correspondence with Prussia’s own diplomats and also negotiated personally with foreign representatives in Berlin. Since – in addition to acting as his own foreign minister – Frederick was also commander-in-chief of the army, there was an unusual degree of coherence and unity in Prussian decision-making, in contrast to the divided counsels which prevailed in the capitals of rival powers. Rapid and incisive decision making was to be one foundation of Prussia’s political rise.

Frederick William and Fehrbellin in 1675

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Frederick William and Fehrbellin in 1675.

In December 1640, when Frederick William acceded to the throne, Brandenburg was still under foreign occupation. A two-year truce was agreed with the Swedes in July 1641, but the looting, burning and general misbehaviour continued. In a letter of spring 1641, the Elector’s viceroy, Margrave Ernest, who carried the responsibility for administering the ruined Mark, offered a grim synopsis:

The country is in such a miserable and impoverished condition that mere words can scarcely convey the sympathy one feels with the innocent inhabitants. In general, We think that the cart has been driven so deep into the muck, as they say, that it cannot be extricated without the special help of the Almighty.

The strain of overseeing the anarchy unfolding in Brandenburg ultimately proved too much for the margrave, who succumbed to panic attacks, sleeplessness and paranoid delusions. By the autumn of 1642, he had taken to pacing about in his palace muttering to himself, shrieking and throwing himself to the floor. His death on 26 September was ascribed to ‘melancholy’.

Only in March 1643 did Frederick William return from the relative safety of Königsberg to the ruined city of Berlin, a city he scarcely recognized. Here he found a population depleted and malnourished, and buildings destroyed by fire or in a parlous state of repair. The predicament that had bedevilled his father’s reign remained unsolved: Brandenburg had no military force with which to establish its independence. The small army created by Schwarzenberg was already falling apart and there was no money to pay for a replacement. Johann Friedrich von Leuchtmar, a privy councillor and the Elector’s former tutor, summarized Brandenburg’s predicament in a report of 1644: Poland, he predicted, would seize Prussia as soon as it was strong enough; Pomerania was under Swedish occupation and likely to remain so; Kleve in the west was under the control of the Dutch Republic. Brandenburg stood ‘on the edge of the abyss’.

In order to restore the independence of his territory and press home his claims, the Elector needed a flexible, disciplined fighting force. The creation of such an instrument became one of the consuming preoccupations of his reign. The Brandenburg campaign army grew dramatically, if somewhat unsteadily, from 3,000 men in 1641–2, to 8,000 in 1643–6, to 25,000 during the Northern War of 1655–60, to 38,000 during the Dutch wars of the 1670s. During the final decade of the Elector’s reign, its size fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000. Improvements in tactical training and armaments modelled on French, Dutch, Swedish and imperial best practice placed the Brandenburg army close to the cutting edge of European military innovation. Pikes and pikemen were phased out and the cumbersome matchlock guns carried by the infantry were replaced by lighter, faster-firing flintlocks. Artillery calibres were standardized to allow for the more flexible and efficient use of field guns, in the style pioneered by the Swedes. The foundation of a cadet school for officer recruits introduced an element of standardized professional formation. Better conditions of employment – including provision for maimed or retired officers – improved the stability of the command structure. These changes in turn improved the cohesion and morale of the non-commissioned ranks, who distinguished themselves in the 1680s by their excellent discipline and low rates of desertion.

The improvised forces assembled for specific campaigns during the early years of the reign gradually evolved into what one could call a standing army. In April 1655, a General War Commissioner (General-kriegskommissar) was appointed to oversee the handling of financial and other resources for the army, on the model of the military administration recently introduced in France under Le Tellier and Louvois. This innovation was initially conceived as a temporary wartime measure and only later established as a permanent feature of the territorial administration. After 1679, under the direction of the Pomeranian nobleman Joachim von Grumbkow, the General War Commissariat extended its reach throughout the Hohenzollern territories, gradually usurping the function of the Estate officials who had traditionally overseen military taxation and discipline at a local level. The General War Commissariat and the Office for the Domains were still relatively small institutions in 1688 when the Elector died, but under his successors they would play a crucial role in toughening the sinews of central authority in the Brandenburg-Prussian state. This synergy between war-making and the development of state-like central organs was something new; it became possible only when the war-making apparatus was separated from its traditional provincial-aristocratic foundations.

The acquisition of such a formidable military instrument was important, because the decades that followed the end of the Thirty Years War were a period of intense conflict in northern Europe. Two foreign titans overshadowed Brandenburg foreign policy during the Elector’s reign. The first was King Charles X of Sweden, a restless, obsessive figure with expansionist dreams who seemed bent on trumping the record of his illustrious predecessor Gustavus Adolphus. It was Charles X’s invasion of Poland that started the Northern War of 1655–60. His plan was to subdue the Danes and the Poles, occupy Ducal Prussia and then march south at the head of a vast army to sack Rome in the manner of the ancient Goths. Instead, the Swedes became bogged down in a bitter five-year struggle for control of the Baltic littoral.

After the death of Charles X in 1660 and the ebbing of Swedish power, it was Louis XIV of France who dominated Brandenburg’s political horizons. Having assumed sole regency after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, Louis expanded his combined wartime armed forces from 70,000 to 320,000 men (by 1693) and launched a sequence of assaults to secure hegemony in western Europe; there were campaigns against the Spanish Netherlands in 1667–8, the United Provinces in 1672–8 and the Palatinate in 1688.

In this dangerous environment, the Elector’s growing army proved an indispensable asset. In the summer of 1656, Frederick William’s 8,500 troops joined forces with Charles X to defeat a massive Polish-Tartar army in the battle of Warsaw (28–30 July). In 1658, he changed sides and campaigned as an ally of Poland and Austria against the Swedes. It was a sign of Frederick William’s growing weight in regional politics that he was appointed commander of the Brandenburg-Polish-imperial allied army raised to fight the Swedes in 1658–9. A chain of successful military assaults followed, first in Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland and later in Pomerania.

The most dramatic military exploit of the reign was Frederick William’s single-handed victory over the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675. In the winter of 1674–5, the Elector was campaigning with an Austrian army in the Rhineland as part of the coalition that had formed to contain Louis XIV during the Dutch wars. In the hope of securing French subsidies, the Swedes, allies of the French, invaded Brandenburg with an army of 14,000 men under the command of General Karl Gustav Wrangel. It was a scenario that awakened memories of the Thirty Years War: the Swedes unleashed the usual ravages on the hapless population of the Uckermark, to the north-east of Berlin. Frederick William reacted to news of the invasion with undisguised rage. ‘I can be brought to no other resolution,’ the Elector told Otto von Schwerin on 10 February, ‘than to avenge myself on the Swedes.’ In a series of furious despatches, the Elector, who was bedridden with gout, urged his subjects, ‘both noble and non-noble’, to ‘cut down all Swedes, wherever they can lay their hands upon them and to break their necks [… ] and to give no quarter’.

Frederick William joined his army in Franconia at the end of May. Covering over one hundred kilometres per week, his forces reached Magdeburg on 22 June, just over ninety kilometres from the Swedish headquarters in the city of Havelberg. From here, the Brandenburg command could establish through local informants that the Swedes were strung out behind the river Havel, with concentrations in the fortified cities of Havelberg, Rathenow and Brandenburg. Since the Swedes had failed to register the arrival of the Brandenburg army, the Elector and his commander Georg Derfflinger had the advantage of surprise, and they resolved to attack the Swedish strongpoint at Rathenow with only 7,000 cavalry; a further 1,000 musketeers were loaded on to carts so that they could keep pace with the advance. Heavy rain and muddy conditions impeded their progress but also concealed them from the unsuspecting Swedish regiment at Rathenow. In the early morning of 25 June, the Brandenburgers attacked and destroyed the Swedish force with only minimal casualties on their own side.

The collapse of the Swedish line at Rathenow set the scene for the Battle of Fehrbellin, the most celebrated military engagement of the Elector’s reign. In order to restore cohesion to their position, the Swedish regiment in Brandenburg City pulled back deep into the countryside with the intention of sweeping to the north-west to join up with the main force at Havelberg. This proved more difficult than they had expected, because the heavy spring and summer rains had transformed the marshes of the area into a treacherous waterland broken only by islands of sodden grass or sand and criss-crossed by narrow causeways. Guided by locals, advance parties of the Electoral army blocked the main exits from the area, and forced the Swedes to fall back on the little town of Fehrbellin on the river Rhin. Here their commander, General Wrangel, deployed his 11,000 men in defensive fashion, setting the 7,000 Swedish infantry in the centre and his cavalry on the wings.

Against 11,000 Swedes the Elector could muster only around 6,000 men (a substantial part of his army, including most of his infantry, had not yet arrived in the area). The Swedes disposed of about three times as many field guns as the Brandenburgers. But this numerical disadvantage was offset by a tactical opportunity. Wrangel had neglected to occupy a low sandhill that overlooked his right flank. The Elector lost no time in positioning his thirteen field guns there and opening fire on the Swedish lines. Seeing his error, Wrangel ordered the cavalry on his right wing, supported by infantry, to take the hill. For the next few hours the battle was dominated by the ebb and surge of cavalry charge and counter-charge as the Swedes attempted to seize the enemy guns and were thrown back by the Brandenburg horse. A metaphorical fog of war shrouds all such encounters; it was thickened on this occasion by a literal summer mist of the kind that often gathers in the marshes of the Havelland. Both sides found it difficult to coordinate their forces, but it was the Swedish cavalry that gave way first, fleeing from the field and leaving their infantry – the Dalwig Guards – exposed to the sabres of the Brandenburg horse. Of 1,200 Guards, twenty managed to escape and about seventy were taken prisoner; the rest were killed. On the following day, the town of Fehrbellin itself was seized from a small Swedish occupation force. There was now a great fleeing of Swedes across the Mark Brandenburg. Considerable numbers of them, more perhaps than fell on the field of battle, were hacked to death in opportunist attacks by peasants as they made their way northwards. A contemporary report noted that peasants in the area around the town of Wittstock, not far from the border with Pomerania, had slain 300 Swedes, including a number of officers: ‘although several of the latter offered 2000 thalers for their lives, they were decapitated by the vengeful peasants.’21 Memories of the ‘Swedish terror’ still vivid in the older generation played a role here. By 2 July, every last Swede who had not been captured or killed had left the territory of the Electorate.

Victories of the kind achieved at Warsaw and Fehrbellin were of enormous symbolic importance to the Elector and his entourage. In an era that glorified successful warlords, the victories of Brandenburg’s army magnified the prestige and reputation of its founder. At Warsaw, Frederick William had stood in the thick of the fighting, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. He wrote an account of the event and had it published in The Hague. His notes on the battle formed the basis for the relevant passages in Samuel Pufendorf’s history of the reign – a comprehensive and sophisticated work that marked a new departure in Brandenburg historiography. All this bore witness to a heightened historical self-consciousness, a sense that Brandenburg had begun to make – and to narrate – its own history. In his ‘royal memoirs’, a text intended for the eyes of his successor, Louis XIV observed that kings owe an account of their actions ‘to all ages’. The Great Elector never unfolded a cult of historicized self-memorialization to rival that of his French contemporary, but he too began consciously to perceive himself and his achievements through the eyes of an imagined posterity.

At Warsaw in 1656 the Brandenburgers had shown their mettle as coalition partners; at Fehrbellin nineteen years later the Elector’s army, though outnumbered and forced to advance at lightning speed, prevailed without aid over an enemy with an intimidating European reputation. Here too the Elector, now a stout man of fifty-five, stayed at the centre of the action. He joined his riders in assaults on the Swedish lines until he was encircled by enemy troops and had to be cut free by nine of his own dragoons. It was after the victory at Fehrbellin that the soubriquet ‘the Great Elector’first appeared in print. There was nothing particularly remarkable in that, since broadsheets extolling the greatness of rulers were commonplace in seventeenth-century Europe. But unlike so many other early-modern ‘greats’ (including the abortive ‘Louis the Great’, propagated by the sycophantic pamphleteers of the sun-king; ‘Leopold the Great’ of Austria; and ‘Maximilian the Great’, usage of which is now confined to die-hard Bavarian monarchist circles) this one survived, making Elector Frederick William the only non-royal early-modern European sovereign who is still widely accorded this epithet.

With Fehrbellin, moreover, a bond was forged between history and legend. The battle became a fixture in memory. The dramatist Heinrich von Kleist chose it as the setting for his play Der Prinz von Homburg, a fanciful variation on the historical record, in which an impulsive military commander faces a death sentence for having led a victorious charge against the Swedes despite orders to hold back, but is pardoned by the Elector once he has accepted his culpability. To the Brandenburgers and Prussians of posterity, Frederick William’s predecessors would remain shadowy, antique figures imprisoned within a remote past. By contrast, the ‘Great Elector’ would be elevated to the status of a three-dimensional founding father, a transcendent personality who both symbolized and bestowed meaning upon the history of a state.

The War against Denmark

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Painting of the Danish attack at the Battle of Dybbøl by Vilhelm Jacob Rosenstand (1894)

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Danish illustration showing the Austrian steam frigate Schwarzenberg burning.

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Military clashes in Schleswig/Slesvig.

We have already encountered Schleswig-Holstein and the ways in which it brought about conflict locally between Danish and German nationalism and war between the Bund, Prussia and Denmark in 1848–49. The matter had finally been subject to international regulation under the terms of the Treaty of London of 1852. Neither side was happy: Danish nationalists wanted to incorporate Schleswig directly into Denmark while German nationalists wanted to bind it to Holstein and form a new German state out of the two Duchies.

In 1848 direct action to alter the status quo had come from the German side and the major European powers, especially Britain and Russia, had taken the Danish side. One major difference in 1863, when the problem re-emerged, was that now the initiative was taken by Denmark. Denmark had drawn up a charter in March 1863 which laid down that the successor to Frederick VII would succeed to rule over Schleswig as well as Denmark. Frederick died on 15 November 1863. His successor, Christian, claimed Schleswig and signed a constitution to that effect. This went against the 1852 treaty.

This enraged German nationalists who insisted instead that the two Duchies be formed into one state under the Duke of Augustenberg and that this state should become a member of the Bund. (The Duke’s father had resigned his claim and had been compensated for that as part of the preparation for the 1852 treaty. The Duke now declared that he was no longer bound by that resignation, given the action of the Danish monarchy.) The Bund decided upon military intervention against Denmark and in November federal troops from Saxony and Hannover occupied Holstein. The differences from 1848 were that Denmark could not be presented this time as a victim, France was more active, Britain was less interventionist and Russia was concerned to maintain good relations with Prussia and Austria because of the Polish issue. The powers also became impatient when Denmark refused to negotiate any compromise on its new position. Denmark was under pressure from its own nationalist opinion and did not think that ultimately the major powers would abandon it.

Thus when Austria and Prussia determined bilaterally upon an invasion of Schleswig in January 1864, insisting that they were doing so in defence of the Treaty of London and not to advance any German national cause, this was not opposed by the other powers. Bismarck had found a way of Prussia acting decisively on a matter dear to German nationalism but the manner of action – with Austria, independently of the Bund and avowedly to restore the 1852 arrangement – had the effect of uniting the medium states and nationalist opinion in condemnation of the policy.

The advantages for Austria were that this policy distanced Prussia from nationalist support, ensured that the Prussian government remained locked in conflict with the liberal majority in parliament and seemed to go a long way towards restoring the cooperative domination of the two states over German affairs which was always the Austrian default position. There was also the hope that such cooperation in north Germany might lead on to cooperation elsewhere, for example in undoing some of the results of the 1859 war. The disadvantages were that Austria undermined its own policy of bidding for liberal and national support in Germany and became entangled in an affair in distant northern Germany in which it had no direct interest and which it could not control.

Denmark was no military match for Austria and Prussia. The war gave the Prussian Chief of Staff, von Moltke, an opportunity to test the efficacy of the army reforms. Many people in Prussia were simply proud as Prussians to see their army winning battles and taking control of new territory.

In the mid-19th century Denmark’s national aspirations were aroused (and thwarted) by the conflict with Germany over what had become known as the Schleswig-Holstein question. Having lost Norway, the Danish monarchy held dearly to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as two of the three pillars of its kingdom of Denmark, this despite the fact that the majority of Holstein’s people were German, both culturally and linguistically, and that Schleswig was divided between a Danish-speaking and a German-speaking population. It was when the German liberals in Schleswig began speaking out against autocratic rule and demanding a separate constitution and an affiliation to Holstein and the German Confederation that a Danish National Liberal movement also emerged. These Danish nationalists demanded that Schleswig be incorporated into Denmark. In 1848, when Denmark’s National Liberal government officially adopted this policy (known as the Eider Policy after the Eider River that formed the southern boundary of Schleswig), the Schleswig-Holsteiners took up arms. Backed by the Prussian military, the rebellion proved too much for the Danish army, even with aid from Sweden. The negotiated end of the revolt, while reaffirming Danish rights to Schleswig-Holstein, also forced Denmark to pledge that it would not attempt to tie Schleswig closer to itself than to Holstein, which in effect meant that Denmark had to abandon the Eider Policy. Finally, Denmark agreed that the constitution adopted by the Danes in June 1849 was to apply only to itself, leaving the future of the two duchies in a political limbo the Prussians clearly hoped one day to change.

That day came early in 1864, when Prussian troops under Prince Frederick Charles (1828–85), in cooperation with an Austrian force, once again invaded Schleswig-Holstein. The Danes’ position was hopeless. Though they mobilized some 70,000 men, only 48,000 were ever in the field at one time. Meanwhile, Prussia could commit nearly 64,000 and Austria 20,000. Thus, it was no surprise that the invasion force met with little resistance, nor that by August 1, 1864, Denmark had sued for peace, relinquishing its rights to the duchies. By the Treaty of Gastein, concluded in 1865, Schleswig and Holstein were put under joint Prussian-Austrian rule.

The intransigence of Denmark and its unfounded faith in international intervention led to the loss of the two Duchies. Now the idea began to grow in Prussia, and certainly in Bismarck’s mind, that the final outcome might be Prussian annexation of the two Duchies. He had already broached the subject at a Crown Council meeting as early as February 1864. For Bismarck this was vastly to be preferred to a return to pre-1864 arrangements or the formation of yet another small German state which, in Bismarck’s view, simply added to the nonsense of all other such states.

At what point the matter could also be used to engineer a direct conflict with Austria over the relative position of the two states in Germany is less clear. Already by May 1865 the possibility of war had arisen. The Gastein Convention settled that crisis and made clear the impotence of the other German states or nationalist opinion.

Moltke strongly implied in his memoirs and correspondence that the war of 1866 was deliberately planned by the Prussian government. (Moltke 1925, 1: 34–5; and 3: 51; letter to his brother in May 1861 in Moltke 1956: 289–90. See also his memoranda of April 1866 in Förster 1992: 106–27.) Certainly Bismarck had long insisted that Germany must be divided into a Prussian and an Austrian sphere of influence and that the current arrangements for a shared hegemony over the Bund were not tenable. There were many precedents for such a policy of regional expansion within a ‘national’ zone at Austrian expense. It was, after all, what Frederick the Great had achieved with the invasion and annexation of Silesia in 1740, what Prussia had aimed for over Saxony in 1814–15, what Radowitz had sought in 1849–50 and what Manteuffel had briefly outlined in 1861. Furthermore, there was nothing new about claiming that this policy was in the interests of Germany, not just Prussia. Frederick the Great had justified his policy in just this way and would in the later period of his reign invoke a ‘patriotic’ defence of the Holy Roman Empire. The big difference was that there was now a much more popular and powerful national movement which would insist that reality matched such rhetoric and that expansion could not simply be dynastic annexation.

This national movement was now articulated in numerous organisations and associations and supported by a range of newspapers and periodicals and dense networks of political writers and parliamentary parties and speakers. 1848–49 had crystallised the main issues and the need for conceptions of national unity to combine with practical political and economic programmes. By the early 1860s there was an intense anticipation of German unity and, in the elite middle-class circles which dominated the public sphere, the ‘national’ had become almost a ‘natural’ category, even if a nation-state had never before existed and people remained unclear or even despairing of how it was to be realised.

Still, whatever the precedents might be, no matter what the shifts in the balance of power between Austria and Prussia in the early 1860s, and however dominant might be elite public opinion favouring Prussian leadership in bringing about a national state, confronting Austria was a high-risk policy. Frederick had only succeeded in taking Silesia after two long wars involving all the major powers and had come within a hair’s breadth of complete defeat and occupation. Prussia had backed down in 1814–15 and 1850 when faced with possible war against Austria and other states, especially as the prospect of clearcut and swift victory, indeed of victory at all, seemed remote. Was Bismarck taking the same kind of gamble in 1866 as Frederick had in 1740, a gamble which his more immediate predecessors had refused to take? Or was there some essential difference this time?

Further reading: John Henry Stopford Birch, Denmark in History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975); Philip G. Dwyer, Modern Prussian History: 1830–1947(New York: Pearson Education, 2001); Bent Ryng, Danish in the South and North (Copenhagen: Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1981).

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.