Battle at Plancenoit

Prussian assault on Plancenoit. At 4 pm, even as Ney was preparing his grand cavalry assault on Wellington’s position, the Prussian vanguard was massing under the cover of the Bois de Paris forest along Napoleon’s right (eastern) flank. Here the lead elements of Von Bülow‘s IV Korps: two infantry brigades, two batteries of guns, and a regiment of Silesian Hussars were poised to strike toward the village of Plancenoit. Behind them and still marching forward was the rest of the Corps, in total some 32,000 men.

Map of battle at Plancenoit

The Young Guard at Plancenoit.

General Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow’s troops drove the French out of Plancenoit. It was gutter fighting, close-quarters carnage with bayonets and musket butts in alleys and cottage gardens. Cannon blasted roundshot and canister down narrow streets fogged by powder smoke and puddled with blood. A few French troops hung on to some houses on the village’s western edge, but they were in danger of being surrounded by Prussian troops advancing in the fields either side of the village.

Napoleon could not afford to lose Plancenoit. It lay behind his line and would make a base from which Blücher’s troops could advance on the Brussels highway. If that highway was cut, then the French would have no road on which to retreat. They would be effectively surrounded, and so the Emperor sent his Young Guard to retake the village.

The Young Guard was part of the Imperial Guard, those elite troops so beloved of the Emperor. To join the Guard a soldier had to have taken part in three campaigns and be of proven character, a requirement less moral than disciplinary, and the successful applicants were rewarded with better equipment, higher pay and a distinctive uniform. Traditionally the Guard, which had its own infantry, cavalry and artillery and so formed an army within the army, was held back from battle so that it was available to make the killing stroke when it was needed. There was, naturally enough, some resentment within the wider French army of the privileges accorded to the Guard, but nevertheless most soldiers held the ambition of being chosen to join its ranks. Their nickname, ‘the Immortals’, was partly sarcastic, referring to the many battles when the Guard had not been called into action (the Guard called themselves grognards, grumblers, because they found it frustrating to be held in reserve when other men were fighting). But if there was resentment there was also admiration. The Guard was intensely loyal to Napoleon, they were proven to be brave men, they fought like tigers, and their boast was that they had never been defeated. No enemy would ever underestimate their fighting ability or their effectiveness.

The Young Guard were skirmishers, though they could fight in line or square like any other battalion, and there were just over 4,700 of them at Waterloo. When it became apparent that Lobau’s outnumbered men were being driven from Plancenoit the Emperor despatched all eight battalions of the Young Guard to retake the village. They were led by General Guillaume Philibert Duhesme, a thoroughly nasty character who was a child of the French Revolution. A labourer’s son, he had risen to high rank because he was competent, but he was also corrupt, venal, cruel and sadistic. He had trained as a lawyer, then become a soldier, and regarded Napoleon with some suspicion, believing, rightly, that the Emperor had betrayed many of the principles of the French Revolution, but Duhesme was too good a soldier to be ignored and Napoleon trusted him with the Young Guard. Duhesme was an expert on light infantry tactics, indeed his slim textbook Essai Historique de l’Infanterie Légère became the standard work on the subject for much of the nineteenth century.

Light infantry, trained to think and act independently, were perfectly suited to the counter-attack on Plancenoit. The Young Guard advanced and took musket fire from houses on the village edge, but Duhesme refused to let them answer that fire, instead leading them straight into the streets and alleys that would be cleared by their bayonets. It worked, and the Prussians were tumbled back out of the village and even pursued for some distance beyond. General Duhesme was badly wounded in the head during the vicious fighting and was to die two days later.

The Young Guard had done everything asked of it and upheld the traditions of the Imperial Guard, but von Bülow’s men were being reinforced minute by minute as more troops crossed the Lasne valley and made their way through the woods to the battlefield. The Prussians counter-attacked, driving the French out of the houses on the western side of the village and besieging the stone-walled churchyard. Colonel Johann von Hiller led one of two Prussian columns that:

succeeded in capturing a howitzer, two cannon, several ammunition wagons and two staff officers along with several hundred men. The open square around the churchyard was surrounded by houses from which the enemy could not be dislodged … a firefight developed at fifteen to thirty paces range which ultimately decimated the Prussian battalions.

The Young Guard was fighting desperately, but Blücher could feed still more men into the turmoil and slowly, inevitably, the Young Guard was forced back. The Prussians recaptured the church and its graveyard, then went house by house, garden by garden, fighting through alleys edged by burning houses, and the Young Guard, now hopelessly outnumbered, retreated grudgingly.

Napoleon had thirteen battalions of the Imperial Guard left in his reserve. He had arrayed them north and south to form a defensive line in case the Prussians broke through at Plancenoit, but to prevent that he now sent two battalions of the Old Guard to reinforce the hard-pressed French troops in the village. The two battalions went into the smoke and chaos with fixed bayonets, their arrival heartened the French survivors and the fight for Plancenoit swung again, this time in favour of the French. The newly arrived veterans of the Old Guard fought their way back to the high churchyard, captured it and garrisoned themselves inside its stone wall. Even they were hard-pressed and at one moment their General, Baron Pelet, seized the precious Eagle and shouted, ‘A moi, Chasseurs! Sauvons l’Aigle ou mourons autour d’elle!’ To me, Chasseurs! Save the Eagle or die around her! The Guard rallied. Pelet, later in the fight, discovered Guardsmen cutting the throats of Prussian prisoners and, disgusted, stopped the murders. For the moment, at least, Pelet had stiffened the French defence and Plancenoit belonged to the Emperor, and so the threat to Napoleon’s rear had been averted.

Yet von Bülow’s men were not the only Prussians arriving at the battlefield. Lieutenant-General Hans von Zieten’s 1st Corps had left Wavre early in the afternoon and taken a more northerly route than von Bülow’s men. They had been delayed because General Pirch’s 2nd Corps was following von Bülow’s southern route and von Zieten’s and Pirch’s Corps, each of several thousand men with guns and ammunition wagons, met at a crossroads and there was inevitable confusion as the two columns tried to cross each other’s line of march. Von Bülow and Pirch had been sent to attack Napoleon’s right wing at Plancenoit, while von Zieten’s men took the more northerly roads so that they could link up with Wellington’s men on the ridge.

A History Changing Decision

General von Zieten’s men had been heavily engaged in the fighting at Ligny, where they had lost almost half their strength. Now, in the slanting sun of the evening, von Zieten led around five thousand men towards Wellington’s position. They would have heard the battle long before they saw it, though the pall of powder smoke, lit by the sheet-lightning of gun-flashes, would have been visible above the trees. The first contact came when the leading troops reached the château of Frichermont, a substantial building on the extreme left of Wellington’s position. It had been garrisoned by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s Nassauer troops, the same men who had saved Quatre-Bras with their gallant defence two days before. Saxe-Weimar had been fighting all afternoon, staving off French attacks on Papelotte and La Haie; now suddenly he was attacked from the rear. One of his officers, Captain von Rettburg, recalled how his infantry was driven back ‘by numerous skirmishers followed by infantry columns’:

Skirmishers even attacked me from the hedges in my rear. When I drove them off I became aware that we were faced by Prussians! They in turn recognised their error which had lasted less than ten minutes but had caused several dead and wounded on both sides.

What von Rettburg does not say is that it was his bravery that ended the unfortunate clash of allies. He made his way through the musket fire to tell the Prussians their mistake. The Nassauers wore a dark green uniform, which could be mistaken for the dark blue of French coats, and their headgear was French in shape.

More chaos was to follow. General von Zieten’s men were needed desperately on the ridge. Wellington knew another French assault was likely, and if the Prussians reinforced his left wing he could bring troops from there to strengthen his centre. General von Zieten sent scouts ahead and one of them, a young officer, returned to say that all was lost. He had seen Wellington’s army in full retreat. Just like Marshal Ney he had mistaken the chaos behind Wellington’s line for defeat, thinking it was a panicked attempt to escape when in fact it was just wounded men being taken to the rear, ammunition wagons, servants and stray horses. Shells exploded among them and roundshot, skimming the ridge, threw up gouts of earth where they landed. It looked as if the French were cannonading the panicked mass, adding to the impression of a rout. The Prussian officer could probably see little that happened on the ridge itself, it was so fogged by powder smoke, but through that smoke he would have seen the red flash of French cannons firing and the smaller flicker of muskets, their sudden flames lighting the smoke and fading instantly. Every now and then there was a larger explosion as a shell found an artillery caisson, and the ‘cloud’ of French skirmishers was close to the ridge’s crest, and so were some of the cannon, and behind the skirmishers were prowling cavalry, dimly visible through the smoke. No wonder the young officer believed that the French had captured Wellington’s ridge and that the Duke’s forces were in full retreat. He galloped back to von Zieten and told him it was hopeless, that there was no point in joining Wellington because the Duke was defeated.

And at that same moment a staff officer arrived from Blücher with new orders. The newcomer, Captain von Scharnhorst, could not find von Zieten, so he galloped to the head of the column and gave them their orders directly: they were to turn round and march south to help Blücher with his stalled attack on Plancenoit. Wellington, it seemed, would not be reinforced; instead the Prussians would fight their separate battle south of Napoleon’s ridge.

General von Müffling, the liaison officer with Wellington, had been waiting for von Zieten’s arrival. He had expected it much earlier, but now, at last, von Zieten’s Corps was in sight at the extreme left wing of Wellington’s position. Then, to von Müffling’s astonishment, those troops turned and marched away. ‘By this retrograde movement,’ he wrote, ‘the battle might have been lost.’ So von Müffling put spurs to his horse and galloped after the retreating Prussians.

Meanwhile a furious argument was raging between Lieutenant-Colonel von Reiche, one of von Zieten’s staff officers, and Captain von Scharnhorst. Von Reiche wanted to obey the original orders and go to Wellington’s assistance, despite the report of the Duke’s defeat, but von Scharnhorst insisted that Blücher’s new orders must be obeyed. ‘I pointed out to him’, von Reiche said:

that everything had been arranged with von Müffling, that Wellington counted on our arrival close to him, but von Scharnhorst did not want to listen to anything. He declared that I would be held responsible if I disobeyed Blücher’s orders. Never had I found myself in such a predicament. On one hand our troops were endangered at Plancenoit, on the other Wellington was relying on our help. I was in despair. General von Ziethen was nowhere to be found.

The troops had paused while this argument raged, but then General Steinmetz, who commanded the advance guard of von Zieten’s column, came galloping up, angry at the delay, and brusquely told von Reiche that Blücher’s new orders would be obeyed. The column dutifully continued marching eastwards, looking for a smaller lane that led south towards Plancenoit, but just then von Zieten himself appeared and the argument started all over again. Von Zieten listened and then took a brave decision. He would ignore Blücher’s new orders and, believing von Müffling’s assurance that the Duke was not in full retreat, he ordered his troops onto the British–Dutch ridge. The Prussian 1st Corps would join Wellington after all.

The 1st Corps had its own guns, 6-pounder cannons and 7-pounder howitzers, and they were the first of von Zieten’s weapons to be unleashed on the French. They were presumably firing along the face of the ridge, probably aiming at the gun-flashes lighting the smoke around La Haie Sainte, and fairly soon after opening fire the Prussian guns found themselves being answered with counter-battery fire. Captain Mercer, of the Royal Horse Artillery, tells the story best:

We had scarcely fired many rounds at the enfilading battery, when a tall man in the black Brunswick uniform came galloping up to me from the rear, exclaiming ‘Ah! Mine Gott! Mine Gott! Vat is it you done, sare? Dat is your friends de Proosiens; ans you kills dem!’

The Prussian guns had been aiming at Mercer’s battery and caused casualties, and Mercer, despite the Duke’s orders that forbade counter-battery fire, had responded. That mistake too was eventually corrected. Such errors were probably unavoidable: there were too many unfamiliar uniforms in the allied armies and the smoke was casting a gloom over a battlefield lit by the glare of flames. It was past seven in the evening now and the fortunes of war had swung sharply against the Emperor, yet all was not lost.

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was working its magic again. Ten battalions had been sufficient to stall the Prussian attack on Plancenoit, and eleven battalions remained in reserve. The French were pushing hard at Wellington’s line, they were close to the ridge top now, especially at the centre above La Haie Sainte. Ney had pleaded for more troops so he could launch a killer blow at Wellington’s centre and Napoleon had refused him, but now, with Prussian numbers increasing, it was time to throw the best troops of France, if not of all Europe, at the Duke’s wounded line.

Military Practice in Prussia: 1740-1763 Part I


The strategic level Prussian war aims and strategy changed in the course of the three Silesian Wars from territorial expansion in the first two wars to the survival of Prussia as a great power with the Hohenzollern dynasty at its head in the Seven Years’ War.

Frederick had to wage war simultaneously against three other major powers and a number of smaller powers. Since Prussia enjoyed no protection either by a fortress belt like France or by strategic depth like Austria and Russia, the multiple onslaught could only be stopped by the Prussian army in battle. Therefore, attempting to fight decisive battles, and forcing one enemy after the other to withdraw from the war, answered best Frederick’s interests.

The high stakes in this war, the imperative to raise and maintain an army equal to the military threat and the scarcity of Prussian manpower and resources forced Frederick to mobilize his country for war to the utmost degree. In addition, Frederick’s battle-seeking strategy made a high degree of mobilization even more urgent, since frequent combats would tear gaps into the Prussian ranks and call for numerous replacements. Furthermore, efficient administration permitted not only exhaustive but also rapid mobilization, which helped Frederick to occupy key strategic territory such as Saxony at the outset of hostilities.

Frederick was able to mobilize the necessary quantity of men and material because Prussia’s social and economic structures were designed to sustain Prussian military power. Economic policy ensured that the army’s material needs were fulfilled and as much revenue as possible filled the war chest. In this context, Frederick made considerable strides towards industrialization. The army, in turn, helped the economy since soldiers were a source of cheap labour. Agriculture received military assistance as the army gave artillery horses to farmers in times of peace. This served both army and farmers: the army did not need to feed the horse in peacetime, and the farmer had a strong farm animal at his service. Another example of interlocking economic and military arrangements was the grain magazines: when grain prices were low, magazines would fill their stocks. When grain prices were high, thus making life difficult for recipients of fixed wages such as soldiers and labourers, magazines sold stocks and pushed prices down again.

Social policy also played its part. Townspeople were exempt from service but they had to provide billets and forage and pay taxes for the war effort. The peasantry not only paid taxes and rendered ancillary services, many of them also had to serve in the army. This service obligation was due to the canton system, which required each regimental district to apply selective conscription in order to fill the regiments if not enough mercenaries could be recruited. In order to prevent economic damage and consequent loss of revenue, only the least productive elements of that part of the population liable for canton duty were called up and even they would serve for only two months per year. Care was taken to recruit as many mercenaries as possible to leave most Prussian subjects free to work and pay taxes. Consequently, no more than a half to two-thirds of troops consisted of cantonists. The army’s control over them was absolute. Officers granted or refused the right to marry, intervened in legacy matters in order to ensure that the strongest son, even if firstborn, would become a soldier, demanded labour service on roads and fortifications, driver services for train and artillery and excessive contributions in cash and kind. The recruitment demands on that part of the population liable for canton duty were high. In 1762, the Prussian army mustered 260,000 men, seven per cent of the population, most of them cantonists.

In addition to the tax-paying townspeople and the serving and tax-paying peasantry, the nobility was also a major source of Prussian military strength. The relationship between king and nobility was symbiotic. The power of the king rested on the loyalty of his nobles, who were obliged to serve in his army. Supervision was close, each officer being subjected to institutionalized scrutiny of his behaviour in service as well as private life. The strong grip of the king on his noblemen became obvious in the winter of 1741- 1742 when Frederick had driven his officers so hard that scores of them asked for dismissal, only to see their demands turned down. In return for faithful service in danger and hardship, the noble officer corps enjoyed the highest social standing, symbolized by the king himself wearing the uniform and leading his army as the first among equals. In order to bolster this status, the nobility enjoyed a near-monopoly on the military profession, and was granted an immense amount of power and control over their serfs. When an officer became invalid or old, he served in the administration, seconded by former non-commissioned officers in subordinate administrative positions. Having military men in the bureaucracy not only permeated this body with the military code of loyalty and honour but may also have reduced friction between army and administration, which was useful in the context of mobilization.

Not only this administrative arrangement, but also Frederick’s role as a soldier-king proved important for the war effort. Frederick was his own minister of finance, economics and foreign affairs as well as commander-in-chief. The integration of policies and military strategy, due to Frederick’ s close control over every aspect of affairs of state and war, probably contributed to Prussia being the only continental power that was not just able to cater to all the army’s needs in terms of weapons, uniforms, equipment, supplies and cash, but also finished the Seven Years’ War with well-filled coffers. The close interrelationship between economy, social structure and military organization made Prussia a military state able to mobilize manpower, money and material to a degree astonishing for such a small country.

Yet, for all these efforts, mobilization was not complete. Mercantilist principles called for a strict distinction between those who had to fight and those who had to produce revenue, demanding that as many men as possible should work rather than fight. Consequently, only a part of the able-bodied male population was called up. Mercantilism discouraged recourse to the full mobilization of Prussian males, and the feudal structure of society prevented the large-scale admission of commoners into the officer corps. Commoners had career prospects only in the artillery, the engineer corps, the hussars and the free corps, though, due to rising officer casualties, they were increasingly to be found in all arms towards the end of the war. This restriction of admission to the officer corps barred the military talents of many commoners from being employed in the service of the Prussian state. Consequently, Prussia’s human resources were only partly exploited.

Limitations in the mobilization of Prussian manpower, such as the failure to introduce universal military service and the meritocratic principle, could not be overcome without radically changing Prussia’s social structure and the attitudes on which this structure was based. The same kind of limitations applied to agricultural reform. The evolution of agriculture from feudal to capitalist modes of organization and production was deliberately delayed in order to preserve the economic and social bases of Prussia’s noble officer corps.

Apart from the mobilization of manpower and material, modest efforts towards spiritual mobilization were made. Frederick and Maria Theresa launched a war of propaganda against each other. Frederick tried to impress the justness of his cause on the public, to the point of producing faked Austrian diplomatic correspondence in order to justify his pre-emptive strike against Saxony in 1756. Austrian writers regaled their mostly Catholic audience with comparisons between the Protestant Frederick and Lucifer.

In the century to follow, the state would appeal to the force of nationalism in order to rouse the population for war. Not so in Frederician Prussia. The Prussian subject had to obey the laws and pay taxes. The king had no interest in rousing the feelings of the population and supplying it with arms. He was, nonetheless, prepared to take recourse to state-organized guerrilla warfare and the mobilization of peasant militias if this seemed unavoidable. Most instances of armed resistance by the Prussian peasantry, however, were prompted by the spontaneous desire to defend personal property and the safety of the family rather than by royal order or nationalist sentiment.

Rather than kindling the fervour of the population, it was more imperative to motivate soldiers to countenance the risks of their profession. High rates of desertion in the Prussian army, as in other armies of the period, suggest that soldiers were not always willing to accept these risks. The prevalence of this problem is highlighted by Frederick’s instructions to his generals which begin with a long list of measures to prevent desertion. Such measures had a deleterious effect on military effectiveness. Generals had to keep marches short in order to prevent straggling; this reduced strategic speed. Generals had to avoid night marches since they offered soldiers opportunities to disappear into the darkness; this reduced strategic flexibility. Generals had their troops sleeping in tents rather than in the open in order to keep them under close supervision; the consequence being that tents swelled the baggage train. Hussars were more busy circling the army like shepherd dogs than carrying out reconnaissance. Patrols were kept close to the main body to prevent them from vanishing. Generals had to forbid soldiers to search for food, fearing that they might not return. This fear, apart from the general poverty of local supplies, prevented the army from living off the country. Generals were forced to take utmost care of their communications since a hungry army could simply melt away like the Prussian army in Bohemia in 1744. Generals were reluctant to have their troops fight in open order since this offered the individual soldier opportunities to skulk. In spite of this preoccupation with preventing desertion, the willingness of soldiers to fight was often astonishing and gave lie to the popular notion that Frederician soldiers only fought because they feared their officers more than the enemy.

That fear of punishment alone cannot explain this bravery becomes obvious with a look at battalions of Saxons, press-ganged into the Prussian army, which went over to the enemy in scores in spite of a severe penal code. There are enough other examples which show that troops, and even officers, would run if they were determined not to fight. Positive motivation can be credited to esprit de corps, the pride of the soldier in his profession, Frederick’ s charisma, paternalism and cohesion due to cantonists of the same village serving together.

Prospects for plunder, cash rewards and promotion also played a role. Nationalism had not yet become a potent force, though it was not uncommon for ethnic antagonisms to increase troops’ aggressiveness. The much-quoted use of the stick in Frederick’s army need not have had a very deleterious impact on morale. On the one hand, the use of violence as a pedagogical cure-all was commonplace as teachers hit their pupils, parents hit their children and craftsmen hit their journeymen. In this period, offenders as young as 9 years were publicly executed for minor offences. On the other hand, corporal punishment may even have increased morale. Since only the stupid, vicious or lazy soldiers were beaten, their more attentive or intelligent comrades who avoided the stick may have felt honoured by this distinction. The importance of the Lutheran faith and its concept of duty should also not be overlooked as there were several instances where regimental chaplains rallied broken battalions. Only the consistently high spirit can explain why the Prussian army’s morale did not crack during this long and bloody conflict, why desertion sometimes decreased prior to battle, and why the army did not simply dissolve after the crushing defeats of Kolin and Kunersdorf.

When mobilization was complete, the army took to the field. Campaign objectives varied from year to year. The aim of some campaigns, such as those of 1744 and 1758, was to put pressure on the Austrian court by attempting to advance on Vienna. The objective of the 1756 campaign was to take Saxony out of the reckoning as an opponent and to exploit its resources, which were essential for the Prussian war effort. The aim of most Prussian campaigns during the Seven Years’ War was to expel armies which had intruded Prussian-controlled territory or were bound to do so. This strategic situation called for the pursuit of decisive battle. Limitations inherent to warfare in this period, however, made it difficult for Frederick to achieve such a decisive battle.

Military Practice in Prussia: 1740-1763 Part II

Deep penetration into Austrian territory, either in order to take the enemy’s capital or to force battle on the enemy by threatening his capital, was hardly possible. Frederick had to overcome the Bohemian mountains first and was then stopped by fortresses such as Brünn or Olmütz. He could bypass a fortress, but this carried the risk of the garrison cutting off his supplies as Frederick discovered in 1742. In order to prevent the garrison from sallying forth, he could leave an observation corps behind. This option, however, would have caused an intolerable degree of strategic consumption on the invading army, rendering it too weak to continue the advance on the capital. Furthermore, a defeat of the observation corps would have severed the invading army’s line of communications. If Frederick, therefore, chose not to bypass a fortress but to take it before continuing his advance, as he suggested in his military writings, he encountered other problems. When the Prussian army settled down for the siege, the depletion of local forage as well as the need to bring siege material, guns and ammunition forward increased the dependence on the lines of communications. The Austrians, due to their superiority in light troops, could take advantage of this increased dependence on communications by disrupting them. The severance of communications then forced the Prussian army to abandon the siege and retreat. In this way, the blocking power of fortresses combined with the disruptive power of light troops frustrated Prussian attempts to advance on Vienna in 1758. Even if the way was not barred by a fortress, the need to leave garrisons behind to guard the line of communications would have substantially weakened the already small Prussian invasion army. 

The cause for the Prussian armies’ vulnerability to strategic consumption was their small size, which was the result of a multiple-front war. Prussia’s 200,000 men had to be distributed among several armies and garrisons in order to cover all major invasion routes. Frederick also preferred to keep his armies small and easy to control. Even small armies were unwieldy because they manoeuvred in one block. Advancing with a unitary army severely reduced prospects to outmanoeuvre and corner an enemy. An army advancing with train and baggage along a single road was slow. Low speed prevented surprise and rendered superior manoeuvring difficult. Advance along one road also permitted only a limited range of options, again, reducing prospects for surprising and outmanoeuvring the enemy. Since the reconnaissance by the vanguard was conducted on a narrow front, precise intelligence on the enemy’s whereabouts, necessary for outmanoeuvring him, was lacking. Poor reconnaissance, combined with the activity of enemy light troops, rendered security insufficient as Frederick experienced when he was surprisingly attacked at Soor and Hochkirch. The natural reaction to this lack of security was to keep the army concentrated. Here, a vicious circle closed: reconnaissance was poor due to the advance with a unitary army; the army, in turn, had to advance in one block due to the poverty of reconnaissance.

An additional disadvantage suffered by the Prussian army was its inferiority in light troops in the contest with Austrian hussars and Croats, and Russian Cossacks, though the efficiency of Prussian hussars improved in the course of the three Silesian Wars. The consequence of this inferiority was the relatively low quality of Prussian reconnaissance, whereas Austrians and Russians had a clearer picture of Prussian positions and intentions. This state of affairs, again, rendered surprise difficult to achieve.

Prussian inability to surprise and outmanoeuvre the enemy, largely due to advancing with a unitary army, provided the enemy with the opportunity to avoid battle. The Austrians and Russians took advantage of this opportunity since they knew the Prussian army to be better trained and more efficient in open battle than their own. If the enemy decided to give battle, it was on his terms, either when he wished to attack with superior numbers himself, or when he was waiting for the Prussians to attack him in strong positions. In neither case could Frederick hope to win a decisive victory.

Even when the enemy could be brought at bay and beaten, pursuit, necessary to turn an ordinary victory into a decisive one, was hardly possible since Frederick had to hasten to meet the next enemy army. Even when pursuit could be carried out, the small size of the armies committed to battle meant that even a victorious battle followed by pursuit would neutralize only a fraction of the enemy’s armed forces. Those losses inflicted on the enemy, furthermore, could be replaced in winter quarters. Since Frederick was fighting a coalition, the combined resources of his enemies made it particularly difficult to inflict a truly crippling defeat.

The nature of supply arrangements also played its part in frustrating Frederick’s designs. Flour waggons shuttled between magazines and field bakeries; bread waggons shuttled between field bakeries and army. The dependence of Frederician armies on these supply arrangements hampered strategic mobility in several ways. Rear supply reduced strategic mobility since fortresses could not be bypassed if they blocked an indispensable road or waterway. Even where this was not the case, fortresses could not simply be ignored. Likewise, an enemy army in strong tactical positions could not be outflanked because the outflanking army risked having its own communications severed, following the old adage that he who outflanks is being outflanked himself.

Dependence on rear supply also slowed the army down because the army had to march sufficiently slowly to permit the bread waggons to keep up. The very size of these columns explains what made them veritable millstones: one of the four columns invading Bohemia in 1757 had 2,000 supply vehicles following in its wake. From time to time, the army even had to stop completely in order to establish new field bakeries. Consequences of the army’s slow advance were, once more, reduced prospects for surprising and outmanoeuvring the enemy. Rapid marches such as the march from Zorndorf to Saxony were only possible because the Prussian army passed through friendly territory, where troops could be fed in passing from magazines and by the local Prussian administration, rather than having to wait for supply trains. The baggage train containing officers’ baggage and tents was also responsible for the low speed of movement. Supply trains not only reduced the rate of advance but also impaired flexibility in manoeuvre since it took time to change their marching schedules. Re-routing vast columns of vehicles, sometimes several thousand, at short notice would have created chaos and reduced the troops to starvation.

When an enemy army was beaten, dependence on rear supply rendered prompt as well as prolonged pursuit difficult. Prompt pursuit with the whole army was frustrated by the slowness of the supply train. Prolonged pursuit was prevented by the limited range within which the supply train could feed the army from the closest magazine. The victory of Hohenfriedberg was not followed by pursuit for this reason. When the beaten enemy sought shelter behind a fortress, the dependence on rear supply prevented the bypassing of the obstacle. Frederick summarized his frustration with limitations imposed by dependence on rear supply, when he complained that not he but flour and forage were the masters of the army. The campaigns which foundered in Bohemia and Moravia due to supply problems in 1742, 1744 and 1758 confirmed this observation.

Frederick made conscious efforts to overcome limitations imposed by advance with a unitary army and dependence on rear supply. In 1757, for instance, he invaded Bohemia in four columns which were planned to converge after having crossed the mountains. The advance in several columns rather than in one army made it difficult for the enemy to fathom Frederick’s designs. Furthermore, the multiple column advance was faster because the individual marching columns were shorter. Since Frederick did not wish to waste the momentum of the surprise invasion, he ordered the army to subsist on Austrian depots to be captured in the Bohemian plain rather than wait for supply trains to catch up. 

Since Frederick could not always rely on being lucky enough to capture enemy depots, he also tried to increase his army’s degree of self-sufficiency. The limits of self-sufficiency, however, were quickly reached. Low population density and lack of high- yielding crops such as potatoes and turnips rarely permitted an army to rely entirely on local resources, though detachments could live off the land by purchase or requisition. Furthermore, due to the advance in a unitary army on a narrow front, resources of only a narrow swathe of country could be consumed. As a stopgap measure, Frederick ordered iron hand-mills to be distributed to the troops so that grain could be taken from the fields and ground to flour, if the flour columns were delayed. The flour, however, had then still to be turned into bread in field bakeries. Another improvement in supply matters was the use of iron ovens which could be set up in one day rather than the more common brick ovens which took several days. To expedite the baking of bread even further, Frederick pressed civilian bakers into service when a town was close to the army.

Apart from supply problems and advance in a unitary army, strategic conditions reduced prospects for inflicting serious damage on the hostile coalition. Since Prussia was fighting a multi-front war, Frederick had to entrust theatres of war to other commanders such as the Duke of Brunswick or Prince Henry. Not every commander, however, was as capable as these two deputies. The consequence was that battles won by Frederick could be offset by battles lost by one of his generals. The victory of Rossbach, for instance, was counterbalanced by the loss of Breslau which, in turn, had to be rectified by the victory of Leuthen. Many generals were out of their depth in independent command since the training of general officers was restricted to the experience of regimental service and the reading of the odd book of military history. Many Prussian generals of the `Old Dessauer’ school were even barely literate. The lack of training and experience in independent command, combined with the fear of Prussian generals of their sovereign, induced them to follow to the letter their orders rather than acting on their discretion-with sometimes fatal results. Frederick addressed this problem. He wrote instructions for his generals meant to give them advice in their independent commands. A more broad-based effort to educate the officer corps was the establishment of regimental libraries.

One reason for the failure of independently operating generals was the lack of a sophisticated staff system. The general-quartermaster staff (Generalquartiermeisterstab) had only 25 personnel. Attached to the staff were guides (Feld-jägercorps), responsible for carrying dispatches and directing marching columns, and Brigademajors, officers dispatched to the brigades in order to help in administrative matters. The commissary, heading a small separate organization, was responsible for matters of supply. The main task of the staff was the selection and fortification of camp sites as well as march planning. The staff merely assisted in planning and organization. It was not an advisory body, nor did it devise campaign or contingency plans on its own initiative. The staff s role was further diminished by the royal aide-de-camps (Generaladjutanten). 

Generaladjutanten enjoyed Frederick’s particular trust and were assigned a variety of missions. Winterfeldt’s assignments, for instance, included economic planning, training of hussars, diplomatic missions, military administration and planning, command of detachments and the organization of espionage. The Generaladjutant also played the role which was later reserved for the chief of the general staff: Winterfeldt devised mobilization, campaign and contingency plans and discussed them with the king. Winterfeldt fulfilled a further function: he was dispatched to assist and advise generals holding independent command. These generals were expected to heed Winterfeldt’s opinion. This arrangement of a competent staff officer becoming the commander’s one- man-think tank was to become a Prussian tradition. For himself, Frederick did not need a staff officer with advisory function attached to his headquarters. He was capable of directing his small armies himself with merely some organizational assistance from the general-quartermaster staff.

The minor role and haphazard organization of the staff is further highlighted by the fact that Frederick’s draft orders were written, expounded and dispatched by a civilian, the royal councillor (Geheimer Kriegsrat) Eichel. Frederick went so far in his habit to ignore the general-quartermaster staff that he did not even let it participate in the planning for the 1756 campaign. Instead, Eichel and Winterfeldt had to draft all mobilization and campaign plans including the marching tables on their own. Yet, for all this apparent contempt for the staff, Frederick took care to improve their capacities. He demanded that staff officers should hold their positions in permanence in order to gain experience, and he personally instructed the 12 best graduates of the military academy (Académie des Nobles) in order to raise a stock of competent officers for staff or command functions.

Prussia of Bismarck

In 1858 William became Regent in place of his brother. New elections to the Landtag produced liberal successes and William appointed moderate liberals to the government. The hopes of liberal nationalists that Prussia would now lead the way to a reformed and national Germany were raised by these events. This pointed to one vital difference between Prussia and Austria: Prussia had a constitution and an elected parliament which provided a basis for a liberal direction of policy before any major crisis; Austria only moved in such a direction as the result of such a crisis. (Apart from general studies such as Blackbourn 1997; Brose 1997; and Sheehan 1989, on the ‘New Era’ see Hamerow 1972, part I.)

The Prussian government had never slavishly followed Austria since 1850, although this was an impression that Bismarck cultivated in his reminiscences in order to highlight the difference his appointment made (Bismarck 1899; Feuchtwanger 2002; Gall 1986; Lerman 2004). During the Crimean War Prussia refused to go beyond an alliance with Austria based on strict neutrality. Since 1856 it had quietly allied itself with Russia rather than Austria on matters where there was conflict. Prussia’s trade policy had determinedly kept Austria out of the Zollverein and had involved close links to France, a policy opposed by principled conservatives. (See Voth 2001; Böhme 1974; Hahn 1984 on customs union policy; Barclay 1995, chap. 10 has details on conservative criticisms.) Indeed, when Bismarck in 1864 suggested a weakening of this policy as part of his then dualist cooperation with Austria, ministers with financial and trade responsibilities, along with Rudolf Delbrück who shaped tariff policy, ensured Bismarck was overruled (Feuchtwanger 2002, chap. 6).

Prussian population growth was about twice that of Austria. Its booming economy began to pull ahead of that of Austria in the later 1850s and early 1860s. (Huertas 1977, chap. 1 revises earlier estimates of Austrian growth rates for the period 1841–58 upwards, but notes a slackening thereafter.) Add to that Prussia’s limited international commitments compared to Austria, a much lower state debt and the impact of the army reforms by the mid-1860s, and one can conclude that there was a sharp tilting of the balance of power between the two states, although this was probably not fully or widely realised at the time. (See Chapter 8 below for further analysis.) Generally, however, the preference of the conservatives who shaped policy in these years was to follow an independent course from Austria but to avoid direct conflict so far as possible and certainly not to provide any support to liberal nationalism. Thus the liberal hopes raised in 1858 by the turn-around in domestic political, social and economic change were doomed to disappointment in the foreign policy sphere.

This pragmatic conservative line continued in 1859, steering between principled conservatives who wanted Prussia to ally with Austria against France (seeing the war in anti-French rather than pro-Italian terms) and principled liberals who looked sympathetically upon the Italian liberal nationalist cause and wanted Prussia to take up such ideas. Then there was the eccentric position of Bismarck who urged the government to use Austria’s difficulties to expand its own position in Germany, seeing this in dynastic and Prussian, rather than liberal and national terms. (Doc. 47, p. 159 outlines Bismarck’s ideas more generally and a little earlier.) Some of these differences were reflected in the policy-making elite of the time [Doc. 49, p. 161]. Much to the dismay of Austria, and Francis Joseph in particular (Bled 1994, chap. 5), the Prussian government insisted that it could only provide assistance if put in charge of all non-Austrian Bund troops. This, along with Prussian mobilisation on the Rhine in case Louis Napoleon extended the scope of his actions, appeared to Austria as a bid for leadership in Germany. It was one reason Austria rapidly concluded a peace with France, while the mobilisation also made Louis Napoleon anxious to bring the war to an end (Hallberg 1973, chap. 9).

War and defeat had greatly weakened Austria and stimulated the national movement which looked to Prussia for leadership. However, it had also uncovered Prussian frailties. Partial mobilisation revealed many problems in the army, a matter of acute concern to William who worried about an increased threat from France. After all, the first Napoleon had started with military success in northern Italy and then turned his attention to the Rhinelands. Following a review William ordered a radical reform of the army, expanding its numbers, increasing the length of service from two to three years and marginalising the role of the territorial reserve army, the Landwehr. (Williamson 1998 deals with some of these matters. See also Bucholz 2001; Craig 1964; and Showalter 1986.) These reform plans offended the new liberal majority in the Landtag, not so much because of the additional expenditure that would be incurred (state finances were healthy and the liberals recognised the need for a strong army) but rather due to the increased length of service and diminished role for the Landwehr, coupled with the insistence of the king that he alone had complete power of command over the army. Liberals feared that, rather than being used to back up a forward policy within Germany, this army might become an instrument of the monarchy against parliament.

Two bills – one to reform the army and the other to pay for these reforms – were put before the Landtag in early 1860. William refused to accept that the parliament could alter anything in the army reorganisation bill though he could not deny the budgetary powers of the parliament. The Landtag made it clear it would only provisionally grant extra monies. This was a fateful decision because it meant that the army reforms could be set in hand, even if their cost had not been firmly approved. In an attempt to improve the situation William dissolved the parliament and called for new elections. The result, and this was repeated over the next couple of years, was the return of a larger and more determined liberal majority. The combination of liberalisation, a more mobile and organised society and crisis was generating political forces beyond the control of the regime. In early 1861 a new party, the Progressive Party, was formed which took the liberal lead. Subsequently, branches of the Progressive Party were formed in other states, pointing up the national implications of the conflict. (Anderson 1954 is a study of the constitutional crisis.)

One possible way out of the crisis was for the government to pursue the national policy liberal politicians demanded (see, for example, document 4 in Williamson 1998). It is no coincidence that in December 1861, just as there was a new round of elections, the Prussian government under the leadership of Manteuffel, floated a new version of the Union policy of 1849–50. It resembled the Nationalverein programme (document 3 in Willamson 1998) except that it did not make provision for any elected national assembly. In part this was a response to yet another initiative by the Saxon minister Beust for a federated Germany with an executive authority, court and national representation but also more influence for the medium states [Doc. 50, p. 162].

Neither domestically nor beyond Prussia did the policy initiative work. Austria and the medium states rejected the idea, just as they had done in 1850. The Progressive Party registered electoral victory. In the new Landtag it decided against voting any more provisional budgets for army reforms. William dissolved the Landtag yet again in March 1862 but elections in May returned an even more determined liberal majority. In the meantime, Austria – well into its constitutional policy under Schmerling – decided to take up the issue of national reform in conjunction with some of the other German states.

It was at this juncture that the decision to appoint Bismarck Minister-President was taken by the embattled William on the advice of his War Minister, the architect of the army reforms, Albrecht von Roon. As a book in this series (Williamson 1998) deals with Bismarck from 1862 until the end of his career, I will not spend much time on biographical detail but just note some key points. (See Gall 1986; Pflanze 1990; Feuchtwanger 2002; Lerman 2004 for English language studies of Bismarck.)

Bismarck had long advocated confrontation with Austria in order for Prussia to expand in Germany. In his memoirs late in life, he suggested that previous Prussian governments had subordinated themselves to Austria and only with his appointment was this policy reversed. This is at best a half-truth, tending to make policy appear as a function of personality and contributing to a one-sided ‘great men make history’ view. As we have seen, Prussia steered a confrontational course in foreign policy in 1849–50 and took an independent line from 1854, including a determinedly anti-Austrian line in key areas of trade policy and Zollverein membership. What it did not do, until December 1861, was revive the Union policy which had brought it into direct conflict with Austria in 1850. However, Bismark had loudly condemned that policy and supported the Olmütz agreement that brought it to an end [Doc. 44, p. 157]. Indeed, his own appointment as ambassador to the restored Bund in 1851 arose directly out of that agreement and his support for it. It also had the effect of bringing into the diplomatic service a man who had failed to complete his probationary period as a civil servant, resigned from office, retreated to run his estates in Brandenburg, and had only come back into politics with the constitutional crisis of 1847, and then by taking a hard counter-revolutionary line in 1848–49.

Indeed, it was that reputation as a determined defender of royal prerogative during a crisis rather than his maverick opinions on Prussian foreign policy which accounts for Bismarck’s appointment in September 1862. His immediate objective was not to lead Prussia into Germany but to assert the royal will over the liberal majority in parliament, a majority which was the most important force agitating for such a forward national policy.

This domestic challenge was to be Bismarck’s major preoccupation for the first year or so after his appointment. Bismarck argued that the budget already granted to the government should continue to operate at a time when the executive and the upper house (Herrenhaus) of the legislature failed to agree with the lower house (Landtag), on the grounds that those drafting the constitution had never meant government to break down in the event of such a disagreement. This dubious ‘constitutional gap’ theory worked because the Landtag was not for its part prepared to pursue active sanctions against the government such as leading a tax boycott or some other kind of civil disobedience.

As for any national policy, Bismarck was at a loss. The revived Union policy of 1861 had been rejected by liberals, the medium states and Austria. He took a firm free trade line in 1862 to ensure agreement with France and the exclusion of Austria from the Zollverein. He continued with this policy up until the renewal of the Zollverein in 1865 (though as we have seen, he contemplated diluting the policy in 1864), making it clear that, if necessary, Prussia would leave the customs union and negotiate separate agreements with non-German states. Faced with such a threat the other German states had no option but to fall into line [Doc. 55, p. 166].

Bismarck also strengthened the positive relationship with Russia. At the heart of this was the Polish question. When a new insurrection broke out in Russian Poland in 1863 Bismarck quickly and demonstratively signalled Prussian support for its repression. However, the main domestic effect was to alienate him even further from liberal nationalists who supported the restoration of a Polish state and saw Russia as the main obstacle to German unity and the liberal cause throughout Europe. His Polish policy also alienated France, traditionally a supporter of Polish national claims. It is difficult therefore to see how this would help Bismarck make any decisive policy change in the German question. The liberal opposition was not greatly impressed by Bismarck’s famous ‘blood and iron’ speech when he declared that the way of solving the national question was not through parliamentary resolutions (the 1848 method) but through the use of power (see document 9, Williamson 1998). As Bismarck was not actually pursuing an aggressive policy in Germany which might require blood and iron, the phrase looked more like an oblique reference to the crisis in Prussia than a signal of a possible change in foreign policy. Yet the liberals never seriously believed that Bismarck was going to send soldiers into parliament and try to cow it into submission. Indeed, they could not see him remaining in office for very long given the weight of public and parliamentary opinion against him.

They were right to believe that Bismarck was not prepared to attempt a coup and return to non-parliamentary government. Bismarck was well aware that in the long run, without parliamentary support, above all without the support of the business and professional middle classes on which the liberal majority was based, his could be little more than a stop-gap administration. Such support was needed above all for the credit-worthiness of the state. For all his harsh rhetoric Bismarck had no intention of going down the path of coup d’état and a return to absolutism which some conservatives envisaged. He would try to bribe and intimidate deputies, buy up newspapers to express pro-governmental views, have discussions with radical labour leaders like Ferdinand Lassalle about the possibility of basing monarchical rule on popular consent, thereby under-cutting the liberal parliament elected on a weighted franchise. He also ‘indiscreetly’ insinuated to deputies that he really wished to govern with their support but that the king had to be persuaded and this would only happen if parliament would be a little more forthcoming on its side. All these measures and rhetorical tricks were intended to push liberals towards agreement with Bismarck, not to replace the present constitution. Furthermore, Bismarck was aware that his value to the king was precisely that he was overriding but not abolishing parliament. Once things had gone that far government could be handed over to bureaucrats and soldiers. Bismarck was a creation of the constitutional politics he opposed and thereby also tied to that politics. (See Gall 1986; Feuchtwanger 2002; and Lerman 2004: 59–60 for detailed support for this interpretation of Bismarck.)

However, none of these tactical twists and bewildering array of half-promises and veiled threats proved successful in Bismarck’s first year or so in office. Poised between parliament and the hardline conservatives at court, dependent almost entirely on the personal support of the ageing king, blustering about radical new policies but actually governing in a traditional authoritarian manner, it appeared to many that Bismarck was an interesting, unprincipled politician who would not be able to retain power for long. His successes were negative ones. He persuaded the king not to attend the princes’ congress Austria had organised in 1863 as part of its bid to take the lead on national reform. In return, he had suggested that a reformed Bund should have some nationally elected assembly but one could hardly take such an idea seriously from a man ruling in defiance of the one such assembly that existed in Prussia. Indeed the Nationalverein rejected Bismark’s offer of a German parliament in April 1865 because they did not find it credible. In 1863 a shrewd contemporary might well have judged that Austria was making the running in German matters and that Prussia was paralysed by internal conflict. (See Docs 51–54, pp. 164–66 on these reform proposals in 1863.)

The Schleswig-Holstein affair changed everything.

“Potsdamer Riesengarde”

The Potsdam Giants was the Prussian infantry regiment No 6, composed of taller-than-average soldiers. The regiment was founded in 1675 and dissolved in 1806 after the Prussian defeat against Napoleon. Throughout the reign of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia (1688–1740) the unit was known as the “Potsdamer Riesengarde” (“giant guard of Potsdam”) in German, but the Prussian population quickly nicknamed them the “Lange Kerls” (“Long guys”).

Frederick William I from the house of Hohenzollern became King of Prussia in 1713.

Charles Darwin wrote that human beings, unlike livestock, had never been forcibly bred for select characteristics, ‘except in the well-known case of the Prussian grenadiers.’ To the amazement of fellow-rulers and trembling subjects alike, the Soldier-King (as Frederick was nicknamed) began to collect giant men as one would collect rare stamps. From all over Prussia he had his agents look for- and oftentimes kidnap- men suffering from gigantism. In striving to create his own personal soldier core of giants, the king instructed his subjects to immediately signal the authorities whenever they should become aware of exceptionally tall men in the vicinity. He also made clear to his political allies that they could keep their gifts of gold for themselves as long as they provided him now and then with fresh giants to fill up his stock. The strange and sinister request dripped down into every segment of Prussian society. Prussian teachers, eager to appease the morbid king, kept an eye out for tall children and promptly handed them over to him when they had the chance. Newborn babies, expected to grow unusually tall, were marked with a bright red scarf for identification purposes.

If someone was unfortunate enough to be over six feet tall and born in the Prussian sphere of influence (which was quite extensive at the time), he would sooner or later be noticed and assigned to the king’s private collection cabinet. Cautious parents, aware of the king’s eccentric cravings, made improvised shelters for their children to hide them from the ever watchful eyes of Frederick’s scouts- who feverishly roamed the land in search of specimens to satisfy his dark avocations. If the collection item-to-be happened to be well-to-do (or of noble descent himself) no expense was spared to acquire him- for the king reserved enormous amounts of cash just for the purchasing of giants. If one had the misfortune of being of modest means or descent, the conduct of the Prussian agents was altogether different: in this case they were given carte blanch to simply abduct the person in question, bring them before the Prussian king to be inspected, stamped with the royal seal and subsequently enslaved. It would sometimes occur that his agents were so eager in carrying out their assignment that their prey would not survive the brutal journey to the Prussian throne. This would always enrage the impatient king, and the agent in question could count on a swift reprimand for his negligence (usually on the unhappy end of a rifle). Some glitches aside, his collection grew steadily- and before long he managed to assemble his giants in a formidable ‘regiment’ which were regularly taken out on display when some befriended tyrant came to visit. But Frederick was not satisfied with merely collecting the giants to impress neighboring monarchs; Frederick took the whole thing to the next level.

Crossbreeding Giants

According to Washington Monthly author David Wallace-Wells, ‘King Frederick’s obsession was more than mere schoolyard eugenics.’ Indeed it was. Frederick was not the man for silly pet projects or idle pleasures. He was a Prussian king and that means thoroughness in absolutely every respect. With an ambition that would put Marie Stopes to shame, he gathered from all over Europe the most impressive ‘samples’ and selected each and every one of them personally before sending them to his sub-level experimentation chambers. The most notorious of these experiments was the stretching of his grenadiers on a specially constructed rack in an attempt to make them taller than they already were. Frederick would sometimes preside over these racking sessions himself while enjoying his lunch at the same time. However absurd and cruel this method, it revealed the king’s unwavering ambitions regarding all things inhumane. One of the first to venture into the world of methodical eugenics, king Frederick encountered the same difficulties as his future counterparts. When it became apparent that this method resulted in the death of the giants instead of gaining even an inch in length, he ended the practice lest he run out of giants. But putting a halt to this racking practice could not prevent the giants from dying in alarming numbers, for many of them sought refuge in suicide. As only a German blueblood could devise, the king forced his rapidly shrinking collection to interbreed with equally tall women so as to build a future army of giants, which would be the envy of Europe’s upper-class. Here he actually attempted to breed a ‘new man’, and it is said that the city of Potsdam, lair of the Hohenzollerns, was littered with unusually tall men at the end of the 18th century as a result. It is sad, this tale of the Potsdam giants. They fell victim to the elite’s bloodthirsty appetite and unwittingly became one of the first to be sacrificed on the altar of eugenics.

Devastation of Prussia During the Thirty Years War

Annihilation of Magdeburg

During the Thirty Years War (1618–48) the German lands became the theatre of a European catastrophe. A confrontation between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619–37) and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire expanded to involve Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France. Conflicts that were continental in scope played themselves out on the territories of the German states: the struggle between Spain and the breakaway Dutch Republic, a competition among the northern powers for control of the Baltic, and the traditional great-power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs. Although there were battles, sieges and military occupations elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting took place in the German lands. For unprotected, landlocked Brandenburg, the war was a disaster that exposed every weakness of the Electoral state. At crucial moments during the conflict, Brandenburg faced impossible choices. Its fate hung entirely on the will of others. The Elector was unable to guard his borders, command or defend his subjects or even secure the continued existence of his title. As armies rolled across the provinces of the Mark, the rule of law was suspended, local economies were disrupted and the continuities of work, domicile and memory were irreversibly ruptured. The lands of the Elector, Frederick the Great wrote over a century and a half later, ‘were desolated during the Thirty Years’ War, whose deadly imprint was so profound that its traces can still be discerned as I write’.


Brandenburg entered this dangerous era utterly unprepared for the challenges it would face. Since its striking power was negligible, it had no means of bargaining for rewards or concessions from friend or foe. To the south, directly abutting the borders of the Electorate, were Lusatia and Silesia, both hereditary lands of the Habsburg Bohemian Crown (though Lusatia was under a Saxon leasehold). To the west of these two, also sharing a border with Brandenburg, was Electoral Saxony, whose policy during the early war years was to operate in close harmony with the Emperor. On Brandenburg’s northern flank, its undefended borders lay open to the troops of the Protestant Baltic powers, Denmark and Sweden. Nothing stood between Brandenburg and the sea but the enfeebled Duchy of Pomerania, ruled by the ageing Boguslav XIV. Neither in the west nor in remote Ducal Prussia did the Elector of Brandenburg possess the means to defend his newly acquired territories against invasion. There was thus every reason for caution, a preference underscored by the still ingrained habit of deferring to the Emperor.

Elector George William (r. 1619–40), a timid, indecisive man ill equipped to master the extreme predicaments of his era, spent the early war years avoiding alliance commitments that would consume his meagre resources or expose his territory to reprisals. He gave moral support to the insurgency of the Protestant Bohemian Estates against the Habsburg Emperor, but when his brother-in-law the Elector Palatine marched off to Bohemia to fight for the cause, George William stayed out of the fray. During the mid-1620s, as anti-Habsburg coalition plans were hatched between the courts of Denmark, Sweden, France and England, Brandenburg manoeuvred anxiously on the margins of great-power diplomacy. There were efforts to persuade Sweden, whose king had married George William’s sister in 1620, to mount a campaign against the Emperor. In 1626, another of George William’s sisters was married off to the Prince of Transylvania, a Calvinist nobleman whose repeated wars on the Habsburgs – with Turkish assistance – had established him as one of the Emperor’s most formidable enemies. Yet at the same time there were warm assurances of fealty to the Catholic Emperor, and Brandenburg steered clear of the anti-imperial Hague Alliance of 1624–6 between England and Denmark.

None of this could protect the Electorate against pressure and military incursions from both sides. After the armies of the Catholic League under General Tilly had defeated Protestant forces at Stadlohn in 1623, the Westphalian territories of Mark and Ravensberg became quartering areas for Leaguist troops. George William understood that he would be able to stay out of trouble only if his territory were in a position to defend itself against all comers. But the money was lacking for an effective policy of armed neutrality. The overwhelmingly Lutheran Estates were suspicious of his Calvinist allegiances and unwilling to finance them. In 1618–20, their sympathies were largely with the Catholic Emperor and they feared that their Calvinist Elector would drag Brandenburg into dangerous international commitments. The best policy, as they saw it, was to wait out the storm and avoid attracting hostile notice from any of the belligerents.

In 1626, as George William struggled to extract money from his Estates, the Palatine General Count Mansfeld overran the Altmark and Prignitz, with his Danish allies close behind. Mayhem broke out. Churches were smashed open and robbed, the town of Nauen was razed to the ground, villages were burned as troops attempted to extort hidden money and goods from the inhabitants. When he was taken to task for this by a senior Brandenburg minister, the Danish envoy Mitzlaff responded with breathtaking arrogance: ‘Whether the Elector likes it or not, the [Danish] King will go ahead all the same. Whoever is not with him is against him.’ Scarcely had the Danes made themselves at home in the Mark, however, but they were pushed back by their enemies. In the late summer of 1626, after the imperial and Leaguist victory near Lutter-am-Barenberg in the Duchy of Brunswick (27 August), imperial troops occupied the Altmark, while the Danes withdrew into the Prignitz and the Uckermark to the north and north-west of Berlin. At around the same time, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden landed in Ducal Prussia, where he established a base of operations against Poland, completely disregarding the claims of the Elector. The Neumark, too, was overrun and plundered by Cossack mercenaries in the service of the Emperor. The scale of the threat facing Brandenburg was made clear by the fate of the dukes of neighbouring Mecklenburg. As punishment for supporting the Danes, the Emperor deposed the ducal family and bestowed Mecklenburg as booty upon his powerful commander, the military entrepreneur Count Wallenstein.

The time seemed ripe for a shift towards closer collaboration with the Habsburg camp. ‘If this business continues,’ George William told a confidant in a moment of desperation, ‘I shall become mad, for I am much grieved. [… ] I shall have to join the Emperor, I have no alternative; I have only one son; if the Emperor remains, then I suppose I and my son will be able to remain Elector.’ On 22 May 1626, despite protests from his councillors and the Estates, who would have preferred a rigorous policy of neutrality, the Elector signed a treaty with the Emperor. Under the terms of this agreement, the entire Electorate was opened to imperial troops. Hard times followed, because the imperial supreme commander, Count Wallenstein, was in the habit of extracting provisions, lodgings and payment for his troops from the population of the occupied area.

Brandenburg thus gained no relief from its alliance with the Emperor. Indeed, as the imperial forces rolled back their opponents and approached the zenith of their power in the late 1620s, Emperor Ferdinand II seemed to disregard George William entirely. In the Edict of Restitution of 1629, the Emperor announced that he intended to ‘reclaim’, by force if necessary, ‘all the archbishoprics, bishoprics, prelatecies, monasteries, hospitals and endowments’ which the Catholics had possessed in the year 1552 – a programme with profoundly damaging implications for Brandenburg, where numerous ecclesiastical establishments had been placed under Protestant administration. The Edict confirmed the settlement of 1555, in that it also excluded Calvinists from the religious peace in the Empire; only the Catholic and Lutheran faiths enjoyed official standing –‘all other doctrines and sects are forbidden and cannot be tolerated.’

Sweden’s dramatic entry into the German war in 1630 brought relief for the Protestant states, but also raised the political pressure on Brandenburg. In 1620, George William’s sister Maria Eleonora had been married off to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, a larger-than-life figure whose appetite for war and conquest was twinned with a missionary zeal for the Protestant cause in Europe. As his involvement in the German conflict deepened, the Swedish king, who had no other German allies, resolved to secure an alliance with his brother-in-law George William. The Elector was reluctant, and it is easy to see why. Gustavus Adolphus had spent the past decade and a half waging a war of conquest in the eastern Baltic. A series of campaigns against Russia had left Sweden in possession of a continuous swathe of territory stretching from Finland to Estonia. In 1621, Gustavus Adolphus had renewed his war against Poland, occupying Ducal Prussia and conquering Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia). The Swedish king had even pushed the elderly Duke of Mecklenburg into an agreement that the duchy would pass to Sweden when the duke died, a deal that directly undercut Brandenburg’s longstanding inheritance treaty with its northern neighbour.

All of this suggested that the Swedes would be no less dangerous as friends than as enemies. George William returned to the idea of neutrality. He planned to work with Saxony in forming a Protestant bloc that would oppose the implementation of the Edict of Restitution while at the same time providing a buffer between the Emperor and his enemies in the north, a policy that bore fruit in the Convention of Leipzig of February 1631. But this manoeuvring did little to repel the threat facing Brandenburg from north and south. Furious warnings and threats issued from Vienna. In the meanwhile, there were clashes between Swedish and imperial troops across the Neumark, in the course of which the Swedes chased the imperials out of the province and occupied the fortified cities of Frankfurt/Oder, Landsberg and Küstrin.

Emboldened by the success of his troops in the field, the King of Sweden demanded an outright alliance with Brandenburg. George William’s protests that he wished to remain neutral fell on deaf ears. As Gustavus Adolphus explained to a Brandenburg envoy:

I don’t want to know or hear anything about neutrality. [The Elector] has to be friend or foe. When I come to his borders, he must declare himself cold or hot. This is a fight between God and the devil. If My Cousin wants to side with God, then he has to join me; if he prefers to side with the devil, then indeed he must fight me; there is no third way.

While George William prevaricated, the Swedish king drew close to Berlin with his troops behind him. Panicking, the Elector sent the women of his family out to parley with the invader at Köpenick, a few kilometres to the south-east of the capital. It was eventually agreed that the king should come into the city with 1,000 men to continue negotiations as the guest of the Elector. Over the following days of wining and dining, the Swedes talked beguilingly of ceding parts of Pomerania to Brandenburg, hinted at a marriage between the king’s daughter and the Elector’s son, and pressed for an alliance. George William decided to throw in his lot with the Swedes.

The reason for this policy reversal lay partly in the intimidating demeanour of the Swedish troops, who at one point drew up before the walls of Berlin with their guns trained on the royal palace in order to concentrate the mind of the beleaguered Elector. But an important predisposing factor was the fall, on 20 May 1631, of the Protestant city of Magdeburg to Tilly’s imperial troops. The taking of Magdeburg was followed not only by the sacking and plundering that usually attended such events, but also by a massacre of the town’s inhabitants that would become a fixture in German literary memory. In a passage of classically measured rhetoric, Frederick II later described the scene:

Everything that the unfettered license of the soldier can devise when nothing restrains his fury; all that the most ferocious cruelty inspires in men when a blind rage takes possession of their senses, was committed by the Imperials in this unhappy city: the troops ran in packs, weapons in hand, through the streets, and massacred indiscriminately the elderly, the women and the children, those who defended themselves and those who made no move to resist them [… ] one saw nothing but corpses still flexing, piled or stretched out naked; the cries of those whose throats were being cut mingled with the furious shouts of their assassins…

For contemporaries too, the annihilation of Magdeburg, a community of some 20,000 citizens and one of the capitals of German Protestantism, was an existential shock. Pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets circulated across Europe, with verbal renderings of the various atrocities committed. Nothing could more have damaged the prestige of the Habsburg Emperor in the German Protestant territories than the news of this wanton extermination of his Protestant subjects. The impact was especially pronounced for the Elector of Brandenburg, whose uncle, Margrave Christian William, was the episcopal administrator of Magdeburg. In June 1631, George William reluctantly signed a pact with Sweden, under which he agreed to open the fortresses of Spandau (just north of Berlin) and Küstrin (in the Neumark) to the Swedish troops, and to pay the Swedes a monthly contribution of 30,000 thalers.

The pact with Sweden proved as shortlived as the earlier alliance with the Emperor. In 1631–2 the balance of power was tilting back in favour of the Protestant forces, as the Swedes and their Saxon allies swept deep into the south and west of Germany, inflicting heavy defeats on the imperial side. But the momentum of their onslaught slowed after Gustavus Adolphus’s death in a cavalry mêlée at the Battle of Luätzen on 6 November 1632. By the end of 1634, after a serious defeat at Nördlingen, Sweden’s ascendancy was broken. Exhausted by the war and desperate to drive a wedge between Sweden and the German Protestant princes, Emperor Ferdinand II seized the moment to offer moderate peace terms. This move worked: the Lutheran Elector of Saxony, who had joined forces with Sweden in September 1631, now came running back to the Emperor. The Elector of Brandenburg faced a more difficult choice. The draft articles of the Peace of Prague offered an amnesty and withdrew the more extreme demands of the earlier Edict of Restitution, but they still made no reference to the toleration of Calvinism. The Swedes, for their part, were still pestering Brandenburg for a treaty; this time they promised that Pomerania would be transferred in its entirety to Brandenburg after the cessation of hostilities in the Empire.

After some agonized prevarication, George William elected to seek his fortune at the Emperor’s side. In May 1635, Brandenburg, along with Saxony, Bavaria and many other German territories, signed up to the Peace of Prague. In return, the Emperor promised to see to it that Brandenburg’s claim to the Duchy of Pomerania would be honoured. A detachment of imperial regiments was sent to assist in protecting the Mark and George William was honoured – somewhat incongruously, given his utter lack of military aptitude – with the title of Generalissimus in the imperial army. The Elector, for his part, undertook to raise 25,000 troops in support of the imperial war effort. Unfortunately for Brandenburg, this mending of fences with the Habsburg Emperor coincided with another shift in the balance of power in northern Germany. After their victory over the Saxon army at Wittstock on 4 October 1636 the Swedes were once again ‘lords in the Mark’.

George William spent the last four years of his reign trying to drive the Swedes out of Brandenburg and to take control of Pomerania, whose duke died in March 1637. His attempts to raise a Brandenburg army against Sweden produced a small and poorly equipped force and the Electorate was ravaged by both the Swedes and the imperials, as well as by the less disciplined units of its own forces. After a Swedish invasion of the Mark, the Elector was forced to flee – not for the last time in the history of the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns – to the relative safety of Ducal Prussia, where he died in 1640.

Prussian Fortresses in the Swedish and Russian campaigns of the Seven Years War

The fall of fortress Kolberg in 1761 (Seven Years’ War) to Russian troops

Siege of Kolberg 1760

Between 1721 and the opening of the Seven Years War, Swedish military prowess had fallen almost as far as that of France. ‘They were brave once’, said the Russian commander Saltykov, ‘but now their time is past’ (Montalembert, 1777, 11,62). Their military spirit inevitably suffered from the way Count Rosen maladministered the army, and from the bitter arguments among the politicians. Their engineers could still build imposing fortresses, and men like Major Rook and the generals Carlsberg and Virgin could still propose ‘systems’ of interest and originality, but the Swedish means of waging offensive fortress warfare had declined considerably since the days of Charles XII. Arms and equipment were antiquated, and the siege artillery was notably cumbersome by the standards of the second half of the eighteenth century.

Nowhere were the operations of the Seven Years War more repetitious and circumscribed than in Swedish and Prussian Pomerania. Campaigning was mostly confined to Swedish forays from the bridgehead fortress of Stralsund against the line of the Peene and its small strongholds at Demmin, Anklam and Peenemiinde. These works were almost always lost again when the Strelasund froze over with the coming of winter, for the Swedes had to hasten back to Stralsund and the offshore island of Rügen to prevent the Prussians from getting there first by marching across the ice.

There was no chance whatsoever that the Swedes would fulfil their part in the strategy that was sketched out for them by the French staff officer Marc-Rene Montalembert, who urged that ‘the Swedish and Russian armies will accomplish nothing useful for the common cause until they have taken the town of Stettin’ (March 1759, ibid., II, I I). This was a powerful Prussian fortress on the lower Oder, which effectively blocked the way from Swedish Pomerania to the Russians operating on the east side of the Oder. As for the Russians, they claimed that any siege of Stettin would require ‘200,000 men and more artillery than Russia and Sweden can possibly furnish’ (31 August 1759, ibid., II, 62). Perhaps also the Russians perceived that Montalembert deliberately wished them to waste their time and strength in this enormous operation, for by now the French lived in fear of the westward advance of Russia.

The Austrians, however, still looked to the Russians for positive help. Founded by Peter the Great, the Russian engineering corps had been reorganised by Field-Marshal Münnich in the 1730S, and by the time of the Seven Years War it comprised the very respectable total of 1,302 officers and men. Unfortunately, nearly all of these people were inextricably committed to civil engineering and topographical projects, leaving the Russians bereft of technical expertise when they came to attack fortresses.

The chief burden of Russian sieges therefore rested upon the gunners, not the engineers. The Saxon officer Tielke wrote from direct experience that:

the Russians differ from all other nations, in their method of carrying on sieges – instead of first opening trenches to cover themselves from the enemy’s fire, and making batteries with strong parapets for the cannon and mortars, they advance as near as possible up to the town, bring up their artillery without covering it in the least, and after they have cannonaded and bombarded the town about forty-eight hours, they begin to break ground and make regular trenches and batteries. They think that this method inspires the assailants with courage, at the same time as it intimidates the defenders, and may possibly induce these latter to surrender. Both officers and soldiers are on these occasions equally exposed to fire. (Tielke, 1788, II, 133)

Since the Russians conducted their battles and sieges in a nearly identical fashion, the Master-General of the Ordnance, the brilliant and wayward Petr Shuvalov, embarked on a search for a universal general-purpose artillery piece. The result was a curious long-barrelled howitzer called the ‘unicorn’, which fired an explosive shell to a considerable distance but with no great accuracy. In 1758, after the futile cannonade of Küstrin, General Fermor complained that he would rather have more of the conventional siege artillery instead, but Shuvalov was adamant in defence of his ‘unicorns’, claiming that

although their bombs are not especially weighty, they travel with such speed, and along such a flat trajectory that, according to the experiments we have conducted here, they penetrate seven feet into an earthen rampart, and produce a large crater when they burst. (Maslovskii, 1888-93, I, 331-2)

The Russian operations in the Seven Years War fall into two clearly defined phases. The first objective was to reduce the Prussian enclave of East Prussia, which was isolated on the Baltic coast and surrounded by Polish territory on every landward side. The small defending army was beaten in the open field in 1757, and although the Russians fell back to winter quarters, they came on again in January 1758 and occupied the capital of Konigsberg.

The Russians could now embark on the second stage of their war. By taking East Prussia they had opened the way to the River Vistula (Weichsel), which gave them a shield for the conquered lands and a start-line for the advance into Brandenburg. The Prussian heartland was ultimately saved by five strongholds. First of all the works at Kolberg offered the Prussians a base for partisan-type warfare in eastern Pomerania, and denied the Russians the use of the only sizeable harbour on the 150-mile stretch of sandy coast between Danzig and the mouth of the Oder. The lure of Kolberg repeatedly induced the Russians to weaken their army to form siege corps, and they finally reduced the place only in December 1761, after months of blockade and siege. The other four fortresses, the Oder strongholds of Stettin, Kustrin, Breslau and Glogau, managed to defy the Russians for the rest of the war. In 1759 and again in the summer of 1760 the Russians and a powerful corps of Austrians joined forces on the Oder, but the generals could not summon up the energy or the resources to attack the quartet of Prussian fortresses. This was why

they [the Russians] were never able to establish themselves in winter quarters. It never crossed their minds to secure themselves supplies or points d’appui on the Oder, and so they always had to march back to quarters behind the Vistula. These retreats deprived them of the fruits of the campaigns they had just fought, and of all the advantages they had gained. By the same token they experienced considerable delays in opening their next campaigns, and every time they had to re-do everything from the beginning. (Silva, 1778, 41)

Frederick’s field army, the other prop of the Prussian monarchy, was, however, reduced to a parlous state, and without its support the fortress would certainly have fallen in a couple of campaigns. Old Fritz was saved in the nick of time by the death of Empress Elizabeth of Russia on 5 January 1762, which brought in its train the collapse of the anti-Prussian coalition

Stagnation of the Later 18th Century Prussian Army

FREDERICK II (1712-1786). Known as Frederick the Great. King of Prussia, 1740-1786. Frederick the Great returning from Manoeuvres. Oil, 1787, by Edward Francis Cunningham.


So far, so good, but the long-term prospects for Frederick’s Prussia were alarming. The army’s performance had been dismal, as many of the participants recorded. “The Prussian army bears no resemblance to what it was before. There is no life in the generals and as for the officers, they are all demoralized and nowhere can the least order be found” was one verdict. Prince Henry complained that several of his subordinate generals were unfit for service and simply a burden: von Britzke was eighty years old and physically unable to go to war; Lossau had been carrying a bullet in his head since the battle of Torgau in 1760 and had no memory; old age made Kleist immobile; three of the major-generals were well over seventy; the general supposed to be commanding the rearguard could only travel by carriage; and so on. The quality of the rank-and-file was also thought to be deteriorating, not least because increasing numbers of native Prussian subjects were exempted from military service. For all his emphasis on the need for service and duty, Frederick could never bring himself to clear out the dead wood—and neither could his successors until the catastrophe of 1806 forced their hand. Queen Luise famously remarked after that event that Prussia “had fallen asleep on the laurels of Frederick the Great,” but in reality it was Frederick who had dozed off after 1763. In 1767 he wrote to Prince Henry that the Seven Years’ War had “ruined the troops and destroyed discipline” but that he was making good progress in restoring the situation and that in three years everything would be back to normal. The campaign of 1778 disproved that forecast. During the second half of his reign the size of the army increased but there was no equivalent qualitative increase.


By the time of the War of the First Coalition the Prussian Army was still by and large identical with the one of Frederick the Great. Recruitment was based on regimental districts and was confined to the lower classes and the peasantry. Additionally, “foreign” (non-Prussian, though usually German) mercenaries were needed to bring the Prussian Army to the astonishing peacetime strength of nearly 230,000 men (out of a population of 8.7 million). Officers were taken almost exclusively from the nobility and gentry (Junker) so that the army replicated and reinforced the social structure of rural Prussia, while the towndweller stood aside. Far from being a national force that could rely on patriotic feelings for the motivation of its soldiers, the Prussian Army, like many others under the ancien régime, had to enforce discipline mainly by threat of brutal corporal punishment, and desertion was a constant problem. Service was for life; in reality that usually meant twenty years, unless invalided out.

In spite of suggestions primarily of junior officers to implement more progressive concepts, the unreformed army also relied heavily on linear tactics to exploit the massed musketry of its heavy infantry. Innovations like more flexible tactics, light infantry, permanent divisions or corps of mixed arms, and a general staff in the modern sense of the word were known and discussed, but by the 1790s not yet implemented or still in their infancy.

The Prussian army had not merely been defeated; it had been ruined. In the words of one officer who was at Jena: ‘The carefully assembled and apparently unshakeable military structure was suddenly shattered to its foundations.’ This was precisely the disaster that the Prussian neutrality pact of 1795 had been designed to avoid.

The relative prowess of the Prussian army had declined since the end of the Seven Years War. One reason for this was the emphasis placed upon increasingly elaborate forms of parade drill. These were not a cosmetic indulgence – they were underwritten by a genuine military rationale, namely the integration of each soldier into a fighting machine answering to one will and capable of maintaining cohesion under conditions of extreme stress. While this approach certainly had strengths (among other things, it heightened the deterrent effect upon foreign visitors of the annual parade manoeuvres in Berlin), it did not show up particularly well against the flexible and fast-moving forces deployed by the French under Napoleon’s command. A further problem was the Prussian army’s dependence upon large numbers of foreign troops – by 1786, when Frederick died, 110,000 of the 195,000 men in Prussian service were foreigners. There were very good reasons for retaining foreign troops; their deaths in service were easier to bear and they reduced the disruption caused by military service to the domestic economy. However, their presence in such large numbers also brought problems. They tended to be less disciplined, less motivated and more inclined to desert.

To be sure, the decades between the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9) and the campaign of 1806 also saw important improvements. Mobile light units and contingents of riflemen (Jäger) were expanded and the field requisition system was simplified and overhauled. None of this sufficed to make good the gap that swiftly opened up between the Prussian army and the armed forces of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In part, this was simply a question of numbers – as soon as the French Republic began scouring the French working classes for domestic recruits under the auspices of the levée en masse, there was no way the Prussians would be able to keep pace. The key to Prussian policy ought therefore to have been to avoid at all costs having to fight France without the aid of allies.

In the aftermath of the shockingly unexpected defeats at Jena and Auerstädt (fought simultaneously on 14 October 1806) at the hands of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Prussian Army collapsed almost completely. Of its sixty regiments of infantry, most of which had seen a continuous existence of up to two centuries, fifty-one dissolved or went into captivity, never again to be rebuilt. That collapse-and the Treaty of Tilsit (9 July 1807), which reduced Prussia’s population and territory by half-forced the country to disarm radically, burdened it with crippling indemnities, and triggered the series of so-called Prussian Reforms (Preussische Reformen). Taken together, they attempted a complete overhaul of state, economy, army, and society to make Prussia fit for survival in the nineteenth-century struggle of nation-states.