Battle of Reichenbach

King Frederick the Great sent word to his post at Neisse to forward the guns and equipment thereabouts in preparation for his long anticipated siege of the enemy forces now shut up within the Schweidnitz Compound. He then moved his men forward to take up posts for this endeavor. Dittmannsdorf was made his headquarters, and the bluecoat army was put into a half-moon position southwest of the fortress—some ten miles off in the distance—between Seiferba and Juliansdorf. Marshal Daun was, as we know, at Tannhausen, another ten miles southwest and about 20 from Schweidnitz. The latter was now reduced to trying to come up with a plan of his own to foil the Prussian designs upon the fortress. His army was deployed from Donnerau and Gross-Giersdorf, through Tannhausen, leaning over on Falkenberg. The whitecoat right was entrusted to Marshal Lacy, who was by now engaged in some sniping back and forth with the Prussian general Wied.

In this position, the marshal made himself as secure as possible. Daun could not claim ignorance of the importance of keeping a tight grip upon Schweidnitz, if at all possible. July 25, Kaunitz wrote to the marshal a communication conveying the absolute urgency of keeping fast hold upon the Schweidnitz Fortress. The ambitious Frederick had to be denied the place. If the fortress fell, the Austrians would be driven out of Silesia. There would be no further means or forces at hand to prevent this from happening. In response, Daun ordered entrenchments erected to prevent the very aggressive Prussian king from attacking his main post. This seemed to preoccupy the marshal’s time rather than the more important task of trying to relieve Schweidnitz.

Meanwhile, Frederick drove forward with his preliminaries against the place with a great will. He appointed the finest of his officers in that sort of work, Tauentzein (memorable from his staunch defense of Breslau in an earlier time) to head up his siege forces. Tauentzein was given a force of men, about 12,000 strong (composed of 21 battalions and 20 squadrons), with great expectations being looked for. The batteries of Tauentzein were of 28 24-pounders, 50 12-pounders, 20 50-pounder mortars, and 12 7-pounder howitzers. That being stated, the king fully anticipated the fall of the fortress within a few short weeks. Then the confident Frederick could proceed to clear out Silesia of the enemy and then go help Prince Henry over in Saxony. As soon as the required equipment could come forward, Tauentzein at once set to his task. August 7, he had his first parallel dug, which commenced the siege. This first effort of the siege was some “nine hundred paces from the Jauernicker Fort” at northwest Schweidnitz. The king about this time recalled Bevern from out near Glogau to escort the supply trains coming in from Neisse against light parties of the enemy.

As for the Austrian garrison shut up in Schweidnitz, they at least had an abundance of provisions and supplies within the walls of the compound; in the short term. This could only help them in the defense of Schweidnitz. As for the Prussians engaged in besieging the place, they suffered to a great degree in the initial phases of the siege, especially in view of the very energetic garrison there, from the effectiveness of their own efforts to render Schweidnitz as impregnable as possible in the days when they had the fortress. The measures that their engineers had devised were thus turned against them by Guasco & Company.

In the event, the bluecoats opened (and maintained) a fierce bombardment of Schweidnitz, but Franz Guasco himself made a determined resistance with his own resources. He defended the fortress with a tenacity and vigilance that might, under different circumstances, have caused even Frederick to admire his efforts. While the besieging forces were laboring on their works, Guasco’s garrison tried their best to interrupt the enterprise. Guasco’s force, although handpicked, was largely composed of homogenous groups, none of which had enough members to establish even a unit identity. In fact, apparently language alone was a great barrier within the ranks of Schweidnitz’s garrison. A number of different tongues were understood by the defenders, which, in combination with the above factor, served even further to separate the men into little groupings. German was, of course, the major language used, but there were also French, Italian, Hungarian, Czech, even English, among the rest. Intrigue and cliqués could not help but thrive under these conditions. For example, Major-General Ernst Friedrich Giannini, the immediate commander of the Austrian field forces within the place, was at odds with Guasco. Giannini disliked the commandant intensely and made no secret of it. Worse, Guasco was fully aware that Giannini had shared several negative communications with Marshal Daun concerning the conduct of the siege.

Back to the unfolding events. A large part of the garrison, about 5,000 men, emerged from behind Schweidnitz’s walls and attacked the bluecoats very early in the siege (night of August 7–8). The assailants forced back the parties engaged in digging siege works around Schweidnitz. The effort, although valiant, was speedily contained. Tauentzein attempted to mine under the fortress, but Guasco employed an expert of his own, Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, and he spoiled this effort in the bud. Soon, however, hunger must force the issue, for the number of people sealed off in Schweidnitz itself meant that the food supply situation must speedily become downright critical. Simon Deodat Lefèbvre (Tauentzein’s engineer in this business) kept up the pace, while Marshal Daun stayed put right where he was, at Tannhausen, perfectly content not to interfere. His subordinates, Laudon, Lacy, Beck, were all deployed on the flanks and rear.

Lefebvre was a great believer in building both a rampart and a retaining wall on which to work overhead simultaneously. This design he would freely practice, with the Prussian king’s blessing, upon Schweidnitz. The future besieger of Schweidnitz had once penned a note to the conceiver of a device known as ‘globes,’ which could be planted to explode at critical points in tunnels, causing great damage. The correspondence was addressed to Bernhard Forest de Belidor, a French artillery/siege/mining warfare expert. The latter was decent enough to reply, giving Lefebvre some ‘pointers’ he could use later at the Siege of Schweidnitz in 1762.

Daun played the part of a thorn in Frederick’s side during these proceedings to perfection. But he could not afford to vacillate. Something which the powers that be back in Vienna had to be weary of. In short order, it became necessary to order the marshal to go relieve Schweidnitz, as Daun was in danger of “meandering.” August 10, the necessary instructions were sent to the marshal’s headquarters. It was imperative that some attempt or another be made to relieve the fortress. Austrian honor and the coming peace negotiations both demanded some satisfaction in this matter.

Daun now decided to attempt a maneuver to take some of the pressure off of Guasco. The bluecoats would have to be thrown off-balance, and supplies slipped in to shore up the faltering defenders of the fortress, particularly of ammunition. Unlike foodstuffs, there was a potential shortage in the supply of suitable shot and shell. One which could prove critical long before the food supply would ever become low. As usual, the marshal was to leave the main work of dealing with the Prussian threat to others; in this case, to Generals Beck and Lacy. The scheme was to outflank the enemy by a maneuver to round the Prussian lines in the south near Költschen and so gradually wiggle the Austrian formations up to Zobten and the rise thereabouts.

This would, of course, mean the immediate ruin to the bluecoat effort upon Schweidnitz. Beck and Lacy would start the effort upon the enemy nearby, at a rise called the Fiscaberg, where the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern (who had arrived from Neisse attended at a distance by Beck’s troopers) was in charge. This height, located near Reichenbach (about 12 miles southeast of Schweidnitz), had to be laid hold of before the Koltschen enterprise could begin.

The wheeling movement was very involved, and the only Prussian force that could bar the Austrian motion was a cavalry force of 38 squadrons under Prince Friedrich Eugene of Württemberg, deployed in and about Peterswaldau. Another block force, this one under General Werner, moved up to join his compatriots at Peterswaldau. The king would still need to keep the remaining forces of Daun busy over by Tannhausen and that region in the meanwhile. Just about the same time, the bluecoats were no doubt beginning to realize that their Oriental “allies” were going to be a No-Show in their long-projected (but never implemented) invasion of the Habsburg Empire.

As for General Beck, he and his force had been kept busy barring Moravia from the incursions of the Prussians. The Duke of Brunswick-Bevern had been consolidating his position in the hills to the south of Schweidnitz. These passes turned out to be critical for both sides, especially with the Prussian investment of Schweidnitz. General Beck, with a force of some 12,000 men at Zuckmantel, was Daun’s chief relief force in the area immediately by those hills. August 8, Beck was ordered to move from that locale in Moravia, to join up with the main Austrian army about Kloster-Kamenz.

Bevern endeavored to intercept his enemy over by Nimptsch, and by means of a night march, from Münsterberg, the previous night, in the late afternoon of August 13, the Prussians of Bevern took up post in and about Reichenbach, hard about Peilau in the process, they drove back a force from Beck’s rearguard that sought the very same ground for their camp at just about the same time. Prussian pickets pressed back the Johnnys-come-lately, and forthwith took up posts of their own at Pulzendorf and Ellgeuth. The effort paid off hadsomely. Bevern was able to bring 11 battalions and 25 squadrons to bear on the day of Reichenbach. The horse, under General Lentulus, were deployed over by the Fiscaberg. As for artillery, Bevern boasted a large force of guns, 28 heavy pieces and ten 7-pounder howitzers.

Now, suddenly, it was the turn of the bluecoats to be a thorn in Marshal Daun’s side, this in the form of Bevern and his men hard about Reichenbach. The events connected with this effort would lead directly to the aforementioned wheeling movement that would precipitate what was to be the last offensive operations of the Austrians of the war in Silesia.

So Daun ordered out Lacy to recover the rise, with Beck and Brentano, as usual, to play the roles of subordinates. Laudon was detached and sent with a body of some 20,000 men back towards the Warta to keep that area secure. Daun was to remain at Tannhausen with the main army to follow as soon as the Fiscaberg was taken. However, this last offensive effort undertaken by the Austrians in Silesia during the war, as usual, was a lot more plan than actual substance.

The whitecoat forces here totaled about 45,000 men. Of that total, some 25,000 men would constitute the main attack force, divided into 33 battalions and nine units of Austrian cavalry. Lacy reached the western end of the target rise shortly after dawn on August 16. He encamped within the vicinity of three nearby population centers (Upper-, Middle-, and Nether-Peilau) on the road to Gross Nossen, south of Reichenbach. Lacy was determined to recover the rise, and the Prussians were resolved to hang on to the height to thwart Daun’s efforts to upset the siege of Schweidnitz. The king, who was with Bevern, observed the newcomers for a time, while Lacy was busy feeling out the strength and the layout of the Prussian positions. On Lacy’s flank, Beck was positioned with his men, of 14 battalions, four cavalry regiments, and one hussar regiment (Brentano was with Lacy). Brentano boasted a force of eight battalions, four cavalry regiments, and two of the by now invaluable Croats. Now entered a modicum of deception on the part of the whitecoats. When Lacy, with nine battalions, deliberately showed his apparent intention to remain quiescent for a time (i.e., by pitching tents, cooking the men’s meals, etc.), Frederick took this view at face-value and just returned to his headquarters.

Beck’s march shortly afterwards escaped his notice (in fact his men were visible to the king’s sight but the latter apparently felt that Beck would likewise stay put). The Austrian plan was similar to that carried out by Frederick at Burkersdorf, turned in this case against the originator, with the exception that this effort was to be directed against an enemy on one rise only.

Beck’s command struck off through the thick woods, aiming to steal round and strike from the eastern side, while Lacy did his best to keep Bevern occupied on the western face. About 1700 hours, Lacy suddenly deployed his well-prepared, rested men in long lines to distract Bevern on the Fiscaberg, opening a spirited bombardment, in the meanwhile, towards the Prussian positions. Austrian cavalrymen endeavored to threaten Bevern, but he deployed riders of his own to deal with that incursion. Meanwhile, General Carl O’Donnell, with five small cavalry regiments, would act as a screen over by Nieder-Peilau against the Prussian cavalry force massed at Peterswaldau.

Lacy did not attack, he never intended to; as we have seen, his only function was to keep the enemy busy while Beck did his job. The latter’s march through intricate terrain was of necessity slow, in three individual columns, and it was long after Lacy showed his men when Beck finally got into position. The latter drove forward at once, but found the foe, complemented by swampy ground there and blockposts, ready for just such a maneuver. Prussian artillery opened up with a raking fire, under which Beck’s men became bogged down. In short order, the bluecoats occupying Dittmannsdorf and Kleutsch had been driven back.

Meanwhile, the force of General Beck, divided into three different groupings, moved out about 1430 hours. Beck’s left, of three cavalry regiments, deployed over towards Gnadenfrei, this to shield Beck’s main body from the irruptions on his left. Simbschen, meantime, in the immediate area advanced a body of infantry (and some of the jäger) to go take post in the churchyard at Oder-Peilau. From that point, they began peppering the bluecoats, which kept Bevern’s attention fixed to that vicinity while General Beck took his main force, led chiefly by the 21st Cavalry Regiment of Trautmannsdorf, on a swing round to the Girlsberg. At the latter, three regiments which were present erupted about 1750 hours. The Prussians in that post, at least initially, repulsed the first stroke, but a renewed attack was pressed home with rather more success. The bluecoats in that region, principally the 28/32 Grenadier Battalion, put up a tough resistance. Reinforcements of grenadiers promptly joined the ruckus, and, significantly, the opposing 35th Infantry of Prince Henry, suffered almost to a debilitating degree from the battle effort and had to retire. It had been visibly shaken in the drama of the moment.

In sum, the whitecoats could not fail to take advantage of the enemy’s retreat, the limited extent of it that was thereabouts, and Beck was soon at Girlsberg. There a flanking position was turned round to confront the enemy on the Fiscaberg. The Austrians set up ordnance of their own to shell the Prussian posts opposite to them. General Beck, quite naturally, assumed that both Lacy and Brentano would forthwith attack the foe in short order. The order to advance was given, but the Prussians before him, who were actually not engaged just then in any other fight, instead sharply repulsed Beck’s men when they were launched in a short while. As for General Brentano, his “attack” made little forward progress at all. The bombardment by the Prussian guns in the area where Brentano’s men were was sufficiently intense that the whitecoats could not get free from the ground about Nieder-Peilau, although O’Donnell’s cavalry sure did its part. There was more. Brentano’s men did unhitch their guns, over on the rise called the Sampertsberg. Brentano failed utterly to attack the foe with his infantry.

Subsequently, Beck’s attacks all miscarried, Bevern rushing reinforcements (a total of about 25 squadrons of fresh cavalry) to the scene from the still quiet western face, knowing what the enemy had really intended now. In the meanwhile, O’Donnell was making the most of the opportunity offered to him. The Austrian horse emerged into the streets of Nieder-Peilau late in the afternoon, about 1600 hours. The horse accompaniment of Brentano galloped over to join up, and the whitecoat cavalry now formed up in that immediate vicinity with much more on its collective mind than just screening the army from the incursions of Prussian cavalry.

At the appearance of their foe and the relatively weak cavalry screen, Bevern and Lentulus’s riders erupted into full bore action as quickly as they could. This charge was a drawn-out affair, participated in by not just Bevern’s horse, a composite grouping under Lt.-Col. Karl Philipp von Owstein (consisting of some 700 men), but also by the 13 squadrons that General Lentulus was bringing with him to the scene. The ensuing action was short-lived but sharp, and it was noticeable. The bluecoat riders sped past the Spittelberg and over by Sampertsberg. Initially, the fight favored the Prussians, but the support of the Austrian ordnance in the short run eventually forced Bevern’s and Lentulus’ riders to recoil. General O’Donnell was thus enabled to try to rally his shaken cavalry screen against this backdrop.

It was a good thing that O’Donnell was allowed a respite in which to rally his forces. This was very shortly, by about 1800 hours, to bear fruition with the reality that Brentano and Lacy had no real intention of attacking, Frederick turned his attention to the one Austrian force before him, small as it was, that was apparently in earnest. Accordingly, the king himself “riding the exceptionally fast white Cossack horse Caesar was in the lead,” bringing a force of Prussian cavalry galloping from Peterswaldau over the way to Reichenbach on a mission.

Prussian Horse Artillery, under Major von Anhalt, making a rare appearance in the war, then opened a punishing fire right into the soon serried ranks of the Austrian cavalry, emptying saddle after saddle as well as decimating the enemy’s horse.

The Prussian reinforcements moved quickly to the scene. To elaborate, a large part of the bluecoat force making its way towards Reichenbach was composed of foot soldiers, whose advent was of necessity to be slower. Three full regiments of the cuirassiers, including the 8th Cuirassiers of Seydlitz, galloped to the area as fast as their horses could carry them. The newcomers (about 1830 hours) rolled across the Hühn Bach, striking and rolling over the already shaken Austrian cavalry. Five Austrian battle flags were captured in this particular tussle.

While Bevern’s cavalry again took O’Donnell’s force under fire, Lentulus’ command (the Duke of Württemberg Dragoons, the Flanns Dragoons, and a hussar force) also reappeared, after a suitable interval. The latter sought at once to overwhelm the Austrian right, which pressed hard against the whitecoats, causing them much anxiety. Resistance was determined to be sure, but the efforts of General O’Donnell and of his cavalry screen were all in vain this time. The Prussian superiority in numbers here was just too compelling to resist. Added to all of this was the fact that the attack from the front and right flank simultaneously was threatening to squeeze the defenders like a vise, which did nothing but aggravate the situation. The Austrians soon reeled back towards Nieder-Peilau in short order. At the latter post, almost entirely within the confined spaces of the little town, stood the beleaguered infantry of General Brentano. The horse were simultaneously leaving the field in confusion. On the other hand, the foot soldiers, with more to shelter behind, and with plenty of cracks and crevices to fire from behind, immediately put the pursuing Prussian cavalry at a distinct disadvantage. The fire of the infantry thereabouts quickly brought the Prussian pursuit to a screeching halt.

All of this had to be visible to the eyes of Marshal Daun, who was, at that moment, hard by the village of Habensdorf. It must have been clear that Austrian efforts to secure a rescue route in to Schweidnitz were going up in literal smoke. Different riders coming and going throughout the course of the battle must have filled Daun and his entourage with some sense of uneasiness.

Frederick, by then, had also figured out what the whitecoats were doing. Earlier he had returned to his lines in the north, believing that Lacy had no intention of trying an attack on that day. Then, later, he heard the sounds of cannonading to the south near Reichenbach, although he was still hesitant to believe that the Austrians were stirring. When the firing failed to die down, the king hustled off reinforcements to go help Bevern. The forces dispatched raced to the aid of the bluecoats near to Reichenbach.

Bevern, in the meanwhile, proceeded to repel Beck’s best efforts, and Lacy unaccountably failed to give aid to his subordinate. Now word reached the scene that Frederick was after all coming to Bevern’s rescue, and Beck, seeing no gain for all his wasted labors here, drew back to Tannhausen, accompanied by the Lacy-Brentano force (Frederick sent horsemen on ahead to strike a blow against Lacy and deployed some horsed artillery to lob shells at the latter). General Andreas Panovsky’s Walloon Dragoons charged forward and brought the intruders up short in heavy fighting, but the extent of Frederick’s force convinced the Austrian commander that it was time to go. This was about 1900 hours. Lacy’s withdrawal ended the Battle of Reichenbach; which was actually more like a heavy skirmish by the standards of Zorndorf and Torgau.

But this was Daun’s last legitimate effort to rescue his trapped garrison in Schweidnitz from certain surrender. Guasco & Company were now left to their own paltry resources. The next morning, the joy fires of the foe told the disheartened Guasco all that he needed to know. He realized now that his position was nothing short of dire.

The losses of the two sides in the Battle of Reichenbach were the following: the Austrians lost 140 killed, 373 wounded, and 407 missing, a total of 920 men; the Prussian loss was 997 men from all causes. Marshal Daun, after celebrating the “victory” of Beck and reorganizing his army, fell back on Warta and the Silberberg. Reichenbach, which was claimed as a victory by both the Austrians and the Prussians, was the final battle of the war waged by the army under Frederick’s own command. In a war which seemed to be winding up in a stalemate, it is perhaps fitting that the final battle between the two major antagonists should be so considered. Now Prince Ferdinand and Prince Henry still had some unfinished business of their own. The Austrians were also still stirring, even after August 16. Marshal Daun sent a dispatch rider to Guasco’s lines. He had no recourse but to inform the latter that this last effort to save Schweidnitz was an utter failure, in spite of the “victory” of Reichenbach.

Guasco, as a result, was finally given free rein to seek an honorable surrender for Schweidnitz on the best terms available from the Prussians. From Warta, meanwhile, with one weary eye turned towards possible enemy pursuit, the marshal’s army commenced, one more time, to drift backwards. August 19, the Austrians withdrew in earnest, by Schafeneck, on to Neurode.

The king’s army followed up, placing detachments at and about Habendorf and Weiselsdorf. The only option left to Guasco at this point was to hold out as long as he was able to and could offer a reasonable defense. Frederick had resorted to mining under the Austrian defenses of Schweidnitz, but this turned out to be one of the king’s most neauseating, least-rewarding, occupations. He was neither good at it, nor did he have the patience to be able to practice it well. Lastly, conducting sieges were so rare an occurrence for the king, that he lacked practice as well. On the other hand, the successful siege/capture of Schweidnitz, even by the slow machinations of mining, would finally salt away the Prussian occupation of Silesia for themselves. In effect, achieving the main reason for war in the first place, especially in view of Maria Theresa’s efforts to regain Silesia from the beginning.

Armies of Valmy II

Tactics of the Revolution

The tactical discussions and self-reflection of the royal army had a profound impact on the tactics used by the armies of the Republic. The generals of the Republic were still discussing the merits of l’ordre mince, thin linear formations, versus l’ordre profonde, deeper columnar formations. In addition, there were both practical and political concerns to consider. The pragmatic concern was that the soldiers of the Republic were not the long-serving regulars who had taken to the drill field at the camp at Vaussieux to experiment with the competing systems. The soldiers of the Republic were a mix of the remnants of that army and new recruits, many of whom had little or no prior service and whose training at the battalion level – so important to effective manoeuvre on the battlefield – was suspect.

On the political level, the revolutionary governments were great advocates of l’arme blanche, the use of cold steel to win victories. It was assumed that such weapons suited the highly motivated citoyens of the Republic. This sentiment was so strong that in the summer of 1792 the Minister of War, Joseph Servan de Gerby (1741-1808), advocated the organization of battalions of pikemen, and nearly half a million pikes were actually produced.

It seems clear that most of the Republic’s generals preferred the system of tactics proposed by Guibert and embodied in the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791, namely the three-rank line of l’ordre mince. But the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 was not an inflexible treatise. It allowed for the use of columns for a variety of tasks, including manoeuvring to position a battalion for a firefight as well as to assault positions such as fortifications and built-up areas such as towns or villages, which might need to be taken at the point of the bayonet. One famous example of a general who intended to follow Guibert’s doctrine and the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 is General Charles Fran~ois Dumouriez (1739-1823).

On 6 November 1792, at the Battle of ]emappes, Dumouriez’s 40,000 troops attacked 13,000 entrenched Austrians. The French advanced in open columns and began deploying into line as they approached the enemy positions. The French centre was roughly handled by the Austrians as its columns attempted to deploy into line under fire, but their left drove the Austrians from their positions. Such tactics may have been beyond the level of training that the French forces possessed at the time, although changing formation under the enemy’s guns is difficult for even well-trained troops, not to mention ill advised. But ]emappes also demonstrated other influences on the tactics of the Revolutionary forces. First is the extensive use of light troops operating in open order. On the French right, the terrain was ill suited to the use of heavy columns.

As a result, the French troops there advanced in skirmish order. This shows the willingness of French commanders to modify the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 to fit their capabilities, and the use of entire battalions and demi-brigades deployed in open order is a perfect example.

Light Troops

Most of the French treatises pre-dating the Revolution are relatively silent on the use of light troops, focusing instead on the line-versus-column question. Yet revolutionary armies made extensive use of this formation. This can be viewed as an example of tactical flexibility based on the capabilities of the available troops.

Actually, a screen of skirmishers meets the spirit of Guibert’s doctrine in that it is an imperfect linear formation – and one that might be employed by troops who are highly motivated, 18 rather than well trained. Jemappes also demonstrated the advantage to be gained by superior numbers. Dumouriez was able to concentrate more than three times the number of his enemy. In combination, these two elements allowed French forces to keep up near constant pressure on their enemies at the tactical level. Unlike the eighteenth-century model of grand tactics, in which individual units were not considered to matter, this system understood the significance of individual units, in differing formations, often fitting the terrain or circumstances, and fielded in sufficient numbers to provide critical mass at a decisive point on the battlefield.

Another example of the flexibility of Republican forces can be seen in the tactics developed to deal with the uprisings in the west of France. In addition to fighting the standing armies of states such as Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain, the Republic also had to deal with irregular forces raised by various counter-revolutionary factions in areas such as the Vendee and Brittany. The insurgents were initially poorly armed but became better armed as they defeated the first units sent against them – ill-trained units of National Guardsmen and hastily raised units of regulars. Later units were better trained and they were able to defeat the rebels, whether in open battle or in the attack or defence of towns or cities.

However, in what would foreshadow a number of actions against irregulars in places such as Spain and the Tyrol, the army struggled against the ambushes and small actions perpetrated by the insurgents. Despite the fact that the French Army had considerable experience of irregular warfare, gained in regions such as North America, there was no commensurate interest in the study of tactics of ‘the little war’.

Tactics and doctrine were developed in the course of the conflict. For example, General Louis Lazare Hoche (1768-97) wrote and promulgated his Instructions for those Troops Employed in Fighting the Chouans, the latter term used for the rebels in Brittany. These instructions emphasized the importance of unit cohesion, reconnaissance and force protection against the rebels, who often used numbers to overwhelm small, disorganized units of regular troops. On the tactical level, the instructions emphasized linear tactics to bring the maximum amount of firepower to bear against the rebels. Indeed, Hoche mandated not only that his troops fight in a line but that it be a two-rank line to make use of all of the battalions’ manpower in the combat. Skirmishers were also to be used, but in small numbers and always supported by formed troops, thereby ensuring that they were not lured too far from their lines and cut off.

Finally, the Revolutionary armies made extensive use of artillery, as advocated by Guibert and especially Chevalier du Tell. This was possible thanks to the work of Gribeauval, who had introduced lighter artillery pieces, and the fact that the artillery, of all the combat arms, had probably weathered the strains of the Revolution the best. It had, for example, retained a larger percentage of its officer corps than either the infantry or cavalry.

Artillery Innovations

The revolutionary forces built on earlier improvements and theories and made innovations of its own. One was the reintroduction of battalion guns. Two of these light 4-pounder cannon were attached to each infantry battalion. While these may have impeded the speed of the battalion, they did potentially add to the unit’s firepower. Equally importantly, they reduced the fragility and vulnerability of the battalion, both by boosting morale and by serving to deter pursuit in the even that the unit panicked. The second innovation was the introduction of horse artillery. While very expensive to maintain, both in terms of horseflesh and logistical requirements, the horse batteries provided significant offensive punch.

Initially it was thought that they might stiffen the cavalry, much as battalion guns did for the infantry, but soon these gunners considered themselves to be an elite unit. Their speed, mobility and elan allowed them to provide direct fire support and, in the words of General Foy (1775-1825), a horse artilleryman himself, ‘to get up close and shoot fast’.

The armies of the Revolution were thus able to draw on nearly a century of military self-reflection and intellectual developments. But, they could do so only in a loose fashion since many of the developments were intended for the old royal army. What made the armies of the Republic successful, at least in part, was their ability to be flexible and to modify these developments as the capabilities of their forces allowed.

Prussian Forces

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 town-dweller 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.

France was fortunate that her enemies were slow in reacting, the more so since her troops were split into a multiplicity of armies, each covering a fraction of one of her several frontiers. This gave her a complicated command structure, further confused by personal animosities and incompetent direction from the centre. It was not until 19 August that 55,000 Prussians, with 16,000 Austrians in distant support, crossed into France at Longwy. Their commander, Ferdinand of Brunswick, a hero of the Seven Years’ War, disapproved of his orders, which were to march on Paris, and advanced with a deliberation which bordered on lethargy. He announced that it was impracticable to advance beyond the Meuse and was only drawn further forward by the unsolicited surrender of the fortress of Verdun.

On 20 September, Ferdinand found himself opposed by a French force drawn up near Valmy. There were nearly 60,000 of them, partly regulars from the Armée du Rhin under Kellermann, partly volunteers from the Armée du Nord under Dumouriez. The regulars put up an impressive front and they were superbly supported by their gunners. When the Prussian army had suffered 184 casualties from artillery fire, Ferdinand declared the French position impregnable and set out to evacuate France. He was not pursued and took even longer in retreating to Longwy than he had spent in advancing from that place.

On paper the Prussian army had a strength of more than a quarter of a million men. Not all of these could be found in practice and after deducting some garrisons, the field force available amounted to 175,000, to which could be added 20,000 Saxons, that country having been overawed into concluding an alliance with her large northern neighbour. If ten years of ignominious neutrality had hurt the pride of her officer corps, it had not persuaded them to modernize their army to cope with the new conditions of war. As befitted the heir to the victorious traditions of Frederick the Great it was magnificently fitted to fight the wars of the mid-eighteenth century.

No other army kept its ranks so straight, manoeuvred in so precise (or so slow) a fashion and fired such impressive (or such inaccurate) volleys. Learning from its experience in the War of Bavarian Succession, it had equipped itself with so elaborate a supply train that it regarded a day’s march as being exceptionally satisfactory if 20 kilometres could be covered, a fifth less than any other major army. True to the eighteenth-century tradition it was largely composed of mercenaries  at least 80,000 of its men were not Prussian nationals. Its commanders too were men of the Seven Years’ War. The nominal head was Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, nephew to Frederick the Great, who had seen action at Valmy. His chief subordinates, Prince Frederick of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen and General von Ruchel. The King’s chief military adviser, von Mollendorf, was 70, while Frederick William himself, who presided at the Councils of War, was only 36 but had all the indecision of a dotard.

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

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

The inadequacies of the Prussian army had been exposed in the period 1792–95 when, as part of the first coalition, it encountered the then pre-Napoleonic French revolutionary army of mostly untrained volunteers and lost.

Battle of Valmy, (20 September 1792)

Painting of the Battle of Valmy by Horace Vernet from 1826. The white-uniformed infantry to the right are regulars while the blue-coated ranks to the left represent the citizen volunteers of 1791.

Important battle of the War of the First Coalition (1792- 1797), usually identified as one of the decisive battles in world history. In July 1792 an Allied Austrian and Prussian force assembled at Coblenz in the Rhineland with the aim of marching on Paris, rescuing King Louis XVI, and crushing the French Revolution. Charles William (Karl Wilhelm), Duke of Brunswick, had command. Although accounts vary, the invasion force probably numbered about 84,000 men: 42,000 Prussians, 29,000 Austrians, 5,000 Hessians, and 8,000 French émigrés. The invaders planned a movement in which the main force under Brunswick, accompanied by Prussian King Frederick William II, would be protected on its flanks by two Austrian corps, one each to the north and south. The attackers planned to move west between the two principal French defending armies: the Armée du Nord under General Charles François Dumouriez (from 16 August) and the Armée du Centre under General François Etienne Christophe Kellermann (after 27 August). Once the invaders had taken the poorly provisioned French border fortresses, they could move to Chalons, and from there they would have fertile and open territory to Paris.

The Allied invasion of France began in late July and moved at a leisurely pace. On 19 August the Allies crossed the French frontier. Longwy fell on 23 August and Verdun on 2 September. With the fall of the two fortresses, the way to Paris seemed open. Brunswick’s forces then moved into the thick woods, narrow defiles, and marshy lowlands of the Argonne, terrain that favored the defender. Torrential rains aided the French, playing havoc with Brunswick’s lines of communication, and dysentery felled many men.

The government in Paris ordered Dumouriez, who believed the best way to thwart the invasion would be to invade the Austrian Netherlands, to move south and block Brunswick. On 1 September, along with the bulk of his army, he moved from Sedan and took up position in the passes of the Argonne. Although Dumouriez’s men fought well and bought valuable time, Brunswick’s troops took a lightly defended pass at Croix-aux-Bois, turning the French. Dumouriez then withdrew to Sainte-Manehould and Valmy, where he could threaten Brunswick’s flank. Kellermann joined him at Valmy south of the river Bionne on 19 September. The village of Valmy lay between hills to its north, west, and south.

The French generals had planned to withdraw farther west, but the appearance of Brunswick’s army early on the tenth from the north had cut off that route. Brunswick was now closer to Paris than were Dumouriez and Kellermann, but he needed to remove the French threat to his supply lines, and he had only about 30,000-34,000 men to accomplish this. Dumouriez’s exhausted force of 18,000 men formed a second line east of Valmy. Kellermann commanded the first French line of some 36,000 men, drawn up along a ridge topped by a windmill just west of Valmy. Kellermann’s force consisted of an equal mix of trained prewar soldiers and untrained but enthusiastic volunteers. Among French officers on the field that day was young Louis-Philippe, later king of the French.

Early morning fog on 20 September soon dissipated, and once he had identified the French positions, Brunswick positioned his own men on high ground some 2,500 yards to the west and prepared to attack. Brunswick had fifty-four guns; Kellermann only thirty-six. Brunswick was confident of victory, for his troops were far better trained.

The “Battle” of Valmy of 20 September was more a cannonade than anything else. It opened that morning when King Frederick William ordered the Prussian guns to bombard the French positions prior to an infantry assault. The French artillery, well handled by men of the preRevolutionary army, replied. A distance of some 2,500 yards between the two sides and soft ground from recent heavy rains meant that the exchange of fire inflicted little damage on either side. Nonetheless, the Prussians had expected the green French troops to break and run at the first volley and were amazed when they stood their ground.

The Prussian infantry then began an advance as if on parade across the soggy ground. Perhaps Brunswick hoped the French would bolt, but when they failed to do so, he halted his troops after about 200 yards. One French battalion after another took up the cry of “Vive la nation!” About 2:00 P. M. a lucky hit from a Prussian shell exploded an ammunition wagon near the windmill, and the French guns momentarily fell silent; then the battle resumed. Brunswick ordered a second advance, but his men got no farther than about 650 yards from the French. Brunswick then ordered a halt, followed by a retirement. At 4:00 P. M. he summoned a council of war and announced, “We do not fight here.”

Losses on both sides were slight: The Prussians lost 164 men, the French about 300. Brunswick had not been enthusiastic about the offensive that culminated at Valmy. He had wanted only to secure positions east of the Argonne in preparation for a major campaign the following spring. The movement farther west had been at the insistence of the king, and Brunswick now used the rebuff as an excuse to halt the offensive. The dispirited Prussian forces lingered in the area for ten days, but on the night of 30 September-1 October they broke camp and withdrew, recrossing the French border on 23 October.

Although, even had he won at Valmy, Brunswick would probably not have immediately moved against Paris, the battle ended any Allied hopes of crushing the French Revolution in 1792. The government in Paris then authorized Dumouriez to carry out his plan to conquer the Austrian Netherlands, and on 6 November forces under his command defeated the Austrians at Jemappes.

The Battle of Valmy marked the recovery of the French Army from its disastrous state early in the Revolution. It was important not only as a military and political event but also as marking the end of the age of dynastic armies with no stake in, nor understanding of the political purpose of, wars being fought, and the arrival of the new age of patriotic “national” armies. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was present that day, understood this. When some Prussian officers asked him what he thought of the battle, he reportedly replied, “From this place, and from this day forth, commences a new era in the world’s history; and you can all say that you were present at its birth” (Creasy 1987, 179).

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The Affair of Teplitz

August 2, 1762

During August 1762 the Prussians were after more than just a nuisance raid or two. Tearing up property, looting, raping citizens, might all help demoralize the civilian population in the affected areas all right, at least to an extent, but the destruction of the Austrian magazines in Northern Bohemia would compel the whitecoats to give up Saxony. At least in the short run. This last one was a most desirable outcome. The expedition unfolded accordingly, General Kanitz rolled into Sebastienberg (August 1), about the same time, Seydlitz with his body of men ranged to Komotau. The enemy thereabouts, under our old friend Török, slowly pulled back, confronted on his side by the appearance of Kleist, who was at Johnsdorf almost before the Allies realized it. Seydlitz & Company made a juncture, then pressed on Dux. Some of the bluecoats made it first to Ossegg, other forces drove the enemy scouts to and through Brüx.

But the enemy, led thereabouts by Count Löwenstein, did not come to blows. This time, the duo failed a mission, finding Löwenstein firmly emplaced at Teplitz. “Green” Kleist wanted to attack at once, proposing the very bold plan of striking fully at the enemy on August 1, before they ascertained the presence of the bluecoats and before the Allies had withdrawn to a post where they could put up a decent defense. In their present state, Löwenstein’s force was both understrength and very unsteady for battle. But the bold Prussian stroke for August 1 was thwarted by the normally very bold General Seydlitz. Seydlitz, unaccountably, insisted on a one-day grace to allow the infantry time enough to arrive. This delay enabled Löwenstein to repel the initial Prussian assault when it came, promptly forcing the Prussians to beat a retreat back to base. The Allies left 165 men in the clutches of the enemy. The upshot was, the foe held him cold and Prince Henry was most certainly disappointed.

As for Löwenstein, his command was most typical of the field formations that the Allies could field for this last campaign of the war in Saxony. Almost entirely bereft of light cavalry, even the “regular” cavalry formations, unlike their Prussian counterparts, were often very much understrength. As for General Seydlitz, he had seen little service (at least in a military sense) since the field of Kunersdorf in 1759. “Seydlitz’s health was also so poor that he often said of himself … the prince could not always depend upon him.”

Nothing daunted, the prince’s command was nothing if not resilient. The bluecoats were unbuckled upon Neuhof, leaning over at Preschen, which movement was well screened by the cavalry of Belling. The Prussians did not lack for confidence, and it was a worried Count Löwenstein who sent a dispatch rider galloping to General MacQuire, requesting the prompt dispatch of reinforcements to help out his hard-pressed command. At the same time, he shifted his forces to as favorable a post as possible for the forthcoming bluecoat attack.

Meanwhile, during the overnight, the bluecoat cavalry tried its very best to earn its reputation here by putting as much pressure on the enemy as was possible. Under cover of darkness, the bluecoats commenced assembling for attack the next morning, beginning their preparation at about 2200 hours. While the Allies kept within their lines during the night, their foes were moving into attack position, maneuvering to make an effort to drive away the enemy. The Belling Hussars about this time gained possession of the Wachloderberg and vicinity. By about 0400 hours, the Allies, not willing to wait for the enemy to strike, unleashed a large cavalry attack to try to drive Belling off of his post.

The Prussian march was still moving up, which commenced at about 0400 hours on August 2. “Green” Kleist, leading a force of six full battalions of infantry and 18 squadrons of fine cavalry, moved round towards the eastern side of Löwenstein’s position hard by the little village of Hundorf. As for the main attack, it was to be entrusted to General Seydlitz, with a force of some five battalions and another 18 squadrons of cavalry. The front of the Allied position was covered by marshy ground and dotted with little ponds. This was probably the best possible position in which to await attack, particularly when the enemy just happened to be Prussians. In the event, Seydlitz’ men erupted by Ullersdorf, from where they were screened from enemy detection by swarms of light troops flung out before them. The enemy, who had so few of the valuable light troops, were indeed caught by surprise. The move up was, of course, in the predawn darkness, and Löwenstein was thus almost entirely blind to the intentions of his enemy. In all fairness, the commander tried his best, but the budget cuts, well…

At this point, the initial Austrian cavalry charge pressed Belling off from his new post on the Wachloderberg. The Benedict Daun [27th] Cuirassiers, along with the Battyány (7thDragoons) and the 23rd Cuirassiers of Stampa, fighting all the while, played a prominent part in this repulse of the Prussian cavalry. Infantry support was provided by Major-General Carl Clemens Pellegrini, who rushed to the scene with elements of the Austrian 33rd and 15th Infantry Regiments. The latter also was insightful enough to send intelligence to some nearby Hungarian regiments, those of Gyulai and O’Kelly, that their presence was required forthwith. “Green” Kleist, in the meantime, had made his way towards the Wachloderberg to help Belling out if possible. But his Prussian force was met by the aforementioned mixture of Allied infantry and cavalry, which interrupted his mission. A short, but sharp, tussle resulted in the repulse of the bluecoats. The initial Prussian line was thus met and turned back, and the bluecoats withdrew as was their want a short way to the rear. Their foe advanced, led by the Gyulai Hungarian unit, which, although having shot off its ammo, was advancing with drawn sabers, straight at the vaunted forces of General Seydlitz.

The bluecoats were summarily driven back. The Austrian stroke of Gyulai & Company was checked forthwith by the second Prussian line, which had planted itself in the village of Kradrop hard-by. The encouraged Allies now surged forward, nonetheless, and finally defeated the Prussians, who skeddadled towards Dux (about 0800 hours). Count Löwenstein’s force could not pursue, again because of the utter lack of light troops.

The Prussian loss in this action was 558 men, 14 officers, and two pieces of artillery. The Austrians lost about an equal number: 667 men from all causes. Under the circumstances, this was a largely Pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, the Prussians had to inevitably abandon any hope of further progress into Bohemia and withdraw from the province (August 5). Seydlitz’s shortcomings as a commander of a composite infantry-cavalry force, indeed, shone crystal clear in the affair of Teplitz. But it was equally obvious that Serbelloni would not be the man to reclaim the Saxon lands from the great foe. Shortly, Serbelloni was to be ordered back to Vienna.

Hadik replaced Serbelloni in command in Saxony. He had orders to do little more than hold his ground against the enemy wherever the latter was found. The Allies had not quite 60,000 men in Saxony as of the end of August, while Prince Henry was leading some 33,000 men. General Hülsen, Hadik’s old nemesis (who was by this point looking for little more than a way to retire gracefully from the king’s service) was ensconced in Wilsdruf. Prince Henry’s main force was still about, and the only sizable urban area in Allied hands (and thus not in the clutches of the Prussians) by this stage happened to be Dresden and vicinity.

Engagement at Döebeln

May 12,1762

In Saxony in 1762, an Austrian move opposite to him that first caused Prussian Prince Henry to go over to the offensive in the first place. The enemy were fearful of possible Russian intrusion into their homeland, as we have observed, and so transferred some troop formations from the Saxon front to stiffen the Austrian position in Silesia to confront the Prussians and the Russians. This weakened the Austro-Imperialist position in Saxony, however, and thus allowed Henry the opportunity to strike.

The enemy opposed to Prince Henry had been in motion in the meanwhile. Stolberg’s forward elements occupied Penig and Chemnitz in early May, while Prince Henry occupied the region all the way up to Oschatz (May 5), looking for signs of the enemy close-by. The Allied left flank, led by Major-General Johann Franz von Zedtwitz, was composed of about 4,000 men in all. Zedtwitz neglected, however, the most basic of defensive measures, including leaving unmanned guard posts open during daylight hours. Such carelessness would not go unpunished.

In the event, Henry was resolved to carry out his enterprise here, if at all possible. Late on May 11, the Prussians moved in preparing to strike at the Allies in the area. An Austrian guard post over by Nieder-Striegis was overrun by Prince Henry’s men during the twilight hours, and, before 0700 hours next day, May 12, the main bluecoat forces, summarily divided into four separate columns for the occasion, swept forward against the unsuspecting foe over by Döebeln. General Kanitz and his men pushed on to Gadewitz, while Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, with a second column (this one composed of some 37 squadrons of fine Prussian cavalry and some infantry), struck from near Mockritz leaning over at Zschornewitz. Kleist on the far left rolled forward between Knobelsdorf and Nauβlitz. Finally, the Prussians of General Alt-Stutterheim made their way at Stormitz. All but Kleist were scheduled to make a frontal charge against the Allies, but before the others could even approach, the advanced guard of Kleist’s men crossed the Mulde River suddenly and bagged an entire battalion of Austrians as prisoners (approximately 43 officers and 1,536 rank-and-file). The particulars follow.

The beginning of the fray is debatable. Apparently in the confusion of the moment, Kleist’s gunners accidently fired off a shot. This precipitated the attack. Seydlitz felt this action was intentional, and apparently with the avowed aim of seeking glory for Kleist. Of course, this charge was vehemently denied. Nevertheless, Döebeln turned out to be a pleasant interlude for the bluecoats. Moreover, what a surprise when one of the captives turned out to be General Zedtwitz himself, captured over near Littdorf while leading his cavalry in a hopeless counterattack to stem the enemy’s progress. A short, but involved effort followed, compelling the Allies to retreat, leaving behind nearly 50 percent of their men as prisoners, along with five pieces of artillery. The survivors scurried to safety at and about Dippoldiswalde. Bluecoat casualties on this occasion amounted to some 60 men.

One of the backlashes of this fight was the feud that grew out of the altercation between the persons of Generals Friedrich Wilhelm Gottfried Arnd von Kleist [‘Green’ Kleist] and Seydlitz. Both men resented the actions of the other on this occasion. Perhaps both men, seeing the end of hostilities coming and wanting more opportunities for glory, were a tad shortsighted on this occasion. In the final analysis, the Prussian effort was indeed a success, but one which did not lend itself to an easy follow up by the victors, especially as Prince Henry’s army lacked any means at all to secure reinforcements.

Serbelloni, for his part, was visibly shaken by the reverse. The Allies held posts west of the Elbe, which included a number constituting a stranglehold on the Saxon capital; they were thus able to hold interior lines from Dresden extending over towards Dippoldiswalde.

 

Prussia in the Danish War


In the winter of 1863, Schleswig-Holstein was in the news again. Frederick VII of Denmark had died on 15 November 1863, triggering a succession crisis. As there was no direct male heir (the Danish Crown passed instead via the maternal line to Christian of Glücksburg), a dispute arose over who had a legitimate hereditary claim to rule over the duchies. The details of the Schleswig-Holstein controversy have always been taxing to follow – the more so as nearly everyone involved in it was called either Frederick or Christian – and the following is a sketch of the salient points. A series of international treaties had established in the early 1850s that the new King of Denmark, Christian of Glücksburg, would succeed on the same terms as his predecessor, Frederick VII. In 1863, however, the waters were muddied by the appearance of a rival claimant, Prince Frederick of Augustenburg. The Augustenburgs did have a longstanding claim to the duchies, but Prince Frederick’s father, Christian of Augustenburg, had agreed to renounce it as part of the 1852 Treaty of London. In 1863, however, Frederick of Augustenburg declared himself unbound by the treaty of 1852 and defiantly adopted the title ‘Duke of Schleswig-Holstein’. His claim was enthusiastically supported by the German nationalist movement.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the distinctive quality of the Schleswig-Holstein crisis. Modern and pre-modern themes were interwoven. On the one hand, it was an old-fashioned dynastic crisis, triggered, like so many seventeenth and eighteenth-century crises, by the death of a king without male issue. In this sense, we might call the conflict of 1864 ‘the War of the Danish Succession’. On the other hand, Schleswig-Holstein became the flashpoint for a major war only because of the role played by nationalism as a mass movement. The galvanizing effect of the Schleswig-Holstein issue on the German national movement had already made itself felt in the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848; in 1863–4, German nationalist opinion demanded that the duchies be constituted jointly as a new German federal state under the rule of the Augustenburg dynasty. Nationalism was crucial on the Danish side as well: the Danish nationalist movement demanded that Denmark defend its claim to Schleswig, and it was supported in this by the mainstream of Danish liberal opinion. The inexperienced and ineffectual new king, Christian IX, thus faced an explosive domestic situation when he came to the throne. At one point, the demonstrations taking place outside the royal palace in Copenhagen were so turbulent that the city’s chief of police warned of the imminent collapse of law and order in the capital. It was anxiety about the prospect of political upheaval that forced the hand of the new king. By signing the November Constitution of 1863, Christian IX announced his intention to absorb the Duchy of Schleswig into the Danish unitary state, a gesture denounced by the German nationalists as an unpardonable provocation.

There were now three conflicting positions on the duchies. The Danes insisted on the incorporation of Schleswig as set out in the November Constitution of 1863. The German nationalist movement and the majority of states in the Confederation favoured the Augustenburg claim and were prepared to support an armed intervention. The Prussians and the Austrians opposed the Augustenburg claim and insisted that the Danes (and the Augustenburgs) abide by the promises made in the international treaties of 1850 and 1852. After much horse-trading at the Confederal Diet in December, a resolution was passed (by just one vote) that an intervention could proceed on the basis of the London treaties. On 23 December 1863, a small Confederal task force crossed the Danish frontier and moved northwards without resistance to occupy most of Holstein south of the river Eider. The strains within the Confederation soon began to tell. The task force (with only 12,000 men) had been sufficient to take undefended Holstein, but Schleswig would be another matter. The Danes were expected to put up a vigorous defence and a much larger force would be required to ensure success. Still acting in concert, Prussia and Austria declared that they were prepared to invade Schleswig, but only in their own right as European powers and only on the basis of the treaties of 1851 and 1852, not as representatives of the German Confederation and not in support of the Augustenburg claim. In January 1864, the two powers presented their joint ultimatum separately to Denmark (without consulting the other Confederal states) and, when the Danes refused to comply, moved their combined forces across the river Eider and into Schleswig.

It was a remarkable turnaround. The Austro-Prussian rivalry of the 1850s and early 1860s seemed to have made way for a mood of sweet harmony and cooperation. But the apparent unity of purpose concealed a pandemonium of conflicting expectations. For the Austrian Chancellor Count Johann Bernhard Rechberg, the joint campaign was a chance to discredit the German nationalist movement while establishing an Austro-Prussian condominium over Germany and reinvigorating the trans-territorial institutions of the German Confederation. It was also a way of preventing Berlin from securing major unilateral gains (such as the annexation of Schleswig) at Denmark’s (and Austria’s) expense. At the back of Rechberg’s mind was another threatening prospect: Napoleon III, who had begun to warm to his role as Europe’s troublemaker, had suggested to the Prussians that France would support the outright annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, along with the lesser states of northern Germany, to Prussia. It looked as if Paris was angling for another anti-Austrian war, with Prussia playing the role of Piedmont. Rechberg, who was kept fully informed by Bismarck of these initiatives, knew this was a war that the Austrian Empire could not afford to fight.

Bismarck’s agenda could scarcely have been more different. The Confederation as such played no role in his planning. His ultimate objective was to annex the duchies to Prussia. The Prussian Chief of Staff Helmut von Moltke may well have been the key influence here. Moltke was strongly opposed to the transformation of the duchies into an independent principality, on the grounds that the new entity might become a satellite of the Habsburgs and open up a hole in Prussia’s northern seaward flank. As Bismarck knew, however, a unilateral annexation would have exposed Prussia to the threat of combined reprisals from Austria, the rest of the Confederation, and possibly one or more European powers. The extra troops would also come in handy, especially if, as Moltke warned, the Danes succeeded in exploiting their superiority at sea to evacuate their troops from the mainland. The agreement to work with Austria was thus a temporary device to limit risk and ensure that all options remained open.

The Danish war came to an end on 1 August 1864, when the Danes were forced to sue for peace. Three features of the conflict deserve emphasis. The first is that the Prussians did not outperform the Austrians militarily. One early mistake was to nominate the Prussian Field Marshal Count Friedrich Heinrich Ernst von Wrangel as overall commander of the allied forces. The eighty-year-old Wrangel was old for his years and, though popular with the conservatives at court, at best a mediocre general. All his combat experience had been acquired against civilian insurgents in the revolutions of 1848. While Wrangel lurched from blunder to blunder in Denmark, the Austrian units acquitted themselves with courage and skill. On 2 February 1864, one Austrian brigade charged and took the Danish positions at Ober-Selk with such panache that old Wrangel rushed to embrace and kiss its commander on the cheeks, to the embarrassment of his Prussian colleagues. Four days later, the Austrian Brigade Nostitz broke through heavily defended Danish fortifications at Oeversee, while a Prussian Guards division on their flank looked on almost inert. These were frustrating setbacks for an army that had not experienced war for half a century and desperately needed to prove its mettle, both to the international community and to a domestic population that had been following the political struggle over military reform.

A second striking feature of the conflict was the primacy of the political over the military leadership. The Danish war was the first Prussian armed conflict in which a civilian politician exercised control. Throughout the war Bismarck ensured that the evolution of the conflict served the objectives of his diplomacy. He prevented the Prussian forces from pursuing the Danish army into Jutland during the early weeks of the war, so as to reassure the great powers that the joint campaign was not aimed at the territorial integrity of the Danish kingdom. There were slip-ups, to be sure – in mid-February, Wrangel sent an advance detachment of Guards north of the Jutland border despite instructions to the contrary. But Bismarck persuaded the war minister to send a sharp reprimand to the elderly general, and Wrangel was relieved of his command at Bismarck’s insistence in mid-May. It was Bismarck who oversaw Prussian communications with Vienna, ensuring that the terms of the alliance evolved to Prussia’s advantage. And in April it was Bismarck who insisted that the Prussian forces attack the Danish fortifications at Düppel in Schleswig, rather than mounting a protracted invasion of Denmark that might have dragged the other powers into the conflict.

The decision to attack Düppel was controversial. The Danish positions there were heavily fortified and manned, and it was clear that a Prussian frontal attack would succeed only – if at all – with numerous casualties. ‘Is it supposed to be a political necessity to take the bulwarks?’ asked Prince Frederick Charles, a brother of the king, who had been placed in charge of the siege. ‘It will cost a lot of men and money. I don’t see the military necessity.’ The case for engineering a showdown at Düppel was indeed political rather than military. A full-blown invasion of Denmark was undesirable for diplomatic reasons and the Prussians sorely needed a spectacular victory. There was much grumbling among the commanders, but Bismarck’s will prevailed and the deed was done. On 2 April, the Prussians began a heavy bombardment of the defence works, using their new rifled field guns. On 18 April, the infantry went in under the command of Frederick Charles. It was no easy fight. The Danes offered fierce resistance from behind their battered defences and subjected the Prussians to heavy fire as they climbed the slopes before the entrenchments. Over 1,000 Prussians were killed or wounded; the Danes suffered 1,700 casualties.

Bismarck’s dominance throughout the conflict generated considerable tension and ill-feeling. When the commanders protested, Bismarck was quick to remind them that the army had no business interfering in the conduct of politics – itself an extraordinary declaration in the Prussian setting, and one which reveals how things had changed since the revolutions of 1848. The army, however, had no intention of accepting this verdict, as War Minister Albrecht von Roon made clear in a memorandum of 29 May 1864:

There has been, and is now hardly any army that regarded itself and understood itself to be purely a political instrument, a lancet for the diplomatic surgeon. [… ] When a government depends – and this is our situation – particularly upon the armed part of the population [… ] the army’s views on what the government does and does not do are surely not a matter of indifference.

In the exhilaration of victory, these altercations were quickly forgotten, but the issue underlying them would later resurface in more acrimonious and menacing forms. Bismarck’s assertion of control over virtually every branch of the executive papered over but did not solve the structural problem of civil–military relations at the apex of the Prussian state. The 1848 revolutions had parliamentarized the monarchy without demilitarizing it. At the heart of the post-revolutionary settlement lay an avoided decision that would haunt Prussian (and German) politics until the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918.

Prussia’s victories in Denmark – Düppel was followed at the end of June by a successful amphibious assault on the island of Alsen – also transformed the domestic political landscape. The resulting wave of patriotic enthusiasm opened up latent divisions within the Prussian liberal movement. The Arnim-Boitzenburg petition of May 1864, which called for annexation of the duchies, attracted 70,000 signatures, not only from conservatives but from many liberals as well. Prussian military successes also had an unsettling effect more generally, since they seemed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the reform programme so bitterly opposed by the liberals. There was a growing desire for a settlement with the government, reinforced by the fear that if the conflict dragged on, the liberal movement would forfeit its purchase on public opinion.

During 1864 and 1865, Bismarck and ‘his’ ministers played skilfully with the parliament, confronting it with bills that divided the liberal majority or forcing it into unpopular positions. In the naval construction bill of 1865, for example, the government asked parliament to approve the building of two armed frigates and a naval base in Kiel, at a cost of just under 20 million thalers. The creation of a German navy was a fetish to the liberal nationalist movement, especially in the aftermath of the Danish war, where naval operations had played a prominent role. The overwhelming majority of the deputies strongly supported the proposed expenditures, but they were forced nevertheless to reject the bill on the grounds that, in the absence of a legal budget, no new funds could be approved by parliament. Bismarck seized his opportunity to deliver a tirade against the ‘impotently negative’ attitude of the chamber.

Prussia’s 1806 Catastrophe

In 1806 Prussia’s foreign policy dilemma remained unsolved. ‘Your Majesty,’ Hardenberg warned in a memorandum of June 1806, ‘has been placed in the singular position of being simultaneously allied with both Russia and France [… ] This situation cannot last.’ In July and August feelers were put out to the other north German states with a view to establishing an inter-territorial union; the most important fruit of these efforts was an alliance with Saxony. But the negotiations with Russia advanced more slowly, partly because of the sobering effect of the still-recent disaster at Austerlitz and partly because it took time for the confusion generated by the months of secret diplomacy to clear. Little had thus been done to build a solid coalition when news reached Berlin of a further French provocation. In August 1806, intercepts revealed that Napoleon was engaged in alliance negotiations with Britain, and had unilaterally offered the return of Hanover as an inducement to London. This was an outrage too far. Nothing could better have demonstrated Napoleon’s contempt for the north German neutrality zone and the place of Prussia within it.

By this point, Frederick William III was under immense pressure from elements within his own entourage to opt for war with France. On 2 September, a memorandum was passed to the king criticizing his policy thus far and pressing for war. Among the signatories were Prince Louis Ferdinand, popular military commander and a nephew of Frederick the Great, two of the king’s brothers, Prince Henry and Prince William, a cousin and the Prince of Orange. Composed for the signatories by the court historiographer Johannes von Müller, the memorandum pulled few punches. In it, the king was accused of having abandoned the Holy Roman Empire and sacrificed his subjects and the credibility of his word of honour for the sake of the policy of ill-conceived self-interest pursued by the pro-French party among his ministers. Now he was further endangering the honour of his kingdom and his house by refusing to take a stand. The king saw in this document a calculated challenge to his authority and responded with rage and alarm. In a gesture evocative of an earlier era when brothers wrestled for thrones, the princes were ordered to leave the capital city and return to their regiments. As this episode reveals, the factional strife over foreign policy had begun to drift out of control. A determined ‘war party’ had emerged that included members of the king’s family, but was centred on the two ministers Karl August von Hardenberg and Karl vom Stein. Its objective was to put an end to the fudges and compromises of the neutrality policy. But its means implied the demand for a more broadly based decision-making process that would bind the king to a collegial deliberative mechanism of some kind.

Although the king resented deeply the impertinence, as he saw it, of the memorandum of 2 September, the charge of prevarication unsettled him deeply, sweeping aside his instinctive preference for caution and delay. And so it was that the Berlin decision-makers allowed themselves to be goaded into precipitate action, although the preparations for a coalition with Russia and Austria had scarcely begun to take concrete shape. On 26 September Frederick William III addressed a letter full of bitter recriminations to the French Emperor, insisting that the neutrality pact be honoured, demanding the return of various Prussian territories on the lower Rhine and closing with the words: ‘May heaven grant that we can reach an understanding on a basis that leaves you in possession of your full renown, but also leaves room for the honour of other peoples, [an understanding] that will put an end to this fever of fear and expectation, in which no one can count on the future.’ Napoleon’s reply, signed in the imperial headquarters at Gera on 12 October, reverberated with a breathtaking blend of arrogance, aggression, sarcasm and false solicitude.

Only on 7 October did I receive Your Majesty’s letter. I am extraordinarily sorry that You have been made to sign such a pamphlet. I write only to assure You that I will never attribute the insults contained within it to Yourself personally, because they are contrary to Your character and merely dishonour us both. I despise and pity at once the makers of such a work. Shortly thereafter I received a note from Your minister asking me to attend a rendezvous. Well, as a gentleman, I have kept to my appointment and am now standing in the heart of Saxony. Believe me, I have such powerful forces that all of Yours will not suffice to deny me victory for long! But why shed so much blood? For what purpose? I speak to Your Majesty just as I spoke to Emperor Alexander shortly before the Battle of Austerlitz. [… ] Sire, Your Majesty will be vanquished! You will throw away the peace of Your old age, the life of Your subjects, without being able to produce the slightest excuse in mitigation! Today You stand there with your reputation untarnished and can negotiate with me in a manner worthy of Your rank, but before a month is passed, Your situation will be a different one!

Thus spoke the ‘man of the century’, the ‘world soul on horseback’ to the King of Prussia in the autumn of 1806. The course was now set for the trial of arms at Jena and Auerstedt.

For Prussia, the timing could hardly have been worse. Since the army corps promised by Tsar Alexander had not yet materialized, the coalition with Russia remained largely theoretical. Prussia faced the might of the French armies alone, save for its Saxon ally. Ironically, the habit of delay that the war party so deplored in the king was now the one thing that could have saved Prussia. The Prussian and Saxon commanders had expected to give battle to Napoleon somewhere to the west of the Thuringian forest, but he advanced much faster than they had anticipated. On 10 October 1806, the Prussian vanguard made contact with French forces and was defeated at Saalfeld. The French then pushed past the flank of the Prussian armies and formed up with their backs to Berlin and the Oder, denying the Prussians access to their supply lines and routes of withdrawal. This is one reason why the subsequent breakdown of order on the battlefield proved so irreversible.

On 14 October 1806, the 26-year-old Lieutenant Johann von Borcke was posted with an army corps of 22,000 men under the command of General Ernst Wilhelm Friedrich von Rüchel to the west of the city of Jena. It was still dark when news arrived that Napoleon’s troops had engaged the main Prussian army on a plateau near the city. The noise of cannon fire could already be heard from the east. The men were cold and stiff from a night spent huddled on damp ground, but morale improved when the rising sun dispelled the fog and began to warm shoulders and limbs. ‘Hardship and hunger were forgotten,’ Borcke recalled. ‘Schiller’s Song of the Riders rang from a thousand throats.’ By ten o’clock, Borcke and his men were finally on the move towards Jena. As they marched eastward along the highway, they saw many walking wounded making their way back from the battlefield. ‘Everything bore the stamp of dissolution and wild flight.’ At about noon, however, an adjutant came galloping up to the column with a note from Prince Hohenlohe, commander of the main Prussian army fighting the French outside Jena: ‘Hurry, General Rüchel, to share with me the half-won victory; I am beating the French at all points.’ It was ordered that this message should be relayed down the column and a loud cheer went up from the ranks.

The approach to the battlefield took the corps through the little village of Kapellendorf; streets clogged with cannon, carriages, wounded men and dead horses slowed their progress. Emerging from the village, the corps came up on to a line of low hills, where the men had their first sight of the field of battle. To their horror, only ‘weak lines and remnants’ of Hohenlohe’s corps could still be seen resisting French attack. Moving forward to prepare for an attack, Borcke’s men found themselves in a hail of balls fired by French sharp-shooters who were so well positioned and so skilfully concealed that the shot seemed to fly in from nowhere. ‘To be shot at in this way,’ Borcke later recalled, ‘without seeing the enemy, made a dreadful impression upon our soldiers, for they were not used to that style of fighting, lost faith in their weapons and immediately sensed the enemy’s superiority.’

Flustered by the ferocity of the fire, commanders and troops alike became anxious to press ahead to a resolution. An attack was launched against French units drawn up near the village of Vierzehnheiligen. But as the Prussians advanced, the enemy artillery and rifle fire became steadily more intense. Against this, the corps had only a few regimental cannon, which soon broke down and had to be abandoned. The order ‘Left shoulder forward!’ was shouted down the line and the advancing Prussian columns veered to the right, twisting the angle of attack. In the process, the battalions on the left began to drift apart and the French, bringing up more and more cannon, cut larger and larger holes in the advancing columns. Borcke and his fellow officers galloped back and forth, trying to repair the broken lines. But there was little they could do to allay the confusion on the left wing, because the commander, Major von Pannwitz, was wounded and no longer on his horse, and the adjutant, Lieutenant von Jagow, had been killed. The Regimental Colonel von Walter was the next commander to fall, followed by General Rüchel himself and several staff officers.

Without awaiting orders, the men of Borcke’s corps began to fire at will in the direction of the French. Some, having expended their ammunition, ran with fixed bayonets at the enemy positions, only to be cut down by cartridge shot or ‘friendly fire’. Terror and chaos took hold, reinforced by the arrival of the French cavalry, who hoed into the surging mass of Prussians, slashing with their sabres at every head or arm that came within reach. Borcke found himself drawn along irresistibly with the masses fleeing the field westwards along the road to Weimar. ‘I had saved nothing,’ Borcke wrote, ‘but my worthless life. My mental anguish was extreme; physically I was in a state of complete exhaustion and I was being dragged along among thousands in the most horrific chaos…’

The battle of Jena was over. The Prussians had been defeated by a better-managed force of about the same size (there were 53,000 Prussians and 54,000 French deployed). Even worse was the news from Auerstedt a few kilometres to the north, where on the same day a Prussian army numbering some 50,000 men under the command of the Duke of Brunswick was routed by a French force half that size under Marshal Davout. Over the following fortnight, the French broke up a smaller Prussian force near Halle and occupied the cities of Halberstadt and Berlin. Further victories and capitulations followed. 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.

From the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars, moreover, the French had integrated infantry, cavalry and artillery in permanent divisions supported by independent logistic services and capable of sustaining autonomous mixed operations. Under Napoleon, these units were grouped together into army corps with unparalleled flexibility and striking power. By contrast, the Prussian army had scarcely begun to explore the possibilities of combined-arms divisions by the time they faced the French at Jena and Auerstedt. The Prussians were also a long way behind the French in the use of sharp-shooters. Although, as we have seen, efforts had been made to expand this element of the armed forces, overall numbers remained low, the weaponry was not of the highest standard and insufficient thought was given to how the deployment of riflemen could be integrated with the deployment of large troop masses. Lieutenant Johann Borcke and his fellow infantrymen paid dearly for this gap in tactical flexibility and striking power as they stumbled on to the killing field at Jena.

Frederick William III had initially intended to open peace negotiations with Napoleon after Jena and Auerstedt, but his approaches were rebuffed. Berlin was occupied on 24 October and three days later Bonaparte entered the capital. During a brief sojourn in nearby Potsdam, he made a famous visit to the tomb of Frederick the Great, where he is said to have stood deep in thought before the coffin. According to one account, he turned to the generals who were with him and remarked: ‘Gentlemen, if this man were still alive, I would not be here.’ This was partly imperial kitsch and partly a genuine tribute to the extraordinary reputation Frederick enjoyed among the French, especially the patriot networks that had helped to revitalize French foreign policy and had always seen the Austrian alliance of 1756 as the greatest error of the French ancien régime . Napoleon had long been an admirer of the Prussian king: he had pored through Frederick’s campaign narratives and had a statuette of him placed in his personal cabinet. The young Alfred de Vigny even claimed with a certain amusement to have observed Napoleon affecting Frederician poses, ostentatiously taking snuff, making flourishes with his hat ‘and other similar gestures’ – eloquent testimony to the continuing resonance of the cult. By the time the French Emperor stood in Berlin paying his respects to the dead Frederick, his living successor had fled to the easternmost corner of the kingdom, evoking parallels with the dark days of the 1630s and 1640s. The state treasure, too, was saved in the nick of time and transported away to the east.

Napoleon was now ready to offer peace terms. He demanded that Prussia renounce all its territories to the west of the river Elbe. After some agonized wavering, Frederick William III signed an agreement to this effect at the Charlottenburg palace on 30 October, whereupon Napoleon changed his mind and insisted that he would agree to an armistice only if Prussia consented to serve as the operational base for a French attack upon Russia. Although the majority of his ministers supported this option, Frederick William sided with the minority who preferred to continue the war at Russia’s side. Everything now depended upon whether the Russians would be able to put sufficient forces in the field to halt the momentum of the French advance.

During the months from late October 1806 to January 1807, French forces had steadily advanced through the Prussian lands, forcing or accepting the capitulation of key fortresses. On 7 and 8 February 1807, however, they were repulsed at Preussisch-Eylau by a Russian force with a small Prussian contingent. Sobered by this experience, Napoleon returned to the armistice offer of October 1806, under which Prussia would merely give up its West-Elbian territories. Now it was Frederick William’s turn to refuse, in the hope that renewed Russian attacks would push the balance further to Prussia’s advantage. These were not forthcoming. The Russians failed to capitalize on the advantage gained at Preussisch-Eylau and the French continued throughout January and February to subdue the Prussian fortresses in Silesia. In the meanwhile, Hardenberg, who was still operating the pro-Russian policy with which he had triumphed in 1806, negotiated an alliance with St Petersburg that was signed on 26 April 1807. The new alliance was short lived; after a French victory over the Russians at Friedland on 14 June 1807, Tsar Alexander asked Napoleon for an armistice.

On 25 June 1807, Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander met to begin peace negotiations. The setting was unusual. A splendid raft was built on Napoleon’s orders and tethered in the middle of the river Niemen at Piktupönen, near the East Prussian town of Tilsit. Since the Niemen was the official demarcation line of the ceasefire and the Russian and French armies were drawn up on opposite banks of the river, the raft was an ingenious solution to the need for neutral ground where the two emperors could meet on an equal footing. Frederick William of Prussia was not invited. Instead he stood miserably on the bank for several hours, surrounded by the Tsar’s officers and wrapped in a Russian overcoat. This was just one of the many ways in which Napoleon advertised to the world the inferior status of the defeated King of Prussia. The rafts on the Memel were adorned with garlands and wreaths bearing the letters ‘A’ and ‘N’ – the letters FW were nowhere to be seen, although the entire ceremony was taking place on Prussian territory. Whereas French and Russian flags could be seen everywhere fluttering in the mild breeze, the Prussian flag was conspicuous by its absence. Even when, on the following day, Napoleon invited Frederick William into his presence on the raft, the resulting conversation had the flavour of an audience rather than a meeting between two monarchs. Frederick William was made to wait in an antechamber while the Emperor saw to some overdue paperwork. Napoleon refused to inform the king of his plans for Prussia and hectored him about the many military and administrative errors he had made during the war.

 

The Victory of Ligny: A Vanished Triumph

Battle of Ligny by Theodore Yung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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