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Frederick the Great: A Military History

Frederick the Great: A Military History

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Frederick the Great: A Military History

627 pagine
11 ore
Oct 24, 2012


A biography of the Prussian king and military legend from “America’s leading historian” (Jeremy Black, author of Imperial Legacies).
Famed for his military successes and domestic reforms, Frederick the Great was a remarkable leader whose campaigns were a watershed in the history of Europe, securing Prussia’s place as a continental power and inaugurating a new pattern of total war that was to endure until 1916. However, much myth surrounds this enigmatic man, his personality, and his role as politician, warrior, and king.
From a renowned military historian and winner of a Pritzker Literature Award, this book provides a refreshing, multidimensional depiction of Frederick the Great and an objective, detailed reappraisal of his military, political, and social achievements. Early chapters set the scene with an excellent summary of eighteenth-century Europe and the Age of Reason; an analysis of the character, composition, and operating procedures of the Prussian army; and an exploration of Frederick’s personality as a young man. Later chapters examine his stunning victories at Rossbach and Leuthen; his defeats at Prague and Kolín; and Prussia’s emergence as a key European power.
Written with style and verve, this book offers brilliant insights into the political and military history of the eighteenth century—and one of history’s most famous rulers.
Oct 24, 2012

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  • Reinforced during the summer by a British contingent of first-rate infantry and cavalry, he had conducted a campaign of feint and manoeuvre that kept his French enemies consistently off-balance, and finally compelled them to evacuate Hanover entirely.

  • Frederick could neglect the security of Prussia’s eastern prov- inces only at the risk of breaking the state’s social contract beyond easy restoration.

  • Depression, fatigue, and a sense of declining odds characterized the mood even in some of the army’s best regiments.

  • Frederick had learned from his previous experiences that speed was vitally important on a modern battlefield.

  • They remained unacknowledged – everyone knew that Hungarians tended to start at ghosts and shadows!

Anteprima del libro

Frederick the Great - Dennis Showalter



‘In order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.’ Macaulay’s Whig denunciation, written in 1842, remains the most familiar English-language evaluation of Frederick II of Prussia. It has been elaborated and exacerbated in the context of three great wars that eviscerated a continent, reconfigured a world, and remain inextricably associated with the name and tropes of a Prussia depicted as Frederick’s creation.

That association is by no means affirmative. Even after almost three-quarters of a century, Frederick’s image and his legacy remain controversial. Their contexts were the mechanistic rationalism of the high enlightenment and the top-down authoritarianism of enlightened despotism. As a ruler Frederick saw himself as an embodiment of dirigisme rather than inspiration. His ultimate goal was the creation of a ‘well ordered police state’, requiring not even the personal interventions familiar in the reign of Frederick William I, whose royal cane directly chastised Prussia’s slackers and wrongdoers between 1715 and 1740.¹ Pursuing that goal led to over a quarter-century of war that elevated Prussia to the status of a great power and established Frederick as one of history’s great captains.

Detailed examination modifies the model. The concept of Frederick as roi-connetable, his own commander in chief during war and his own first minister in peace, denies the realities of administrative systems only beginning to emerge. Official documents reached their destinations haphazardly, often initially arriving at Gasthaueser, to be read, discussed, and passed on ‘so dirtied with grease, butter, or tat that one shudders to touch them.’²

Frederick’s legacy as a soldier-king is no less questionable. Critics describe a focus on drill and discipline that leached the army of initiative and inspiration. Frederick insisted common soldiers should fear their officers more than the enemy. He monitored his generals so closely that none of them could be trusted to perform independently. He carried grudges against entire regiments for decades. His capricious evaluation of performances at reviews and manoeuvres broke careers like matchsticks. Franz Sabo evaluates Frederick’s performance as a battle captain in terms of a self-promoting vanity that appeals only to ‘militarist romanticism … For every military success there were more defeats … [Prussia’s] miraculous survival was due to an historic anomaly so bizarre and fantastic as to be almost incredible.’³

Frederick lacked panache. He aged quickly and unattractively; his unprepossessing personal appearance was further diminished by his indifference to dress. Brutalized by his father for an ‘unmanly’ interest in the fine arts, he grew into a full-fledged misanthrope, whose ill-treatment of his own close associates was too consistent to be casual. His older sister Wilhelmina was the only person Frederick did not keep at arm’s length. Even his respect for her declined as his misanthropy became misogynistic after he entered a marriage not meriting the polite phrase ‘of form only’.

In an age when physical courage was taken for granted in senior officers, Frederick twice, at Mollwitz and Lobositz, left major battlefields under dubious circumstances. Nor was his post-battle behaviour such as to impress fighting men. He spent the first hours after the defeat of Kolin in 1757 aimlessly drawing circles in the dirt with a stick, and then left his army on the ground, claiming that he needed rest. After Kunersdorf in 1759, the King turned command over to a subordinate, grandiloquently and hyperbolically declaring he would not survive the disaster. A later, kinder generation may speak of post-traumatic stress. Eighteenth-century armies had other, blunter words for such conduct.

Had he not been Prussia’s King, Frederick might have been a viable candidate for one of its madhouses. Johannes Kunisch, author of the most recent, comprehensive and perceptive biography of the King, concludes his work with the anodyne caution that historical greatness is a subjective question.⁴ Yet the man who brought Prussia through three brutal wars, oversaw its reconstruction, and secured its status as a great power was far more than the sum of his negatives. Sir David Fraser, combat veteran, Vice Chief of the British General Staff, and distinguished military historian, describes Frederick as a master of war on a level with Napoleon, brave humane, and witty.⁵ More soberly but no less affirmatively, Reed Browning describes Prussia’s survival of Frederick’s wars as ‘a very remarkable human achievement’.⁶ Sascha Möbius makes a persuasive case that Frederick’s soldiers, especially the hard-core cantonists and professionals, were anything but brutalized robots.⁷

Small wonder, then, that another perceptive analysis describes Frederick as ‘a kingdom of contradictions.’⁸ This volume seeks to offer the hints of explanations of at least some of those contradictions by presenting and analysing Frederick’s wars in their general and specific contexts. The social, economic, and political orders of early modern Europe depended on the state system that emerged after the Thirty Years’ War. A state’s domestic legitimacy correspondingly depended on its ability to protect its subjects from the direct consequences of war. Enlightened absolutism’s concern for social stability and economic development reflected not only perception of these as positive goods, but also perception of their necessity for what might be called a security state: an entity able to defend its interests and its people.

War was early modern Europe’s driving wheel. The states of Europe, whatever their sizes, perceived themselves as power entities existing in the context of, and in relationship to, other power entities. An Age of Reason perceived conflict as a rational means of arbitrating differences, even among individuals. This perception made diplomacy the primary concern of states and made war-making the logical consequence of a zero-sum game played in a condition of anarchy.

It was a game played for mortal stakes. Few interpretative structures have been as thoroughly shredded in the past quarter-century as the one describing the eighteenth century as an age of limited war. Images of battles fought in vacuums by marginalized men while normal people freely go about their business no longer survive even in textbooks. On a diplomatic level the often-cited ‘balance of power’ embodied a dynamic of resolution as well as an ethos of stability. Europe’s development after 1648 into what has been called a republic of states, all meriting recognition as equal sovereign powers within a community of common values, did not hinder near-continuous discussions of eviscerating or eliminating some of the participants. Spain, Sweden, Poland – all were at one time or another leading candidates for dismemberment in the eighteenth century.

The search for resolution was also manifested at war’s operational levels. In part this reflected the growing homogenization of Europe’s armies: their acculturation to common patterns of training, organization and tactics. Armies kept abreast of each other’s innovations, not least through a pattern of middle-ranking officers moving from service to service. In contrast to forces developed in different frameworks, symmetrical opponents seldom offer each other obvious windows of opportunity. To defeat a mirror image requires a combination of planning and opportunism that has defied capable generals before and since the Age of Reason. Frederick of Prussia was not the first to conclude that victory must be won at the beginning of a war, by getting inside an enemy’s loop of competence and turning his strengths to weaknesses.⁹ He was only among the most successful.

It is a paradox that a monarch who began his reign with an image of a state and an army in which charismatic leadership was superfluous should by the time of his death have become the centre, albeit an unwilling one, of the first modern cult of personality. The roi-connetable of 1740 and the warrior prince of 1763 alike gave way to the icon of 1780 – an icon that in turn crumbled under Napoleon’s cannon in 1806 and would not be fully restored for a century. Here as in the rest of his life, Frederick was a ‘kingdom of contradictions’. His synthesis of institutional and personal leadership, of competence and charisma, was in part response to changing circumstances and in part reflection of abstract principles. To a significant degree as well, ‘Old Fritz’ was the creation of his soldiers and his subjects, a ‘teflon monarch’ to whom nothing stuck because he was a projection of needs, desires and myths, independent of the ‘real’ Frederick.¹⁰ His legend and his model nevertheless endured in Germany until 1945, defied all efforts of the German Democratic Republic to dismantle it before 1989, and by no means vanished with the century’s turn.¹¹

The last word on the subject, like the first, may be left to Macaulay:

we hardly know an instance of the strength and weakness of human nature so striking and so grotesque as the character of this haughty, vigilant, resolute blue-stocking … bearing up against a world in arms, with an ounce of poison in one pocket and a quire of bad verses in the other.¹²

For good and for ill, Frederick of Prussia remains Frederick the Great. And his poetry is not all that bad.

Chapter 1

Matrices and Probabilities

In an era of secular relativism, military history remains dominated by Whigs and Calvinists. The military Whig interprets war as a contest between progress and obscurantism with progress, whether represented by technology, social attitudes, or clear understanding of war’s principles, inevitably emerging triumphant. The Calvinist takes that approach one step further by interpreting victory and defeat as judgments on the militarily righteous. The generals, armies, and societies taking the straight and narrow path are admitted to the scholars’ Valhalla. Those failing to perceive and act on war’s revealed truths are cast into darkness.


Nowhere are these mind-sets more apparent than in studies of eighteenth-century warfare. For the Whigs the era of Marlborough, Eugene, and Frederick is at best a stepping stone to the ‘real’ wars that began in 1793. The French Revolution, with its patterns of general mobilization, ideological justification and national aggrandizement, is perceived as establishing norms followed and developed ever since. However sincere the original anti-militarist rhetoric of the revolutionaries may have been, they ultimately developed wholly new patterns of military organization, structured for waging a wholly new kind of war. Henceforth annihilation, political when not social or cultural, became for governments a normative risk of defeat. By the mid-twentieth century, physical annihilation had become established as a possible fate for losers. Whigs seldom present total war as desirable. Its bitter necessity, however, remained virtually unchallenged until the midpoint of the nuclear era. In such a context eighteenth-century conflicts usually appear no more than a series of gavottes, a form of Noh drama whose outcomes were determined by their structures.¹³

Military history’s Calvinists have usually contented themselves with depicting the collapse of ancien régime armies in the face of a Revolutionary/Napoleonic challenge that pitilessly exposed every flaw of the old ways of war-making. And those flaws are legion. David Chandler describes armed forces consistently unable to execute in the field the strategic and political designs of their governments. Martin van Creveld alleges an arteriosclerotic fortress-and-siege mentality imperfectly camouflaged by false issues of logistics. Geoffrey Parker argues that wars ‘eternalized themselves’ because strategic thinking was trapped between the rapid growth in the size of armies and the relative inability of states and societies to support those armies. Russell Weigley offers a counterpoint by describing the eighteenth century’s obsessive tactical focus: a search for the fata morgana of a decisive battle that would in a single day determine a war’s outcome by destroying an enemy’s army. While states bankrupted themselves pursuing this mirage, Weigley argues, wars remained exercises in futility. Battles only killed more men – they decided nothing in themselves.¹⁴

Weigley certainly appears at times to argue that only permanent resolution of the sources of intra-state conflict merits definition as decisive. Certainly he overlooks the wider consequences of defeat and victory on the battlefield – especially the negative ones. Steenkirk in 1692, for example, left a French army in possession of the field, but too badly hammered to pursue the campaign’s original objective of capturing the fortress of Liège. Frederick the Great’s victories at Leuthen and Rossbach did not end the Seven Years War. They did, however, encourage both Prussia’s king and Prussia’s soldiers to keep the field even in adversity, believing that these triumphs could one day be repeated. Leuthen and Rossbach also encouraged Frederick’s enemies to pursue war to the hilt. A state and an army capable of achieving that kind of double triumph seemed too dangerous to be treated as merely another partner in the diplomatic minuet.

Weigley nevertheless establishes a point vital to any understanding of eighteenth-century warfare. The generals and the statesmen alike sought decisions. Commanders and theorists alike warned against the risks of basing military operations on the possession of certain fortresses, or the establishing of certain supply routes, while neglecting operations in the open field. The elaborate manoeuvring was not an end in itself, but a preliminary to establishing conditions for battle. If those conditions were favourable enough to encourage one’s opponent to concede without risking a test, then so much the better!¹⁵ In diplomatic contexts the eighteenth century’s principled commitment to balance-of-power politics must not be exaggerated. Major and middle-sized powers regularly contemplated and frequently attempted significant aggrandizement at the expense of weaker and declining states. Poland, Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, even Spain, were regularly targets of their neighbours’ ambitions.

Pragmatically, even the best of the ancien régime’s armed forces could not hope to dominate its adversaries enough to implement the diplomats’ grand designs. Only with the untaming of Bellona in the Age of Democratic Revolution could maps be redrawn and destinies reshaped to the degree later generations have considered a norm. To speak of ‘limitation’ in this context, however, is to misuse that term in the same way Weigley arguably misuses ‘decisiveness’. Any conflicts between organized political systems are limited. Even in a nuclear context, war’s goals do not include as ideals the complete annihilation of an opposing population and the total destruction of its economic base. At least the adversary’s material resources are expected to be at a conqueror’s disposal. It is correspondingly appropriate to examine the particular structures that shaped the particular limitations of eighteenth-century conflict.

Intellectual factors played a major role in the process. Every era defines ultimate truth in its own way. The biological determinism of the nineteenth century gave way to the computer printout of the twentieth. The eighteenth century’s intellectual life was dominated by a concern for first principles, for integrating social phenomena into an order borrowing its essential rationale from the world of mathematics. It is hardly surprising that military theorists and practical soldiers alike sought to tame that process which is above all the province of confusion, not so much to put the conduct of war and the behaviour of armies under artificial restrictions as to express them in terms comprehensible and acceptable to the societies and systems the military establishments existed to serve. The Thirty Years War marked the end of the temporary ascendancy of the military enterpriser and his soldateska. Whatever the financial and moral costs of bringing armies under the control of governments, the alternatives were perceptibly worse. The process generated a certain reciprocity, as soldiers sought to justify their existence to their now-permanent paymasters in universal rather than craft-specific terms. It would be surprising if they had done so in any other way than in terms of l’esprit géometrique.¹⁶

Moving from the metaphysical to the concrete, fortifications did much to structure eighteenth-century ways of war. The complex and expensive systems beginning with the ‘Italian trace’, and culminating in the exotic designs of Vauban, Coehorn, and their less familiar imitators, seldom became strategic objectives in themselves. Nor were they regarded as impregnable. Even the most skilfully conducted defence was expected to end with a capitulation on terms. Fortresses, however, could not simply be bypassed. Until well into the eighteenth century, undeveloped road networks created a correspondingly large number of choke points that in enemy hands could prove disastrous for an army dependent on its own magazines for supplies and, increasingly, ammunition. Rapid-firing flintlocks required predictable resupply on scales that, if modest by contemporary standards, nevertheless put unheard-of pressure on logistical systems. Moreover, the often-noted requirement of modern fortifications for ever-larger garrisons increased the risks of leaving such positions in the rear of one’s own lines of operation. Even the most passive of governors was likely to be able to mount serious threats to weak screening or blockading forces.

In central Europe neither budgets nor terrain would support the kinds of fortress systems familiar in the Low Countries, northern France, and northern Italy. The fortresses of Prussia, Austria, and the lesser German states were more of the traditional model: extended protection for cities like Prague or Dresden, or points d’appui like Schweidnetz, Kolberg, or Olmütz. This did not mean that they could be ignored with impunity. The region’s relatively limited road network, which by mid-century fell significantly behind the growing size of the region’s armies, meant that even an isolated fortress could play a major role as a choke point. Nor could siege guns be brought up with anything like the speed possible in more developed theatres of war. A related problem involved the difficulty in obtaining the large amounts of construction material necessary for the elaborate system of saps and trenches necessary for a formal eighteenth-century siege. Finally, neither the Russian, Prussian, nor Austrian armies paid much attention to their respective engineer corps. The combined result of these factors, particularly during the Seven Years War, was a general preference for bluff and bombardment: threats from the pages of Grimmelshausen combined with throwing a few hundred rounds over the walls almost at random. A governor willing to ignore both words and deeds could usually count on pinning a significant number of the enemy beneath his walls until they gave up in disgust or a relief force came close enough to invite them to take their chances in the open field.¹⁷

Fighting meant moving, and moving meant supply. The exact role of logistics in determining the nature of eighteenth-century warfare remains a subject of debate. In typically sweeping fashion, Martin van Creveld denies the tyranny of magazines. Armies, he asserts, lived off the countryside because existing transportation technologies made it impossible to move more than 10 per cent of an army’s requirements – non-improvisable essentials like ammunition, uniforms, and medical supplies. The scales of baggage allowed to officers may seem extreme by later standards, but that had more to do with social issues than logistical ones and in absolute terms did little to clog supply lines. Instead van Creveld stipulates that eighteenth-century armies were not particularly good at living off the land compared to their mercenary predecessors and Napoleonic successors. That, however, reflected another organizational problem: a general failure to provide for a field quartermaster system able to feed large bodies of troops under operational conditions.¹⁸

Van Creveld’s numerous critics describe a broad spectrum of technical and institutional factors making it anything but ‘relatively simple’ to supply an army on the move.¹⁹ Requisitioned grain usually needed to be threshed as well as baked. In supply terms the eighteenth century was at a watershed: conscious enough of the perils of digestive diseases to take pains in their prevention, but not yet sophisticated in the techniques of food preparation on a large scale under improvised conditions. Ovens as well as wagons significantly constrained the movement of armies. Requisitioned cattle could not simply be butchered on the spot and the meat issued still quivering. Vegetables too required some preparation; raw or half-cooked they were worse than nothing.

Psychological factors played an often-overlooked role in the process of logistics. Eighteenth-century armies were far more contractual than is generally recognized. Soldiers may have enlisted under what amounted to absolute terms of service. In practice they had very solid ideas of their implied rights. Men fed poorly enough to perceive their short commons as a breach of contract might not go so far as to respond by deserting. They could and did, however, develop a broad spectrum of maladies ranging from incapacitating boils to debilitating homesickness: the nostalgie du pays dreaded by all armies. It is worth noting that eighteenth-century Europeans were not a healthy lot. Poor diets and outright malnutrition combined with hard physical labour from early years to produce men who were fragile beneath their surface robustness, and correspondingly vulnerable to a broad spectrum of camp diseases. Keeping them fed with a minimum of effort on their part was the kind of obvious insurance policy no sensible commander was likely to ignore.²⁰

The pattern of eighteenth-century warfare was also determined by the structure of eighteenth-century armies. These were high-tech forces. Relative to the economic, administrative, and technological infrastructures supporting them, the fleets and armies of the Age of Reason represented as close to total mobilization as developed societies could achieve and sustain. A state-of-the-art ship of the line was among its era’s most complex technological artefacts, in the category of a space shuttle rather than an aircraft carrier.

A similar point might be made regarding land warfare. For all its shortcomings in a ‘Whig’ context, the flintlock musket and socket bayonet that was the dominant weapons system of eighteenth-century armies increased both the offensive and defensive capacities of the infantry to a point where, for the first time since the Roman legions, European battlefields were dominated by a single arm of service. Even at his peak the medieval knight never possessed the flexibility of the Frederician musketeer in his variant forms.

At the same time the flintlock was a system whose optimal use demanded levels of training, discipline, and commitment that created what amounted to a professional outlook. Man and weapon must be able to function as a single entity, in the context of a battlefield experience increasingly remote from even the most violent sectors of civil society. And that was only the initial step. The musketeer could not become so absorbed in the process of loading and firing that he became unresponsive to orders. The eighteenth-century soldier, far from being the automaton of so many later legends, had to combine mechanical skill and mental alertness in ways more familiar to the contemporary tanker or infantryman than to the uniformed civilians of the two world wars.

The other combat arms, cavalry and artillery, faced similar challenges. No longer could cavalry decide an action by riding at will through and over enemy footmen. Timing was everything in a mounted charge. Knowing when to launch one was the product of combinations of experience and insight impossible to calculate precisely, but devastating in their presence – or their absence. Such an attack depended in its initial stages on dash and aggressiveness on the part of all ranks: the much-vaunted, often-derided ‘cavalry spirit’. Yet the adrenalin rush needed to be choked off the moment the trumpets sounded ‘rally’. Heedless pursuit of a beaten enemy, or the less spectacular but more common pattern of continuing a stalemated mounted melee, were as high-risk prospects as was excessive caution. Combining the qualities of warrior and soldier in a cavalryman was by no means an automatic process; as late as the Napoleonic Wars the British army had failed to master the trick.

Throughout the eighteenth century artillerymen remained primarily technicians – a circumstance exacerbated by their relatively low status in the army’s pecking order. Yet by the Seven Years War the gunners played a crucial ongoing role in any major battle. Not only were they expected to shoot their guns, but to move them and fight for them on a regular basis. The jealously guarded status of the artillery as a ‘scientific’ branch of service, in short, was being challenged by a new role as a fighting force.²¹

Were these complexities not enough, eighteenth-century armies had to fight with an underdeveloped nervous system. Tactical organizations above the regiment were for all practical purposes non-existent. Even brigades were frequently improvised from operation to operation. Higher formations were entirely ad hoc. General texts frequently use the words ‘division’ and ‘corps’ as convenient shorthands. The terms, however, are sufficiently misleading that the following narrative substitutes ‘battle group’ and ‘task force’ as more clearly indicating the nature of the bodies.

The decision not to implement a more comprehensively articulated organizational structure is one of the major uninvestigated negatives of eighteenth-century military history. In part this reflected a point made by Thomas Kuhn: the conditions for a paradigm shift remained unmet. Between the 1650s and the 1750s, for example, armies increased in size rapidly but steadily. There was no sudden explosion of numbers to shatter the limits of existing structures of thought about how those armies might be organized for optimal effectiveness. Both the mentalité of the Age of Reason and the wisdom of great captains like Turenne and Montecuccoli favoured command from the top: a single will shaping and directing the campaign and the battle. To a degree this was a response to the later Thirty Years War, when tactical control often tended to disappear within minutes after the shooting started. In more general terms the legacy of Wallenstein still survived, if only as a ghost-memory of the potential risks of over-mighty subordinates. Nor did officer corps dominated by still proud, still economically independent aristocracies offer promising material for elaborate hierarchic systems of command and obedience.²²

This point was highlighted even in Prussia, where in 1717 King Frederick William had established a Corps of Cadets whose adolescent members were drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy. The King’s intention was to integrate these young men into state service even if, as sometimes happened, they had to be enrolled by force. Specific programmes of general and professional education took second place to that goal. The eventual result was to establish a pattern of noblemen’s sons attending a state institution.²³ An equally significant, but unintended, consequence was the development of Prussia’s officer corps as a collegial community where lieutenants as well as generals could in principle address the King on a footing of comradeship.

Another factor retarding the development of articulated organizations was the relative heterogeneity of senior officer corps. One-sixth of Frederick the Great’s generals between 1740 and 1763 came from outside Prussia.²⁴ In countries like France and England, ethnic origins might be more homogeneous but professional competence was a matter of accident. An officer was still expected to master his craft by a mixture of direct experience and force of character. This process worked well enough at regimental levels. Higher achievements were essentially random, both in absolute terms and relative to the system as a whole.²⁵ Erratic genius can be as dangerous as predictable mediocrity. In the context of multiple unpredictability it was the better part of common sense to limit risks by limiting opportunities for failure – particularly when battle was increasingly perceived as the best way of cutting the Gordian knots of ‘forever wars’.

A final element facilitating the acceptance of rigid control involved the symmetrical nature of eighteenth-century armies. At least in western Europe they were trained, armed, and organized in essentially identical fashions. They kept abreast of one another’s innovations, not least through the steady movement of middle-ranking officers from service to service. In contrast to forces developed in differing paradigms, symmetrical opponents seldom offer each other obvious windows of opportunity.

The exporting of early modern Europe’s military revolution illustrates the latter process, through which rapid victories could be achieved by either side. Braddock’s disaster on the Monongahela and Cornwallis’s triumph at Mysore were two sides of the same coin.²⁶ Great power conflict in the first half of the eighteenth century, however, increasingly prefigured a pattern more familiar in 1914. It is possible for an army to defeat its mirror image. But to do so means taking advantage of nuances. It means planning and control as opposed to inspired improvisation. And above all it must be done quickly, by getting inside an enemy’s loop of competence and turning his strengths to weaknesses. The alternative is attrition: the kind of drawn-out, exhausting war no early modern state could afford.

An up-to-date army of the mid-eighteenth century significantly resembled its successors in the late twentieth century. Both depended heavily on state-of-the-art technology applied by highly skilled professionals. Both were structured to provide quick victories – not least because neither could absorb large numbers of untrained, unmotivated replacements. And both placed barely acceptable, long-term stress on the systems whose interests they ostensibly exist to enhance.

The tap-root of modern war was money, yet that root was weak and shallow relative to the size of the tree it was expected to nurture.²⁷ Since the mid-sixteenth century the size of armies had increased significantly. The causes of this phenomenon have recently been debated with vigour and clarity. Geoffrey Parker focuses on the numbers of men required to besiege a fortress defended by the Italian trace, with its complicated system of bastions. These fortresses also required increasing numbers of men as garrisons. Even if individual towns were lightly held, the growing number of modern fortifications tied down such large forces that a state hoping to maintain a field army as well as an aggregate of garrisons found itself constrained to increase its order of battle significantly.²⁸

Parker’s critics and modifiers assert other reasons as well for the growth in the size of Europe’s armies. The demographic and social changes of the early modern period created, particularly in the west, increasing numbers of young men of all social classes who were no longer bound by familiar restrictions and who saw few prospects in familiar surroundings. As traditional bonds of lordship weakened or vanished, so did traditional patterns of security and protection, however meagre these might have been. Far from being the harmonious communities of populist mythology, peasant villages and urban neighbourhoods alike were undergoing a process of complex stratification, with significant distinctions between alpha families, the coqs du village, and those on the margins of power and influence. Apart from the expected difficulties of finding steady work, to say nothing of securing an apprenticeship or inheriting a usable plot of land, it required no great leaps of imagination for a young man in the latter category to perceive in his native environment a future so limited that any change might prove for the better – or at least offer possibilities of a new servitude.²⁹

Hunger, as always, remained the best recruiting sergeant. Nevertheless the armies of early modern Europe did not lack a steady supply of true volunteers. Military service offered food and clothing. It offered some cash income – an important point in an increasingly comprehensive money economy, however unreliable the paymasters might be in reality. A fortunate few became rich, or improved their social status to degrees all but impossible for civilians. Above all, following the drum promised adventure, a way out of one’s present surroundings. One 17-year-old Alsatian travelled as far as Aachen to join the Prussian army because of its high reputation. His account, while written from a perspective of age that often confuses positive specific experiences with the general vigour of lost youth, nevertheless described even his recruit days as full of fun and horseplay, passed among men far more interesting than those of his home village.³⁰

Such career decisions were frequent enough that in peacetime, at least, outright criminals were enlisted only as a last resort, for the same reasons that they are not sought by modern armies. They made up a disproportionate number of the wilful troublemakers. They were also a constant source of friction in the ranks. Thieves, alcoholics, and brawlers made life far more miserable than it had to be for their better-conducted comrades, and for their officers as well. On the other hand, men who found themselves in trouble with the civil authorities over such issues as land titles or paternity claims readily found homes in any army. Another frequent source of recruits were craftsmen and professionals who had fallen on hard times. Teachers grew tired of beating the same scraps of knowledge into unwilling students. Clerics lost vocations that might have been shaky from the beginning. Textile workers who found their tasks increasing and their compensation declining abandoned hearth and loom for the sake of regular meals and more or less regular pay. ‘Travelling people’, jugglers, actors, puppeteers, might find themselves in uniform as a consequence of rheumatism, a broken hand, or a simple loss of the touch that made audiences laugh, cry, and throw money. These latter, in passing, were usually particularly welcomed by officers and men alike as comrades able both to take the bad with the good and to provide laughter and distraction when the going got difficult.³¹

Translated from social to operational terms, the armies of early modern Europe were composed, by and large, of men willing to fight under conditions other than the immediate defence of their own homes. This fact alone gave them a significant edge over the various militias still maintained in the states of Europe. Bringing such men into the ranks was less of a problem than maintaining them there. Financial problems had much to do with the replacement of mercenary and contract forces raised on an ad hoc basis by standing armies kept under the control of a central government. A permanent force was both more cost-effective and easier to fit into a state budget.³² Such forces, however, generated another kind of crisis as states persisted in creating armed forces larger than they could feed, clothe, and pay. Under Louis XIV, for example, the French army’s official strength was no fewer than 400,000 men, and perhaps as many as 300,000 actually stood in its ranks. Even the Grand Monarchy, with the most efficient administration in early modern Europe, could not support such numbers except by policies of improvisation. The result was an early version of ‘imperial overstretch’. Unable to meet their military needs from their own resources, unwilling in the face of perceived threats to cut their coats according to their cloth, states increasingly resorted to war to support their swollen armed forces.

The limitations of this process in its extreme form are familiar to even the most casual student of the Thirty Years War. Left to their own devices armies destroyed or wasted far more than they actually consumed. These patterns persisted long after the Peace of Westphalia. Even in France, the Sun King’s soldiers made up the gap between what the state supplied them and what they needed to survive by ruthless exploitation of the people they had ostensibly been recruited to defend. That pattern may well have been enhanced by a certain desire for revenge against the social system that offered too many of its sons no respectable place.

The initial response involved replacing what John Lynn calls ‘the tax of violence’ by ‘contributions’. These were little more than systematic extortions, ideally from enemy or neutral territory but in emergencies from one’s own people as well. They marked a major improvement in both the behaviour of armies and the efficiency of resource mobilization for war. Ultimately, however, contributions were limited in two ways. The first involved a consistent temptation to bleed a territory beyond its capacity to recover beyond subsistence levels. The Seven Years War offers dozens of examples of armies forced to move because even the most efficient, most controlled systems of contribution and requisition had left them sitting in a wasteland. The second shortcoming of the contribution system is more obvious. It could be exercised properly only outside a state’s own frontiers. This in turn created an international climate highly favourable to aggressive wars – which required ever-larger armies to wage with any hope of success. The result was a vicious circle, producing the very problem it was originally intended to solve. War could support war in none but the shortest terms. And whether rulers evaluated their vital interests in the context of their dynasty or their state, short-term interests by the end of the seventeenth century were everywhere giving way before long-term planning.³³

At this point the story once again becomes familiar. At least by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession European states were well on their way towards evolving, in Charles Tilly’s words, ‘from wasps to locomotives’.³⁴ ‘Extraction’, the systematic drawing on a state’s legal subjects for the means of making war, involved a mix of coercion and cooperation. What might loosely be called the productive classes of society, peasants as well as landlords, shopkeepers as well as international businessmen, could not be forced to provide taxes beyond certain levels. Resistance was not only confined to the popular uprisings documented in such works as Perez Zagorin’s Rebels and Rulers.³⁵ Resistance could also involve a kind of political/social akido – going with the force of the state’s claims in order to assert claims on the state.

Nowhere did this process go further than in the Electorate/ Kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia. It is fashionable to depict Prussia as an anomaly, the absolute state developed to the point of distortion. Early modern Prussia is more accurately perceived as an archetype: a state that succeeded, for good and ill, in synthesizing the perceived requirements of its armed forces with the expressed interests of its subjects. It is to this development that we now turn.


Brandenburg-Prussia began its modern existence in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War as a small state whose territories had been repeatedly ravaged by contending armies and whose ambivalent foreign policies had earned a reputation for unreliability. Its lack of geographic integrity, with provinces scattered almost at random across Germany, was remarkable even by seventeenth-century standards. Economic and geographic determinists have described compensating advantages. The state’s Rhenish duchies, Cleves and Mark, possessed significant metallurgical and cloth industries, as well as providing a bridge between north and south Germany. Brandenburg proper lay athwart the Elbe and Oder rivers, the major north – south commercial arteries of central Germany. The province of Prussia, that much-disputed legacy of the Teutonic Knights, furnished a major Baltic trading port in Königsberg and provided a geostrategic sally-port into a region whose growing political instability offered corresponding opportunities for a state able and willing to fish in the troubled Polish and Russian waters.

These potential advantages were scarcely apparent in the strategic and diplomatic climate of the mid-seventeenth century. Far from being considered even a regional power, Brandenburg-Prussia’s image was of an oyster without a shell. Sweden, by then a Baltic power with limited continental pretensions, ignored for seven years the provision of the Treaty of Westphalia allocating eastern Pomerania to Brandenburg. When Sweden and Poland went to war in 1655, the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William, changed the homage he offered for Prussia from the crown of Poland to the crown of Sweden. He provided a contingent of troops to seal the bargain – a force that repeatedly proved its worth in the swirling, wide-open fighting on the plains of Poland. Diplomacy, however, proved more important than force of arms.

Relations between Hohenzollern Prussia and Habsburg Austria had never been particularly cordial. They were fostered in this particular case by Prussian willingness to support Habsburg retention of the Holy Roman Imperial crown in return for Habsburg endorsement of Frederick William’s full sovereignty over the Duchy of Prussia. The Swedes were neither interested in changing Prussia’s international status nor susceptible to Habsburg pressure. Poland was another story. A king and a Sejm desperate for vengeance against the heretic Swedes accepted Prussia’s sovereignty in return for Brandenburg’s military support. The Peace of Oliva in 1660 – 61 wrote the new order into international law.

Given the relative lack of court cards in the Elector’s hand, his achievement was no small triumph. Similar flexibility, not to say opportunism, shaped Frederick William’s foreign policy to the end of his reign. In 1672 he allied with the Netherlands against France, then extricated himself from the Dutch collapse. He sent Prussian troops to join the Anglo-Austrian coalition against Louis XIV – but in return for generous subsidies. In 1675 Prussian troops inflicted a major defeat on the Swedes at Fehrbellin, only to be forced to return the resulting territorial gains four years later in the context of a general European peace. When Silesia’s Duke George William died in 1675, Vienna ignored a treaty assigning part of his legacy to Brandenburg and annexed the province by main force. A disgruntled Frederick William sought an alliance with France, only to learn that dining with Louis XIV required an extremely long spoon. By the time of the Elector’s death in 1688, his army had established a reputation as an effective fighting force. His state, however, was at best just another middle-ranking German principality dependent on the good will of its more powerful neighbours for more than sheer survival.

Even Brandenburg’s military reputation had been bought at a price. The state’s tax base was too narrow to support the 30,000 men Frederick William considered the minimum necessary force to keep his Electorate playing at the head diplomatic table. Foreign subsidies were useful supplements, but more readily promised than delivered. They were also addictive. Frederick William had no desire to become a permanent client of either France or Austria, nor did he propose to leave his heir with such a dangerously comfortable prospect. Instead, the Great Elector sought on one hand to expand Brandenburg’s commercial and industrial capacity, while on the other establishing an administrative structure able to maximize utilization of private resources for public purposes.³⁶

His successes were greater in the latter endeavour than the former. Provincial institutions and elites remained important in government on a local level. Nevertheless, by the end of Frederick William’s reign the often-fractious nobility of his far-flung lands had been effectively excluded from a central administration now including many men from outside Brandenburg-Prussia who often held Imperial patents. Aristocratic resistance was met by combinations of carrot and stick, divide and conquer, plus a few judicious imprisonments and an occasional execution pour décourager les autres.

The Great Elector’s officials were not civilian bureaucrats at heart. A large number of them were noblemen, noblemen manqués, or commanders who had internalized the Elector’s conviction that Brandenburg needed above all a strong, centrally financed military establishment to maintain its tenuous position in the German and European pecking orders. Revenue-raising was a means, not an end. Anything interfering with the army’s efficiency, however marginally, became the legitimate concern of Frederick William’s War Commissariat and War Chamber, the two administrative agencies incorporating all of the Electorate’s regional War Commissars. Brandenburg-Prussia became increasingly subject to comprehensive social and economic regulation at all levels. Frederick William, of Dutch descent on his mother’s side, copied Holland’s systems of raising and collecting revenue and enforced them with a rigour unheard of in that more stable structure. Bureaucrats, however, had as yet not discovered how to make three blades of rye grow where two sprouted, or to increase the productivity of hand-loom weavers – even on paper.³⁷

The revolution of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 gave Brandenburg’s economy a welcome boost. The Elector welcomed Huguenot refugees with open arms. They responded by making significant contributions to their new homeland’s commercial and industrial infrastructure. The contributions, however, were chiefly personal: few of the refugees salvaged major investment capital from the dragonnades.³⁸ The Elector’s periodic attempts to establish colonies and trading companies proved ephemeral, while Brandenburg’s navy never expanded beyond a small-ship coastal force.

Frederick William had more success in agriculture. The electoral treasury opened its strong boxes to purchase breeding stock and hybrid seed. The electoral bureaucrats distributed them to peasants and landlords alike. Electoral subsidies and tax remissions encouraged settlement initially of lands abandoned during the Thirty Years War, then in the relatively virgin territories of Prussia and eastern Brandenburg.

When it came to industry, results were more mixed. The Elector was unable to eliminate the complex system of tolls that choked Brandenburg-Prussia’s commerce. He did, however, improve the physical network of roads, rivers, and canals. The establishment of a reliable postal service did much to facilitate centralized bureaucratic administration. Wool production increased, in good part due to the army’s large-scale requirement for uniforms. Iron and copper were exploited to produce cannon. These and other infant industries were nurtured by a rigorous system of protective tariffs and regulations of production and distribution. Berlin evolved, if not to a world city, then to a neat and tidy small-state capital. If the Great Elector’s economic goals remained unfulfilled, Frederick William nevertheless left firm foundations for his state’s prosperity.³⁹

The Elector’s heir, Frederick III, is usually described as more concerned with the trappings of power than with power’s substance. His primary concerns were to establish himself as a patron of the arts, and as a king in his own right. By his death he achieved both, the latter in good part because of the continued strong performance of the Prussian army. Frederick indeed may deserve more credit for perspicacity than nationalist and conservative historians allow. He was shrewd enough to leave the army alone, and perceptive enough to maximize its significance as a subsidy/client force, especially during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Under circumstances that significantly diminished the effectiveness of most of the small and middle-sized forces involved, Prussian soldiers and their officers maintained consistent levels of battlefield performance that looked better and better in comparative terms. Vienna would in principle allow no kings within the Reich, since that would break a prized – and vital – Habsburg monopoly of the right to create titled nobles. Nevertheless it was worth the price of a royal title to Habsburg Emperor Leopold to keep Prussia’s fighting men under his colours – as long as the title itself lay outside

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