Military practice in Prussia: 1740–1763 – The tactical level

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Due to limitations inherent in campaigning in this period, it was difficult for Frederick to force battle on an unwilling opponent. This unwillingness is easy to understand when taking into account that battle would result in the loss of soldiers, who needed years of training and were hard to recruit, for marginal strategic advantages.

The enemy could also slip away in the last minute since much time was needed for the attacker to deploy from marching formation into battle formation. If the enemy accepted battle, he did so when he had superior numbers or when he defended strong positions. Attacking an enemy in a strong position was not a promising course of action. Even in open terrain, Frederick’s prospects to defeat the enemy were not good. In standard battle array, the army formed two lines, about 200m apart with infantry in the centre and cavalry on the wings. The second line served as a reserve to relieve exhausted battalions in the first line or to prevent the breakthrough of cavalry. Grenadier battalions stood between the first and second line of infantry and faced outwards, guarding the intervals of the infantry lines against cavalry. This gave the infantry array the shape of a long rectangle. Infantry battalions stood in lines of three ranks with the two battalion guns in the intervals between the battalions. Cavalry stood in lines of two ranks. Artillery was either distributed along the front or placed on hills. The task of the cavalry was to secure the flanks of the army and, if possible, to outflank the enemy. The linear formation was well suited for a firefight since a large number of muskets and guns were brought to bear. Infantry and artillery could fire at each other for hours in an attritional struggle from which the army with stronger discipline and higher rate of fire would emerge victorious. The infantry platoons advanced slowly and fired in turn. With shrinking distance the psychological pressure on the enemy mounted until one side or the other gave way.

These tactics might finally hand victory to the Prussians, due to their superior discipline and rate of fire, but dramatic results could not be expected for several reasons: linear formations could advance only at a very low speed, because it was imperative to maintain perfect alignment at all times. Attacks in line were, therefore, not bound to succeed because the slowness of advance gave the enemy time to shift his reserves and it permitted him to subject the advancing infantry to such a withering musket and canister fire that the attack would hardly be pressed home with the bayonet. Frederick learned this at Prague, Kolin and Torgau where he lost 10 grenadier battalions when they advanced towards the muzzles of Austrian batteries. The cavalry on both sides fought their private battles with each other, whose outcome did not necessarily affect the battle of the infantry. Cavalry could rapidly defeat its opposite number and wreak havoc among disordered infantry as Hohenfriedberg, Rossbach, Leuthen and Zorndorf amply demonstrated, but it was often powerless against the fire and cohesion of ordered infantry, as the battles of Mollwitz and Minden most impressively showed. Artillery was the Grim Reaper in the defensive against an advancing enemy, but it was rarely mobile enough to advance and pulverize a segment of the enemy’s line to prepare a breakthrough of infantry or cavalry. The immobility of artillery, the inability of cavalry to break infantry formations and the attritional nature of linear tactics favoured the defender and frustrated Frederick’s hopes for decisive battle.

Pursuit was equally unsatisfactory. Since enemy formations were rarely broken, the enemy, with his formations largely intact, would disengage and conduct a well-ordered retreat. This was further facilitated by the armies clashing frontally, leaving the line of retreat open. Furthermore, Frederick often fought outnumbered which prevented him from keeping a reserve of uncommitted troops to hold them back for the pursuit. Those troops committed to battle, having suffered heavy losses themselves, were often too exhausted and disorganized to conduct a prompt and vigorous pursuit. When a pursuit force was dispatched, it consisted of light cavalry which could easily be checked by enemy units retreating in good order. The vigorous pursuit after Leuthen was an exception. Since Frederick’s strategy relied heavily on battle, he was particularly interested in overcoming its inherent costliness and indecisiveness. Consequently, he tried to gain a tactical edge over his opponents. The invention of horse artillery was meant to provide mobile fire support for the attack. When the small number of horse artillery available could not deliver sufficient close-range artillery support, Frederick used grand batteries of foot artillery to provide long-range supporting fire instead, for instance at Leuthen, Zorndorf, Kunersdorf and Burkersdorf. Improved training of cavalry was meant to render Prussian cavalry able to overrun the enemy and achieve a rapid decision, a success most notably achieved at Rossbach and, to a lesser degree, at Hohenfriedberg and Zorndorf. The introduction of the oblique order was meant to enable the numerically inferior Prussian army to beat a larger army by adroit tactical manoeuvring. In the oblique order, Frederick’s weak left wing fixed the enemy whereas the reinforced right wing advanced in echelon to outflank the enemy’s left wing. In order to attack Austrian hill positions at Burkersdorf in a more subtle way than usual, Frederick abandoned strict linear tactics and experimented with infantry brigades manoeuvring independently on the battlefield in order to make better use of the broken terrain. He also paid attention to realistic training. In 1753 and 1756, for instance, contested exercises with mixed detachments were conducted.

Prince Henry and Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick added an invention of their own, the all-arms division. This formation permitted Prince Henry to successfully attack strong Austrian positions in the broken country around Freiberg simultaneously from all sides rather than rely on the usual frontal attack. For this purpose, Prince Henry divided his army into four columns each containing all arms. The columns were meant to converge on the battlefield, encircle and annihilate the enemy. Since one of the columns failed to play its role adequately, the enemy escaped, though with heavy loss. Likewise, Brunswick succeeded in attacking the enemy’s rear at Vellinghausen with two such divisions. Though the division would prove to be an important invention in the following decades, it fell into disuse in the Prussian army.

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