Officers of the élite Prussian Gardes du Corps, wishing to provoke war, ostentatiously sharpen their swords on the steps of the French embassy in Berlin in the autumn of 1805.
Whatever Napoleon’s motives, the result is not in dispute: at the end of the first week of September Prussia’s forces entered Saxony en route for the river Main. For Frederick William, this was an act of desperation that was embarked on in a spirit of the utmost fatalism. As his confidant, Lombard, wrote:
The king . . . was unfortunately not a born general. He had long known as well as anyone that he would have to draw his sword whether he liked it or no, but always he . . . had flattered himself that some catastrophe independent of his own decisions would solve the difficulty. At last . . . he yielded, but quite against his will, of that I can assure you.
That said, there were many voices in Prussia clamouring for war. Eager to supplant Haugwitz, Hardenberg was in the forefront, as was Frederick William’s queen, Louise, a fiery young woman who had increasingly come to hate Napoleon. Bizarrely, a shaken Haugwitz had also privately joined the war party, although he hoped to postpone the breach long enough to get the army fully ready for action and secure assistance from Britain and Russia. And there were, too, many bellicose army officers. ‘France’, wrote General Blücher, ‘means honestly by no power, least of all by your Royal Majesty . . . Whoever represents France’s conduct to Your Royal Majesty in any other light, whoever advises Your Royal Majesty to continue making concessions and remain at peace with this nation is either very indolent [or] very shortsighted, or else has been bought with French gold . . . Each day gained in declaring war against France is of the greatest advantage to Your Royal Majesty . . . One successful battle and allies, money and supplies are ours from every corner of Europe.’ So great was the pressure in the officer corps that the king, who had before him the example of the murdered Paul I of Russia, may genuinely have feared for his position. Some officers – Blücher is a good example – genuinely believed that the prestige of the Prussian army and state alike were at stake; others looked to war as an opportunity to justify arguments for reform; and still others were simply anxious for glory after eleven years of peace in an age of general warfare. Something of their frustration comes over from a letter written by the future military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz: ‘War is necessary for my country. Moreover, when all is said and done, it is war alone that can make me attain happiness.’
Thanks to Napoleon, such vainglory could be dressed up in the garb of German patriotism: on 25 August a considerable stir was caused in Prussia and elsewhere by the execution of a Nuremberg bookseller named Palm who had made the mistake of printing and distributing an anonymous pamphlet lamenting Germany’s prostration. As for victory, it was assured. ‘When I draw a conclusion from all the observations that I have occasion to make,’ opined Clausewitz, ‘I always arrive at the probability that it is we who are going to win the next great battle.’ ‘Unconscious of danger,’ wrote the Countess of Schwerin, ‘the army, in all the glory and order of a grand parade, went to meet its destruction. Unconscious, too, did the leaders seem, for the enemy circled us round about and no one had any news of him. In Naumberg, when already outflanked by the French, the court continued to live the careless life of Charlottenburg and Potsdam.’ Another witness of the army’s over-confidence was the Baron de Marbot, a young cavalry officer sent to Berlin bearing dispatches for the French embassy: ‘The officers whom I knew ventured no longer to speak to me or salute me; many Frenchmen were insulted by the populace; the men-at-arms of the Noble Guard pushed their swagger to the point of whetting their sword blades on the stone steps of the French ambassador’s house.’
To return to the Countess of Schwerin, her remarks are redolent of the hindsight that has often surrounded discussion of the Prussian decision to go to war in 1806. At the time the outcome did not seem so clear-cut on either side of the battle lines. What is true, though, is that Potsdam was in no way ready to take up arms against Napoleon. Prussia stood entirely alone. Despite her secret pact with Russia, no arrangements had been made for military cooperation, and the Russians were sceptical as to whether Prussia would actually do anything. With Britain there had been no contact whatsoever, and the emissary that Haugwitz dispatched to negotiate a treaty of subsidy as soon as war seemed likely could have hoped to achieve very little even had he been granted more time. Grenville mistrusted Prussia at the best of times and was convinced that in the current circumstances all she was out to do was to secure further ‘compensations’ in Germany, while he was disposed to do nothing at all for her unless he received a guarantee that Hanover’s independence would be restored, and saw clear proof that Prussia had exerted herself as far as her own resources would permit. According to Lady Holland, Grenville was none the less ‘very warlike’ – she implies, indeed, that he welcomed the Prussian declaration of war – but in general hostility to Prussia was rife in Britain. The Earl of Malmesbury, for example, wrote:
The six months I was with the Prussian army in 1794. . . fixed in my mind the opinion . . . that the military defence of Prussia was, like its geographical position, a rope of sand, which would fall to pieces when brought into action, or vigorously opposed. The two succeeding kings to Frederick [the Great] hastened the dissolution of this baseless fabric. Féderique Guillaume [i.e. Frederick William II] . . . was enervated by debauchery and . . . without any of those substantive virtues necessary to govern so helpless a kingdom such as that over which he reigned. He exhausted the public treasure, and . . . every act or measure of his went to . . . weaken the monarchy. His son, also Féderique Guillaume, began by shedding tears, not for the loss of his father, but from the labour and trouble a crown brings with it, and this, not from philosophy, but from an indolent, sleepy, selfish, torpid mind. He is wilful and obstinate, yet without a system or opinion.
Nor were the states that might have supported Prussia in northern Germany any more forthcoming. It did not help that the Prussians opened the campaign by pouring into Saxony. Brunswick, Hesse-Kassel, Oldenburg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz all declared their neutrality, while the court of Dresden only joined Prussia because it was that or go to war with her (not that Saxony was especially impressive as an ally, her army numbering a mere 20,000 men). As for the Swedes, Gustav IV rightly suspected that Potsdam had designs on the territorial enclave that Stockholm still held on the coast of northern Germany and therefore remained aloof.
Everything, then, rested on the shoulders of Prussia’s own soldiers, but this was to ask too much of them. So precipitately did Prussia go to war that there was not time to call up all the reserves – in contrast to most of the armies of Europe, the bulk of Potsdam’s soldiers were reservists who were only mobilized in time of war – and Frederick William therefore took the field at the head of a field army of only 150,000 men, when the number might have been at least 200,000. By the same token there were neither magazines for the field army, nor adequate stocks of food in any of the country’s fortresses. As for the quality of the army, the ordinary soldiers were well drilled enough, but their efficacy was undermined – as with Austria in 1805- by a piecemeal series of military reforms that, though well meant, had made things worse rather than better. Thus the army had for the first time been organized into divisions in the French style, but they were, on the one hand, too big and, on the other, very poorly put together. The cavalry were mixed in with the infantry, as had been the case in the French army in the 1790s, and each division was also given too much artillery, the result being, first, formations that were difficult to manage and, second, a considerable dilution in the striking power of horsemen and cannon alike. Finally, in face-to-face conflict with the French, the infantry would certainly be at a disadvantage. There were a number of specialist light-infantry battalions – a few of them riflemen and the rest soldiers known as fusiliers armed with a lighter version of the standard musket – trained in skirmishing tactics, but there were never enough of these units and attempts to make good the want by using the third rank of each line battalion as skirmishers were no substitute as the men had no proper organizational structure. Though the basic tactical system remained sound – the linear formations in which the Prussian army was to fight in 1806 were exactly the same as those in which the British army triumphed at Waterloo – the army therefore went to war at a considerable disadvantage.