Prussian Disaster I


Prussian Guard sharpen swords on the steps of the French embassy
in 1806 at Berlin. Picture by Myrbach.




In the summer of 1806 Europe was temporarily more or less at peace, or, at least, experiencing a period of ‘phoney war’. Technically speaking, both Britain and Russia remained at war with France, and there was some fighting in both Italy and the Balkans. At sea and in the wider world, too, operations went on unabated: the Royal Navy kept watch on Europe’s coasts; a British expeditionary force seized Buenos Aires; and French commerce raiders based in ports as widely spaced as Brest and Mauritius raided the sea lanes and on occasion achieved considerable success. Serious peace negotiations, however, were in place, and, although these soon broke down, it is difficult to see how anything comparable to the campaign of 1805 could have been revived. Neither the Talents nor any other British administration could possibly have committed themselves to major land operations on the Continent without the support of at least one of the great powers, and in the wake of Austerlitz this seemed a long way away. Austria was out of the fight; Prussia in the French camp; and Russia at best resolved on a defensive policy. Yet, in a development that was expected by nobody, and, least of all it seems, Napoleon, the autumn saw the Continent once more plunged into full-scale military operations and a resumption of coalition warfare. Pushed to the limit by the emperor, Prussia went to war against France and, like Austria before her, secured the active support of Russia. But the results were no better than in 1805. In a series of operations that took the grande armée to the very frontiers of Russia, the emperor broke one enemy army after another and truly made himself master of Europe. At no moment, indeed, was the power of the French imperium greater, and Napoleon’s sense of exaltation knew no bounds. As he proclaimed to his army on 22 June 1807:

Frenchmen! You have been worthy of yourselves and of me. You will return to France covered with laurels after having obtained a glorious peace which carries with it the guarantee of its duration. It is time our country should live at rest, secure from the malignant influence of England.

As we shall see, these were hollow words. Even before the fresh round of fighting broke out, it could be argued that Napoleon had committed a cardinal error in reorganizing Germany in a manner hostile to the interests of Austria or Prussia. But far more damaging were the events that followed in the course of the next twelve months. Not content with the challenge he was already mounting to Russia in the Balkans, Napoleon established a Polish state and thereby struck at the very heart of Russia’s pretensions to be a great European power. And in the Continent as a whole the emperor conscripted each and every one of its inhabitants into a great self-denying ordinance that sought to close its ports to British trade and in the end bankrupt London into surrender. As Fouché observes, this was a man who was giddy with triumph: ‘The delirium caused by the wonderful results of the Prussian campaign completed the intoxication of France . . . Napoleon believed himself the son of destiny, called to break every sceptre. Peace . . . was no longer thought of . . . The idea of destroying the power of England, the sole obstacle to universal monarchy, became his fixed resolve.’

The long-term consequences of these developments – in essence, a guarantee of further conflict and, more particularly, direct police action on the part of France – will be looked at in due course. What is of concern here is why Prussia should suddenly have opened hostilities on her own when a year earlier she could have done so in the company of a powerful coalition. In brief, Frederick William suddenly discovered the limits of Napoleon’s friendship. Trouble began with the very agreement that Haugwitz had signed with Napoleon after Austerlitz at Schönbrunn. In the first place, there was the issue of Prussia’s international obligations, for under the terms of the treaty of Basel of 1795 Prussia was actually a guarantor of Hanoverian independence. In the second there was Prussia’s neutrality, the latter’s restoration clearly being of the utmost importance. And in the third instance there was that of the future: if Hanover was to be taken over by Prussia, the British subsidies that might one day become necessary to Prussia would clearly not be forthcoming. Amidst much anger, then, Haugwitz was sent back to Napoleon to suggest a number of amendments to the treaty, one suggestion being that Hanover was not to be annexed but rather simply occupied and held as a bargaining counter that might be returned to its ruler in exchange for a variety of other territories at the end of the war. This, however, did no good at all. On the contrary, Haugwitz was confronted with terms that were even worse than before. Hanover would not only be Prussian, but Potsdam would now have to close her ports to Britain’s trade. Failure to accept these terms, it was hinted, would lead to war and, with Prussia in no condition to fight – for reasons of cost, the army had immediately been demobilized – on 9 March Frederick William ratified the new agreement and thereby, to all intents and purposes, declared war on Britain.

The consequences of this act were very serious. Hardly a shot was exchanged between the British and Prussians, but such was the loss of customs revenue that the state’s income fell by 25 per cent. As if this was not bad enough, Prussia also experienced a period of unparalleled humiliation. Thus, in July 1806 Napoleon organized his new Confederation of the Rhine without any reference to Prussia. To add insult to injury, the emperor suggested that Frederick William should form a confederation or even an empire of his own in northern Germany, while at the same time either inciting states that might have been involved in this scheme to reject the whole idea (Saxony and Hesse-Kassel) or making it clear that he would not evacuate them (Hamburg and Lübeck). Still worse, it then transpired that the abortive negotiations with the Talents had seen Napoleon offer to return Hanover to Britain. To the dismayed Frederick William, it really seemed that the end of Prussia was at hand, especially as there were persistent rumours of French troop movements to the south and west. As he wrote to Alexander I, ‘[Napoleon] intends to destroy me.’ On 9 August, then, the Prussian army was mobilized, and on 1 October this step was followed by an ultimatum calling for France to agree to withdraw all her forces from Germany by 8 October or face war. Even then some question remained whether Frederick William was really in earnest, however. There were certainly voices in Prussia calling for war, but the king himself was almost certainly bluffing. Such at least was the opinion of Ferdinand von Funck, a cavalry officer who became a close adviser of the King of Saxony in the wake of the battle of Jena:

All circumstances point clearly to the fact that Frederick William III . . . always cherished the secret hope that Napoleon would shirk a struggle with the erstwhile military prestige of Prussia, and, as soon as he saw things looking serious, negotiate for the repurchase of Prussian friendship either by the restoration of the Franconian provinces ceded in exchange for Hanover, or perhaps of the territories of Westphalia sold at the peace of Lunéville, or by the free-will offering of part of Saxony. By this means Frederick William would have silenced the malcontents in his own country by the prestige of fresh and cheap aggrandizement.

Also interesting here are the memoirs of General Muffling. Sent to join the staff of the Duke of Brunswick, Muffling discovered that the newly appointed Prussian commander-in-chief was anything but enthusiastic: ‘I found the duke, as generalissimo, uncertain about the political relations of Prussia with France and England, uncertain about the strength and position of the French corps d’armée in Germany, and without any fixed plan as to what should be done . . . He had accepted the command in order to prevent war.’

At this point it might be asked what intentions Napoleon had with regard to Prussia. Such was the manner in which Potsdam was goaded that it would be logical to assume that the emperor wanted war and was intent on its instigation. A new land campaign was by far the easiest means of winning fresh laurels and such a venture was all the more tempting in view of the presence of the grande armée in southern Germany (following the Austerlitz campaign, it had gone into cantonments along the river Main). At the same time there was also the issue of Potsdam’s flirtation with the Third Coalition, and the two issues together have certainly led some historians to argue that there was a blueprint for a march on Prussia. This, however, is almost certainly not the case. Intent on establishing the Confederation of the Rhine, the French ruler – at least in the short term – had no desire to destabilize the situation in Germany. According to Talleyrand, he was, as Frederick William hoped, afraid of Prussia. ‘It was not without secret uneasiness that the emperor went for the first time to measure his strength against [Prussia’s],’ wrote Talleyrand. ‘The ancient glory of the Prussian army imposed upon him.’ But this is most implausible. Much more to the point is the fact that he had other schemes on his mind – the conquest of Sicily; the dispatch of an army to Portugal to end British access to the vital port of Lisbon; and conceivably even a new attempt to invade England. As for Prussia, the reality seems rather to be that he regarded her not at all. There being no evidence whatsoever that Prussia would ever go to war, the emperor in consequence had no compunction about riding roughshod over her interests. To quote a letter the emperor wrote to Talleyrand on 12 September 1806, ‘The idea that Prussia could take me on single-handed is too absurd to merit discussion . . . She will go on acting as she has acted – arming today, disarming tomorrow, standing by, sword in hand, while the battle is fought, and then making terms with the victor.’ What we see, then, is a typical mixture of contempt and over-confidence. Napoleon did not want a fresh war in 1806, but at the same time he simply did not know what was required to keep the peace. Truly it was a most revealing moment.

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.


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