Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER XI: Prussia Prepares for War


THE King was one of those characters who, having once adopted an opinion, change it with reluctance; but, being forced to abandon it, hurry into the opposite extreme, and, in this moment of transition, seldom choosing the most proper means for their purposes generally run into disappointment and ruin.

As an illustration of this remark, we shall take a candid view of the state of Prussia, at the time of this hostile declaration of the King.

A young Prince is on the throne, whose antipathy to war had long chained him to a system of neutrality; whose whole natural disposition is for domestic life alone; and, doubtful of his ability to guide the state, he feels the necessity of sharing the government with others, who individually, often work against each other, and thwart his best intentions to do good.

Conscious also of his own slender military genius, at least in comparison with this competitor, he sees the army, that corner-stone of the state, is without a chief.  Those who have a command, suppose their birth and the date of their commissions sufficient proofs of their military merit.  The inferior officers, long unaccustomed to restraint, having lost all subordination, lead the most profligate lives, and are unfit for the field; whilst a long peace, and neglected discipline, have made the troops in general become only like a meteor in the atmosphere, to be dissolved by every blast.

Hazardous as such a situation, which had long existed, must always appear, yet still a similar bold step might have been ventured a twelve-month earlier, both with approbation and great probability of success; but, after the battle of Austerlitz, I confess I could not suppress an anxiety for the result of such a sudden, and almost unsupported, contest against the known tempestuous energy of the hitherto fortunate opponent.

This seems to show, that this sacrifice of his favorite neutrality was only the rash result of a momentary ebullition; particularly as the unprovided and undefended state of the country made this hasty step the more alarming.  For there were no magazines furnished, no ammunition prepared, no fortresses in a proper state of defence, no plans of the operations of the campaign thought of; and, above all, no one was yet fixed upon to take the chief command.—Nearly forty years peace had kept every general from attending to reforms in military operations.  They, therefore, adhered to their old methods, because these had succeeded so well under the Great Frederick; but, like other things, here also, the modes had changed with the times.—In this dilemma, the King, who had not sufficient military discrimination, either to perceive this, or even to estimate the characteristic ability of his various generals; yet, finding a choice necessary, he, from the known reputation of the Duke of Brunswick, decided in his favor, and gave him all his confidence.

The Duke, undoubtedly, in his early days had abilities; but he was now grown old, peevish, infirm, and, like an old soldier, fond of talking about former times, without giving any attention to the present.  He seems to have had no idea of modern tactics, or the rapidity of their movements.  He was, in short, no longer capable of either forming or executing any plan of operations suitable to the present times; nor could he even obtain the confidence or respect of those nearest in command.  His authority, therefore, thus disregarded, there now existed no subordination, but each acted separately for himself; from which, naturally arose such confusion, that when the troops had reached Auerstadt, there was no regular army, but only different divisions in the greatest disorder; and, when these had arrived, they found no arrangements made for the maintenance of them, and not being permitted to follow the French system of requisition, they suffered more from hunger than from the enemy.  The soldiers had not even sufficient ammunition, as it was only ordered to be sent from Breslau on the 15th of October.  The magazines, such as they were, at Naumberg, Merseburg, and Halle, were all on the right side of the river Saale, without any protection, as the whole army was encamped on the left, and thus the opposite side remained open to the enemy, of which he took the advantage; as Bonapartè immediately knew every thing that passed in their councils of war at Weimar, whilst the Prussians were even ignorant of the positions of the enemy; for, it is said, that Frederick William deems all information from spies contrary to his principles of moral rectitude.

Though we all must love the man, yet we also all must lament with himself, “that Heaven had, in such times, placed him on such a throne.”

You will now, I presume, have a sufficient idea of the state of Prussia, and of her army; and you will, I think, acknowlege with me, that the melancholy catastrophe of her fall was only hastened, but not caused by Bonapartè:  indeed, when we reflect upon the cunning he always displays, we are almost led to conclude, that, through his secret agent, he must have instigated the Queen when at Pyrmont, to get this war declared against him; that knowing, as he certainly did, the rotten state of the Kingdom, he might under that veil with which he always knows to cover his villanies, devour so much as suited his purpose.

I shall now proceed to give you the clearest information I can of his further progress.


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