Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

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

LETTER VII: The Neglect of the Prussian Army


AUSTRIA has ever been considered as the most dangerous enemy to Prussia; there were, of course, many persons who deemed it politic to have that power enfeebled.   Besides, infected as the greater part of the nation were with democratic principles, success was generally wished to the French arms.  Their progress ought not to have been indifferent to Frederick William III; but he did not like war, and therefore in 1799, he declined an alliance with Russia against France, and determined to abide by his system of neutrality.  But this system, at such a period of devastation and conquest, served only to show his want of energy and power—to sink his state into a cipher; and, by attempting conciliation with all, he became contemptible to all.  His dread of expence, and his anxiety to reinstate the public treasure, had also great influence on his conduct, and led him to overlook even the measures most necessary for his own safety.  Hence that singular neglect of fortresses.  Along the Weser, there was not one; those of Wesel, Magdeburg, Stettin, and Custrin, were by no means in a proper state of defence; and, had Paul not been so early cut off, we should have seen how far the army was able to support the favorite system of neutrality.  For Bonapartè, by sending his Russian prisoners, well clad, home promising to support Paul’s claim to Malta as grand master, got such hold of that vain monarch, as to bring him not only to declare war against England, but to use his utmost endeavours to force Prussia likewise to join them.  True, however, to his old system of neutrality, Frederick William put the army upon the war establishment to defend it.  A war, it is certain, would long ago have been serviceable to the state, were it only to have cleared the country from those profligate desperate reptiles, who, too intemperate for sober study, possessed not other professional knowledge than that of harassing and tormenting their troops.  Under such commanders, destitute as they were of every idea of tactics, what real discipline could be expected?  The army was therefore, like themselves, varnished up for the eye, but rotten at the core.  Proud of the recollection of Frederick II. all seemed only to vegetate in the letter of his well-earned fame, without understanding to benefit from the spirit.  Devoid of this, they sunk into their natural apathy, and a general relaxation ensued.  Some few generals were, it is true, yet remaining, animated with an honest zeal for their country’s arms; but these were grown almost too old for farther active service.  Besides, during this long neutrality, the officers of the staff, together with many others, had, by marriage and by purchasing landed property, quite domesticated themselves in their quarters; and possessing besides, in their own opinion, sufficient fame and authority, derived from the achievements of their fathers in the wars of the Great Frederick, they preferred their present quiet situation to the more active life of a soldier, and were therefore indifferent to military glory.  Even the King himself had neither the judgement nor energy to restore the lost spirit of his army.  We have already observed his repugnance to war, and may therefore presume that his inclinations would not lead him deep into the study of it.  He seems to have dwelt too much upon superficial forms; and the twist of a curl, or the cut of the coat, were deemed the most important considerations in the forming of a soldier:  but future events have shown, how little these will avail, when opposed to military science, and tried experience.


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