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Prussian Light Infantry in the Jena Campaign

‘The Combat Ends for Lack of Combatants’

Prussian Light Infantry in the Jena Campaign

By Kevin Kiley


It has been authoritatively and categorically stated that the Prussian Army that marched off to defeat and disaster at Jena and Auerstadt was the relic of Frederic the Great’s allegedly invincible host.  This is a simple, but largely accurate, assessment.  One of the main problems for the Prussian defeat at Jena is that the army was still built and organized on mid-18th Century policies, and that half of the personnel in 1806 were mercenaries.  This phenomenon has been recorded and documented by such authorities on the period as Gordon Craig and Christopher Duffy.  Craig writes in The Politics of the Prussian Army that 

‘The decline of the army which had won such signal triumphs in the Seven Years’ War can be traced back to Frederick the Great himself; and even Treitschke, one of his greatest admirers, is forced to admit that Frederick left the army ‘in a worse condition that that in which he had found it on ascending the throne. Whereas in the army of Frederick William I natives had outnumbered foreigners by two to one, Frederick set out deliberately to reverse that ratio.  Conscripted cantonists should never, he believed, be in excess of three percent of the total male population and, even if this meant that some regiments would consist entirely of foreigners, this was preferable to jeopardizing the economic strength of the country.  During the last stages of the Seven Years’ war Frederick resorted to forcible enrollment of prisoners of war and subjects of occupied states rather than increase the size of native contingents; and, in his testament of 1768, he stated flatly that ‘useful hardworking people should be guarded as the apple of one’s eye, and in wartime recruits should be levied in one’s own country only when the bitterest necessity compels.’

Christopher Duffy states in The Army of Frederick the Great that the number of non-Prussians or mercenaries in the Prussian army from 1751 to 1786 continually grew, especially after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.  By the early 19th Century, Craig states, based on data from Jany’s study, that mercenaries made up nearly half of the Prussian army.  ‘The native element in the Prussian army amounted to 50,000 out of a total of 133,000 in 1751, 70,000 out of 160,000 in 1768, and 80,000 out of 190,000 at the time of Frederick’s death in 1786.’

Furthermore, though there was a form of conscription in force in Prussia, it was far from demanding universal service, and many were exempt from service in the army, especially those who kept the Prussian economy going and benefited the state.  The army was expensive, especially the recruiting of foreigners or non-Prussians.  Additionally, the native Prussians that were recruited were usually put on extended furloughs and were, after their initial induction and training, only available for two months out of the year, and these were the only times that the army was at full strength.  Craig states this succinctly: 

‘Although all subsequent canton orders reaffirmed the universal obligation to serve, and although that obligation came to be generally accepted in customary law, neither Frederick William I nor his successors attempted anything approaching universal conscription of Prussian subjects.  In practice liberal exemptions were made in the interest of trade, industry, and the public service; the whole upper stratum of society, including the more prosperous artisans and workers in industries which were of interest to the state, were freed of the duty of service; and the burden fell almost exclusively upon the agricultural workers and the less prosperous peasantry.  Moreover, even these conscripts were granted liberal furloughs.  In order to safeguard the interests of large landholders, the peasant conscripts were released from active duty after a two months’ drill period every spring and thus, in time of peace, the army was at full strength only in April and May.’

‘The universal obligation to serve in the army remained a fiction throughout the period; the number of mercenaries steadily increased until, in 1804, they comprised almost half of the army at full strength; and the reliance upon foreign manpower was greater than it had been at any time since the early years of Frederick William I.  That the increase of foreigners introduced an element of unreliability into the army was recognized ba a few officers.  Between 1802 and 1806 various plans were discussed for supplementing the existing military establishment by organizing amilitia which could serve as an active reserve and a home defense force in time of war, and in all of these-and particularly in the plans proposed by Knesebeck and Courbiere in 1803 and 1804-some emphasis was placed upon the importance of increasing the native component in the regiments.  But these plans were never carried to realization until it was too late, and the principal reason for this was reluctance to eliminate existing exemptions or to broaden the liability to service.’

Duffy’s comments on the same subject are equally succinct:

‘The cost of recruiting the unreliable foreigners was extremely heavy, in both financial and military terms.  Altogether the foreign recruiting cost the state 18,400,000 thalers in Frederick’s reign.  Moreover the entire army had to be organized and conducted in a way that made sure that the foreigners were always under the eye of an officer.  Thus the regular troops could hardly ever be employed as light infantry or independent foragers’. ‘The rest of the troops were foreign cannon fodder, brought into the army to fill out the ranks and be killed off in the first campaigns of a war.’

Frederick the Great’s practices, which worsened towards the end of his reign, were continued by his successors.  The numbers of mercenaries in the army continued to grow, the efficiency declined, and Frederick the Great’s insistence on nobility for his officers resulted in the middle class officers being discharged at the end of the Seven Years’ War.  It was, though, the practice of extended furloughs (‘the practice of furloughing natives for the greater part of the year was continued and extended’) that greatly reduced the efficiency of the army, and the training and cohesion of the army subsequently suffered.  Craig again gives specific evidence:

Frederick William II and Frederick William III went even further, limiting royal maneuvers at times to as little as four weeks, training new conscripts during their first year of service for only ten weeks and granting extensive furloughs not only to the cantonists but to the native professionals as well.  That this should have had deleterious effects upon efficiency and discipline is understandable.  The bulk of the army was engaged almost perpetually in activities which were remote from the art of war.  Meanwhile, the garrisons were filled for the most part with foreign mercenaries, many of them accompanied by their wives and children and forced, in view of their extremely low pay, to undertake menial jobs on a part-time basis in the towns.

In this general deterioration the much vaunted officer corps was affected fully as much as the rank and file.  The flower of Frederick the Great’s officer corps was killed off in the Seven Years’ War.  Frederick’s rigid exclusion of bourgeois officers from the army after 1763 not only deprived the army of talented and experienced officers but imposed a military burden upon the native nobility which it could not bear alone.  The net result of this was that commissions had to be given to foreigners with noble patents, and, although many distinguished officers came to the Prussian service in this way-including Scharnhorst, who was ennobled before his admission to the Prussian army in 1801-many ‘adventurers of dubious character’. came as well.’  As a result of his efforts there were in 1806, in an officer corps of over 7,000 only 695 non-nobles, and these for the most part were isolated in the artillery and subsidiary branches of the service.’

As a helpful aside, Napoleon gave an interesting comment on the service of mercenaries versus an army recruited among the native population of a country:

‘The Greeks in the service of the Great King were not enthusiastic in his cause.  The Swiss in French, Spanish, and Italian service were not enthusiastic in their causes.  The troops of Frederick the great, mostly foreigners, were not enthusiastic in his cause.  A good general, good training, and good discipline make good troops independently of the cause in which they fight.  It is true, however, that fanaticism, love of fatherland, and national glory can inspire fresh troops to good advantage.’

Some progressive officers, such as Scharnhorst who had transferred to the Prussian service from the Hanoverian army and who had seen action against the French in the Revolutionary Wars, however, did note the changes that had been introduced by the French, some intentionally, and some quite by accident.  Some were because of exhaustive experimentation due to the defeats in the Seven Years’ War. ‘During the latter half of the eighteenth century French intellectual fervor had generated far-reaching improvements in military methods.  They had learned from their defeats in the Seven Years’ War.’

Some were from theorists, many of them soldiers themselves, who advocated change in both organization and tactics.  Some were practical, wanting better artillery, and some were innovative, who wanted cooperation between the different arms on the battlefield to be a matter of practice, institutionalizing it so it would be uniform, standard operating procedure if you will, in the French army as a whole.  As has been noted by Charles White in his excellent book on Scharnhorst, The Enlightened Soldier,:

‘Exceptional political and military leadership, unrivaled troop enthusiasm, greater strategic and operational mobility, and a more flexible tactical doctrine were all by-products of the Revolution, and had by 1801 guaranteed the primacy of the French army.  Scharnhorst in particular saw the French experience as truly revolutionary, the wave of the future.’

While the composition of the army was not the sole reason for defeat in 1806, it was a major contributor.  The Prussian army was not a cohesive fighting force, and because of the policies of furloughing much of the army for ten months of the year, neither was it a well-trained force, used to working and training together.  In large part, the enlisted men were not known by their officers, and they were not toughened to the rigors of campaign because of the furlough policy.


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