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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

Light Infantry Theory and Employment

In 1806, the Prussian light infantry arm consisted of 24 battalions of fusiliers and one Jager regiment, which was commanded by Colonel Yorck.  While these troops had been trained in the light service, the fusiliers were still, doctrinally, to be held in massed formation most of the time, with only some of the unit deployed in open order, and never were they to be deployed as a complete unit, as the French habitually did with their light infantry, and their line infantry as well when the tactical situation called for it.  The jagers were hamstrung somewhat in 1806, and Yorck’s influence as their commander considerable reduced, by the unit being parceled out among the Prussian divisions throughout the campaign.

Consequently, during Grawert’s division-sized attack against Verzehnheilegen, there were no light infantry favorable to support it, and the Prussian line battalions, with very few exceptions, were not trained in open order tactics.  They met the French, who were deployed in open order and taking cover in the village, walled gardens and in the terrain to either side of the village.  Stopping inside musket range to dress ranks and come on line, all four of Grawert’s line regiments stood in the open for over two hours volleying on command against the French, causing little harm, while the French infantry’s aimed fire shot the Prussians to pieces.  Losses were particularly heavy among the Prussian officers and NCOs.

Lannes’ infantry, Grawert’s opponents, had displayed a tactical finesse and expertise throughout the battle.  Lannes divisions fought in line and battalion column, advancing to the attack in both, both formations being covered by swarms of light infantry which paved the way for the French attacks, ‘Lannes corps moved forward, partly in line and partly in column, the whole front covered as usual by dense swarms of skirmishers’ as chronicled by Petre.  The Prussians could not penetrate the skirmisher screen, and though both at Jena and Auerstadt, skirmishers were driven back by determined Prussian infantry attacks. The open-ordered French infantry always returned to their main objective once the Prussian attack was spent or driven back – to fight in open order firing on their own against the tight Prussian ranks, inflicted heavy loss, and paving the way for French infantry assaults.  Maude in The Jena Campaign 1806, while plainly being blatantly pro-Prussian in his writing, also states that there were no light infantry available to screen or skirmish for Grawert, and that he stood in the open to be shot down in large numbers by the better-deployed French infantry.

Lannes also performed the very difficult passage of lines straight out of the 1791 Reglement when his first line was running low on ammunition.  Passing the second line through the first,  and the attacks, continued unabated on the Prussian infantry.  It was a virtuoso performance by both commanders and troops on the French side.

Scharnhorst and other far-thinking Prussian officers, such as Knesebeck and Boyen, attempted reforms in the period 1801-1805, going so far to form what would now be called a ‘think-tank’ for the modernization of the Prussian Army.  This Militarische Gesellshaft was organized and met in Berlin, and produced many worthwhile papers on the tactics, organization, and administration of the period. 

It was an uphill fight, however, and gaining support among the Prussian general officers was difficult, if not impossible.  As Charles White states in The Enlightened Soldier:

‘Indeed, men like Ruchel shuddered at the thought of subjecting the army of Frederick the Great to any thoroughgoing analysis.  After all, they argued, was it not victorious in the last great war?  Most senior officers were unwilling to think of the campaigns along the Rhine (1792-1794) or in Poland (1794-95) as real tests of arms.’

What is also interesting is that the Prussians didn’t perform very well in any engagement or conflict from 1763 to 1807, when Lestocq’s small Prussian corps and Gneisenau’s defense of Kolberg drew admiration and results.  Even the Prussian Army’s performance in the War of the Bavarian Succession, the so-called ‘Potato War’ in which there were no engagements of note, was dismal. 

Scharnhorst and his colleagues both had enough combat experience among them and had seen the French on the battlefield and on campaign, to understand that new methods of warfare, from tactics to army organization and administration, were being employed successfully by the French:

‘From their brief experience fighting the French between 1792 and 1795, a few. were convinced that they had confronted something new and unique in the history of warfare.  What had captured their attention was the French use of light infantry.  Tirailleur (skirmisher) tactics had impressed Knesebeck. During six engagements Knesebeck had seen the French deploying ‘their entire infantry’ as light troops, ‘and with decided superiority,’ referring to the skill of the French and not their numbers.’

Furthermore, ‘Scharnhorst understood that without changes in organization and administration, tactics and strategy, discipline and training, Prussia could never counter the French threat.’  One of the methods Scharnhorst strongly recommended to improve the Prussian army was the education of its officers, hence the embryonic military education provided by the Militarische Gesellschaft.  This unique organization provided what today might be termed a ‘think tank’ and some of the papers and studies produced were helpful, especially from 1807 onwards, in the rebirth of the Prussian army. 

The writings of such officers as Knesebeck  undoubtedly helped in the formation and improvement of the Prussian light troops and infantry tactics, as well as hasten the military reforms that were badly needed after Jena and Auerstadt.  On the need for military education, Kneseback stated that

‘It is here that the education of the individual is of such great benefit to the Republicans, because situations too often occur during the combat of light troops in which the officer’s control ceases completely. in which each man acts on his own.’ 

Scharnhorst was also convinced that service with light troops, in general, and light infantry in particular, was essential for the education of officers. He wrote

‘It is also worth some consideration that light troops offer the greatest opportunity for the training of good and useful officers, because daily actions accustom them to danger, and by being left to rely more on their own judgment they are taught how to tear themselves from the machine-like process of their profession. All previous teaching is as useless as it is inapplicable, and therefore the officers’ boldness, judgment, and independence grow almost daily.’

Knesebeck was also emphatic, and here he undoubtedly erred, on the differences between line and light infantry, and that the two should not be combined, saying that ‘It is entirely different with line infantry. ’ Scharnhorst differed greatly in this aspect of light infantry employment, believing that having ‘ intentionally devoted so much time to this [the superiority of the French light infantry], because in this is to be found the key to so many unexpected events, and perhaps even the key to the outcome of the war.’

Captain Ludwig von Boyen, later to be War Minister after Waterloo and who attempted to sustain the gains of the Reformers in peacetime after the danger had passed, was the author of a paper supporting the use of line infantry as light infantry if necessary, contrary to von Beulwitz, also mentioned and discussed by White:

‘Boyen’s discussion. was perhaps the most valuable paper on tactics delivered before the Militarische Gesellschaft. Why indeed should line infantry be taught the light service and how to fight as skirmishers?  This was the question Boyen asked.  Tactically, the answer was a matter of historical sense.  Recent experience showed that the art of skirmishing was ‘an important part of every infantry attack.’  Skirmishing was ‘no longer a tactical hypothesis,’ but a tactical reality utilized with great success by ‘nearly all French armies.’  Boyen concluded that the record of history clearly demonstrated ‘that in the course of a campaign. any battalion can become engaged in a fight in which skirmishing is the only effective tactic.’  Increasing the number of light infantry units as Beulwitz and others argued would not achieve the necessary tactical flexibility, but training the third rank of the line battalion to fight as skirmishers just might.’

Boyen, on the other hand, took a different view from Knesebeck on the use, training, and employment of light infantry.  He also knew he would encounter opposition from the more conservative and traditional officers in the army, who would oppose almost anything new that was proposed to modernize and reform the army.  These suggestions for reform would be squelched in the ‘sacred names of economy and Frederick the Great.’

‘Some [officers] were convinced that the common soldier was incapable ‘of training for the many different purposes’ that light service required.  Others claimed that the skirmisher needed ‘twice as much drill’ as the line infantryman.  Still others maintained that skirmishing was just a temporary expedient ‘brought on by the levee en masse in France’ and would disappear as soon as the French returned to conventional thinking.’. ‘Boyen had foreseen such a response, and had shown in his paper that there was no evidence to support any argument contrary to teaching line infantry the light service, or how to fight as skirmishers.  But for most Prussian officers, ‘skirmishing was politically suspect and militarily unnecessary.’

Knesebeck, as well as Scharnhorst, Boyen, and the others, believed that both the Austrians and Prussians could learn much from the employment and fighting ability of the French light infantry.  Later, Radetzky, the Austrian chief of staff would remark that neither the Russians nor the Austrians could fight as well in open order as the French.  Scharnhorst’s opinion on the French ability to not only use light infantry, but combined arms employment, especially between infantry and artillery, was decisive on the battlefield.

‘Probably never before has a greater number of light troops appeared on the battlefield than among the ranks of the present French army, nor has military history ever been given more irrefutable examples of the essential value of such troops than during this war. If the campaigns are studied, the Republic certainly owes most of her victories to her light infantry.’

‘Experience teaches us, moreover, that on the whole, first one, then another arm of the service may have a decisive influence on the outcome of combat actions, depending upon the nature of the terrain and other circumstances, and its use; and that in most cases, a very great deal depends on the mutual operation, mutual support, and good harmony of all major arms.’

One of the things that deeply impressed Scharnhorst and other progressive Prussian officers was the ability of the French light infantryman, or tirailleur, to act on his own initiative, while still fighting and operating as part of a team.  From the available evidence, neither the Prussian senior leadership, nor for that matter the Austrian or Russian equivalents, believed that infantry operating in open order as part of a larger whole, or on their own could be an effective battlefield asset.  All three generally believed that the numbers of Jager or other light infantry in their own armies were sufficient.  Scharnhorst, on the other hand, ‘rejected the notion held by many allied officers that the Jager and fusilier in the German forces ‘had always done the work of the French tirailleurs’

Additionally, Scharnhorst

‘maintained that the individual French soldier, epitomized by the tirailleur, had decided most of the tactical engagements of the war.  The light service had fostered the soldier’s natural intelligence and independent judgment.  No longer was he a mindless robot in a lock-step formation, moving and firing only upon order.  Now he was free to think and respond as part of a team.’

Scharnhorst, from both experience and personal observations believed that the infantry should fight in a much less rigid and geometric manner, combat now being a much more fluid, rambling business, where individual initiative, on the part of both the officer and enlisted man could have decisive results.

‘‘In former times a great value was placed on original battle formations,’ he [Scharnhorst] told his fellow officers, hoping that they would see that innovators in France had developed a superior tactical concept.’-White

In the higher levels of the Prussian service this was tantamount to heresy, as the highly touted Prussian drill, harsh discipline, and controlled volley fire were thought to be able to overcome any obstacle on the battlefield.  Additionally, many Prussian officers thought that the French were doing nothing more than going through a momentarily fashionable process, that would eventually sort itself out, common sense would prevail, and warfare would revert to what it had been, with the Prussian method supreme and copied by all.  They missed the pertinent fact that issues, methods, and warfare itself had changed and that, as the Bourbons were to learn in 1814, the clock cannot be turned back.  Scharnhorst, and others, had figured this out on their own:

‘The physical ability and high intelligence of the common man enables the French tirailleurs to profit form all advantages offered by the terrain and the general situation, while the phlegmatic Germans, Bohemians, and Dutch form on open ground and do nothing but what their officer orders them to do.’

Lieutenant Alexander von Beulwitz, yet another member of Scharnhorst’s group, in his study On light Infantry demonstrated not only his distrust of the common soldier, but that innovation among many of the officers was feared.  As stated by White: 

‘Beulwitz acknowledged that recent combat experience in France and Poland had confirmed the importance of light infantry, and had taught Prussia a valuable lesson.  He strongly recommended increasing the number of fusilier battalions and providing more organic artillery to each.  Beulwitz also wanted to establish ‘an elite group’ of riflemen to fight as skirmishers, and to use skirmishing as a . (preparatory school) to train and develop noncommissioned officers.  Because light infantrymen ‘must very often think individually,’ Beulwitz suggested a special training program to foster their ability ‘to act without instruction’. But the thrust of Beulwitz’s argument was clear: the purity of the line must be maintained.  Under no circumstances must light infantry be integrated with line infantry because ‘a line battalion is not suited for dispersed action.  Ruchel agreed.  Significantly, the membership pointed out that the French had ‘often used line infantry to skirmish.’

Beulwitz agreed with what Knesebeck eventually came to profess, that the supposed integrity of the line infantry should not, and theoretically could not, be interfered with by training it to be able to perform light infantry missions or combining it tactically with light infantry.  This bitter lesson would be proven bloodily in the coming 1806 campaign.

Much, if not most, of what Scharnhorst and company talked about and recommended came to fruition, but only after the disaster of 1806.  Major Karl Anton Count de la Roche-Aymon, a French émigré officer in the Prussian service stated in 1808 after the debacle had been thought about and debated among the Prussian reformers that

‘At the start of the Revolutionary wars, the French government decided to introduce new tactics. which would give hidden talents scope for development.  Instead of the line it chose the column, since it provided appropriate means to direct an enflamed people; regular fire was exchanged for the tirailleur system, and thus the basic elements of the French victories were formed.  Since skirmishing isolated the soldier in combat, left him to his own judgment, and strongly aroused the ambition of each individual, it necessarily gave the French an advantage over troops drilled to fight only in close formations. The present French emperor improved on this new system of war.  The idea, already sensed by the famous Marshal de Saxe, that the art of war lay solely in the legs, was expanded and realized by Napoleon in his audacious marches; his army achieves a speed of movement so far unequaled by others, and since it is solely designed for fighting it knows neither baggage trains nor supply depots, and its operations are not dependent on the calculations of the quartermaster.  But without the organization of French armies into divisions, legions, and corps, the success of these daring marches would nevertheless often be most doubtful.  Apart from other factors, this arrangement is so advantageous because through it the efficient combination of infantry and artillery, the two fundamental branches of the service effectively supports the rather inferior French cavalry.  Now the corps and divisional commanders no longer recognize the existence of terrain dangerous to them; they only know more or less favorable ground on which they are able to fight at any time.’

Friedrich August von der Marwitz also left-handedly added to the Reformers arguments by his ham-handed championing of the old methods of Prussian infantry tactics that went swirling down in defeat in the face of the tactically efficient and innovative Grande Armee:

‘The effect of the old Prussian fire has been completely lost, and we sacrifice an enormous number of men in villages and woodland where the French often lure us since they are much more proficient than we are, because any Frenchman knows better how to ensure his personal advantage than the German. ’

Clausewitz was much clearer and somewhat less prejudiced than von der Marwitz, saying that

‘The individual hussar and Jager. possesses an enterprising spirit, a confidence in himself and his luck, which someone who has always served in the line can hardly imagine. On the other hand, the hussar and Jager is more respectful of danger in ordinary battle than troops fighting in close order.  This is an absolutely necessary quality of light troops. in whom the most extreme daring must alternate according to circumstances with intelligent caution.  The free play of intelligence, which operates in the little war, this clever union of boldness with caution (I should like to say, this fortunate combination of daring and fear), this is the quality that renders the little war so extraordinarily interesting.’

Finally, the competent and intelligent Prince August, who served well at Auerstadt in command of a grenadier battalion stated that the military theorists of the eighteenth century ‘recognized the advantages offered by an intelligent combination of line and light infantry. The French were the first to carry out this excellent idea on a large scale. from which arrangement they derive. important advantages.’

Paragraph 6 of the King’s guidelines, formulated by the Military Reorganization Commission in July 1807, under Scharnhorst’s direction readily addressed the tactical problem and definitely pointed the way to realistic reform:

‘That we have too little genuine light infantry can hardly be doubted.  But how could such a force be created?  One might-and this appears to me most feasible and suitable-add a light battalion to each infantry regiment. Or one could do away completely with the so-called light infantry, and the entire infantry would be trained to perform this duty as well, as is the case in the French army.’

The bottom line, though, with respect to the development of light infantry, and light infantry-mission capable line infantry, was that ‘In the Prussian army the introduction of light infantry battalions and company sharpshooters was undertaken in too formalistic a manner to achieve the same results’ that the French achieved in their light infantry units as well as their line outfits.  Interestingly, the Austrians to a great extent ruined their excellent Grenzer units by insisting that they adopt the drill and training of the Austrian line infantry.



More on the Prussian Light Infantry in the Jena Campaign IntroductionBackgroundLight Infantry Theory and Employment Conclusions: The Reformers BibliographyBibliographic Note


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