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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

Conclusion – The Reformers

The Prussian army as a whole missed the lessons of the French Revolutionary Wars.  Generally unwilling to modernize to new tactical systems, the idea of a general staff capable of relieving the commander of all detailed work, and a flexible tactical and operational organization, doomed them to failure in 1806.  They were amply warned, specifically by Scharnhorst and his comrades, and generally by the French victories, but the harbingers went unnoticed or ignored.

Some reform was attempted.  Staff functioning was improved, more light infantry was raised and trained, and the army organized, shortly before the campaign opened, into permanent divisions.  However, the staff was neither as large nor as proficient as Berthier’s in the Grande Armee,  The divisions organized were divisions of all arms, which the French had abandoned in 1800 in favor of the corps d’armee system.  Light and line infantry were not integrated and their functions remained separate, as this brief study has demonstrated.  The French system was not understood, and the Prussian infantry went into combat unprepared for modern warfare. 

‘Early in the battle of Auerstadt, tactical control of the leading divisions was already slipping out of the hands of their generals.  As Scharnhorst helped restore order on the left flank, so Prince August on the right assumed command of three grenadier battalions in addition to his own.  The broken terrain and the French [tirailleurs] disrupted and immobilized their serried ranks-a characteristic encounter between old and new tactics that was being repeated across the whole of the battlefield.  Since Prince August’s battalion was among the few in the army that had been trained to copy some of the French methods, Clausewitz was able to form a third of the men into lines of skirmishers that preceded the attacks and covered withdrawals of the compact formations.’

The campaign of 1806 ended with the near-complete destruction of the ‘long-feared’ Prussian army.  The Prussian generals had fought that campaign with an army that was the remains of what Frederick had put into the field in the Seven Years’ War.  However, there was no Frederick to lead or inspire it in 1806.  The Prussian leadership was too old, too pedantic, and indecisive.  Frederick William was the nominal commander, but he failed to rein in his bickering generals, and, when he did have the chance to assume command of the main Prussian army at Auerstadt after Brunswick’s mortal wounding, he remained in action on the left flank, ‘displaying great bravery’ and winning the respect of his troops, but displaying no comprehension of what was happening across the field as a whole.

As has been clearly demonstrated, not only was Prussian senior leadership deficient, but Prussian training and tactics were antiquated.  As Petre so aptly states 

‘The Prussian attacks on Vierzehnheiligen were a good example of the impossibility of succeeding with the parade ground tactics of the Seven Years’ War against the new tactics of the French.  The unhappy Prussians, attempting solemnly to form line before opening fire, were decimated by the fire of the French, ensconced behind the walls of the village and the gardens, or hidden in the furrows of the potato fields.’  Von der Goltz goes even further, stating that ‘The fatal method of that epoch was to halt and form within the zone of the enemy’s effective fire, forming line in order to act by the regulation fire of masses.’ 

Von Freytag-Loringhoven amplifies the problem in that

‘The Prussian infantry at one time took the Frederician maxim of marching boldly upon the enemy too literally, and insisted that skirmishing is the mark of a coward.  It learned better in 1806.’

What this tells us is that the military and tactical conservatism of the Prussian leadership kept the level of training at that of the Seven Years’ War, and that new tactical innovations, such as the French employment of skirmishers in large numbers as a decisive element in the attack were either ignored or overlooked.  Scharnhorst agreed with this assessment.  Most Prussian officers were unwilling to either allow line infantry to fight in open order, or to employ their light troops in the proven French method.  This outlook would definitely change after 1806.

Finally, an excellent snapshot of the Prussian army that fought the French in 1806 is given by noted historian John Elting in Swords Around A Throne:

‘The Prussian Army the French met in 1806 was essentially the ghost of Frederick the Great’s reputedly invincible host, now afflicted with hardening of the arteries and some senile decay.  The titular command in chief was the Duke of Brunswick, was seventy-one; his principle subordinates (‘antagonists’ would be a better description) ranged in age from eighty-two down to a mere sixty.  Its fountainhead of authority, young King Frederick William III, was simple, brave, and soldierly but weak-willed; his pretty, bossy wife, Louise, wanted war.  There were many elderly generals, with leather lungs and entirely unjustified illusions of infallibility, who insisted on arguing over their orders rather than obeying them.’

‘Most of the army’s peacetime enlisted strength was mercenaries from the world’s four corners; officers were frequently impoverished foreign gentlemen, well enough educated and trained but crushed by endless minutiae and slow promotion. The artillery and engineers, arms that Frederick never had quite comprehended, were in bad condition, their officers poorly trained and considered something less than gentlemen. The administrative services had ossified; the medical service was outstandingly inefficient.  Troops movements were slowed by long trains of supply and baggage wagons.  (Every infantry captain had the right to three packhorses for his personal gear).  In time of war the ranks were filled up by a form of national conscription, first introduced in 1727 and variously modified thereafter. 

As usual, it touched only the lower classes; sons of officials and young men of the middle class were exempt.  Draftees so secured-termed cantonists since each regiment drew on a specific canton (roughly a county) for its recruits-received several months of training when first called to duty; after that they were on leave for ten months out of the year on reduced pay.  Most were soon married and had civilian jobs.  But for mercenary and cantonist alike the Prussian service meant scant pay, short rations, skimpy clothing, and harsh discipline.’

‘Attempts to modernize this army were routinely thwarted in the sacred names of economy (Prussia being bare-bones poor) and Frederick the Great.  Still, some progress was achieved.  A Hanoverian expert, Gerhard Johann Scharnbhorst, was imported to improve the Prussian staff and military schools.  The energetic, intelligent, cantankerous Hans David Yorck, cashiered by Frederick for insubordination, had come back from service in the Dutch East Indies to rebuild the Prussian light infantry.  Also, shortly before the 1806 campaign opined, Prussia adopted the French system of organizing troops into divisions rather than temporary brigades, but those were divisions of all arms, such as the French had found unsatisfactory.  There was no realistic field training but much rigorously cadenced, stylized drill.  The old-time whirlwind masses of Prussian cavalry no longer received their former rough practical training for man and horse.’

‘That army marched away to Jena and Auerstadt, tried gallantly to fight its battle in Frederick’s style: Stiff lines of musketeers trampling slowly forward or standing in the open while Lannes’ scarce-seen skirmishers used them for target practice; yelling, disorderly squadrons crowding in through the morning fog to splinter against Davout’s squares.  The rest was an increasingly despairing retreat, and disaster piled upon defeat.  Virgin fortresses struck their colors to handfuls of French hussars, cantonists deserted and looted, Frederick William and Louise fled into the Russian lines, and Napoleon rode triumphant through Berlin.’

Finally, the verdict of Napoleon:

When I went to see the king of Prussia, instead of a library I found he had a large room, like an arsenal, furnished with shelves and pegs, in which were placed fifty or sixty jackets of various cuts.  Every day he changed his fashion and put on a different one.  He was a tall, dry looking fellow and would give a good idea of Don Quixote.  He attached more importance to the cut of a dragoon or a hussar uniform than would have been necessary for the salvation of a kingdom.  At Jena, his army performed the finest and most spectacular maneuvers, but I soon put a stop to this tomfoolery and taught them that to fight and to execute dazzling maneuvers and wear splendid uniforms were very different matters.  If the French army had been commanded by a tailor, the king of Prussia would certainly have gained the day.’

There are current arguments against the tactical use of light infantry by e French which, apparently, are based on information obtained from the German General Staff Histories, Jany in particular.  An argument against this revisionism is contained in Paret’s Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform 1807-1815.  I submit it is not only pertinent, but it is also a rebuttal against the current historical revisionism that states and believes that

(1) French light infantry tactics were not as decisive as believed, and

(2) that tactically there was little difference between the Prussians and the French in 1806, both of which are incorrect.

‘Their [the Historical Section of the German General Staff] arguments against the significance and importance of the French tirailleur were taken over and developed by Jany.  They recur throughout his writings, but are most explicitly stated on pages 369-370 of the third volume of the Geschichte der Preussischen Armee, from which they may be summarized as follows:     

(1) The tactics of the Prussian fusiliers were equal to the tactics of the French light infantry. 

(2) It was not true that fear of desertion made a more general use of tirailleur tactics impossible in the Prussian line infantry, since the French army suffered more from desertion than did the Prussian; besides, the Prussian light battalions contained as many supposedly unreliable foreigners as did the line battalions. 

(3) In any case, as long as smoothbore flintlocks were used, skirmish fire could never achieve decisive effects. Jany’s first argument is correct in a narrow sense: when the fusiliers were not heavily outnumbered, they could successfully oppose their superior steadiness to the greater dash and tactical flexibility of the French.  But usually the infanterie legere and the chasseurs did outnumber them, and the French could employ most of their line units as skirmishers of sorts.  Besides, the French generals used the tirailleurs aggressively and with imagination, while the fusiliers were kept on short leash by the formalism that continued to govern the Allied operations.     

The second argument mixes up conditions before and after 1806.  During Frederick the Great’s reign, fear of desertion indeed helped restrict infantry tactics and operations in general.  After Frederick’s death, some easing of discipline and a limited opening of tactics developed concurrently; but the new fusilier battalions were not true light troops.  They still resembled line infantry.  In combat they maneuvered either in close order or sent out at most one-fourth of their men as skirmishers, a proportion that made disciplinary control a far easier matter than it would be in a French light infantry battalion, which might fight entirely en debandade.  Certainly Frnech desertion was heavy at times; but this is precisely one of the basic differences between the Revolutionary and the Allied forces which Jany ignores: tactical, administrative, and disciplinary irregularities, which would have crippled such an army as the Prussian or the Hanoverian, could be borne by the French.      

Jany’s third and most important point is equally misleading.  True, skirmish fire alone was generally not decisive, but then it was rarely used by itself.  In battle the primary task of the skirmishers was to enable the massed infantry to maneuver and attack.  They did this by fixing and outflanking the opponent, by softening him for the assault, for which purpose artillery preparation alone was usually not sufficient, and by causing the enemy line to waste its musket fire, which artillery could never make them do.  The tirailleurs opened the battle, masked the movement of the close formation, and supplied a measure of firepower to the column, which in the nature of things had little of its own.  Indeed, without the tirailleur, columns in battle would have required far heavier artillery support than tended to be available.  Since skirmish lines were intended to be backed up by close formations, Jany’s argument that the Napoleonic skirmisher with his inaccurate musket could not be decisive in battle loses its significance.     

It may be added parenthetically that the inferior Prussian musket did not prevent the Prussians from developing their open order tactics after Jena.  Between 1812 and 1815 the Prussian line infantry frequently fought with one third or more of its men deployed as skirmishers-evidently their weapons were not deemed so poor as to render this manner of fighting ineffective.’




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