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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

‘The creation of an army capable of winning international recognition for the Hohenzollern rulers was made possible only by subordinating the total energies of their subjects to the maintenance of that military establishment.  The institutional framework, the economic activity, and even the social organization of Prussia were determined in large part by the needs of the army; and if the Prussian state which was thus created was a masterpiece of conscious design, it was, nevertheless, essentially an artificial creation, incapable of natural growth or independent development.’ -Gordon Craig

‘The chequered hotchpotch of the Hohenzollern possessions had come together through purchase, through conquest and through inheritance.  It was the Army that formed the iron ring that held them together; one may even go so far as to say that in the strict sense there has never been a Prussian nation at all, though there has most certainly been a Prussian Army and a Prussian State.’-Walter Gorlitz

‘Disaster at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806 shook the foundations of Prussian military theory and practice, furnishing an impetus for analysis and reform.  Never before had any first-class army been so swiftly and decisively reduced to impotence.  The lack of a clear political objective, couples with a. high command that resembled. ’a junta of septuagenarians,’ led to a profusion of conflicting plans.  Some of the crucial defects in military leadership might have been surmounted had the Prussian army possessed a unified command structure and a sound tactical doctrine.  But it did not.  Furthermore, complacency and senility had led to a refusal to consider the new conditions of citizen armies, while overconfidence had resulted in a complete miscalculation of Napoleon as a general who represented the will of the people.  So Prussia, clinging to the great traditions of its Frederician past, marched to war in 1806 engulfed in a conceit of invincibility.’-Charles White

‘I must say this to Your Majesty: war shall never be of my doing, for if it were, I should look upon myself as a criminal.  Criminal is what I call a sovereign who, for a whim, undertakes a war which the policy of his country does not justify.’

Napoleon to Frederick William III, 1806

‘The Germans make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.’


The advent of the skirmisher marked the beginning of a new epoch in warfare. ’

– Charles White

1100 14 October 1806 on the Landgrafenberg, northwest of Verzehnheilegen

In perfect Potsdam parade ground order, colors flapping bravely through the smoke and roar of combat, the stately ranks of Prussian infantry of Grawert’s division advanced to the attack, the attached battalion artillery advancing between the perfectly aligned battalions.  The four infantry regiments marched under French artillery fire across the Landgrafenburg, guiding on the village of Vierzehnheilegen, which the French infantry of Lannes’ V Corps had occupied and were now preparing for defense.

The four Prussian line regiments were aligned from the left on Regiment Grawert, with Regiments Zastrow, Sanitz, and Hohenlohe echeloned in perfect formation to the right.  Advancing like an impenetrable wall, which nothing on earth could stop, the tautly disciplined ranks, in actuality the ghost of Frederick the Great’s tough infantry, the Prussian infantry was marching towards their doom. The French infantry, formed in open order in the village and on the terrain to either side of it, were preparing to meet them with flexible tactics, which the Prussians were unable to match. 

The order to halt ran down the ranks of the Prussian regiments and the officers barked the commands to align the division to the left, bringing all four regiments on line.  This being accomplished smoothly and stately under a growing, galling fire from the French, commands and drum rolls sounded for the battalions to begin the vaunted volley fire for which the Prussians were renowned throughout Europe.  In their steady, perfectly aligned ranks, volleys crashed out like cannon shots, totally ineffective against the deployed French infantry, which were partially hidden by the smoke of the volleys along the Prussian firing line, as well as the general conflagration of the battle as a whole.

The largely veteran French infantry, the 34th, 40th, and 108th Ligne, and the 21st Legere, took advantage of every scrap of cover, firing from the village, behind garden walls, and in the open fields wherever they could hide.  The French infantry opened a deadly, individually aimed fire at the Prussians lined up perfectly in the open.  The Prussian infantry started to take losses, men being hit and going down in ever increasing numbers.  Some of the French tirailleurs worked around the flanks of the Prussian regiments, and a high proportion or Prussian officers and NCOs started to become casualties.  The stately lines of infantry started to become ragged, even as the surviving officers and NCOs shouted commands to close ranks.  Amazingly, the tautly disciplined regiments started to waver under the unrelenting and increasingly effective fire of the French infantry.


Much has been written and more analysis has taken place, possibly, on the Campaign of 1806 in Saxony between the Grande Armee under Napoleon and his veteran commanders and the Prussian/Saxon Army under the Duke of Brunswick and his well-intentioned king, Frederick William III than on any other Napoleonic campaign, with the exception of Waterloo.  It has even been analyzed as a campaign study in the course on the history of the military art at West Point.

It is generally agreed that the Prussians had antiquated and aging generals, and that is submitted, especially in recent scholarship, as the main reason for their defeat at the hands of the French.  However, that is only one of the reasons for the disaster that took place in October 1806 when, in three weeks of maneuver, battle, and unsparing pursuit, the vaunted, and much feared, Prussian army was completely destroyed, except for a few units that were stationed in East Prussia.

Scharnhorst, the first and greatest of the Reformers, was particularly blunt on this point after the campaign, stating that ‘Our officers do not know how to command. Only a few are of any use in their positions. The surrender of so many fortresses without cause shows the shameful conduct of our senior officers.’  Additionally, the following examples also illustrate weaknesses in the Prussian officer corps, and do not necessarily refer to the generals, but to the junior and field grade officers:

An interesting incident that occurred a week before Jena will illustrate the full import of Scharnhorst’s frustration when trying to reason with Prussia’s recalcitrant nobility.  In early October 1806, the Duke of Brunswick received indications that the Grande Armee was moving north toward the Thuringen Forest as Scharnhorst had foreseen.  Captain Muffling, a member of Scharnhorst’s staff section, was sent on a hasty reconnaissance to confirm this alarming news.  Observing the French army in Ansbach, he noticed ‘the ease of movement of their infantry.’  Three days later Muffling reported to Prussian headquarters that all French company officers ‘were of foot with packs on their backs, while our battalions require 50 luxury horses!’  According to Muffling, General Ruchel responded: ‘My friend, a Prussian nobleman does not walk.’’

‘That infantry junior officers must walk may make them uncomfortable-but what can the officer demand from his men if he does not share with them the daily burden and the heat!  French, Russian, and Austrian officers walk with their men; should ours remain soft!  Or is out state rich enough to afford horses for each officer!’

The enlisted men were not immune to this type of ‘old style’ ‘privilege’ as they were also used to regular issues of both rations and firewood, and were not experienced at foraging on their own, had it been necessary.  Early in the campaign, the supply system started to fail and the Prussians, and their reluctant Saxon allies, were not resupplied as they expected, which led to a definite lowering of the collective morale of the army, even to the point where looting and pillaging in friendly territory took place.  Paret is succinct as to the reasoning for this:

‘The expense and the unreliability of the troops demanded that they be well cared for at every stage of the campaign.  The burden this placed on the supply organizations could have been alleviated by requisitions and the levying of contributions; but this was kept to a minimum.’

While these examples are not indicators in themselves for the Prussian defeat, they, taken with the other reasons listed, contributed to the eventual failure of the Prussian army, its vaunted volley fire and tactics, and the hallowed memory of the great Frederick.

Other reasons for the Prussian failure were the composition of the army itself, the outmoded tactics and organization of the Prussian army, staff organization and functioning, and the failure to organize, train, employ light infantry, even though urged by such officers as Scharnhorst to do so.  This paper will explore the Prussian tactical failure on the battlefield during the campaign from the point of view of light infantry use and employment, attempting to explain why the Prussian tactics, which still retained much of the Frederician rigidity, failed against the more flexible French tactics.


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


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