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The Evolution of the Reserve Infantry

Prussian Reserve Infantry: 1813-15

By Robert Mantle

Editor's Note: This paper was first published as a pamphlet by the Napoleonic Association in the late 1970s. The Napoleonic Association has very generously given us permission to place it on the Napoleon Series. It is reproduced in its entirety except for those parts that cover wargaming. Click here for more information on the Napoleonic Association.



During the period 1813-1815, the Prussian Army underwent a vast expansion, which the country's limited resources were unable to keep pace with. The consequence was a variety of unifroms with few, if any, parallels in military history. This short study describes an aspect of the Prussian Army rarely covered by wargamers and collectors. It makes no claims to be the last word, and any additional information that could clear up points which remain vague, would be welcome, for future editions.

The Prussian Infantry who mobilised in 1806 were products of a system that had not altered since the Seven Years' War. They were immaculately dressed, drilled into unquestioning obedience, savagely punished if they fell foul of their commanders and were unfit for the new type of warfare in every possible way. At Auerstädt and Jena, they discovered their training was totally inadequate and as Napoleon's troops tore into the retreating Prussian army, its elderly commanders succumbed to panic or shocked paralysis. The whole campaign was epitomised by the surrender of Hohenlohe's army at Prenzla, where Murat was able to bluff a vastly superior force into laying down its arms. Twenty-nine thousand men under L'Estocq managed to link up with the Russian army in East Prussia, but by the end of November 1806, the majority of the Prussian Army had surrendered and Frederick the Great's sword and sash were on their way to Les Invalides as trophies. The basic material of the old army, the private soldier, was sound, but internal weaknesses had meant that the Prussian army was out-thought as well as outfought.

By the treaty of Tilsit, Prussia was reduced to the status of a second rate power, losing territory in Westphalia, Poland and along the Elbe. She was diplomatically isolated, impoverished by war and with a large proportion of her population disillusioned with their leaders. It was the darkest hour of her history, but at this point, the initial shock of defeat was succeeded by a feeling of shame and outrage which bred a desire to reform the whol fabric of the Prussian state.

The Evolution of the Reserve Infantry: 1807-1813

The Prussian army, naturally enough, was one of the principal targets for reform, and on July 15,1807, King Friedrich Wilhelm III appointed the Military Reform Commission. After clearing up the debris of the old army, the commission set about establishing a smaller more efficient force, and on September 25, submitted proposals for an army of 65-70,000, including sixteen infantry regiments. This was believed to be the maximum number of men that Prussia could support.

Napoleon, aware of the Prussian desire for revenge, had no intention of letting Prussia regain her strength, and the Treaty of Paris, September 1808 limited her army to 42,000 men for a period of ten years. There was little that King Friedrich Wilhelm could do to resist with a t powerful French army in occupation and his country impoverished and unprepared for war; the Commission had to draw up new plans, and in their final form these called for six independent brigades based on the remaining Prussian Provinces.

Although the Commission's first proposals had been overtaken by events, one was to have profound insignificance. The idea of universal conscription on the French model was considered and rejected, partly because of expense and partly for political reasons -- the King and the conservative party were opposed ot any 'revolutionary' schemes that might lead to social upheavals. (Similar objections were raised to the ideas of promotion by merit and, in 1813 to the Landwehr and Landsturm. The concept of a nation in arms was a new and rather alarming one to many Prussians.) However, some form of reserve force was required and in a memorandum of July 31 1807, Scharnhorst suggested that each company (or squadron) should replace twenty trained men with recruits. A Cabinet order modified these proposals: in their final form they recommended that each company should send five men on extended leave every month and take in five recruits. By this 'Krumper' system the army could meet the requirements of the Treay of Paris, but a trained reserve could be built up for the future. A problem arose with regimental commanders, who, quite naturally, were unwilling to part with good men. They preferred to discharge less than the number required, or only discharge thier worse men - a time honoured military custom. Nevertheless, a reserve gradually built up, while the regular infantry, organised into twelve regiments, trained for the new type of warfare.

In 1811, the deepening crisis in Franco-Russian relations led to diplomatic pressure on Friedrich Wilhelm to make a formal alliance with France.  Prussia' weak position and her King's weak character made such an alliance inevitable and many of the reform party retired from active service in disgust. Several, notably Clausewitz, resigned from the army and took service with the Russians -- an act for which the King, typically, never forgave them. However, this diplomatic activity meant an increase in the army's strength. On June 14 1811, Prussian Infantry regiments, which had consisted of two battalions of Musketeers and one of Fusiliers, were ordered to form a third Musketeer battalion. In order to allay French suspicions, these battalions were given camouflage titles, such as Training Depots, (Exerzier Depots). When King Friedrich Wilhelm finally signed a treaty of alliance with the French, on February 24 1812, his army numbered 65, 675 -- not enought for independent action against France, but an improvement on 42,000.

Prussia's contribution to the French invasion of Russia was 20,842 men, grouped into 'combined regiments' drawn from all six brigades. They were commanded by Yorck, who had vociferously opposed many army reforms, with another conservative, Kleist as his second-in-command. This Corps was assigned to the left wing of the invasion, under the command of Marshal Macdonald, operating along the Baltic coast with St Petersburg as the objective. The advance bogged down around Riga, while the central army group, under Napoleon's command, disintegrated; Macdonald had to pull back before overwhelming Russian forces. During this retreat, Yorck's force became detached from the main body and surrounded. Clausewitz and Baron Stein, a former minister who had been expelled from Prussia on Napoleon's orders, open negotiations with Yorck, who finally signed the Covention of Tauroggen on December 30 1812, joining forces with the Russians and advancing with them into East Prussia.

Friedrich Wilhelm's first reaction was to send an officer to arrest Yorck; he then declared for Napoleon and ordered general mobilisation on January 10. Once again, the King was taking the line of least resistance, as he was unsure of Russian support (which had been promised in1806 and come too late to save his country). The Russian response was to occupy East Prussia with the full co-operation of the inhabitants.; Yorck summoned 1,200 reservists to the colours, while Clausewitz drew up plans for an East Prussian Landwehr. Events gathered momentum. On January 19, Friedrich Wilhelm formally repudiated the Convention of Tauroggen, three days later, he left Berlin for Breslau where he could watch events from the sideline, before committing himself to either party. As the full extent of the French disaster became apparent, enthusiasm for war against Napoleon grew, while it ws now clear that Tsar Alexander would support the Prussians. On February 1, the number of infantry battalions was doubled, increasing the army by 37,000 men -- effective call-up of the Reserves. Finally, on February 26, Friedrich Wilhelm signed the Convention of Kalisch, and alllied himself witht eh Russians. The War of Liberation had begun.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2000


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