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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

If It 'Ent' Broke, Don't Fix It

Paret, Peter. Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform, 1807-1815 Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 1966. Hardcover. Out of Print.

This excellent study is, unfortunately for all of us, out of print. It is an engrossing study of both the defeat and the resurgence of the Prussian Army in 1806 and after, and covers more time and material than the title would lead you to believe. It also isn't solely a biography of Yorck, the "cantankerous" soldier cashiered by Frederick the Great fpr insubordination and who was reinstated after that sovereign's death in the Prussian army and helped to rebuild its light infantry. Yorck not only was one of the important reformers after 1806, but he was considered by some to be the best of the Prussian generals. Critical, unforgiving, and outspoken, he served more than competently in 1813 and 1814, set a good example to his men in the field and in garrison, and was a superb leader of men. His treacherous conduct in 1812 that led to the Convention of Taurrogen with the Russians while assigned to MacDonald's French command can be considered dishonorable as he gave MacDonald no warning, but to him it was the act of a loyal Prussian officer.

The author has done an excellent job of both research and analysis here. The sources used for this study are impeccable, both primary material, and credible secondary material, including the highly thought of German General Staff studies produced by the Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung. Interestingly, while praising these studies as "a collection of sources on all aspects of the Prussian military establishment" Paret is critical of them, and stating that their authors, Jany in particular, "rejects historical objectivity as something unpatriotic" and that some primary source material produced during the Napoleonic period "was ignored" and much of it "was cavalierly misinterpreted." This tends to put the works, and their errors, in perspective, which undoubtedly helps the researcher and historian in the unending quest to find out what really happened.

This is an excellent study; superior in my opinion, to the author's other study of the period, Clausewitz and the State, though that, too, is an excellent study. The two volumes, although written ten years apart, actually compliment each other and give an excellent and accurate picture of the Prussian army of 1806, the reasons it was defeated so thoroughly by Napoleon and the Grande Armee, and how the reformers "with vengeance very much in mind" set about revitalizing the Prussian army to be able to meet the Grande Armee on something like even terms. This story in itself is worthy of the telling as well as studying, and for that reason alone this volume is valuable.

This excellent volume is highly recommended for all and sundry. Some of the author's conclusions, backed up by documentary evidence, are not popular with some of the revisionists today, but it is difficult to argue with Paret based on the common sense approach to history that is evident in the study, backed up by impeccable research. His conclusions on such topics as the superiority of French tactics in 1806 are irrefutable. This is a valuable study that, hopefully, will be reprinted in a current volume at a reasonable price.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
December 2001