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Prussian Army

The Prussian army was at once the most important and historically the most interesting of the forces of the German empire. Its début (about 1630) was not satisfactory, and in the Thirty Years' War troops of Sweden, of the Emperor, of the League, &c., plundered Brandenburg unharmed. The elector, when appealed to for protection, could but answer, "Que faire? Ils ont des canons." The humiliations of this time, were, however, avenged by the troops of the next ruler of Brandenburg, called the Great Elector. The supposed invincibility of the Swedes did not prevent him from inflicting upon them a severe defeat at Fehrbellin, and thereafter the Prussian contingents which took part in the many European wars of the time acquitted themselves creditably. One of their generals was the famous Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, and the reckless gallantry of this leader was conspicuous on many fields, from Blenheim to Malplaquet.

But Leopold's greatest work was done in the years of peace (1715-40), during which Prussia was preparing the army with which Frederick the Great won his battles. He had introduced (about 1700) iron ramrods into the infantry service, and for over twenty years the Prussian infantry was drilled to a perfection which gave it a superiority of five to three over the best-drilled troops of the Austrian service, and still greater predominance over the French, which was then accounted the best in Europe. Frederick William I., king of Prussia, directed and supervised the creation of the new Prussian army, and Leopold was his principal assistant. In organization and methods of recruiting, as well as in tactical efficiency, the army of 1740 was equally pre-eminent.

Then came the wars of Frederick the Great. It is not too much to say that the infantry won his earlier battles; the cavalry had been neglected both by Frederick William and by Leopold, and Frederick wrote that "it was not worth the devil's while to fetch it away." But the predominance of the infantry was so far indisputable that Frederick was able to devote himself to the reorganization of the mounted arm, with results which appeared in the splendid victories of Hohenfriedberg, Rossbach, Leuthen and Zorndorf. But long before the close of the Seven Years' War the incomparable infantry of the old army had disappeared, to be replaced by foreigners, deserters and vagabonds of all kinds, not to mention the unwilling Saxon and other recruits forced into the king's service.

The army of 200,000 men which Frederick bequeathed to his successor was indeed superb, and deserved to be the model of Europe. But with Frederick's death the genius which had animated it, and which alone gave value to such heterogeneous materials, was gone. The long peace had the customary effect of sapping the efficiency of the long-service troops. They still retained their imposing appearance and precision of movement, and overweening self- confidence. But in 1806, after two crushing defeats and a series of humiliating surrenders, Prussia found herself at the feet of the conqueror, shorn of half her territory, obliged to receive French troops in all her towns and fortresses, and only existing on sufferance. But in these very disasters were laid the seeds of her future greatness. By the treaty of Tilsit the Prussian army was limited to 43,000 men.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:34 ZULU