Frederick the Great Revolutionized the Role of Skilled Battlefield Maneuvers
Frederick II (1712 – 1786) ascended the Prussian throne in 1740. He earned the sobriquet “The Great” by fighting a series of wars that greatly expanded Prussia’s territory, and transformed it from a second rate power into a great one. Frederick reformed the Prussian army and introduced military innovations, particularly skilled battlefield tactics, that revolutionized 18th century European warfare. Emphasizing tactical training, he transformed Prussia’s army into a well oiled machine capable of executing intricate battlefield maneuvers on the fly. That multiplied his forces’ effectiveness, and allowed them to frequently attack and defeat bigger opponents.
Frederick II’s father, Frederick Wilhelm I, was a martinet who devoted his life to the Prussian army, and became known as “The Soldier King”. However, he lavished resources to create an army that looked great on the parade ground, not in the field of battle. An example was his Potsdam Regiment, composed of giants standing 7 feet tall or more. Frederick Wilhelm sent agents to comb Europe in search of extra tall recruits, and they were not above kidnapping them if they did not willingly enlist. The Soldier King liked nothing more than spending hours drilling his giants on the parade ground.
Upon ascending the throne, Frederick II immediately disbanded the expensive Potsdam Giants, and redirected their budget to raise 7 new regiments and 10,000 troops. He modernized the army, emphasizing not only drill and discipline, but also the training of officers. That well trained officer corps allowed Frederick to grant commanders in the field greater autonomy to use their own initiative to further his overall plan. It would become a German military hallmark. Frederick also introduced annual maneuvers, in which the Prussian army tested out new formations and tactics.
The Prussian army was relatively weak in cavalry, and relied instead on infantry. Frederick’s favorite unit was his 1st Guards Battalion, of about 1000 men, which he used it to test out new theories. He also used it as a military academy to train new officers, and as a refresher for officers he thought could use more training. His next favorite were grenadier units, comprised of select soldiers with at least two years’ experience in regular infantry battalions. The bulk of Frederick’s army were musketeers in standard infantry regiments. His men carried about 55 pounds of equipment, and they routinely marched about 15 miles per day.
Frederick was a tactical genius who owed much of his success to the quick and skillful movement of his troops. The Battle of Leuthen, 1757, illustrates the effectiveness of his innovations. In that engagement, Frederick led 36,000 Prussians against an Austrian army of over 80,000 men. Despite the odds, he went on the offensive and won a stunning victory.
Frederick opened the battle by attacking the Austrian right, luring the enemy into shifting forces to meet that threat. Frederick then took advantage of hills in front of the Austrian position that masked his movements, and marched the bulk of his army to fall upon the Austrian left. In an oblique order attack – a version of Epaminondas’ tactics at Leuctra of focusing forces on a single flank – Frederick wrong footed the Austrians and shattered their left. The Austrians suffered a crushing defeat, losing 22,000 men to the Prussians’ 6000. At the time, only Frederick’s army was capable of such skilled battlefield maneuvers.
Prussia’s army became a model for other European powers. Unfortunately for Prussia, Frederick’s successors rested on Frederick’s laurels, and failed to keep pace with military innovations. As a result, the Prussian army ossified, and was easily crushed by Napoleon in 1806 – 1807. After his victory, the French Emperor stopped by Frederick’s tomb, and paid him a great compliment by informing a group of his officers: “Gentlemen, if this man was alive, I would not be here“.