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Passing Judgment on Frederick the Great 1756/57

Posted October 7th, 2016 at 12:37 AM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated October 9th, 2016 at 11:54 AM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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Friedrich der Grosse or der Alte Fritz, long heralded as a military genius if not the utmost military commander of his age. Will this stand up to scrutiny if one considers carefully his conduct during the Seven Years War, especially his strategic abilities which are usually neglected by the arm chair general in favour of his tactical accomplishments. My position is more negative and I will assess his actions at the start of the Seven Years War with his best conduct to get my point across.

Crown Prince Frederick inherited a geographically separated state with territories in Brandenburg, the Rhineland and East Prussia and a rather small population as well as the title of "King in Prussia" which had been bestowed upon his grandfather by the Emperor. His father and grand father had created a military with an infantry force that was the envy of Europe. Constant drilling, a militarist tradition of conscription, severe discipline, the use of metal ram rods for their musketry and a king that would sell his army to the highest bidder (but lacking seriously in cavalry, light infantry and cannon which Frederick would rectify after learning his lesson in the 1740's); the Prussians were essentially an army with a state and their King acted as a generalissimo or war lord. Frederick himself was a philosopher of the enlightenment age and a frail youth. His father was the embodiment of the Prussian disciplinarian and young Frederick was sent off to engage in Prussian militarism. Before taking the throne he had served in the staff of Prince Eugene of Savoy who recognized his military talents when everyone else had seen him as nothing more than the philosopher prince. Almost immediately after seizing the throne King Frederick II invaded the Hapsburg lands of Silesia. Using his French allies as a bargaining chip he ultimately succeeded in annexing those lands to his Kingdom of Prussia and coming out the victor in the Austrian Succession War. The Hapsburgs did not sit idle after their defeat and had vengeance in mind. They allied with the French, Swedish and Russians to form a coalition against Prussia. Rapidly and with little other provocation Frederick joined the ongoing Seven Years War on the side of Britain, ever the opportunist. He rapidly invaded Saxony and dismantled that state thus starting the legendary conflict which he should have lost but by some sort of miracle survived. Dresden was taken by the Prussians together with its large armoury and the Saxon army retreated and attempted to hold out at Pirna. Frederick began to siege the 16,000 Saxons there and doing well to prolongue the siege while the Austrian marshal Graf Browne tried to move in from Bohemia to relieve them. Following up his limited success there Frederick attempted to invade Bohemia (as he often did) in order to intercept Browne and keep him from relieving the Saxons at Pirna, but was halted at the Battle of Lobositz and so chose to retreat and end his campaigning activity for the year of 1756. Browne was also forced to retreat back into Bohemia and the Saxon garrison of Pirna surrendered to Frederick; all 16,000 Saxon soldiers were conscripted into the Prussian army.

The coming campaign year of 1757 seemed fortuitous and did in fact see some great victories on the part of King Frederick II.
At the time of Frederick's next invasion of Bohemia (1757) Browne and Lorraine had a total of 70,000 men but in the battle outside of Prague they used only 60,000 troops and left 10,000 to defend Prague in case Field Marshal Keith tried to attack the city by surprise. In 1757 Frederick had 100,000 men in Silesia (according to Jay Luvaas) though figures of 115,000 have been given (Dennis Showalter) and this does not include garrison troops in Pomerania, Silesia, Brandenburg and Prussia which would have given him a total military of about 150,000 (or more!). Also Jay Luvaas gives Daun's Moravian army as 30,000 but other sources give higher figures like 50,000. Note that I have not included any allied German troops except for the Saxons in Frederick's army. This is because they are in another theater of operations and not entirely relevant to Frederick's campaigns.

Now I will add that Lorraine and Browne did not attempt to intercept Frederick's march into Bohemia as Frederick marched in from two routes and his two columns were separated but Lorraine and Browne did not concentrate to attack one of these columns with their 70,000. Neither did Lorraine with his 40,000 attempt to attack the besiegers after the battle and the death of Browne, Frederick had 50,000 besieging the walls, while Frederick confronted Daun so in hind sight Frederick might have been able to send more troops to fight Daun.
Actually during the siege Frederick had wanted to capture the city by starving it out but he did not take into account Daun. He did nothing while Daun advanced to Kolin though it should have been obvious that Daun's presence was a threat to his siege, Daun didn't even arrive at Kolin until about 42 days after Frederick began his siege of Prague. Daun did not attempt to halt Frederick's advance or use diversionary tactics and advance with a main force to Prague (Daun's goal was to reach Prague, it was only when he discovered that Frederick was marching to intercept that he bunkered down at Kolin). Moreover in the Battle of Kolin itself (I will not even cover the tactics here) Frederick made a poor deployment which led to a very bad line of attack, regardless of the fact that Daun had a better position with the heights.

As for the numbers Frederick might have had more than that at least at the time of the Bohemia campaign. When he attacked Lorraine at Prague he had a slight numerical advantage and like usual caught Charles Lorraine off guard, von Daun had not made it to Prague yet. Had Frederick brought greater force to bear then Prince Charles of Lorraine would have been finished and he would have had enough troops to face Daun without barely interrupting the siege of Prague. I didn't even take into account the various tactical and slight strategic mistakes that Frederick made in this campaign. This is strictly speaking just the big strategic mistake. The numbers here are shifty but Frederick had at least 70,000 troops at the start of the campaign, a number of 100,000 is probably the real number (he might have had more than that) and he might have been able to throw in another 10,000 or perhaps 20,000 if he kept his defenses elsewhere to the bare minimum (as this was his first real offensive in that year and Sweden and Russia had not yet made any moves for invasion). The total Austrian army in Bohemia numbered anywhere from 90,000 to maybe 110,000 at most though I would say that anything more than 100,000 was unlikely because Daun used some 16,000 survivors from Prague at Kolin. However Browne and Lorraine were hard pressed at Prague and had 60,000 troops as opposed to Daun's 30,000 to 50,000 (at most) which were farther away. Assuming that Frederick gave up the siege of Prague then he would have outnumbered Daun at Kolin. Even if the Austrian garrison of 40,000 managed to unite with Daun's army they would have been about even if Daun's force was 66,000 and outnumbered Daun if it was a mere 46,000. I am assuming here that Frederick had 100,000 men since 70,000 seems too low in my opinion (which some sources give 120,000 Prussians in Silesia).

At the time of the Battles of Rossbach and Leuthen (some 2 months difference) Frederick had a total military of 130,000 (not including garrisons) no doubt having sustained casualties from Prague. At Rossbach the Franco-German army was of very poor quality where as Frederick's troops in that campaign were among the best he had in his army. The 2:1 ratio is almost neutralized I would say. Frederick had at least 30,000 men in Saxony and marched out from Dresden with 25,000 (employing about 22,000 men at Rossbach) up against maximum 66,000 Franco-Germans in that campaign (of whom only 41,000 or 42,000 fought at Rossbach). From the perspective of Grand Strategy the French went into Saxony very halfheartedly and were more interested in seizing Hanover.
The Battle of Rossbach happened in the first week of November and the Austrian attack on Breslau happened in the fourth week of November. Not the actual invasion of Silesia but the attack on Breslau. I think that would have given him enough time to march to Breslau's defense before then but instead August Wilhelm was defeated and it capitulated to the Austrians. Frederick did not fight the Austrians (leading to Leuthen) until the start of December. Anyway Daun had already made incursions into Silesia in September. During the Leuthen campaign the numbers seem to be more precise where together with August Wilhelm the Prussians would have numbered 70,000, because it stands to reason that after Prague/Kolin and Rossbach he would have sustained casualties, and the Austrians numbered 90,000. I may have inflated the Austrian army by a couple thousand so maybe the number was closer to 86,000.

But with Charles of Lorraine in Bohemia and Leopold von Daun most likely going to reinforce him he could have brought the majority of his army into Bohemia at the start of 1757 provided that the logistical capabilities were present. Regardless of his tactical and strategic mistakes at Prague and Kolin, and regardless of whether he had a very slight numerical and momentum advantage over Lorraine, had he brought more troops he could have matched the total Austrian forces numbering about 100,000 with more or less the same number of his own troops and given him enough to deal with Daun separate from the siege of Prague. But if he had concentrated his Silesian and Saxon forces later at Rossbach, or even marched to the defense of Breslau much sooner instead of waiting 4 weeks, he would have had a total of 70,000 to 80,000 men to Daun and Lorraine's 80,000 to 90,000.

I will reiterate that August Wilhelm Duke of Bevern had between 30,000 and 40,000 men to defend Silesia against less than 90,000 Austrians under Daun and Lorraine. Frederick for his part was able to bring in about 40,000 men into Silesia and used 36,000 which was the most he could gather within Silesia at Parchwitz when he had to confront Lorraine. Now Charles of Lorraine is a general which tends to anger me because he made the same mistakes here that he did at Prague (or Hohenfriedburg and Soor in the Austrian Succession War for that matter) despite having Daun at hand to advise him and learning absolutely nothing from the death of Browne at Prague or the fact that Frederick had cut that city off in the previous campaign. Lorraine ignored Daun and marched out to try and intercept Frederick's advance in Silesia anyway. Frederick marched through the hills of Silesia, an area that he and his army knew well from years of training and campaigning there, and surprised Charles of Lorraine's unsuspecting army at Leuthen where that Austrian prince had taken up a poor position but also had his lines overstretched. The result was perhaps Frederick's best victory and the retreat of Charles and Daun from Silesia.
I guess my point here really is that Leuthen didn't have to happen. Not only due to Frederick's own actions as Charles of Lorraine could have held out in Breslau pretty much indefinitely and Frederick would have had to retreat in a few days anyway since it was already December. There is just no way he could have maintained a siege of Breslau at the time. He would have had to wait until the next year and by then everyone would be closing in on Frederick.
Ignoring August Wilhelm's poor performance and the series of unfortunate circumstances which befell him Frederick basically left 30,000 to 40,000 men in Silesia, 30,000 in East Prussia, about 50,000 in Pomerania and maybe 40,000 with the British in Hannover, plus the 30,000 that he had with him in Saxony as well as all other reserves or troops that he would recruit right after. Though these troop numbers fluctuated throughout the war since Frederick would be required to move troops around to various hot spots in his defensive ring, at his peak Frederick might have had up to 180,000 men. The Swedes did very little only having some 20,000 men in Pomerania throughout 1757 and the Russians marched into Prussia with 80,000 men halfheartedly and a defeat in the field would not necessarily have led to the loss of the fortresses there due to their own logistical inadequacies. His strategy basically turned into a defend everything strategy only to lose Silesia anyway. However he could not leave Silesia undefended because it provided him with manpower, the plugging of a potential front and revenues for his state.

Also consider that especially at the start in 1756 Frederick had 120,000 men total, again not including garrison troops to the Austrian's about 50,000 and the Saxon's about 18,000.
Frederick made a fast attack into Saxony and then into Bohemia and in both cases failed to achieve his goals. He neither reduced all of Saxony despite fielding over 60,000 men nor was he able to even start a siege around Prague despite having over 60,000 men immediately at his disposal but went with only 28,000 into northern Bohemia and 25,000 men in Silesia to march into Moravia. This is despite the fact that he had gained the Saxon armoury with much weaponry and powder. No one else had finished mobilizing and Frederick had 120,000 men total. Compared to Browne who had at most 50,000 men in Bohemia. Realistically Frederick should have overrun all of Saxony and Bohemia by 1757, at least seized Prague and wintered there (as was his plan at the time). Then in 1758 he would have had to reinforce various points, defend his own position in Bohemia and then counterattack somewhere in Moravia and Austria, if very lucky he may have been able to at least threaten Vienna by the end of campaign season in 1757 or 1758.

To put it simply Frederick's strategy was a "ring of defense". He had divided his military into three armies: one army would guard the entrance from the German states and France, another would defend against the Swedes from the north-west and the third would present an obstacle to Russian incursions from the east. A final fourth group would be commanded by himself personally so that he might rush it into whatever point was under attack and defeat that threat.
While his interior lines strategy worked well to stave off defeat not once did he manage to close off a front. In other words he failed to actually destroy the aforementioned threat to a point in his "ring" and any threat that was defeated was only done so temporarily. The only time he succeeded in wiping out a potential enemy was when he destroyed the Saxon army in 1756 but he failed in his goal to overrun all of Saxony. The truth is that Frederick had a numerical advantage in 1756 and 1757. That the other powers had more resources or troops altogether is almost null because Frederick was the only one who had mobilized his full force into a front line strength. An advantage which he allowed to slip from his hands. Even during the autumn of 1757 when Russia, France and Sweden had joined the war directly their forces would not interfere with the operations he had at hand, except at Rossbach but the French were more interested in dealing with Hannover. Even in that same time the Russians with 80,000 invaded East Prussia, took Memel but were repulsed by 30,000 men under von Lehwaldt in the fiercely contested battle at Gross-Jagersdorf and then retreated near the border. Had Frederick concentrated his forces he would have been able to totally exploit the margin for victory in 1756 and 1757 and made the Russians and French irrelevant. After that there was literally no chance to gain a military victory given the mighty host assembled against him.

He also had a bad habit of not being informed of his enemy's positions and took way too much time to make an effective response. Unfortunately a trend that started during the Austrian Succession War. A clear example from the period in question was the Battle of Lobositz (1756) in which Frederick was unable to locate Browne's army and as a result was outflanked and defeated. As I said the Battle of Kolin happened because Frederick stood in front of the walls of Prague rather than intercept Daun somewhere else. It also took him 4 weeks to march out towards Breslau in an attempt to aid his subordinate. I won't bother doing the events after 1757 because I think the strategic context lends itself best to my points in this period (1756/57), where he at least had a chance to win and demonstrated his skill and abilities excellently.

I also have not judged him based on the Austrian Succession War. There isn't much for me to say which will make him seem better. Not only would that be unfair but to a large extent dishonest as Frederick's ability to command as well as the effectiveness of his army had improved since then. He came in an amateur boy king but left a man and an experienced general... and he won the war by a hair's width, a taste of what he would be subjected to over a decade later in the Seven Years War. But throughout the Austrian Succession War his gains in Silesia were constantly in jeopardy. Indeed this was the case for most of his life. However were I to critique his conduct during this earlier war he might come off as an excessively poor commander who greatly depended on the initiative of Leopold I Prince of Anhalt-Dessau and Kurt Christoph Graf von Schwerin. Which isn't necessarily my impression either as he redeemed himself at Hohenfriedberg and Soor (1745). It must be said however that his favourable treaty which he concluded with Empress Maria Theresa had everything to do with his opportunism and the fact that the French, not the Prussians, were still the biggest threat to the Austrians. To that end he signed a separate peace with Vienna (one of many) which forever tarnished his reputation in the eyes of the French and was one of the factors that led to the Prussian diplomatic isolation which allowed the Seven Years War to occur in the first place.
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  1. Old Comment
    nuclearguy165's Avatar
    Very good article, and I comment now because I have just finished reading Showalter's work on Frederick's campaigns; an excellent study. There are a few points where I disagree somewhat, like in Frederick's ability to intercept Daun before the latter reached Kolin as I don't think that was practical nor would it have benefited him, as it would simply have taken him farther away from his other forces and the main area of operations. I also disagree that he wasn't fast enough between Rossbach and Leuthen as he was actually exceptionally fast by the standards of 18th century warfare and the distance being covered, the time of year, and the limitations as regards 18th century logistics and other organizational issues had to be sorted out as well so as to avoid wearing out his troops.

    Other than those, I completely agree, and especially with regard to him not showing sufficient initiative and care in 1756, and in him going to battle under-strength at both Prague and Kolin.
    Posted August 27th, 2017 at 05:03 PM by nuclearguy165 nuclearguy165 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by nuclearguy165 View Comment
    Very good article, and I comment now because I have just finished reading Showalter's work on Frederick's campaigns; an excellent study. There are a few points where I disagree somewhat, like in Frederick's ability to intercept Daun before the latter reached Kolin as I don't think that was practical nor would it have benefited him, as it would simply have taken him farther away from his other forces and the main area of operations. I also disagree that he wasn't fast enough between Rossbach and Leuthen as he was actually exceptionally fast by the standards of 18th century warfare and the distance being covered, the time of year, and the limitations as regards 18th century logistics and other organizational issues had to be sorted out as well so as to avoid wearing out his troops.

    Other than those, I completely agree, and especially with regard to him not showing sufficient initiative and care in 1756, and in him going to battle under-strength at both Prague and Kolin.
    Thanks for the feedback.

    I think that with the former point it could have gone either way, though what Frederick needed was a sure method to stop Daun. Whether he tried to intercept him sooner or moved on him with a larger force he still needed to act. Moving on him with a larger force would have made more sense but the fact that Frederick waited that long to act when Prague wouldn't have fallen any faster if he didn't, makes no sense to me. Though whether he could move into Moravia effectively or not is hard to say. Still he handed that whole thing completely wrong from start to finish.

    I agree on the latter point. Given that Frederick had been tied down in so many areas and had campaigned non-stop, his reaction time to Leuthen was actually quite good. What is more he chose to make up for any tardiness or inability to assemble more troops with a surprise advance followed by a surprise attack.
    Posted August 27th, 2017 at 07:17 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga Lord Oda Nobunaga is online now
 

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