Posted by: cousindampier | 15 November 2009

Jackboot – The Defeats: Valmy, Jena, and Auerstadt

The rise of Prussian military prominence did not initially last long. After the death of Frederick the Great, his successors failed to take advantage of that superiority, concluding rather that the superiority Prussia had gained would last. This failure to innovate led initially to the defeat at Valmy, where the national French army stopped the Prussian advance into France, and then the defeat by Napoleon at Jena and Auerstadt.

The Prussian soldier, in each of these engagements, at no point was out-soldiered. The rulers of Prussia failed on two accounts – first, by the failure to take the military machine they were granted by Frederick and build upon his vision of innovation. Of all the advantages Frederick built into the Prussian military model, one of the most important was the knowledge that Prussian soldiers had to be superior to their enemy and Prussian strategy more creative, because Prussia was surrounded and outnumbered. His battles built upon these theories, and his successors did not recognize them. Second, and closely related, is the stratification of Prussian society. In resisting a national army, the Junkers deprived themselves of able soldiers and stuck to the old system. National conscription has two clear advantages – manpower and motivation. Prussia deprived herself of each.

Scharnhorst, who would be one of the initial leaders of reform in the Prussian army, spoke about this in April of 1806 (by then too late) speaking against the idea that “the general was the sole deciding factor. A resolute nation could win even under mediocre leaders – if the nation had strength of will and high character.”

The problem with the soldier was he was not taught to do anything but follow orders to the letter. Innovation was not part of the skill set drilled into him upon enlistment. This failure to empower the solider led to chess piece movements amongst the Prussian generalship, while Napoleon moved and attacked fluidly and creatively, causing the collapse of Prussia, and the near removal of the state from European existence.

The solider, in many respects, is the outer face of the state. While the inner face of the state is law and constitution – represented by politicians, who create it, and judges, who arbitrate the law, while a leader or foreign secretary may be the guiding force behind foreign affairs, soldiers are the individuals who put the face on that policy. When that policy is war, the soldier is the representative in both the battle and the civilian interaction.

What happens at Jena and Auerstadt to the relationship between the soldier and the state?

Prussia suffered such a defeat at both encounters, but the result was not a re-creation of the Prussian soldier. The change is primarily in leadership and philosophy – “The Prussians, in fact, had been too soundly trounced. Had they merely been tactically defeated they might never have become so determined to become so militaristic. But ever Prussian man and most Prussian women said to themselves: ‘How could this happen to us – the people of Frederick the Great?’ They were as bewildered as they were bitter.”

This wholesale defeat of Prussia freed the soldier. German society was drastically altered, bringing Prussia into the age of national armies and out of the medieval era. Military leadership ceased to be the sole territory of the noble class, though it took another century for the nobles to release their hold on the area entirely. The relationship between the state and the soldier was one of the state realizing it had failed the soldier – and the people – almost in entirety. The solider was trounced because the leadership was sub par and smug; the people were failed in the humiliating defeat. The consequences of such a defeat were dramatic, a rapid reorganization of the Prussian military and a determination to return to the superiority which Frederick had enabled with his innovations.

Really, the defeats would set in motion the process of re-creation of the Prussian Army, solidification of the Army in the state, and through that, the creation of Germany.


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