The Era of Frederick the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Military and naval combat in the 1700’s, the era that came to be dominated by King Frederick II of Prussia (or Frederick the Great, 1712-1786), saw changes in the style, organization, tactics, and strategy of engagement.

Political Considerations

Military and naval combat in the 1700’s, the era that came to be dominated by King Frederick II of Prussia (or Frederick the Great, 1712-1786), saw changes in the style, organization, tactics, and strategy of engagement. These modifications were, in part, political and economic, according to needs of the states in question, but they were also taught by generals in the field or by independent military reformers who sought to contribute their observations and experience.PrussiaFrance;eighteenthPrussiaFrance;eighteenthFrederick II the Great (king of Prussia)[Frederick 02]

Between 1667 and 1713, King Louis Louis XIVLouis XIV (king of France)[Louis 14]XIV (1638-1715) committed France to various wars, seeking first to expand his nation and then to take the throne of Spain. Austria, England, and the Netherlands resisted until Louis’s armies finally began to falter. Between 1704 and 1709 France’s most able generals were defeated, and the way was opened for a compromise peace in 1713.

More than forty years of war, however, had seriously undermined the strength and financial stability of most European governments. As a result, these nations had trouble operating at prewar budgetary levels and were unable to field armies that were equipped and trained as they had been during the late 1600’s. France;eighteenth centuryFrance, whose army had been the largest and best in Europe for nearly a century, was bankrupt, and Austria was deep in debt. Sweden;eighteenth centurySweden had exhausted itself in its fight with Russia for control of the Baltic area. Russia;eighteenth centuryRussia, Sweden’s foe, now secure in its outlet to the Baltic Sea and, after 1725, free of Czar Peter IPeter IPeter I (czar of Russia)[Peter 01] (1672-1725), wished to reexamine its involvement in Europe. England, drained, but somewhat better off than its allies, desired to shift its resources elsewhere.

The passing of the best generals of the early eighteenth century influenced European states to curtail their aggressive policies. European rulers lacked sufficient finances to fund costly wars and were hesitant to trust poorly equipped armies to leaders with limited experience. In the Seven Years’ War Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)(1756-1763), for instance, only one of six French commanders was competent. Consequently mid-eighteenth century Europe found itself in a military void that the small state of PrussiaPrussia was quick to exploit. Frederick II, Prussia’s ruler, took advantage of his opponents’ limits, seizing Silesia from Austria in 1740 and holding it until 1763 despite attacks from France, Austria, and Russia. This triumph, which made Frederick famous, also elevated Prussia to the status of a great state.

France’s military humiliation by Prussia, coupled with its financial distress and with absolutism’s inability to function properly under the regimes of Louis Louis XVLouis XV (king of France)[Louis 15]XV (1710-1774) and LouisLouis XVILouis XVI (king of France)[Louis 16]XVI (1754-1793), made political change in that nation inevitable. A revolution in 1789 was followed by a continental war that introduced technical, tactical, and strategic innovations to the military arena.

Military Achievement

Warfare in the age of Louis XIV had been a product of the 1600’s. Professional soldiers and sailors sought to disengage, rather than to engage. To fight meant to risk both reputation and army. To win without fighting, commanders largely ignored mobility and methodically maneuvered for the best position. Battle was offered only when the advantage was theirs and pursuit, in the event of victory, was generally refused as an unnecessary risk. Further, to buttress this basically defensive posture, the Dutch, the Austrians, and the French built massive interlocking fortresses and supply depots that were designed to protect the frontier and either to slow or to halt an advancing enemy. It was an age in which Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban (1633-1707) and Baron Menno van Coehoorn, Menno vanCoehoorn, Menno vanCoehoorn (1641-1704) were the premier fortress builders on the continent and defined the war that military leaders such as Claude-Louis-Hector de Villars, Claude-Louis-Hector deVillars, Claude-Louis-Hector deVillars(1653-1734), François de Neufville, marquis deVilleroi, François de Neufville, marquis deVilleroi, François de Neufville, marquis deVilleroi (1644-1730), and Louis-François de Boufflers, Louis-François deBoufflers, Louis-François deBoufflers (1644-1711) practiced.

King Frederick the Great reviews his troops.

(Library of Congress)

Still, not everyone conformed to the expected defensive norm. Austrian general Eugène of Eugène of SavoyEugène of Savoy[Eugene of Savoy]Savoy (1663-1736), for one, was noted for his forced marches, surprise attacks, and flank movements. His rapid victory at Turin (1706) was decisive and helped to reduce French forces in Italy. He was supported by his friend and fellow soldier John Churchill, JohnChurchill, JohnChurchill, first duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), who preferred night marches and interior lines of movement. Churchill’s opinion that a single victory was “of far greater advantage to the common cause than the taking of twenty towns” was reinforced by that of Eugène. During the War of the Spanish Succession Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714)(1701-1714), unbeknownst to the enemy, the two friends unexpectedly combined against a French army at Blenheim Blenheim, Battle of (1704)(1704), turned its flank, and dispersed it, capturing most of the survivors. Two years later Churchill accomplished the identical feat at Ramillies-Offus, Battle of (1706)[Ramillies Offus]Ramillies-Offus. In 1708 the men reunited, through forced marches, at Oudenarde, Battle of (1708)Oudenarde, turned both flanks of an unprepared French army, and drove it from the field. Unfortunately, a similar linkup at Malplaquet, Battle of (1709)Malplaquet in 1709 was met and badly repulsed, hindering a fuller acceptance of the doctrine of mobility.

It remained for the young king of Prussia, Frederick II, to undercut the doctrine of defense, impressing all of Europe with his concept of movement and Attack as strategyattack. For Frederick the objective was not to hold territory but to force the enemy to give ground. Through experience, he learned to avoid costly sieges and set battles and instead sought short wars to maximize his limited resources. He also utilized rapid movement, interior lines of march, and the element of Surprise as strategysurprise to keep his multiple enemies off balance. “I have so many enemies that I have no choice but to attack,” he wrote in 1759. “I have only kept going by attacking whenever I can and by scoring little advantages which add up.” He surprised and routed the Austrians at Hohenfriedberg Hohenfriedberg, Battle of (1745)(1745) in the War of the Austrian Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748)Succession and ambushed the French flanking column at Rossbach Rossbach, Battle of (1757)(1757) during the Seven Years’ Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)War. Yet it was his masterful use of the oblique attack at Leuthen Leuthen, Battle of (1757)(1757), Zorndorf Zorndorf, Battle of (1758)(1758), and Torgau Torgau, Battle of (1760)(1760) that won Frederick fame and respect.

The duke of Marlborough leads his troops during the Battle of Blenheim (1704).

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Ships, Naval warfare;eighteenth centurylike armies, were expensive and were not intended to be chanced to the fortunes of war. A commander should, in the words of a seventeenth century writer, “keep his ship and his men out of danger.” Vessels and fleets were expected to maintain lines of supply by sea, blockade enemy ports, and, whether engaged in single-ship or fleet action, to remain on the defensive and not to risk vessels’ giving chase to defeated foes. Fleet commanders were further required by their permanent orders to avoid, whenever possible, engaging in battle, but if forced, to take “a line of battle [parallel to that of the enemy as] the basis and formulation of all discipline in sea fights.” From these lines each side would fire at the other from a distance, each with the hope that the other would make a mistake or lose the wind. During the War of the Grand Alliance Grand Alliance, War of the (1688-1697)(1688-1697) the French did not pursue defeated Dutch and English forces at Beachy Beachy Head, Battle of (1690)Head (1690), and at La La Hogue, Battle of (1692)Hogue (1692) the English were not permitted to follow up on significant French losses. In each case a continued engagement could have meant the destruction of the fleeing ships. It remained for Lord George Rodney, GeorgeRodney, GeorgeRodney (1718-1792) to challenge convention at the Battle of Les Les Saintes, Battle of (1782)Saintes (1782). He took advantage of breaks in the French line caused by the wind and sent his ships through them to wreak havoc. Rodney gained great acclaim but was deprived of his command for exceeding his instructions. Even more unfortunate was Sir John Byng, JohnByng, JohnByng (1704-1757), who in 1757 was court-martialed and shot for failing to comply with his instructions. In 1798 Horatio Nelson, HoratioNelson, HoratioNelson (1758-1805) followed up on Rodney’s work by abandoning traditional line tactics and capturing all but two French ships at Abū Qīr Bay, off Egypt. As a result Nelson was given a better command and made a baron.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Military Armor;eighteenth century EuropeUniforms;eighteenth century Europeequipment remained reasonably standard during the 1700’s. European armies adopted similar-caliber flintlock muskets between 1692 and 1705, and this weapon, despite the introduction of the more accurate but less durable rifle, became the primary infantry arm of the century. Although heavy and cumbersome, it decidedly improved its user’s killing efficiency. Firearms, rather than swords, daggers, and pole arms, now decided battles. The centuries-old pike was replaced by a Bayonetsbayonet that locked onto the end of the musket, allowing the Musketsmusket to be used simultaneously as both a firearm and a shortened pike.

Of all weaponry, artillery displayed the most noticeable improvements. At the beginning of the century,Cannons;eighteenth centurycannons were divided into two categories: defensive for fortress use and offensive for regimental and siege work. The latter accompanied the army in long artillery trains and were heavy, cumbersome, and slow to move, hindering the offensive movements so important to men such as Eugène, Churchill, and Frederick the Great.

Change, however, followed the War of the Spanish Succession. Jean de Maritz, Jean deMaritz, Jean deMaritz (1680-1743) revolutionized the casting of cannon, allowing for smaller guns to fire a projectile farther and use less powder. This development enabled Europeans to make lighter, smaller artillery pieces, often 4-, 8-, and 12-pound guns, and to increase their maneuverability on the battlefield.

Uniforms, standard by 1700, changed little until the French Revolution of 1789, but armor was almost totally discarded. Only in the heavy cavalry, and especially among the French, was armor retained. Deflective chest plates were worn on the front and the back, but they were unable to withstand direct musket fire. Regimentals remained much the same until the Levée en masse (French draft)[Levee en masse]levée en masse, a French Drafts;France draft of sorts, mandating large numbers of new battalions, including light infantry and cavalry. At this point, and especially under Napoleon, different uniform designs and colors would proliferate.

Austrian soldiers captured at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg (1745) are marched past an army of the Quadruple Alliance.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Naval Ships and shipbuilding;eighteenth centuryships of the period changed little. The ships of most nations were similar in design; the vessels of individual navies differed only in construction techniques, quantity, and quality. France, for example, built a better ship and used fewer, but heavier, Guns;on ships[ships]guns, whereas England, whose vessels sailed better, used sturdier construction. Yet, all nations divided their major capital ships into categories with the top three categories carrying more than 100 guns, more than 80 guns, and from 74 to 80 guns. The last, a third-class ship of the line, was generally the workhorse of every fleet.

Military Organization

Over the course of the century, organizational change brought larger armies, smaller but better-armed Battalion (army unit)Armies;eighteenth centurybattalions, fewer cavalries, and a more effective use of artillery. In response to the strategies of military leaders such as Swedish king Gustavus II Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]Adolphus (1594-1632), Churchill, and Eugène, continental states gradually decreased the number of men in a battalion, the primary building block of the regiment. By 1720 most armies had reduced their battalions to 500 to 700 men and had improved their deployment, thereby increasing firepower. Artillery, lighter and more numerous, was advocated by the late 1700’s as a weapon to prepare the way for an assault. Massed cannons were used to good effect at Valmy Valmy, Battle of (1792)(1792) and at Jemappes Jemappes, Battle of (1792)(1792) during the French Revolutionary French Revolution (1789-1793)Wars, but it was not until 1796 at Castiglione della Castiglione della Stivere, Battle of (1796)Stivere during the Napoleonic Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)Wars that guns were decisive in breaking an enemy line. In 1809, a hundred or more cannons paved the way for Napoleon’s success at Wagram.

King of Prussia Frederick II made masterful use of the oblique attack at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Due, in part, to the rise of Nationalismnationalism, armies slowly increased in size. During the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);growth of armies(1618-1648), they had averaged 20,000 to 30,000 men. By the time the War of the Spanish Succession began in 1701, armies frequently had from 60,000 to 80,000 soldiers per side. By 1805 to 1812 Napoleon Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01];armies ofBonaparte was directing armies of 180,000 to 600,000 soldiers. The doctrine of attack and the increased size of forces now obliged generals to discard the seventeenth century concept of supply storehouses and to force traveling armies to live largely off the land. Although there was no division of an army into independent commands, divisions, or corps, the concept had already been foreshadowed in the writings of the French general Maurice, comte de Saxe, Maurice, comte deSaxe, Maurice, comte deSaxe (1696-1750) and Jean Du Du Teil, JeanDu Teil, Jean[Duteil]Teil (1738-1820). It became a reality when Frederick the Great, during the War of the Bavarian Succession Bavarian Succession, War of the (1778-1779)(1778-1779), required his units to march to battle by separate routes, acting as semi-independent detachments. These precedents were absorbed by men such as Napoleon, who would later employ independent divisions successfully at Marengo, Battle of (1800)Marengo (1800), Ulm, Battle ofUlm (1805), Austerlitz, Battle of (1805)Austerlitz (1805), and later battles.

While armies were increasing in numbers and units were being independently deployed, Cavalry;eighteenth centurycavalry as a whole was being reduced, because it was less effective than infantry as a striking and killing force. Yet, light cavalry, like light infantry, was becoming increasingly popular. Such units were seen as useful in shielding maneuvering formations, artillery, and attacks.

A new formation, the Column (marching formation)column, was also emerging in French thought and training. It was created by Jean-Charles de Folard, Jean-Charles deFolard, Jean-Charles deFolard (1699-1752), who sought to save time in battle by using the marching column as a direct vehicle of attack, substituting shock for traditional firepower. His work was furthered by François-Appollini de Guibert, François-Appollini deGuibert, François-Appollini deGuibert (1744-1790), an organizer of France’s citizen army of 1789-1790. Guibert recommended a restricted use of the column with an attack upon a narrow front or a salient. Massed artillery fire and sharpshooters could pin down the defenders as the attacking column, hopefully shielded by terrain, advanced. Folard and Guibert’s work, intended as an option for traditional line tactics, soon became the standard for French revolutionary armies.

Doctrine, Tactics, and Strategy

The art of war evolved over the course of the eighteenth century. Tactics were no longer a matter of preserving an army, preparing and fighting a set battle, or using fortresses in order to remain on the defensive. By 1795 armies were expected, whenever possible, to seize and hold the offensive and to avoid sieges and fortresses. According to Napoleon, the best form of defense was Attack as strategyattack. Strategically, European armies were beginning to understand that the defeat and destruction of the opposing force formed the object of warfare and that the loss or gain of territory was a secondary consideration. Gustavus, Eugène, Churchill, and Frederick were at last making their point.

Contemporary Sources

The best accounts of the eighteenth century are to be found in the memoirs, papers, and instructions of the chief soldiers of the era. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban’s Mémoire, pour servir d’instruction dans la conduite des sièges et dans la défense des places (1740; A Manual of Siegecraft and Fortification, 1968), John Churchill, JohnChurchill, John Churchill’s Memoirs of John, Duke of Marlborough (1818-1819), Prince Eugène of SavoyEugène of Savoy[Eugene of Savoy] Eugène’s Feldzüge gegen die Türken (1876-1892), and Maurice, comte de Saxe, Maurice, comte deSaxe, Maurice, comte de Saxe’s Les Réveries: Ou, Mémoires sur l’art de la guerre (1757; Reveries: Or, Memoirs upon the Art of War, 1757) are all highly informative as to the actions and lives of the principals. Among the best and the most explicit, however, is Die General-Principia vom Kriege(1747; The Instruction of Frederick the Great for His Generals, 1985), by Frederick II. Alfred T. Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), despite its publication date, is the best available source for naval service.PrussiaFrance;eighteenthFrederick II the GreatFrederick II the Great (king of Prussia)[Frederick 02]

Books and Articles
  • Almond, Mark. “Frederick the Great and the Era of Limited War.” In Revolution: Five Hundred Years of Struggle for Change. New York: De Agostini, 1996.
  • Brauer, Jurgen, and Hubert van Tuyll. “The 1700’s: Marlborough, de Saxe, and Frederick the Great.” In Castles, Battles, and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Chandler, David. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Duffy, Christopher. The Military Life of Frederick the Great. New York: Atheneum, 1985.
  • Dupuy, Trevor. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Dwyer, Philip G., ed. The Rise of Prussia, 1700-1830. New York: Longman, 2000.
  • Luvaas, Jay, ed. Frederick the Great on the Art of War. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
  • Millar, Simon. Zorndorf, 1758: Frederick Faces Holy Mother Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005.
  • Pois, Robert A., and Philip Langer. “Frederick the Great at Kunersdorf, August 12, 1759.” In Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Schieder, Theodor. Frederick the Great. Translated by Sabina Berkeley and H. M. Scott. New York: Longman, 2000.
  • Showalter, Dennis. The Wars of Frederick the Great. New York: Longman, 1996.
  • Szabo, Franz A. J. The Seven Years’ War in Europe, 1756-1763. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2008.
  • Thackeray, Frank, and John Findling. Events That Changed the World in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
  • Weigley, Russell Frank. “The Battles of Frederick the Great.” In The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. 1991. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Films and Other Media
  • Barry Lyndon. Feature film. Warner Bros., 1975.
  • Last of the Mohicans. Feature film. Morgan Creek Productions, 1992.
  • The War That Made America: The Story of the French and Indian War. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2006.

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