Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke

Sixth Morning—The Military

A celebrated author has compared the military to mastiffs which ought to be chained up carefully, and ought not to be loosed except when necessary. The comparison is rather strained, but, for all that, it will serve you, not as a maxim, but as a warning.

You have been able to learn in the two campaigns which you have made with me the spirit of officer and soldier, and you have been able to perceive that in general they are veritable machines, with no other forward movement than that which you give them.

You persuade these troops that they are superior to those whom you oppose to them; a mere nothing makes them believe that they are weaker; it is, however, these nothings which make the glory or disgrace of a general.

Therefore apply yourself to get a good knowledge of the causes which produce them. I go further, and say that it is the nothings which create the enthusiasm, and if once you can confer it on your army, you can count on victory.

I will not recall here that which you will have noticed in history, but remember only the Russians, and you will acknowledge that only inspired beasts could stand being slaughtered like them.

My kingdom, by its nature, is military, and, shortly speaking, it is only by its assistance that you can hope to sustain and aggrandize yourself. It is necessary, therefore, that your attention should always be fixed on this. But you must take care that the military should not perceive that they are your only resource. When I took over the reins of Government, I looked into this to the bottom, and corrected it; but it was not without much trouble that I arrived at the goal of my design, for your officer does not readily bend to new regulations, above all when it touches his own personal interest. You can judge of this by two examples.

The captains had each a district (canton) for recruiting. Every male infant who was born in that canton was by right his captain's soldier, and was registered as such from the cradle.

It is true that his father could buy him out, but if that captain happened to die, the buying out was annulled, and the infant became once more by right the soldier of the new captain.

You understand well what authority this captain exercised in this unhappy canton; he became its tyrant.

During the lifetime of my father I was several times offended with this, and when I became the Master, I resolved to abolish such an oppression. However, you must not offend the old soldiers who know nothing but their routine, above all, when it is advantageous to them.

I amassed proofs, therefore, and soon had more than I wanted. They showed me, among others, that Captain Colan, of the Regiment of Opo (infantry), had drawn from his canton in ten years more than fifty thousand crowns, and they made me see that there was in general no captain who did not derive a revenue of two thousand crowns from the country under him.

Accordingly, I reformed this abuse, but, believe me, most of my generals wished to prove to me that it was a great advantage for me, because by it one was surer of training a soldier as one wished, and one knew his character from his infancy. And, in fine, a thousand other like stupidities.

Believe me, also, that in spite of the most absolute orders, there were majors who always went this way, and that I was obliged to cashier two or three who would not submit.

My father had a passion for tall men: he adored the captains who got most of them: it was enough for a soldier to be six feet two or three inches for him to be allowed to do anything, and a captain who had twenty of this height was sure to enjoy the good graces of the King. From this sprang a lax and very variable discipline, and a service of parade.

As I did not have the same taste, I did not make any exceptions. I wished the tall to be punished in the same way as the short: I only took into consideration the goodness of the soldier, and not his height. This conduct displeased my officers very much, as well as my giants. The former were alarmed by the desertions, which, in truth, were then considerable. Because the great statures were not respected, they had even the effrontery to tell me that a man of six feet two or three inches deserved consideration, and ought not to be subjected to ordinary discipline. I asked them the reason for it: they did not know what to reply: in consequence of which the difference soon ceased to exist.

You can see by these two examples how much the particular interest is reckoned above the general interest, and at the same time the attention which you ought to pay to the representations of the military, when you touch their pockets.

You must take great care, my dear nephew, not to confuse the word discipline: it is a word which can only draw its signification from the spirit of the faculties and the situation in the state of which you employ it. It means that each state ought to have its special discipline, and it is mad for it to wish to adopt that of its neighbor. I am going to make you understand this by my own position.

A very wise regulation made by my father was the foundation of our modern discipline. Listen to it well. Following this rule each captain is obliged to have two thirds of his company foreigners. But to make these foreigners feel more like citizens, and to make their lot, which is really rather an unhappy one, since they have no hope of seeing it finish, pleasanter, we have thought that we ought to bestow upon these poor people that air of freedom and authority over the rest of mankind which they like to assume.

And in consequence we do not pay much attention to the little tricks which they play in the garrisons: we grant them in this respect a sort of independence which makes them forget their misfortunes: they think themselves somebodies, and this idea alone saves them from despair.

This discipline does not agree badly with my subjects who are soldiers: by this means they contract an advantageous idea of their trade, and little by little they accustom themselves to regard it as a profession.

We believe that discipline alone constitutes a soldier. We are mistaken; it is oftener the tone which we give him: I have proved this in my recent wars, where I had not already done so in my former wars.

The armies of the Empire and Sweden filled my ranks every day, and these men had no sooner donned my uniform than they were Prussians, and in the first encounter one could only recognize them by their singular valor. Discipline itself must be subordinate to such circumstances, it could not be so good if it was always equal.

When I commenced war my troops recognized me, and most of my soldiers loved me, because I paid them, fed them and entertained them well. At the same time, I was severe, and expected my orders to be executed with the utmost rigor; I passed nothing, especially when they were under arms.

After two campaigns I changed this severity for pleasantness. I had nothing but deserters for recruiting my army. I could neither pay them nor feed them nor maintain them well. I was obliged to pay them in debased money. It was my belief that I ought to attach them to myself by some means at some point. I tried to inspire them with an air of jollity, and relaxed my hand on marauding: I pretended not to mind when they took the roof off a house to make their fires, and I spared no effort to make them think well of themselves; I shut my eyes to many small negligences in their service; I only punished them lightly. When a regiment played up a little too much, I sent it to Saxony, and my brother Henry, who was in the secret, put matters on a proper footing, because his army was only engaged in observation.

Your principal object, my dear nephew, ought to be to create good officers and good generals, so you ought to make a plan of discipline, and still more, of conduct for them. Behold what I have done up to the present in this line.

In time of peace as well as in time of war, I go into the smallest details with them. Every officer is under the belief that he is known to me personally, and there is no general with whom I am not in relation. Although they play the chief role in my dominions, they are no more than the head slaves. An officer and a general cannot leave his post without proper permission; and if either did leave it without my permission, it is a hanging matter. By this means, when I have a valuable man, I keep him always.

The most fortunate officers have three years of misery and humiliation to go through (at the beginning of their careers). Of misery because they have wretched appointments, and of humiliation because the discipline is terrible. To recompense them, I make their lot very honorable when they come to the higher ranks. But, even then, they have no chance of retiring.

In the present war I have not named one of them to a command, to a provincial governorship or a headquarters' appointment which has fallen vacant. To give my officers ambition, I give them great distinction for brilliant performances. In the battle of Rosbach I embraced a cavalry major in the middle of the action, and I conferred the Order of True Merit on an officer in the field. At Dresden I sent my carriage for the lieutenant in the Guards who had been wounded after having attacked the same entrenchment four times. And I gave him his company.

To inspire them with a contempt for death, I had the famous ode of General Keith recited to them, and I had the $$libre avoitre## preached to them all through the war.

While I had the money I paid them well, and when my resources were diminished, I debased the coinage. But I overlooked some of the little tricks which they played upon their hosts, when times became harder, and I let them be witnesses of my misfortunes; I gave them the idea that their constancy was the only thing which could rescue us from our embarrassments, which have really been very lamentable in the latest campaigns.

I do not know how I succeeded in reducing to the greatest exactitude in the army those who were regular bandits, and who had an air of the greatest arrogance. I appeared to inspire them with a way of thinking to suit the circumstances. They were Arabs who crushed the country but won the battles.

The same spirit animated, more or less, the general officers: I closed my eyes to all the oppressions which they committed; they worked for me in working for themselves. In which way it was necessary that we should live together. Everyone told me that Major Keller, the Commandant at Leipzig, was feathering his nest. I knew it well, but other people did not know that he was worth millions a year to me.

As one gets accustomed little by little to his ease, and as one learns more and more how to live well, I had generals who were not too anxious to seek glory in the heat of the fray. I knew them well, and I explained to them generally the necessity of showing themselves well and confronting the greatest dangers. I preached by showing them the way, and made two or three examples. From this moment everybody was dauntless.

When you give a command, leave nothing to be brought home by your generals: confer an air of superiority always on the Profession of Arms. But always attribute to your generals the disaster of a battle, or the disastrous result of a campaign.

You have seen how I punished Le Kizel and Finke for the surrender at Maxin, Zastrow for the surrender at Schweidnitz, and Fouquet for having advised the surrender of the citadel of Glatz. In point of fact, none of these were their fault: they were mine.

You are not, my dear nephew, in a position to exercise a very rigorous discipline, and you are obliged to avoid increasing the yoke; real men are rare in your dominions, and foreigners cost too much for you to take them. You need not alter the administration of justice in your regiments, but you should make the death penalty very rare. Make your surgeons observe the same principles as I have impressed upon them, with regard to the arms and legs of your soldiers and your officers.

Do not demand from a subaltern anything more than good routine, because you have no need for him to know anything more. But demand from a higher officer genius and theory; and, above all, make a point of not confusing details with great principles, and especially make a great difference between a good quarter-master and a great general, because you can be one without being the other.

I am now coming to the point of my theories about common soldiers and subaltern officers. It is a question now of laying before your eyes the ideas I have maintained in my recent campaigns.

When I saw that France, the Queen of Hungary (Maria Theresa) and Russia were against me, I abandoned half my dominions in order to concentrate and put myself in a condition to be able to invade Saxony.

This maneuver was universally attributed to a fine stroke of politics. It was really due to necessity, because I should none the less have lost all my dominions if I have been crushed in defending them.

Before the commencement of the war I laid down a system which I have never abandoned: I have always hung on with the greatest obstinacy to part of Saxony: and though I have been surrounded on all sides, I have never been willing to retire from this country, and I was well advised, for I should have been lost without power of recovery.

I know well that it is considered extraordinary that I have allowed Berlin to be laid under contribution twice, and that all the towns in my kingdom, except five or six, have been taken. But everything has been given back to me, as the price of retiring from Saxony.

If you were to consult my subjects at the present moment, I believe that you would find that the enthusiasm is a little dwindled. I am persuaded myself that they have long ago begun to reckon the obligations of a prince to his subjects.

I had made the late war as a pupil. Marshal d'Anhalt and Marshal de Schwerin gave battle; I only figured in the battles. In this campaign my $$amour proper## had desired to play the leading part. I had need of Marshal Schwerin; I felt that he was necessary; but I was jealous of his glory. It is certain that if he had not been killed, I should have been ungrateful.

People pay me, my dear nephew, a little more honor than I deserve. For since his death I have made several bad mistakes. I lost the battle of Kollin and raised the siege of Prague quite unnecessarily; I made a false move when I arrived in Moravia, and Marshal Daun, like a good General, had secured Olmutz before he left Vienna.

At Maxin I lost fifteen thousand men by pigheadedness, and ignorance, because I did not see that Marshal Daun had advanced with his army.

General Laudon profited by a false move which I made to take me in the flank at Schweidnitz; I let him crush poor Fouquet before Glatz.

I should have lost the battle of Torgau if Marshall Daun had not been wounded, and the Russians have beaten me three times out of four; I have never been able to retake Dresden; and I have been fifty-nine days in the open trenches before Schweidnitz.

For all that, I am a general, and no one could dispute that I have great abilities, for, if I have lost battles, I have won them also, and I have made retreats which have won me infinite honor; I have discovered admirable expedients for extricating myself from the most cruel embarrassments.

But, my dear nephew, what has saved me is my desperateness and my vanity. I have preferred to be buried under the ruins of my kingdom to yielding, and it is my obstinacy which has worn everyone out. A man can try this once, but if he is wise he does not expose himself to it a second time.

At present, while I am in cold blood, I see all my glory vanishing in smoke; I have made a noise, but what have I gained? Nothing! On the contrary, I have lost much since the election of the King of the Romans has taken place.

You know the ambition of our house, and I assure you that I shall die of grief if I do not make the Empire pass to some Protestant Prince.

But what afflicts me most is the state of affairs in my own dominions. When I compare the situation of my kingdom in '56 with its situation today, I am confounded. I must lay it before you in order that, in advance, you may come to the resolution of sacrificing everything to re-establish it.

Since '56 I have lost by fighting more than three hundred thousand men. The population is decreased by more than one third, the number of horses and other animals by more than a half; the treasure accumulated by my father has been consumed, and my coinage is debased by one tenth. All the Provinces pay twice as heavily as they did in '56, by the interest of the money which they have been obliged to borrow for the contributions of which it is impossible for me to keep count.

I have no commerce outside of my kingdom, because my money loses too much in exchange abroad, and the bankruptcy of M. Donenville has made me lose all my credit.

The majority of my magazines are empty, my artillery is very bad, and I have very few munitions of war left; it is this which determines me to demolish most of my fortifications: for I am no longer in a condition to put the places which I have abandoned in a state of defense.

Otherwise, in a moment, if I were to come to have war, it would be absolutely impossible for me to guard them.

You see by this that you have no more than one step to take to be ruined, and that would be to undertake a new war, for however glorious it might be for you, it would crush you.

The only way of re-establishing yourself is to make an alliance with England to pay you heavy subsidies to conduct the campaign, and to keep within your borders as long as possible.

It would not be a question of waging an offensive war; you would no longer be in a condition to reassemble large armies, because you could not supply them either with provisions or with munitions of war. It would only, therefore, be in the last extremity that you ought to advance.

In what situation would you find yourself, if your dominions were once more the prey of the enemy? How would your dominions pay in the future the interest on the contributions they had borrowed? To what extent would your people not suffer, and how far would the deficiency in animals not go?

As for me, I cannot resist the sad ideas which this picture presents to me. I know the reputation which I bear throughout Europe, of loving war, and I confess that it is my passion, but I know its calamities, and I yield to the evidence. It is not possible to do this, because I should risk the entire ruin of my dominions.

I pretend to be wicked, but I do it to impose on others. One is not lucky twice, or, to put it better, fortune becomes greedy when one demands too much. She would certainly not be sufficiently generous to rescue our house a second time from the abyss in which it found itself in '57 and '61.

In '57, in the month of October, the French were at the gates of Magdeburg; the Austrians had Schweidnitz and Breslau, the Russians had all Prussia, and part of Brandenburg, and the Swedes had nearly all Pomerania. Berlin had been made to pay a ransom, and all my allies were prisoners.

Rossbach saved me at the edge of the precipice, and the affair of Breslau removed me further back from it for a year.

In '58 the Russians had my kingdom in their hands for three days: if I had unluckily yielded, I should have been lost irretrievably.

At the end of '61, in the month of November, Colberg being taken, the Russians were masters of the road to Berlin; the Austrians with the possession of Schweidnitz and Glatz could dispose of Silesia; the French, with the occupation of Hesse, shut me in on the side of Franconia; and Marshal Daun had more than half of Saxony; I scarcely had enough room for quartering my troops.

Add to this situation the lack of money and clothing for my troops, and, what is worse, the lack of provisions. At this critical moment the Empress of Russia came to die. If it had been I who had frightened her into it, the thing could not have happened more opportunely. [Peter III, an admirer of Frederick's, recalled the Russian army directly the Empress Elizabeth died.]

At the peace, like everyone, I made reforms, but I did not follow the order of seniority. I dismissed all the officers whom I suspected of being bad—I have already told you that I had over-looked many things while campaigning, but I had recorded on my tablets all their bad actions, and when I no longer had any need of them, I made a crime for them out of that which I had appeared to treat as a petty trouble.

That is, approximately, my way of thinking about the military, and the way in which I have treated it. Now let us talk a little about provisioning armies.

Provisioning is so legitimate, or, rather, so necessary for an army, that it is impossible for the latter to exist without the former, but it is a great question how far one ought to occupy oneself with it.

After mature reflection upon the subject, I have made the following system. I have accustomed my soldiers to do without bread, meat, and wine, and I have allowed them to get their subsistence from the peasants, and I have made no commissariat except when I could not do otherwise.

Since everything was under the Administration, every economy was to my profit. When a regiment arrived at a town, the citizens were obliged to support it for several days. I divided the profits with my soldiers. I gave them three sous and I kept back two, for the bread which they had to take from my magazines.

When an army was advancing and it did without bread for a day, it was so much profit to me. By this arrangement I gained not only sometimes as much as six weeks' provisions in a year, but I could also risk forced marches, because I need not fear that doing without bread for one or two days would make the army complain.

When you raise the provisioning to a certain level, you cannot move one step without great difficulty, because, before making a move, you have to think of provisioning. Whereas, when the soldier is properly broken in, he himself becomes careful; he does not eat all he has, except when he is sure of being newly provided for, and by this means the general is much less harassed in his operations.

I should never have been able to make the forced marches which I have made, if I had not risked one or two days' provisioning, and if my soldiers had not been persuaded that one can live without bread and meat.

You would not believe, my dear nephew, the advantage which you have when an army is accustomed to this uncertainty. The general need not abuse it, but he can profit by it at moments which are decisive.

In not paying serious attention, except in necessary cases, to the provisioning of the soldier, the air of importance which makes it so expensive is eliminated.

I do not say, however, my dear nephew, that you ought not to regard this matter as one of the essentials, but you ought to know how to profit by the moment for treating it with a sort of indifference.

I do not speak to you of Engineering or Artillery, because, unfortunately, these two branches are still in their infancy with us. We have not sufficient resources to put them on a good footing. You cannot, under any pretext whatever, dispense with your presence at the head of your troops, because two thirds of your soldiers could not be inspired by any other influence except your presence. Since your situation does not permit you to have a well-supplied army, you ought to be present to profit by everything. It is following out this principle that as soon as I have entered any country I treat it as if I had conquered it.

I went through Franconia and the Cote de Neuberg; in the contributions which I levied I often took, in place of money, cloth, or shoes, leather, flour, everything, down to peas and beans. [The German army still levies contributions in kind as at Ghent.] Everything is good, my dear nephew, when you have a use to make of it. You ought not to be under any illusion as to the past. Events have made me great, more than my talents or my forces.

The faults of the French founded my glory: the corruption of the Russian generals kept it up for some time, and the divisions between the Austrian generals have nourished it to the end. When you are lucky, the arms which are opposed to you turn to your profit.

Without the armies of the Empire and Sweden I should never have been able to show mine. It was a real God-send for me. I had thrown such ridicule on these two nations that the soldiers who had any feeling felt themselves dishonored by serving them.