Organisation and Role of pre-1756
In this period states maintained expensive, highly-developed military establishments. Drill at unit level would invariably be intensive so as to enable a unit to function effectively in the line of battle. The organisation, drill and behaviour of a unit would be written out in formal regulations (in 1756 the Prussian line infantry was organised under the Reglement of 1743, with additons from 1748; the Garnison-Infanterie units had their own Reglement, also from 1743). For the organising and moving of large numbers of units the situation was rather different, with there being great differemces between the various armies as regards the volume and thoroughness of formal rules - the Prussian Army under Frederick II paid great attention to detail, and there were Reglements for example for marches, and for the process of arranging and entering a camp, with the idea being that everything was properly planned and carried out with every man knowing what he was to do. Frederick in addition wrote instructions (effectively manuals) on various subjects for all or some of his officers. Other armies were less-well provided with such works, and in addition there remained the likelihood (especially in Germany) of an army fielding contingents from numerous states, with all the consequent problems of precedence and status involving for example a great deal of time being needed to plan such matters as entering camps.
The basis for moving and deploying an army was provided by a formal ordre de bataille, typically with two lines of infantry with cavalry on the wings. This would deal with matters of precedence between units and contingents (for example the most prestigious post was on the right of the first line) and provided the framework within which a commander would plan and organise movements and manoeuvres, with a movement such as the crossing of a river or a fouragirung (an expedition by part or all of an army to collect fodder) being fully laid out in a Disposition, an order which would state exactly which commanders and units would do what and when in as much detail as considered necessary. Before a battle a Disposition might also describe the commander`s thinking about the situation facing his army as well as describing his plan in more or less detail.
Despite this level of detail in planning and organising activities in the field there was little in the way of written rules and regulations across the various armies concerning the control of larger bodies of troops, and the most common method used to develop an army`s ability to move in large bodies was to bring large numbers of troops together in training camps. These would normally be held in the summer, and troops could practice the entering and leaving of camps (vital as in wartime camps were often set up close to an enemy) with full security measures, also by practising movement and deployment of large bodies an army would develop a (hopefully) uniform level of performance among its units. Other frequently practised operations were river crossings, the building of bridges, and the use of fieldworks, again these were complex operations which an army would need to be able to perform with an enemy nearby.
In Russia large manoeuvres had taken place at the time of Peter the Great, after his reign there were regular summer camps but no more large-scale manoeuvres (there was no concept of “manoeuvres” as in the modern form at this period, however we use the term here to describe the practising of various operations by large bodies of troops as they would be carried out in the field).
The French had brought large numbers of troops together in training camps during the second half of the 17th Century. The last, at Compiegne in 1698, involved 60,000 troops- they practised drill at regimental and army level, manoeuvre of two opposing forces, attack on and defence of field fortifications, marches with full security measures, outpost duties, foraging, convoys, ambushes, river crossings, and the attack on and defence of a fortress. From then until 1756 no such large-scale manoeuvres took place, with training camps in these years being used to test or perfect proposed or new regulations. From 1753 to 1756 several training camps were held each year, then from July to September 1756 a total of 120 battalions and 30 squadrons were brought together in 18 camps along the Channel Coast initially for political reasons- they prepared for a planned invasion of England and to repel any British attempts to land, and they also practised embarking onto and disembarking from ships and the attack on and defence of coastlines.
No manoeuvres were held in Great Britain.
The Austrians made little use of training camps before 1748, from then on they took place frequently. New drill was practised, also the movement of large masses and of two opposing forces. Eventually full-scale manoeuvres took place. Until 1752 the numbers of battalions brought together ranged from 6 to 23, the number of squadrons up to 7. The largest camps were those held at Kolin under Browne, in 1752 with 29 battalions and 18 squadrons, in 1753 with 38 battalions and 21 squadrons, and in 1754 with 42 battalions and 22 squadrons. These camps involved a variety of manoeuvres- for example on 27th August 1752 a defended hill was attacked by two independently-operating forces, and in both 1753 and 1754 a number of surprise attacks on outposts and camps took place with the resulting alarms among the defenders. There were also a number of camps each for several cavalry regiments held in these years at Raab, Pest and Kittsee, during these great emphasis was placed on moving long distances in line through varying terrain.
In none of these armies was there any systematic, centrally-directed process of development and improvement in all areas of the military establishment. Efforts at improvement were made, but with patchy results, for example the Austrians were able to build a much more effective artillery arm after 1748 whilst improvements in other areas were less substantial. In France great efforts had been made after 1748 to improve infantry drill and tactics but there was not enough time until 1756 to bring this plan to fruition across the whole army.
Prussian Training and Manoeuvres
This map of Berlin and its surroundings in the 1740s shows the area in which the manouevres took place. Many were conducted to the immediate west and south-west of Spandau, and to the immediate west and north-west of Potsdam in particular.
In Prussia the picture was very different. There Frederick the Great spent the years between 1745 and 1756 in an intensive process of developing and improving his army`s ability and skill on and off the battlefield. He regarded further wars as inevitable and wanted to keep them short in view of Prussia`s limited population and resources. He emphasised the need to act decisively and set out to make his army capable of moving and striking hard, fast and effectively. The measures he took included improving the soldiers` abilities in marching and firing, developing his officers` professional knowledge, and working to improve the artillery, supply system and fortifications. Most of all he sought to develop new movements and tactics that would allow the army to to move, manoeuvre and deploy more rapidly than hitherto in the presence of the enemy. This process eventually led to his holding large annual manoeuvres where he tested and experimented with new ideas and movements.
One of the major reasons for there being far more achieved in these years in terms of developing the military establishment in Prussia than in other states was the fact that King Frederick was in sole charge militarily and politically. In France for example there were endless debates regarding the changes in infantry drill and tactics, with no one individual in charge of the process, in Prussia the King decided and that was that. By no means everything succeeded for Frederick- for example a number of artillery pieces he tested or attempted to introduce were failures.
The military training year in Prussia had a standard structure. Early in February regimental commanders would be informed of the date on which their units would be inspected by the King (the Spezial-Revue); this date would dictate when the regiment would begin full training, with a period of around fourteen days spent preparing for this. Units in Berlin, Potsdam and neighbouring garrisons would normally begin training on 1st April and units in the provinces rather later. The Spezial-Revue of each regiment would take place during the General-Revue of all the regiments assembled in the same place. The inspection would involve the King examining everything from uniforms, weapons, and equipment, to recruits and joining and leaving officers. The regiment would also be required to drill and exercise under the eyes of the King, carrying out movements such as entering and leaving camp, camp guard duty, and outpost duties. The General-Revue involved the drilling and exercising of the regiments in large bodies (in the ordre de bataille). They would carry out a normalangriff (ie. a “normal attack”, in line with firing), then there would be “small war”-type actions, exercises for infantry and cavalry separately and together either against an enemy indicated by markers or an opposing force. Here the exercises at a revu came close to being full-scale manoeuvres, especially in Silesia where they were held in the autumn when crops had been harvested and fields were clear. Inspections held in the spring and summer were restricted to drill squares and uncultivated areas as the King was keen to minimise damage and disruption to farmland during exercises.
During the revue season the King would travel rapidly from one inspection to the next, the usual sites for them were Küstrin, Stargard, Stettin, Königsberg, Magdeburg, Glogau, Neisse or Schweidnitz, and Breslau. The inspections would begin with the Potsdam and Berlin regiments during the second half of May, from here the King would travel around the other sites before taking a three-week break at Potsdam in August, after this he would travel to Silesia to continue the inspections (departing Potsdam at the end of August or beginning of September).
The result of the enormous amount of work that Frederick put into developing his army was that at the outbreak of war in 1756 the Prussian Army had attained a standard of speed, skill, flexibility and perfection in manoeuvre and tactical movements unmatched by any other army in Europe.
Organisation and Control of Prussian Manoeuvres
The first large autumn manoeuvres had been held at Potsdam in 1743. The limits imposed by agriculture led eventually to the King organising autumn manoeuvres at Spandau in 1753, 1754 and 1755. In addition each year from mid-August to late October Frederick would hold manoeuvres with the Potsdam and Berlin regiments (before and after his journey to Silesia).
Large numbers of troops were brought together for these events, in 1753 49 battalions (including 11 of grenadiers), 61 squadrons and 585 artillerymen with 51 guns, in 1754 34 battalions (8 of grenadiers) and 13 squadrons, and in 1755 36 battalions (8 of grenadiers), 23 squadrons and 37 guns (30 of the new 6-pounders, 6 3-pounders and 1 12-pounder, the last for firing signal shots to control movements).
The units would set up camp in the ordre de bataille, with full security measures as in wartime. Great care was taken to keep unauthorised persons away from the area, with Jäger controlling all civilian traffic, turning the curious away and escorting suspiscious persons to the officer in charge of the guard. On one occasion sightseers were ordered to be plundered by the hussars in order to deter others. In particular great care was taken to keep foreign officers away from the area.
The role of artillery pieces would be limited as there would not be many horses available to tow the guns in peacetime so a heavy battery might be represented by one 12-pounder, or by several battalion guns.
The King would take up position wherever the main action would develop, in the event of confusion breaking out he would ride quickly to the scene and quietly help to sort it out. He would not worry about small matters such as a battalion getting out of line or a mistimed volley but would be concerned with getting the whole movement completed satisfactorily. If he were commanding he would issue orders verbally or in writing, if not then the commanders of the two forces would submit their orders to him. As a rule for very large operations the enemy positions would be marked by flags, or by small numbers of troops with the men standing five to six paces apart.
When the terrain was considered for a manoeuvre there were occasions when assumptions would be made, for example on one occasion “…the village of Staaken to the left was ignored as the area was considered to be an impassable marsh.”
Within this framework Frederick the Great tried and tested new ideas and tactics, in the course of which his troops simulated operations of all kinds- river crossings, convoy movements, ambushes, attack and (less often) defence in varying terrain under different circumstances, aspects of siege work, etc. As well as enabling improvements in tactics it gave the troops and their officers extensive practice in movements of all kinds in many situations, with the officers of all ranks acquiring a set of principles and rules governing their troops` conduct in many situations; the result was the high level of skill the army had developed by 1756. He also used these exercises to demonstrate specific points from one or other of his texts to his officers, for example he might stop the action at some point to show how something would actually happen in the field.
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©Martin Tomczak 2005