Warfare has always been dominated by an emphasis on disciplined, well-trained soldiers that can fight in some semblance of order. Disciplined soldiers have always been the core of any effective military strategy. The advent of gunpowder weapon as the fundamental aspect of modern warfare meant that soldiers would have to be even more disciplined and trained, so as to deal with the pressure of death from afar. This sample essay provided by the custom writing services of Ultius, examines two historical figures, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Napoleon Bonaparte, who both gained prominence through highly disciplined military tactics.
Napoleon and Frederick the Great: Discipline and Military Science
Discipline has been a relatively constant aspect of warfare since 1600. Warfare has seen a significant evolution over the last 500 years due to rapid technological change and an increasing professionalization of the military. Warfare in the late 18th century was described as a prolonged parade in the words of Weigley. They were battles in the form of tournaments with drums beating as opposing armies met each other on the battlefield.
It is notable that the 18th-century battlefield was actually more dangerous than today’s war fields. While today we have more devastating chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction than ever, the 18th-century battlefield was focused around close quartered combat with short range weapons. When the fighting began, casualties were significantly higher. It is into this combat of the 18th and 19th centuries, transitioning from late medieval combat to early modern, that the forward-looking leaders of armies sought a decisive edge over their enemies. The edge was discipline. In most contemporary armies, this was a goal only elite units were capable of achieving.
Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great (1740-1786) was king of Prussia, of the Hohenzollern dynasty, and is described as the foremost soldier of his time. During his ascension, Prussia was comprised of various disparate territories both within and outside the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick II inherited an army of 80,000 soldiers from his father Frederick William II. His objective upon becoming king was to unite these disconnected and vulnerable lands into one contiguous and secure empire.
This began to be accomplished in a series of wars including the three Silesian Wars, also known as the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), fought with Austria and the Seven Years war (1756-63). As a result of the Silesian wars, Prussia acquired a resource rich and productive region of Austria which was to be contested between the two powers for much of the 19th century.
Frederick’s reliance upon discipline
Discipline was commonly used by Prussian infantry. Also, a shift in technology made reloading more efficient. The Prussian army, under Frederick’s command, dropped the wooden ramrods in favor of more durable iron ones because the wooden ones fractured often during reloading. Finally, Prussian march formations were changed so that the files forming march columns could quickly switch to battle lines, similar to innovations made by Julius Caesar in the Roman army. This sped up the task of deployment which could be cumbersome and give another extra edge in closely pitched battles.
The Seven Years War
The Seven Years war is notable for being the last major war prior to the French Revolution which involved all of Europe’s great military powers. On one side were allied France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden and Russia. On the other side were allied Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain. During this war, Prussia was able to hold off armies that attacked from several fronts and despite some setbacks ultimately prevailed. Frederick defeated an army of French and German troops at Rossbach in Thuringia in 1757 despite being outnumbered two to one. The losses were 7000 for the enemy army as compared with 550 for his own. A similar result followed a month later against the Austrians.
Frederick’s innovation and contributions to military discipline
The success of Frederick the Great’s army rested mainly on their superior training of which discipline was a major component. It should be noted that Frederick also inherited some of this training and other tactical details from his predecessors. Still, he used them to great effect and added others which gave him an edge over enemies who were similarly equipped but lacked the same training or discipline. More specifically, the Prussian army used a drilling system, uniform throughout the army, but which was unheard of in most European armies prior to 1740. The system was practiced continuously.
It focused on marching in step even under intense combat situations and soldiers in war who performed without hesitation. The objective was to maintain (and present) a coherent line of attack when advancing on enemy lines. This technique was not unheard of in European armies of the period it was just not adhered to in intense situations. This began to be changed under Frederick the Great, although not always with the consistency he sought to achieve.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1804-1815), the French military and political leader, emerged during the French Revolution to become the first French king to assume the title of emperor. Napoleon staged a coup in 1799 which overthrew the First French Republic and set himself up as First Consul. Under this title, Napoleon assumed the role of a hereditary dictator and reestablished the rule of autocracy in France.
Under his largely secular rule, France undertook a number of military campaigns, called the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which ultimately involved every major power in Europe. These wars established France as the preeminent power on the continent. As was the case with Frederick the Great, these wars were made possible by a brilliant and visionary tactician at the top and machine-like discipline throughout the military ranks.
Napoleon’s tactics could be complex and in order to be executed with the right precision, it required the support of disciplined well-rehearsed troops. Chandler describes the grand tactics of Napoleon as consisting of three different types of battle tactics:
- The simple frontal attack
- The double attack
- The enveloping attack
The last was used most commonly by Napoleonic forces and required a high degree of coordination and discipline to execute.
Battle of Austerlitz
The best means to convey the sense of coordination and discipline in actual combat situations is to review the battle at Austerlitz. This battle is also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors because it brought Napoleon, the French emperor, against the Russian emperor Czar Alexander I and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. This battle was the scene of one of Napoleon’s greatest military accomplishments. In the account given by Anders, the Russo-Austrian alliance was undisciplined and rife with dissension. A plan of attack was formulated by one of the principles but only provided to the military leadership of each army an hour after their own attack started.
This is in contrast to the French side where Napoleon had each battalion commander fully appraised of the attack plan the day before the attack was to take place. Napoleon’s tactics also emphasized patience in waiting for the best possible time to strike and keeping the enemy guessing as to what their strategy would be. Anders describes the rout of the Russo-Austrian forces at a decisive plateau location at Pratzen as one of confusion for the allied forces. This confusion turned into full-scale panic as the allied forces retreated. When it was done, the allied forces suffered 30,000 casualties (including 12,000 soldiers taken as war prisoners) compared with 10,000 casualties on the French side. The take away from Austerlitz is in the words of Anders:
“victory…went to superior intellect, efficient command principles, and effective teamwork.”
In sum, Frederick the Great and Napoleon both demonstrated the value of tactical and strategic planning and discipline in taking on and defeating often superior numbers, tactics that would be seen in the German campaigns of WWII. The enemies each ruler faced were uniformly less competent and prepared and so it didn’t matter how many soldiers they could command on the battlefield. They would always be defeated by a smaller, yet better prepared and disciplined military force. The larger military achievements of both rulers also set examples that later armies would follow to build their own successful militaries. They would shape the course of modern warfare for centuries to follow because the tactics and discipline they deployed were so effective.
Anders, Leslie. Austerlitz: A Clash of Command Systems. Military Review, XXXVIII (June 1958): pp. 50-57.
Chandler, David. G. The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Weigley, Russell F. The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.