The Prussian Army of the Revolutionary and early Napoleonic Wars has a rather terrible reputation, mainly due to the crushing defeats at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806 (and partly due to a post-war desire to emphasis the achievements of the Prussian reformers who came after 1806). This has always been rather unfair. The Prussians performed perfectly well during the early period of the Revolutionary Wars, before in 1795 Prussia and France signed a peace treaty. This peace lasted for ten years, before Prussia entered the fray against Napoleon in 1806 with disastrous results. Six more years of peace followed, before Prussia joined Napoleon for the invasion of Russia in 1812. After the failure of this campaign the Prussians changed sides, and from then on played a major part in the coalition that eventually defeated Napoleon.
The standard view of this army is that it began the wars as an outdated survivor from the time of Frederick the Great, suffered defeat in 1806 and after that was reformed by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, becoming an effective modern army. Hofschröer argues that this isn't fair to the Prussian army of 1792, which had undergone a series of reformed both later in Frederick's life, and after his death. Both infantry and cavalry were reformed during the 1780s, and their performance during the brief Prussian involvement in the Revolutionary Wars was respectable. The reforms continued in the decade of peace, but when war was renewed in 1806 the Prussians suffered a massive defeat. By 1812 the army had been reformed yet again, and after a brief involvement in Russia changed sides. From then on the Prussian army played a major part in the defeat of Napoleon, from the War of Liberation in German to the famous appearance at Waterloo.
Hofschröer does slightly overstate his case on occasions, most obviously when examining the battles of Jena and Auerstadt. If the Prussian performance at Jena was rather better than is often recognised, Auerstadt was a clear failure - here a larger Prussian army failed to defeat a smaller French force, but even here the local successes are emphasised and the overall failure underplayed. His overall argument is rather more convincing - the Prussian army of 1792-95 was rather more effective than is often stated, and much less of a museum piece (it is also worth pointing out that although Frederick the Great's most famous victories came in 1750s and 1760s, Frederick himself survived until 1785, and he continued to modify his own army, so by 1792 he had only been dead for seven years).
The Legacy of Frederick the Great
The Early Reforms, 1783-1792
The Experience of the Revolutionary Wars
The Ten-Year Peace
The War of 1806
The Later Reforms, 1807-15
Author: Peter Hofschröer
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