Frederick the Great

The 18th Century Warfare Strategy

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great and the 18th-Centrury warfare Strategy

After the death of Gustav Adolf in 1632, warfare again settled down to a slower pace and a more stable mold.

The 17th and 18th centuries experienced the growth of professional armies loyal to the king.

But the great cost of building and maintaining such armies led to a concern for their safety, a hesitation to risk them in bloody encounters, and a preoccupation with defense and fortifications.

Strategy during this period was essentially of limited aim and was greatly concerned with the art of siegecraft, for which elaborate rules were prescribed.

In Prussia of the mid-18th century, however, circumstances compelled Frederick the Great to try a new and aggressive approach and to break through the accepted military pattern of the day.

Frederick the Great Confronted at the outset of the Seven Years' War (1756–63) by a coalition of Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony, found himself virtually surrounded.

His task was to devise a strategy to defend his territory and not to dissipate his outnumbered troops.

The strategy he evolved did not follow set rules or recipes. Indeed, never was the definition of strategy as a “system of makeshifts” offered in a later age by the Prussian general Count Helmuth von Moltke better demonstrated.

In his planning Frederick the Great capitalized on two valuable assets his army, a superior and highly disciplined instrument of war, and a central position.

He sought always to keep the initiative, to attack first one enemy and then another, to assemble at decisive points a force superior to that of his foe, and to avoid long, drawn-out wars.

Using his central position to concentrate against individual armies of the enemy before they could be reinforced by others, he developed the classical “strategy of interior lines.”

But even Frederick the Great, the statesman-warrior, could not entirely escape the conditions imposed by the warfare of his times.

Indeed, the statesman imposed caution on the warrior.

He could not expose his costly armies to the risk of destruction and bloody decision by battle. His battles were not those of annihilation.

In the end his wars were decided by reasons of state, and those wars left his nation exhausted.

The age that immediately followed Frederick the Great chose to imitate his caution rather than his aim.

Military theory was characterized by ideas of victory without battle, maneuvering for position, a system of lines and angles of operation.

Geometric concepts and cunning tricks and artifices replaced the aim to destroy enemies.

Great emphasis was put on terrain and the occupation of key geographic points.

The 18th century, it must be remembered, was the era of enlightenment, and warfare conformed to the spirit of the age. Strategy, like all warfare, became “mathematical” and “scientific.”

Theorists optimistically maintained that a general who knew mathematics and topography could direct campaigns with geometric precision and win wars without even fighting.

But the new mode of warfare ushered in by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era was soon to challenge these optimistic assumptions.


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