Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The development of the Prussian military state

In the case of the army, continuity was provided by the commitment of the Hohenzollern kings to establish Brandenburg- Prussia as a strong military power through the presence of a standing army. It was also helped by loyal commanders like Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, who served three of those rulers with distinction (1693–1747). The first, the Elector-King Frederick, gave the army a strong sense of identity. From 1701 the various contingents were known as ‘the Prussian army’, identified by uniforms based on the colours of the king’s coat of arms: red, blue and black. Frederick William went further. From 1725 he took to wearing military uniform at court as a matter of routine— as did his courtiers—a custom which foreign visitors found bizarre at first, but one which symbolized the army’s overriding significance. It is no wonder that he was dubbed the ‘royal drill sergeant’.

Frederick, moreover, not only maintained the Great Elector’s army and took over its leadership personally, but increased its manpower by one third to about 40,000 men by 1713, doubling the number of grenadiers, the ‘shock troops’ of the infantry. He established a central armoury in Berlin (1700) and with the encouragement of the scientist, Leibniz, continued the modernization started by his father, approving the use of the flintlock musket and socket bayonet to replace the matchlock and pike. As firepower and the value of disciplined infantry formations overshadowed the role of the cavalry, the latter were reduced in numbers. Frederick William was totally dedicated to his guardsmen and encouraged unorthodox methods to conscript men of exceptional height to the guards, from foreign states as well as his own territories. Under him the number of soldiers rose dramatically to 80,000 by the time of his death in 1740.

Both rulers, therefore, considered the army to be of the utmost importance and made all the final decisions on military matters, although in Frederick’s case only after consultation with his officers and ministers in the War Council. It was his decision to take power from the regimental colonels and to insist that officers were to be promoted, disciplined and dismissed on the king’s order. Furthermore, promotion was to be by merit, not simply by custom or seniority (1695). It was a change which proved difficult to enforce on officers of noble birth and one that King Frederick William decided to reverse. Both rulers, however, tried to safeguard the quality of the officer class. Under Frederick middle-class recruits were still able to become officers, but under Frederick William the officer corps became the exclusive domain of the nobility. Frederick established cadet academies for young officers in Berlin (1701) and Kolberg (1703). Both he and his successor forbade the nobility to serve in foreign armies. In 1722 Frederick William urged nobles to compel their sons to join a cadet training school but he also took the precaution of ordering the provincial councillor, or Landrat, to forward a list of junkers’ sons to be registered for military service in a Table of Vassals. The king combined his father’s two military academies and set up another at Magdeburg (1719).

All these measures reflected a major problem facing the Prussian kings: the question of recruitment. Draconian discipline did not eliminate the problem of desertion, and the practice remained of recruiting foreigners. But in 1693 Frederick issued a Recruiting Edict, forcing every province to provide a stipulated number of recruits, and in 1708 he instituted per capita fines if they failed to produce their quota of soldiers. In 1714 Frederick William decreed that the peasantry had a lifelong obligation to do military service. He also returned to the principle of regional conscription in his important Recruitment Edict of 1733. This introduced a cantonal system in which the registration of soldiers was to take place within defined districts or cantons of 5,000 households. By 1740 one in twenty-five subjects was serving in the Prussian army.

In the course of forty years (1700–40) the two kings adopted some different policies, as might be expected. In 1701 Frederick borrowed the Great Elector’s strategy of raising a Land Militia to serve for five years and defend the frontiers and fortresses of the territories. By 1703 some 20,000 men aged between eighteen and forty years were under arms as militiamen. Frederick William, however, discontinued this system, believing that it was both inefficient and undermined recruitment to the standing army. As we have seen, Frederick and his son also diverged on the social composition of the officer corps. Frederick William oversaw the creation of a caste of noble officers as a means of creating social cohesion. Indeed, military needs came to dictate the social structure of the country. By 1740 a rigid system was in place, by which the nobility was identified with the officer class and the exploited peasantry with the military rank-and-file. This necessitated a careful balancing act. A series of royal decrees (1709, 1714, 1739, 1749) sought to protect the peasants from excessive service demands from their lords to ensure smooth recruitment of the peasants to the army. Frederick William’s early interest in military matters became an obsession. Generals took precedence over royal ministers at court. He enjoyed the details of military administration, supervising military drill and ensuring that off-duty soldiers worked as wool or cotton spinners. In an unusual display of paternalism, he urged his son not to reduce his soldiers’ pay. He raised the expenditure on the army from 50 per cent, as it was under King Frederick, to a phenomenal 80 per cent of the national revenue. By 1740 the army did not exist to serve the country; Brandenburg-Prussia was a country existing for its army. This was an extraordinary state of affairs, which was bound to have considerable political and economic consequences.

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