Frederick the Great: Really So Great?

Michael G. Stroud

Frederick the Great: Great with Faults

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was one of history’s finest military tacticians due to several reasons. First, upon ascending the throne in 1740, Frederick inherited a highly capable yet small army. Taking this core group, he set about refining and drilling them incessantly, often doing so himself as he lacked trust in many of his subordinate officers. Through this relentless drilling, Frederick was able to give battle to his neighbors that frequently outnumbered, as they did with their over populations when compared to the relatively small size of Prussia. Frederick would develop then perfect the “oblique order of attack” which in essence focused the bulk of his troops against one flank of the enemies’ thus giving him local numerical superiority even if his total force was outnumbered. Frederick first utilized this tactic at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg in 1745 but achieved a major victory over the Austrians with it at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757 that cost them over 22,000 casualties compared to the Prussians 6,000. The discipline of the Prussian army was instrumental to Frederick’s vision of the military, which in turn, was his tactical masterpiece to wield accordingly.
Frederick the Great: Really So Great?
Prussian Army at the Battle of Leuthen

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Frederick the Great: Really So Great?
Prussian infantry advancing during battle. Constant drilling produced a highly effective and lethal Prussian military who often faced and defeated numerically larger opponents.

In addition to the oblique order of attack and perhaps even more substantial to his military legacy is that of Frederick’s operational successes.

Here he would utilize interior lines to prevent units of numerically superior enemy armies from linking up, thus tactically leveraging his smaller and more precious Prussian troops in the most effective manner. Prussia being a much smaller state than her neighbors, had a much smaller pool of manpower to pull from and therefore replacing valuable troops was a greater difficulty than in Austria for instance. In militarizing the entirety of the Prussian state from conscription to industry, Frederick had both modernized and stifled Prussia’s growth, as he was the all-controlling head of state and kept this point top of mind to officers. This was evidenced in his famous Parchwitz speech of December 1757 when faced with only one option: fight and win, he told his assembled generals and commanders: ’We are fighting for our glory, for our honor and for our wives and children…Those who stand with me can rest assured I will look after their families if they are killed. Anyone wishing to retire can go now but will have no further claim on my benevolence.’ Frederick was the guiding hand for the Prussian people and the iron will of the army and his word was binding.
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His military legacy through the lens of time, however, shows a major fault with Frederick’s leadership.

This would be that of grand strategy, both from a military and political standpoint. Prussia in many ways was the underdog of Europe in his time, small of size, resources, and manpower and while Frederick recognized this, he did not fully appreciate it nor take appropriate action to remedy it. Frederick was aggressive in taking the military initiative and implementing his tactical innovations to win over a dozen major engagements, but he failed to decisively beat the states’ whose armies they belonged to, thus setting up a never-ending sequence of battles and war. By the end of the Seven Year’s War for instance, nearly half of Prussia’s 4.5 million subjects had died, it had cost the Prussians hundreds of millions of dollars, destroyed many cities, and saw the burning of countless villages. In Frederick not securing binding alliances and treaties that protected his people and Prussia for the long-term, they were only a power for as long as he was in power. His failure to see the larger, strategic picture for both Prussia and Europe only led to Prussia being overrun by its enemies after his death and suffering a great number of hardships that could have likely been prevented by a wider and more robust understanding of grand strategy in both a military and political sense.
Frederick the Great: Really So Great?
Statue of Frederick in Berlin. Frederick the Great was a gifted battlefield tactician, but had his share of personal and strategic fallacies.
Frederick the Great: Really So Great?

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a U.S. based Military Historian that has published many military history articles in various mediums, including print magazines, academic journals, and military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He completed his undergrad degree from American Military University, Summa Cum Laude in Military History and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Military History with the same university. Michael has been an invited guest on various history themed podcasts from the UK and the US and maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn and Twitter where he can be reached and followed at www.linkedin.com/in/michaelgstroud and @StroudMichaelG.
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