Monday, July 24, 2023

Book Review: The War of Bavarian Succession by Alexander Querengässer


Dear Reader,

Today, we are reviewing the first English-language book covering the military aspects of the War of Bavarian Succession. Alexander Querengässer has provided a fine short volume, replete with many plates that will delight wargamers and reenactors. Often ignored for the more well-known Seven Years War and War of Austrian Succession, the War of Bavarian Succession is the final military showing of Prussian King Frederick II ("the Great"). The lackluster performance of the armies in this war (there were no decisive set piece battles) has led many historians to underestimate the war's importance. It is popularly remembered in Germany as the "Potato War" or Kartoffelkrieg, after the crop that starving soldiers turned to in order to feed themselves. 

For those who are blissfully unaware, the War of Bavarian Succession was a central European war running during the same time as the American War of Independence. During 1778-1779, Prussian, Austrian, and Saxon forces clashed in and around what is today Czechia and Poland. The war was fought over the disputed inheritance of Bavaria. If Bavaria passed into the hands of Austria, it would have completely upset the central European balance of power which emerged in the aftermath of the Seven Years War. Eventually, Russia entered the conflict as a mediator, causing a diplomatic victory for the Prusso-Saxon alliance, who did not want to see Bavaria in Austrian hands. 

The result is a book that provides broad coverage of the war, with particular focus on the opposing armies. All of this comes together to test the central idea of Querengässer's study: was the Prussian army in decline? Querengässer's answer to this question is that the army had flaws, but was not in decline in the way that we often think. He provides careful coverage of the failings of the Prussian army supply system, and the way that the lack of supply handicapped Frederick's armies on campaign. The lack of substantive Prussian light troops also played a role in the shortcomings of the 1778-9 campaigns, but for Querengässer, the Prussian army still had many bright days ahead before its defeat in 1806. For him, the Prussian army was a stable force that struggled with severe limitations throughout Frederick's entire reign: the highs were not as high as we have been led to led to believe, but neither were the lows as low. Teleologically assuming that the Prussian army of 1757 was declining at a steady rate until 1806 is not tenable in his model. 

The book's greatest strength lies in the structural treatment of all armies involved in the conflict, in the chapter titled, "Opposing Forces." Here, Querengässer spends twenty-four pages on the Prussian army, and eleven pages each on the Austrians and Saxons, living up to the book's subtitle. Prince Henry, the brother of the Prussian king, comes across as more innovative than Frederick the Great, as he formed light infantry battalions composed of volunteers when the shortcomings of his forces became apparent. This book is very much a structural history: there are forty pages covering the military operations of the war compared to forty seven on the structure and organization of the armies. None of the skirmishes or small actions of the war are presented at the tactical level, but a admirable amount of detail is given regarding Prussian logistical shortcomings. 

Querengässer is fully open with the reader regarding the impact of COVID on the book: he had planned for a larger volume with much more archival research, including a trip to Vienna. COVID made this impossible. As a result, the book is heavily based on research that Querengässer performed at the Sächsiches Hauptstaatsarchiv Dresden. This is understandable for a scholar based in Saxony, but a bit more research in the Berlin-Dahlem Geheimes Staatsarchiv could have strengthened an already enjoyable volume. The printed sources include most of the standard references one would expect: the political correspondence of Frederick, as well as Berenhorst's writings; it was surprising not to find Schmettau or Holtzendorff's writings on the conflict included. 

All in all, this is a volume that will become the natural starting place for study of the war in English, and the large amount of both period and modern visuals included will delight wargamers, reenactors, and historical enthusiasts. Querengässer should be congratulated on filling a long-absent gap in English-language historiography. Recommended. 

If you enjoyed this review, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or following us on twitterConsider checking out our exclusive content on Patreon. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Prussian Army Discussion on The Life and Times of Frederick the Great Podcast

Dear Readers,

I wanted to attach a link for a podcast, The Life and Times of Frederick the Great, where I was recently interviewed by the host, Alec Avdakov. Joining Alec was a lot of fun, and we had a wide ranging discussion on the Prussian Army in the era of the Silesian Wars. 

Podcast Link

If you enjoyed this podocast, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or following us on twitterConsider checking out our exclusive content on Patreon. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,


Friday, November 18, 2022

Remembering Dr. Christopher Duffy


Christopher Duffy at the 2003 Edinburgh International Book Festival
(Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert) 

On the morning of November 16th, Christopher Duffy passed away after a brief stay at Lewisham Hospital. A famed British historian, Christopher was 86, born in April of 1936.  As the editor of Christopher's Festschrift, I've been asked to share about him in a few places, so I will confine my thoughts here to Christopher the man. Obviously, Christopher was a great historian, writer, scholar and military scientist. I'll address those parts of his legacy in other settings. Here, let's focus on what made Christopher a great man. 

Dealing with death and loss is nothing new. Ecclesiastes reminds us there is nothing new under the sun. One of Christopher's favorite anecdotes about Frederick the Great was the story of the loss of his friend, Hans Karl von Winterfeldt. Winterfeld had been killed at the Battle of Moys on September 7th, 1757. Frederick, hearing a rumor of this, wrote a letter to Winterfeldt, saying, "Everything is going splendidly here, but I am very worried by a rumor which has come to me from Lusatia. I don't know what to make of it. They write to me from Dresden that you have been killed." (PC 9336).

And of course, Winterfeldt had been killed. This loss effected Frederick, and late in life, as he talked about the Battle of Moys with a young officer, he exclaimed, "'That was where Winterfeldt was killed! He was a good man, a soulful man, he was my friend.' [Frederick's] great eyes brimmed with tears as he looked towards the window. He open the casement, and stood there some time before he turned back... softening his voice: Good night, I am obliged to you."' (Ense, Lebens des Generals Hans Karl von Winterfeldt, 233) 

Frederick's comment on Winterfeldt: "he was a good man, a soulful man (ein Seelenmensch)" could equally be applied to Christopher. From 1995-2016, once a year Christopher traveled to South Bend, Indiana, in order to meet with the members of the Seven Years War Association, delivering an annual lecture on eighteenth-century warfare. It was in this context, in 2009 as a university student, that along with my father, uncle, and cousin, I met Christopher. 

Christopher delivering a lecture at the Seven Years War Association

Meeting your heroes is always a dicey proposition. I'd been reading Christopher's books since I was 14, and was nervous at the prospect of meeting (at least in my mind), such a famous figure. Christopher gave a wonderful lecture. Unlike so many in senior positions, or hobbyists sunk into the arcane discussions of their craft, Christopher was immediately friendly to my cousin Peter and I (the youngest people at this convention by ~15 years). He had the unenviable task of giving the jealously sought after association award that year. He chose to give it to Dean West, for, among other reasons, being particularly welcoming, "to the young people."

Over the next few years, my family and I continued to attend the convention, and I continued to speak with Christopher. Christopher always made time to sign his books, talk with me about painfully obscure questions related to eighteenth-century warfare, and give pithy advice on the nature of being a historian, such as: 

"There are many places worse than small universities, big ones for a start."

"Nothing is as sinister as department policy"

"Military institutions are like hotels: look for cracks in the plaster". 

"Choose a subject that will bring you to interesting people and interesting places."

You can hear some of that advice from an interview that I did with Christopher in 2020.

June, 2020 Interview Selection

 As I graduated college, and began graduate school, the nature of my relationship with Christopher became more professional. I performed research for him at the National Archives of the United States, he wrote a letter of recommendation which helped secure me a place to complete my doctorate. What didn't change, however, was his witty, fun-loving demeanor, always ready to crack a joke in order to set the room at ease. Most of his lectures began with a rousing, "Listen up, you scum!" a line I still use on my undergraduate students to their delight. 

Even as our relationship became more professional, you couldn't get away from the sense that he was a total ham. After celebrating his 80th birthday with the Seven Years War Association in 2016, Christopher could no longer travel to the United States: the costs, combined with his health, had simply become too great. As a result of European travel for my dissertation research, I had the opportunity to travel and see him (and perform research for him at the UK National Archives) for a number of summers between 2018-2020. He remained ever cheerful, and optimistic. Despite his advanced age, he remained focused on his work, always coming up with new ideas for projects to explore warfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 2022, he remained cheerful and determined, even as he knew the end was approaching. 

Christopher was a great man: and he knew it. He'd always relish that border control agents had read his books. That greatness, however, didn't make him proud, aloof, remote, or guarded. He was warm, kind, generous, and whimsical. He tells us in his 2019 introduction to The Wild Goose and the Eagle,  at the age of 10, "when I walked and cycled through the then mysterious and gnat-ridden marshes of upper Mersey, I liked to populate them in my imagination with Theresa's white coats and the blue coats of Old Fritz." Christopher never lost his boyish imagination and love of his chosen period of history. That is was made him so formidable. 

Being able to edit his festschrift was one of the great honors of my life. Please feel free to share your memories of Christopher in the comments below. 

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Were the Hessians really Mercenaries?


Dear Reader, 

There are many myths regarding the revolutionary war, but none seem as hard to eradicate as the idea that the "Hessians" were "mercenaries". Today's post isn't for the fully initiated: if you are familiar with the story of the German Subsidientruppen in the American War of Independence, there might be some new material for you. By and large, however, this post is aimed at those who are unfamiliar with the story of these German-speaking soldiers, and why they made the decision to travel to America. 

For those of you who don't know me, I'm an academic historian writing on transnational military culture in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century. I wrote my masters thesis on these troops, and then completed my doctoral work, in part, on the related (but not interchangeable) Prussian army. I've published several articles on these German-speaking armies, and am working on more (and a book.) Dr. Friederike Baer's forthcoming book (published later this month) is set to become the new standard text on these soldiers. You can pre-order it here.  

In my ten years of academic work, from the time I entered my MA program to my work as lecturer now, I have heard many wrong-headed ideas about these troops. Here are a few: These troops should be called Hessians. They were mercenaries. They were sold to America because their princes were greedy and wanted to build palaces and pay for their illegitimate children. They were drunk on Christmas, and so George Washington beat them. They committed many brutal war-crimes in America. Many of them deserted to stay in America, where life was better. 

All of these ideas are wrong. Or, if they have a grain of truth to them, that grain has been badly distorted. So, without further introduction, let's examine these myths in turn. 

Myth 1): These troops were Hessians. 

Although most came from the mid-sized state of Hessen-Kassel, troops from six different principalities (Hessen-Kassel, Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel,  Hessen-Hanau, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst.) If you include the larger, global war outside America, fought in places like Gibraltar and India, troops from the state of Hanover (Braunschweig-Lüneburg) also fought for the British outside of the Holy Roman Empire (the pre-German territorial entity.) So, while over 60% of these troops came from Hessen, they really hailed from all over the western and central Holy Roman Empire. As a result, it might be better to call them something other than Hessians. "Germanic" has been put forward, but that usually conjures up images of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What else might we call them? Read on. 

Myth 2): They were mercenaries. 

Imagine you are a soldier in the United States Army, serving in West Germany during the Cold War. You are stationed there because of longstanding agreements and alliances, which stretch back decades. The United States Government and the West German government have a financial understanding that helps maintain your presence in the region. Are you a mercenary? The situation was very similar for the German-speaking soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence, They had a longstanding relationship with Great Britain, stretching back decades. They had fought with alongside the British since the 1690s, both in continental Europe and in the British isles. As a result of the Hanoverian succession in 1714 (the British Royal family was drawn from Hanover) they had longstanding marriage connections with Great Britain. Horace Walpole, a British politician from the 1730s, referred to the Hessians as the Triarii of Great Britain. 

These soldiers did not personally or corporately take on contracts from the British. they were members of state militaries: their governments were paid a subsidy by the British in order to fight in their wars. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, received subsidies from the British during the Seven Years War. As a result, the modern German term for these troops is Subsidientruppen, or subsidy troops. Thus, it might be better to speak of the German-speaking subsidy troops, as opposed to calling them Hessians, or mercenaries. Historians have argued that it might be fitting to call their countries "mercenary states". This is different from saying they were mercenaries. 

Myth 3): They were sold to America because their princes were greedy and wanted to build palaces and pay for their illegitimate children. 

The princes of the Western Holy Roman Empire lived in an incredibly dangerous world during the eighteenth century. Their territories were small, rural, principalities, trapped between the military giants of France, Austria, and Prussia. As a result, from the 1670s, these princes attempted to use subsidy contracts to build themselves larger armies, in order to preserve their independence. These subsidy contracts were a standard feature of European politics, diplomacy, and conflict resolution. They allowed the princes to better protect their small domains. None of the princes who formed subsidy contracts with Britain during the American War of Independence were doing something radically new or greedy. Instead, they were following on decades of practice which had allowed them to maintain their own independence. The Hessian (Hessen-Kassel) Landgraf Friedrich II actually used the funds from the contract, in part, to promote economic development and the textile industry in his territories. Some of them had illegitimate children. Some had palaces. Portraying them as sex-crazed misers limits our understanding of the economic and security necessities which actually underpinned their subsidy policies. Following the long-standing practices of their governments, princes in the Western Holy Roman Empire entered subsidy agreements to maintain the costs of their states. 

Myth 4): They committed many brutal war-crimes in America. 

The subsidy troops had been used in messy civil conflicts before. Hessian troops were used against the Jacobites in 1745-6, where they remarkably refused to take part in the repression against the Scottish Jacobites. Their troops were remembered in Perthshire, Scotland, as "a gentle race," and their commanding Prince (Friedrich II) declared, "My Hessians and I have been called to fight the enemies of the British crown, but never will we consent to hang or torture in its name." (Duffy, Best of Enemies, p. 133). English officers in the Seven Years War, noted that their troops were reprimanded for plundering more than Hessian forces. (Atwood, The Hessians, p. 173). In North America during the War of Independence, the Hessians once again behaved better than their British counterparts. Although their was a surge of fear about Hessian brutality early in the war, after the first few years of the war, Americans believed that the Hessians treated them better than British soldiers. Aaron Burr wrote of Hessian atrocities: "Various have been the reports concerning the barbarities committed by the Hessians, most of them [are] incredible and false." (Matthew Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Vol 1. p. 107). Comparing the brutality of the Napoleonic Wars with the American War of Independence, a Hessian veteran who served in both wars commented: "Everything which the author has subsequently seen in this regard greatly exceeds what one should term cruelty in America, which in comparison with more recent times, can be regarded as nothing more than a harmless puppet show." (Adam Ludwig von Ochs, Betrachtungen Ueber die Kriegkunst, 60-61.) Hessian troops committed crimes in America, there is no doubt. What is clear is that these crimes were not excessive for an eighteenth-century conflict. 

Myth 5): Many of them deserted to America, where life was better. 

Many Americans claim Hessian ancestry. As a result, it is common to encounter the sentiment that these "mercenary" troops were simply waiting to switch sides. In reality, most of these troops returned to their homelands in the Holy Roman Empire. A very small number switched sides before the end of the war, a larger (but still small) percentage elected to remain in America after the war ended in 1783. Far from being an act of rebellion, the princes encouraged their subsidy troops to remain in America if they desire: this would cut costs, and make the process of slashing the military budget easier in peacetime. Most returned to celebrations, public parades, and being welcomed by loved ones. For more on exact data of desertions, as well as the subsidy-troops' return home, see Daniel Krebs' book,  A Generous and Merciful Enemy. The majority of these troops remained loyal to their princes, and returned home to their own native lands. 

Who Were the Hessians? 

The experience of 37,000 soldiers mainly drawn from six small counties is not all one thing. There are elements of truth to each of the myths about the Hessians, but their story is more complex than the myths that are told about them in English-speaking circles in North America. They were drawn from a fascinating world in Central Europe with its own customs, practices, and traditions. They entered the American story, and as a result, it is worth taking the time to understand and remember their path in it in a complex way. 

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or following us on twitterConsider checking out our exclusive content on Patreon. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns

Monday, January 31, 2022

Spain and American Independence: How Important Was Spain's Contribution?


Dear Readers,

Spain's role in the American War of Independence is currently one of the most active, loud and heated discussions in the online revolutionary war community. To a large degree, this is because the narrative regarding these claims has shifted drastically since 2002, when Thomas Chávez asserted that, "the role of Spain has not been genuinely recognized."[1] Paired with Chávez's own excellent book on the subject, which all students of the American Revolution should own, other books, such as Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia's biography of Bernardo de Gálvez, have corrected this flawed understanding. In 2014, Congress awarded Gálvez with Honorary U.S. Citzenship, an award which has only been granted to seven other individuals in United States History. If Gálvez is in an elite group with Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa in American memory, we cannot claim that he has been fully forgotten. 

Instead, in heated online salvos, the debate has transformed into another question altogether. Rather than asserting that the ungrateful gringos have forgotten Spanish assistance (which was broad, varied, and important), the debate has become whether or not Spain was the sole decisive military force in the American War of Independence, overshadowing Washington, France (obviously the Dutch) and anyone else audacious enough to come to the front of the line. Much like William Pitt's famous formulation of "winning America in Germany" during the French and Indian War, the debate now seems to rage on whether Spain achieved American Independence primarily by fighting in the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and Gibraltar. Likewise, the debate has transformed into whether or not Bernardo de Gálvez was supreme commander of French, Spanish, and American forces in North America.  Spain also seems to have been promoted to the senior Bourbon partner in the Franco-Spanish alliance of 1779 at the Treaty of Aranjuez. The evidence supporting each of these claims comes from overly generous interpretations of strongly-stated scholarly argument. As a historian specializing in eighteenth-century military history, I will attempt to give my views on this debate. 

Was Spain the Sole Decisive Military Force in the American War of Independence? 

No. The Spanish forces played a vital role after 1779. Although never supporting the Continental Army with combat troops in the thirteen colonies, Spain vitally aided American troops with supplies, money, and weapons. American, French, Spanish, and Dutch military forces conducted a global war, where they jointly defeated British forces. Like their French, Dutch, and American allies, the Spanish military had its share of successes and defeats in this wider conflict. 

Did Spain Win American Independence in the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and Gibraltar? 

There is no doubt that Spain's decision to enter the war further subdivided British military resources, which were already strained by French involvement. France joined the colonists in June of 1778, the Spanish, concerned over a number of issues, delayed their involvement until 1779. Spain focused their resources on the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and Gibraltar as a result of their lack of recognition of the rebellious colonists. As a powerful empire with global colonies, the Spanish government was more wary of a breakaway colonial movement than their French counterparts, whose colonial holdings had been largely taken in the Seven Years War. The addition of Spain's powerful fleet was vital, as was the widening of the war. The French, in the words of Saravia, were taken "hostage to Spain's war aims."[2] 

This hostage taking had the effect of drawing out the war beyond when it would have naturally ended in America. Although Britain was ready to make peace in North America after Yorktown, and France was ready to negotiate after the disastrous Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, the Spanish held out hope that Gibraltar would fall, until the failure of the great assault on September 13th, 1782. This confirmed for the Spanish that Gibraltar would not fall, and all sides then prepared for negotiation. [3] As a result, although the Spanish deserve credit for dividing British resources, American Independence was achieved regardless of the outcome of the siege of Gibraltar. Naval resources were more important, and Spain did prove effective in this regard. 

Was Gálvez Supreme Commander of Forces in North America?

As a result of negotiations, Gálvez was had directional authority over French and Spanish forces. In practice, he had limitations. Gálvez also possessed authority over the continuing wars with the Comanche and Tupac Amuru's rebellion in Peru, but exerted little authority over these theatres. Attempting to make Spain seem more relevant to the victory at Yorktown, Thomas Chávez asserts that Bernardo de Gálvez gave Admiral de Grasse permission to sail north assist the American-French ground forces at Yorktown. In reality, this was a joint decision made de Grasse and his Spanish counterpart, Saavedra de Sangronis, made the decision together, and de Grasse departed. The Spanish were hesitant to allow their own ships to accompany de Grasse to Yorktown, as they had not formally recognized American Independence. As a result, de Grasse sailed with only the French portions of the fleet.[4] Gálvez arrived later, and retroactively approved the decision.[5] 

This fallacy comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of authority in eighteenth-century armies. Commanders frequently reported to officers or even councils of officers far from their commands. However, in a world before instant communications, commanders were responsible for the troops under their direct care. This was even more true in allied command structures. In the European Seven Years War, commanders treated the needs of their allies in-theatre as secondary to their own decision-making and the goals of their government. Frederick II was able to convince a Russian allied commander to stay alongside him for a couple of days through extreme measures such as personal bribery.[6] Regardless of their rank and authority, the idea of a supreme allied commander was simply not binding in eighteenth-century allied military command structures. Gálvez was an important figure who skillfully managed hemispheric eighteenth-century wars. His authority had limitations imposed by the dictates of his culture and century. 

Final Thoughts: 

It is difficult to rank "credit" for the outcome of a conflict. Was the Chinese and Soviet aid to Vietnam more important than the lives of North Vietnamese soldiers in fighting the United States? These questions are subjective. In the end, Spain must be equated with France in terms of impact on the outcome of the war. Very few professional historians would disagree with this assessment. What is strange, or even idiotic, is to suggest that Spain fought and defeated Britain as the sole power in the war of 1779-1783. This should not be difficult to understand. America did not defeat Imperial or Nazi Germany without outside help, but its impact was vital to the success of an allied war effort. This is the same type of serious consideration Spain's efforts should receive in the wider war between 1775 and 1783. Spain fought a skillful war between 1779-1783, not free the United States (which they did not recognize as an independent  power until 1783) but to regain honor after 1762 and restore important territories to the Spanish crown. 

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or following us on twitterConsider checking out our exclusive content on Patreon. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns


[1] Thomas Chávez, Spain and the Independence of the United States, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002) 213.   

[2]Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia, Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018) 146. 

[3] David Allison and Larrie D. Ferrerio, The American Revolution: A World War, (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2018), 220;  Lawrence Kaplan, "The Treaty of Paris, 1783: A Historiographical Challenge" International History Review, Vol. 5 No. 3 (1983) 431-442. 

[4] Chávez, Spain and the Independence of the United States, 201.  

[5] Chávez, Spain and the Independence of the United States, 203. 

[6] Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life, (New York: Routledge, 1986), 236. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Frederick the Great and Washington: Truths, Myths, and Propaganda

Dear Readers,

Yesterday, a popular facebook page which commemorates the Revolutionary War in the United States shared an anecdote regarding George Washington and Frederick the Great. Quoting Frank Moore's 1860 publication, Diary of the American Revolution from Newspapers, volume 2, the post related how Frederick II of Prussia presented George Washington with a picture of himself, inscribed, "From the oldest General in Europe, to the greatest general on earth."[1] The anecdote continues at some length, with another Prussian general questioning Frederick's assessment, and Frederick giving a full explanation of why Washington was the greatest general on earth. The source of this anecdote is the August 9th, 1780 issue of the New Jersey Journal.  

The trouble is, this anecdote is not true. It never occurred. There are variations of it, sometimes a sword is the present, sometimes it is a portrait.  And the worrying part is, historians have known it wasn't true for over one hundred and twenty years. Paul Leland Haworth, writing an article entitled Frederick the Great and the American Revolution in the American Historical Review in 1904, noted: 

At one time a story was widely current, and it is still believed by many, to the effect that he [Frederick] entertained a great admiration for Washington, and that he even went so far as to send him a sword[.] This is one of those historical myths that have been eagerly accepted by a willing and credulous public, and it has been completed exploded.[] 

Haworth cites the work of writer Moncure D. Conway, who, writing in 1891, examines the stories of the sword and/or portrait in detail. Conway corresponded with surviving relatives to see if the portrait survived, and notes that other monarchs did send portraiture to Washington, and the records of those transactions (and the portraits themselves) survive to the present day. Conway also describes the way in which Washington carefully gave the provenance of items in his will, and no gifts from Frederick the Great are described in his will.[3] Likewise, Conway notes that Washington's will carefully preserved a sword from Theophilus Alte of Solingen, and passed the sword onto Washington's nephew, George Steptoe Washington. 

Conway concludes: "We may feel tolerably certain that no gift was ever sent by Frederick the Great to Washington, and that he never recognized in any remark the greatness of Washington."[4] Now, Washington as a figure was certainly known to Frederick. Indeed, in Frederick memoirs, he notes, "General Washington, who was called at London the chief of the rebels, gained, at the commencement of hostilities, some advantages over the royalists who were assembled near Boston."[5] So, while clearly noting the progress of the American War of Independence, Frederick did not sent Washington fan mail. 

If historians have known that this anecdote is false for over one hundred years, why does it get shared 150 times on facebook in the course of a day? This is because like many eighteenth-century anecdotes, true or false, the story of Frederick's portrait/sword is designed to communicate truths to the reader. These truths, that Washington was a inspirational leader who fought from a disadvantageous position, and that he had, "surmounted untold difficulties," were as accurate in 1780 as they remain today.[6] This does not obscure the fact that this newspaper report was a sort of propaganda: in 1780, Frederick II of Prussia was recognized as an authority on warfare. Having him write respectful letters of admiration to Washington would have been an immense public relations victory. As a result, the New Jersey Journal, together with the Providence Gazette, told a story that communicated truths about Washington's skills as a general. 

The May 20th story referenced in the Providence Gazette is relatively brief:  it simply provides the inscription. The August 9th New Jersey Journal provides more embellishment, and begins to raise questions in the mind of the reader. How would the author have been privy to the conversation of the King of Prussia and one of his generals regarding Washington's military qualities? These doubts, together with the lack of physical evidence, point to the fact that these stories are myths designed to impart truths, rather than factual occurrences. As a result, they are often more compelling than factual history. Thus, over a hundred years after Frederick's factual statement regarding Washington was disproved, the legend of Frederick's admiration for Washington continues unabated.  

You can read three more articles on these myths over on the Boston 1775 blog by J.L. Bell. 

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or following us on twitterConsider checking out our exclusive content on Patreon. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns

[1] Frank Moore, Diary of the American Revolution: From Newspapers..., Volume 2, (1860), 309-310.
[2] Paul Leland Haworth, "Frederick the Great and the American Revolution", American Historical Review, (1904) Vol. 9 No. 3, 460-478. 
[3] Ibid.  
[4] Moncure D. Conway, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 41 (1891) 945-948. 
[5] Ibid, 947.  
[6] Frederick, translated by Thomas Holcroft, Posthumous Works of Frederich II: King of Prussia, Volume 4 (1789), 175. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Column Assaults during the Seven Years War: Myth or Reality?


Dear Reader,

Today, I want to discuss the idea of columnar assaults during the Seven Years War. This is a somewhat controversial topic, as it is usually asserted that attacks by columns were not a feature of the Seven Years War period, but only appeared with the advent of Revolutionary/Napoleonic Warfare. There is no question: during this later period, troops used a greater variety of column formations at the battalion, regimental, and division level.  However, this post demonstrates that the Austrians did attack in columnar formations during the Seven Years War. These formations were not only "march formations" which took the unit to the battlefield, but used within musket range of the enemy troops. 

This post does not look at the most often cited example of a attack in column during the Seven Years War: the abortive French infantry attack at Rossbach. This is a clearly unintentional use of the column, born out of dire necessity. Likewise, I do not tap into the extensive theoretical debate regarding the use of columns from Folard on. Rather, in this post, I look at battles where the commanders made a conscious decision to engage enemy forces, whether in column or not.  At the battles of Moys, Hochkirch, Maxen, and Landeshut, the Austrians used a variety of successive linear and column formations in order to approach and attack the enemy positions.[1] At Adelsbach, the Prussians did the same. In each of these situations, circumstances and the terrain conspired to make attacking in a deep formation the most effective way of combating the enemy.  At Moys, Hochkirch, and Maxen, the Austrians attacked on a battalion frontage: what we might call battalion columns, or successive linear waves. At Landeshut, a single Austrian Grenadier battalion attacked in a column of companies. At Adelsbach, the terrain forced the Prussian troops to approach the enemy position in a column. 

At Moys in 1757, Christopher Duffy has clearly demonstrated that the Austrians employed a successive linear attack.[2] The Austrians arrayed their battalions in seven "columns" of three battalions each, separated by 100 yards. Within each "column" the battalions had 200 yard intervals between them. This allowed for flexibility, as the orders explained: "if a first-line battalion suffers heavy losses, or falls into disorder, we will file it off to the left or right, and replace it with the battalion behind."[3] This columnar, or successive linear assault would form a model for the Austrians during the war, as they attacked using columns with a battalion frontage again at Hochkirch and Maxen. 

At Hochkirch, the novel method of approach and attack meant that different officers had immediate tactical control of sectors of the battlefield, thus, some of the attacking "columns" formed into line of battle earlier, while others persisted in a columnar formation.[4] The Austrian veteran Cognazzio asserts that this was altogether too much to ask of the troops, and that his component division within his battalion was a mongrel force of collected men: "Grenadiers, Fusiliers, Hungarians, and Germans... [I] placed them together in rank and file, and brought the line into being."[5] Cognazzio asserts that in the heat of the fight, flexibility was the only thing that allowed for the creation of a "well-closed line."[6] So, at least in some instances, it seems that the columns of Hochkirch were intended to deliver men to the area of action, rather than a formation by which to actually conduct an attack. 

At Maxen in 1759, the situation is rather different. Here, the depth of the "battalion columns" of the Austrians was significantly increased to twelve battalions. Led to the attack by the grenadiers of the army, two Austrian battalion columns approached the enemy positions. The Austrian official report cites that they were greatly supported by an artillery bombardment, and seeing that: "Such a swift, sustained, and well-placed fire had caused great damage to the enemy lines, and that they were beginning to waver, the assault was allowed to go forward. It happened that the infantry were in battalion columns."[7] The same source continues, asserting that the battalion columns were not formed into a wider battle line until the Prussian position on the heights was broken.[8] 

Detail from, The Attack at Maxen, by Franz Paul Findenigg

Historians should use visual sources, even those painted closely after events, with extreme care when reconstructing battles. The Attack at Maxen, painted immediately after the battle by Franz Paul Findenigg, displays some features worthy of note. First: Findenigg correctly identifies the first two battalions approaching the Prussians as grenadiers (they have peaked caps, and carry no flags, while the other battalions all carry flags and wear cocked hats).  Findenigg also depicts the action of the battery disrupting the Prussians, as well as Austrian battalions in a "succcessive line" or "battalion column" formation, stacked several units deep. The individual battalions of the column seem much closer than the guidelines of the attack at Moys, perhaps supporting Christopher Duffy's assertion that "Austrian column[s] of assault" were formed in a dense closed-up formation.[9] We should not put too much weight on this visual evidence. Thus, while presenting the same issues as other visual sources, Findenigg's painting, at least, seems to support the idea that the Austrians made their initial breakthrough of the Prussian line using this formation. 

The attack on the Kirchberg at Landeshut, 1760 (circle added)
Detail from Jaeger's Plans von Zwey un Vierzig Haupt Schlachten

At Landeshut in 1760, we find something rather different. Here, two Grenadier battalions led the attack on Prussian fixed positions on the Mummelberg and Buchberg. The grenadier battalion of Major de Vins employed a column of companies for this assault. [10] Having taken these two positions and been returned to order, a larger force of infantry now combined into two "columns" and launched an, "assault of columns" against the Prussian position on the Kirchberg. As opposed to a column of companies, this attack, especially considering the way it is depicted on the map (three lines) was likely a successive linear wave attack as at Moys.[11] 

The Prussian approach at Adelsbach,
Raspe, Plan von der Affaire ... am 6. July 1762 bey Adelsbach,

The Prussian use of columns in the attack at Adelsbach on July 6th 1762 appears to have been largely unintentional. Attempting to get at the Austrian position, the Prussians had to march down a valley, through Ober Adelsbach, over the stream, and back up a valley to the heights where the Austrians were waiting for them. As a result, they were unable to properly form for the attack, and came on in some sort of marching column, likely of open platoons. The Prince de Ligne noted that the Prussians were marching to the attack, "dû défilér," indicating a formation narrower than a line.[12]  Upon reaching the height, however they attempted form a more traditional battle line. [13] This is was not, therefore, an intentional attack in a column, but one mandated by the terrain. 


In the Seven Years War, then you have a variety of columnar attacks. In order to assist with visualization, I have snapped some photos below. These attacks are made with a variety of successive linear or column formations. The first employed, and most clearly described is the attack a "column" of three battalions deployed in line, with significant intervals. 

The successive linear attack ,as at Moys 

Second, we have the assault in battalion columns, as happened at Maxen. Intervals are still present, though intentionally or unintentionally, they have been reduced. 

The column of battalions attack as at Maxen

Third, we have the single battalion attacking in a column of companies, as at Landeshut.  This attack was likely designed to take a fixed position. 

The column of companies attack as at Landeshut

Last, and honestly least, we have the bumbling and unintentional attack by marching columns, as occurred at Adelsbach. 

A Prussian column of march by platoons, opened. 

Thus, during the Seven Years War, the Austrian army did attack in a columnar formation. These attacks were less varied, less coordinated, and more ad-hoc than later Revolutionary and Napoleonic attacks in column.  Despite this, the evidence is clear: the Austrians did indeed innovate with alternative linear and columnar attacks during the Seven Years War, not just in theory, but actually on the battlefield. This may have been unintentional: a feature of the novel Austrian grand tactics of the time. Innovation is sometimes unintentional.  By the time the Seven Years War had ended, the Austrians had attacked in successive linear waves, columns of battalions, and a battalion column of companies. 

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Thanks for Reading, 

Alex Burns

[1] In using the language of a "successive linear" attack, I have followed the convention of Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, 151-152. 
[2] Duffy, Prussia's Glory, 97. 
[3] Quoted in Prussia's Glory, 97. 
[4] Duffy, By Force of Arms, 129-143.
[5] Jakob Cognazzio, Geständnisse eines Oesterreichischen Veterans, (1790) Volume 3, 47. 
[6] Ibid, 48. 
[7] J. G. Tielcke, Beytraege zur kriegs-kunst und Geschichte des Krieges, (1775) Volume 1, 30. 
[8] Ibid, 31. 
[9] Duffy, Instrument of War, 405. 
[10] Duffy, By Force of Arms, 233. 
[11] Johann Christian Jaeger, Plans von Zwey un Vierzig Haupt Schlachten, Treffen, und Belagerungen, (1790)  124-125. 
[12] Prince de Ligne, Melanges militaires, litteraires, et sentimentaires, (1796) Volume 16, 124.
[13]Gabriel Nicolaus Raspe, Plan von der Affaire ... am 6. July 1762 bey Adelsbach, legend entry E.