Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Dreimal blau und dreimal des Teufels"- Prussian Freikorps in the Seven Years' War

Freikorps von Schony by Knötel
Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to look at Prussian Freikorps during the Seven Years' War. (For more info on the Seven Years' War, click here!) The Prussians formed these units from unemployed laborers, enemy deserters, and other less than reputable sources. These troops were more like independent companies, who followed their regimental leader into battle, and received their pay from him. In a sense, they were the 18th century version of independent military contractors.
Frederick the Great described these troops as, "Dreimal blau, und dreimal des Tuefels," or, "triple blue, and three times the devil." He called them triple blue because of their blue coats, turnbacks, and waistcoats. Frederick believed these soldiers were "three times the devil," as these troops did not always perform to his standards. As such, he advocated using them as cannon fodder in the opening stages of a battle. However, with respect to Frederick, he never truly grasped the value of the Freikorps, and the possibilities which they represented.

The Freikorp and Frei-Infanterie units were often combined arms organizations, including regular infantry, rifle armed marksmen, and small units of cavalry. This type of organization made them ideal for raiding missions, which they often performed with distinction.

Prussian Infantry at Freiberg, by Menzel
Prussian Freikorps at Freiburg

While the Freikorps, and Frei-Infanterie regiments made up a large portion of the Prussian army, they rarely fought in large set piece battles during the Seven Years' War. Frederick preferred to use them to guard key points and baggage trains, and not employ them in the main battle line. Prince Henri, Frederick's brother, commanded a smaller army in Saxony, and towards the end of the war, fought a large battle at the town of Freiberg in Saxony. Here, the Freikorps formed a significant part of his army, and fought quite well. The large "Green-Kleist" Freikorp made up a significant part of Henri's vanguard. While the Freikorps were not used en-masse in many other battles, they distinguished themselves in a number of independent actions.

Prussian Freikorps elsewhere in the Seven Years' War

At the battle of Breslau on Nov. 22, 1757, the Frei-Infanterie battalion de Angelelli gave an excellent account of themselves, and showed the type of action Frei units were suited for. At Breslau, the Austrians attacked the Prussian army in force. The de-Angelelli battalion faced sixteen companies of Austrain grenadiers while defending the village of Kleinburg. They held out against this force for some time, and eventually, withdrew after setting fire to the village. They reformed in a ditch to the rear of the village, and continued to resist the Austrian grenadiers until support arrived. Frei units excelled at this type of improvised action.

At the small combat of Sorau in 1759, the Frei-Infanterie battalion Salemnon formed part of the Prussian vanguard, crossing the bridge near village. However, it quickly became apparent that a huge Austrian force was closing on Sorau, and the Prussian army needed to withdraw. Frei-Infanterie battalion Salemon formed the rearguard, holding of repeated cavalry attacks. When the last of the Prussian units managed to cross the bridge, a group of volunteers from this unit formed a square, holding of the enemy cavalry long enough for the Prussian army to retreat.

Blackwater "Private Military Contractors" 
Modern Lessons

In a day and age when the term "mercenary" conjures up negative emotions, various countries should consider the option of hiring independent military contractors, not unlike the Prussian Freikorps. While many critize these companies for making a profit on war, they provide willing and experienced soldiers for a price. If human history has taught us anything, it is this: conflict is here to stay. For countries who are stretched military, such as Prussia during the Seven Years' War, or Britain during the American War of Independence, hiring auxiliary forces provided a solution. Whether or not it is morally acceptable, these soldiers for hire continue to be employed in the present day.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

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