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. 

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

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