Why not copy the Prussians?

Under Frederick the Great, the Prussians, who suffered the same three major issues as the French, reformed and restructured their army with considerable success. Yet, despite the Prussians’ rigid and reliable system which had bested the French on several occasions, French thinkers were adamantly opposed to the adoption of Prussian-style tactics. This was the case for a number of reasons. First, philosophes were hesitant to adopt a system which did not allow for individual agency and élan. Led by Saxe, whose Reveries sur l’art de guerre stressed the importance of individuality and morale, military philosophes abhorred the rigid discipline and robotic nature of the Prussian system.[1] Second, French thinkers concluded that the French character was fundamentally different than that of the Germans in that the French were better suited to attack than defence.[2] It was almost unanimously agreed that whatever battlefield system was adopted, it should cater to this uniquely French élan. “True valour,” Folard proclaimed, “consists not in combats which are made at a distance; but in shock and sudden attacks. That is the only road which brings us to victory.” [3] Better the troops advance with only their steel, it was agreed, than attempt to maintain a defensive line. It was generally agreed that the Prussians had perfected their own system anyway, meaning that even if the French did invest time, labour, and money to imitate it, they could at best be comparable to, never better than, the Prussians.[4] Moreover, musket-fire proved to be horribly inaccurate and largely unproductive at the best of times, even under the Prussian and British armies.[5] It seemed futile, therefore, to invest in so inefficient a system. Saxe even predicted that muskets would soon be obsolete: “If the previous war had lasted a little longer, indubitably everyone would have fought hand to hand. This was because the abuse of firing began to be appreciated; it causes more noise than harms, and those who depend on it are always beaten.” [6]   French thinkers thus began to look for and design a different system; a system which they felt would out-fight the British and Prussian armies time and time again.

[1] Saxe’s Reveries were published posthumously in 1757. Azar Gat, The Origins of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (Toronto: Clarendon Press, 1989), 38. This feeling permeates French military during the eighteenth century, and appears even as late as the Napoleonic wars in an account from Jean Barrès: “I observe and understand that these troops are drilled in the Prussian manner, but I will soon put a stop to that.” Jean-Baptiste Barrès, Memoirs of a Napoleonic Officer, ed. Maurice Barrès, trans. Bernard Miall (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1925), 52.
[2] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 100; Gat, Origins, 38.
[3] Folard, quoted in Robert Sherman Quimby, The Background of Napoleonic Warfare: The Theory of Military Tactics in Eighteenth-century France (New York: AMS Press, 1968), 33.
[4] In general, both the British and Prussians relied on line tactics, which emphasized firepower and uniformity. This often involved lines of soldiers two or three deep, firing in unison on command. Gat, Origins, 38; Major Thomas R Phillips, Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1943), 166.
[5] In fact, as few as 0.1-.05 percent of shots actually hit their intended targets, justifying the French move away from muskets. Baron Lejeune even went so far as to state that the arrows of the Niemen people “would pierce an apple at a distance of a hundred yards more often than our pistol shots could hit a button at twenty-five.” Louis-François Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, Aide-de-camp to Marshals Berthier, Davout, and Oudinot, ed. and trans. Mrs Arthur Bell (New York: Logmans, Green, and Co., 1897), 71.  
[6] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 110.

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