Prussian Army in the Napoleonic Wars



War of the Fourth Coalition

After the embarrassing defeat it has faced against the French in the Revolutionary Wars, Kingdom of Prussia signed a peace treaty in 1795 and left the coalition. King Frederick William II died 1797 and he was succeeded by his son Frederick William III.  Coming into the 19th century, the Prussian state was almost broke and the military institutions, on which all the state’s treasures were spent, had proved extremely incompetent. While Prussia was trying to recover and reorganize, Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself the Emperor of France and started expanding his territory in mainland Europe. Prussia remained neutral as it was still nowhere strong enough to wage another war. Towards the end of 1805, Prussia signed the Treaty of Potsdam with Russia on 3 November and declared that it would join the coalition if Napoleon doesn’t commit to a peace deal. However, Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December dismantled the Third Coalition and nullified the treaty between Prussia and Russia. With no other choice, Prussia approached to Napoleon and signed a friendly treaty with him on 15 December. In this treaty, Prussia renounced south Germany but acquired Hanover.


In the following months, however, Prussian diplomacy changed drastically, as the French expansion on German soil sparked anti-Napoleon sentiments to rapidly grow. Even though Frederick III himself was a pacifist, his wife Queen Louise and other pro-war army generals managed to persuade him to turn against Napoleon. In the second half of 1806, Prussia made the decision to form a coalition against France. The only allies they could find were Saxony and Russia. Saxony was a neighbor of Prussia but it couldn’t provide many soldiers. Russia was still strong despite the defeats it had experienced, but it would take so long for Russians to mobilize and bring an army from all that distance. And Napoleon’s Grande Armee was already positioned at the heart of Germany and near Prussian border. Nevertheless, Prussia declared war at the French Empire and started the War of the Fourth Coalition.


On 9 and 10 October, the French army defeated the Prussian and Saxon armies at two different locations but the most decisive blow came on 14 October at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Actually, Jena and Auerstedt were different battles that took place at the same time on very close fields. In both battles, Prussia lost one-third of its soldiers. But the worst thing wasn’t the number of casualties, it was the total collapse of the Prussian army. After the defeat, the organization of the army and the communication between separate Prussian garrisons and generals completely collapsed. Many troops were cut off and forced to surrender. King Frederick William III and his wife Queen Louise fled from Berlin and went to eastern Prussia. Napoleon went on and entered Berlin with his army on 27 October. Remnants of the Prussian army left Brandenburg and moved to Königsberg to consolidate with the Russians.


In the subsequent months, Russian forces couldn’t manage to stop Napoleon and relieve the occupied Prussian territories. Napoleon’s forces occupied Prussia for almost a year until finally the three sides signed a peace treaty at Tilsit in 7 July 1807. According to the treaty; Prussia lost almost half of its territories, was forced to pay tremendous amounts of money and its army was limited to 42.000 men.




The disastrous defeats of the Fourth Coalition proved that the victorious and superior Prussian army of Frederick the Great was no longer present. And since the army consisted the very core of the Prussian state, an urgent need for a large scale reform was suddenly required. The reformation of the state and the society was mainly carried out by Baron vom Stein and Karl August von Hardenberg whereas the military reforms came out from Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Hermann von Boyen. Famous Carl von Clausewitz was also one of the prominent reformers. One of the most important part of the social reforms was the abolition of serfdom in 1807. Restrictions on the lower classes were lifted in order to create a more patriotic and united Prussian nation and society. As for the military reforms, a War Ministry was created in 1809 and Prussian War Academy was founded in 1810. In order to not be overwhelmed with the army restriction from the Treaty of Tilsit, a new recruitment policy was created. Instead of long-term military service for recruits, reserves would be replaced with new recruits regularly and this way more and more men would be fit and trained for duty at the time of war. Some outdated and traditional punishments were abolished within the army to reduce the number of deserters. The army reform greatly slowed down after Scharnhorst’s death in 1813 yet they still showed their effectiveness in the future.



War of the Sixth Coalition

Towards the end of 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armee were miserably fleeing the Russian soil after an unsuccessful invasion attempt. At that time, Prussia was still bound to the peace treaty signed with Napoleon years before. However, the Prussian King, Generals and statesmen saw Napoleon’s defeat as a great opportunity to strike. The people were now much more pro-war compared to the conditions of 1806. Prussia immediately signed the Convention of Tauroggen with Russia and ended its participation in the invasion. The news of the Grande Armee’s shattering caused the Prussians to mobilize pretty quickly with great thirst for a liberation war. On 17 March 1813, King Frederick William III issued a proclamation called “An Mein Volk”, in which he encouraged his people to fight against Napoleon’s tyranny. By time, the coalition began to expand as Great Britain and Austria take up arms against France as well.


Despite French Army’s exhaustion and the enthusiasm for war on Prussia’s side, the wars to throw the French out of German soil were by no means easy to wage.  Napoleon often managed to stop all three armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria at the same time. But still, the numbers were too big for the French to deal with so they were eventually pushed back. The biggest blow to Napoleon came at the Battle of Leipzig. He lost half of his army in a disaster and lost control of all his territories on the east of the Rhine. The coalition armies reached Paris in March 1814 and captured the city before the end of the month. Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne and was exiled to Elba.



War of the Seventh Coalition

After nine months in exile, Napoleon managed to escape the island and reached the coast of France on 1 March. He quickly gathered enough support and marched to Paris. He rose to power again without any internal opposition. This caused all the coalition members (Great Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria) to declare him an outlaw and declare war against him. Napoleon hastily mobilized his armies and marched them to Brussels where he hoped to confront the British Army under Wellington’s command. There was another coalition army near Brussels, Blücher’s Prussian Army. On 16 June 1815, Napoleon defeated Blücher’s forces at the Battle of Ligny but he couldn’t dismantle his enemy. He separated a third of his army and ordered them to prevent the Prussians from rejoining with the British. He then went on to Waterloo to face with Wellington’s forces. The two armies confronted on 18 June 1815. Napoleon’s last invasion attempt was stopped by Wellington’s decisiveness in holding his ground and Blücher’s timely flank attack. Napoleon’s Grande Armee was decisively crushed. Napoleon abdicated the throne for the last time on 22 June and this time was exiled to an island at the middle of the ocean, Saint Helena.


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