Saturday, 25 May 2013

Prussian Napoleonic Tactics by Hofschroer

Prussian Napoleonic Tactics 1792-1815 is a refreshing departure from most Osprey books in that it wants to make a point. Although Peter Hofschoer uses a chronological approach to make it, at least it provides a starting point for discussion. 

Hofschroer is out to disprove the historical narrative of a decrepit and outdated Prussian army getting humiliated by Napoleon and Davout at Jena and Auerstädt and that national heroes like Gneisenau and Stein revamped the army so that it could redeem Germany from 1813 to 1815. You can see how well that fits in with 19th and 20th century nationalist historiography.

In the opposite corner, Hofschroer posits that reforms had been ongoing all the time since Frederick’s late reign and that the post-Jena reforms were therefor not so revolutionary. Hofschroer shows that the regulations indeed kept pace with developments elsewhere, for example the introduction of light infantry: riflemen were added to regular infantry units in 1787 and specialist battallions of Fusiliers in 1793.

But Hofschroer goes further by also showing that the tools provided by the regulations were used on the battlefield, in particular on the Revolutionary Wars and the 1806-7 campaign. Although it is hard to tell how representative the examples are, they show what the Prussian army was capable of. This suggests wider application and that Prussian soldiers were tactically on par with the French rather than mindless automatons.

But if the tactical capabilities of the Prussian army were not the problem in 1806-7 this means that the full weight of the defeat lies at the hands of the commanders. So what exactly changed between the Revolutionary Wars and 1806-7 and then the German Wars of Liberation? Because there seems a considerable continuity in commanders over time. Brunswick and Rüchel commanded both in 1792-5 and 1806-7, and with credit in the first period. Yorck and Blücher were also exponents of the Frederician army and seem to have done a reasonable job after 1807.

Given the size and scope of the book the answers to these questions are not found here. Considering the point Hofschroer wishes to make, it is not surprising that the focus of the book is on the period up to 1807. The later reforms and campaigns get only a third of the pages.

Apart from the different angle and the extensive examples, what are the other strong point of the book? It contains ample illustrations and maps, which are useful although in some cases the narrative is so complex that it would have been more informative to have a sequence of smaller maps. It is also not common for Osprey writers to extensively use of sources in languages other than English. So, in conclusion, this is a very good Osprey.

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