Frederick the Great: Instructions to His Generals: Article Twenty-Three

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Of the Reasons which should induce us to give Battle, and in what Manner it is to be conducted.

Battles determine the fate of nations. It is necessary that actions should be decisive, either to free ourselves from the inconveniencies of a state of warfare, to place our enemy in that unpleasant situation, or to settle a quarrel which otherwise perhaps would never be finished. A man that is wise will make no sort of movement without good reason; and a general of an army should never be engaged without some design of consequence. If he be forced into an engagement by his adversary, his former errors must have reduced him to that situation, and given his enemy the power of dictating the law to him.

On the present occasion it will be seen, that I am not writing my own panegyric: for out of five battles which my troops have given to the enemy, three of them only were premeditated, and I was forced by the enemy into the other two. At the affair of Mollwitz the Austrians had posted themselves between my army and Wohlau, where I kept my provisions and artillery. At that of the Sohr, the enemy had cut me off from the road to Trautenau, so that I was obliged to fight, or run the risk of losing my whole army. But how great is the difference between forced and premeditated battles! How brilliant was our success at Hohen-Friedberg, at Kesseldorf, and also at Czaslau, which last engagement was the means of procuring us peace!

Though I am here laying down rules for battles, I do not pretend to deny that I have often erred through inadvertence; my officers, however, are expected to profit by my mistakes, and they may be assured, that I shall apply myself with all diligence to correct them.

It sometimes happens that both the armies wish to engage, and then the business is very soon settled.

Those battles are the best into which we force the enemy, for it is an established maxim, to oblige him to do that for which he has no sort of inclination, and as your interest and his are so diametrically opposite, it cannot be supposed that you are both wishing for the same event.

Many are the reasons that may induce us to give battle, such as, a desire to oblige the enemy to raise the siege of any place that may prove of convenience to yourself, to drive him out of a province which he possess, penetrate his country, enable yourself to lay a siege, correct him for his stubbornness if he refuse to make peace, or make him suffer for some error that he has committed.

You will also oblige the enemy to come to action when, by a forced march, you fall upon his rear and cut off his communications, or by threatening a town which it is his interest to preserve.

But in this sort of manoeuvre great care is to be taken that you do not get into the same embarrassed situation, or take up a position which enables the enemy to cut you off from your magazines.

The affairs which are undertaken against rear guards are attended with the least danger.

If you entertain a design of this nature, you are to encamp near the enemy, and when he wishes to retire and pass the defiles in your presence, make an attack upon his rear. Much advantage is often gained by engagements of this kind.

It is also a custom to teaze and tire the enemy, in order to prevent different bodies from forming a junction. The object in view sufficiently warrants such attempt, but a skilful enemy will have the address to get out of your way by a forced march, or escape the accident by taking up an advantageous position.

Sometimes when you have no inclination to fight, we are induced to it by the misconduct of the enemy, who should always be punished for his faults, if we can profit by so doing.

It must be urged, in addition to all these maxims, that our wars should ever be of short duration, and conducted with spirit, for it must always be against our interest to be engaged in a tedious affair. A long war must tend insensibly to relax our admirable discipline, depopulate our country, and exhaust it’s resources.

For this reason, generals commanding Prussian armies should endeavor, notwithstanding their success, to terminate every business prudently and quickly. They must not argue, as the Marshal de Luxembourg did in the Flanders wars, who when he was told by his son, “Father, it appears to me, that we could still take another town,” replied, “Hold your tongue, you little fool! Would you have us go home to plant cabbages?” In a word, on the subject of battles, we ought to be guided by the maxim of Sannerib of the Hebrews, “that it is better one man perish than a whole people.”

With regard to punishing an enemy for his fault, we should consult the relation of the battle of Senef, where the Prince of Conde brought on an affair of the rear guard against the Prince of Orange or the Prince of Waldeck, who had neglected to occupy the head of a defile, in order to facilitate his retreat.

The accounts of the battle of ….., gained by the Marshal de Luxembourg, and that of Raucoux, will also furnish you with other examples.

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