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

Return to the Index of Frederick the Great: Instructions to His Generals

Of the Hazards and unforeseen Accidents which happen in War.

This article would be of a melancholy length, if it was my intention to treat of all the accidents which might happen to a general in war. I shall cut the matter short by saying, that it is necessary a man should have both address and good fortune.

Generals are much more to be pitied than is generally imagined. All the world condemns them unheard. They are exposed in the gazette to the judgment of the meanest plebeian, whilst amongst many thousand readers there is not one perhaps who knows how to conduct the smallest detachment.

I shall not pretend to excuse those generals who have been in fault; I shall even give up my own campaign of 1744, but I must add, that though I have many times erred, I have made some good expeditions; for example, the siege of Prague, the defense and the retreat of Koelin, and again the retreat in Silesia. I shall not enter farther into these actions, but must observe, that there are accidents which neither the most mature reflection or keenest human foresight can possibly prevent.

As I write at present solely for my own generals, I shall not quote other examples than what have occurred to myself. When we were at Reichenbach, I intended to have reached the river Neiss by a forced march, and to have posted myself between the town of that name and the army of General de Neuperg, in order to cut off his communication. All the necessary dispositions were arranged for such operation, but a heavy fall of rain came on which made the roads so very bad, that our advanced guard with the pontoons were unable to proceed. During the march of the army also so thick a fog arose, that the troops who were posted as guards in the villages wandered about without being able to join their respective regiments. In short, every thing turned out so ill, that instead of arriving at four o’clock A.M. as I had intended, we did not get there till midnight. The advantages to be derived from a forced march, were then out of the question, the enemy had the start of us, and defeated our project.

If, during your operations, disease should break out amongst your troops, you will be obliged to act on the defensive, which was the case with us in Bohemia in the year 1741, on account of the badness of the provisions with which the troops were furnished.

At the battle of Hohen-Friedberg, I ordered one of my aids du camp (flugel-adjutants) to go to Margrave Charles, and tell him to place himself, as eldest general, at the head of my second line, because General Kalckstein had been detached to the command of the right wing against the Saxons: this aid du camp mistook the business entirely, and ordered the margrave to form the first line into the second. By great good fortune I discovered the mistake, and had time to remedy it.

Hence we see the necessity of being always on our guard, and of bearing in mind, that a commission badly executed may disconcert all our intentions.

If a general fall sick, or be killed, at the head of a detachment of any importance, many of your measures must consequently suffer a very material derangement. To act offensively, requires generals of sound understanding and genuine valor, the number of which is but very small: I have at the most but three or four such in my whole army.

If, in spite of every precaution, the enemy should succeed in depriving you of some convoy, your plans will again be disconcerted, and your project either suspended or entirely overset.

Should circumstances oblige the army to fall back, the troops will be very much discouraged.

I have never been so unhappy as to experience a situation of this sort with my whole army, but I remarked at the battle of Mollwitz, that it required a length of time to reanimate troops who had been disheartened. At that time my cavalry was so weakened, that they looked on themselves as merely led to the slaughter, which induced me to send out small detachments to give them spirits, and bring them forward to action. It is only since the battle of Hohen-Friedberg, that my cavalry are become what they ever ought to be, and what they are at present.

If the enemy should discover a spy of any consequence in their camp, the compass is lost which was to have directed you, and you are unable to learn any thing of the enemy’s movements but from your own eyes.

The negligence of officers who are detached to reconnoitre may render your situation very distressed and embarrassing. It was in this way that Marshal de Neuperg was surprised; the hussar officer who was sent forward on the look-out, had neglected his duty, and we were close upon him before he had the least suspicion of it. It was also owing to the carelessness of an officer of the regiment of Ziethen in making his patrole by night, that the enemy built his bridges at Selmitz, and surprised the baggage.

Hence will appear the truth of my assertion that the safety of a whole army should never be entrusted to the vigilance of an individual officer. No one man or subaltern officer should be charged with a commission of such material consequence. Treasure up, therefore, carefully in your mind what I have said on this subject under the article, “Of the Defence of Rivers.”

Too much confidence must not be reposed in patroles and reconnoitring parties, but in measures of more surety and solidity.

The greatest possible misfortune that can attend an army is treason. Prince Eugene was betrayed in the year 1733 by General St. . . . who had been corrupted by the French. I lost Cosel through the treachery of an officer of the garrison who deserted and conducted the enemy thither. Hence we are taught, that even in the height of our prosperity, it is not safe to trust to good fortune, or wise to be too much elevated with success; we should rather recollect, that the slender portion of genius and foresight which we may possess is at best but a game of hazard and unforeseen accidents, by which it pleases, I know not what destiny, to humble the pride of presumptuous man.

Frederick the Great Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile Frederick the Great on the Art of War Army of Frederick the Great
Purchase these books on Frederick the Great at
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

comment closed

Copyright © 2018 Liberty References. All rights reserved.