The Prussian Army

Friedrich Engels

The work “The Armies of Europe” was created by Friedrich Engels at the request of Karl Marx who received an order from the American monthly periodical “Putnam’s Monthly” via “New-York Daily Tribune” managing editor Charles Anderson Dana. Karl Marx assisted Friedrich Engels in writing series of articles, collecting information on various European armies, particularly on that of Kingdoms of Spain and Naples, in the British Museum. “The Prussian Army” article was written by Friedrich Engels in September 1855 and was published the same month in the “Putnam’s Monthly”, No.XXXIII.

The Prussian army deserves special notice, on account of its peculiar organization. While, in every other army, the peace-footing is the groundwork of the entire establishment, and no cadres are provided for the new formations which a great war at once necessitates, in Prussia, we are told, everything, to the minutest detail, is prepared for the war-footing. Thus, the peace establishment simply forms a school, in which the population are instructed in arms and maneuvers. This system, including, as it professes to do, the whole able-bodied male population in the ranks of the army on the war-footing, would appear to render the country which adopts it safe from every attack; yet this is by no means the case. What is attained is, that the country is stronger by about 50 per cent. than under the French or Austrian system of recruiting; by which means it is possible for an agricultural state of some seventeen millions of inhabitants, on a small territory, without a fleet or direct maritime commerce, and with comparatively little manufacturing industry, to maintain, in some respects, the position of a great European power.

The Prussian army consists of two great divisions: of those soldiers who are still being trained – the line; and of those trained men who may be said to have been sent home on indefinite furlough – the Landwehr.

The service in the line lasts five years, from the twentieth to the twenty-fifth year of each man’s age; but three years of active service are thought sufficient; after which, the soldier is dismissed to his home, and placed for the remaining two years in what is called the war-reserve. During this time he continues to figure on the reserve-lists of his battalion or squadron, and is liable to be called in at any time.

After having been, for two years, in the war-reserve, he passes into the first levy of the Landwehr (erstes Aufgebot der Landwehr), where he remains up to his thirty-second year. During this period he is liable to be called in, every other year, for the exercises of this corps, which generally take place upon a pretty extensive scale, and in connection with those of the line. The maneuvers generally last a month, and very often from 50,000 to 60,000 troops are concentrated for this purpose. The Landwehr of the first levy are destined to act in the field along with the line. They form separate regiments, battalions, and squadrons, the same as the line, and carry the same regimental numbers. The artillery, however, remain attached to the respective regiments of the line.

From the thirty-second to the thirty-ninth year, inclusive, the soldier remains in the second levy (zweites Aufgebot) of the Landwehr, during which time he is no longer called upon for active duty, unless a war breaks out, in which case the second levy has to do garrison duty in the fortresses, thus leaving available the whole of the line and first levy for field operations. After the fortieth year, he is free from all liability to be called out, unless, indeed, that mysterious body called the Landsturm, or levy en masse, be required to arm itself. The Landsturm includes every man not comprised in the former categories, with all those too small or too weakly, or otherwise liberated from service, between the sixteenth and sixtieth year of age. But this Landsturm cannot even be said to exist on paper, for there is not any organization prepared for it, no arms or accoutrements provided; and if it should ever have to assemble, it would not be found fit for anything but police duty at home, and for a tremendous consumption of strong drink.

As in Prussia every citizen is, according to law, a soldier, from his twentieth to his fortieth year, a population of seventeen millions might be expected to furnish a total contingent of at least a million and a half of men. But, in reality, not one half of this number can be got together. The fact is, that the training of such a mass of men would presuppose, at three years’ service with the regiments, a peace establishment of at least 300,000 men, while Prussia merely maintains something like 130,000. Thus various devices are employed to liberate a number of men otherwise liable to serve: men fit enough for duty are declared too weak, the medical inspection either selecting the best candidates only, or allowing itself to be moved by bribes in the selection of those considered fit for duty, and so on. Formerly, the reduction of the time of actual service, for the infantry, to two years only, was the means of bringing down the peace establishment to some 100,000 or 110,000 men; but since the revolution (The revolution of 1848-49. – Ed.) the government, having found out how much an additional year of service will do in making the men obedient to their officers, and reliable in case of insurrection, the three years’ service has been generally introduced again.

The standing army, or the line, is composed of nine army-corps – one of guards and eight of the line. Their peculiar organization will be explained presently. They comprise, in all, thirty-six regiments of infantry (guards and line), of three battalions each (Not all regiments in the guards corps consisted of three battalions. – Ed.); eight regiments of reserve, of two battalions each; eight combined reserve battalions, and ten battalions of chasseurs (Jäger); in all, 144 battalions of infantry, or 150,000 men.

The cavalry is composed of ten cuirassier, five dragoon, ten lancer, and thirteen hussar regiments, of four squadrons, or 800 men each; in all, 30,000 men.

The artillery consists of nine regiments, each composed, when on the war-footing, of four six-pounder, three twelve-pounder, and one howitzer, foot batteries, and three batteries of horse artillery, with one reserve company to be turned into a twelfth battery; beside four garrison companies, and one company of workmen. But as the whole of the war reserve and Landwehr of the first levy (of the artillery) are required to man these guns, and to complete the companies, the line-artillery may be described as consisting of nine regiments, of about 2,500 men each, with about thirty guns in each regiment, fully horsed and equipped.

Thus, the grand total of the Prussian line would amount to about 200,000 men; but from 60,000 to 70,000 men may safely be deducted for the war reserves, dismissed to their homes after three years’ service.

The first levy of the Landwehr counts, for every regiment of the guards and line, one of Landwehr, except for the eight reserve regiments; beside, it has eight reserve battalions, forming a total of 116 battalions, and about 100,000 men. The cavalry has two regiments of guards, and thirty-two of the line, with eight reserve squadrons; in all, 136 squadrons, or about 20,000 men. The artillery is attached to the line regiments, as before stated.

The second levy also counts 116 battalions, 167 squadrons (comprising sundry reserve and dépôt squadrons, whose duties are assimilated to those of the second levy), and some garrison artillery; altogether, about 150,000 men.

With the nine battalions of sappers, several minor corps, about 30,000 pensioners, and an army train amounting, on the war-footing, to no less than 45,000 men, the whole of the Prussian force is stated to amount to 580,000 men; of which, 300,000 are for the field, 54,000 for the dépôts, 170,000 for the garrisons and as a reserve, with about 60,000 non-combatants. The number of field-guns attached to this army should be between 800 and 850, divided into batteries of eight guns (six cannon and two howitzers) each.

For all these troops, not only the complete organization of the cadres, but also the arms and equipments, are provided; so that, in case of a mobilization of the army, nothing has to be found but the horses; and as Prussia is rich in horses, and as animals as well as men are liable to instant requisition, no great difficulty is presented by this necessity. So says the regulation; but how the matter stands, in point of fact, was shown when, in 1850, the army was mobilized. The first levy of the Landwehr was equipped, though not without great difficulty; but the second levy found nothing provided, neither clothing, nor shoes, nor arms, and thus it offered the most ridiculous spectacle imaginable. Long before this occurred, competent judges, who had themselves served in the Prussian army, had predicted that such would be the case; and that, in point of fact, Prussia could, on an emergency, count upon nothing but the line and a portion of the first levy. Their opinion was fully borne out by the event. No doubt, the equipments for the second levy have since been provided; and this body, if called out now, would, in a month or six weeks, form a very respectable corps for garrison, and even field duty. But then, in time of war, three months’ drill is considered quite sufficient to prepare a recruit for the field; and thus, the cumbrous organization adopted by Prussia does not at all insure such enormous advantages as is generally believed. Beside, in a couple of years, the material reserved for the second levy will again have disappeared in the same way as that which had certainly once existed, but was not to be found when needed in 1850.

Prussia, when adopting the principle that each citizen was to be a soldier, stopped half-way, and falsified that principle, thereby falsifying all her military organization. Once the system of conscription abandoned for that of universal compulsory service, the standing army, as such, ought to have been abolished. Mere cadres of officers and non-commissioned officers should have been maintained, through whose hands the young men should have passed for instruction, and the period of instruction should not have lasted longer than was necessary for the purpose. If such had been the case, the time of service, during peace, must have been brought down to a year, for all the infantry, at least. But that would not suit either the government or the military martinets of the old school. The government wanted a disposable and reliable army, to be used, in case of need, against disturbances at home; the martinets wanted an army which, in precision of drill, in general appearance, and in solidity, could rival the remaining armies of Europe, composed of comparatively older soldiers. A body of young troops, serving no more than a single year, would not do for either purpose. Consequently, the middle course of three years’ service was adopted, and hence arise all the faults and weaknesses of the Prussian army.

As we have seen, at least one half of the available men are excluded from the army. They are at once inscribed on the rolls of the second levy, which body, swelled thereby nominally to enormous numbers, is completely swamped, in whatever efficiency it might possess, by a mass of men who never handled a musket, and are no better than raw recruits. This reduction of the actual military strength of the country by at least one half, is the first bad effect produced by the protracted time of service.

But the line itself, and the first levy of the Landwehr, suffer under this system. Of every regiment, one third has served less than three, one third less than two years, and the remaining third less than one year. Now it is not to he expected that an army composed like this can have those military qualities, that strict subordination, that steadiness in the ranks, that esprit de corps, which distinguish the old soldiers of the English, Austrian, Russian, and even the French armies. The English, who are competent judges in this matter, from the long period their soldiers serve, consider that it takes three years completely to break in a recruit. [See Sir W.Napier’s Peninsular War] Now, as, in time of peace, the Prussian army is composed of men none of whom have ever served three years, the natural consequence is that these military qualities of the old soldier, or at least the semblance of them, have to be drummed into the young Prussian recruit by an intolerable martinetism. The Prussian subaltern and sergeant, from the impossibility of the task imposed upon them, come to treat their subordinates with a roughness and brutality doubly repulsive from the spirit of pedantry with which it is coupled; and this pedantry is the more ridiculous because it is in complete contrast with the plain and sensible system of drill prescribed, and because it constantly appeals to the traditions of Frederick the Great, who had to drill a quite different set of men in a quite different system of tactics. Thus, real efficiency in the field is sacrificed to precision on the parade-ground, and the Prussian line, upon the whole, may be considered inferior to the old battalions and squadrons which, in the first onset, any of the great European powers can bring forward against it.

This is the case, in spite of advantages of which no other army is possessed. The Prussian, as well as the German in general, makes capital stuff for a soldier. A country, composed of extensive plains varied by large groups of mountains, furnishes material in abundance for every different arm. The general bodily aptitude for both light infantry and line infantry duty, possessed equally by the majority of the Germans, is scarcely equated by other nations. The country, possessing horses in plenty, furnishes numerous men for the cavalry, who, from their childhood, have been at home in the saddle. The deliberate steadiness of the Germans adapts them especially for the artillery service. They are, withal, among the most pugnacious people in the world, enjoying war for its own sake, and often enough going to look for it abroad, when they cannot have it at home. From the Landsknechte of the middle age to the present foreign legions of France and England, the Germans have always furnished the great mass of those mercenaries who fight for the sake of fighting. If the French excel them in agility and vivacity of onslaught, if the English are their superiors in toughness of resistance, the Germans certainly excel all other European nations in that general fitness for military duty which makes them good soldiers under all circumstances.

The Prussian officers form by far the best educated body of their class in the world. The general educational tests to which they are subjected are of a far higher standard than those of any other army. Brigade and divisional schools are maintained to complete their theoretical education; higher or more special military knowledge is provided for by numerous establishments. Prussian military literature holds a very high rank; the works it has furnished for the last twenty-five years sufficiently prove that their authors not only perfectly understood their own business, but could challenge, for general scientific information, the officers of any army. In fact, there is almost too much of a smattering of metaphysics in some of them, and this is explained by the fact that, in Berlin, Breslau, or Königsberg, you may see officers taking their seats amongst the students at the university lectures. Clausewitz is as much a standard author in his line, all over the world, as Jomini; and the works of the engineer Aster mark a new epoch in the science of fortification. Yet, the name of a “Prussian lieutenant” is a by-word all over Germany, and, indeed, the caricatured esprit de corps, pedantry and impertinent manners inculcated by the general tone of the army, fully justify the fact; while nowhere are there so many old, stiff-necked martinets among the field-officers and generals as in Prussia – most of them, however, relics of 1813 and ‘15. After all, it must be acknowledged that the absurd attempt to force the Prussian line into what it can never be made to be – an army of old soldiers – deteriorates the quality of the officer as much as it does that of the soldier, and even more.

The drill-regulations in the Prussian-army ([G.J.D. von Scharnhorst,] Kriegs-Artikel für das Preussische Heer. – Ed.) are, undoubtedly, much the best in the world. Simple, consistent, based upon a few common sense principles, they leave very little to be desired. They are owing to the genius of Scharnhorst, who was, perhaps, the greatest military organizer since Maurice of Nassau. The regulations for handling large bodies of troops are equally good. The scientific manuals, however, for the artillery service, which are officially recommended to the officers, are old-fashioned and by no means up to the requirements of the present time; but this blame is confined to works bearing a more or less official stamp, and does not at all bear upon Prussian artilleristic literature in general.

The engineering body enjoy, and deservedly, a very high character. From them proceeded Aster, the first military engineer since Montalembert. They have constructed a series of fortresses, from Königsberg and Posen to Cologne and Coblentz, which has obtained the admiration of Europe.

The equipment of the Prussian army, since the changes effected in 1843 and ‘44, is not very handsome, but very convenient for the soldiers. The helmet is a very efficient protection against sun and rain, the clothing is loose and comfortable, the adjustment of the accoutrements still better than that adopted in France. The guards and light battalions (one to each regiment) are armed with the rifled needle-gun; the remainder of the line are having their muskets transformed, by a very simple process, into good Minié rifles; as to the Landwehr, they, too, will, in two or three years, receive the Minié gun, but as yet they carry percussion muskets. The saber of the cavalry is too broad and crooked – most of the cuts fall flat. The material of the artillery, both in cannon, carriages, and harness, leave much to he desired.

On the whole, the Prussian army, that is, the line and first levy, forms a respectable body of men, but nothing like what Prussian patriotic authors boast. The line, once in the field, will very soon throw off the fetters of the parade-ground, and, after a few engagements, he equal to their opponents. The Landwehr of the first levy, as soon as the old soldier-like spirit has been re-awakened, and if the war be popular, will equal the best old troops in Europe. What Prussia has to fear, is an active enemy during the first period of a war, when troops of superior organization, and of older standing, are brought against her; but in a protracted struggle she will have a greater proportion of old soldiers in her armies than any other European state. In the beginning of a campaign, the line will form the nucleus of the army, but the first levy will very soon push it into the shade, by the greater bodily strength and the higher military qualities of its men. They are the real old soldiers of Prussia – not the beardless youths of the line. Of the second levy we do not speak; it has yet to show what it is.