This paper's main argument is that discipline has been a relatively constant aspect of warfare since 1600. It will also explain why discipline has survived four centuries of change. After the introduction, this paper is organized into two main sections. The first section, reviews discipline's role in the military accomplishments of a major player in the development of modern warfare, Frederick the Great. The second section reviews the role of discipline in the successes of Napoleon's armies in the early 19th century. A final concluding section reviews the evidence presented and includes some final remarks. Also, it should be pointed out that by discipline is meant a system of instructions meant to instill in an individual the ability to efficiently and competently perform a set of tasks. The more pejorative connotation, when used as a form of punishment to coerce a type of behavior, is not the intended the usage.
Warfare has seen significant evolution over the last 500 years due to rapid technological change and an increasing professionalization of the military. Warfare in the late 18th century was described as a prolonged parade in the words of Weigley. They were battles in the form of tournaments with drums beating as opposing armies met each other on the battlefield. It's notable that the 18th century battlefield was actually more dangerous than today's war fields. While today we have more devastating weapons of mass destruction than ever, the 18th century battlefield was focused around close quartered combat with short range weapons. When the fighting began, casualties were significantly higher. It is into this combat of the 18th and 19th centuries, transitioning from late medieval combat to early modern, that the forward looking leaders of armies sought a decisive edge over their enemies. It is the argument of this paper that that edge was discipline.
Frederick the Great (1740-1786) was king of Prussia, of the Hohenzollern dynasty, and is described as the foremost solider of his time. During the time of his ascension Prussia was comprised of various disparate territories both within and outside the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick II inherited an army of 80,000 soldiers from his father Frederick William II. His objective upon becoming king was to unite these disconnected and vulnerable lands into one contiguous and secure empire. This began to be accomplished in a series of wars including the three Silesian Wars, also known as the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), fought with Austria and the Seven Years war (1756-63). As a result of the Silesian wars Prussia acquired a resource rich and productive region of Austria which was to be contested between the two powers for much of the 19th century.
The Seven Years war is notable as being the last major war prior to the French Revolution which involved all of Europe's great military powers. On one side were allied France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden and Russia. On the other side were allied Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain. During this war Prussia was able to hold off armies that attacked from several fronts and despite some setbacks ultimately prevailed. Frederick defeated an army of French and German troops at Rossbach in Thuringia in 1757 despite being outnumbered two to one. The human losses were 7000 for the enemy (with untold collateral damage) army as compared with 550 for his own. A similar result followed a month later against the Austrians.
The success of Frederick the Great's army rested mainly on superior training of which discipline was a major component. It should be noted that Frederick also inherited some of this training and other tactical details from his predecessor. Still he used them to great effect and added others which gave him an edge over enemies who were similarly equipped but lacked the same training or discipline. More specifically, the Prussian army used a drill system, uniform throughout the army, but which was unheard of in most European armies prior to 1740. The system was practiced continuously. It focused on marching in step even under intense combat situations. The objective was to maintain (and present) a coherent line of attack when advancing on enemy lines. This technique was not unheard of in European armies of the period it was just not adhered to in intense situations. This began to be changed under Frederick the Great, although not always with the consistency he sought to achieve.
Also loading and firing was practiced intensively until the goal of firing off five rounds per minute was reached. In most contemporary armies this was a goal only elite units were capable of achieving. But it was commonly used by Prussian infantry. Also a shift in technology made reloading more efficient. The Prussian army dropped the wooden ramrods in favor of more durable iron ones because the wooden ones fractured often during reloading. Finally, Prussian march formations were changed so that the files forming march columns could quickly switch to battle lines. This sped up the task of deployment which could be cumbersome and give another extra edge in closely pitched battles.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1804-1815), the French military and political leader, emerged during the French Revolution to become the first French king to assume to title of emperor. Napoleon staged a coup in 1799 which overthrew the First French Republic, finally recognized Jews as citizens, and set himself up as First Consul. Under this title Napoleon assumed the role of a hereditary dictator and reestablished the rule of autocracy in France. Under his rule France undertook a number of military campaigns, called the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which ultimately involved every major power in Europe. These wars established France as the preeminent power on the continent. As was the case with Frederick the Great, these wars were made possible by a brilliant and visionary tactician at the top and machine-like discipline throughout the military ranks.
Napoleon's tactics could be complex and in order to be executed with the right precision it required the support of disciplined well rehearsed troops. Chandler describes the grand tactics of Napoleon as consisting of three different types of battle tactics. The types are the simple frontal attack, the double attack, and the enveloping attack. The last was used most commonly by Napoleonic forces and required a high degree of coordination and discipline to execute.
The best means to convey the sense of coordination and discipline in actual combat situations is to review the battle at Austerlitz. This battle is also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors because it brought Napoleon, the French emperor, against the Russian emperor Czar Alexander I and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. This battle was the scene of one of Napoleon's greatest military accomplishments. In the account given by Anders the Russo-Austrian alliance was undisciplined and rife with dissension. A plan of attack was formulated by one of the principles but only provided to the military leadership of each army an hour after their own attack started. This is in contrast to the French side where Napoleon had each battalion commander fully appraised of the attack plan the day before the attack was to take place. Napoleon's tactics also emphasized patience in waiting for the best possible time to strike and keeping the enemy guessing as to what their strategy would be.
Anders describes the rout of the Russo-Austrian forces at a decisive plateau location at Pratzen as one of confusion for the allied forces. This confusion turned into full scale panic as the allied forces retreated. When it was done the allied forces suffered 30,000 casualties (actually including 12,000 soldiers taken as war prisoners) compared with 10,000 casualties on the French side. The take away from Austerlitz is in the words of Anders: "victory...went to superior intellect, efficient command principles, and effective teamwork."
In sum, Frederick the Great and Napoleon both demonstrated the value of tactical and strategic planning and discipline in taking on and defeating often superior numbers. The enemies each ruler faced were uniformly less competent and prepared and so it didn't matter how many soldiers they could command on the battlefield. They would always be defeated by a smaller, yet better prepared and disciplined military force. The larger military achievements of both rulers also set examples that later armies would follow to build their own successful militaries. They would shape the course of modern warfare for centuries to follow because the tactics and discipline they deployed were so effective.
Anders, Leslie. Austerlitz: A Clash of Command Systems. Military Review, XXXVIII (June 1958): pp. 50-57.
Chandler, David. G. The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History's Greatest Soldier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Weigley, Russell F. The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.