The legendary, victorious campaigns of the Great Elector, Frederick William I.

Wordsworth famously wrote: “The child is father of the man.” Things happen to us, in other words, in childhood or even infancy that can affect us for the rest of our lives. The things we do and the choices we make as mature adults are often conditioned responses to events that occurred long ago but continue to stay with us, like a dream or trauma. As a general rule, then, if you want to know someone, find out about his origins.

So it is with the German army. One of the 20th century’s great troublemakers, the engine of two world wars, it continues to fascinate us today. Questions about its doctrine, its armaments, and its battle-fighting methods still excite debate. Its allure doesn’t seem to be in danger of ending anytime soon, and quite rightly: If there is one global institution of the 20th century we should understand more deeply, it is the German army.

With that in mind, let us return to an earlier but not necessarily simpler time, the 17th century. Germany did not yet exist as a unified country and neither did the kingdom of Prussia. Rather, we find its ancestor, the apparently insignificant Margraviate of Brandenburg. Compared to the already established great powers—France to the west, the Habsburg Empire (Austria) to the south, Sweden to the north, and Poland to the east—Brandenburg was small potatoes. But three key events in its military history were about to change that and launch it onto the world stage.

The Elector and the Battle of Warsaw

A time traveler visiting Brandenburg would probably be underwhelmed by its prospects for global power. It was a small realm under a minor ruler—Frederick William I of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Its soil was sandy, its inhabitants poor, and it lay out in the sticks, as it were, on the edge of European civilization; indeed, some of it was called the “Mark” (as in marchlands, or frontier). The territory under Frederick William’s control sprawled haphazardly across northern Europe from the Rhine River to the Neman. Besides his heartland province of Brandenburg, he ruled the tiny district of Cleves to the west and the Duchy of Prussia to the east. It is true that he was an “elector,” one of the seven princes who cast a vote in choosing the Holy Roman Emperor (even though he himself was a devoted Calvinist), but that meant little in the long decades between elections.

Like most monarchs of his day, Frederick William worked to create a standing army, but he lacked the wealth to create a big one. By 1643 his force numbered barely 5,000 men at a time when the greater powers were already fielding tens of thousands.

The Elector’s military career began in the so-called First Northern War (1655–1660). Early in the war King Charles X Gustav of Sweden approached him about a joint invasion of Poland. The Elector would have preferred to remain neutral in a Swedish-Polish War, but he knew he had little choice but to agree. Sweden today is a small nation with a long tradition of neutrality in foreign wars. Sweden then was a great and fearsome military power with a reputation for aggressive generalship and unparalleled ferocity on the battlefield. Charles’s suggestion to Frederick William in 1656 for joint action was nothing but a thinly disguised demand.

Their allied forces moved on Poland in July, drove into the heart of the country, and in late July fought a vicious three-day battle in front of the capital, Warsaw. The allies came down from the north in three columns, marching along the west bank of the Vistula River, with Swedish cavalry on the right, a combined infantry force in the center, and Frederick William’s cavalry on the left, some 18,000 men in all. The Polish force under King John II Casimir was much larger, consisting of 35,000 light cavalry—Poland’s traditional striking arm—but with only a small component of infantry.

Day one of the fight saw the cavalry on both sides making contact and feeling each other out, with more skirmishing and reconnaissance than heavy fighting. As Frederick William and Charles arrived on the field that evening, however, they could already spot trouble. The space between the unfordable Vistula and the primeval Białołęka forest to the northeast was too narrow to deploy a firing line, the main requirement for battle in the era. Already, the Poles had thrown up heavy earthworks and entrenchments, standing squarely athwart the Swedish-Brandenburger line of advance. While the Poles were a light force and poorly configured for a pitched battle, the bottleneck was a position that even light forces might hold for a long time.

Centuries later, it is still unclear who came up with the solution. After the battle, both Frederick William and Charles claimed credit. Whoever was right, day two saw the allies launch a great flank march to their left, passing around the bottleneck to strike a blow against the weakly defended Polish flank and rear. It was a low-odds venture, to be sure. The enemy was more mobile and had the advantage of numbers, the flanking forces would be passing within two miles of the enemy camp, and much of the march route had to pass through the dense Białołęka itself. The maneuver also required a complex redeployment for the allies, with the Swedish cavalry on the right of their battle array countermarching onto the left. But it had one advantage: surprise.

That morning Frederick William conducted a personal reconnaissance of the front, something unusual for a crowned head in that day and age. He took note of a hill, which he marked on maps as the Colline. Overlooking the forest, it offered a good view of the allied march route. Before the flanking maneuver could begin, therefore, he ordered a mixed force of infantry and dragoons from his advance guard to storm it. They did so, smartly, and then unlimbered their 4-pounder guns on the height. And just in time: The Poles responded with a series of vigorous counterattacks against the Colline, and the guns offered crucial support to the Brandenburg infantry holding the hill.

With the Colline now firmly in hand, Charles began the flank march. The Swedes drove through the forest, but Polish cavalry dogged them the whole way, and there were some anxious moments en route. Nevertheless, the allied force managed to complete the maneuver and wheel sharply to the right. By 4 p.m. they were facing southwest, toward the Vistula.

By now the Poles recognized the danger they were in. They answered with a hasty redeployment out of the bottleneck, rushing regiments to the south and launching a series of dangerous but uncoordinated blows against the entire face of the allied position. Both Charles and Frederick William faced heavy fighting that evening. The high point of the Polish effort was a bold charge by the Hussars of Prince Aleksandr Połubinski, 800 of the finest horsemen in Europe driving hard against the Swedish left—the open and unsecured end of the allied line. Slashing through a first then second line of Swedish horse, they might have broken through altogether if it were not for the support of a few companies of Brandenburger infantry who had accompanied the Swedes on their flank march. Still, the fighting here was desperate, and there were reports of Charles actually engaging in hand-to-hand combat to halt the charge.

While day two had been a day of survival for the allies, day three saw them launch their final assault. Tis time the Brandenburgers, not the Swedes, led the way. Once again Frederick William, on an early morning reconnaissance, discovered a long sandy knoll to his front, a terrain feature that the Poles had fortified in the night. On the fly, he came up with a coordinated plan for the assault. One task force of infantry and guns under Field Marshal Otto Christof von Sparr would hit the Poles frontally. Sparr would lead off with an hourlong bombardment, an unusual thing in that era, and then launch a follow-on charge of pikemen to smash through the Polish defenders. Once the Poles had been fixed in the center, Frederick William would personally lead the cavalry on Sparr’s right, driving into the rear of the Polish position.

The combined arms assault—featuring artillery, infantry, and cavalry—worked just as the Elector had drawn it up. Hit in front and rear, the Poles came apart. They had fought bravely for three days against heavier forces, their losses had been grievous, and now they had had enough. Some fed across the main bridge over the Vistula, others simply vanished north and south. It was not a panicky fight so much as an all-points-of-the-compass skedaddle, the traditional prerogative of the light cavalry army.

The next day elector and king entered the Polish capital—not the last time that a German commander would lead a victory parade through the streets of conquered Warsaw. While the allies’ losses had been considerable, over 700 men, their victory had been total.

The Elector Comes Into His Own

The Battle of Warsaw took place far from the centers of power in Western Europe, and it is fair to say that it barely registered on the international stage. Not so the Elector’s next great battle. It would be one of the most famous in German history, celebrated as the “birthday” of the Prussian army.

The year preceding that battle, 1674, Frederick William was involved in one of the seemingly interminable coalition wars against Louis XIV of France, fighting alongside various other minor German states and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. While the allies were carrying out a desultory campaign of maneuver in Alsace, however, the king of Sweden (now Charles XI) saw a golden opportunity. In December 1674 the Swedes invaded Brandenburg with an army of 20,000 men. They plundered and looted the province then went into winter quarters. With most of the army abroad, the defense of Brandenburg was in the hands of John George II, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, but his forces were far too few to resist the Swedish advance.

For the Elector, this was the ultimate nightmare. While he had been dithering far from home as a useless cog in an unwieldy coalition, an enemy force had seized his heartland. After canvassing his allies for help (and receiving nothing more than long looks and expressions of sympathy), he knew he had to go it alone. Once weather permitted, he struck camp and set out to save his homeland, his people, and, not least, his job.

In some ways, his whole life had pointed toward this moment. He was related by marriage to Sweden’s greatest warrior-king of the day, Gustavus II Adolphus, and after the king’s death in battle at Lützen, 12-year-old Frederick William accompanied the casket as it was loaded onto the ship at the port of Wohlgast on the Black Sea for transport back to Sweden. The Hohenzollerns had converted to Calvinism before Frederick William’s birth, and the young man spent much of his youth in the Calvinist Netherlands, studying at Leyden in 1634. Here he became acquainted with modern systems of government, administration, and taxation, but more important, he became a student of the modern military science of the day, then in its full flowering in the Dutch Republic. In the camp of Frederick Henry of Orange, the young elector-to-be learned about the importance of drill, the correct use of firearms, maneuvering unwieldy linear formations, and techniques of command. He could not have had a better introduction to the “military revolution” of the 17th century: warfare based on firearms and well-trained, thoroughly drilled professional armies.

He was going to need all this expertise, and more. His operational problem in 1675 was easy to state, less easy to solve. He had to bring an army clear across the forests of central Germany as rapidly as possible and take the Swedes by surprise. The Brandenburgers duly departed Schweinfurt on June 6. While the Elector was in overall command, he handed the details of the march to his head of cavalry, 69-year-old Field Marshal Georg von Derfinger, a hard-drinking, brawling fellow with a fiery temper. Knowing the importance of speed, Derfinger split the already small army into three separate wings: the left under Prince Fredrick II of Hesse-Homburg, the right under General Joachim Ernst von Görtzke, and the center under his own command. The army carried no supplies, buying what it could from the towns en route, with the Elector doling out funds from his personal treasury. It was an expensive proposition, to be sure, but this was a do-or-die venture, and if it failed, an unbalanced budget would be the least of his problems.

With Derfinger cracking the whip and the columns coordinated by riders, runners, and even trumpets, the army rushed north, covering 205 miles in just over two weeks—one of the era’s great marches. The Brandenburgers arrived in Magdeburg on June 21. So swiftly had they proceeded that the Swedes were still unaware the Elector had even set out.

They found out soon enough, however. On June 25 the Brandenburgers launched an attack on the key Swedish-held fortress of Rathenow, about 50 miles west of Berlin. Secretly contacting a loyal official inside the town—a “counsellor” by the name of Jacob Friedrich von Briest—Frederick William ordered him to throw a banquet for the Swedish officers in the garrison. As the night wore on and Briest led the Swedes in toast after toast, Brandenburger troops deployed into their assault positions. As always, Derfinger took the lead. Claiming to be a Swedish officer who had escaped from a Brandenburger patrol, he got the guards to lower the gate then led a charge of his dragoons into the town. There was fighting here and there, but soon the Brandenburgers had secured Rathenow. It was just under 20 days since the army had left Schweinfurt.

The loss of their central fortress threw the Swedes into a panic. Dispersed all over Brandenburg, with a concentrated enemy on their doorstep, they knew they were in trouble. The sensible thing now would have been a general retreat north to the Baltic coast, where they could be supplied by the Swedish navy. But Brandenburger raiding parties under Colonel Joachim Hennigs were already active in the countryside, destroying bridges, blocking roads, and forcing the Swedes to march hither and yon in search of an open route. The local farmers, too, were doing their bit, pitch-forking any Swedish stragglers they could find. As a result, the Swedes were slow in getting into action, and Frederick William ran them down on June 28 at a place called Fehrbellin, about 35 miles northwest of Berlin.

The battle opened with 10,000 Swedes under General Volmar Wrangel facing the Brandenburger advance guard, a mere 1,500 horse under the Prince of Homburg. Homburg’s orders were simply to reconnoiter the enemy position, not get embroiled in a fight. But his aggressive nature won out and he decided to strike first. He was vastly outnumbered, but he held the initiative, and his men were spoiling for a fight with the occupiers who had marauded across Brandenburg, stolen their livestock, and abused their families.

The Swedes, by contrast, were in the doldrums. They were in the midst of a helter-skelter retreat. They had a downed bridge behind them on the Rhin River—courtesy of Colonel Hennigs and his band—and they faced impassable swamps on both left and right (the Rhin and Havelland bogs). Wearily, they turned to face their attackers.

Homburg’s attacks made little impression on the Swedish line, but they did pin the Swedes in place, and at noon Frederick William arrived on the field. While not at all pleased with Homburg’s disobedience, he recognized the opportunity that beckoned. His eye for terrain immediately settled on a line of low sandy hills on the right of the Swedish position. Quickly, he had his infantry storm the hills and then had artillery emplaced on the heights. His guns opened fire and began to deal out punishment to the right wing of the Swedish line. Once Frederick William had his entire cavalry in line, some 5,600 riders, he began to press hard on the now weakened Swedish right. His cavalry defeated the Swedish horse there, drove them of, then turned on the vulnerable infantry. One Swedish unit, the Delwig Foot Regiment, bore the brunt of his assault. The Brandenburger cavalry cut it to pieces, but it put up just enough of a fight to allow the left and center to retreat toward Fehrbellin. As night fell, the Swedes finally repaired the bridge and got most of their army away intact. With much of the Brandenburger infantry still hurrying up to the battlefield, there would be no pursuit.

Frankly, pursuit wasn’t necessary. The enemy was leaving Brandenburg, and Frederick William had just won his greatest victory. Warsaw had been a coalition victory against a lighter force. At Fehrbellin, Frederick William had gone toe to toe with one of the great military powers of the day—and thrashed it. This shocking victory would enter the lore of the German army. The surprise of the Swedish invasion, the Brandenburgers’ lightning ride across Germany, the bold action by the Prince of Homburg: Fehrbellin was more than history; it became the stuff of legend. As for Frederick William, he now received a new title. After Fehrbellin, he would be known forever as the “Great Elector.”

The Great Sleigh Drive

The thing about winning a reputation is that one has to defend it. So it was with Frederick William. He was still the ruler of a small state and liable to get roped into all sorts of coalition wars. It happened again in the winter of 1678, when he became entangled in a lengthy and unsatisfying operation against the Swedes in Pomerania. While most of his army was tied up besieging the Swedish-controlled port of Stralsund, the Swedes once again launched an invasion of one of his home provinces. This time it was remote East Prussia. Once again, the invasion caught Frederick William flatfooted, and he had to lunge across the Baltic coast of West Prussia as rapidly as possible. He probably intended nothing more than a show of force in East Prussia, as seems likely since his original objective was the tiny village of Preussisch-Holland about 35 miles southeast of Danzig. The Swedes knew something about his art of war by now, though, and his arrival led them to begin a retreat from East Prussia altogether.

Many other commanders would have been satisfied. But the more Frederick William looked at the map, the more he saw an opportunity to destroy the Swedes. “I intend to cut them off,” he wrote at the time. All he needed was a way to accelerate the pace. With speed once again of the essence, the Great Elector commandeered hundreds of sleighs from local towns and villages and struck out across the frozen waters of the Vistula and Curonian Lagoons, driving deep into the flank and rear of the Swedish position. Moving at speed, his sleigh columns were able to make 25 to 30 miles a day, a slashing pace given the miserable winter conditions.

At first the Swedish retreat hugged the coastline, using the few good roads in the area, but the swiftness of Frederick William’s advance forced them into the forested, nearly roadless interior. Here, in the frozen wilderness, the vast majority of them perished. Centuries before anyone had ever heard of blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” there was Die Grosse Schlittenfahrt, Frederick William’s “Great Sleigh Drive,” a campaign of annihilation against the Swedes.

The Great Elector and the German Way of War

Frederick William’s art of war captured the imagination of later German officers. Well into the 20th century, they were still studying his campaigns and drawing out the appropriate lessons. They admired the speed, mobility, and surprise of his operations, seeing them as the essence of bewegungskrieg—the war of movement. By contrast, slower moving or protracted operations, cautious maneuvering against enemy depots, and immobile siege warfare—these were things to avoid. Prussia (and Germany) had neither the secure strategic position nor the resources to fight long, drawn-out wars of attrition.

One last trait of the Great Elector’s art of war would live on in the German army. More than any ruler of his day, the Great Elector tended to delegate responsibility to his subordinates, to give them a general mission but allow them to find a way to carry it out. Tis tradition of flexible command became known as aufragstaktik, “mission tactics.” Tat style of command had nothing to do with Frederick William’s modesty (he had none) or his unassuming nature (he was anything but). Rather, the duchy that he ruled was among the poorest states in Europe and only by exploiting all the talent available to him could his army hope to triumph.

Flexible command was also based on Prussia’s distinctive social contract. All the officers in this army were part of the noble class, the Junkers. They swore an oath to serve Frederick William, and in return, he allowed them total control over their lands and serfs. That control extended to the soldiers under their command. They could launch their men on any operation they saw fit. For Frederick William to interfere in the conduct of military operations would have been a grave offense.

On agreeing to enter the Elector’s service, for example, Derflinger, who had married into the nobility, presented him with a series of conditions, including the incredible demands: “No one advances ahead of me” into battle and “No disgrace upon me if I lose a battle.” In no other contemporary army would a field commander dare to talk to his lord this way, but it became standard operating procedure in Prussia, as long as the officer in question kept on winning.

In a similar vein, remember the prince of Homburg at Fehrbellin, initiating a battle the Elector had ordered him to avoid? When Frederick William arrived on the battlefield that hot June day, he was understandably upset at the prince’s disobedience and soon worked himself into a rage. Later, there were witnesses who swore they heard the Elector actually threatening to put Homburg to death. But it isn’t easy to execute people after a victory.

Perhaps the defining moment of Frederick William’s career was the Great Sleigh Drive. For later German officers, the drive became a model of maneuver-oriented war, of improvisation, of bold and aggressive command. Consider this evaluation, written by a young German staff officer almost 250 years later, in 1927. The winter campaign was a “complete success,” he wrote, pointing to “the moral effect of the relentless pursuit, pressure on the retreat routes, and especially the tremendous speed of the Brandenburger advance.” The use of sleighs by the Great Elector, the officer wrote, had “brought Bewegungskrieg directly to the enemy.” Our young man was already pondering this campaign deeply, turning it over carefully in his mind. Just a major at the time, he was a decade away from his rendezvous with destiny. His name was Heinz Guderian, the great German panzer leader of World War II.

High-tempo operations, an emphasis on surprise, a flexible system of command that handed initiative to the officer on the spot, a yearning for annihilation of the enemy rather than his mere defeat, an aversion to fighting alongside allies—these were the hallmarks of the Great Elector’s art of war, as they would be the hallmarks of the 20th-century German army. The child, indeed, was father of the man.


Robert M. Citino, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, has written numerous histories, including The German Way of War, Death of the Wehrmacht, and Quest for Decisive Victory.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.