Book Review: Frederick the Great On The Art of War

Jay Luvaas is a professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Pa.; he coauthored a series of Battlefield Guides of U.S. Civil War battlefields that became almost instant classics. He has authored several books of military history such as “The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance”, “The Civil War: In the Writings of Col. G.F.R. Henderson”, and “Napoleon on the Art of War”. He has also authored many articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Parameters, the Journal of the U.S. Army War College and the Civil War Times Illustrated.
Professor Luvaas prefaces his work by pointing out that the book is not a straight chronological presentation of the writings of Frederick the Great, but instead he has ordered the writings of the king so that they are presented as themes with the work in each section presented chronologically. This is an eminently practical method for organizing the work in a useful manner while also allowing the reader to more easily grasp the way in which Frederick’s thoughts changed as he gained experience in warfare. He groups Frederick’s writings on such topics as logistics, tactics, and strategy in such a way that the reader can easily see the maturation of the sovereign’s thoughts.
Frederick the Great was arguably one the ablest generals of his age, on a par with Marlborough. He led the tiny North German Kingdom of Prussia from relative obscurity and set it on the path to greatness. He waged a successful campaign to seize and hold Silesia during the course of two wars with Austria between 1740 and 1745. He then successfully defended his Kingdom during the Seven Years War against a coalition of the great powers of Europe Russia, Austria, and France. During these campaigns, he demonstrated his ability of command by several times defeating armies superior to his. Perhaps his most famous battles are Leuthen and Torgau.
Frederick revolutionized the Prussian army and turned it into a potent weapon of war, by changing the tactics of his army and drilling them to perfection. He is also credited with the innovation of the attack in oblique order in modern times, which allowed him to outflank and defeat his enemies. The Prussian army under Frederick became feared throughout Europe and many of Prussia’s enemies attempted to emulate their methods though none did so completely successfully.
Frederick’s thoughts on warfare are valuable as insights into how he fought his campaigns. The caveat is that Frederick relates his thoughts pertaining to how to fight with the armies that he knew, his principles are not timeless but are instead limited to his time. If you are going to be leading an eighteenth century army into battle, he should be required reading, but given how much the nature of warfare has changed his thoughts are not particularly applicable to modern war.
Perhaps the most valuable part of the whole book is the history that Frederick wrote of his campaigns during the Seven-Years War. Few sources are more valuable in military history than the thoughts of the commander involved. While with many wars throughout history, the historian has to guess at the motives of the commanders involved, Frederick allows the historian a rare glimpse into the mind of a great general. There are many writings by generals from the seventeenth century and beyond but few tried to write their own history. Who is else is more qualified to write about the thoughts and motivations of the commander than the man himself is.