Herbert J. Redman. Frederick the Great and the Seven Years' War, 1756-1763. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 608 pp. $17.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4766-1300-0; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7669-5.
Reviewed by Thomas Nora (University of Hull)
Published on H-War (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Herbert J. Redman’s Frederick the Great and the Seven Years’ War, 1756-1763 provides a traditional military history of the Prussian king’s last great war. As made clear in the preface, this English-language account of the Seven Years’ War is intended to revitalize a topic left dormant for much of the prior century. Redman explicitly targets an American audience more familiar with the concurrent French and Indian War. Beyond filling this historical gap, Redman notes the conflict’s long-term importance in promoting both Frederick’s and Prussia’s martial reputations, thus fostering German militarism that endured through World War II.
Redman’s narrative is highly detailed. Following a brief introductory chapter, the book proceeds methodically across fifty-two chapters divided into eight parts. Each part covers a single campaign season from the invasion of Saxony in 1756 through the stalemate of 1762, with the exception of parts 2 and 3, which together relate the exceptionally eventful campaign of 1757. The chapters in turn focus on Frederick’s annual maneuvers, the resultant battles, and the actions’ aftermath, including political developments among the warring states. A few chapters cover significant Prussian engagements not directly involving Frederick, such as the Battles of Gross-Jägersdorf (chapter 13), Züllichau/Paltzig (chapter 30), and Maxen (chapter 37). Additional European battles involving neither the Prussian king nor his army are summarized as necessary to contextualize Frederick’s maneuvers, whereas overseas conflicts receive only passing mention.
For this volume, Redman relies on solid secondary sources. The bibliography reveals substantial and significant English-language works, including several important biographies. Unfortunately, Tim Blanning’s Frederick the Great: King in Prussia (2016) was published too recently to be included. Classic military monographs by Christopher Duffy and Dennis Showalter were consulted. German histories from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries are also prominent.
Leaning heavily on these older works, Redman provides a dense, traditional narrative of the Seven Years’ War. True to his intention, he describes both Frederick’s victories and disasters in minute detail, with pages relating individual battalions’ triumphs and rewards, as well as their costs and defeats. Peppering these accounts are familiar but entertaining anecdotes, such as Frederick’s speech before Leuthen and his despairing dispatches following Kunersdorf. Though lacking the same level of detail presented in the text, forty-two maps helpfully appear at the end of the book to complement Redman’s battle accounts.
While there is much to be found in the book, there are serious issues. First, the volume would have benefited from additional editing. Footnotes sometimes appear almost arbitrarily, scattered among chapter titles, paragraphs, and individual sentences. Works are often quoted unnecessarily. In addition to a few typographical errors, there are a large number of sentence fragments that make the writing appear choppy. Although the publisher and copy editor should receive part of the blame, the author is ultimately responsible.
Second, the lengthy battle narratives leave little room for discussing related topics of varying importance. The book notes that it is not a diplomatic history, but its framing of political developments outside the campaigns is unusually brief. The introduction offers a mere three pages of background information before Frederick invades Saxony, and it mischaracterizes the 1756 Convention of Westminster as a bellicose subsidy treaty rather than an attempt at neutralizing Germany. Similarly, the Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg appear only briefly in the final three paragraphs of the whole book. Passages on logistical and administrative machinery can be equally cursory. While the volume notes some of Frederick’s fiscal expedients, readers seeking a clearer picture of Prussian finances are directed to a hundred-page section of a nineteenth-century German history.
What is more regrettable is the treatment of early modern military practice as a narrative garnish rather than a topic deserving its own chapter. References to Frederick’s notorious exploitation of occupied Saxony are explicitly balanced by accounts of similar taxation following Saxony’s imperial “liberation” (p. 324); however, these extortions would have been better addressed through a focused discussion of contributions. Roßbach is presented as proof of linear formations’ superiority over columns without describing the logic or development behind either form of troop deployment. Frederick’s aggressive pin-and-flank maneuvers contrast with those of his conservative opponents, yet the latter’s difficulty mimicking such celebrated tactics as the Prussians’ oblique order is relegated to an endnote (p. 52n22). By not contextualizing Frederick’s decisions and innovations, the book does not sufficiently support its periodic assertion that he was arguably “the greatest tactician of modern history” (pp. 167, 206).
Third, the book does not fully engage recent literature on this era, instead following the interpretation of older German works. As the volume still incorporates some new material, the resulting synthesis produces a disjointed narrative. For example, Hans Joachim von Zieten’s performance at Torgau and the controversy surrounding Frederick’s verbal orders are treated at some length. Following earlier works’ assumption that Frederick probably sought unified action, the volume forcefully blames Zieten’s delayed movement for the Prussians’ devastating casualties, only to subsequently cite a more recent work when noting how the monarch twice embraced the hussar in thanks for his belated attack. In the endnotes readers will find many moderate admirers of the king’s tactics, as well as one of Frederick’s most vocal critics, Franz Szabo, yet such provocative modern perspectives are not addressed in the text.
This abstention from recent debates leads to the fourth and most regrettable issue: the book does not address Frederick’s military legacy alluded to in the preface. His place in history is not explored much beyond such passing references as Roßbach’s appeal to German nationalists and the king’s general appeal to the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. The inclusion of more recent works, like Robert Citino’s The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (2005) and Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (2008), would have been useful in describing Frederick’s role in Germany’s militarization. Instead of concluding remarks on Frederick’s accomplishments and legacy, the book simply stops after the last salvoes of 1762.
Due to these drawbacks, this book is less suitable for those seeking historiographical debate or new perspectives of the Seven Years’ War than it is for traditional military history enthusiasts with a preexisting knowledge of Frederick the Great. For uninitiated readers, Dennis Showalter’s Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012) and Christopher Duffy’s Frederick the Great: A Military Life (1985) remain detailed, highly readable entry points. For well-informed readers who wish to dig deeper into Frederick’s Seven Years’ War campaigns without slogging through multivolume German histories, Redman’s Frederick the Great presents a single-volume English alternative.
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Thomas Nora. Review of Redman, Herbert J., Frederick the Great and the Seven Years' War, 1756-1763.
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