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Frederick the Great, Baron Von Steuben, and the Value of Practice, Practice, Practice

[by J. Scott Shipman]
Frederick the Great


During a recent trip to London, I took along John McAuley Palmer’s Washington – Lincoln – Wilson Three War Statesmen. Previously I reviewed Palmer’s excellent and informative America in Arms, so I’ve been looking forward to this follow-up. While I’m not finished with Washington (on about page 90), this one is a much tougher read than the first, but I’m going to press on as I can make the time among competing work and books.

What I wanted to share with you was an excerpt from Palmer’s remarks on Baron Von Steuben’s Prussian military background.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben


Von Steuben, in many respects was Washington’s ace at organizing, equipping, and training the army—a job for which Von Steuben was eminently qualified. His was the latest training in the methods of Frederick the Great and his vaunted what was to become his Prussian General Staff. (many thanks to Seydlitz for correcting my error)

For training, Frederick used what he called the “applicatory method.” This sounds a lot like Fred Leland’s cutting edge law enforcement training and Don Vandergriff’s work with the US Army. Here are a few quotes:

“He found that military success depends, not upon profound theoretical knowledge, but upon sound judgement and quick resolute decision under stress. Directing a successful attack is therefore not the same thing as writing an essay about it. It is a question of grasping a situation, making a practical decision, and issuing intelligible orders to the several parts of a military command. It is a question of not merely knowing but of doing. (emphasis, Palmer, pages 42-43)

“This led Frederick to form the habit of giving himself tactical problems in his daily walks and rides. Carlyle gives us the following interesting glimpse of the great king after he had become a distinguished and successful general:

For Friedrich is always looking out, were it even form the window of his carriage, and putting military problems to himself in all manner of scenery. What would a man do, in that kind of ground, if attacking, if attacked? With that hill, that brook, that bit of bog? And advises every officer to be continually doing the like. That is the value of picturesque or other scenery to Friedrich. (emphasis mine)

“From making this a method of self-culture to making it a means of instructing others is but a step…It is the continual test of judgement, of decision, and of facility in issuing effective orders.” (Palmer, page 43)

Frederick also used this training method as a “tactical measuring rod” to help determine the competency of his leadership.

Von Steuben proved Frederick’s methods with Washington’s army. But what struck me was the simple power of establishing and maintaining good habits that promote, practice, enable coping with dynamic environments, and the exploitation individual curiosity and action. Frederick institutionalized his “self-culture” into his meta-culture and so did Von Steuben in turn.

This type of practicing; the continual maintenance of good habits will help ensure a competitive posture in just about any field. Further, Frederick practiced ad hoc—wherever he was, he was thinking through the lens of his profession and asking relevant questions of himself and his subordinates—further lessons for today’s leaders, regardless the profession.

Looking, paying attention, and thinking is free—so even in declining budgets we should follow the example set by Frederick and Baron Von Steuben in his turn.

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

4 Responses to “Frederick the Great, Baron Von Steuben, and the Value of Practice, Practice, Practice”

  1. seydlitz89 Says:


    Interesting post on von Steuben, but I don’t think we can speak of a “Prussian General Staff”, much less a vaunted one, at the time of Frederick the Great.  That only comes about later, with the efforts of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and others . . . 

  2. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Seydlitz, 
    Perhaps you are right. The book was written in 1930. Palmer did introduce the Kriegs Akademie as the first source of “the trained tactical officers who were to form the Prussian General Staff.” Thanks for the correction. 

  3. zen Says:

    Query to Seydlitz89,
    Frederick and Prussian officers like von Steuben seem to have kept tactical and strategic practice fluid through “thought experiments” and tweaking/improvisation/experimentation.
    When did the Prussian system ossify into the kind of rote, unthinking and ritualistic “paradomania” drill with an overemphasis on ceremonial trivia and synchronized movement? Frederick William II or III? 
    That version of Prussian military culture is what the Russians imported as “the Gatchina system” under the mad Tsar Paul and Alexander I, ultimately to Russia’s detriment later in the 19th century (though presumably the need to turn illiterate conscripted state serfs into functional soldiers made this form of training attractive by giving the illusion of a disciplined army)

  4. seydlitz89 Says:


    Frederick inherited a well-trained army and then put it to good use.  I think the reputation of the Prussian Army dates from his successes.  Prior to that they were just another force of a second rate European power.  So Prussian military success stood on the shoulders of Frederick and once he was gone so began the inevitable process of deterioration.  Over the next 20 years after his death they didn’t accomplish much, but the image and reputation remained, which impressed the Russians and others I suppose, although the actions of France after say 1799 showed only contempt for Prussia.
    The famous Preußische Kriegsakademie dates from 1810.  Steuben it seems was selected for training as a staff officer for the King himself, who acted essentially as his own Chief of Staff.  The actual General Staff dates from the reform period post 1806.

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