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Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, made a name for himself and Prussia in the Seven Years' War, winning key battles against the French and Austrians at long odds. He won the battle of Rossbach against the French outnumbered almost 2- to -1. Other Prussian generals beat the French at lesser odds at Krefeld and Minden.

Frederick beat the Austrians at his signature battle at Leuthen, outnumbered more than two to one. One might attribute this to the incompetence of the Austrian commander, Prince Charles of Lorraine (Maria Theresa's brother in law), but Frederick also defeated the Austrians at Liegnitz and Torgau, at lesser odds, later in the war.

The one enemy Frederick had no success against was Russia. The battle of Zorndorf, (aptly named "angry village" in German), where both sides took around 40% casualties, was basically a drawn battle, and at best a Pyrrhic victory for Frederick. At the battle of Kunersdorf, where two thirds of the opposing force was Russian (the remainder Austrian), and the numerical odds nearly even, Frederick suffered a major defeat, trying to turn a likely minor victory into a major one. And so far as I know, neither Frederick nor any of his subordinates won any victory to speak of against the Russians. Only through the death of Tsarina Elizabeth was the Russian threat mitigated.

Why might that have been? Were the Russian soldiers better than the French and Austrians? Were the Russian commanders better? Or did the Russians fight in a style that Frederick didn't understand?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Pure speculation from my side, feel free to downvote:

Frederick relied a lot on fast movements and surprise attacks that sent the enemy into retreat and disarray.

At Zorndorf, the terrain both hindered fast flanking movements, and also stopped the Russians from retreating. So instead the battle became bloody hand-to-hand combat on a long line. In that situation, no-one had the upper hand, and both sides suffered heavy losses.

Frederick is supposed to have said "It's easier to kill the Russians than to win over them" after the battle, indicating that perhaps he didn't understand the terrain at that site. The Russians as a result got the reputation of refusing to retreat.

However, this reputation may have had some base in reality as well, because at Kunersdorf, Frederick let his top cavalry under von Seydlitz do his typical fast "shock and awe" maneuvers, but instead of sending the Russians into disarray, the cavalry ended up having to retreat in disarray, and the Russians quickly used that to turn the table and send all of Frederick army into chaotic retreat. This failure can possibly be ascribed to von Seydlitz cavalry expecting the Russians not to retreat, based on the experiences as at Zorndorf, but perhaps it was because they actually refused to retreat, or perhaps a combination.

So my speculation is that either the Russians were more disciplined and would not fall into panicked retreats, something that Frederick was to a large extent relying on in his tactics, or the Prussian army failed because it expected the Russian army to not retreat, and hence would fall back and retreat themselves when their attacks didn't seem to have the desired effect.

But I'm sure you can find better analyses by reading military tactics books about Frederick, which I have not done.

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Upvoted your answer. It's incomplete, but useful, and may have set me on the right track. It seems that the Russians chose better defensive ground because they were "playing not to lose," instead of "playing to win." That led to a resilient mindset, and made the Russians hard to defeat (even though they shouldn't have won at Kunersdorf if Frederick had been more careful). In this regard, Empress Elizabeth couldn't have been more different from her eventual successor, Catherine the Great.Can't imagine Elizabeth doing a deal with Frederick over Poland. history.stackexchange.com/questions/10426/… –  Tom Au Nov 12 '13 at 22:10
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The closing paragraph of this article on Zorndorf, I believe, exactly captures the essence of the question:

Zorndorf exactly illustrates the components of Frederick’s military character: his gross over confidence, his inability to listen to advice, even from those he claimed to trust, his impetuosity and aggression, his failure to ensure that he had sufficient information on the lay of the land and the nature of his enemy’s position before launching his attack, his assumption that his subordinates understood what they had to do without giving them full instruction, his dependence on key subordinates and his collapse of will at moments of extreme crisis.

We have become so familiar with the strengths of Frederick's military capabilities, we forget that he had weaknesses also, and in some cases (such as his reliance on capable subordinates) the same character trait is both a weakness and a strength, depending on circumstance.

By contrast, though Napoleon inherited a plethora of capable (and better - Davout, Lannes, Massena, Desaix for starters) subordinates, he was incapable of creating any new ones (Eugene the one possible exception.). As they gradually died (or retired) the corps and divisional leadership beneath Napoleon weakened, and the Grande Armee's abilities weakened as well.

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