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Evaluation of the Armed Forces of the Holy Roman Empire after their Defeat under Austrian Command at the Battle of Roßbach (November 24, 1757)

The defeat at Roßbach by Frederick II’s smaller but more effectively deployed army was a devastating blow to the reputation of the Habsburg-led Imperial force. Here, General Field Marshal Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen (1702-1787), Imperial commander at Roßbach, addresses Emperor Franz I, consort of Empress Maria Theresa, detailing the weaknesses of the defeated army, a coalition of anti-Prussian German forces acting in concert with France.

He distinguishes, on one hand, between the Imperial army of the Holy Roman Empire (Reich), formed from units supplied by various member states and principalities, and, on the other hand, the army of the Austrian monarchy, recruited from the Habsburg rulers’ several lands within the Holy Roman Empire. When mentioned in the text below, the latter army, also designated as an Imperial force (since the Austrian ruler was simultaneously Holy Roman Emperor), is qualified as specifically Austrian. The commander speaks, perhaps confusingly, of “detachments,” meaning sorties or smaller mounted units that separated from their larger formations to carry out various battlefield actions. He proposes reforming the relationship between the Reich army and the Austrian army, but in the aftermath of Roßbach, the army of the Holy Roman Empire no longer figured in the Seven Years War (1756-1783).

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Far be it from me to despise the troops supplied, with most praiseworthy patriotic zeal, by so many distinguished Electors, Princes, and other territorial rulers. Nor do I wish to dispute that, given time, something good could be made of them all. There are many valiant men both among the generals, staff officers, and regular officers, and it is undeniable that, if the good soldier-subjects were selected from all the regiments and formed into a single whole, a body would emerge that could rightly be called great and powerful.

But these good subjects are too dispersed, and where, for example, a regiment has an outstanding colonel, things might be worse among the remaining officers’ staff. Another regiment will be distinguished by a good major, another by a few good captains, so that, if they were all assembled in one corps they would perform miracles. But in the places they now occupy they can accomplish nothing because the number of inexperienced too greatly exceeds that of the able people. Nonetheless, with time much could be made of them, for it is undeniable that the rank and file consist of admirable men. I cannot in the least complain of their good will, but instead have often marveled at how they carry out everything ordered of them when they have so often gone without food [bread]. Indeed, the day of battle was the seventh on which they received no rations.

And what is still more, More Gracious Lord, I must confess that there was not the slightest sign among them of the religious fanaticism whose expression has been constantly feared --- even though the French, by their inhumane behavior in the non-Catholic lands, especially toward clergy and churches, gave soldiers [especially Protestants] more than ample occasion for embitterment.

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