A Prussian Strategy for Wars of Attrition

Henry 2

As we enter spring 2024, Ukraine’s military position looks tenuous. Its counter-offensive in 2023 did not achieve the ambitious results that Ukraine’s allies had hoped for, and the Ukrainians are now under pressure from Russian forces that have great superiority in both troops and materiel.

In a recent article, Alexander Burns argued that Ukraine’s predicament is in many ways similar to that of the German state of Prussia during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63. In that conflict, Prussia not only survived a long struggle against much larger opponents but even ended up militarily on the front foot. Delving deeper into Prussian history can offer even more into how this was, and is, possible.

The Seven Years’ War shows that there is more than one way of fighting the kind of war of attrition that we currently see in Ukraine and that, crucially, it is not necessarily vital to out-kill the enemy in order to win. Whereas the stronger side will take the offensive to grind down its opponent, even the side with fewer resources can still win a war of attrition by conserving its strength and waiting for other factors to turn to its advantage. Michael Kofman, Rob Lee, and Dara Massicot have argued that, in 2024, Ukraine should aim to “hold, build and strike,” and the record of Prince Henry of Prussia shows how such a strategy can indeed yield success. For years, Henry carefully husbanded the lives of his outnumbered troops, dragging out the war until circumstances turned in Prussia’s favor, and then counter-attacking to win a key battle that helped bring peace. His example is one that Ukraine can seek to emulate.



A German Way of War?

The Prussian and German armies are typically seen as archetypal exponents of offensive maneuver warfare. The United States and many of its allies have closely studied and sought to emulate the operations most famously of German armored formations during World War II. Western armed forces trained the Ukrainians to employ such methods in their 2023 counter-offensive, and the underwhelming results of this offensive have led to widespread criticism of Western methods of combined arms maneuver. In 2024, Ukraine clearly needs to take a much more defensive approach. Is it time to turn our back on Prusso-German examples? Not at all!

Understanding why begins with deconstructing the myth that there was an aggressive “German way of war.” The military methods of the famous Prussian King Frederick the Great (reigned 1740–86), for example, have been painted as prefiguring Blitzkrieg. But in fact, I have shown that these methods were not typically German at all; rather, they drew on French examples. Moreover, the Seven Years’ War, one of the defining wars of Prussian history, was an attritional struggle that was actually won on the defensive. While advocates of mobile warfare typically idolize Frederick the Great, I instead shine the spotlight on Prince Henry — perhaps the Prussian army’s most outstanding defensive commander — and explain how he can be the inspiration for Ukraine’s fightback.

History . . . teaches no lessons,” said Michael Howard, and Joseph Stieb has recently re-emphasized this in an article in War on the Rocks. Certainly, it is not possible to map any situation from the past completely onto one in the present, and the belief that any given historical event teaches lessons that are applicable in all cases irrespective of context can be very dangerous. The example of Prussia in the Seven Years’ War does not in every respect match the current situation of Ukraine, but it does offer a crucial new perspective: that even the weaker side can still win a war of attrition if it stops trying to out-kill its enemies and instead focuses on conserving its strength until other factors turn in its favor.

The Prussian Precedent Revisited

For Prussia, the Seven Years’ War was a grim struggle for survival. With only Great Britain and a few small German states as allies, Frederick the Great found himself facing a coalition of all Europe’s biggest land powers: the Austrian Habsburg empire, France, Russia, Sweden, and a host of other German states. Much like the Ukrainians in 2023, Frederick the Great tried to win decisive battles. Indeed, the Western armed forces that trained the Ukrainians see their methods of maneuver warfare as to some extent following Prusso-German traditions. Like the war in Ukraine today, however, the Seven Years’ War was dominated by artillery. Just as Ukraine’s offensive in 2023 struggled against tough Russian defenses, so Frederick — for instance, at the 1757 battle of Kolin — found himself unable to defeat enemies who used powerful artillery in strong defensive positions. Moreover, much like their counterparts in 2023, the Russian army used field fortifications to help beat off Prussian attacks at the battles of Kay and Kunersdorf. One commentator has even argued that Russia’s use of artillery in Ukraine reflects traditions that go back to the Seven Years’ War and earlier conflicts. Just like Ukraine’s leaders today, Frederick the Great found that a qualitatively superior army was being bled white by larger but qualitatively inferior enemies who made use of strong defensive positions and massed firepower.

Like Ukraine today, the Prussians responded by turning more to defensive positions. They also benefitted from their opponents’ inability to utilize fully their superior strength. For most of the Seven Years’ War, the mountain ranges that run along what is now the northern border of the Czech Republic made it extremely difficult for the Austrians to supply offensive operations on Prussian territory. They took years to punch through the mountains, and by then political developments had turned in Prussia’s favor and the Austrians themselves had nearly gone bankrupt. The French and Russians also struggled to supply their armies, which had to cover long distances to reach the Prussian heartland. In this respect, the Ukrainian case does not map neatly onto the Prussian one. Most obviously, the Ukrainians do not have the protection of mountain ranges. Nevertheless, heavy losses of vehicles in the battle of Avdiivka have already impeded Russian advances, and Ukraine has had some success in interdicting Russian lines of communication such as the Kerch bridge in Crimea. While it would go too far to draw concrete lessons for Ukraine, the Prussian example is certainly a reminder in general terms that, rather than having to withstand the blows of the Russian sledgehammer directly, it is also possible to prevent the Russians from swinging it with full force.

Most importantly, the Seven Years’ War shows that a strategy of attrition can take a variety of forms. Attrition does not necessarily need to involve killing and wounding larger numbers of the enemy’s troops. It can also involve trying to avoidcombat and dragging out a war until other circumstances change. In the Seven Years’ War, Prussia faced opponents with substantially larger armed forces than itself. The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was aware of this, and repeatedly urged her top commander, Field Marshal Leopold Joseph von Daun, to seek battle with the Prussians. She even absolved him in advance if he were defeated: The important thing was to grind down the smaller Prussian army with the larger Austrian one. In Ukraine, the Russian army has become adept at employing this kind of strategy, using “meat” attacks that sacrifice large numbers of troops but reduce the numerically weaker Ukrainian forces.

This, however, was where Prince Henry made his crucial contribution. From the beginning of the war, he set himself against Frederick the Great’s strategy of risking heavy casualties through offensive operations. Whether Henry was actually any less aggressive than Frederick is debatable: he had written texts before the war that were as gung-ho as anything Frederick came up with. Henry, however, typically set himself up in opposition to his elder brother and so, with Frederick favoring the offensive, Henry became Prussia’s great apostle of the defensive.

Henry’s alternative approach made a big difference. When Frederick, for instance, wanted to attack the strong Austrian position at Zittau, Henry persuaded him that it was impossible. By one account, later in the war, Prussian troops lauded Prince Henry for winning “great success” with “small losses,” whereas under Frederick, “We are made to crack our heads like dogs, to no purpose.” In the same spirit, Ukraine’s leadership needs to resist Western pressure to launch another premature offensive, which could well turn into another Kolin or Kunersdorf. The Ukrainians, however, also need to avoid unnecessary battles that expose their troops to casualties they cannot afford. In the battle of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian army inflicted four times as many casualties as it suffered, but 70 percent of Russian losses were expendable convicts serving with the Wagner Group, and this is an example of how, for the weaker side, simply out-killing the opposition may not necessarily bring victory in a war of attrition.

During the Seven Years’ War, Prince Henry devised a most effective defensive system. His forces were always numerically inferior to their enemies, but he spread them out to cover large areas, with strong detachments holding carefully chosen defensive positions and other areas screened by irregular troops. The prince made up for his weakness through mobility, shifting units around, and harassing his enemies to keep them on the back foot. It was a risky approach, but he had the skill to pull it off.

By drawing out the war, preserving the lives of his troops, and slowing the enemy’s advances, Prince Henry gave time for other factors to turn in Prussia’s favor. In particular, there was a dramatic political shift, as Russia’s Empress Elizabeth died in 1762 and her successor — the Prussophile Peter III, who greatly admired Frederick the Great — actually allied with Prussia and sent a Russian army to help their former enemies!

Back to the Present

Fortunately for Ukraine, its victory does not depend on political change of this magnitude. All it needs is much smaller shifts in the politics of its existing allies in order to swing the war in its favor. Most obviously, the U.S. Congress could finally pass a new aid package for Ukraine, and the November elections could potentially yield a new Biden administration with congressional backing to continue supporting the Ukrainians. Within Europe, France could finally start pulling its weight in terms of sending military aid to Ukraine, and Britain could increase its aid to match that provided by Germany. Germany too could send more help, including Taurus missiles. The European Union’s defense program could pick up steam, and European Union countries could source more weapons for Ukraine from elsewhere in the world. All of these political changes — or some combination of them — are perfectly possible and realistic, and even if only some of them came to pass, they would greatly change Ukraine’s situation. The Ukrainians just need to hold out until they take effect. Alexander Burns noted that the support Prussia received from its ally Britain during the Seven Years’ War was highly contingent on British domestic politics, and this is a reminder that Ukraine’s supporters in Western countries have an important role to play in pressing their politicians to send more aid.

Russia’s change of sides in 1762 left Prussia able to take the offensive. Already three years earlier, Prince Henry’s skilled maneuvering had nearly driven the Austrians back out of the positions they had gained in the mountains. In late 1762, after his defensive line had absorbed a series of punishing offensives from the Austrians and their German allies, Henry recognized that the enemy position was exposed and swung over to the attack. His well-timed and meticulously planned offensive at Freiberg on Oct. 29, 1762, was a deft maneuver. Advancing in four separate columns, the Prussians surprised and overwhelmed their enemies, capturing the crucial post and leaving the Austrian position in the mountains virtually untenable. With Frederick also having recaptured a key fortress from the Austrians, Maria Theresa soon agreed to a peace settlement. This kind of transition from a defense that preserves its soldiers’ lives to an offensive that drives the enemy back is precisely what Ukraine could aspire to in the next twelve months.

Prussia’s experience in the Seven Years’ War offers hope for Ukraine, showing that, in a war of attrition, it is not necessarily vital to out-kill the other side in order to win. America famously found out in Vietnam that the body count is only one metric of attrition, and the Seven Years’ War shows that a strategy of attrition can take different forms. Whereas the stronger side needs to take the offensive, the weaker side can avoid combat where possible, preserving its limited resources and waiting for the political constellation to change or for the enemy to become economically exhausted.

Crucially, Ukraine does not need political changes of the magnitude that Prussia benefitted from. If its existing allies would just give it more support, that would make a huge difference. On the battlefield, Ukrainians can take heart from the example of Prince Henry of Prussia: a commander who carefully preserved his troops’ lives, helped drag out the war until other factors turned in Prussia’s favor, and then oversaw a deft counter-attack that helped bring the war to an end with Prussia militarily on the front foot. As Ukraine aims to “hold, build and strike,” it can seek to emulate such achievements.



Dr. Adam L. Storring has taught at the department of war studies at King’s College London. His PhD, completed at the University of Cambridge, was awarded the André Corvisier prize for the best dissertation on military history defended at any university anywhere in the world. He is a contributor to the Cambridge History of Strategy and the Royal United Services Institute “Talking Strategy” podcast series, and this article reflects his forthcoming chapter in the Oxford Handbook of the Seven Years’ War.