One of the most colorful characters in the Napoleonic pantheon, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742–1819) is best known as the Prussian general who, along with the Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Throughout his long career, Blücher distinguished himself as a bold commander, but his actions at times appeared erratic and reckless. This magnificent biography by Michael V. Leggiere, an award-winning historian of the Napoleonic Wars, is the first scholarly book in English to explore Blücher’s life and military career—and his impact on Napoleon.
Drawing on exhaustive research in European archives, Leggiere eschews the melodrama of earlier biographies and offers instead a richly nuanced portrait of a talented leader who, contrary to popular perception, had a strong grasp of military strategy. Nicknamed “Marshal Forward” by his soldiers, he in fact retreated more often than he attacked. Focusing on the campaigns of 1813, 1814, and 1815, Leggiere evaluates the full effects of Blücher’s operations on his archenemy.
In addition to providing military analysis, Leggiere draws extensively from Blücher’s own writings to reveal the man behind the legend. Though tough as nails on the outside, Blücher was a loving family man who deplored the casualties of war. This meticulously written biography, enhanced by detailed maps and other illustrations, fills a large gap in our understanding of a complex man who, for all his flaws and eccentricities, is justly credited with releasing Europe from the yoke of Napoleon’s tyranny.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Series:||Campaigns and Commanders Series , #41|
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About the Author
Michael V. Leggiere is Assistant Professor and Deputy Director, Military History Center, University of North Texas, and author of Napoleon&Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (OU Press, 2002), and The Fall of Napoleon, Vol. I: The Allied Invasion of France, 1813-181 (Cambridge, 2007).
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Scourge of Napoleon
By Michael V. Leggiere
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
At the Baltic port of Rostock in the German duchy of Mecklenburg, Dorothea Maria von Blücher gave birth to the youngest of six boys—Gebhard Leberecht—on Sunday, 16 December 1742. Her husband, Christian Friederich, a former captain in the cavalry of Hesse-Kassel, numbered among the landless minor nobility. He left the service in 1737 after participating as a second in a duel that ended with a fatality. Life only became harder for Christian. Receiving no pension from Hesse-Kassel, he found himself forced to serve Duke Karl Leopold of Mecklenburg as a mediator in his dispute with the guilds. This earned him an annual pension of 200 thaler, which fell far short of satisfying the needs of his large family. Various requests to serve in Mecklenburg's army or receive a position in the forestry service remained unfulfilled. Money remained tight, and Gebhard never forgot how it felt to number among the starving nobles of Germany.
We know little about the future field marshal's childhood. He seldom spoke of his youth, but the few hints he gave suggests it passed happily. Blücher once said that he spent "nine full years in the exemplary care of his father's house" but also admitted that "he lacked everything he was supposed to learn." Although he attended the Rostock city school until age fourteen, books did not interest him, and his parents did not pressure him to complete his studies. At a time when proficiency exams for the civil and military services did not exist, the nobility placed little value on formal education.
The nineteenth-century historian Johannes Scherr proclaims that for all of his life, Blücher "remained an archenemy of German grammar, spelling, and style." Fault for this did not reside solely with Blücher. Not only did the family still speak Plattdeutsch (Low German) but also the Rostock city school, a Latin academy that prepared students for the university, did little to help Blücher master Hochdeutsch (High German). Conversely, Blücher learned enough Latin to prevent him from ever forgetting a few words and phrases that sometimes surfaced in his letters. Despite taking French lessons until the age of forty, he never mastered the language of his great foe. Blücher himself admitted that his handwriting was not legible.
Although Blücher complained in old age that he learned little while growing up, contemporaries disagreed. General Georg Wilhelm von Valentini, a Prussian staff officer and chief of the army's military training and education system, maintained that "concerning his education, and compared to the majority of his peers, [Blücher] was in no way inferior. In both oral and written form, he knew how to express himself." Blücher addressed his fellow countrymen in Low German and employed much military jargon. Once, when leaving a group of elegant ladies, he jokingly said goodbye with the following words: "well, every one of you 'Frölens' [Fräuleins] has to kiss me now." His personal physician, Dr. Carl Bieske, emphasized that Blücher "knew how to express himself, especially around women." A skilled orator, he frequently gave moving speeches, especially to his fellow Freemasons. His main German biographer, General Wolfgang von Unger, admirably summarizes that Blücher "was vulgar around friends; exuberant and emotional with his lodge brothers; flirtatious with lady friends; and reverent and formal when presenting to his king."
All five of Blücher's brothers pursued military careers. His oldest, Berthold, retired from the Prussian service as an infantry lieutenant at the end of the Seven Years War (1756–63) but died shortly after from the lingering effects of wounds received at the 18 June 1757 battle of Kolin. The second oldest, Gustav, enjoyed a successful career in the Danish army. A testament to the solid education Gustav received at the Rostock city school, he rose to the rank of Generaladjutant before transferring to the civil service; he died at Copenhagen in 1808. Burchard, the third son, first served in the Duchy of Schwerin's army before transferring to the Prussian service, for which he fought in the Seven Years War as an infantry officer and then as a dragoon. Wounded at the 5 December 1757 battle of Leuthen, Burchard fell at the 12 August 1759 battle of Kunersdorf. The fourth brother, Siegfried, entered Swedish service along with Gebhard. The brother closest to Gebhard in age, Hans, followed Gustav into the Danish service; poor health forced him to resign. After spending several years recovering, Hans joined the Russian army and died fighting the Turks.
In addition to his five brothers, Gebhard had two sisters, ten and eight years older than him. The oldest, Dorothee, never married and died at the Malchow convent in 1812 at age eighty. Gebhard's other sister, Margarete, married a former captain in Mecklenburg's army, Hans Friedrich von Krackevitz, who possessed the small estate of Ventz on the northwestern part of the island of Rügen, a Swedish possession. After watching four sons enter the military, Christian hoped Gebhard would pursue farming. In 1756 he decided to send his son to live with Margarete so she could supplement his lack of education either personally or through private lessons with the local preacher. Moreover, Hans would teach him the fundamentals of estate management. Thus, at age fourteen the future Prussian field marshal exchanged his father's house for his brother-in-law's at Ventz.
That same year, 1756, the Seven Years War erupted; Sweden and Mecklenburg joined Austria, Russia, France, and the states of the Holy Roman Empire to destroy Prussia. For the Mecklenburgers as well as the Swedish subjects living on Rügen, the war remained very close to home. Dubbed the "Pomeranian War," the fighting in this region occurred between Prussian and Swedish forces from 1757 to 1762 in Swedish Pomerania, Prussian Pomerania, northern Brandenburg, and eastern Mecklenburg. After the Swedes did not fare well in the 1757 campaign, they withdrew toward the end of the year to Stralsund—just across the water from Rügen—where the Prussians besieged them. A large Swedish garrison quartered on Rügen's neighboring island of Hiddensee. With the war moving much closer to home, Rügen's inhabitants became concerned.
Instead of hitting the books, Gebhard spent his days riding, hunting, hiking, rowing, and sailing. Loving physical exertion, he developed a powerful body. Blücher established a close friendship with two of the sons of Johann Adolfs von Bohlen, whose estate stood one hour from Ventz. The son of a tenant farmer named Dierck also numbered among Blücher's friends. While on holiday from Schwerin's Pageninstitut, Siegfried, Blücher's brother, joined them to hunt. Often possessing only one musket, the youths roamed about for miles. Sometimes the teens rode on horses they found in isolated pastures—never bothering to ask permission from the owner. Most of all, they loved to take trips to the fishing village of Schaprode on the western side of Rügen, from where they could take scenic boat rides to Hiddensee or to a part of the island called The Bug, which was a breeding ground for seabirds that the boys liked to hunt. On The Bug they often mingled with Swedish cavalry troopers, who no doubt filled the youths with wild stories. Dierck's eldest son served in General Johann Sparre's Svenska hussarregementet and so provided the introductions.
No doubt awed by the hussars and their brilliant uniforms, Gebhard and Siegfried wanted to join the regiment. Their brother-in-law, Krackevitz, refused to grant them permission to join the hussars, whose lack of discipline had earned them a sinister reputation. But he did not oppose their decision out of principle. In fact, he recognized that they had little choice in vocation. Military or civil service provided the only viable careers for the younger sons of the impoverished minor nobility. As the Blücher brothers lacked financial assets as well as the education and desire to be civil servants, the army appeared to be their only salvation. Two of their older siblings, Berthold and Burchard, already were serving in the Prussian army, and Gustav had entered the Danish army as an ensign that same year. Krackevitz considered service in Mecklenburg's army for the two teens, especially because Siegfried already attended the Pageninstitut at Schwerin. But to avoid provoking further invasions by Prussian forces, Duke Frederick II of Mecklenburg sought to limit the size of his military establishment and thus froze commissions. With Rügen being a Swedish possession, the choice for the Blüchers remained obvious, but Krackevitz cautioned his young brothers-inlaw against becoming hussars.
Insufficient light cavalry had hindered Swedish operations during the campaign of 1757. To increase these numbers, the Swedes attempted to hire Russian Cossacks and Hungarian hussars. In addition, two of Rügen's nobles sought to raise two hussar squadrons of one hundred troopers each by the end of April 1758. As the recruiters made their rounds, Gebhard and Siegfried could not resist the promise of adventure. Krackevitz finally gave in. Despite the continued objections of his parents, Gebhard enrolled as a cornet in Sparre's Svenska hussarregementet at age fifteen.
After the Prussians lifted the blockade of Stralsund in June 1758 and marched to confront the Russians in East Prussia, Cornet Blücher's regiment ventured forth along with the rest of the Swedish army. Having little information on Blücher himself during this campaign, we can only relate the major events. After establishing a line that extended one hundred miles from Pasewalk to Treptow-am-Riga (Trzebiatów), the Swedish commander, General Gustav David Hamilton, finally ordered an advance southeast toward Berlin on 11 September. On reaching Neuruppin, only forty-two miles northwest of the capital, Hamilton learned of the return of Prussian forces from East Prussia following another successful defense of that province. After ordering the army to turn around, Hamilton resigned on 23 November. His successor, General Jacob Albrecht von Lantingshausen, retreated back to Stralsund in early 1759, pursued by the Prussians. Another Russian invasion of East Prussia in May 1759 took the pressure off the Swedes, but again they lacked the funds to immediately begin a campaign.
With 15,000 men, Lantingshausen finally marched into Prussian Pomerania on 21 August, hoping to take Stettin. After detaching 4,000 men to drive the small Prussian garrisons from the islands of Usedom and Wollin at the mouth of the Oder River, he led the rest of his forces to the Uckermark district north of Berlin. Believing he would not find any Prussian troops there, Lantingshausen unexpectedly encountered militia commanded by a retired Prussian officer, a Major Stülpnagel. Forced by the Swedes to evacuate Pasewalk and Torgelow on 1 September, Stülpnagel turned around on the following morning to surprise them at Pasewalk, where young Blücher's squadron passed the night. After sustaining 200 killed, wounded, and captured, the Swedes retreated. "That man," Blücher later expressed, "hit us Swedes hard at Pasewalk, where I was almost taken captive."
King Frederick II then permitted General Heinrich von Manteuffel to form a few battalions from convalescents and assigned to him a small force commanded by Colonel Wilhelm Sebastian von Belling consisting of two infantry battalions, five squadrons of the 8th Belling Hussar Regiment, and five dragoon squadrons totaling 4,500 men. By the end of October 1759, Manteuffel had pushed Lantingshausen's army back to Swedish Pomerania. On 20 January 1760 Manteuffel commenced an offensive across the frozen Peene River—the border between Swedish and Prussian Pomerania—with some 10,000 men, prompting Lantingshausen to counter with 15,000 troops. On 23 January he stopped the Prussian advance at Züssow, some thirty miles southeast of Stralsund. After camping on the icy battlefield, lack of adequate winter gear forced the Prussians to withdraw nine miles southeast the next day to the village of Ziethen, though they still held the suburbs north of the Peene at Peenedamm. During the night of 27–28 January, the Swedes surprised Manteuffel's post at Anklam. The general was wounded and captured during the engagement. During the fighting, Cornet Blücher received a foot wound courtesy of the Belling Hussars. Despite Lantingshausen's success, lack of supply and funds prevented him from capitalizing. Thus, the situation at the river remained quiet until August, when the Swedish commander pushed south with 16,000 men. His adversary, General Otto Ludwig von Jung-Stutterheim, commanded approximately 6,000 soldiers for the defense of the Peene.
After seven months and with his foot healed, Blücher looked forward to his third campaign. On 17 August Swedish forces crossed the Peene and advanced on Demmin, driving the Prussians thirty miles east toward the border of Pomerania and Mecklenburg. On 27 August Sparre's regiment led the Swedish advance guard to the Kavelpaß, prompting the Prussians to withdraw south toward Friedland. Two days later, on the twenty-ninth, Blücher participated in a reconnaissance mission through the pass to Friedland, where they encountered the Belling Hussars, likewise reconnoitering. After a sharp contest, the Swedes drove the Prussians into a defile but inflicted few casualties. Yet after the Swedes broke off the skirmish and began the return ride to the Kavelpaß, the Prussians pursued them. The chase continued through the pass and then two and one-half miles northeast toward Boldekow. Near that village, the Prussians surrounded young Blücher. He defended himself as best he could, but his wounded and rearing horse threw him off. One Prussian trooper, purportedly Sergeant Siegfried Landeck, grabbed the slender teen and hoisted him onto his horse, purportedly stating: "You dam'd little tenderfoot, you come along and fight for us!" The official report of the skirmish made to Frederick by General Joachim Friedrich von Stutterheim stated the day's catch to be ten prisoners, including one French lieutenant and one Swedish ensign—Blücher.
Today the Blücherstein, a boulder roughly seventeen feet long, thirteen feet wide, and eleven feet high located near Boldekow in the Vorpommern-Greifswald district, commemorates the spot where the Prussians captured Blücher. Although the field marshal's descendants in the early twentieth-century credited Landeck as the captor, some uncertainty surrounded his actual identity during Blücher's lifetime. According to the German historian Friedrich Wigger: "Later, after several including Landeck, Pfennig, and others claimed the credit for capturing the future Prussian field-marshal, it became difficult to determine who the lucky one was because Blücher himself could no longer remember the name of his 'solo captor.' Anyone who claimed to be so received an invitation to dine with General Blücher or presents from him, for while it might not have been the actual Hussar who captured him, it was still an old Hussar. When Siegfried Landeck, the one most insistent with his claim, retired in old age, he received a private pension from the General himself." According to Bieske, Blücher always credited Landeck with his capture. Landeck served in the regiment until he retired in 1798, having earned a gold service medal during the Rhine campaigns. In 1808, forty-nine years after capturing the young Blücher, he stopped at the general's headquarters in Pomerania. Blücher invited the old veteran to stay for dinner, giving him the seat of honor at the table. During the dinner, he referred to Landeck as the trooper who had single-handedly captured him. From 1798 until 1814, Landeck worked as an estate manager at Gramenz near NeuStettin in Pomerania. After the estate changed hands in 1814, he retired for good, supported in part by a six-thaler-per-month pension from Blücher. Following Landeck's death, the field marshal supported his widow with four thalers each month.
Awe inspiring, the Belling Hussars, or "Der Ganze Tod (Death)" Hussars, wore buff-colored trousers with black Schalavary (overtrousers) edged green, black dolmans with collars and cuffs of black-edged green velvet—the cuffs sporting a green chevron—accented by yellow buttons and twelve green braids, and a black pelisse slung over the left shoulder trimmed with black fur, twelve rows of green braids, and yellow buttons. They adorned their black mirliton with white cords, knots, and tassels, decorating the front with the image of a full skeleton reclining and holding a scythe in its right hand and having its left elbow leaning on an hourglass to thus prop it up. Under the blade of the scythe was the regiment's motto, "Vincere Avt Mori (Victory or Death)." Like the uniform, the regiment's commander, Colonel Belling, was larger than life. At age forty-three, Belling already had twenty-nine years of service in the Prussian army under his belt. He purportedly prayed for insubordinate officers, rode to battle singing hymns, and in times of peace called on the Almighty: "Thou seest, dear Heavenly Father, the sad plight of thee servant Belling. Grant him soon a nice little war so that he may better his condition and continue to praise thy name. Amen." Belling's personality combined openness and trust with piety, devotion to duty, and a commitment to honor.
Excerpted from Blücher by Michael V. Leggiere. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
2. The Red King,
3. False Sense of Security,
4. The Collapse,
5. The Agony of Defeat,
6. The Fifth Coalition,
7. Hope and Despair,
9. The Sixth Coalition,
10. The Spring Campaign,
11. The Armistice,
16. The Spoils of Victory,
18. Auerstedt Avenged,
What People are Saying About This
“In this excellent biography, Michael V. Leggiere reveals Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher in all his various facetshis recklessness, his cunning, his abilities as a commander, his relationships with his own family as well as with the Prussian nobility and royal familyto provide fresh insight into Blücher’s tactical and strategic abilities. Drawing on archival documents from throughout Europe, as well as Blücher’s personal papers, Leggiere portrays a man dominated by his passion to defeat Napoleon and preserve his native Prussiaa commander who ultimately succeeded in doing both at Waterloo.” Donald D. Horward, author of Napoleon and Iberia: The Twin Sieges of Cuidad Rodrigo and Almeida, 1810