Old Cows and Old Warhorses.
Prussia had been no less backwards than any of the other allies in gathering men to invade France in 1815. However deciding on a leader as usual was fraught with military and governmental politics. Prussia’s greatest hero, 71 year old Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt had sent a letter of resignation to King Frederick Wilhelm on the 17th of March. The old general felt Prussia had been treated unfairly in the Congress of Vienna, for the Congress had been very backward in awarding many of the German principalities to her care.
Blücher was sensible of his reputation and that many in the army would not understand why he was trying to resign when Napoleon was on the loose, so he wrote to his trusted Chief of Staff in plain terms, he was honoured to have served in the last war but he was equally happy at having been left out of the peace, as “We drove in a fine old bull and have got in return a dried up old cow”.
August Neidhardt von Gneisenau was an uncompromising soldier, as a young man he had travelled to America to fight Britain’s colonial rebels, however he had missed the fighting and had subsequently distinguished himself in many conflicts since. The man eked the traditions of the officer corps from every pore, indeed he was the architect of it, and replied to his old chief in a like manner. “Permit me to make the following observation, Field Marshal’s of the Prussian army are not allowed to resign”
King Frederick seemingly confirmed this by replying that he had been unable to grant his request, and on the 19th of March appointed him commander of the Army of the Lower Rhine massing under General Kleist. He accepted his post with great enthusiasm, all thoughts of retirement seemingly banished, he was determined to start hostilities as soon as was possible.
Blücher arrived at his headquarters on 21 April to find none of the organisational problems that beset Wellington, nor the manpower shortage that faced Napoleon. The main thing the other two leaders had in common was the diplomatic and political ones. For Wellington was deeply unpopular with his Dutch soldiers and the Hanoverians were resentful, and Napoleon didn’t have a clue who he could trust or what would happen when his back was turned. Blücher’s issue did not really come from any of these factors, but came largely from disgruntled national contingents within his own army and a lack of money.
Blücher had a strong army in 1815. It consisted of Four Corps d’Armée consisting of some 130,000 men and 283 guns. It was composed of forced drawn from its newly acquired territories, it’s national Landwehr and regiments of the line. The Prussian army had an staff organisation that was unique in Europe, and at the same time very close to the efficient model that Napoleon had used to defeat them in 1806. Whereas in other armies officers reported straight of one commander, in the Prussian army most things went through a chief of staff of disseminated it and passed it on, in battle the Chief of Staff could even overrule the the commanding general if his orders seemed to counteract the traditions of the service. In this sense he was the guardian of the spirit of the army and made sure to keep the commander in chief in line, something that was definitely required when it came to Marshal Blücher, who was less of a strategist than a daring combat commander and beloved figurehead.
For analytical brains and organisation the king counted on the cautious Count von Gneisenau, one of the main forces behind the reorganisation of the army, indeed the King thought he was too smart even for his own good. Gneisenau had found it unsupportable for Blücher to resign, however that didn’t mean that he wanted Blücher to have the job. He felt that he was a shoe in for command, but despite having the King’s respect he did not have enough of it to command the King’s army. Like Napoleon realising that Ney was the key to uniting the soul of the army, Frederick saw that Blücher’s charisma would do the same for his own. It was a decisive decision that would have far reaching consequences in June.
King Frederick’s cabinet wrote to Gneisenau at the end of March telling him that he had no orders for him other than to coordinate his campaign with Wellington and “to act in agreement with him in all things” he also gave him the power to countermand Blücher if necessary. Essentially Gneisenau had been give tacit control and swallowed his pride in terms of losing out of official command to Blücher, but in terms of working with the British, that was to be a sticking point throughout the campaign. There were many in the Prussian general staff that were more than aware that the Duke had been at the forefront of the negotiations at Vienna which Blücher had felt left out of. Gneisenau would be unable to work with Wellington without thinking of a hidden agenda and indeed thinking of the bigger picture, keeping the Prussian army alive to maintain his country’s position after the war.
Saxon flags & British purse strings.
Blücher had a large and well organised army but it was one that the Prussian state couldn’t afford to pay for its subsistence. Especially after Wellington requested that the Army of the Lower Rhine move closer to his eastern flank in April.
Despite the fame of their victories in 1813-14. France had died hard, and it had drained the treasury to finish her, now when Napoleon returned and the Prussians left sovereign soil they didn’t have the resources to sustain themselves. The Dutch informed them that they had no intention of supplying them while in their territory. Realistically it was probably too much for the state to supply two large armies at once. Soon after he arrived at the new headquarters at Liege Blücher had to ask Wellington for a loan to cover their most basic requirements in return for supporting him, making it necessary to keep on good terms. Luckily Blücher and Wellington had recognised the soldier in each other, assuring that no funny business would enter into any plans they might make, despite the suspicions of Gneisenau.
Trouble began to brew in May and it was not from the Dutch Belgians, nor the French but from a national contingent within the Prussian army.
The division of the state of Saxony and the ill treatment of their king was a festering point of animosity between Prussia and its newest acquisition. Saxon regiments, once some of Napoleon’s staunchest allies, objected to their loss of Sovereignty to Prussia and were appalled to find out they were to be subsumed into a foreign army and become Prussians, especially since they had yet to be released of their oath to their own King. The last straw came when their divisional commander General Lecoq was replaced by General Theilemann. Gneisenau, a hereditary Saxon himself, went to discuss the situation but was angry at reports of Saxons toasting Napoleon and the meeting turned sour. The chief of staff told them in no uncertain terms that he was prepared to send them to Napoleon rather than have them stay as false friends.
Hoping to win over the Saxons Blücher had appointed two battalions to guard his HQ at Liege. But just after the meeting on the 2nd of May the Saxon Guard Grenadiers appeared at the field marshal’s door to protest the decision to separate them. Blücher ordered them to disperse. Stones and insults were thrown but the officers managed to temporarily diffuse the situation.
The Grenadiers returned at nightfall without their officers and thought to be drunk. Prussian staff officers went outside to order them to stand down, but they ignored them and tried to rush the building. Held at bay by the swords of the Prussian staffers, they subjected the HQ to a barrage of stones. Blücher was hurriedly spirited out the back door amid smashing glass panes grasping for his sabre.
The mutiny temporarily cost Blücher the town however as tempers cooled he was able to issue orders to the Saxon officers, embarrassed at the incident, he had the Saxons replaced by Prussians the next day, but when two further battalions mutinied and another refused to salute him he grew furious, he had the Saxons surrounded and disarmed.
Though the Field Marshal, who knew the value of a soldiers pride, had initial felt sorry for the Saxons, his chief of staff had never flinched. Soon the majority of the Prussian high command was dead against any leniency, bar General von Borstell (who was later court marshalled), for fear of inciting the Pomeranians, Silesians and Westphalians to mutiny as well. The Saxon contingent was ordered to give up the ringleaders or one man from each company would be shot. Eight men were produced and were sentenced to death, seven were shot on the 6th of May in front of their regiments, though the youngest was reprieved, and orders were sent out that the Saxon Guards were to be disarmed and their colours burned.
As the flames devoured the pride of Saxony, embroidered by their queen’s own hand, it burnt not only a lesson into every Saxon heart that this was the Prussian army, but resentment too and a hope of Napoleonic success. Blücher growled threats that he would restore order even if he had to shoot the lot, and elicited a proclamation from Saxon King, who wrote that the current measures were against his wishes, but his men should do their duty, but he also informed the British consul that if his men were not removed from Prussian command he would order their withdrawal himself. It is perhaps now that he floated the idea of giving them to Wellington, indeed Blücher wanted to give them to Wellongton too, but the Duke would have found it diplomatically unsupportable to do assume command and would not have wanted them either given their sympathies. Gneisenau decide to use his executive powers and dismissed the entire 14,000 strong Saxon corps. Blücher was glad to see the back of them “I am pleased to be free of the Saxons” he wrote in early June. But it was a high cost to pay for peace of mind when before long every man would be needed.
By May the Prussians had fully arrived and together the two armies formed a perimeter of some 100 miles in length along the Belgian Frontier, and stretching back some 40 miles towards Brussels. Blücher’s lines of communication running from Namur to Maastricht and Cologne, almost the direct opposite way to Wellington’s which ran through Ghent and Bruges to Ostend and Antwerp.
So it was that a large, well organised but vaguely dispirited and divided Prussian force, partly mistrustful of their allies and dented by recent political schisms prepared to meet Napoleon, Blücher’s biggest fear was shared by Wellington when they met at Tirlemont on the 3rd of May, that Napoleon who had moved his army to the frontier, would strike first, however they would have to wait until at least July for the other allied armies to reach the borders of France, and Napoleon wasn’t in the mood to wait that long.
Waterloo New Perspectives, David Hamilton Williams.
Waterloo 1815 (2) Ligny, John Franklin.
Great Generals of the Napoleonic Wars and their Battles 1805-1815, Andrew Uffindell
Waterloo, Christopher Hibbert.
Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon, Michael V Leggiere.