Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815: Keith, James Francis Edward

By: Digby Smith

Keith, James Francis Edward, Field Marshal

Born on 11 June 1696 in the castle of Inverugie, near Peterhead, Scotland, died on 14 October 1758 of wounds in the battle of Hochkirch. He was the second son of William, 9th Earl Marischal of Scotland. He is perhaps best remembered as the inventor of the Kriegspiel. James Keith, ‘having an elder brother (the last Earl Marischal, the friend of Frederick the Great), James was intitled to no other designation but simply that of his name, as the family honours, in many estates of Europe, belong exclusively to the eldest son.’ Of a fervent Jacobite stock, both he and his brother took the wrong side in the ’rebellion of 1715 and were forced to flee Scotland. He decided to take service under other flags. Initially, he entered that of Spain, but, being a Protestant, his prospects were extremely limited. He then decided to try his luck in Russia and was fortunate enough to gain a recommendation to the Tsar, Peter II of Russia, who granted him a commission.

Keith arrived in Moscow in 1729, and at once gained the favours of the young sovereign, (partly taught in military matters by the Scot, Captain Bruce) who gave him a lieutenant-colonel’s commission in a newly-raised regiment of guards and of which Count Lowenwolde was Colonel. He rose rapidly, because he always did his military duty and refused to meddle in court politics.

Keith steered well clear of the Tsar`s mentor, Prince Ivan Dolgoruky and thought him to be: `much fitter to direct a pack of hounds (which had been his study the greatest part of his life), than such a vast empire.’

He was soon in the field against Sweden in the Great Northern War, where he was active in the reduction of the fortress of Willmannstrand. The war went on until

the capture of Helsingfors and the Åland Islands forced the cession of Karelia to Russia in 1721. It was in Wilmannstrand that he met an orphan prisoner, Eva Merthens, who became his mistress, the love of his life. To her and her children by him he left all his money.

The Tsar died in 1730 and Keith took the oath of alliegance to the new Tsarina, Anna Ivanovna, Duchess of Courland (niece of Peter the Great), who came from Mittau, near Riga in Latvia, to assume the Russian throne. Keith was made lieutenant-colonel of her bodyguard, a pivotal position. When the Polish war came in 1733, he found himself serving under the Irish Catholic, General de Lacy. The Russians besieged Danzig in 1734; after its fall, Keith was promoted to Lieutenant-General. But Keith did not like the work of pacifying Poland, which task he thought ‘not a very honourable one.’ He  next fought in the war against Prussia, and then against the Turks in the Ukraine. Keith was wounded in the knee at Otchakoff, 2nd July 1737. ‘I had sooner,’ said the Tsarina Anna, ‘lose ten thousand of my best soldiers than Keith.’

Although this latter war was successful, culminating in the capture of Jassy in 1739, Keith protested against his commander, General von Münnich’s waste of human life. Von Munnich was a German from Oldenburg

Keith now visited Paris and London, where he was viewed as a great general, his Jacobite past being conveniently glossed over. On his return to Russia, he was appointed Governor of the Ukraine; his humane rule made him judged to be one of the best Governors that unfortunate country had ever had.

On the death of the Tsarina Anna on 28th October, 1740, her grandnephew, the minor, Ivan Antonovitch (of Brunswick) was declared Tsar. For twenty-two days Anna`s favourite, Johann Ernst Biron, Duke of Courland, acted as Regent, but there then occurred a palace revolution, by which the boy Tsar’s mother, Anna Leopoldovna, was declared Regent instead. Her rule was weak and brief, ending suddenly on 25th November, 1741, when her mother’s cousin, Elizabeth (younger daughter of Peter the Great) put herself at the head of her Guards, assumed the title of Tsarina, and sent the deposed royal family into permanent exile.

Keith acknowledged the new Tsarina without hesitation; and after the example of his friend and countryman, Lascy (Lacy), took the oath of allegiance again.

Foreign officers in Russian service enjoyed less success under Elizabeth than they had under Anna, and  Generals Douglas, Keith,, Lieven and Lowendahl, soon all tendered their resignations.

To bribe him to stay in her service, Elizabeth offered Keith the command in chief in the war against the Persians and the Order of St. Andrew, Keith stayed, took the Order, but did not accept the command.

War with Sweden broke out again (War of the Austrian Succession 1740 – 1748) and Keith was involved. He was very successful, later appointed commander-in-chief of the army on that front and Ministerplenipotentiary to Sweden, receiving ceremonial swords and honours galore.

Keith also fought in the Prussian campaign (1741 – 1743), in that same war and next year had his troops reviewed by the Tsarina at Narva. His star was now on the wane, however, his commands were removed one by one. It is said that the amorous Empress wished to marry him, and he feared Siberia if he refused.

Be that as it may, Keith had tired of Russian service; his brother was forbidden, as a Jacobite, to visit him at Riga, and in 1747 he was allowed to resign his commission. He promptly entered the service of Frederick the Great of Prussia as a field marshal. Two years later, he was appointed governor of Berlin. In 1756, at the outbreak of the Seven Years` War, he commanded the troops covering the siege of the Saxon army at Pirna, and distinguished himself at the battle of Lobositz. In 1757, he commanded at the siege of Prague and later in this same campaign he defended Leipzig against a greatly superior force. Keith was present at the great Prussian victory of Rossbach, and, while the king was fighting the campaign of Leuthen, he conducted a raid into Bohemia.

In 1758 he was again in the field, only to die, leading a desperate attempt to turn the tide in the Prussian defeat in the battle of Hochkirch, 14th October, 1758. He was buried on the field with military honours by the Austrian Marshal Daun and General Lacy (the son of his old commander in Russia). Soon afterwards, his body was transferred by Frederick to the garrison church of Berlin.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2011


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