Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815: Massenbach, Christian Karl August Ludwig, Freiherr von und zu

By: Digby Smith

Massenbach, Christian Karl August Ludwig, Freiherr von und zu

Born 16 April 1758 in Schmalkalden, southwest of Erfurt, northern Germany; the family then moved to Massenbach (the traditional family seat), near Heilbronn in Württemberg. Christian was educated at Heilbronn and Stuttgart, in where he studied mathematics, strategy and tactics. His father, Georg Wilhelm von Massenbach, was a senior forester, who died in 1788. In 1772, Christian Karl entered the Württemberg Garde zu Fuss as a cadet and was commissioned into that corps two years later. The duke then employed him in his academy in Stuttgart, as professor for `mathematics, tactics and strategy`, an amazing role for a 24 year-old. But this was not enough for our young hero; he translated a French work on ballistics and sent it to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. The king responded by offering him a post on the army staff and in 1783, von Massenbach abandoned his position in Stuttgart and journeyed to Berlin. To eke out his meager salary, he wrote mathematical school-books in his spare time and also tutored young Prince Louis Ferdinand in mathematics and war studies. From 1785 he published the `Militärische Monatsschrift` (Military Monthly) magazine. In 1787, he took part with credit in the expedition into the Netherlands, and was awarded the PLM. He then taught mathematics at the Potsdam school of military engineering. In 1791 he was promoted Maj and appointed Flügeladjutant to the king. From 1792 to 1794, he took the field against France as an officer on the general staff. He was awarded a Prebend (stipend) from the bishopric of Minden for his services as a topographical engineer on the day of Valmy (20 September 1792). He then published his memoirs of this war. His main interest was the improvement of the working of the general staff and many of his proposals were adopted and survived the catastrophe of 1806-7. He was also an advocate of the fortification of Prussia`s eastern frontier and of forging a close alliance with France, whose republican government system he much admired. In 1802, he and David von Scharnhorst founded the Military Society in Berlin, which was influential in improving the education of officers of the Prussian staff. Massenbach was now Obst on the staff, and in 1805 was appointed QMG (Chief of Staff) to Fürst von Hohenlohe, later to command the right wing of the Prussian army in 1806. Prior to the outbreak of the war, von Massenbach presented a plan for the coming campaign, which included the following passage: `The army will seek out the enemy, wherever he might be, . . . . they will destroy whatever opposes them, with no regard to what the enemy has deployed on our flanks; we have no flanks and no rear areas, for we live where we stand. `Like a huge, rolling river, (the army) will overwhelm all in its path; the enemy`s manoevers against our flanks will soon evaporate like mist.`

Fairly revolutionary strategic thinking for an officer of the early XIX Century, but, despite these ravings, von Massenbach retained his position as chief of staff and the plan even received royal approval. By now, he had blinded his commander, Fürst von Hohenlohe (a fellow Württemberger), with such gobbledegook and was regarded by him almost as a mystic. Von Massenbach was a self-confessed Francophile and was opposed to the impending war against France, and was soon able to exert fatally damaging influence on his commander`s decisions. Massenbach`s intervention at the battle of Jena led directly to the critical cancellation of Hohenlohe`s planned assault on the first elements of the Grande Armee, as they deployed up onto the plateau of the Landgrafenberg on 13 October.

Having followed von Massenbach`s fatal advice not to throw the French off the plateau, Fürst von Hohenlohe returned to his HQ in Kapellendorf and did nothing, leaving Napoleon all night in which to move his army into position on the line Kospeda – Klosewitz – Rödigen. His proposed assault was the correct thing to have done in the circumstances and may well have snuffed out the mortal danger that the superior French army presented at this point. Next morning, the French rolled forward to crush the numerically inferior Prussians. The remnants of von Hohenlohe`s army capitulated at Prenzlau on 28 October, a move supported by Massenbach in a council of war, held prior to that event.

Following the war, von Massenbach was removed from the army list and his pension was withheld. There were many in the Prussian army who thought that Massenbach had played a crucial role in their defeat and there were moves to have him court-martialled. These were frustrated by Hohenlohe`s insistence of assuming all the guilt himself. Even so, Massenbach`s enemies continued to act against him. At the end of 1807, von Massenbach even went so far as to accuse General von Blücher of being responsible for the capitulation of Prenzlau. In February 1808, von Massenbach and another francophile colleague, closet Jacobin and professional journalist, Friedrich Buchholz, published a book in French and German (`Die Gallerie Preussischer Charactere`or Gallery of Prussian Characters) lampooning twelve each of the top Prussian military and civil dignitaries. Massenbach had (possibly unwittingly) provided most of the data on many of the unfortunate characters and Buchholz tipped these items with poisonous barbs in the finished texts. Massenbach was embarrassed, horrified, to recognize himself as the source of much of the book, and most of the targets in the text soon knew who had supplied the ammunition to Buchholz. Von Massenbach quickly retired to his estate (a gift from the Prussian king in 1798) in Bialokosz, south-west of Gdansk (now in Poland) at the end of 1808 and continued his writings, including ever-more-shrill defence of his conduct in the war of 1806, against his vociferous critics.

When his estate became part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, he chose to remain a Prussian subject and wrote several pamphlets on the war of 1806, and, in 1808, his four-volume memoirs of the recent war, heavy with anti-Prussian sentiment and anecdotes. The first three of these volumes were published in Leipzig in 1809; they aroused such indignation in the Prussian court and army, that Friedrich Wilhem III contacted the king of Saxony, Friedrich August and made it plain, that the heralded fourth volume should not be printed. The existing unsold stocks of his books were shredded.

Perhaps too late, von Massenbach realized that he had overstepped several marks; on 10 April 1810, he wrote a groveling apology to Friedrich Wilhelm, promising immediate and eternal silence on such topics. Now, von Massenbach threw himself into his autobiography. At the outbreak of the War of Liberation in 1813, he applied for a post on the staff of the army, but was refused. In 1816, he moved back to his native Württemberg and became politically active, as was his right under the newly-introduced national constitution. As usual, his outspokenness and republicanism soon led to his expulsion from that state. He moved to Frankfurt / Main, from where he continued his political battle with his monarch over the constition. On 4 June 1817, the exasperated King Wilhelm I dissolved the infant parliament and tore up the constitution. Still failing to realize the realities of his position, von Massenbach threatened to publish his forbidden memoirs of the war of 1806, unless he was paid the 57,500 Reichsthaler, that the Prussian king owed him from his unpaid pension. This was finally too much; in the night of 18 / 19 August 1817, he was arrested in Frankfurt and extradited to Küstrin fortress in Prussia. Here he was tried for exposing state secrets, the charges including his responsibilities in the capitulation of Prenzlau. The trial lasted until 26 February 1819; he was found guilty and sentenced to be cashiered and to serve fourteen years imprisonment in Glatz fortress. Here, he continued writing, but publication was denied on the usual grounds of the fiery political content of the manuscript. The king pardoned him in 1826 and Massenbach died on 21 November 1827 on his estate in Bialokosz.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2011


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