Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815: Preussen, August Wilhelm, Prinz von

Preussen, August Wilhelm, Prinz von

He was brother of Frederick the Great and eleventh son of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. In 1744 he received the title `Prinz in Preussen` and  was Crown Prince to his brother. He was born on 9 August 1714, died on 12 June 1758. He was known as Wilhelm; he entered the army at an early age, as was the custom, and in 1741 was promoted to GM in the cavalry. In 1745 he was promoted to GL and two years later to GdI. He was a benevolent and very popular officer, well loved by his younger brothers, princes Heinrich and Ferdinand. These laid the blame for his early death at Frederick`s door and never forgave him for it. Much of the animosity against the king, which existed in their circle of friends originated from this. Among these were von Behrenhorst, von Gaudi, von Retzow and von Kalkreuth, Following his defeat by the Austrians under FM Graf von Daun in the battle of Kollin (18 June 1757), King Frederick was forced to raise the siege of Prague; he then divided his army. That part on the right bank of the River Elbe (52 battalions and 80 squadrons), he gave command of to Prince Moritz von Anhalt-Dessau, a man of proven courage, an excellent subordinate commander but unsuited for independent command. Moritz proposed to withdraw north to Zittau in Saxony, east of Dresden, but the king forbade this and heavily criticized the whole idea. Frederick gave command of the other half of the army (30,000 strong) to his brother, Wilhelm, with generals von Winterfeld and von Schmettau as close advisers. At this point, Frederick`s part of the army was around Leitmeritz (Litomerici), midway between Prague and Dresden, that of Prince Wilhelm was at Jungbunzlau (Mlada Boleslav) on the River Iser (Jizera) almost 100 km off to the east. The aim was for the army to reunite at Bautzen, northeast of Dresden.

When Prince Wilhelm took command, he was given orders by the king to stay at Leitmeritz on the Elbe for as long as possible and to maintain a ten-day supply of bread with the army at all times. This was so that he would be able to advance east to the defence of the fortress of Schweidnitz (Swidnice) if the Austrians invaded Silesia. He was also to raise reinforcements in Silesia and use them to escort convoys of flour to the army at Zittau and to scout out and report on all possible routes in the area. Prince Wilhelm found the magazines in Jungbunzlau, north of Prague, to be empty. On 1 July von Daun crossed the Elbe and pushed a force under General von Nadasdy to within 7 km of Jungbunzlau. Prince Wilhelm withdrew two marches to Neuschloss (?), where he left the direct route to Gabel and Zittau and went north to Böhmisch-Leypa (Ceska-Lipa) about 70 km south of Bautzen and 50 km northwest of Gabel. This was halfway between the king and Zittau.

The king approved both withdrawals in retrospect, but wrote: `If you withdraw any further, you will soon have your back to the gates of Berlin.`  

On 7 July, von Daun reached Münchengrätz (Mnichovo Hradiste), about 35 km east of the Prince`s position in Böhmisch-Leypa. To avoid a battle, Prince Wilhelm sought permission to withdraw to Gabel, south of Zittau, which the king gave on 5 July, but added that the Prince should then fortify his position, concentrate all possible forces in Silesia with him and advance south again to Neuschloss, as that would be the best way to force von Lothringen to abandon any further offensive moves. Prince Wilhelm had held a council of war on 14 July, which General von Winterfeld missed, due to illness. Here, it was decided neither to withdraw to, nor to fortify Gabel, nor to march to join the king`s part of the army (now at Leitmeritz, to the southwest, on the River Elbe). Instead, it was decided to march northeast to the main magazine at Zittau (away from the king) via Kaunitz (?) and Rumburg (?), as one officer had said that `The roads were good and there was an Austrian corps on the better road through Georgenthal.` This, it transpired, was the worst possible decision, as the information was simply wrong on all counts.

The Austrians under General Graf Maquire von Inniskilin (sic), took Gabel and the magazines in the town on 15 July. The Prussian garrison of 2,000 men of IRs Nr 43 and 46, under GM Nikolaus Lorenz von Puttkammer were mostly captured.

On 17 July Prussian General von Schmettau was sent off to reinforce the garrison of Zittau, but he arrived only on 19 July, which was too late, as we shall see. Prince Wilhem followed; the mountain roads were narrow and led through forests from which Austrian light troops (Grenzer, hussars and Croats) under generals Gideon von Laudon, Emmerich Morocs, Andreas Hadik, Lewin Freiherr von Beck, Sigismund Graf Maquire and the Herzog von Arenberg mounted a series of crippling ambushes, causing traffic jams and splitting up the columns. The weather was awful, the drivers fled, some 2,000 soldiers deserted and the ammunition wagons, rations and pontoons were abandoned on the road.

Meanwhile, the Austrians, under GM Graf Maquire, had fallen upon Zittau on 19 July and bombarded the place, setting fire to the rations for 40,000 men for three weeks. On 23 July Zittau surrendered, while Prince Wilhelm, with a force superior to that of the Austrians, was stuck in the woods about 10 km away. The Prussian garrison (IRs Nr 37, 49 and the grenadiers of IR Nr 42 under Oberst von Diericke) surrendered. Following this disaster, Prince Wilhelm withdrew northwest for five days to Bautzen; he was not pursued, but his army dissolved behind him.

King Frederick arrived at Bautzen  on 29 July; the atmosphere between the royal brothers was icy. As the Prince sought to hand over his report, the king wheeled his horse and rode off.

With the exception of von Winterfeld (his ADC and favourite), the king was extremely critical of all the generals who had been with the Prince. Their debacle had forced the king to abandon Bohemia  and the whole army was demoralized. The magazines at Zittau and Gabel, the towns themselves and the entire supply train had been lost, all due to Prince Wilhelm and his advisors. The king ordered GL von Winterfeld to convey his displeasure to the Crown Prince and the rest of his generals:

`You all deserve to be court-martialled for your conduct; you deserve to lose your heads, but the king does not wish to push this matter so far, as he cannot forget that one general is also his brother.`

The prince wrote to the king on 30 July:

`My dear brother, the letter which you have written and the manner of my reception by you yesterday tell me plainly enough that I have lost my honour and my reputation. This troubles me, but does not destroy me, as I do not accept that I have anything to be ashamed of. I think it will be of no use to ask you to subject my conduct to an enquiry, which would be a great favour. My state of health is poor due to the strains and worries of the recent past and I have taken lodgings in the town in order to recover.`

The king replied:

`Your poor conduct has placed me in a terrible situation. It is not the enemy, but your poor orders, which have caused the damage, my generals are to not to be excused, as they advised you so badly, or allowed you to influence them to accept your bad decisions. Your ears are used only to listening to the words of flatterers, but Daun did not flatter you. I shall fight and if we cannot win, we shall all die. I do not complain about your heart, but about your incompetence and judgement. . . `

Prinz Wilhelm`s command was given to the Herzog von Braunschweig-Bevern. Shortly after this, the prince left the army and returned to his castle at Oranienburg, where he soon died, mourned by his family, the army and the people.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011

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