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Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801

Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801

Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801

Charles Edward White

Helion & Company (2020), paperback

ISBN: 9781913118990

Pages: 436

Images: 12 b/w maps

Gerhard von Scharnhorst (1755-1813) is recognised for his tireless efforts rebuilding the shattered remnants of the Prussian army after the crushing defeat of Jena-Auerstedt (1806) and his mentorship of Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and credited as the father of modern military theory. Scharnhorst’s reputation is well deserved as one of the great military organisers of the Napoleonic period and whilst there are many biographies written by scholars in German, there has been a lack of an English counterpart until now. Charles Edward White’s Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801, goes some way to fill this gap. His book is the first half of a new biography on Scharnhorst and highlights not only his military achievements, but the wealth of learning and instruction that Scharnhorst acquired over his lifetime.

Beginning with his roots in a family of peasant ancestry in Hanover, White guides us through Scharnhorst’s youth and his dedication to learning. White’s narrative next moves on to describe Scharnhorst’s education and graduation at the top of his class at the military academy in Wilhelmstein, in the County of Schaumburg-Lippe, before moving onto Scharnhorst’s eventual rise to become the leading light of the Hanoverian general staff during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802). The book concludes in 1801 just as Scharnhorst’s departs Hanover for a new appointment with the Prussian Army.

What makes this book such a joy to read is the breadth of the material on offer. Scharnhorst like many of his contemporaries was a child of the Enlightenment, and throughout his life he was inspired by many of the leading German thinkers of his day. White particularly emphasises the importance that Scharnhorst attached to the concept of Bildung, a classical German ideal, which aimed for the perfection of the individual through education and training. Following in the footsteps of Scharnhorst’s own journey to achieve his personal Bildung, White traces this journey and the conclusions it led Scharnhorst to when he started to plan courses and educational material for the next generation of Hanoverian officers. Throughout this exploration of the academic history of Scharnhorst, White delves into many details on the progress of the German Enlightenment and how this inspired the young officer, and by doing so provides a great introduction to the breadth of the subjects investigated during the German Enlightenment and how these inspired Scharnhorst. The subjects engaged with are truly breath-taking, ranging from history to mathematics. White shows that Scharnhorst should be considered amongst the leading lights of Germany’s military enlightenment, alongside figures like Frederick the Great and Clausewitz.

A particularly interesting chapter within this book is devoted to the life of William, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg. Count William is a relatively obscure figure in English histories of Germany in the 18th century, despite serving at Minden and later as commander of the Allied forces in Portugal during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). White highlights how the Count’s cosmopolitan background, including tours of Europe and discussions with her leading generals, encouraged him to produce one of the great military academies of northern Germany within the tiny County of Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg. This chapter’s focus on Count William serves to both highlight this fascinating figure of the 18th century, but also fill in the background to Scharnhorst’s experience at Count William’s academy and the inspiration that led the young Scharnhorst to draw on the latest materials form the German Enlightenment to produce a new cadre of officers for both the Hanoverian and subsequently the Prussian army. 

Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755-1801, is a great biography of this important figure in the history of warfare. White has provided an in-depth dive into Scharnhorst’s education, military career, and the relationships which made him one of the leading reforming figures in the transition from the positional warfare of the Ancien Regime to the total war of Revolutionary France. It makes this book a welcome addition to the history of warfare and the German principalities before their final unification in the 19th century, and I am looking forward to Part Two.

Owen Davis

May 2022