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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

Officers of the Anhalt Duchies who Fought in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1789-1815: Introduction

Award HM

By Daniel Clarke

A Short History of the Anhalt Duchies

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars there were six branches of the House of Anhalt: Anhalt-Bernburg, Anhalt-Bernburg-Schaumburg-Hoym, Anhalt-Dessau, Anhalt-Köthen, Anhalt-Köthen-Pless, and Anhalt-Zerbst. Of these six, five of them were what could be called legitimate branches of the House, while the sixth, Anhalt-Köthen->Pless, was created in 1765 when the younger brother of the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen received land in Prussian Silesia (now Poland), which had once belonged to the Duchy of >Pless (or Pszczyna) and so began to style himself the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen->Pless.

>Before the year 1218 the Principality of Anhalt had in fact been a County ruled by a Count in the mediaeval Duchy of Saxony—which, during the Napoleonic Wars, was the Electorate, then Kingdom of Saxony. However, when the ruling Duke died in 1212 his two sons wanted their own princedoms to rule, so the younger of the two became Duke of Saxony while the elder became Henry I, Prince of Anhalt, and became the founder of the House of Anhalt. A further partition of Anhalt occurred when Prince Henry I died in 1252, when his three sons divided his lands to form the princedoms of Anhalt-Aschersleben (1252-1315), Anhalt-Bernburg (1252-1468), and Anhalt-Zerbst (1252-1396). During the years until 1570 further divisions, or partitions, were made, and smaller princedoms emerged, including Anhalt-Plötzkau (1544-1553), Anhalt-Dessau (1396-1561), and Anhalt-Köthen (1396-1562). In 1570, after an unusual number of deaths amongst the ruling princes, there were only two branches of Anhalt left, which were Anhalt-Dessau and Anhalt-Zerbst. In 1570 Joachim Ernst, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst took the opportunity to unite the remaining two principalities—each of which had inherited lands from the other now extinct branches of the family—and created the unified Principality of Anhalt.

>This united Anhalt did not last for very long, however, because Joachim Ernst had five sons who all wanted a small piece of his principality for themselves. Upon his death in 1586 his sons managed to rule together for some years, but in 1603 they took the decision to take a princedom each, and the principalities that had been made extinct were formed again, bar Anhalt-Aschersleben. During the Thirty Years’ War all of the principalities were badly damaged, although Christian I, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg played an important role against the Holy Roman Empire for which he was banished from his lands for some years until 1624. Later during the 17th Century the House of Anhalt-Köthen became extinct in 1665, but Lebrecht, Prince of Anhalt-Plötzkau gave his lands to the Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg, surrendering his title and taking the princedom of Anhalt-Köthen for himself instead. This is how the situation among the four principalities remained until 1718, when Anhalt-Bernburg was split to create a fifth princedom called Anhalt-Berburg-Schaumburg-Hoym, and even later in 1765, when the Principality of Anhalt-Köthen-Pless was created.

>At the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792 this was situation in the six principalities of Anhalt. Due to their fractious relationship with the Holy Roman Empire led by Austria, three of the six principalities sent no men as contribution to her war effort. However, these houses, which were of Anhalt-Dessau, Anhalt-Köthen, and Anhalt-Köthen-Pless, were not idle during this time, and a number of princes from these houses served as officers in the Prussian army. This was because these princedoms had developed close ties with that kingdom during the century. It also meant that when Prussia left the First Coalition against France they followed suit. The remaining three princedoms of Anhalt-Bernburg, Anhalt-Bernburg-Schaumburg-Hoym, and Anhalt-Zerbst had remained relatively close to Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, although only one principality contributed any men to support her against the French. This was Anhalt-Zerbst, whose prince, Friedrich August (1734-1793) had been banished from his lands in 1758 by King Friedrich II of Prussia after his mother had hid a French lord, who the king believed was a spy, as Prussia and France were then in conflict during the Seven Years’ War. Friedrich August sent a small battalion of infantry and two squadrons of dragoons to the aid of Austria, and when these units were disbanded at the end of 1797, they were incorporated into Austrian regiments. The two Bernburg princedoms contributed no men, but members of both ruling families did hold rank in both the Austrian and Dutch armies.

In 1793 Friedrich August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst died without an heir, and his lands were split equally between Anhalt-Dessau, Anhalt-Köthen and Anhalt-Bernburg in 1796. Later, in 1812, another of the lines ceased to exist when Friedrich, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg-Schaumburg-Hoym (1741-1812) died in December also without heirs, and his lands were split between Anhalt-Bernburg and his grandniece Hermine, Princess of Anhalt-Bernburg-Schaumburg-Hoym, who married Archduke Joseph of Austria (1776-1847) in 1815. This left four principalities by the close of the wars in 1815, and only a handful of years afterward in 1818 Anhalt-Köthen and Anhalt-Köthen-Pless were united, when the rightful prince of Anhalt-Köthen, Ludwig Augustus, died prematurely at a young age without being married.

>In the year 1806 Napoleon formed the Confederation of the Rhine to create a buffer of states between himself and his enemies in Austria and Russia. Anhalt-Bernburg, Anhalt-Dessau and Anhalt-Köthen were essentially coerced into joining this invention, and as part of their membership they also had to provide a battalion of infantry. Anhalt-Dessau was best placed to do this as it had a small jäger battalion already in existence, although it had seen no combat for over a decade. The other two principalities provided men to expand this formation, which created a five company, 800-man battalion by the autumn of 1806. This was expanded to six companies in 1808 and would go on to form the 1st Battalion, 5th (Anhalt-Lippe) Rheinbund Infantry Regiment in 1809. It was practically wiped out in September 1810 at the Battle of La Bisbal in Spain, when most of the officers and men were captured and sent first to the island of Mallorca, and later to Britain as prisoners of war. It was rebuilt again during the winter of 1811-1812, and served in the Danzig (Gdansk) garrison in 1813 when that place was besieged by a Russian army. The principalities were also forced to recruit a small cavalry regiment in early 1813 that served with the French, but the unit suffered from much desertion and was destroyed at the Battle of Kulm in late 1813. After the Allies occupied them, the principalities recruited infantry units for them as well, which went on to serve in Belgium and the Netherlands in February and March 1814, and later in the 1815 campaign.[1]


[1] For a condensed, short and English language history of the Anhalt principalities see Chisholm, Hugh, ‘Anhalt’, Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Volume II, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1911, pages 44-46. For more detailed, but German language histories, see the works of, Bertram, Philipp Ernst and Johann C. Krause, Geschichte des Hauses und Fürstenthums Anhalt, Volume II, Halle, Johann Jacob Curt, 1782; Michaelis, August Benedict, Einleitung zu Einer Vollstandigen Geschichte den chur und Furstlichen Hauser in Deutschland, Volume III, Lemgo, Germany, Meyer, 1785; Siebigk, Ferdinand, Das Herzogtum Anhalt: Historisch, Geographisch und Statisch Dargestelt, Dessau, A. Desbarat, 1867



Placed on the Napoleon Series: June - November 2017


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