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Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815: Braunschweig-Lüneburg, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Erbprinz von

By: Digby Smith


Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Erbprinz von Braunschweig-Lüneburg.

Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand (born 9 October 1735 in Wolfenbüttel, died 10 November 1806 in Ottensen, near Hamburg, from wounds received in the battle of Hochstädt on 14 October) was the eldest son of the Herzog Karl von Braunschweig-Lüneburg and of Philippina Charlotte, the eldest sister of King Frederick II of Prussia. Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand received an unusually wide and thorough education. In his youth, he travelled in Holland, France and various parts of Germany.

In 1757, as Erbprinz (hereditary prince) of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand took part to his first military campaign, with the Allied army of the duke of Cumberland, in Westphalia and Hanover. On July 26 at the battle of Hastenbeck (a French victory), he led the charge of an infantry brigade and recaptured the central battery. The Allied army capitulated at Kloster Zeven but George II the king of Great Britain refused to recognize this capitulation and cashiered the duke of Cumberland, who had signed it.

George II obtained agreement from Frederick II that Herzog Ferdinand of Brunswick, the hereditary prince's uncle, took command of the Allied army. Ferdinand easily persuaded the Erbprinz (hereditary prince) to join him as a general officer. During the ensuing campaigns of the Seven Years' War, the exploits of the Erbprinz gained him further reputation and he became an acknowledged master of irregular warfare. In pitched battles, and in particular at Minden (1 August 1759), Warburg (31 July 1760) and Klostercamp (16 October 1760), he proved himself an excellent subordinate.

In 1764, after the close of the Seven Years' War, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand traveled to England to marryPrincess Augusta von Hannover, daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales. He also managed to meet William Pitt, the prime minister, even if George III wanted to prevent him from doing so. In 1766, he went to France, being received very respectfully by his former enemies. In Paris he, met the author Jean-Francois Marmontel; he then met Voltaire in Switzerland and spent a long time in Rome, exploring the antiquities of the city under the guidance of the classical historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He continued on to Naples, then returned via Paris to Brunswick.

During the next few years, he served his father, duke Karl I of Brunswick. He worked with the minister Feronce von Rotenkreuz to rescue the duchy from the bankruptcy into which the war had brought it. In 1773, he was appointed Chef of IR Nr 21. In 1779, during the second and last year of the Bavarian War of Succession, he held an entrenched position in the mountains near Troppau (nowadays Opava, in Poland) against the Austrian army.

In 1780, whilst still in Prussian service, now as FM, Karl succeeded his father as duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg and came to be regarded as a model ruler. He was perhaps the best representative of the benevolent despot of the 18th century - wise, benevolent, financially prudent and economical. As duke, he strove to keep his duchy from all involvements into foreign affairs while continuing to render important services to the king of Prussia. He was an enthusiastic adherent of the Germanic and anti-Austrian policy of Prussia and joined the Fürstenbund (League of Princes) in which he was the commander-in-chief of the federal army. In 1787, the duke of Brunswick led the army which invaded Holland to suppress the republicans. His success was rapid, complete and almost bloodless. In the eyes of contemporaries, the campaign appeared as an example of perfect generalship.

In 1792, he was appointed to the command of the allied Austro-German army assembled to invade France and crush the Revolution. Ironically, he had been offered supreme command of the French army because of his known sympathy for the French reform.The allied army advanced on Paris, but September 20, was stopped at the `cannonade of Valmy` and withdrew. In 1793, the duke of Brunswick once more assumed command of the army. He won a victory over the French army near Pirmasens. During this battle, he personally led the columns which assaulted the heights of Kiltrichon. At the end of November, he once more defeated the French at the battle of Kaiserlautern. Difficulties at headquarters multiplied, and he found himself unable to issue orders to his army without interference from the king, who had again joined the field army, as in 1792. In exasperation, Karl resigned his command and returned to his duchy, but remained in Prussian service. In 1803, he was sent on a successful diplomatic mission to Russia for the king.

In 1806, at the personal request of queen Louise of Prussia, he consented to command the Prussian army, but here again the presence of the king of Prussia and the conflicting views of numerous advisers of high rank proved fatal. At the battle of Auerstädt, the old duke was mortally wounded. He was carried for nearly a month with the remnants of the Prussian army, but died on 10 November at Ottensen, north of the River Elbe, by Hamburg.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2010


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