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Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815: Anhalt-Dessau, Leopold I, Fürst von

By: Digby Smith

Anhalt-Dessau, Leopold I, Fürst von.  Born 3 July 1676 in Dessau, between Berlin and Leipzig, to Johann Georg II and Henriette Katherina von Oranien; died 1747, also in Dessau. Known as `Der Alte Dessauer` (the old Dessauer), he was the first important reformer of the Prussian army and sovereign prince of the House of Anhalt-Dessau. He was also the most popular Prussian general. At the age of 17 years, in 1693, he was made Chef of Prussian IR Nr 3 and he also succeeded to the throne of his principality and later introduced a programme of civil reforms.

It was as a reformer of the musket drill and tactical performance of the Prussian infantry that he was to become famous. He introduced cadenced marching and, in 1718, he replaced the wooden ramrods of the muskets with iron items, of much greater reliability. His obsession with the infantry meant that similar tactical improvements in the cavalry and artillery did not take place.  

From 2 July – 1 September 1695 he took part in the successful Anglo-Austro-Dutch siege of the French-held city of Namur.  In 1698, much against his parents` wishes, he married the commoner daughter of an apothecary, Anna Luise Föhse. In 1701 the Emperor ennobled her; she acted as regent of Anhalt-Dessau whenever her husband was away on campaign.

From 1701 – 1704 he commanded the Prussian troops in the War of the Spanish Succession and was distinguished against the French in the sieges of Kaiserswerth on the lower Rhine (1702), Venlo (April – June 1702), Bonn (1703) and Huy (1703). In this year he had been promoted to GL and on 20 September he fought at the battle of Höchstädt. On 13 August 1704, he fought in the battle of Blindheim (Blenheim).  In 1705 he led a Prussian corps down to Italy, where he took part in the great battle of Cassano, at the heel of Italy and of Turin (7 September 1706) under Prince Eugene of Savoy.

In 1708 he accompanied Prince Eugene to the Netherlands and in 1709 he fought at the siege of Tournai and the battle of Malplaquet. In 1710 he was given command of the whole Prussian field army.

In 1712 he again commanded the Prussian field army and was promoted to GFM after having taken the fortress of Moers without firing a shot. He became a close companion of King Friedrich Wilhelm I and, although a non-smoker – a member of the Tabakcollegium (Tobacco Society), the king`s smoking club. In the Great Northern War, Prussia entered the lists against Sweden only in 1715; Leopold commanded 40,000 men, and on 16 November of that year, he defeated a smaller Swedish force, under King Charles XII of Sweden on the island of Rügen in the Baltic.

In the subsequent twenty years of peace, Leopold concentrated on perfecting the combat effectiveness of the Prussian infantry, making it the most efficient fighting machine in Europe. Prussian infantry achieved the fastest rates of musketry fire of all European armies, even reaching five shots per minute on some occasions. He also interceded on behalf of Crown Prince Frederick (later Frederick the Great, who had been condemned to death by his father, King Frederick William for desertion), to have him reinstated in the army. In the war of the Polish Succession (1733 – 1735), in his capacity of Imperial Field Marshal, he fought on the Rhine, again under Prince Eugene. 

In 1740 he commanded the Prussian troops which invaded the Austrian province of Upper Silesia in the first Silesian war.

Since the death of Eugene of Savoy (24 April 1736) Prince Leopold was considered as the best general in Europe. He served under Frederick the Great in the second Silesian war (1744 - `45) and Frederick was sometimes at a loss as to how best to command him. On 14 December 1745, at the age of 68, he won a decisive victory over the Saxons at the battle of Kesselsdorf.
However, Moritz`s fortunes underwent a great negative change. At the Battle of Kolin (18 June 1757) he commanded the infantry of the centre, which, through a misunderstanding with the King, was prematurely drawn into action and failed hopelessly. In the disastrous days which followed, Moritz was under the cloud of Frederick's displeasure. In October 1757, Prinz Moritz was left with very inadequate forces to defend Berlin against the daring raid of the Austrian General Graf Hadik auf Futak.

But his glorious Victory of Leuthen December 5, 1757) put an end to this negative spell. At the close of that day, Frederick rode down the lines and called out to General Prince Moritz, "I congratulate you, Herr Feldmarschall!" At Zorndorf (25 August 1758) he again distinguished himself, but at the surprise of Hochkirch (14 October 1758) he fell wounded into the hands of the Austrians. By the wound Moritz suffered a blood poisoning for which he succumbed soon after his release from captivity. Prince Moritz then retired to Dessau. At the news of his death, Frederick the Great just said: "Der Alte Dessauer ist verrecket." (The Old Dessauer is dead).


Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2010


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