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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars  1793-1815

Prussian Generals of the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815: Gneisenau, August Wilhelm Anton Neidhardt von

By: Digby Smith

Gneisenau, August Wilhelm Anton Neidhardt von, MG. Chief of Staff, Army of Silesia in 1813.

Born on 27 October 1760 in Schildau, Kreis Torgau, northeast of Leipzig, to a Lt in the artillery of the Electorate of Mainz; died on 23 August 1831 in Posen, now Posnan, Poland. The family Gneisenau originated in Austria and then moved to Swabia, southwest Germany. Young Gneisenau studied in the Jesuit college inWürzburg and spoke French, English, Polish and some Italian. He then went to the university of Erfurt. Here, there were running fights between the students and the cobblers and in one such brawl Gneisenau apparently killed a cobbler. He at once went to the Austrian recruiting office in the town and entered Austrian military service on 1 December 1778 in the Wurmser Hus R. The unit left for Bohemia the next day. One day, Gneisenau caught his squadron commander molesting a local girl; in the ensueing scuffle both men drew their swords - Gneisenau had to flee a second time. In 1779 he transferred to the service of Anspach as cadet in the Jägers. In 1781 he was promoted to Kpl in the IR von Reitzenstein; on 3 March 1782 he was commissioned as Ult, in the Anspach Jägerkorps. From 1782 - 1783 he served in America for the British, but the fighting was already over. Back in Bayreuth, Gneisenau found peacetime soldiering too boring so he resigned and applied for Prussian service. On 4 November 1785 he wrote to King Frederick the Great of Prussia requesting a post; the king was not impressed with Gneisenau`s American war service. `Die Leute, die aus Amerika zurückkommen, bilden sich ein, Wunder, was sie vom Kriege verstehen, und müssen denn doch in Europa erst wieder anfangen, Krieg zu lernen. So Ich Euch in Antwort melde.`(The people who come back from America imagine that they understand everything about warfare, but they then have to start all over again in Europe. That is my answer to you.)

  Despite this however, on 8 February 1786, Gneisenau was appointed  Sklt in the king`s staff and attached to Oberst von Hanstein who was raising the Freiregiment von Chaumontet. On 31 July of that year, he became the youngest Prlt in the Prussian army in this regiment. As he was absolutely penniless, Gneisenau asked the king for a loan and was granted Thlr 50 to buy his equipment and uniform. He did not receive his full salary until 2 August 1787. In the meantime, his Freiregiment had been split up into fusilier battalions and on 2 June 1787, he transferred to Füs Bn von Schurff Nr 15. Gneisenau helped to obtain commissions for his two step brothers; Jakob Johann (born on 5 December 1773 in Erfurt; distinguished in the clash at Rawka; died 24 June 1805 in Brieg as Sklt in the Oberschl Füs Bde) and Wilhelm (born on 9 February 1776 in Erfurt. He became Sklt, IR von Treuenfels Nr 29 and resigned on 7 July 1802).

On 25 June 1790 Gneisenau was promoted to Stkpt, in the Füs Bn von Forcade Nr 15. From 1794 - 1795 he fought in the war in Poland, being engaged at Rawka and Skala and at the blockade of Czenstochau. On 17 November he was promoted to Kapt in the Füs Bn von Rabenau Nr 13.

Gneisenau, like Scharnhorst, was a keen student of military history and of current military developments; he studied Napoleon`s campaigns and the new tactics used by the French army. In 1801 Gneisenau attended the great manoeuvers of the Prussian army at Potsdam and had serious doubts as to whether these tactics would be effective against the new methods of the French army. In 1803 he published a pamphlet on fighting in extended order. At this time he suffered from gout and went to take the waters at Bad Landeck. He also bought a farm, Gut Mittel-Kaufingen near Jauer, west of Bautzen and spent time learning how to run it. The report on him by his commander, Rabenau in 1804 said: `Voller Diensteifer und gutem moralischen Betragen, viele Kenntnisse und Mathematik, Literatur, zeichnet gut, spricht fronzösisch, englisch, etwas polnisch und italienisch. `  (He is full of eagerness for the service, has good moral behaviour and is well read, in mathematics, literature, he draws well, speaks French, English, some Polish and Italian.)

In the war of 1806 he was wounded in the leg and distinguished at the clash at Saalfeld; despite his wound and considerable losses due to repeated attacks by strong French cavalry, he led his company back to their own lines in good order. At Jena he was given the task of escorting the French ambassador to the Prussian king`s headquarters but asked to be allowed to stay and fight on Rüchel`s staff so someone else took over the ambassador. He then took part in the desperate charge of 16 Prussian battalions against 79 French. After the general was wounded, Gneisenau tried to rally the men at Webicht near Weimar but it was now impossible. Gneisenau escaped to Ostpreussen with great difficulty and on 2 December 1806 was taken onto Maj Graf Götzen`s staff. On 6 December 1806 he was promoted to Maj at General Rüchel`s urging and attached to a Pomeranian Res Bn; Three days later, he was sent to Königsberg to help Maj Bronikowski to form new battalions there. In April 1807 he broke through to the besieged Danzig with two of these battalions where, on 11 April, he received the king`s order to take command in the besieged fortress of Colberg where the commandant, Oberst Lucadou, was seen as too passive in the face of the then smaller besieging force, was at odds with the civilian population and had placed the fiery hussar officer, von Schill, in arrest for disobedience.

As soon as he inspected the place, Gneiseau recognised the weak spots of the defences and correctly predicted where the assaults would come. He at once started taking corrective action. The entire civilian poulation of the place was mobilised to help in the work, even the women and children and the PWs. Gneisenau extended the area of the eastern defences so that there was no chance of enemy artillery fire hitting the town or harbour and also giving him room to deploy to make sorties. The key point of the defence was the Wolfsberg hill and it was strongly fortified.

On 15 May 1807, the king approved the following uniform for the defenders of Colberg: dark blue coat, white lining, collar and cuffs, yellow buttons, white waistcoats and breeches. Bicorn with gold lace loop and button; black leather belt with a brass plate bearing the crest of the town. They carried a sabre of the same pattern as the Bergwerks-und Hutten-Departement (Mining Department) and wore no epaulettes or Portepees.

The siege lasted from 20 March to 2 July 1807 before the French withdrew; on 2 July Marshal Mortier (commanding the siege) doffed his hat to Gneisenau on the ramparts in recognition of his spirited defence. During the siege, Gneisenau wrote a paper outlining the need for new regulations for the light infantry which he presented to the king on 27 February 1807 and which was approved by him for implementation on 5 March of the same year. On 25 July 1807 he was appointed a member of the Committee of Reorganization and began to work together with von Scharnhorst and Freiherr von Stein. He and Scharnhorst were soon at daggers drawn with the more conservative committee members. On 17 August 1807 he was awarded the PLM and appointed Amtshauptmann (High Constable) of Zehden. On 26 August 1807 he was promoted to Obst Lt.

On 14 January 1808 the disagreements on the Committee had now become so bitter that Gneisenau tendered his resignation; the king refused to accept it. When Grolmann and von Boyen joined the Committee, the reformers won the upper hand. On 29 January 1808 he was appointed to be a member of the Investigatory Commission into the causes of the disasters of 1806. On 15 February 1808 the king offered to pay Gneisenau his full salary owed to him for his time as commandant of Colberg but Gneisenau refused to accept it due to the bankruptcy of Prussia. On 14 September 1808 Gneisenau was appointed Commmander of the Engineer Corps. On 15 December 1808 he was also appointed Director, 3rd Div of the War Ministry. French spies were everywhere in Prussia and in January 1809 Freiherr von Stein was dismissed from the Committee at Napoleon`s insistance; this was a great blow to Gneisenau. On 10 March the king sent him on six week`s leave to his estate in Silesia and also had him tour the fortresses there and report on their state of readiness. On 10 May 1809 he was promoted Obst; he was a supporter of joining Austria in her uprising in 1809 and presented the king with a scheme for improving the kindom`s defensive works, changing the kingdom`s constitution and arming the nation. Gneisenau`s many enemies called him a Jacobin. The king rejected the plan saying that the Russians would not join them; the time for such actions was not yet come. Consequently, on 1 July 1809, Gneisenau resigned from Prussian military service. During 1809 - 1810 he travelled to Britain on the mission of contacting the right men to pursuade this nation to ally themselves with Prussia against France. Scharnhorst gave him a letter of introduction to his Hanoverian friend, von der Decken, in London. It read: `Der Oberst von Gneisenau, welcher diesen Brief überbringt, ist ein Mann von Einsicht und Talent, er ist der mutvolleVerteidiger Kolbergs, er verdient Ihre Protektion in jeder Hinsicht. Hier genoss er das höchste Zutrauen wie sich dies auch bald ergeben wird, wenn Sie sich von ihm die hiesigen Verhaeltnisse näher entwickeln lassen werden, worum ich ihn gebeten habe.`(Colonel von Gneisenau, bearer of this letter, is a man of judgement and talent, he deserves your protection in every respect. Here, he enjoyed the highest confidence, as you will soon see,if you allow him to develop the topics that I have asked him to.)

Von Gneisenau did not get the support he was seeking and in subsequent years was fiercely critical of von der Decken but it should be remembered that his visit to London was at a time when Britain`s  attempted expedition to Walcheren was turning into a disaster. Whilst in London, von Gneisenau met with the dispossessed Duke of Brunswick who offered him the command of his corps which had just escaped to Britain; Gneisenau refused. He returned to Prussia via Sweden and was at home in Kauffungen by 10 June 1810. Here, he learned that on 21 May of that year, the king had instructed the Minister of State, Freiherr von Altenstein to find a manor farm for von Gneisenau, with an income of about Thlr 1,500 p.a. that he would present to him as a gift. In July 1811 he was called to Berlin and instructed by the Chancellor to proceed on a secret mission. He was  discretely to test the opinions of the courts of London, Vienna, Stockholm and St Petersburg in the matter of mounting common action in the coming war between Russia and France. Vienna, St Petersburg and Stockholm were not enthusiastic; London was much more forthcoming but matters did not come to fruition until after Napoleon`s defeat in Russia. It was agreed that Britain would provide uniforms, arms and equipment for 20,000 men to be raised in Pomerania and would also equip and pay for the Russo-German Legion which was to be formed in Russia, by the Russians, from PWs of German nationality. British General Hope was sent to Sweden to win Bernadotte-the crown prince of that country-over to the allied cause. On his return to Prussia Gneisenau gave the king five books of watercolours of uniforms of the British army.

In 1812 von Gneisenau was appointed Councellor of State. On 20 March 1812 he was awarded the RAO III. On 11 March 1813 he re - entered Prussian military service as GM in Blücher`s Army of Silesia. When von Scharnhorst was mortally wounded on 2 May at Gross-Görschen, Gneisenau took over as GQM (chief of staff). On 8 June, after the armistice had been agreed, von Gneisenau was appointed Governor of Silesia and organised the defence of the province. When the French had evacuated Breslau fortress they had thrown thousands of muskets and sabres into the river Oder near Scheitnig, towards Groeneiche; von Gneisena had them all fished out of the riner, refurbished and issued to the Landwehr who then relieved the regular troops blockading the fortresses still held by the French. When hostitities began again, Gneisenau was relieved as Governor of Silesia by General von Gaudi and became GQM to Blücher in the Army of Silesia again. He had frequent clashes with the fiery old General von Yorck. Von Gneisenau fought in all the actions of the Army of Silesia: at Gross – Goerschen, on 2 May, he won the EK II, at the Katzbach the EK I, on the 8 September the Russian OStG III. He was also at Leipzig. By boldly crossing the Elbe to the west bank at Wartenburg on 3 October, Blücher forced the other two allied armies to advance to support him against Napoleon.

Of the battle of Leipzig, von Gneisenau wrote to his wife on the morning of 18 October:` Ich schreibe Dir am Morgen einer Schlacht, wie sie in der Weltgeschichte kaum gefochten ist. Wir haben den französischen Kaiser ganz umstellt. Diese Schlacht wird über das Schicksal von Europa entscheiden. Schon vorgestern hat die Blüchersche Armee bei Möckern abermals einen herrlichen Sieg erfochten. Wir hatten das beste französische Armeekorps, das des Marschall Marmont, dann noch das IV and VII Armeekorps, einen Teil der französischen Garden und ein polnisches Korps gegen uns. Der Kampf war lang und hartnäckig; er kostete viel Blut; wir warfen den Feind dennoch aus seinen Stellung heraus. Die Tapferkeit der Truppen unterstützte auf das herrlichste unsere Anordnungen. Wir hatten uns in Bataillonsmassen aufgestellt, das feindliche Geschütz wütete darin sehr. Unsere Landwehrbataillone taten herrlich.Wenn eine feindliche Kugel 10 bis 15 Mann niederriss, riefen sie:` Es lebe der König!` und schlossen sich wieder in den Luecken ueber die getoeteten zusammen.`

On the evening of the 19 October, Gneisenau wrote to his wife again from Leipzig: `Die grosse Schlacht ist gewonnen; der Sieg ist entscheidend. Gestern kämpften die ungeheuren Massen gegen einander. Ein Schauspiel, wie es seit tausenden von Jahren keines gegeben hat. Von einer Höhe konnte ich die jenseitige Armee übersehen, die unserige fast dieseits. Viel Blut ist geflossen. Auf meilenlangen Strecken liegen die Toten und Verstümmelten. Wir drangen endlich in die französische Armee ein in einen engen Raum dicht bei Leipzig zusamman, die Nacht liess das Feuern aufhören. Heute früh griff ein Teil unserer Armee Leipzig an. Der Angriff war sehr blutig. Nach vielen Stunden Arbeit erstürmten unsere Truppen die Stadt. Von allen Seiten begegneten sich die Truppen der verschiedenen Armeen. Der General Blücher und wir waren die ersten die einzogen. Wir wurden von dem Freudengeschrei der Einwohner und von den Hurraurufen der siegenden Truppen bewillkommt. Wir fanden eine Menge Gefangene, 20,000 Verwundete und noch viel mehr Kranke, die Toten lagen überall umher. Viele Generale sind in unseren Händen. Zertrümmerte Häuser, umgeworfene Bagagewagen, Truppen aller Nationen. Es ist eine Verwirrung ohne Gleichen. Alle Anstalten sind getroffen, um den Feind auf das Lebhafteste zu verfolgen. Der Rest seiner Armee wollen wir vernichten.`

On  8 December 1813 von Gneisenau was promoted GL and on New Year`s night in 1814, the Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine at Kaub and invaded France. During 1814 von Gneisenau fought at Brienne, Vauchamps where he practically commanded the army for over a week after the battle as Blücher fell into a spell of deep depression at his defeat there. Gneisenau had huge respect of Napoleon`s command of the art of war and was always extemely careful to give him no chance to catch him out on the battlefield. After the successful battle of Laon on 10 March 1814, von Blücher succumbed to the rigours of the campaign (he was 72 years old) and had to take to his bed after ordering von Gneisenau to pursue the beaten French. Von Gneisenau took over command but refused to mount the chase in case he sent the troops into a trap. 

On 31 March 1814 von Gneisenau was awarded the RAO II with oakleaves and oakleaves to his PLM. On 30 May 1814 he was awarded the RAO I with oakleaves and on 3 June he was ennobled as Graf and given several estates. In 1815 he fought at Ligny and Waterloo as Blücher`s CoS. It was Gneisenau who gave the order after the defeat at Ligny, while Blücher was still incapacitated from his fall: `We withdraw on Wavre`. i.e.we will support the Duke of Wellington as agreed despite our defeat. On 28 June he was awarded the HOSA Ch, this star had been given to Napoleon some years before and had been found in his abandoned coach the night after Waterloo. On 11 July he was promoted to GoI and on 1 August he was awarded the Russian OV. From 3 October 1815 - 20 May 1816 von Gneisenau was GOC of the Prussian Corps of Occupation in France. He received a gift of Thr 25,000. On 10 December 1816 he was awarded a Russian sword of honour with diamonds. On 13 February 1817 he was awarded the Russian OAN. On 18 June 1818 he was appointed Chef of IR Nr 9 (the Colberg IR); on 9 September 1818 he was appointed Governor of Berlin. On 18 June 1825 he was promoted to GFM and retired on 28 June 1825.

On 15 January 1827 he was awarded the Hanoverian Guelfen Order GC. On 6 March 1831 he was appointed C-in-C of the I , II , V ,VI Corps in Posen.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2010


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