Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

views updated Jun 11 2018

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

The Prussian field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742-1819) commanded the Prussian armies in the war against Napoleon, 1813-1815. He became a leading hero of the Germans in the struggle to end foreign domination of their lands.

Gebhard von Blücher was born in Rostock in the northern state of Mecklenburg on Dec. 16, 1742. The son of a captain in the cavalry, he became a cadet in a Swedish regiment. He was captured by the Prussians during the Seven Years War and, like so many others, allowed himself to be pressed into the Prussian service. He had reached the rank of captain when, in 1770, Frederick the Great dismissed him in his usual brutal fashion for some minor transgression.

After Frederick's death Blücher rejoined the Prussian army. He distinguished himself in the wars against revolutionary France and eventually became a general. Fortunately for Blücher, he had not been given a major command in the disastrous campaign of 1806, so he escaped its disgrace. As it was, he was forced to surrender to the French in the later stages of that campaign. Both the Prussian chancellor, Prince Hardenberg, and the minister of war, G. J. D. von Scharnhorst, thought highly of Blücher's talents; thus in 1809 he was given command of the Prussian cavalry with orders to reform and modernize it. In 1811, however, he was dismissed at Napoleon's insistence.

At the outbreak of war between Prussia and France in 1813, Blücher was given command of a joint Russo-Prussian army. After defeating the French in three engagements and recapturing Leipzig from them in October 1813, Blücher was promoted to field marshal. His impetuosity and dynamism, which contrasted sharply with the conduct of the generals of Prussia's other ally, Austria, earned him the nickname of "Marshal Forward."

In 1814 Blücher commanded the Prussian army that attacked France. After an initial success he was outmaneuvered by Napoleon and lost a series of engagements. Although he was forced to retreat across the border, Blücher was undaunted by this reverse. He resumed the attack as soon as his defeated army was assembled and rested, and he soon won a major victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Laon (March 10, 1814). Blücher then joined his army with that of the Austrians under Prince Schwarzenberg, and at the end of the month the Allies entered Paris and forced Napoleon to abdicate.

When the Emperor returned from his exile in Elba in 1815, Blücher was once again given command of the main Prussian army. Napoleon planned to defeat his enemies one at a time, thus forcing them to accept his return; he almost succeeded. Blücher, who was badly outmaneuvered, faced the French alone in the Battle of Ligny (June 16). He lost the battle, a good part of his army, and came close to losing his life. Fortunately for the Prussians, Blücher's chief of staff, Count August Gneisenau, was able to organize an orderly retreat in the direction of the English army, which was under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon had preceded Wellington and came within an ace of beating the English at Waterloo (June 18). But the English infantry held, and the arrival of Blücher's diminished army was enough to turn the tide once and for all against the French.

Prussia's success in the Napoleonic Wars was due as much to Gneisenau's organization and planning as to Blücher's leadership, and the field marshal readily acknowledged this circumstance. But it was the grizzled and energetic Blücher who captured the imagination of the Prussians, and many other Germans as well, becoming perhaps the first German national hero. Blücher died on Sept. 12, 1819, in Silesia.

Further Reading

E. F. Henderson, Blücher and the Uprising of Prussia against Napoleon, 1806-1815 (1911), discusses Blücher and the military campaigns of the period. A more general study is W. O. Shanahan, Prussian Military Reforms, 1786-1813 (1945). See also J. F. C. Fuller, A Military History of the Western World, vol. 2 (1955), and Hajo Holborn, History of Modern Germany, vol. 2 (1963).

Additional Sources

Parkinson, Roger, The Hussar general: the life of Blücher, man of Waterloo, London: P. Davies, 1975. □