Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst

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Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst

The Prussian general Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (1755-1813) rebuilt the Prussian army after its collapse at Jena in 1806.

On Nov. 12, 1755, G. J. D. von Scharnhorst was born in Bordenau, the son of a former sergeant. In the Prussia of Frederick the Great his origins debarred him from an officer's career, so he took service as an artillery officer in the Hanoverian army, distinguishing himself by considerable valor in the war against revolutionary France. In 1801 he was able to transfer to the Prussian army, being appointed director of the military academy in Berlin. Two years later he was made a member of the general staff. In the campaign of 1806-1807 he served as a staff officer. He did so well in that capacity that, after the collapse, he was appointed minister of war, chief of the general staff, and head of the Military Reconstruction Commission.

Scharnhorst was convinced that only thorough reform, closely tied to the proposed reform of the civil establishment under Baron Stein and Prince Hardenberg, could restore Prussia's army. Every vestige of the brutalized peasant-soldier of Frederick the Great, living in terror of the corporal's stick, would have to go. He insisted on the introduction of universal military service to replace the practice of pressing the sons of peasants and whatever foreigners could be rounded up—and won his point. As it was not possible to keep all those liable for service under the colors at any one time, this meant organizing a reserve, the Landwehr, which consisted of men who had returned to civilian life but were subject to immediate recall and were given occasional training to keep them in trim. This enabled him to keep within the limits that Napoleon allowed the Prussian army but to have a vast reserve on hand. This new citizen army differed radically from that of the 18th century. Beatings, formerly the universal means of enforcing discipline, were abolished. There were no more automatic commissions for the sons of the Prussian nobility. Instead of tedious and endless marching drills, the infantry was schooled in the use of its weapons, techniques of rapid firing, and deployment.

As soon as his reforms had begun to take effect, Scharnhorst urged on his government a war of revenge against Napoleon. This resulted in his dismissal as minister of war on French insistence, but he retained his other positions. In the campaign of 1813 he served as chief of Field Marshal Blücher's staff, was wounded in the battle of Grossgörschen, and died of his wounds in Prague on June 28, 1813.

Further Reading

Scharnhorst figures in a number of general works on German history: William Oswald Shanahan, Prussian Military Reforms, 1786-1813 (1945); Koppel Shub Pinson, Modern Germany (1954); and Hajo Holborn, A History of Modern Germany (3 vols., 1959-1964).

Additional Sources

White, Charles Edward, The enlightened soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805, New York: Praeger, 1989. □