Gerhard von Scharnhorst
Gerhard von Scharnhorst
Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (1755-1813) was a general in Prussian service, Chief of the Prussian General Staff, noted for both his writings, his reforms of the Prussian army, and his leadership during the Napoleonic Wars.
Born at Bordenau near Hanover, into a farmer’s family, he succeeded in educating himself and in securing admission to the military academy of William, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe at the fortress Wilhelmstein. In 1778 he received a commission in the Hanoverian service. He employed the intervals of regimental duty in further self-education and literary work. In 1783 he transferred to the artillery and received an appointment to the new artillery school in Hanover.
He had already founded a military journal which, under various names, endured till 1805, and in 1788 he designed, and in part published, a Handbuch für Offiziere in den anwendbaren Teilen der Kriegswissenschaften (“Handbook for Officers in the Applied Sections of Military Science”). He also published in 1792 his Militärisches Taschenbuch für den Gebrauch im Felde (“Military Handbook for Use in the Field”).
The income he derived from his writings provided his chief means of support, for he still held the rank of lieutenant, and though the farm of Bordenau produced a small sum annually, he had a wife (Clara Schmalz, sister of Theodor Schmalz, first director of Berlin University) and family to maintain. His first campaign took place in 1793 in the Netherlands, in which he served under the Duke of York with distinction.
In 1794 he took part in the defense of Menin and commemorated the escape of the garrison in his Verteidigung der Stadt Menin (“Defence of the Town of Menin”) (Hanover, 1803), which, besides his paper Die Ursachen des Glücks der Franzosen im Revolutionskrieg (“The Origins of the Good Fortune of the French in the Revolutionary War”), remains his best-known work. Shortly thereafter he received promotion to the rank of major and joined the staff of the Hanoverian contingent.
After the Peace of Basel (5 March, 1795) Scharnhorst returned to Hanover. He had by now become so well-known to the armies of the various allied states that he received invitations from several of them to transfer his services. This in the end led to his engaging himself to King Frederick William III of Prussia, who gave him a patent of nobility, the rank of lieutenant-colonel and a pay more than twice as large as what he had received in Hanover (1801).
The War Academy of Berlin employed him, almost as a matter of course, in important instructional work (he had Clausewitz as one of his pupils) and he founded the Berlin Military Society. In the mobilizations and precautionary measures that marked the years 1804 and 1805, and in the war of 1806 that ensued, Scharnhorst served as chief of the general staff (lieutenant-quartermaster) of the Duke of Brunswick, received a slight wound at Auerstadt (14 October 1806) and distinguished himself by his stern resolution during the retreat of the Prussian army.
He attached himself to Blücher in the last stages of the disastrous campaign, went into captivity with him at the capitulation of Ratekau (7 November 1806), and, quickly exchanged, had a prominent and almost decisive part in leading LEstocq’s Prussian corps which served with the Russians. For his services at Eylau (February 1807), he received the highest Prussian military order Pour le Mérite.
Commission for military reorganisation at Königsberg in 1807. The two men in the foreground are Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, with the seated person in civilian dress is Stein.
It had become apparent that Scharnhorst’s skills exceeded those of a merely brilliant staff officer. Educated in the traditions of the Seven Years’ War, he had by degrees, as his experience widened, divested his mind of antiquated forms of war, and realized that only a “national” army and a policy of fighting decisive battles could give an adequate response to the political and strategic situation brought about by the French Revolution.
By slow and labored steps he converted the professional long-service army of Prussia, wrecked at Jena (1806), into a national army based on universal service. He gained promotion to major-general a few days after the Peace of Tilsit (July 1807), and became the head of a reform commission which included the best of the younger officers, such as Gneisenau, Grolman and Boyen.
Stein himself became a member of the commission and secured Scharnhorst free access to King Frederick William III by securing his appointment as aide-de-camp-general. But Napoleon quickly became suspicious, and Frederick William repeatedly had to suspend or cancel the reforms recommended.
In 1809, the war between France and Austria roused premature hopes in the patriots’ party, which the conqueror did not fail to note. By direct application to Napoleon, Scharnhorst evaded the decree of 26 September 1810, which required all foreigners to leave the Prussian service forthwith, but when in 1811–1812 France forced Prussia into an alliance against Russia and Prussia dispatched an auxiliary army to serve under Napoleon’s orders, Scharnhorst left Berlin on unlimited leave of absence.
In retirement he wrote and published a work on firearms, Über die Wirkung des Feuergewehrs (1813). But the retreat from Moscow (1812) at last sounded the call to arms for the new national army of Prussia.
Scharnhorst, recalled to the king’s headquarters, refused a higher post but became Chief of Staff to Blücher, in whose vigour, energy, and influence with the young soldiers he had complete confidence. Russian Prince Wittgenstein was so impressed by Scharnhorst that he asked to borrow him temporarily as his Chief of Staff.
Blücher agreed. In the first battle, Lützen or Gross-Görschen (2 May 1813), Prussia suffered defeat, but a very different defeat from those which Napoleon had hitherto customarily inflicted. The French failed to follow up, so this defeat was not complete. In this battle, Scharnhorst received a wound in the foot, not in itself grave, but soon made mortal by the fatigues of the retreat to Dresden, and he succumbed to it on 28 June 1813 at Prague, where he had travelled to negotiate with Schwarzenberg and Radetzky for the armed intervention of Austria.
Shortly before his death he had received promotion to the rank of lieutenant-general. Frederick William III erected a statue in memory of him, by Rauch, , in Berlin. Scharnhorst was buried at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin.