Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, from 1814 Prince Blücher von Wahlstatt († September 12, 1819 in Krieblowitz), was a Prussian field marshal who became famous for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Popularly called “Marshal Forward,” he was among the most popular heroes of the wars of liberation in Europe.
After joining the Swedish cavalry, Blücher was captured by Prussian troops in 1760 and entered their service. He was promoted for his successes in the battle of Kirrweiler in 1794 and took part in the battle of Auerstedt in 1806 as a brigade commander. There he met his future chief of staff, Gerhard David von Scharnhorst. After the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, he initially transferred to the War Department and then retired.
At the beginning of the wars of liberation Blücher returned to service and took part in the battles of Großgörschen and Bautzen in May 1813. In August 1813 he was victorious in the Battle of Katzbach. For his successes in the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, he was appointed Field Marshal General. After heavy fighting, he entered Paris with the allied troops in March 1814. He was then appointed Prince of Wahlstatt and retired to Krieblowitz Castle.
After Napoleon”s return in 1815, Blücher, now with August Neidhardt von Gneisenau as chief of staff, again became commander of the Prussian forces he deployed in the Netherlands with British and allied forces under Wellington. On June 16, 1815, he was defeated by Napoleon at the Battle of Ligny. For a later advance with Wellington, he withdrew his troops to Wavre at great risk. On June 18, 1815, his troops initially did not participate in the Battle of Waterloo, but then advanced at Gneisenau”s urging and appeared on the right flank of the French forces during the decisive phase. This, together with Wellington”s advance, led to Napoleon”s final defeat.
Blücher came from the old noble family Blücher. His father was the Hesse-Kassel cavalry captain Christian Friedrich von Blücher (1696-1761). His mother was Dorothea Maria von Zülow (1702-1769) from the Mecklenburg noble family of the von Zülows. The von Blücher family originally owned the manor of Groß-Renzow. However, Gebhard Leberechts great-grandfather lost this family estate during the Thirty Years” War. To escape warlike disputes between the estates and Duke Karl Leopold, his mother went to Rostock, where Blücher was born. Gebhard had six older brothers and two sisters. The quite poor conditions caused his parents to send him together with his older brother Ulrich Siegfried to the sister on the Swedish island of Rügen. She was married to the Swedish chamberlain von Kradwitz. The brothers did not enjoy a basic intellectual education; rather, they devoted themselves almost exclusively to physical training. After Sweden”s entry into the Seven Years” War in 1757, the brothers joined the Swedish hussar regiment Sparre in 1758 against the will of their parents and fought against Prussia. Blücher was rescued in August 1760 as a cornet in a battle near the village of Kavelpaß by the Prussian hussar Gottfried Landeck after Blücher”s horse was wounded and he injured his foot. He was initially taken as a prisoner to the Galenbeck estate. There, Colonel von Belling, who was Blücher”s in-law, persuaded him to enter Prussian service and soon made him his adjutant. From then on he fought successfully in the Hussar regiment H8 and rose from cornet to staff cavalry captain (1771). Near Kavelpaß, the Blücherstein commemorates his capture and transfer to Prussian service.
Because Blücher had a mock shooting carried out on a suspected priest during unrest in Poland (1772), he was passed over for his upcoming appointment as major and eskadron commander. Thereupon he defiantly demanded his resignation (1773), which was granted to him by Frederick the Great with the words “Rittmeister von Blücher can go to hell”. Blücher quickly regretted this decision, but Frederick refused to allow him to rejoin the army despite repeated requests and petitions. Blücher retreated to Silesia, where he acquired an estate. In Pottlitz (Flatow district in West Prussia) in 1773 he married Karoline Amalie von Mehling (1756-1791), with whom he had seven children. After her death, he married Amalie von Colomb (1772-1850), a sister of the later General Peter von Colomb, in Sandhorst near Aurich in 1795. For about 15 years Blücher owned lands in Groß Raddow in the district of Regenwalde in Hinterpommern. On February 6, 1782, the Masonic Lodge “Augusta zur goldenen Krone” in Stargard in Pomerania accepted him as a member.
After the death of Frederick II, Frederick William II reinstated Blücher in his old regiment in 1787 and promoted him to major. In 1789 he served as lieutenant colonel in the regiment of Count Goltz”s Hussars and received the Order Pour le Mérite from King Frederick William II on June 4, 1789. After the campaign against Holland in 1790 he became a colonel. After the battle of Kirrweiler (against France), in which he captured six guns, he became a major general in 1794. In 1795 Blücher took command of the Prussian troops remaining in Westphalia to protect the demarcation line according to the Peace of Basel. His headquarters were in Münster.
From 1798 to 1801 Blücher was the owner of the Nipnow estate in the rural community of Schmaatz near Stolp in Hinterpommern. In Hamm he joined the Masonic lodge Zum hellen Licht in 1799.
Jena and Auerstedt
In 1801, King Frederick William III appointed Blücher a lieutenant general. Blücher lived for two years in Emmerich on the Rhine, where he joined the Masonic lodge “Pax inimica malis” (Latin, roughly: Peace – Enemy of Evil), in which his two sons and nine of his officers were also initiated.
After the Peace of Lunéville, Blücher took possession of the High Abbey of Münster, the Essen Abbey and the Imperial Abbey of Werden for Prussia in 1802. Blücher became governor of the newly established province of Westphalia, with whose chief president Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein he became friends. In the years 1802-1806 he was master of the chair of the lodge “Zu den drey Balken”. There he also had himself painted in masonic clothing.
At the outbreak of the war in 1806, he joined the corps of General Ernst von Rüchel with the Westphalian troops. Both tried in vain to persuade the Elector Wilhelm I of Hesse-Kassel to enter the war on the Prussian-Saxon side instead of remaining neutral. Immediately before the start of the Battle of Auerstedt, on the morning of October 14, 1806, Blücher was given command of a newly formed light brigade as the advance guard of the main army under Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick. With it, in the early morning fog, without prior reconnaissance, he twice attacked the French infantry, which was ready to defend itself, and was repulsed. A little later, as a result of Brunswick”s fatal wounding, the Prussian side lost its command. The battle ended with the retreat of the main army, which turned into a general rout when it met the panic-stricken troops fleeing from the battlefield of Jena. At short notice, Blücher took command of the two hundred-man body squadron protecting the king.
The retreat to Lübeck
Blücher then gathered parts of the scattered troops and with Scharnhorst – here their friendship began – brought 34 heavy cannons to safety. Blücher made Scharnhorst his chief of staff, and both planned to draw French troops to themselves so that Prussia could raise new troops and attack the French again. In fact, the French took up the pursuit with three corps under Marshals Bernadotte, Soult, and Murat. Despite a lack of rations and many deaths from exhaustion – 700 kilometers were covered in 20 days since Jena and Auerstedt – the French managed to elude them. Initially 10,000 strong, the army grew to 21,000 by merging with the retreating forces of the Duke of Weimar on the east bank of the Müritz. Marshal Bernadotte sent two appeals for honorable surrender, but Blücher rejected them despite the hopeless situation. At Strelitz alone, Blücher had lost 5,000 men to enemy attacks and starvation.
Blücher now led the troops to Lübeck, which as a Free Imperial City was neutral and almost unarmed, and the Prussians gained access through the closed gates with axes on November 5. When the French attacked on November 6 under Bernadotte, an attempt was made – contrary to Scharnhorst”s orders – to save the cannons standing outside the city walls into the city. The open gate could be taken by the French. After bloody street fighting, the French had the city under control and captured many Prussians – including Scharnhorst and the badly wounded Yorck. Blücher managed to escape with 9000 men. With his exhausted soldiers, Blücher retreated via Schwartau to Ratekau, where he took up quarters in the Pastorat. The village was in a state of chaos. Oats, hay, seed clover and bread, everything was confiscated. The church was broken into and used as a stable for horses. French artillery had taken up position at the Riesebusch to shell Ratekau. When word came that Travemünde was in the hands of the French, Blücher decided to surrender “for the benefit of the village of Ratekau and Pastor Schrödter.” A third offer from Bernadotte for an honorable surrender he accepted this time, admittedly with the written addition that he was doing this only because he had no more ammunition and bread, and on the condition of a tribute to the Prussian troops. Bernadotte did not accept these conditions at first, but since Blücher could not be persuaded to make any further concessions, Bernadotte gave in to avoid further fighting and deaths and, in accordance with the surrender conditions, had the French troops line up along the road (Eutin-Lübeck, at the Blücher oak in Ratekau) to pay homage to the passing brave enemy. As a personal gesture he renounced the acceptance of Blücher”s sword. While the Prussian army leader was allowed to keep his weapons, his soldiers laid down their arms and went into captivity. A memorial stone was erected at the “Blücher Oak” near Ratekau in 1856.
Blücher”s cannon rescue and retreat to Lübeck made him a legend throughout Europe. King Frederick William III awarded him the Order of the Black Eagle in April 1807. For Lübeck, however, the French period began. After the French captivity – Blücher was allowed to move freely for the most part on his word of honor – during which Napoleon also wanted to meet him, he was exchanged in 1807 for the French General Victor, whom Prussian soldiers had abducted to the besieged Kolberg.
After a short stay at the royal court, which had moved to Königsberg, he was given the command of a Prussian auxiliary corps under the Swedish King Gustav IV Adolf and was sent to Swedish Pomerania to support the Swedes. However, no more combat operations took place. In the following years he rose to become governor general in Pomerania and Neumark (1807) and general of cavalry (1809).
Wars of Liberation
Blücher passionately called for the liberation struggle against France and turned to the Prussian army reformers. Thus he was not approved at the Prussian court, which was officially allied with France. When French agents tracked him down while he was secretly training unauthorized troops (“Krümpers”), he was forced to leave active service in 1812. Frederick William III gave Blücher the land in the Neustadt region (today Prudnik). In November of the same year, Blücher leased Kunzendorf, Mühlsdorf, Wackenau and Achthuben to the local farmer Hübner in exchange for 2,000 thalers, rolls of linen and yarn. His wife also moved to Kunzendorf. While living in the Neustadt area, he financed the families of fallen soldiers, gave the local priest a few liters of beer each day, and paid a doctor from Neustadt to treat the poor. Thanks to his efforts, a spa called “Blücher”s Spring” was founded in Kunzendorf (which, together with the castle, was destroyed as a result of the fighting for Neustadt in 1945).
When Prussia resumed the war with France in 1813, they brought him back. At first Blücher led the Prussian corps, then he became the commander-in-chief of the Silesian Army. In the Battle of the Katzbach on August 26 he destroyed the army of Marshal Jacques MacDonald. On September 18, he delivered his speech, famous in Freemasonry, in the lodge in Bautzen:
On October 9, 1813, Blücher moved into his headquarters at Pouch near Bitterfeld, north of Leipzig, and on October 16 completely defeated Marshal Marmont at Möckern in the Battle of Leipzig. Although his cavalry suffered heavy losses, the newly appointed field marshal general pursued the French all the way to Paris. Because of his offensive approach, Russian soldiers gave him the nickname “Marshal Forward,” which soon became popular among Germans as well.
On the march to France, the Silesian Army gathered in December 1813 on the right side of the Rhine on a width from Mannheim to Neuwied. The center of the army with Blücher and the corps Yorck and Langeron gathered in the area of Kaub on the Taunus. In the New Year”s night of 1814 the vanguard and first troops crossed the Rhine in barges, while Russian pioneers built a bridge from canvas pontoons. After the bridge was built near Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, Blücher”s army crossed the Rhine from January 2 to 5. The advance of Prussian troops in France also interrupted the French telegraph line from Metz to Mainz. At the same time, the Sacken Corps crossed the Rhine near Mannheim and the St. Priest Corps crossed the Rhine between Neuwied and the mouth of the Lahn, centering on Koblenz.
On February 1, 1814 Blücher defeated the French army under Napoleon at La Rothière, but was beaten back in four battles in the following five days (Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, Vauchamps). On March 9, Blücher was again victorious at Laon and marched with Bulow”s corps coming from Belgium on Paris, which was taken on March 30, 1814 with the storming of Montmartre. Frederick William III appointed Blücher Prince of Wahlstatt on June 3, 1814 and gave him the estates around Krieblowitz.
The Battle of Waterloo
After Napoleon”s return from exile on Elba, Blücher took charge of the 150,000-strong Prussian army in Belgium, but was defeated at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, 1815. Nevertheless, he advanced and two days later intervened with his army in the Battle of Waterloo just in time to give the already wavering forces of the English general Wellington (“I wish it were night, or the Prussians would come”) victory-deciding support against Napoleon. As a reward, Frederick William III gave him a city palace in Berlin.
In agreement with Wellington, whose troops were completely exhausted, Blücher then advanced alone with his troops on Paris in rapid marches and occupied it on July 7, 1815. Blücher had neither interest nor share in the negotiations that subsequently began, but kept aloof.
Age and death
In the same year Blücher was awarded the Blücher Star, a special form of the Iron Cross donated for him. Following a visit to London, where he was received by the king and celebrated as a hero, he retired to his Krieblowitz castle, but visited Karlovy Vary regularly. He died in Krieblowitz on September 12, 1819, and was later buried there in a mausoleum created for him. The round tower building erected in 1846-1853 next to the family tomb suffered damage by Soviet soldiers on February 25, 1945 and other acts of vandalism after the war, during which Blücher”s coffin was removed. The grave has been empty ever since. The whereabouts of the body are unknown.
About the personality
Blücher was popular with the troops. Even before Scharnhorst”s military reform, he led his soldiers without corporal punishment, commandeered energetically for them, and even overlooked looting. He did not excel much in strategy or tactics (though his chiefs of staff, such as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, whom he trusted, were loyal to him), but his daredevil, occasionally foolhardy and affable temperament distinguished him from many generals in the coalition armies. His temperament and willingness to attack led to his nickname “Marshal Forward.”
Blücher”s linguistically quite idiosyncratic letters reflect his character very well. He wrote the following letter to his wife on May 4, 1813, two days after the battle of Großgörschen:
There were also bizarre facets in Blücher”s behavior: According to the testimony of Hermann von Boyen, Blücher claimed to be pregnant by an elephant and believed that the French had heated the floor of his room red-hot, which is why he only walked on tiptoe. To this day, it remains unclear whether Blücher was actually mentally impaired, whether he was delusional due to excessive alcohol consumption, or whether his remarks stemmed from a strange sense of humor.
Privately, he repeatedly got into debt through his gambling addiction.
Blücher was married twice. His first wife was Karoline Amalie von Mehling († 17 June 1791), whom he had married on 21 June 1773. His wife”s parents were the Polish colonel Friedrich Wilhelm von Mehling and Bernhardine von Bojanowska. He had seven children with her, including:
His second wife became Amalie von Colomb († April 16, 1850) on July 19, 1795. She was the daughter of the war and domain councilor Peter Colomb and Maria Elisabeth Bacmeister. This marriage remained childless.
The saying “(DerDie geht) ran wie Blücher (an der Katzbach)” also refers to Blücher and generally describes a very stormy and determined approach.
Blücher was an honorary citizen of Berlin, Hamburg and Rostock (1816). He was appointed Dr. jur. h. c. by Oxford University on June 14, 1814 (together with Wellington and Metternich) and Dr. phil. h. c. by Berlin University on August 3, 1814 (together with Hardenberg, Yorck, Gneisenau, Kleist, Bülow and Tauentzien).
In the Waterloo Room of the main residence Windsor Castle hangs in the place of honor on the head side the portrait of Wellington and on his right side that of Blücher.
George Stephenson named one of his first locomotives “Blücher”. Count von Donnersmark laid out the “Blücher shafts” in the Silesian district of Rybnik in 1913. In addition, the towns of Blüchersruh (Breslau district) and Blüchertal (the estate and town were in the Trebnitz district) were named after him in Lower Silesia.
Blücher is – besides Hindenburg – the only bearer of the star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross (“Iron Cross with Golden Rays”).
In Cologne the Blücherpark was named after him, in Aachen the Blücherplatz (west of the Europaplatz), which was built around 1868. In the Berlin city center there were in the area of the general train three (partly not realized) namings as Blücherstraße and two as Blücherplatz as well as a planned Wahlstattplatz; in addition in today”s Berlin six further Blücherstreets. Around 1820, the Marschall Bridge in Berlin”s government district received its name in memory of Blücher.
The town of Kaub on the Rhine has commemorated the marshal and his Rhine crossing of 1814 since 1913 with its Blücher Museum Kaub.
Several ships were named after Marshal Blücher:
The Blücher, a shoe, goes back to Marshal Blücher, who had his soldiers equipped with this shoe model (then still as a boot) for the victory march against Napoleon. The internationally common name still refers to its origins as a robust army boot.
Blüchern is a lucky card game named after the Field Marshal General, as he himself enjoyed playing it.