General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, 1755-1813

General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (1755-1813) was the most important of a group of military reformers who revived the Prussian army after the disasters of 1806 and turned it into an effective weapon during the War of Liberation of 1813 and the campaigns of 1813 and 1814.

Scharnhorst was born on 12 November 1755 at Bordenau near Hanover. His father had some military experience, but the family came from farming stock. The young Scharnhorst attended the cadet school run by Wilhelm Graf con Schaumburg-Lippe, before being commission in the Hanoverian cavalry in 1778. In 1783 he moved to the artillery, and he was then appointed to the Artillery School. Even at this early stage he was a military thinker and he made most of his living by writing on military theory and publishing a military journal.

Scharnhorst served with the Hanoverian army in the Netherlands in 1793-94. He took part in the defence of Menin (the scene of two battles (13 September 1793 and 15 September 1793) and a short siege (27-30 April 1794). He later wrote a book on the defence of Menin (along with a book entitled 'The causes of French luck in the Revolutionary Wars') and was promoted to major and made chief of staff to the commander in chief of the Hanoverian Army.

After the defeat of the Hanoverian Army at Hondschoote (8 September 1793) Scharnhorst suggested a series of reforms, including the introduction of high educational standards for the officers. He would later be able to implement something similar in Prussia, but his suggestions for the Hanoverian army were rejected.

Scharnhorst now had something of a reputation as a military theorist, which gained him a number of job offers. In 1801 he transferred to the Prussian Army with the rank of Lt. Colonel, a patent of nobility and twice his previous salary. He was appointed to the staff of the quartermaster general and given the job of improving the various military academies. He taught at the war academy in Berlin, where Clausewitz was one of his pupils. He also formed the Militärische Gesellschaft, a military discussion society for serving officers. During this period Scharnhorst attempted to gain support for a reform of the Prussian army, suggesting a national army, mixed divisions (with cavalry, infantry and artillery in the same unit) and a national militia. Unfortunatly for Prussia the existing military establishment was hidebound, proud of its reputation as the heirs of Frederick the Great, and entirely unsuited for modern warfare.

Scharnhorst was chosen to be chief of staff to the Duke of Brunswick, the commander of the Prussian army at the start of the War of the Fourth Coalition. At the start of the war the Prussians invaded Saxony, but then paused to decide what to do next. Scharnhorst suggested conducting a fighting retreat towards the Russians, but his plan was dismissed as being too defensive. Unfortunate timing meant that he was unable to take command when the Duke of Brunswick was fatally wounded early in the battle of Auerstädt (14 October 1806). Brunswick sent Scharnhorst to visit General Schmettau's division, and while he was there Schmettau was wounded. Scharnhorst took over his division, but this meant he was absent when Brunswick was wounded. This left Frederick William III to take command, and he handled his army poorly. Scharnhorst didn't discover the king was in actual command until late in the battle. He was later swept up in the Prussian defeat, running into the King as the troops were retreating through Auerstädt.

Scharnhorst was wounded in the battle, but he escaped from the battlefield, and along with Blücher and the Duke of Saxe-Weimer ended up with a force of 22,000 men. During the retreat Scharnhorst served as Blücher's chief of staff. They decided to head for Lubeck, where they hoped to find reinforcements. The Prussians reached Lubeck on 5 November, but Bernadotte and Soult were in close pursuit, and the French stormed the town on 6 November. Scharnhorst and 10,000 men were forced to surrender at Lubeck, while Blucher and the rest of the army had to surrender on the following day.

Scharnhorst was soon exchanged, and served with Lestocq's corps, fighting alongside the Russians. He fought at Eylau, and was awarded the Pour le Mérite.

Army Reforms

After these disasters Scharnhorst was promoted to Major General, and was appointed head of the commission that was given the task of reforming the Prussian army. He also served as Quartermaster General of the Army from 1808-1813. In this role he gave the Prussian army a brief spell of unified control, although this didn't last after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Before 1806 the Prussian army was still largely the same as under Frederick the Great. Discipline was harsh, recruitment was organised by regimental districts and only the lower classes and peasants could serve. The officers almost entirely came from the gentry (the famous Junkers) or nobility. The army had a peacetime strength of 230,000 men, many of whom were recruited outside Prussia (but within Germany). Service was for life.

In 1806 the highly regarded Prussian army simply dissolved. Fifty-one of the sixty infantry regiments were destroyed and never came back. In addition the terms of the peace with France limited the army to only 42,000 men woth 22 generals.

Scharnhorst's commission had an impressive membership, largely taken from the more progressive elements of the army. Most famous was August von Gneisenau, but it also included Hermann von Boyen (minister of war 1814-1819) and Karl von Grolman (chief of the General Staff 1814-19).

Scharnhorst's commission introduced a wide range of reforms. Foreign recruiting was abolished in 1807 (at least in part because the smaller army didn't need it). Frederick William III was hostile to the idea of universal conscription, seeing it as rather too revolutionary (as well as going against the terms of the Convention of Paris of 8 September 1808). This treaty also forbade the formation of any militias, or the introduction of any measures to strengthen the army.

The restriction on numbers was partly solved by introducing a system of short term service. Experienced veterans were discharged from the army, and replaced by new recruits (Krümper), in what became known as the Krümpersystem. This was similar to the short term conscription that became common in Europe later in the Nineteenth Century. It created a pool of trained recruits who could be called to the colours if the army needed to be mobilized, without increasing the peacetime size of the army.

Part of the blame for the defeats of 1806 was placed on the officer corps and in 1807-1808 this was purged on a massive scale. 102 generals were sacked, and none recommissioned. 600 field officers went, although a handful did get new commissions in 1813. Finally 4,000 subalterns went, but most of them were called back in 1813 when the newly enlarged army needed their experience. Perhaps most dramatically the aristocratic dominance of the officer corps was abolished on 6 August 1808. In peacetime you now needed education to gain a commission, in wartime courage and perhaps more importantly competence. Within each regiment the officers were responsible for selecting new cadets. During the War of Liberation this had the intended result, and only half of the officer corps from the gentry, but after the war regimental officers used it to exclude people they didn’t approve of, and the number of aristocratic and gentry officers rose to two thirds by 1850.

The Prussian army already had a limited General Staff before 1806. This was already beginning to create a group of well educated officers, but after 1806 the process sped up. The staff was split into four sub-departments (strategy and tactics; internal affairs; economy and finance; artillery and ammunition) and in 1810 a military academy was formed. The same staff structure was repeated at corps and divisional levels and over time the chief of staff became almost as important as a unit's commander. At lower levels a new set of tactical regulations was introduced, which became a new drill code in 1812. Light infantry was also introduced in large numbers, to act against the cloud of skirmishers that always shielded the French army.

The King's objection to conscription was overcome by creating a militia that would operate parallel to the regular army. Artisans, merchants, teachers, students and indeed most urban dwellers, who were unable to service in the main army, would instead be drafted into the militia. The harsh disciplinary system was abolished on 3 August 1808 and replaced by a new penal code which consisted of punishment drill for minor offences, imprisonment or execution for more serious crimes and the use of civilian courts for most crimes. In 1809 the system that made military personnel immune to civilian courts was also abolished. The aim was to produce a new national army, motivated by patriotism rather than by fear.

After the disasters of 1806 Frederick William had ordered the formation of mixed arms divisions, each with four infantry regiments, two cavalry regiments and three artillery batteries. The size limits imposed by Napoleon meant that this couldn't be achieved. The new army had six divisions, each with two infantry regiments and three cavalry regiments. These were soon renamed as brigades. When the army expanded during the War of Liberation these brigades expanded to three infantry regiments (two regular and one Landwehr), four cavalry units and one artillery battery. Four brigades, reinforced with extra cavalry and artillery formed a corps. 

When Prussia joined the Sixth Coalition at the start of 1813 Scharnhorst's reforms meant that the army quickly expanded. On 9 February 1813 the Kantonsystem (the geographical recruitment system) was suspended. On 17 March the militia was officially formed, as the Landwehr (counter defence). The discharged veterans and the Krümper were called up. By March 1813 the army had expanded from its official peacetime strength of 42,000 men up to an impressive 130,000, and by August it reached 270,000 men. About half of them were from the Landwehr and far more than half were short service recruits, so the army of 1813 was very different to the army of 1806. At first there weren't enough weapons for the newly expanded army, and in the spring campaign of 1813 many of the Landwehr had to use pikes. By the autumn campaign supplies of British weapons had arrived, and this crisis was over.

War of Liberation

During the peace Scharnhorst had been an advocate of Blücher, insisting that he was the right man to lead the new Prussian armies. Blücher got the post with Scharnhorst as his chief of staff. However, Scharnhorst was wounded in the foot at the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813). Although the battle was a French victory, Scharnhorst's work showed in the nature of the retreat - there was no repeat of the chaos of 1806 and the Prussian army retired intact.

After the battle Scharnhorst didn't seem to be too badly wounded, and he was sent to Austria to try and persuade the Emperor Francis to commit Austria to the war. Gneisenau replaced him as Blücher's chief of staff. Unfortunately his wound became infected, and Scharnhorst died of his wounds at Prague on 8 June 1813.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 December 2016), General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, 1755-1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_scharnhorst.html

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