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BLÜCHER, Gebhardt Leberecht von

(1742-1819) Prussian military commander, Prince of Wahlstadt

The most successful and famous Prussian Army field commander of the period, Blücher was perhaps the most single-mindedly aggressive general employed by any belligerent. An uncomplicated, energic and outspoken leader, oblivious to personal danger, he has a place in German popular culture comparable with that of Wellington in Britain.

Born near Rostock, Blücher was the son of a retired army captain, and entered military service with the Swedish cavalry in 1757. He fought against Prussian forces in the Seven Years War until 1760, when he was captured and changed sides, becoming a junior officer of Prussian hussars. He remained in Prussian service until 1770, when he was dismissed for repeated insubordination and excessive debauchery. He retired to become a farmer, only returning to military service after the death of Frederick the Great.

Recommissioned as a major in 1787, he was a colonel of hussars during the early campaigns on the Rhine in 1793-94. Promoted brigadier-general in March 1794, and major-general in June, he distinguished himself during the actions in the Vosges that autumn, but was denied further active service in the Revolutionary Wars by Prussian neutrality after 1795.

A strident voice for a return to war whenever that opportunity arose, though somewhat discredited by a number of further brushes with higher autority, Blücher commanded a cavalry corps under Brunswick when Prussia fought France in 1806. His impetuous opening attack at Auerstedt set the pattern for a disastrous defeat, but he redeemed himself with a characteristically stubborn last stand to aid Hohenlohe's subsequent retreat, and led a secondary force of survivors to Lübeck, where he was the last major Prussian formation to surrender in early November.

Paying the price for his growing reputation and very public hatred of the French, Blücher was specifically forbidden from holding senior command by the terms of the 1807 Tilsit peace. Incapacitated by illness through most of 1808, he served as governor of Pomerania and Colberg, but was forced to abandon the latter command when French forces moved east in 1812. He remained in contact with Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and other senior officers working toward a genuinely national army after 1809, and was appointed full general in command of Prussian field forces when Frederick William III joined the Sixth Coalition in early 1813.

BlUcher's forces played a central role in allied defeats at Lützen and Bautzen, after which he formed a highly successful partnership with chief of staff Gneisenau, who provided cerebral detachment to balance his chief's inevitable insistence on attack. Blücher commanded the allied Army of Silesia in the east of the theatre during the second phase of the campaign for Germany, defeating Macdonald at the Katzbach and sweeping north to join the decisive convergence on Leipzig.

Quarrelling incessantly with allied commanders, Blücher led his army into France as a field marshal in early 1814, pushing towards Paris from the east. By now imbued with a deep personal detestation of Napoleon, he made increasingly furious efforts to persuade the assembled monarchs into an immediate drive on the French capital, but was ordered to follow a more cautious strategy. Able to advance virtually unimpeded after the vital victory at Laon, he entered Paris with his army in late March.

Blücher subsequently fell ill and returned to Prussia a hero, visiting Britain en route. He was about to retire when Napoleon's return from Elba brought him back into the field for the Hundred Days campaign. He disappeared, presumed killed, during the latter stages of an initial defeat at Ligny that was partly the product of his usual eagerness to give battle, but returned to reverse his army's subsequent retreat in time to intervene decisively at Waterloo.

Created Prince of Wahlstadt, Blücher spent his last years in retirement on his Silesian estates. He was known in Prussia as "Alte Vorwärts" (Old Forward), and accused by Napoleon of a "hussar complex". His best qualities were inspirational rather than technical or tactical, and he was closer in style to the Russian Suvorov than to Wellington, with whom he is more usually compared.

Source: Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, ed. S. Pope, London: Collins, 1999


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