Blücher: How Care in the Community Saved Europe


02/11/2012 by noonobservation

You don’t have to be mad to be a Napoleonic Field-Marshal, but it helps.

Napoleon liked to stare out to sea between Loose Women and the One Show.

When Napoleon escaped imprisonment on Elba in the Spring of 1815, war loomed once more over Europe like a large, angry eagle, goaded into madness by nine months of sudokus and Jeremy Kyle. Hurriedly, the allied powers pulled together their weary armed forces and prepared once more for battle.

But who was going to lead the forces of the Kingdom of Prussia? Perhaps August von Gneisenau, considered the greatest Prussian general since Frederick the Great? Maybe Bülow, hero of Grossbeeren, Dennewitz and Leipzig?

In fact, command of the army was entrusted to the half-blind, occasionally mad, barely literate 72-year-old Field-Marshal Blücher, Prince of Wahlstatt.

Frederick Wilhelm III couldn’t have chosen better.

A Brief Biography…

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher was born in 1742 in the Duchy of Mecklenburg, the eighth son of a retired infantry captain. His father sent him to the Swedish island of Rügen to learn estate management, but when a Swedish army passed through on its way to attack Prussia, the 15-year-old Blücher enlisted.

Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia posing in the uniform of the Death’s Head Hussars in 1910. The regiment did not become actually evil until the late 1930s.

Blücher was captured by the Prussian Death’s Heads Hussars (who were not at this time especially evil), led by Colonel Wilhelm von Belling who persuaded the young cadet to switch allegiances. Belling was a major influence on Blücher. Each night he would intone the following prayer: “Thou seest, dear Heavenly Father, the sad plight of thy servant Belling. Grant him soon a nice little war that he may better his condition… Amen.”

When the Seven Years’ War came to an end Blücher threw himself into the life of a “gay hussar”. Gay hussars generally spent their time gambling, drinking, womanising, playing practical jokes and challenging each other to illegal duels.

In 1772, Blücher fell out with Frederick the Great over executing a Polish priest, the King telling him that “he may go to the devil as soon as he pleases.” Blücher took up farming for the next thirteen years, occupying his spare time with writing extremely long and grammatically incorrect letters to the King demanding reinstatement.

“If I had any bullets left I’d shoot you all in your ugly French faces.”

When Frederick the Great died, Blücher was finally able to rejoin his regiment. He fought with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars, gaining a reputation for imbecilic bravery and the epithet “Marshal Forwards” due to his monotonous tactic of attacking anything he saw. After the disastrous battle of Jena-Auersted in 1806, he was the last Prussian general to surrender and only did so on the condition that it be stated he surrendered due to lack of ammunition (not because he lost).

Then the madness fairy paid a visit.

Disgusted by the peace terms agreed at Tilsit, Blücher became depressed. He took to sitting motionless for hours at a time, clutching his chair, and on days when he believed his servants (in the pay of the French) had made the floor too hot to stand on, he would refuse to walk on it, or do so by hopping rapidly from toe to toe. It was also at this time that he suffered his first phantom pregnancy – he believed he had been raped by a French private and was going to give birth to an elephant. His subordinates tried to point out that at least he hadn’t been raped by a French elephant, but he was inconsolable.

Blücher also fought with imaginary people, breaking a lot of furniture in the process, and once asked a servant to smash his head with a hammer because it had been turned to stone.

Possible causes of Blücher’s madness include physical illness (he had an ulcerated urethra at the time), alcoholism or schizophrenia. His son Franz was also institutionalised for running through the streets of Potsdam firing indiscriminately at people, so perhaps it was a family tradition.

Blucher’s feelings about the French.

In time, Blücher managed to get his shit sufficiently together to fight in the War of Liberation 1813-14, which ended in Napoleon’s abdication. His love of his troops, who he addressed as “my children” and his unquenchable desire to massacre every single Frenchman he saw made him the darling of the army and the Prussian public. His refusal to let repeated defeats get him down was also vital in eventually grinding Napoleon into submission.

After the war, Blücher took a triumphant tour of England. The social whirl was so dazzling that he thought he might go mad again and complained, “the French could not succeed in killing me, but the Regent and the English are in a fair way to doing it.”

The Waterloo campaign

In 1815, just when Blücher thought he could go home, put his swollen ankles up and knit some trunk warmers, Napoleon scuppered his plans. Wearily, Blücher climbed back into the saddle for one last campaign.

Blucher outlives yet another horse.

In his customary style, Blücher insisted on leading from the front at the Battle of Ligny, with the result that he had his horse (a fine stallion given to him by the Prince Regent) shot from under him. He was only saved by his aide who stood over him until Prussian soldiers could lift the horse off Blücher and carry him back. They then carelessly lost the Field-Marshal among the wounded.

The rest of the battle was fought by Gneisenau, who though defeated, managed to pull back in reasonably good order. He then faced a difficult choice: to take his battered army north to support Wellington, or to retreat east and protect his supply line. Distrustful of Wellington, who he thought was an arse, Gneisenau had just made up his mind to head east, when Blücher turned up alive in a farmhouse, reeking of brandy, gin, garlic and rhubarb which a doctor had insisted on rubbing into his bruises. (The doctor had refused him brandy for internal use, but had permitted him a magnum of champagne.) He heartily embraced his English liaison officer, Hardinge, who had just had his arm amputated and shouted “Ich stinke! Ha ha ha.”

Blücher and Wellington put the bins out.

Luckily for Wellington, Blücher refused to consider retreating east, claiming that “a thirst for bloody vengeance” had taken over his will and intelligence. The first Prussian units turned up on the battlefield of Waterloo at about 4:30pm, just in time to save Wellington’s army from imminent collapse.

The next day, Blücher was found by his brother-in-law wearing Napoleon’s hat and sword, bellowing “How do you like me?” He then proceeded to pursue the fleeing French forces towards Paris, determined to have Napoleon’s head as well. He had two horses shot out from under him in the process.

When hostilities ended, Blücher suffered another mental and physical colapse, going blind again and taking to the gaming table with demonic abandon. “Je sense un éléphant lá,” he confided sadly to Wellington, rubbing his stomach. He went into retirement in October 1815, nursing a bad shoulder from a fall during one last horse race. He died three years later of boredom.


Blücher remained at heart a gay hussar all his life – brave, independent and impetuous. His virtues lay mainly in boundless energy, a single-minded determination to kill Frenchmen and his inability to know when he was beaten – a vital quality when you lose a lot of battles.

His presence in 1815 was absolutely essential. Having given his word to aid Wellington, there was no way he was going back on it, no matter what Gneisenau thought. Had he not returned miraculously from the dead after Ligny, Waterloo would probably have ended very differently.

Memorability spectrum:
Hotness (red): 128. A middling score due to lack of evidence. He had several wives, and was tall and well built with a luxuriant moustache. Mental illness is never really a turn on though.

Eccentricity (green): 234. Any man who lives in terror of birthing a French elephant is eccentric in my book.

Violence (blue): 218. Duellist, priest slayer, massacred Frenchmen for shear love of the Fatherland.


5 thoughts on “Blücher: How Care in the Community Saved Europe

  1. russiansnows says:

    Another great post! The things I learn on this blog…

  2. Ged says:

    Is a spiritual successor to “1066 and all that” being born here? While your writing is superb, I can’t help but notice I am developing something of a historical education in the process.
    This is problematic, as it may lead to me doubting the role unicorns have played in most major British events since the Enlightenment, and I don’t know if they would ever forgive me.

    Can you imagine a future without them, wandering the ruins of English heritage castles and tea shops without their clip-clopping on the flagstones beside you, making soothing recommendations of cream teas in your ear? Alone but for the audio guide, forever. Such a future is not one I dare to risk: You dice with our happiness, Alice, and I fear it.

    • Don’t get down hearted, Ged. I’m not a unicorn denier or anything of the sort. There’s no reason why a good knowledge of history should be incompatible with a belief in horned equines. Some of my best friends are unicorns and they feel perfectly secure in their own historical authenticity and contribution to the nation.
      You should be careful not to confuse them with English Heritage staff though. If one starts whispering in your ear about getting 15 months membership for the price of 12, you’ll know it to be a false unicorn. Luckily, English Heritage staff are much easier to outrun.

  3. maxinterax says:

    I wonder what Wellington thought about Blücher? Welly was probably pleased that he existed, but was unsure about correct conversational etiquette.

    • Dr John M Court says:

      Without ” mad” General Blucher, Wellington would have lost the battle of Waterloo.
      This fact should temper the British boasting that it was Wellington who won the battle.
      Thus it can be rightly said that ” neither general should glory in his flesh”
      Unless divinely directed as with the children of Israel, all wars are of the God of this world who blinds our eyes.
      Will this knowledge prevent us from fomenting yet another war?— not likely.

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