Friday, August 31, 2007

Tall Tale That's Not a Tall Tale: Potsdamer Riesengarde

Friedrich Wilhelm I: small man, big fantasies

From Wikipedia:

The Potsdam Giants was a Prussian infantry regiment composed of taller-than-average soldiers. Its founder was the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia (1688-1740). The unit was known as the "Potsdamer Riesengarde" ("giant guard of Potsdam") in German, but the Prussian population quickly nicknamed them the "Lange Kerls" ("Long guys").

When Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia ascended to the throne in 1713 he proceeded to decrease expenses of the court and strengthen his military. He let Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau improve the drill and weapons of his army and hired 40,000 foreign mercenaries. He believed in harsh discipline.

The Potsdam Giants was based on the king's personal regiment that his father had given him to play with. He had already begun to recruit taller soldiers for it. Official name of the regiment was the 'Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam' or 'Potsdam Grenadiers' for short. However, when the number of tall soldiers increased, the regiment earned its nickname 'Potsdam Giants'. Their uniform was a red hat, blue jacket with gold trim, scarlet trousers, white stockings, and black shoes. Their weapons were muskets, white bandoleers, and daggers. The soldiers wore a hat without a brim in order to be able to throw their heavy grenades with ease.

The original required height was 1.8 meters (5 ft 11 in), then well above average. The tallest soldiers were reportedly 2.17 meters (about 7 feet) in height. The king — who was 1.5 meters (4'11" feet) himself — needed several hundred more recruits each year. He tried to obtain them by any means, and once confided to the French ambassador that "The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers--they are my weakness." He gave bonuses to fathers of tall sons and landowners who gave up their tallest farm workers to join the regiment. He recruited tall soldiers from the armies of other European countries. Foreign rulers like the Emperor of Austria, Russian Tsar Peter the Great and even the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire sent tall soldiers to him in order to encourage friendly relations. Once, Peter the Great retracted his annual gift of 40 soldiers to the regiment, and following that action, Friedrich Wilhelm refused to speak to the Russian ambassador until they were returned.

If the man concerned was not interested, the king resorted to forced recruitment and kidnapping — his agents kidnapped tall priests, monks, innkeepers, etc, from all over Europe. Once they even tried to abduct an Austrian diplomat. He even forced tall women to marry tall soldiers so they could breed more tall boys. If some regimental commander failed to inform the king of a potential tall recruit under his own command, he faced royal displeasure.

Pay was high but not all giants were content, especially if they were forcibly recruited. They attempted desertion or suicide. The king's idea to stretch his troopers to make them taller was met with open rebellion.

The king never risked the Giants in battle. (Fortunately, since many of the men suffered from disabilities related to their gigantism and were unfit for combat.) He trained and drilled them every day. He liked to paint their portraits from memory. He tried to show them to foreign visitors and dignitaries to impress them. At times he would try to cheer himself up by ordering them to march before him, even if he was in his sickbed. This procession, which included the entire regiment, was led by their mascot, a bear.

When the king died in 1740, crown prince Frederick — future Frederick the Great — did not share his sentiments about the regiment, which seemed to him an unnecessary expense. He dismissed the Giants. Forcibly recruited foreigners returned to their home countries after a long service. Nancy Mitford's biography of Frederick the Great, quotes contemporary sources saying the roads to Paris were littered with half-wit giants trying to find their way home.

Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia looking up to (at) his troops

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