Friday, January 18, 2013

Welcome To Weirdsville: The Not-Tall Tale Of The Very Tall Potsdam Grenadiers

Here's another fun article from my new book, Welcome to Weirdsville - this time on the (rather) tall Potsdam Grenadiers:

The Not-Tall Tale Of The Very Tall Potsdam Grenadiers 

If you're going to dream, the old saying goes, then you might as well dream big. But Friedrich Wilhelm I did more than dream because, as another expression says all too well: It's good to be the King.

Friedrich, born in 1688, was just one in a series of notable Prussian leaders. Friedrich, though, unlike his father, Frederick I – who achieved much during his reign, including wearing the crown for the first time, or Friedrich's son – Frederick II, who was a reformer and fervent supporter of reason and the arts – Friedrich, to put it mildly, loved a man in uniform ... in a secularly big way.

Friedrich, you see, had this thing about the military. Oh, sure, he did, during his reign, improve his then-tiny country's defenses, and carefully – almost pathologically – controlled Prussia's economy to the point when he finally passed away he left behind an awesome surplus. But Friedrich's military obsession wasn't really about keeping his people safe, or even about acquiring new territories: Friedrich liked – really liked – a grand spit and polish display.

How big? How grand? Well, Friedrich's all-consuming passion was for his grenadiers, a Regiment hand-picked not for their skill in battle, their heroic abilities, but for being tall.

In a time when the average height was probably around five foot something, the grenadiers – which quickly became known by the Prussians as the Lange Kerls (Big Guys) – began at six feet and went up up from there.

The Big Guys – and some of them were very big, coming in around seven feet – were the king's all-consuming passion, to the point where it became common for foreign dignitaries to use 'gifts' of very tall men to curry favor with Friedrich. But even these presents, many of them with little say in the matter, weren't enough to satisfy Friedrich's obsession: his agents, promised huge rewards, were dispatched to the far corners of Europe to get, by any means necessary, the tallest people they could find.

To say these agents were zealous would be an understatement: there are tales of them kidnapping farmers from their fields, innkeepers from their taverns, an Irish priest in the middle of a sermon, and they even had the audacity to try to grab a Austrian diplomat. There's even the story of one poor soul who was snatched off the streets of some foreign city and shipped back to Prussia, but who arrived stiff and cold because the agents forgot to punch air-holes in the crate.

Friedrich was so determined to fill the ranks of his grenadiers he even began his own program of selective breeding, offering tall women and men rewards to produce even taller children – and heaven help you if you knew someone nice and tall and didn't tell the king about it.

Oh, how the king loved his grenadiers: he would lovingly paint their portraits from memory, or order them to march for hours and hours around his palace courtyard just so he relish in their military tallness, and, if the king was feeling under the weather, he would even have them thunderously circle his bed until he got better. As he told the French ambassador: "The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers – they are my weakness."
Yes, it was very good to be the king – but, alas, it was not so grand to be one of his grenadiers. Even though Friedrich doted over them, many of his giants were in agony from diseases related to their gigantism, were painfully depressed after finding themselves in a unfamiliar land and unable to speak a word of German, or who – again as a tragic effect of their great height – were mentally the age of a young child. Desertions were common, but since the giants were, well, 'gigantic' they were quickly caught and subsequently, and brutally, punished. Some, sadly, made the ultimate escape – but even suicides didn't dissuade the king from begging, borrowing, or out-and- out stealing tall men for his grenadiers. At its (excuse me) 'height' the flamboyant regiment numbered over 3,000 men.

Not surprising, considering how incredibly infatuated Friedrich was with them, the grenadiers were never sent into battle.

Eventually, though, the king died, and with his death the kingdom, and Friedrich's beloved Potsdam Grenadiers, were passed down to his son, Frederick II. But while his father adored brass fittings, a good uniform, and everything else stern and military, the son – having been raised by a stern and military father – absolutely did not. Ironically, though, Frederick II did attack neighboring Austria, putting into practice some of his father's teachings. He also, after a time, put into actual combat what few of Friedrich's grenadiers remained.

There was one problem, though. Because they were considerably taller – very considerably taller – than their fellow soldiers, these surviving grenadiers didn't survive very long: they simply too big to miss.

Absolutely, if you're going to dream you should dream big. But if you're lucky – and you're a king – you don't have to settle for only dreams: you too, like Friedrich, can have your own marching, thundering fantasy brought to remarkably, and legendarily, tall life. 

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