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Gebhard von Blucher

Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher
(1742-1819)
Prussian Marshall

Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher restored the Prussian military to a formidable force and influenced the abdication of Napoleon I in 1814. His support of Wellington at Waterloo a year later significantly contributed to the final defeat of Napoleon, and his personal courage, determination, and common sense made him one of his generations most influential and successful military leaders. Known as “Marshal Forward” for his aggressive “from the front” leadership, Blucher was Prussia’s “father of the Fatherland.”

Born in Rostock, Mecklenburg, on December 16, 1742, Blucher joined the Swedish army at age fourteen and fought in the early stages of the Seven Years’ War. Captured by the Prussians in 1760, Blucher so impressed his captors that they offered him a commission in their Eighth Hussars. Blucher served his new regiment well, earning a reputation for aggressiveness and bravery. Along with being a fanatical leader of cavalry charges, he also became known for his heavy drinking, womanizing, and gambling – characteristics unacceptable in the army of “gentlemen officers” of Frederick the Great.

When passed over for promotion in 1773, Blucher resigned from the Prussian army and pursued the life of a farmer. Although his personal habits had not changed, Blucher reentered the Prussian army as a major after the death of Frederick in 1786, Blucher served with distinction in the battles against the new French Republic in 1793-1795 and received a promotion to major general at age fifty-one from his victory at Landau on May 28, 1794.

After Prussia ceased its hostilities against France in 1795, Blucher served as the military governor of Munster, where he assisted the development of the Prussian army. In 1805 he wrote a paper entitled Thoughts on the Organization of a National Army in which he argued fro a system of Prussian universal service.

Blucher again took to the field in 1806 to combat the advance of Napoleon. The French, however, proved far superior and defeated the Prussians in a series of battles. Blucher performed well during the Prussian retreat and, despite later capture, survived the conflict as one of Prussia’s few remaining respected generals.

The military career of Blucher appeared to be over as he neared seventy years of age, and Prussia continued to languish under the control of France. Blucher’s greatest triumphs, however, were yet to come. When Prussia defected from their French alliance after napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1813, Blucher came out of retirement and took command of its field forces. After unsuccessfully combating the French at Lutzen and Bautzen in May 1813, Blucher gained the advantage at Katzbach on August 26 and won a decisive victory at Leipzig on October 18.

Promoted to field marshal, Blucher continued his offensive against Napoleon by crossing the Rhine River into France on January 1, 1814. With a Russian force advancing through the Marne Valley and Austrian troops attacking from the south, the allies closed on Paris. The great Napoleon stopped Blucher in several battles, but Marshal Forward always reorganized and resumed his advance. In April, Blucher marched into Paris, forcing Napoleon to abdicate.

After taking Paris, Blucher returned to his Silesian estates and to a well-deserved retirement. It did not last long. When napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France, Blucher, at age seventy-two, again mounted his horse and took command of the Prussian field army. After a brief setback at Ligny on June 16, 1815, Blucher, despite injuries resulting from a fall off his horse in the midst of the battle, rallied his army and moved toward Waterloo to support Wellington against Napoleon’s main force.

One June 18 the Prussians, with Blucher in their lead, struck against Napoleon’s right wing as the French attacked Wellington’s front. The decisive blow forced Napoleon to retreat, and with the final defeat, Blucher returned home as an honored hero in Prussia and throughout the allied nations. He continued to live the “good life,” little slowed by age until his death at age seventy-six at his home in Krieblowitz, Silesia, on September, 12, 1819.

Blucher, never a master of tactics or strategy, was unsurpassed in his personal bravery. What he lacked in finesse and refinement he compensated for in his ability to motivate his soldiers, who admired his excessive indulgences in alcohol, tobacco, and other vices. At times, Blucher’s allies as well as his enemies doubted the field marshal’s sanity because of his strange actions, including claims at one time that he was pregnant with an elephant. Regardless of whether his erratic behavior resulted from real mental instability, heavy consumption of gin, or his own misguided sense of humor, Blucher’s reputation as a fighter could strike fear into his opponents by his mere appearance on the battlefield.

As a combat commander, Blucher had no equal during his time and few since. His influence on the Prussian, and later Germanic, fighting spirit remains today as a warrior ethos to be emulated. The timely arrival of Blucher at Waterloo turned the tide of the battle and helped end the age of Napoleon and changed the history of Europe and the world.