Origin of the Name

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August Wilhelm Anton Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau
Nationality Prussian
Title Field Marshal/Supreme Commander of Prussia's "Army of Observation"
Born 27 October 1760 at Schildau, near Torgau in modern Germany
Died 23 August 1831 at Posen in modern Poland
After a short period of military service in Austria, in Ansbach and with an Ansbach contingent in 1782-83 in the American War of Independence, August Gneisenau entered Prussian military service in 1786. He took part in the 1794 campaign in Poland, but otherwise spent the period from 1786 until the outbreak of war between Prussia and Napoleon in 1806 on garrison duty.

He was still a company commander at the time of the Battle of Jena, but in 1807, together with the "Citizen's Adjutant" Joachim Nettelbeck of Kolberg, he mounted a successful defence of the fortress of Kolberg (Pomerania, in modern Poland) until the Peace of Tilsit that same year, and the joint command of `Citizen and Soldier' brought him public acclaim. Appointed by the king to several reform commissions-in 1809 he was Inspector of Fortifications and Commanding Officer of the Engineer Corpshe stepped down (provisionally) in 1809 on the grounds of Prussia's neutrality in the war between Austria and France. This was one manifestation of the serious differences of opinion existing between the decisive Gneisenau and the indecisive King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. Gneisenau travelled at the instigation of the Prussian statesman Hardenberg to Britain, Austria, Sweden and Russia for the purpose of secretly negotiating an anti-Napoleonic coalition.

By 1813 Gneisenau had returned to Prussian Army service as Quartermaster-General in Blücher's Silesian Army. After the death of Schamhorst in Prague on 28 June 1813, Lieutenant-General Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau became Blücher's Chief of Staff. He was responsible for planning strategy and played an influential role in unifying the Allied militia at the Battle of Leipzig.

In 1814 as Governor of Silesia he mobilised the Landwehr and Landsturm (front-line and second-line reserves, respectively), and in 1815 with Marshal Blücher he was the driving force behind the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

In 1816 the king relieved him of his office as Commanding General at Koblenz: Gneisenau's liberal and national opinions were a constant source of annoyance to the hesitant and reactionary Friedrich Wilhelm III. Nevertheless, he was appointed Field Marshal in 1825, and was Supreme Commander of Prussia's "Army of Observation" during the Polish uprising of 1831 at the time of his death from cholera in August of that year.

Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau was one of the great Prussian military reformers. Together with Gerhard Scharnhorst, in the war against Napoleon he resolutely advocated a conscripted citizen's army instead of a mercenary force and argued for a strategy of decisive battle and subsequent relentless pursuit to destroy the enemy. He had advocated the abolition of corporal punishment, which came about in 1808, the social equality of soldier and officer ("the citizen in uniform"), promotion on merit, military academies, and the abolition of special privileges for the higher classes. Gneisenau was sharply critical of archaic disciplinary measures and of an education system more biased towards form than content. With Gerhard Schamhorst, he was one of the most significant military reformers of the period 1807-1815. His spiritual charisma has, together with that of Gerhard Schamhorst, continued to find its expression up to the present day, particularly in the modern German Bundeswehr.

© John Asmussen, 2001 - 2010. All rights reserved.