Scharnhorst & Gneisenau

Origin of the Name

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Gerhard Johann von Scharnhorst
Nationality Prussian
Minister at the War Department/Chairman of the Military Organisation
Born 12 November 1755, Bordenau, Hannover in modern Germany
Died 28 June 1813, Prague in modern Czech Republic
Following education in the noted War College of Wilhelmstein, Steinhuder Meer, Scharnhorst was commissioned into the Hannoverian Army in 1776 and in 1801 applied for the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Prussian Army. By 1806 he was Chief of the Duke of Brunswick's General Staff at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt, and the following year held the same office under General L'Estocq at the battle of Preussisch-Eylau (then in East Prussia, now in Russia).

In 1807 he was Minister at the War Department and Chairman of the Military Organisation. Here, in close collaboration with August Gneisenau, he introduced many military reforms, abolition of the recruitment of foreign mercenaries, restrictions on exemptions from military service and limitations to the preferential appointment of the nobility in the army. In military training he introduced the concept of loose-order warfare in place of the battle square. Despite the pressures exerted by such reformers as Gneisenau, Götzen, Boyen, and Freiherr vom Stein, resistance by the king was such that Scharnhorst did not succeed in implementing general conscription until 1813.

Scharnhorst's major achievement was the "shrinkage system" designed to circumvent the limit of 42.000 men for the standing army imposed by Napoleon on Prussia in the Paris Treaty of 1808. Recruits were conscripted for short periods for training purposes and then sent into reserve. This system increased the actual number of trained soldiers and officers without exceeding the 42,000 limit.

In 1809 and 1811 he pressed for the entry of Prussia on the side of Austria and Russia in the struggle against Napoleon, but, as did Gneisenau, encountered the resistance of King Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was not until 1813 that he had a (clandestine) meeting with the Czar at Kalisch in Poland in order to discuss the principles of a common war aim.

While serving as Chief of Blücher's General Staff at the Battle of Grossgörschen on 2 May 1813, Scharnhorst received a wound to which he eventually succumbed in June 1813 at Prague, although whilst there, and despite his injuries, he negotiated with Schwarzenberg and Radetzky the admission of Austria to the Russo-Prussian Alliance.

He was a great military and social reformer, yet the strategist Scharnhorst never had an army command. Instead he built up a new army for the purpose of freeing Prussia from Napoleon's yoke. His visionary ideals, frustrated often enough by the king and reactionary generals, set the politically strategic course which his friend and pupil Gneisenau brought to fruition. In appreciation of this collaboration the Navy adopted the two names for the two battleships of the Scharnhorst Class.

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