Frederick William III of Prussia, 1770-1840, r.1797-1840

Frederick William III (1770-1840, r.1797-1840) was king of Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars, and led Prussia during one of the most disastrous periods in her history in 1806-7 and during her revival in 1813-15.

Frederick William III was the son of Frederick William II and his second wife, Frederika Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt.

The young Frederick William gained some military experience in 1792-94 (War of the First Coalition). In 1792 he commanded a brigade in the duke of Brunswick's army during the Valmy campaign, and was present for the indecisive campaigns of 1793-94. In 1793 he also married Prince Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a strong-willed and beautiful woman who would play a major role in the national revival. She was also popular with the Prussian people and army.

He inherited an almost bankrupt Prussia in 1797, but his father had left him a greatly expanded Prussia, thanks to the partitions of Poland, and a peaceful inheritance, thanks to the Treaty of Basle of 1795. Frederick William was able to stay out of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars for the first nine years of his reign, but when he did decide to enter the war the result was disastrous.

Frederick William III inherited an ongoing reform effort, and continued to try and modernise Prussia, although not with much success before 1806. Amongst his ministers in this period were Karl August von Hardenberg, a member of the government from 1797 to 1806 (when he resigned because Prussia didn’t join the Third Coalition).

In the period between 1803 and 1806 Frederick William couldn’t decide who he feared more - France or Russia. Napoleon was clearly a major military threat, but the Russians were much closer and equally expansionist. In the spring of 1805 Tsar Alexander visited the King on his way to take command of the Russian army in Austria. Frederick William agreed to join the war against France, but not immediately.

War of the Fourth Coalition

Frederick William badly mishandled events in 1805-1806. He refused the join the Third Coalition, when Prussia would have fought with Austrian and Russian allies. Russian troops were allowed to cross Prussian territory, but only after the French had done the same in Ansbach on 3 October 1805. Towards the end of the year he finally decided to enter the war (after Tsar Alexander visited him in October), and on 3 November 1805 the Prussians signed the Treaty of Potsdam, in which they agreed to enter the Third Coalition in Napoleon didn't agree to peace within four weeks of the departure of an envoy from Berlin.

The Prussian envoy, Christian Graf von Haugwitz, took too long to deliver his ultimatum. He reached Vienna, then occupied by the French, and had an audience with Napoleon on 28 November, but was given no chance to intervene. By the time he was ready the Russians and Austrians had suffered a crushing defeat at Austerlitz (2 December 1805), and the Prussian envoy had no choice other than to sign the Convention of Schönbrünn (15 December 1805). Prussia ended up having to agree a formal alliance against Britain, and surrender Cleves (to Murat), Ansbach (to Bavaria) and Neuchatel (to Berthier). Frederick William refused to ratify the treaty until 24 February 1806 (Treaty of Paris), and its harsh terms strengthened the pro-war party in Prussia. In theory Prussia was going to be granted Hanover in return for the lost lands, but Napoleon then offered it to Britain instead, a move that helped trigger war with Prussia.

When Frederick William finally decided to declare war against France (7 August 1806) he sent his wife Queen Louise and Prince Louise to Russia to make an agreement with the Tsar. However the Prussians weren't willing to wait for Russian aid, and on 12 September Frederick William ordered his army to move into Saxony. The Prussians then stopped while they decided what to do next. At this stage in his reign Frederick William wasn't strong willed enough to make his generals cooperate, and so the Duke of Brunswick and Prince Hohenlohe was each given their own army, although they were meant to cooperate.

While this was going on, the French attacked from the south, their main army having remained in Germany after Austerlitz. Frederick William was present at the battle of Auerstädt, along with his main military advisor Marshal Mollendorf. When the Prussian commander-in-chief, the Duke of Brunswick, was fatally wounded, Mollendorf briefly took over before being wounded himself. Brunswick's chief of staff Scharnhorst, who might have been able to save the situation, was absent, having taken over Schmettau's corps when that general was wounded. As a result the King took personal command, but he performed badly in that role. The Prussians were unable to take advantage of their numerical superiority, allowing Davout to win one of the most impressive victories of the period.

Even late in the day the Prussians still had a chance to restore the situation, as one third of their army had yet to enter the fighting. Blücher attempted to convince the king to use the fresh troops for one more attack, but Frederick William refused, and insisted on retreating towards the detachments led by von Rüchel and the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. The real damage was done during this retreat, which saw the two defeated Prussian armies from Jena and Auerstädt run into each other during the night, destroying what order remained. The retreat turned into a rout, and the various parts of the Prussian army were quickly rounded up by the French. The King was almost the only member of the senior leadership to escape, fleeing into Prussian Poland, where he finally joined up with his Russian allies. At the start of November, one week after the French occupied Berlin, Frederick William sued for peace from Custrin. Napoleon's terms were harsh - at first he demanded that Prussia surrender all land west of the Elbe, but this was then expanded to all land west of the Vistula. He also wanted a war indemnity of 100 million francs. Frederick William was actually willing to accept these harsh terms, but Queen Louise convinced him to reject them.

After the battle of Friedland (14 June 1807), the Tsar decided to make peace. Frederick William III was present during the peace negotiations at Tilsit, but he was deliberately humiliated by Napoleon. The second of the two treaties of Tilset (9 July 1807) forced the Prussians to give up all of their recently acquired Polish lands, which formed the new Grand Duchy of Warsaw (this was officially ruled by the King of Saxony, but was really under French control, and was a move that managed to annoy both the Prussians and the Russians). All Prussian lands between the Elbe and Rhine went to the new Kingdom of Westphalia (given to Jérôme Bonapart). A French army was to remain in Prussia until a war indemnity was paid. Frederick William was also forced to recognize the Confederation of the Rhine. The size of the Prussian army was also greatly restricted. Queen Louise made a series of efforts to win Napoleon over and reduce the harshness of these terms, but without success.

Peace, Humiliation and Reform

Over the next few years Prussia underwent a dramatic period of reform. Frederick William rarely gets much credit for this, but many of the measures adopted needed his approval, not least the abolition of serfdom. A key step was the Emancipation Edict of 9 October 1807, in which the limits on movement between social estates were removed and the non-noble classes were granted equal citizenship. Serfdom was abolished on 11 November 1810, although the peasants weren't freed from their feudal duties. Frederick William was less happy about any efforts to prepare for a war against France, which he suspected might lead to the complete destruction of his kingdom. He was especially determined to avoid war in 1809, during the Franco-Austrian War, and condemned Schill's revolt. He also abolished the Tugendbund, one of the societies formed to try and regenerate Prussia, under French pressure.

Reform of the army began in July 1807, when the king appointed Scharnhorst to head a military reform commission. Over the next few years Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and a series of other reforms greatly improved the Prussian army, and also found ways around the 42,000 size limit.

Sadly in 1810 Queen Louise died young, while visiting her father. Three years later Frederick William instituted the Iron Cross in her honour.

Early in 1812 Frederick William was forced into an alliance with France, and agreed to provide a corps for the invasion of Russia. This triggered another round of resignations from the army, including those of Gneisenau and Clausewitz. Frederick William bore something of a grudge against these officers, and some were unable to rejoin the Prussian army for some years (Clausewitz wasn't left back until 1815).

War of Liberation, 1813

The Prussians were forced to commit a corps to the invasion of Russia. General Yorck took command of this corps, which operated under Marshal Macdonald on the northern flank of the invasion. Towards the end of 1812, as Macdonald was retreating back towards East Prussia, Yorck's troops were cut off. On 30 December he agreed to the Convention of Tauroggen, in which Yorck's corps became neutral. His troops were allowed to move to northern East Prussia. This move meant that Macdonald had to abandon East Prussia, and early in January the Russians entered Königsberg. At the time the King officially condemned the convention, but it is possible that Yorck was obeying secret orders. The King also condemned the formation of a militia in East Prussia in February 1813, but this movement soon spread across Prussia and played a major role in the expansion of the Prussian army.

On 28 February 1813 the Prussians (Hardenberg) and Russians (Kutuzov) signed the Convention of Kalisch. This officially ended the war between Russia and Prussia. Each side agreed to commit troops for a war against Napoleon - Russia 180,000, Prussia at least 80,000. The treaty was to be kept secret for two months, although it emerged one month early. The treaty also included clauses on the fate of Poland, in which Prussia agreed to give up her gains from the Second and Third Partitions of 1793 and 1795.

Frederick William didn't declare war on France until 17 March 1813. Once he was in the anti-French camp he became fully committed to it. The Prussian army expanded much more quickly than might have been expected, and the King accompanied his armies during the War of Liberation of 1813 and the invasion of France of 1814, often encouraging more timid commanders.

Frederick William II, Tsar Alexander and the Emperor Francis of Austria all accompanied the Allied armies during the War of Liberation, normally accompanying Prince Schwarzenberg's main Austrian army. Frederick William was present at the battles of Bautzen, Dresden and Leipzig.

At the council of war before the battle of Dresden (26-27 August 1813) Frederick William was the only one of the monarchs who called for an attack despite the arrival of Napoleon. Although the council was generally opposed to the idea, the army had already been ordered to attack before Napoleon arrived, so the choice was taken from their hands. The resulting battle ended as a major French victory, but over the next few days the situation was restored by Allied victories at Dennewitz, Kulm and the Katzbach.

Invasion of France, 1814

Frederick William and Tsar Alexander took part in the invasion of France in 1814. During this campaign the two monarchs performed a useful role, repeating forcing the Austrian commander in chief Prince Schwarzenberg to be more aggressive than he preferred.

Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

After the battle of Montereau (18 February 1814) Schwarzenberg retreated east, and summoned Blucher to join him at Mery-sur-Seine. The armies united on 21 February, but instead of preparing for a battle, Schwarzenberg called a council of war on 22 February. He was reluctantly given permission to retreat further east, while Blucher was to return to his troops on the Marne. The monarchs forced Schwarzenberg to agree to resume his advance if Blücher made progress towards Paris.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

Unsurprisingly this is exactly what Blücher attempted to do. Napoleon moved north to try and stop him, but after a minor victory at Craonne (7 March 1814) suffered a defeat at Laon (9-10 March 1814). Napoleon left Oudinot behind, with orders to try and convince the Allies that the Emperor was still with the army. Frederick William and the Tsar used Blücher's progress to force Schwarzenberg to probe towards Bar-sur-Aube, and it soon became clear that Napoleon was absent. On 27 February the Allies attacked Oudinot's isolated force and inflicted a defeat on it (battle of Bar-sur-Aube, 27 February 1814). This allowed Schwarzenberg to move to Troyes and gain control of key crossings of the Seine. This forced Napoleon to abandon his attempts to defeat Blücher, and move back south to try and stop Schwarzenberg. This in turn led to the battle of Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814), where Napoleon was lucky to escape after running into Schwarzenberg's main army.

Napoleon then decided to turn east and try and get into the Allies lines of communication. In previous wars this would probably have forced them to retreat to deal with the new threat, but on this occasion that didn’t happen. The Allies decided to ignore Napoleon and head for Paris. After brushing aside Marmont and Mortier's army on the way, the Allied armies united, and captured Paris. Soon afterwards Napoleon was forced to abdicate for the first time. 

Frederick William III was present at the Congress of Vienna, although the Prussian delegation was officially led by Chancellor Hardenberg. He played a somewhat subsidiary role to Tsar Alexander and the Austrian politician Metternich, who tended to dominate proceedings.

Prussia didn't regain all of its lost territory at the Congress of Vienna. Large parts of the Polish lands gained in the partitions went elsewhere (in particular to the Congress Kingdom of Poland, ruled by the Tsar). However Prussia did regain her lost lands in western Germany as well as parts of Saxony. Prussia was confirmed as the leading German state and almost an equal to Austria.  

Frederick William wrote two accounts of his military services in 1792 and 1793.

Frederick William III is often described as a weak ruler, but this is perhaps only accurate for the period of 1805-6, where he led Prussia to disaster. After the peace of Tilsit he played a part in the Prussian revival, and was a much more determined figure during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814.

After the end of the wars Frederick William lost much of his interest in reform, and he became an opponent of liberalism. Despite this he remained popular in Prussia. In September 1815 he signed the Holy Alliance, an idea of Tsar Alexander I. Along with the Emperor Francis I this alliance was meant to help preserve peace in the post Napoleonic world, and saw the three powers cooperate at a series of post-war conferences between Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and Verona in 1822. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 October 2016), Frederick William III of Prussia, 1770-1840, r.1797-1840 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_frederick_william_III_prussia.html

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