Emperor William First - George Upton

Early Life

King Frederick William Second was still upon the throne of Prussia when his son and successor, afterward Frederick William Third, was married to the lovely Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The memory of this noble pair is treasured in every Prussian heart, and their self-sacrificing devotion to the people, their benevolence and piety, will serve as a shining example for all time.

On the fifteenth of October, 1795, a son was born to them, the future King Frederick William Fourth, and on the twenty-second of March, 1797, the Crown Princess gave birth to a second son, whose name was destined to be inscribed in golden letters in the book of the world's history. Although a handsome boy, his health was so delicate as to cause his parents much anxiety, and it seems almost like a special dispensation of Providence that he should have lived to an age far beyond that usually allotted to the fate of mortals.

On the third of April the christening took place in the Crown Prince's palace. Chief Councillor of the Consistory Sack stood before the altar, which was ablaze with lighted tapers, and ranged before him in a wide semicircle were the priests, the Crown Prince, and the godparents. Others present were the King and Queen; the widowed Princess Louise, a sister of the Crown Princess and afterward Queen of Hanover; Princes Henry and Ferdinand of Prussia, brothers of Frederick the Great, with their wives; Princes Henry and William, brothers of the Crown Prince; their sister, the Electress of Hesse-Cassel; Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the hereditary prince Frederick William of Orange. Proxies had been sent by the Czar and Czarina of Russia, Prince William of Nassau, the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. The principal governess, Countess Voss, handed the child to the King, who held him during the ceremony. He received the names Frederick William Louis, with the understanding that William was the one by which he should be known.

On the sixteenth of November of that same year Frederick William Second was gathered to his forefathers, and the father of our hero ascended the throne of Prussia. Their assumption of royal honors made no change in the simplicity of the august pair's affection for each other or their devotion to their children, and whenever time and opportunity permitted, they gladly laid aside the oppressive form and ceremony of the court for the pure and simple pleasures of home life. Every morning and evening they went hand in hand to the nursery to enjoy the growth and development of their children, or, bending with loving caresses over their cradles, committed them to the fatherly care of the Almighty. The simple cradle with its little green curtains in which Prince William dreamed away his infancy is still preserved in the Hohenzollern Museum at the Monbijou Palace, a touching reminder of the delicate child who was afterward to be so famous and to serve as an instrument for the fulfilment of the mighty decrees of Providence for the welfare of his people.

The early years of Prince William's life passed happily and peacefully by. Watched over with tenderest love and care by his noble parents, their devotion and piety, their readiness to sacrifice themselves for each other or for their people, their prompt and cheerful fulfilment of duty, and the courage that never failed them even in the darkest hours, all made a deep impression on the child's sensitive nature and helped to form the character that distinguished the heroic Emperor up to the last days and hours of his life.

There was little prospect at that time of William's ever wielding the sceptre, for his elder brother was a strong, healthy lad, and the crown seemed in all human probability likely to descend to him and his heirs. It was important, therefore, for the younger son to choose some vocation which would enable him to be of use to the Fatherland and prove himself worthy of his illustrious ancestors.

The Prince's devoted tutor, Johann Friedrich Gottlieb Delbruck, carefully fed his mind with the history and glories of the house of Brandenburg, a study of which he never tired and to which he applied himself with untiring zeal. Learning from this that a well-disciplined standing army, firmly supported by public sentiment, was the first and most important requisite for the advancement and maintenance of the monarchy, he determined to devote himself to a military career and use all his energy to fit himself for that high and difficult calling, that he might furnish a stout support to his brother's throne. But he had shown a natural fondness for soldiers at an early age, long before arriving at this maturer resolution, an inclination which his father had carefully encouraged. The two little Princes, with their cousin Frederick, son of the deceased Prince Louis, received their first military instruction in Potsdam from a non-commissioned officer of the first Battalion of the Guard, named Bennstein, and in Berlin from Sergeant Major Cleri of the Mollendorf Regiment. The King was often present at these exercises to note their progress, praise or criticise, and as a reward for their industry, arranged a delightful surprise for them.

It was Christmas Eve of the year 1803. In the royal palace at Berlin the lighted Christmas-tree glittered and sparkled, its branches bending with the weight of gifts provided by the royal parents for their children. All was silent, for the family were still at divine service, with which they always began the celebration of the holy festival. Suddenly the clear stroke of a bell sounded through the quiet room, the great doors flew open as if of their own accord, and the King and Queen entered with their excited children. A perfect sea of light streamed toward them from the huge tree that towered almost to the ceiling and filled the air with its spicy fragrance, while red-cheeked apples and gilded nuts nodded a friendly greeting from its branches. Here the beautiful Louise, Prussia's beloved Queen, reigned supreme, gayly distributing gifts and enjoying the delight of her precious children, while the King stood quietly by, his eyes shining with fatherly happiness. All at once the six-year-old William gave a shout of joy. Before him, carefully tucked away under the boughs of the tree, he saw a gay little uniform. What joy! what bliss! The red dolman with its white cords and lacings, the blue furred jacket, the bearskin cap, and the sabre filled his cup of happiness to overflowing, and the happy little fellow could find no words to thank the kind parents who had so unexpectedly granted his heart's desire. It was the uniform of the Rudorff Regiment, now the Ziethen Hussars, and the Christ-child had brought his brother, the Crown Prince, that of the bodyguard, and his cousin Frederick that of a dragoon. The next morning the three boys dressed up in their new costumes and the delighted father presented them to the Queen as the youngest recruits in his army. But none of them was so proud as William, and very fine he looked in his first soldierly dress.

Two years later he saw the uhlan regiment Towarczysz, at that time the only one in Prussia, and was so charmed with its singular uniform that he begged his father for one like it. The King, always ready to encourage his military tastes, granted his wish, and from that time he alternated between a uhlan and a hussar. That year he also saw the famous old dragoon regiment Ausbach-Baireuth of which the Queen was commander, and the sight of his mother in her regimental colors made a deep impression upon him.

Though he was passionately devoted to soldiering, childish sports and games were not neglected, especially during the Summer, when the royal family went for a few weeks to their country place at Paretz. Here the King and Queen encouraged their children to associate freely with all classes—from the village children to future army officers at military schools. It was naturally among the latter that the Princes found most of their playmates. The knowledge of the people he gained in this way proved a great and lasting benefit to Prince William.

Thus happily and peacefully, surrounded by luxury and splendor, watched over with tenderest care, our hero's life slipped by till the end of his eighth year, when a storm burst over the country that shook the Prussian throne to its foundations.