Emperor William First - George Upton

A Hard School

The throne of France was occupied at that time by the insatiable Napoleon I. Born on the island of Corsica, the son of an advocate, he entered the French army during the Revolution and rose step by step until by his remarkable talents and ability he attained the highest honors of state. His ambition was to make France mistress of the world, and aided by the blind devotion of the people he seemed in a fair way of realizing this dream, for one country after another succumbed with astonishing rapidity to his victorious legions.

Prussia was spared for some time, but in 1806 King Frederick William Third, unable for his own honor or that of his country longer to endure Napoleon's aggressions, was reluctantly forced to declare war, and the country's doom was sealed. Deluded by the traditions of former glories under the great Frederick, the army and its leaders thought it would prove an easy task for the battalions that had once withstood the onset of half Europe to protect the frontiers of the Fatherland against the Corsican conqueror, but disaster followed swiftly. The guns of Jena and Auerstadt scattered those golden mists of self-delusion and betrayed with startling clearness the degeneracy of the military organization, which, like the machine of government, bore little trace of Frederick the Great's influence save in outward forms.

The defeat of October 14, 1806, decided the fate of Prussia. Like a roaring sea the French swept over the country, and two days later it became necessary for the safety of the royal children to remove them from Berlin. Their nearest refuge was the castle at Schwedt on the Oder, where their mother joined them, prepared to share with her darlings the cruel fate that had befallen them. Sitting with her two eldest sons and their tutor Delbruck that evening, she spoke those stirring words that proved such a help and inspiration to Emperor William in after years.

"In one day," she said, "I have seen destroyed a structure which great and good men have labored for two hundred years to build up. There is no longer a Prussian kingdom; no longer an army, nor a national honor. Ah, my sons, you are already old enough to appreciate the calamity that has overtaken us. In days to come, when your mother is no longer living, think of these unhappy times and weep in memory of the tears I now am shedding. But do not weep only! Work, work with all your strength! You yet may prove the good geniuses of your country. Wipe out its shame and humiliation, restore the tarnished glory of your house as your ancestor, the great Elector, avenged at Fehrbellin his father's disgraceful defeat in Sweden! Do not allow yourselves to be influenced by the degeneracy of the age! Be men, and strive to attain the glorious fame of heroes! Without such aims you would be unworthy the name of Prussian princes, successors of the great Frederick; but if all your efforts are powerless to uplift your fallen country, then seek death as Prince Louis Ferdinand sought it!"

Their stay in Schwedt was but a short one. The rapid advance of the French army, driving the retreating Prussians before them, compelled the' Queen and her children to flee to Danzig and Konigsberg, where they would be safe for a time at least. But what a journey it was! There was no time to make any preparations for their comfort. Day and night they pressed on, without stopping to rest, in any kind of a vehicle that could be obtained, over rough roads and through a strange part of the country, often suffering from hunger and thirst, their hearts full of sorrow and anxiety for the beloved Fatherland.

Louise of Prussia and William.


Emperor William used to relate an incident connected with this journey which makes a touching picture of those dark days. "While my mother was fleeing with us from the French in that time of tribulation," he said, "we had the misfortune to break one of the wheels of our coach, in the middle of an open field. There was no place for us to go, and we sat on the bank of a ditch while the damage was being repaired as well as possible. My brother and I were tired and hungry, and much put out by the delay. I remember that I especially, being rather a puny lad, troubled my dear mother greatly with my complaints. To divert our minds, she arose and, pointing to the quantities of pretty blue flowers with which the field was covered, told us to pick some and bring them to her.. Then she wove them into wreaths as we eagerly watched her dexterous fingers. As she worked, overcome with thoughts of her country's sorrowful plight and her own danger and anxiety for the future of her sons, the tears began to drop slowly from her beautiful eyes upon the cornflower wreaths. Smitten to the heart by her distress and completely forgetting my own childish troubles, I flung my arms about her neck and tried to comfort her, till she smiled and placed the wreath upon my head. Though I was only ten years old at the time, this scene remains undimmed in my memory, and after all these years I can still see those blossoms all sparkling with my mother's tears, and that is why I love the cornflower better than any other flower."

At Konigsberg the Queen was attacked with a fever, but this did not prevent her from continuing her flight to Memel with her children in January, 1807. It seemed doubtful at one time if she would live to get there, but she insisted upon pressing on, through cold and storm, ill as she was. Once, almost at the point of death, she was forced to spend the night in a poor peasant's hut, without proper food or covering, the freezing wind blowing through the broken windowpanes and scattering snowflakes on her wretched cot. But God did not forsake the heroic Queen, and she succeeded at last in reaching Memel, there to await the no longer doubtful issue of the war, which cost Frederick William Third half of his kingdom. This sudden change from peace and prosperity to deepest humiliation was the anvil on which Providence forged the sword that was one day to make Germany a united and powerful nation, and some words of the Queen's, written at this time to her father, are significant and memorable.

"It may be well for our children to have learned the serious side of life while they are young. Had they grown up surrounded by ease and luxury, they would have accepted such things as a matter of course; that must always be so. But alas! their father's anxious face and their mother's tears have taught them otherwise."

Our hero was ten years old when the King was forced to sign the disastrous peace of Tilsit, and according to the usual custom he was raised at this age to the rank of officer. The great event should properly have taken place March 22, 1807, but owing to the unsettled state of the country his father presented him with his appointment on New Years' Day, just before the royal family left Konigsberg for Memel, and he was made ensign in the newly formed regiment of foot-guards. At Christmas he was advanced to a second-lieutenant-ship, and on June 21, 1808, marched with his regiment back to Konigsberg. A report made about this time states: "Prince William, during his first two years of service with the Prussian infantry, has become familiar with every detail of army life and is already heart and soul a soldier,"—a tribute well deserved by the young officer, for he was faithful and industrious and devoted to his profession. The two following years that the royal family remained in Konigsberg were an important period in the life of Prince William. The sole tuition of Delbruck no longer satisfied the Queen, and on the advice of Baron von Stein, she appointed General Diericke and Colonel Gaudy as governors for the Crown Prince, and Major von Pirch and Professor Reimann for Prince William. At the same time Karl August Zeller, a pupil of the Queen's honored Swiss teacher Pestalozzi, was summoned to Konigsberg and given charge of the school system. He also assisted in the education of Prince William, whose untiring zeal and industry caused him to make steady and rapid progress in all branches of learning. His best efforts, however, were given to his military duties, and he eagerly treasured up everything that was said at court of famous generals and heroes.

On November 12, 1808, he paraded for the first time with his regiment. In September of the following year he was present at the placing of the memorial tablets to the first East Prussian Infantry in the palace chapel at Konigsberg, and after the court had returned to Berlin, he entered that city with his regiment on his parents' wedding anniversary, December 24, 1809. It was a melancholy home-coming, and never again did our hero make so sad an entry into his capital, for in spite of the joy with which the citizens welcomed the return of their beloved sovereigns once more, the country's shameful bondage under the yoke of Napoleon lay heavily on all hearts. No one felt the disgrace more keenly than Queen Louise, however: it rankled in her bosom and gradually consumed her strength till her health began to give way under it.

In the Summer of 1810 she visited her father at Strelitz, whither the King soon followed her, and it was decided to make a long stay at the ducal castle of Hohenzieritz, hoping the change and rest might benefit the Queen. Soon after her arrival, she was taken seriously ill with an acute attack of asthma, but recovered sufficiently by the first of July for the King to return to Charlottenburg, where the royal family were then in the habit of spending the Summer. For some days she seemed much better, but the attacks of pain and suffocation soon returned, and on the nineteenth of July the King hastened back to Hohenzieritz, where he found his wife fully conscious but so altered in appearance that he was forced to leave the room, weeping aloud. As soon as he had recovered his self-control he returned to the Queen, who laid her hand in his with the question:

"Did you bring any one with you?"

"Yes, Fritz and William," replied the King. "Ah, God! what joy!" she cried. "Let them be brought to me."

The two boys came in and knelt beside their mother's bed. "My Fritz, my William!" she murmured repeatedly. Soon the paroxysms seized her again, the children were led away weeping bitterly, and soon afterward the King closed forever those eyes that had been the light of his life's dark pathway.

The death of their beloved Queen turned all Prussia into a house of mourning, so deeply did the sorrowful news affect the hearts of her subjects. Still deeper and more lasting, however, was the impression made upon Prince William by the early loss of his adored mother. All through his life her memory was treasured as a holy image in his heart, and to his latest days he never forgot her devotion and self-sacrifice, or that nineteenth of July which deprived him of a mother's care, his father of the best of wives, and the nation of a noble sovereign and benefactress.

The years passed on, but Prussia did not remain in her deep humiliation, prostrate and powerless. A new spirit began to awake, and through the efforts of such men as Stein and Hardenberg, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who nobly and without hope of reward devoted themselves to the redemption of the Fatherland, a feeling began to stir throughout the country that the day of deliverance must come. And it did come. Arrogant with his successes and thirsting for fresh conquests, Napoleon in the year 1812 aspired to seize the mighty Russian Empire and add it to his dependencies, but there a check was placed on his victorious career. To be sure he penetrated as far as Moscow, expecting to winter there, but the Russians sacrificed their ancient capital and Napoleon with his troops was driven from the burning city out into the open country in the depth of Winter. The Lord of Hosts seemed to have allied himself with the Russians to destroy the disturber of the peace of Europe, for the Winter was an early and unusually severe one and Napoleon was forced to order a retreat. And what a retreat it was! Day after day, through the heavy snows and the bitter cold, plodded the exhausted soldiers, pursued and harried by the Russians like hunted animals. Of the five hundred thousand men who set out in all the proud assurance of victory, only a few thousands returned again to France. It was a bitter blow to the aspiring conqueror—God himself had dealt out judgment to him! He hastily collected together a new army, it is true, but now all Germany was allied with Russia to defeat the tyrant's schemes. The glorious war of 1813-1815 was about to begin.

Among those great men who had labored untiringly to emancipate Prussia from the yoke of France, the work of reorganizing the army had fallen chiefly to Scharnhorst.

It had been his idea to train the whole population of the smaller outlying States in the use of arms, and thus continually to introduce fresh forces into the army of forty thousand men which Prussia was allowed to support, to take the place of older and well-disciplined regiments which were dismissed. The news of Napoleon's disastrous experience in Russia filled the Prussians with new hope and enthusiasm, but the King was slow to determine on any decisive action. Napoleon still had powerful resources at his command, and if the struggle for which the people clamored were to go against them, the ruin of Prussia would be complete. Further delay, however, became at last impossible, and on January 22, 1813, Frederick William left Berlin, where his personal safety was still menaced by French troops, and removed the court to Breslau. An alliance was concluded, February 28, between Russia and Prussia, and on March 17 war was declared against Napoleon. That same day General Scharnhorst's ordinance in regard to the militia was carried into effect and the large body of well-drilled men which he had been quietly training for so long, took their place in the newly formed army.

Shortly before this, on his deceased wife's birthday, March 10, the King established the order of the Iron Cross.

With God for King and Fatherland!" was the watchword with which Prussia entered the struggle that was to lift her to her old position of power and independence or end in hopeless ruin. The King issued a call for troops and the whole nation responded. Not a man but would gladly die rather than longer endure the shame of subjection. The lofty spirit of their departed Queen seemed still to inspire the hearts of the people, for they arrayed themselves against the conqueror who had chosen the heroes of Pagan antiquity for his models, with a Christian faith and devotion rarely equaled in the history of the world. Prince William too longed with all his heart to take part in the liberation of Prussia and with tears in his eyes besought his father to allow him to take the field, but out of regard for his son's health the King was obliged to refuse his prayer, and he remained in Breslau, in bitter discontent, anxiously waiting and hoping for news from the seat of war, at that time so difficult to obtain and so slow in arriving. Even his advance to a first-lieutenant-ship in the course of the summer failed to cheer him, for he felt that he had done nothing to deserve it. But after the battle of Leipzig, in which the French were routed and driven back across the Rhine, the King returned to Breslau and, handing the Prince a captain's commission, placed on his shoulders with his own hands the epaulettes then just introduced for army officers, and told him to prepare to join the army. This was joyful news indeed! On to France, on against the foe that so long had held the Fatherland in bondage and sent his adored mother to a premature grave! His heart beat high with pride and courage, and he could hardly wait for the day of departure, which was finally set for November 8.

The French were already driven out of Germany at that time and the victorious allies had pursued them into their own country. On January 1, 1814, the King and his son reached Mannheim, on the Rhine, and were soon across the borders and in the midst of the seat of war. From Brienne and Rosny sounded the thunder of cannon, and at Bar-sur-Aube on February 27 Prince William was permitted for the first time to take part in active service.

Early on the morning of that day the King sent for his two sons (the Crown Prince had been with the army from the beginning of the war) and said to them: "There will be a battle to-day. We have taken the offensive and there may be hot work. You shall watch it. Ride on and I will follow, but do not expose yourselves to danger unnecessarily. Do you understand?"

The brothers dashed off to General Prince Wittgenstein, where their father joined them, and they were soon in the middle of the fight and in constant danger of their lives. Suddenly the King turned to Prince William. "Ride back and find out what regiment it is over yonder that is losing so many men," he ordered. Like a flash William was off, followed by admiring glances from the soldiers as he galloped calmly through the hail of bullets, obtained the desired information, and rode slowly hack. The King made no comment, but General Wittgenstein, who had watched the Prince with apprehension, gave him a kindly glance and shook him warmly by the hand, William himself seeming quite unconscious that he had been in such danger and had just received his baptism of fire.

On March 10, his mother's birthday, he received from his father's hand the Iron Cross, and a few days before this the royal allies of Prussia and Russia had bestowed on him the fourth class of the Order of Saint George for his bravery. These two decorations, which can only be won under fire, made the Prince realize for the first time the real meaning of the incident at Bar-sur-Aube.

"Now I know," he said, "why Herr von Jagow and Herr von Luck pressed my hand and why the others smiled so significantly."

The Emperor wore these two little crosses to the end of his life, with special pride, as the first honors he ever won, and would never have them replaced by new ones. They were precious relics of his baptism of fire at Bar-sur-Aube.

Swiftly the tide of war rolled on. Battle after battle was won. Napoleon was dethroned and banished to the island of Elba, and on March 31, 1814, Prince William made his first victorious entry into the enemy's proud capital. Here he took up his quarters in the Hotel of the Legion of Honor and on May 30 received the rank of Major in the army. After visiting England and Switzerland with his father in the course of the Summer, our hero returned to Potsdam on the King's birthday (August 3), where he was joyously welcomed by his sisters. The following year Napoleon escaped from Elba and regained possession of the throne of France, only to exchange it after a sovereignty of one hundred days for the lonely island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

On June 8 of this year (1815) the confirmation of Prince William took place, having been postponed till that date on account of the war. In the palace chapel at Charlottenburg he took the usual vows and laid down for himself at the same time those principles of life and conduct that are a splendid witness to his nobility of mind, his seriousness of purpose, his sincere piety and faith in the Almighty, and his lofty conception of the duties of his high calling.