Wednesday, April 21, 2010

King Friedrich Wilhelm the First, born 14 Aug 1688, reign 1713-1740

King Friedrich Wilhelm the First believed in peace through strength, and he lived it. He was notoriously cheap in most areas of his life, but did spend what treasure he built up on his army. He did however leave a large accumulated treasury to his son and heir, who would be known as Frederick the Great, when he died and left the throne to the youth in 1740. Although he was loath to spend what he accumulated, he is known to have always paid the same consumption tax he had himself imposed upon his subjects.

Quite a large heap of gold and silver were found down in the basement at the palace when F.W. died.

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The Battle of Malplaquet:  September 11th, 1709

Friedrich Wilhelm was a veteran of the great and bloody battle of Malplaquet which occurred on September 11th, 1709. He led his Regiment in very heavy fighting, penetrating the woods at the French Left Wing, where the French troops were waiting under the cover of fieldworks and entrenchments, with a crossfire of  over sixty pieces of cannon from hidden batteries.

The Prussian troops were under the command of Prinz Eugen, also called Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the great captains of history. As a side note, when much later in 1941 the German battleship Bismarck came out to sea to fight the British Royal navy, the cruiser that accompanied the Bismarck was named the Prinz Eugen, after this same Prinz Eugen.

The overall commander of the Allied armies was the Prince and Duke of Marlborough, an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill.

Because the casualties were extremely heavy, although the British claim that Malplaquet was a British victory on the grounds that they and their allies held the field at the end of the day, one might more objectively say that if it was a victory, it was certainly a Pyrrhic victory. It was the bloodiest battle of the entire eighteenth century, and was only exceeded at Borodino in 1812 when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia, and had an even worse bloody battle. (That one is the subject of the novel by Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.)

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So, who won? A Pyrrhic victory is one where the winner does technically win, but the price is so heavy that it is hardly worth that kind of a win. The term dates back centuries to when Pyrrhus of Epirus invaded Rome, and  won a couple Pyrrhic victories at such cost that his own army was left very much weakened, despite the technical wins. In his case his casualties were about half what the Romans lost, but he could ill-afford it because he was outnumbered two to one. So Malplaquet was actually worse.

We do know that King Louis the Fourteenth of France also celebrated a victory when he heard the news of the battle. The reports vary considerably, so the truth is not exactly known, but I believe that the Allies under the Prince and Duke of Marlborough lost over twice as many men as the French, something like 25,000 casualties versus about 11,000 or so for the French.

The French did retreat, but they point out that holding the field only allowed the Allied army to sleep there with the dead, of which there were a very large, even unheard of number. And as far as strategy in the war is concerned, this great battle prevented the Allies from making any further invasion of France that season, and indeed they never again had such a good chance.

Malplaquet is located exactly on the border crossing post, or Douane, between Belgium and France, and the Allies were approaching from the Belgian side, so to visit the field today one would mostly be looking around the field in Belgium, but to see the whole French side and where the lines were late in the day would actually require crossing the border into France, as it did back then also.

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And so, what about the blog?

Well, to explain, I'd like to use the idea of a Tabakskollegium to create an atmosphere. The name derives from a painting from the 17th Century, not originally from the one shown above, but a different and oddly modern-looking one by the Flemish painter Abraham Teniers, called Tabakskollegium von Affen, or Smoking Party of Monkeys.

It shows a bunch of monkeys in a dining room of a house, sitting around the table, or walking around the place, many of them smoking long-stemmed clay pipes, and it is funny to see them acting human, with decks of cards, having drinks, and so forth.It is especially nice to then notice the looks on their faces, and see that they are putting on airs.

Why I say oddly modern is because the same theme is repeated today in posters throughout the land, usually showing a pack of old dogs playing poker around a green table, or other variations on the theme. Teniers lived from 1629-1670, and also did a barbershop painting with monkeys and cats, while he was at it. Thus the idea of the personified animals is about 350 years old.

Somehow it developed into a tradition for European princes to set up a Tabakskollegium of their own, first in the Netherlands and from there we know that Friedrich Wilhelm's father, the first King in Prussia, Friedrich I, had one, which in a painting by Paul Leygebe from 1710, more reminds me of a family room than the one shown below, where we see how it was in 1737. It is known that as the first in Brandenburg-Prussia to enjoy the royal dignity, instead of  "only"
being an elector, Friedrich the First was known for his love of ceremony, quality decorations and entertainment, regardless of the cost, to show that he was level with the other kings. It looks very posh to sit in such a place all dressed up and sipping Tokay wine.

But of course his son Friedrich Wilhelm, back from the wars, was a very different personality. He has a much more down-to-earth approach to his Tabakskollegium. There he could sit around with his friends, and his cabinet of ministers, and smoke their pipes, drink beer if they wanted, and talk and play games and to a great extent control the kingdom from that chamber.

You can see the walls appear dirty; it was believed that the pipe smoke was healthy and served to keep out the ill-effects of fresh air.You don't see them in there bothering about the women, and any fancy French ways were no longer welcome once he got back from the wars and took over. After all, he had had to fight his way through the French at Malplaquet! The bloodiest battle ever!

No elector or king had previously considered beer to be hoffaehig, or worthy of the court, but Friedrich Wilhelm said that from then on, it was. Some other things he is famous for besides being the difficult father for Frederick the Great are his famous Regiment of  Potsdamer Riesengarde, or Giant Grenadiers, and also is said to have been the first person to say that "the Pen is mightier than the Sword."

Painting credits:  Source Tabakskollegium-1. jpg

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