This week’s Friday funny, brought to you as usual by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, takes a look at a story related to King Frederick William I of Prussia, a man allegedly obsessed with his army of men composed entirely of men over 6ft tall. But what else about the story is true?
King Frederick William I of Prussia (1688-1740) was riding in the forest with some of his officers when they encountered an exceptionally tall peasant girl.
The soldier-king was famous throughout Europe for his obsession – an infantry regiment composed entirely of men over six feet tall. He spent huge amounts of money on his ‘Potsdam Giants’, recruiting tall men from all over Europe. Some were paid fortunes to join, or they were tricked and even kidnapped. Other European rulers would send him tall men as gifts.
Frederick William also married his soldiers to tall women (with or without their consent) and now he had come across a very suitable candidate. He asked one of his aides for pen, paper and ink and called the girl over.
“Young woman,” he said, as he hastily scribbled out a note. “I need you to do me a small favour. I will give you some money for your trouble.”
She curtsied and mumbled something about being glad to be of service to his majesty.
He finished writing his note, folded it, and gave it to the woman. “Take this to the guard-house of my Potsdam Giants regiment. It is a very urgent message for the commander.”
He gave her a few coins for her trouble, and told her she should wait for the Colonel to come down, as he would give her some more money for the safe delivery of the message.
The girl took the note, and set off for the barracks. But it was a hot day, and she had several chores to finish for her mother. After a couple of miles she caught up with an elderly woman who was walking in the same direction.
She told the old woman how she was carrying an important message for the King, and that whoever delivered it would be given a reward by the regiment’s commandant.
“You are going into the town anyway,” she said. “Why don’t you deliver this letter for me, and you can have the reward.”
The old woman agreed, and an hour later arrived at the guardhouse, handed over the note and waited.
The Colonel came down, and was astonished to find that waiting for him was a little old peasant woman little over four feet tall. But the King’s orders had to be followed at all costs, so he did as the letter instructed.
It read: “The bearer of this note is to be married to the Irish recruit McDowall immediately.”
Yep, it’s another one of those stories which might be true, but probably isn’t. It was certainly a popular yarn across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. “All jest-books know the myth,” said Carlyle sniffily in his biography of Frederick William’s son Frederick the Great.
All the background stuff is true, though. Frederick William I was fixated on his regiment of giants to the point of obsession, and recruits were brought in by fair means, or foul, from all over Europe, including, apparently, an Irishman named something like McDowall. And he did indeed attempt a breeding programme … it would eventually comprise well over 3,000 men and he loved to watch it parade, and, of course, produced it to impress visiting foreign dignitaries.
Despite his rampant militarism, Frederick William’s reign was mostly peaceful, and the regiment was never used in combat. His son Frederick II (‘The Great’) thought it was a ridiculous waste of money. He reduced it to a regular battalion, with the men dispersed among other units. It saw plenty of action in his reign and was disbanded following Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon in 1806.
Would they have been any better on the battlefield than a normal regiment of foot? Who knows? One historian has suggested that many of the men suffered from gigantism and were frankly not fit for military duty.
You can read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and comedy tales at www.historyextra.com