Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand

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Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand

Hereditary Prince of Brunswick (1735-80) and Duke of Brunswick (1780-1806)

born October 9, 1735, Wolfenbüttel (Germany)

died November 10, 1806, Ottensen, Saxony (Germany)


Erbprinz Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, detail of a canvas portraying the entire ducal Braunschweig-Wolffenbüttel family by Johann Heinrich Tischbein senior, circa 1763 - Source: Schloss Wilhelshöhe, Kassel, Germany

Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand was the eldest son of the Duke of Brunswick and of the eldest sister of Frederick II of Prussia. He received an unusually wide and thorough education. In his youth, he traveled in the Netherlands, France and various parts of Germany.

In 1757, as Hereditary Prince of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand took part in his first military campaign, with the Allied Army of the Duke of Cumberland, in Westphalia and Hanover. On July 26 at the Battle of Hastenbeck won by the French, he led the charge of an infantry brigade and recaptured the central battery. The Allied Army capitulated at Kloster Zeven but George II the king of Great Britain did not recognize this capitulation and cashiered the Duke of Cumberland. George II obtained from Frederick II that Ferdinand of Brunswick, the hereditary prince's uncle, took command of the Allied Army. Ferdinand easily persuaded the Erbprinz (hereditary prince) to join him as a general officer.

During the ensuing campaigns of the Seven Years' War, the exploits of the Erbprinz gained him further reputation and he became an acknowledged master of irregular warfare. In pitched battles, and in particular at Minden (1759), Warburg (1760) and Clostercamp (1760), he proved himself an excellent subordinate.

In 1764, after the close of the Seven Years' War, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand spent 13 days in England to be wedded to the daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Even if George III wanted to prevent him from meeting Pitt, the Erbprinz managed to meet him.

In 1766, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand went to France, being received by his late enemies with every token of respect. In Paris he made the acquaintance of Marmontet. He met Voltaire in Switzerland. He then made a long sojourn in Rome to explore the antiquities of the city under the guidance of Winckelmann. After a visit to Naples, he returned to Paris and thence, with his wife, to Brunswick.

During the next few years, he served his father, Duke Karl I of Brunswick. He assisted the Minister Feronce von Rotenkreuz to rescue the duchy from the bankruptcy into which the war had brought it.

In 1779, during the second and last year of the Bavarian War of Succession, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand held an entrenched position in the mountains near Troppau (present-day Opava) in front of the Austrian Army.

In 1780, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand succeeded his father as Duke of Brunswick. He was considered as a model to sovereigns. He was perhaps the best representative of the benevolent despot of the 18th century - wise, economical, prudent and kindly.

As Duke of Brunswick, he strove to keep his duchy from all involvements into foreign affairs while continuing to render important services to the King of Prussia. As a Prussian field marshal and colonel of a regiment, he did his best to make his unit a model.

Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand was an enthusiastic adherent of the Germanic and anti-Austrian policy of Prussia and joined the Fürstenbund (League of Princes) in which he was the commander-in-chief of the federal army.

In 1787, the Duke of Brunswick, as a Prussian field marshal, led the army which invaded the Netherlands. His success was rapid, complete and almost bloodless. In the eyes of contemporaries, the campaign appeared as an example of perfect generalship.

In 1792, the Duke of Brunswick was appointed to the command of the Allied Austro-German Army assembled to invade France and to crush the Revolution. Ironically, he had been offered supreme command of the French Army because of his known sympathy for the French reform. The duke drew up a plan for the invasion of France. The King of Prussia took the field with Brunswick's Army, interfering with the actual command of the army. The Austro-German Army advanced on Paris. On September 20, this army was defeated at Valmy. After this defeat, the duke accomplished a skillful retreat and recaptured Frankfurt.

In 1793, the Duke of Brunswick once more assumed command of the army. He won a victory over the French Army near Pirmasens. During this battle, he personally led the columns which assaulted the Heights of Kiltrichon. At the end of November, he once more defeated the French at Kaiserlautern. Difficulties and disagreements at headquarters multiplied, and when Brunswick found himself unable to move or direct his army without interference from the king, he laid down his command and returned to govern his duchy. He did not, however, withdraw entirely from Prussian service.

In 1803, the Duke of Brunswick carried out a successful diplomatic mission to Russia.

In 1806, at the personal request of Queen Louise of Prussia, the Duke of Brunswick consented to command the Prussian Army, but here again the presence of the King of Prussia and the conflicting views of numerous advisers of high rank proved fatal. At the Battle of Auerstadt, the old duke was mortally wounded. Carried for nearly a month in the midst of the routed Prussian Army, he died on November 10 at Ottensen near Hamburg.


Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 - "Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke Of Brunswick"

Knowles, L.: Minden and the Seven Year's War, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton & Co. Ltd, London, 1914, pp. 58-62