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Frederick William I of Prussia used secret agents to kidnap tall foreign conscripts

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Royalty on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about Prussia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

King Frederick and his giants, picture, image, illustration

Frederick William I, the eccentric King who collected a private army of Giants

The tavern was crowded and noisy. The harvest was in and the peasants were celebrating. In a corner two men sat drinking together. Though they appeared to be sharing in the general merriment, their mugs were never replenished and their eyes were watchful. They cast surreptitious glances towards a hulking fellow in a peasant smock. He was the tallest man in the room, well over six feet; his head almost brushed the ceiling beams.

As the night wore on, the big man, now very drunk, took his leave and reeled through the door. At once the two watchers slipped out after him. A short way from the tavern, they crept up behind him, tripped him and knocked him unconscious. A carriage drew alongside, the unconscious peasant was hauled aboard and his assailants vanished into the night.

Was the big man a spy in disguise? An assassin? The innocent victim in a foul plot? Nothing so dreadful; he had simply been recruited into the royal guards. For this was Prussia in the early eighteenth century, under the rule of King Frederick William I. And the Prussian king had a strange obsession. He collected giants for his grenadier guards. Not one was under five feet ten; most were well over six feet.

Frederick William had an uncomplicated approach to kingship. “We are, by the grace of God, master and king”, he said, “and we do as we please”. He was an unpleasant man, cruel, boorish and miserly. He was also devoted to military life and it was from his fondness for parades and martial splendour that his craze for collecting giants developed.

Occasionally the king would receive a prize specimen as a gift. More often, however, his hobby proved an expensive one. He exchanged valuable collections of stones and porcelain for giant soldiers and paid large sums for them without complaint.

Few of the Blue Boys, as the guards were called from the colour of their uniforms, came willingly to the king’s service. True, a grenadier could earn good wages and, if he saved them, could set up in business when he was too old for soldiering. Moreover the King would often honour his favourites by placing statues of them in his palace at Potsdam. But army life in the eighteenth century was brutal and degrading. A recruit could say farewell forever to his home and family when he enlisted. After that, much of his life would be spent in the squalor of the barracks or on the parade-ground. Many guards deserted and some committed suicide. Punishment for these offences was death or mutilation for the first and a humiliating burial in the dog pound for the second.

Recruitment by gift or purchase failed to satisfy the king’s demands. More men were necessary to keep his three battalions up to strength, so new, and disagreeable, methods were used. Frederick William’s agents became kidnappers. No one was safe from them. Even a tall priest was forced to change his vestments for the blue uniform, and an Irish giant was transported all the way from London at the king’s expense, after he had been spotted and snapped up by the Prussian ambassador there.

In one particularly unsavoury incident a major-general in the Prussian army, a baron no less, discovered a carpenter of huge stature. Knowing that persuasion would be useless, he approached the carpenter and ordered him to construct a large wooden packing-case. What size, asked the man? About your size, said the baron airily. The man set to work and finished the box but the baron complained that it was too small. Anxious to prove his accuracy, the carpenter climbed in and lay down. At once the baron slammed down the lid and ordered his men to carry the box to the king. He made one mistake, however: he forgot to drill air-holes in the case. As a result the carpenter died from suffocation in transit. The affair caused a general outcry and the baron was imprisoned, but once the scandal had died down, he received a pardon.

When European heads of state discovered what the Prussian recruiting-officers were up to in their domains, they expressed their displeasure in no uncertain manner. The prince of Hesse ordered that Prussian agents should be captured, alive or dead and several were hanged.

The king was devoted to his guards. When the efforts of individual recruiting-officers failed, he devised more systematic schemes. He recruited babies. All new-born boys in Prussia were examined by recruiting boards and those who showed signs of developing well were distinguished by a red ribbon, while their parents received an advance payment. The scheme did not work. Poor parents were grateful for the cash in advance, but they made sure that their sons’ growth was quickly arrested, and consequently the yield was meagre.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Blue Boys was that they never had the chance to show what they could do in action. A corps which had cost a fortune to create could not be risked under fire, so the grenadiers’ sole function was to parade each day under the king’s doting eye – except when it rained.

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