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A History of Germany by Bayard Taylor

But the Prussian people were ready for it


[Sidenote:

1812. THE RETREAT FROM RUSSIA.]

After offering terms of peace in vain, and losing a month of precious time in waiting, nothing was left for Napoleon but to commence his disastrous retreat. Cut off from the warmer southern route by the Russians on the 24th of October, his army, diminishing day by day, endured all the horrors of the Northern winter, and lost so many in the fearful passage of the Beresina and from the constant attacks of the Cossacks, that not more than 30,000 men, famished, frozen and mostly without arms, crossed the Prussian frontier about the middle of December. After reaching Wilna, Napoleon had hurried on alone, in advance: his passage through Germany was like a flight, and he was safe in Paris before the terrible failure of his campaign was generally known throughout Europe.

When Frederick William III. agreed to furnish 20,000 troops to France, his best generals--Bluecher, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau--and three hundred officers resigned. The command of the Prussian contingent was given to General York, who was sent to Riga during the march to Moscow, and escaped the horrors of the retreat. When the fate of the campaign was decided, he left the French with his remaining 17,000 Prussian soldiers, concluded a treaty of neutrality with the Russian general Diebitsch, called an assembly of the people together in Koenigsberg, and boldly ordered that all men capable of bearing arms should be mustered

into the army. Frederick William, in Berlin, disavowed this act, but the Prussian people were ready for it. The excitement became so great, that the men who had influence with the king succeeded in having his Court removed to Breslau, where an alliance was entered into with Alexander I., and on the 17th of March, 1813, an address was issued in the king's name, calling upon the people to choose between victory and ruin. The measures which York had adopted were proclaimed for all Prussia, and the patriotic schemes of Stein and Hardenberg, so long thwarted by the king's weakness, were thus suddenly carried into action.

[Sidenote: 1813.]

The effect was astonishing, when we consider how little real liberty the people had enjoyed. But they had been educated in patriotic sentiments by another power than the Government. For years, the works of the great German authors had become familiar to them: Klopstock taught them to be proud of their race and name; Schiller taught them resistance to oppression; Arndt and Koerner gave them songs which stirred them more than the sound of drum and trumpet, and thousands of high-hearted young men mingled with them and inspired them with new courage and new hopes. Within five months Prussia had 270,000 soldiers under arms, part of whom were organized to repel the coming armies of Napoleon, while the remainder undertook the siege of the many Prussian fortresses which were still garrisoned by the French. All classes of the people took part in this uprising: the professors followed the students, the educated men stood side by side with the peasants, mothers gave their only sons, and the women sent all their gold and jewels to the treasury and wore ornaments of iron. The young poet, Theodor Koerner, not only aroused the people with his fiery songs, but fought in the "free corps" of Luetzow, and finally gave his life for his country: the _Turner_, or gymnasts, inspired by their teacher Jahn, went as a body into the ranks, and even many women disguised themselves and enlisted as soldiers.


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