The Potsdam Guards: Prussia's Giant Soldiers

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A brief look at the Potsdam Guards who were Prussia's giant soldiers.

James Kirkland was a tall man, standing at just over 7ft tall! In 1730, James Kirkland, from Ireland, accepted a job as a footman to Baron Borck, the Prussian Ambassador to London. Baron Borck did not really need a footman and he had other plans for James Kirkland.

Having travelled with Baron Borck to England, James Kirkland was taken aboard a Prussian ship that was moored in Portsmouth. Things turned somewhat nasty as soon as James Kirkland was aboard, as he was grabbed, manhandled, bound and gagged. The reason behind this nasty treatment was that James Kirkland had just been 'press-ganged' in to the Potsdam Guards.

 The Potsdam Guards were a unique regiment of soldiers who were the royal guard of King Frederick William I of Prussia. Every single member of the Potsdam Guards had to be extremely tall and that is why James Kirkland had been roped in. The reason as to why each member of the Potsdam Guards was to be so tall probably lay in the fact that King Frederick William I of Prussia was the total opposite - he was small in stature.

But not small in fortune! And when it came to his precious guards, money was of no object whatsoever. James Kirkland was not the first and certainly wasn't the last person to be dragged in to becoming a member of the Potsdam Guards. Those who did found themselves attired in fine blue uniforms, given first class accomodation and were served excellent food. Being tall was the only way to be chosen to become a Potsdam Guard - who were made to wear a Grenadier cap that was 45cm high to make them look even more tall - and they were actually paid according to their height, the taller they were the more money they made!

If that all sounds delightful, there was a down side. Discipline was harsh - even desertion was punishable by death. Perhaps, therein, lies the reason why tall people did not volunteer to join the Potsdam Guards and, instead, had to be 'press-ganged' in to it. Sometimes even going to great lengths to do so!

One example of the great lengths involved in recruiting someone to be a Potsdam Guard happened to a Bavarian carpenter who was asked by one of King Frederick William I of Prussia's agents to make a coffin that would be wide enough and, more importantly, long enough that the carpenter himself would fit in.

The coffin was duly made and when the agent came back to collect it claimed that the carpenter had not made the coffin correctly and there was no way that he, the Bavarian carpenter, would fit in to it. To prove the agent wrong, the carpenter foolishly climbed in to the coffin to show that he did fit, at which point the agent to King Frederick William I and some of his men quickly placed the lid of the coffin on and nailed it shut before they carried it out, with the carpenter still inside, all the way back to Prussia!

By the time that King Frederick William I of Prussia died, in 1740, the number of Potsdam Guards had climbed to over 2,500. The number had increased, despite a number of wars, not because the Guards were that good, but because King Frederick William I refused to send the Potsdam Guards to war at all - simply because he couldn't stand the thought of any of them getting injured!

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Alistair Briggs

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