Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants

Alexander Meddings - November 13, 2017

Dark and handsome, we don’t know. But the Prussian king Frederick William I certainly liked his men tall. It seems he was a sucker for uniform too, once confessing, “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers they are my weakness.” However, for Frederick, they were far more than just a weakness. His Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam (or “Potsdam Giants” as they came to be known) was a complete obsession.

You might have thought trying to form a regiment made up solely of giant men would be a tall order in any age. But, surprisingly, the eighteenth-century Prussian king wasn’t the first to try. In the first century AD, the megalomaniacal Roman emperor Nero recruited a regiment of six-foot-tall soldiers, all from Italy, which he called the “Phalanx of Alexander the Great.” Napoleon too would introduce height requirements of 5″10 (178cm) for grenadiers in his prestigious Old Guard. What made Frederick’s Potsdam Grenadiers so unique were the purposes for which he used them.

The “Soldier King”, as he was known, fell short when it came to actually using his grenadiers in battle. Instead, he placed them at the centerpiece of imperial pomp and ceremony, dressing them up in striking blue uniforms with 18-inch caps (you know, to add to their height…) and parading them for his amusement. It gets weirder. When feeling melancholy, the king would sometimes send for a couple of hundred grenadiers to lead a procession of tall, turbaned moors carrying cymbals and trumpets (not to mention an enormous tame bear at the rear) to march around the palace and cheer him up.

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants
Friedrich Wilhelm I (1657-1713). Art Prints on Demand

It wasn’t all fun and games, however. It’s said that Frederick used to have his grenadiers fitted to racks, believing he could stretch them to even greater heights. There are even claims that he would graze on his lunch while presiding over this horrific spectacle. He was eventually forced to abandon this cruel practice, however, after too many of the soldiers, he submitted to this torture began suffering from one of its most common side effects: Death.

While service in the grenadiers may have inadvertently ended up costing you your life, in a financial sense it paid to be in Frederick’s regiment. His beloved grenadiers enjoyed the best accommodation and the best food available in the Prussian military. It paid to be tall too: for the king devised a pay scale that differentiated according to height (though this may have left some of the littler members of the regiment feeling somewhat short-changed).

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants
Portrait of James Kirkland. Wikipedia Commons

The tallest man in the regiment was an Irishman called James Kirkland who measured a staggering seven feet, one inch. Believe it or not, this beast of a man didn’t enter Frederick’s services voluntarily but was press-ganged. In 1730, Kirkland was serving as a footman to the Prussian ambassador in London, Baron Borck. However, his employment by Bork was a guise. In the English port town of Portsmouth, the ambassador tricked him into boarding a Prussian ship on which he was taken to Prussia and forced into the Potsdam Grenadiers.

Kirkland’s wasn’t the only case of a man being kidnapped to swell the ranks of the Potsdam Grenadiers when their numbers were in short supply. Frederick’s devout Christianity did nothing to dissuade him from forcing an unfortunate priest to abandon his vestments in exchange for a blue uniform. Nor were the stories of Kirkland or the priest the worst. One episode even resulted in the accidental death of a press-ganged recruit.

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants
Frederick I and his Potsdam Grenadiers. Look and Learn

In the German town of Jülich, Major General Baron von Hompesch came across a tall young carpenter laboring away in his workshop. Believing that any effort to persuade him to join the regiment would be useless, Hompesch requested that the carpenter construct a packing box measuring a height of six feet, six inches: the same height as the carpenter himself. The carpenter got to work and soon finished the box. But upon his return, Hompesch complained it was too small. Not wanting to lose the baron’s custom, and desperate to prove his proficiency, the carpenter climbed inside the box and lay down.

This was the moment the baron had been waiting for. He slammed down the lid and had his bury companions seal it shut. Smug with his cunning, and eagerly anticipating the prize that awaited him, he ordered for the box to be sent to the king. However, he’d forgotten one rather important detail: to cut out air holes. The carpenter suffocated to death in transit, earning the baron a brief stint in prison rather than the reward he’d been waiting for. Things turned out okay for him though—better than they had for the carpenter at least—and in the end Hompesch received a royal pardon.

Frederick I was a devout Calvinist; an adherent to a particularly Protestant branch of Christianity that closely embraced the concept of predestination. You might have thought that one of his core religious belief—that one’s lot in life was divinely chosen well before birth—might have dissuaded him from wanting to “play god” himself by dabbling in eugenics. But it didn’t. For his obsession with creating tall recruits for his grenadiers soon turned into a eugenics-driven breeding programme.

The Prussian king devised a plan whereby tall men in the regiment were to be paired off with particularly tall women, in the hope they produce enormous offspring. It might not have worked in his lifetime, but by the late eighteenth century, it meant the population of Potsdam had its fair share of tall folk. This wasn’t the only thing he did to provide for the next generation of Potsdam Grenadiers: the king also requested that newborn babies of tall parents be given a red scarf to mark them out as potential future recruits.

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants
Frederick’s selective breeding of the Potsdam Grenadiers set a dangerous early precedent for experiments in eugenics. All About History.

Despite Frederick’s fanatical interest in all things military, he was a phenomenally peaceful ruler. Except for his brief intervention in the Great Northern War, the Soldier King never actually started a war, concerning himself more with military reform than with conquest. Through the conscriptional canton system, he considerably increased the size of the Prussian army. He also introduced a number of tactical and technological advances (such as improving the rate of infantry fire) that made the Prussian army the formidable fighting force it would be under his successor, Frederick the Great.

But while Frederick’s foreign policy can be described as peaceful, when it came to running things within his own family the king was an absolute tyrant. Though a competent autocrat, Frederick I was a nightmare to be around. He had a notoriously short temper and was known to cane his servants and children for the slightest of reasons. Any mention of France would particularly grind his gears, sending him into a blind rage that sent shivers down the spine of anyone around.

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants
Frederick I’s son, Frederick II “the Great”, leading infantry at the Battle of Zorndorf. British Battles

Frederick had a particularly testing relationship with his eldest surviving son, Frederick II (who went on to become Frederick the Great). The king wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an exemplary soldier as well as a fine ruler. He went to extraordinarily psychopathic lengths to drill this into him. As a child, Fritz was woken up every morning to the sound of cannon fire. At the age of six, rather than toy soldiers, Fritz was gifted his very own regiment of children, who he was to train as cadets for the future. Not long after that, his father presented him with every child’s dream: his own mini arsenal.

However, the young Fritz soon showed himself a lover rather than a fighter. Music, reading, and the arts occupied his interest far more than military drills, and his father took out his frustration by punishing him with a strict Protestant education and handing out regular—and very public—beatings. In 1730, the 28-year-old Fritz tried to escape to England with his tutor, and an officer of the King’s Guard, Hans Hermann von Katte. The two were intercepted, however, and after a court-martial found Katte guilty of desertion, the king ordered for Fritz’s tutor to be beheaded.

Katte’s execution drove an even greater wedge between the king and his son. There were even rumors, propagated by the great French writer Voltaire, that the king had pushed to have his son illegally executed alongside his beloved tutor. But it didn’t mark the point of no return. Gradually, Frederick relaxed his attitude towards his son’s liberal pursuits. By the time of Frederick I’s death in 1740, the two were at least on speaking terms, with Frederick II coming to understand his father’s greatness as a head of state, if not as a father figure.

The Soldier King ultimately died in the same manner he had lived. Days before his death, the 51-year-old king was asked to inspect his coffin. Finding it to his liking, he remarked, “I shall sleep right well there.” He then began making his final arrangements and a priest gave him a bible reading. While reading from the Book of Job, his priest uttered the line, “Naked I come from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return.” The Prussian king at this point interrupted him and said, “No, not quite naked. I shall have my uniform on.”

Here is what Happened when a King Tried to Create an Army of Giants – Yes, Giants
Potsdam Giants. Realmofhistory

As for the Potsdam Grenadiers, Frederick II saw no real need to maintain a regiment of—what now numbered 2,500—giants. So he began sending the grenadiers to serve in other units in the wars to come. The Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam were finally dissolved in 1805, but their legacy long outlived the regiment’s lifespan. An example of eugenics, in the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Darwin would cite them as the one instance of selective breeding amongst humans rather than livestock.

And, as we all know, the Potsdam Grenadiers weren’t the last experiment with eugenics to come out of Prussia (or Germany more broadly). Hitler’s concept of eugenics was pooled from Prussian militarism and contaminated with misinterpretations of Darwinian theory. This all had roots in Frederick’s Potsdam Grenadiers, who may not have taken a life during their regiment’s existence, but would go on to set a costly precedent. Being the big men that they were, however, they were always going to leave a long shadow.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Frederick William I – Encyclopedia Britannica

The Potsdam Giants: How the King of Prussia ‘bred’ an army of super-soldiers – History Answers UK

James Kirkland (Irish Giant) – Wikipedia

Hans Hermann von Katte – Wikipedia