A few days ago, we talked about the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Sa-Nakt who is possibly the world’s oldest known human to display patterns of gigantism (or giantism). As it turns out, the history of human obsession with height is not just limited to the ‘giants’ of the ancient times, but also stretches forward to 18th century – evidenced by the bizarre military scope of the ‘The Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam’. Better known as the ‘Potsdam Giants’ (Riesengarde) or the ‘Long Guys’ (Lange Kerls), this division of renown was the personal regiment of Prussian King Frederick William I (Friedrich Wilhelm I).
Coming to the historical profile of King Frederick William I, the monarch from the very beginning of his reign (1713 – 1740 AD) displayed austere, devout and militaristic tendencies. The former quality was exemplified when the young 25 year old king, on ascending the throne, sold most of his father’s horses, jewels and furniture, since he didn’t believe in the treasury being a source for personal revenue. Known as the ‘Soldier King’, Frederick William also reformed the Prussian Army by making sweeping changes to conscription and training, while introducing newer technologies like iron ramrod for maintaining effective rates of fire. When translated to numbers, these series of amendments transformed the Prussian military into a well-drilled force of 83,000 men (from 38,000) that made it one of the formidable European armies of 18th century.
However beyond the ambit of efficient measures, there was an almost perverse side to Frederick William’s penchant for military affairs. A part of this personal ‘capriciousness’ manifested through the aforementioned ‘Potsdam Giants’ regiment. Officially the ‘only’ requirement for joining this seemingly elite division was the over-six feet tall height of the candidate (which was freakishly tall when compared to the average male height of the period). Suffice it to say, befitting a regiment of the king, the members were accorded special status with expensive accommodation and the best food available. Additionally, the taller a soldier was, the more he was paid – thus high remuneration being literally based upon the biological height of the member.
And as can be expected, some tall men did join the group voluntarily to advance their military career. But hiding beneath the veneer of royal credence, the privileges misled many of the ‘Potsdam Giants’. For example, at times, a few of the ‘giants’ were assembled on the whim of the king – not to display their martial prowess, but as uniformed showpieces to cheer up the king. Proceedings even took a circus-like turn when many of these soldiers paraded through the king’s bedroom (when Frederick William was sad or sick), sometimes curiously preceded by thematically-dressed turbaned ‘Moors’ equipped with cymbals and trumpets and the grenadiers mascot, an enormous bear. Frederick William once even confided to the French ambassador –
The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers—they are my weakness.
Incredibly enough, while some of the candidates willingly joined the service, others were simply abducted or ‘arranged’ to be forcibly inducted into the regiment. Part of the bizarre recruitment process included direct payments being made to the wards or landowners for acquiring their tall farmhands. On occasions even newborn babies were marked with red-scarfs if they were considered to be unusually tall for their age. Furthermore, foreign monarchs (like the Emperor of Austria and even the Ottoman Sultan) were known to have supplied the Prussian king with towering soldiers in order to bolster diplomatic relations. During one particular episode, Tsar Peter the Great possibly ‘gifted’ Frederick William several such lanky troops in return for his famed Amber Room (that was designed in Prussia).
As for the kidnappings, the tallest known member of the ‘Potsdam Giants’ regiment – the Irishman James Kirkland (who was 2.17 m or 7 ft 1 inch tall), was possibly deceived by a false referral as a footman to the Prussian ambassador to London. Once Kirkland arrived for his job, he was bound-and-gagged and then dispatched to Prussia aboard a ship. There was another instance when Frederick William tried to abduct a very tall Austrian diplomat. Judging by these peculiar incidences, one can hypothesize that at least some members of the ‘Potsdam Giants’ were coerced to join the military outfit.
Delving into more disturbing occurrences, the Prussian king is said to have dabbled in eugenics to breed hulking soldiers, by pairing tall men with tall women. There are also disconcerting tales of how Frederick William presided over deviant experiments that entailed physically stretching grenadiers on a specially constructed rack, in a bid to make them taller. Such unsettling endeavors obviously failed, with the latter procedure being possibly abandoned after whiffs of mutiny.
So all of these outlandish attempts lead us to the question – were the ‘Potsdam Giants’ combat ready in real military scenarios? Well, while initially a case was made for the better effectiveness of tall men when it came to handling muzzleloader, practicality dictates otherwise – especially with the unwieldy attributes of gigantism. Furthermore, Frederick William didn’t actually use his regiment of renown in any combat scenario, even during his famous intervention in the Great Northern War, circa 1715 AD. This could have been because the king considered his ‘show’ soldiers to be too precious for actual warfare.
In any case, it is estimated that the ‘Potsdam Giants’ regiment had anywhere between 2,500 to 3,200 men, during the time of the king’s death in 1740. His successor, Frederick II (better known as Frederick the Great), however didn’t share the same enthusiasm for uniformed tall men. On ascending the throne, he promptly disbanded much of the division, with most of the tall troops being assigned to other combat units. The Riesengarde in itself was relegated to a battalion (Garde – Grenadier No 6) that was actively used in many military engagements during 18th century. And finally, the battalion was known to have surrendered (and thus was wholly disbanded) after the unceremonious Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena in 1806.