The Black Brunswickers - Ludwig Baer

In the eighteenth century Germany formed the so-called "Freikorps (Free Corps)," units normally in a strength of a company, battalion, but rarely a regiment. Members or soldiers of a freikorps were usually volunteers or deserters. They normally had poor equipment and served as infantry or cavalry, and very seldom as artillery. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Germans had eight freikorps, four of them are well known: Lützowsches Freikorps, Schillsche Jäger, King's German Legion, and Die Schwarze Schar. The first two were the remains of two Prussian cavalry regiments making their own war with Napoleon, and the King's German Legion was a unit formed by soldiers of the former electorate of Hannover, which was united with the British King in personal union, and Hannover therefore was occupied by French troops.

In the Summer 1806, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Charles William Ferdinand, was the commander of the Prussian Army and the planner of a new campaign against the French Army under Napoleon. The talks between the allies (UK, Russia, Austria and Sweden) to join the new coalition lasted too long, so Prussia did not provide any troops. During the French/Prussian war in 1806, the Duchy Brunswick-Lüneburg remained neutral, which meant the Duke was the only inhabitant of that country to join the Prussian Army as a soldier. At the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt (a French victory) Duke Charles was mortally wounded and died on November 10, 1806, in Altona in Danish territory at the time. Soon after Napoleon gave orders to occupy the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg and gave the country to his brother Jerome, the king of the newly established Kingdom of Westphalia with Kassel as its capital city. Brunswick (Braunschweig) became the capital city of the new Department OKER, and Prince Frederick William, the son of the dead Duke, was not allowed to succeed to his father's title.

While French troops were occupying the country, the wife of Prince Frederick fled to Sweden with their two sons, and Frederick fled to his estate in Oels/Silesia. During the winter of 1808, Frederick went to Vienna looking for help from Austria. In talks with Archduke Charles of Austria he reached an agreement that Austria would support him and supply his unit with all the necessary equipment. In the Convention it stated the name of the unit would be the "Herzoglich Braunschweiges Korps," and in Chapter VII it stated that the unit will depart as soon they are ready for operations with the next standing Austrian corps to fight against the French army and their allies, attacking their cities as well as their communication and supply lines. Austria approved the new unit, but the Prussian King was against it, and did everything to stop it. In order to fund this endeavor the Duke mortgaged his possessions in Oels.

In July 1809 Frederick William formed a freikorps in a strength of some 2,300 men, consisting of two light infantry battalions, one Jäger battalion, a company of sharpshooters, a regiment of Hussars, Ulans and and a horse mounted artillery unit at a strength of 125 men. The uniforms they wore, with all their differences, had black as a basic color, but one piece was the same: a silver death's head with crossed bones below. They called themselves "Schar der Rache (Unit of Revernge)," and carried the motto "Sieg oder Tod (Victory of Death)."

The death's head had been used much earlier. A Prussian Regiment of black Hussars under General Lossow had used it, and in 1652 Herzog Silvis Nimrod of Württemberg-Oels founded an order of knights that used the death's head as their symbol. This means that the use of the death's head is much older than those in the Prussian army used in the years up to the end WWI as well as with the German Army (Heer) and Waffen-SS during WWII.

The Black Brunswickers, or "Schwarze Schar," were assembled in March 1809 in Nachod. On April 9 Austria declared war on France. By that time a force of the Brunswickers under the command of Frederick William, now called "The Black Duke," and a small force of Austrians were based at the fortress of Theresienstadt acting as a defensive force whilst other Austrian troops were engaged in Bavaria and Italy. On May 25 Saxon troops invaded Bohemia, a part of Austria. As response to this action, Frederick William invaded Saxonia and took the town of Zittau. On May 30,1809, the Brunswickers had their "baptism of fire" at Zittau. Here they suffered heavy losses and initially had to retreat, but they eventually captured Zittau and the Saxon troops retreated back to Dresden. Furthermore, the Brunswickers fought in Rumburk and Peterwalde. In June they were again together with Austrian troops in Saxonia and Franken.

On July 8 the Brunswickers and Austrian troops under the command of the Austrian General Kienmayer fought a battle against French troops under Marshal Junot at Gefrees. The battle ended with a victory for the combined troops because the Austrians avoided being trapped by Junot, Saxons and Westphalians. After a further successful battle at Hof the Austrians, along with the Brunswickers, had again control over Saxony. The Royal Saxon Family left Dresden and headed west. This victory, however, was good for nothing because the main Austrian Army was defeated at Wagram and had to sign an Armistice in Znaim.

The Armistice of Znaim had a big influence on the hope and plans of Frederick William. He hoped that with the help of the Austrians he could start an uprise against Napoleon in northern Germany. While refusing the peace, the Black Duke took matters in his own hands and positioned himself in the north to gain his country back. His march caused severe problems to Jerome, the King of Westphalia, because Frederick William and his troops defeated Jerome's troops twice at the battles of Halberstadt and Oelpe, currently a part of the City of Brunswick. He also managed to recapture Brunswick for a short while, but had to leave it because Jerome ordered three of his army generals to search and find Frederick with his troops, but they escaped and managed to reach the coast of the North Sea. Here they joined up with British Navy that evacuated them in August 1809 to the Isle of Wight. Before they reached the coast Frederick William was able to reinforce his troops with Westphalian deserters and also inhabitants of his own country. While in England Frederick William met with his cousin, by that time the Prince Regent and later King George IV.

In 1811 the newly formed regiment was sent to Portugal to assist British forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Prior to the transfer they were renamed "The Brunswick Oels Jägers." The regiment had twelve companies, one of them joined as skirmishers in the 4th division, two joined the 5th division, and the remaining nine were part of the newly formed 7th division. The regiment maintained this organization until the end of the war in Spain in April 1814. During that period the Jägers served in most of the major battles in Spain like Fuentes de Onoro, Salamanca, Vittoria Nivele and others.

After the disastrous invasion of Russia followed by Napoleon's retreat to France, Frederick William returned to Brunswick in 1813 to reclaim his title. On November 10, 1814, the "Oels" returned to Brunswick, and at the beginning of January 1815 Duke Frederick formed a new battalion of veterans named "Braunschweigisches Leibbatallion" with four companies. When Napoleon left Elba in 1815 the Duke mobilized his forces again and placed himself under the command of the Duke of Wellington and joined the allied forces of the 7th Coalition in Belgium. The Brunswick Corps, as they were called, had a strength of 5,376 men with sixteen guns, forming seven infantry battalions, two artillery batteries, a regiment of Brunswicker Hussars, and a single squadron of Ulans.

A few days prior to the Battle of Waterloo (June 16,1815) the Brunswick Corps was engaged in heavy fighting at the Battle of Quatre Bras suffering heavy losses, including Duke Frederick William who was mortally wounded, and like his father died after a few minutes of being shot. At the Battle of Waterloo the Brunswickers suffered only light losses. After the battle they escorted 2,000 French prisoners to Brussels and then marched to the final victory over Napoleon to Paris. Thereafter they returned to Brunswick on December 6, 1815.

After several changes in the strength of military power, the regular troops which were coming out of the Black Brunswickers were integrated into the Prussian Army in 1866 after the Prussian-Austrian War. They were separated into the following units: Braunschweigisches Husaren Regiment Nr.17 and Braunschweigiges Infanterie-Regiment Nr.92. The numbers of both units were given according to the numbering sequence within the Prussian Army. Both units kept the death's head with the crossed bones on their helmets and fur caps until the end of WWI in 1918.

Article by Ludwig Baer (October 2011)