Freidrich Graf Kleist von Nollendorf (1762-1823)

Freidrich Graf Kleist von Nollendorf (1762-1823) was a successful Prussian corps commander during the War of Liberation of 1813 and the invasion of France of 1814.

Kleist was born in Berlin on 9 April 1762 into a family with court connections. In 1775 he became a page to Prince Henry of Prussia, Frederick the Great's brother.

Kleist entered the Prussian army as an ensign on 2 July 1778, so that he could take part in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-79). After the end of the war his unit formed part of the garrison of Berlin, allowing Kleist to study at the Académie de Nobles, an early officer academy. He was promoted to second lieutenant in April 1783.

He was made quartermaster lieutenant in the general staff in May 1790

He was promoted to captain of the army in October 1792, a rank that came without any attachment to a particular unit. He served as an adjutant on the Rhine front of the War of the First Coalition in 1793-95 and was promoted to major in January 1795, just before Prussia withdrew from the war.

On 9 November 1799 he was given command of a grenadier battalion. On 28 April 1803 he was made King Frederick William III's adjutant general (effectively his military secretary), and he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in May 1805 and colonel in May 1806. He was an officer of the General Staff during the disastrous wars of 1806, still closely associated with the King. At this point his health was poor, and on 19 August 1807 he was allowed to go on leave until his health recovered.

He was promoted to major general in November 1808, and on 25 November was given command of the Lower Silesian brigade.

In 1812 Prussia was forced to contribute a corps to the French invasion of Russia. Kleist was given command of the infantry within this corps, which operated on the northern flank of the invasion. This corps was commanded by General Yorck from August 1812, when its first commander fell ill. On 26 November Kleist was appointed second in command of the corps.

As the French retreated from Russia, Yorck's corps was isolated from the rest of Marshal Macdonald's army (25 December). Over the next few days negotiations got underway, before on 30 December Yorck agreed the Convention of Tauroggen, in which his corps became neutral. At first King Frederick William had to disown this agreement, and on 6 January 1813 he even issued an order for Yorck's arrest. Kleist was to have taken over command of the corps, but the order took so long to reach the corps that by the time it did arrive Prussia had already joined the Sixth Coalition.

1813

At the start of the War of Liberation Kleist commanded the vanguard of Yorck's corps, but he was soon given command of his own corps. At the end of March his corps contained 5,400 regular infantry, 400 Cossacks and 26 guns. It was part of Wittgenstein's army at the time of the battle of Möckern (5 April 1813), but wasn't directly involved in the fighting.

War of Liberation 1813 - Spring Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Spring Campaign

His corps took part in the battle of Bautzen (20-21 May 1813), an unsuccessful Allied attempt to defeat a larger French army from a strong defensive position. Blücher's and Kleist's corps were almost trapped on the Allied right, but escaped without suffering too much damage.

During the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813), Kleist was given the task of defending Leipzig, to the north of the main battlefield, but he was attacked by more powerful French forces and had to retreat to the east.

On 28 May he was given command of Blücher's corps, after Blücher was given a higher command.

On 4 June Kleist signed the Armistice of Pleischwitz on behalf of Prussia, the truce that split the war into Spring and Autumn campaigns.

On 12 July Kleist's corps was named II Corps, and was assigned to Prince Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia.

Kleist was posted in the Allied centre at the battle of Dresden (26-27 August 1813), an almost disastrous battle in which the Allied commanders decided not to attack once they realised Napoleon had arrived, but were unable to stop their earlier orders for an attack from being carried out.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign

As often happened, Napoleon's subordinates were unable to take full advantage of his victories. General Vandamme was given the task of pursuing the retreating Allies, who were heading south towards Bohemia. On the first day of the battle of Kulm (29-30 August 1813) Vandamme ran into the retreating Allied army, but a series of French attacks were repulsed. During the retreat Kleist's corps got cut off, and he was forced to advance along the same road at Vandamme. As a result on the second day of the battle he was able to attack Vandamme from the rear. When Vandamme realised what was going on, he turned around and tried to fight his way through Kleist's lines, but without success. Eventually Vandamme was forced to surrender, losing around 15,000-17,000 men, 2 eagles and 82 guns. Kleist's corps also suffered heavy losses, but the victory at Kulm made up for the allied defeat at Dresden.

Kleist's corps fought at Leipzig (16-19 October 1813), where he attacked Markkleeberg on the southern side of the battlefield on the first day of the battle. His corps was involved in very heavy fighting on this front, but at the end of the day the two sides were in roughly the same positions as at the start. Napoleon had failed to win the decisive victory he had been expecting.

On 18 October Kleist's corps was assigned to Barclay de Tolly's column, which was to attack from Wachau and Liebertwolkwitz towards Probstheida, on the south-eastern corner of the battlefield.

After the battle of Leipzig he was given the task of besieging Erfurt.

1814

On 31 December 1813 Kleist's corps was transferred to Blücher's Army of Silesia. He joined up with Blücher's force in northern France in February 1814, just in time for the disastrous 'Six Days Campaign', which saw Napoleon inflict four defeats on the Prussians after they got dangerously spread out.

Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

At start of the 'six days' his corps of 3,000 was at Chalons, some way from the rest of Blucher's army. On 9 February Prince Schwarzenberg, who believed that he was about to fight Napoleon around the Seine, asked Blücher to attack what he believed was Napoleon's northern flank. Blücher ordered Kleist, Kapzevitsch and Olsufieve to move to Sezanne to prepare for that attack. By the time the orders were issued Napoleon was already at Sezanne, heading north to attack Blücher. Instead of concentrating his men, Blücher decided to try and surround Napoleon, who he believed was already beaten. Kleist was ordered to move to La Fere Champenoise, east of Sezanne, then try and get behind the French. This left Olsufiev's isolated corps vulnerable to defeat at Champaubert (10 February 1814). Napoleon then turned west to try and catch Yorck and Sacken, but despite two further victories was unable to destroy their corps. Bad news from the south then meant that he had to turn south to deal with Schwarzenberg's army. Blücher realised that this would be Napoleon's next move, and attempted to attack him at Vauchamps (14 February 1814). Kleist was posted on Blücher's right, to the north of the road that the Allies attempted to attack west along. It soon became clear that Napoleon was actually present, with the Old Guard, and Blücher ordered a retreat.

At the battle of Craonne (7 March 1814) Blücher hoped to pin Napoleon up against strong defences on the plateau west of Craonne, then use Kleist and Winzegerode to attack the French right flank. At the same time Napoleon was planning a double envelopment of the Allied position. Neither plan worked - the French attacks were launched at the wrong time, and Kleist's progress was far too slow. Blücher attempted to speed things up by taking command of Winzegorode's cavalry in person, but quickly realised that it was too late in the day, and ordered his army to concentrate around Laon, a little to the north.

At the battle of Laon (9-10 March 1814) Kleist and Yorck were posted on the allied left (eastern) flank. Napoleon approached from the south, while Marmont advanced from the east. The two French forces were dangerously far apart, and late on 9 March Blücher ordered Kleist and Yorck to take advantage of that. Their attack caught Marmont entirely by surprise, and his corps was soon in full retreat. Kleist even managed to get some of his men across the French line of retreat, before reinforcements cleared the road. Marmont lost 3,000-4,000 men, and Blücher issued orders for a general assault on the following day. That night he fell ill, and Gneisenau cancelled all of the attacks, even Kleist and Yorck's pursuit of the defeated Marmont. After Blücher fell ill Kleist became convinced that Gneisenau was hiding Blücher's death, and resigned his command!

On 10 April Kleist was replaced as commander of II Corps by General Wieprecht Graf von Zieten. On 30 May, after the end of the fighting, Kleist was given overall command of I, II and III Corps, as well as III, IV and V Federal German army corps. On 3 June 1814 he was ennobled as Graf Nollendorf, to commemorate his part in the victory at Kulm. Later in the year he was made commanding general in occupied Saxony.

In 1815 he was the original commander of the Prussian forces facing Napoleon, but he was replaced by Blücher before the fighting began. He was then given command of another force of 26,000 Prussians near the Moselle. These troops weren't involved in the Waterloo campaign. Kleist retired on health grounds on 5 May 1821, and died of hepatitis on 17 February 1823.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 December 2016), Freidrich Graf Kleist von Nollendorf (1762-1823) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_kleist_von_nollendorf.html

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