Field Marshal Hans David Ludwig Yorck, Graf von Wartenburg, 1759-1830

Field Marshal Hans David Ludwig Yorck, Graf von Wartenburg (1759-1830) was a senior Prussian commander during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, but his most important contribution to the defeat of Napoleon came late in 1812 when he agreed to make his corps, then operating with the French in Russia, neutral, a move that helped trigger the War of Liberation in Germany,

Yorck was born on 26 November 1759 into a Prussian military family. He entered a Prussian infantry regiment as a corporal on 1 December 1772 and was promoted to ensign on 4 March 1775 and second lieutenant on 11 June 1777. He fought in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779), but an incident during this conflict almost ended his career. He refused to accept orders from an officer who he had seen plundering during the war, but this didn't go down well with Frederick the Great. On 10 January 1780 Yorck was dishonourably discharged from the army, and he spent the next year under arrest for insubordination.

In a move typical of the period his military career continued outside the Prussian army. On 1 June 1781 he was given command of a company in the Swiss infantry regiment Meuron, which was then employed by the Dutch. Yorck spent 1783-84 serving in the Dutch East Indies, but left in 1785 after he disagreed with the Dutch policies towards the area.

After the death of Frederick the Great Yorck applied to rejoin the Prussian army, but his first application was rejected by Frederick William II on 29 May 1786. A second attempt, on 7 May 1787, was successful, and his seniority was dated to 30 May 1786. He was promoted to major on 27 November 1792. He didn't take part in the Prussian contribution to the First Coalition, but instead served in Poland in 1794-95 where he gained a reputation as a commander of light infantry. He was given command of a new fusilier battalion on 12 September 1797, and became commander of the Prussian Rifle Regiment on 16 November 1799. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 11 June 1800 and colonel on 2 June 1803.

He led the Rifle Regiment during the 1806 campaign, where he performed well as a rearguard commander. He was noted for his success in the combat of Altenzaun (26 October 1806), an incident during Blücher and Saxe-Weimar's retreat to Lübeck. However when this part of the Prussian army reached Lübeck they found no allies, and the French were too close behind. The French successfully stormed Lübeck, and Yorck was badly wounded at captured there on 6 November. He was soon exchanged, and in 1807 took part in the campaign in East Prussia.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

After the disasters of 1806 Scharnhorst was made head of a commission with the task of reforming the Prussian army. Amongst his reforms were the creation of six mixed brigades (with infantry, cavalry and artillery). Yorck commanded several of these brigades. He was promoted to major general on 18 June 1807, made inspector of Prussian rifle battalions on 16 November 1808, inspector general of all Prussian light troops on 16 February 1810 and promoted to lieutenant general of 24 March 1812. He also served as governor of East Prussia  until 24 March.

At the start of 1812 Napoleon insisted that the Prussians should provide a corps to take part in the invasion of Russia. The first commander of this corps, General Julius von Grawert, fell ill, and Yorck took over on 17 August. His appointment was confirmed on 12 October 1812.

1813

Yorck's corps was part of Marshal Macdonald's army, which operated on the northern flank of the French invasion. During the retreat from Russia the Russians managed to isolate Yorck's column (25 December). A delegation of Prussian officers in Russian service (led by Clausewitz) entered into negotiations, and after five days Yorck agreed to make his corps neutral (Convention of Tauroggen).

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

This was the first step towards Prussia changing sides, but at first Frederick William III condemned Yorck's actions (not least because large numbers of French troops were still in Prussia). On 6 January 1813 he even issued an order for Yorck's arrest, and Yorck wasn't officially exonerated until 11 March 1813, by which time Prussia had officially agreed to enter the war against Napoleon, and the declaration of war was close.

In the spring campaign of 1813 (War of Liberation) Yorck's corps was allocated to Peter Graf zu Wittgenstein's army. At the start of April he commanded 9,000 men and 44 guns, which he led at the battle of Möckern (5 April 1813), one of the first Allied victories during the spring campaign, and a battle that stopped an early French attempt to threaten Berlin.

At the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813) his corps was posted on the left of the second Allied line. He was committed to the fighting at around 4pm, after Russian reinforcements had arrived, but the French were also able to commit more men, and eventually won the battle. He performed well in the retreat from Bautzen (20-21 May 1813), where the Prussian army demonstrated that it was no longer as fragile as in 1806.  

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

On 12 July his corps became I Corps, and part of Blücher's Army of Silesia. His corps performed well at the Katzbach (26 August 1813), where Blücher defeated Marshal Macdonald (where his was the only Prussian corps in Blücher's army, the other three being Russian), and at Wartenburg (3 October 1813), where Blücher crossed the Elbe in the build up to the battle of Leipzig. His corps attacked at Möckern (16 October 1813) on the first day of the battle of Leipzig. Yorck's troops stormed Möckern at around 2pm, and the Prussian intervention on the northern side of the battlefield prevented Napoleon from concentrating all of his men against the Austrians to the south. The French recaptured the village several times, but by the end of the day it was in Prussian hands. The fighting had been costly, and Yorck had lost 6,000 of his 21,000 men. This meant that his corps was too weak when it was ordered to try and stop the French retreat from Leipzig on the final day of the battle.

On 8 December 1813 he was promoted to general of infantry

1814

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

Yorck's corp was part of Blucher's army during the invasion of France of 1814. On 26 January he was pursuing Marmont from Metz towards Bar-le-Duc, as the French border defences crumbled. On 3 February he was stuck outside Vitry, where the garrison was proving quite determined, but by 5 February he had captured Chalons-sur-Marne, part of the first two-pronged allied advance on Paris. By 7 February he was Epernay on the Marne, and by 9 February he was at Dormans, fifteen miles to the north-east of Blücher's main army.

By this point Blücher had allowed his forces to get too badly spread out, a mistake that allowed Napoleon to get into the middle of his army and inflict a series of defeats on isolated components of it. Late on 9 February Blücher learnt that Napoleon was close by, just to his south at Sezanne, but instead of concentrating his forces he decided to try and surround Napoleon. York was ordered to move to Montmirail as part of this plan.

On 10 February Napoleon moved north and defeated Olsufiev's isolated Russian corps at Champaubert, the first victory of the 'Six Day's Campaign'. This meant that he was now between Blücher to the east and Yorck and Sacken to the west. On the same day Yorck captured Château-Thierry and its key bridge across the Meuse.

Blücher issued new orders for 11 February, in which Yorck and Sacken were to join up at Montmirail and then fight their way through to join Blucher. On the French side Napoleon planned to move west to intercept Sacken and Yorck, while Macdonald was ordered to advance up the Marne to take the bridge at Château-Thierry.

This plan almost worked. On 11 February Sacken was defeated at Montmirail, and forced to retreat north towards the Marne. Yorck arrived late in the battle, having received his orders late, and made little contribution to the battle (only 3,000 of his 18,000 men took part in the fighting). Pirch's 1st Brigade and Horn's 7th Brigade from his corps did arrive on the northern side of the battlefield, and may have helped Sacken withdraw.
 
The two corps moved north, and found Château-Thierry still in Allied hands. They were thus able to safely cross the river, although Yorck then chose to fight a rearguard action south of the river (battle of Château-Thierry, 12 February 1814), which cost him some unnecessary casualties. Napoleon was held up at the river, and then learnt that the Austrians under Prince Schwarzenberg were making dangerous progress in the south, and was forced to let Yorck escape. Mortier was given the task of keeping up the pressure on Yorck and Sacken while the main army moved south.

Yorck's corps played a major role in the battle of Laon (9-10 March 1814). At the start of the battle he and Kleist were posted to the east of Laon, facing towards the approaching Marshal Marmont. Late in the day Blücher realised that Marmont was dangerously isolated, and ordered Yorck and Kleist to attack. The French were caught entirely by surprise and Marmont's corps was routed. Kleist even managed to get some of his men across the French line of retreat, but French reinforcements were able to clear the road and save part of Marmont's corps. Blücher ordered a full scale attack on 10 March, with Yorck taking part in the pursuit of Marmont, but he then fell ill and Gneisenau, his chief of staff, cancelled the attack. 

On 8 May 1814, after the end of the fighting, Yorck was given command of II and III Corps, alongside his own I Corps. On 3 June 1814 he was made Graf Yorck von Wartenburg as a reward for his service.

On 15 April 1815 he was appointed commander of V Corps, but after Napoleon's return from exile he wasn't given a combat command as he would have outranked Gneisenau, Blücher's chief of staff. Instead he was given command of the reserve formations in Prussia. He retired on 26 December 1815. He was promoted to Field Marshal on 5 May 1821, and died on 4 October 1830.

Clausewitz described him as brave and talented and with a wider than normal 'sphere of intellectual observation' due to his colonial service. He was apparently cold but with a fiery will underneath, honest, gloomy, reserved and a bad subordinate. His troops called him 'der alte Isegrim', the wolf from the epic Reynard the Fox

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 December 2016), Field Marshal Hans David Ludwig Yorck, Graf von Wartenburg, 1759-1830 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_yorck.html

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