Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (November 12, 1755 - June 8, 1813), Prussian general, was born at Bordenau near Hanover, of a farmer stock.
He succeeded in educating himself and in securing admission to the military academy of Wilhelmstein, and in 1778 received a commission in the Hanoverian service. He employed the intervals of regimental duty in further self-education and literary work. In 1783 he was transferred to the artillery and appointed to the new artillery school in Hanover. He had already founded a military journal which under various names endured till 1805, and in 1788 he designed, and in part published, a Handbuch für Offiziere in den anwendbaren Teilen der Kriegswissenschaften. He also published in 1792 his Militarische Taschenbuch für den Gebrauch im Felde.
The income he derived from his writings was his chief means of support, for he was still a lieutenant, and though the farm of Bordenau produced a small sum annually he had a wife (Clara Schmalz, sister of Theodor Schmalz, first director of Berlin University) and family to maintain. His first campaign was that of 1793 in the Netherlands, in which he served under the duke of York with distinction. In 1794 he took part in the defence of Menin and commemorated the escape of the garrison in his Vertheidigung der Stadt Menin (Hanover, 1803), which, next to his paper Die Ursachen des Glücks der Franzosen im Revolutionskrieg, is his best-known work. Shortly after this he was promoted major and employed on the staff of the Hanoverian contingent.
In 1795, after the peace of Basel, he returned to Hanover. He was by now so well known to the armies of the various allied states that from several of them he received invitations to transfer his services. This in the end led to his engaging himself to the king of Prussia, who gave him a patent of nobility, the rank of lieutenant-colonel and a pay more than twice as large as that he had received in Hanover (1801). He was employed, almost as a matter of course, in important instructional work at the War Academy of Berlin, he had Clausewitz as one of his pupils, and he was the founder of the Berlin Military Society. In the mobilizations and precautionary measures that marked the years 1804 and 1805. and in the war of 1806 that was the natural consequence, Scharnhorst was chief of the general staff (lieutenant-quartermaster) of the duke of Brunswick, received a slight wound at Auerstadt and distinguished himself by his stern resolution during the retreat of the Prussian army. He attached himself to Blücher in the last stages of the disastrous campaign, was taken prisoner with him at the capitulation of Ratkau, and, being shortly exchanged, bore a prominent and almost decisive part in the leading of L'Estocq's Prussian corps which served with the Russians. For his services at Eylau, he received the order pour le merité.
It was now evident that Scharnhorst was more than a brilliant staff officer. Educated in the traditions of the Seven Years' War, he had by degrees, as his experience widened, divested his mind of antiquated forms of war, and it had been borne in upon him that a "national" army and a policy of fighting decisive battles alone responded to the political and strategical situation created by the French Revolution. The steps by which he converted the professional long-service army of Prussia, wrecked at Jena, into the national army as we know it to-day, based on universal service, were slow and labored. He was promoted major-general a few days after the peace of Tilsit, and placed as the head of a reform commission, to which were appointed the best of the younger officers such as Gneisenau, Grolman and Boyen. Stein himself became a member of the commission and secured Scharnhorst free access to the king by causing him to be appointed aide-de-camp-general. But Napoleon's suspicions were quickly aroused, and the king had repeatedly to suspend or to cancel the reforms recommended.
In 1809 the war between France and Austria roused premature hopes in the patriots' party, which the conqueror did not fail to note. By direct application to Napoleon, Scharnhorst evaded the decree of September 26, 1810, whereby all foreigners were to leave the Prussian service forthwith, but when in 1811-1812 Prussia was forced into an alliance with France against Russia and despatched an auxiliary army to serve under Napoleon's orders, Scharnhorst left Berlin on unlimited leave of absence. In retirement he wrote and published a work on firearms, Uber die Wirkung des Feuergewehrs (1813). But the retreat from Moscow at last sounded the call to arms for the new national army of Prussia.
Scharnhorst was recalled to the king's headquarters, and after refusing a higher post was made chief of staff to Blücher, in whose vigour, energy and influence with the young soldiers he had complete confidence. The first battle Lützen or Gross-Gotschen was a defeat, but a very different defeat from those which Napoleon had hitherto been accustomed to inflict. In it Scharnhorst received a wound in the foot, not in itself grave, but soon made mortal by the fatigues of the retreat to Dresden, and he succumbed to it on the 8th of June at Prague, whither he had been sent to negotiate with Schwarzenberg and Radetzky for the armed intervention of Austria. Shortly before his death he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general. Frederick William III erected a statue in memory of him, by Rauch, in Berlin.
See K von Clausewitz, Über das Leben und den Charakter des General v. Scharnhorst; Hermann von Boyen, Beiträge zur Kenntnis des General v. Scharnhorst; lives by Schweder (Berlin, 1865), Klippel (Leipzig, 1869); M Lehmann (Leipzig, 1886-1888, an important work in two volumes); also Max Jöhns, Gesch. der Kriegswissenschaften, iii. 2154; Weise, Scharnhorst und die Durchfuhrung der altgemeinen Wehrpflicht (1892); A von Holleben, Der Frühjahrsfeldzug, 1813 (1905); and FN Maude, The Leipzig Campaign (1908).