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Albrecht von Roon

Count Albrecht Theodor Emil von Roon was born on 30 April 1803 in Pleushagen-Kaltenhagen, near Colberg, in Pomerania (Plesna - Pomerania). His family was of Flemish origin, and was settled in Pomerania. His father, an officer of the Prussian army, died in poverty during the French occupation, and young von Roon was brought up, in a country ravaged in the War of Liberation and in straitened circumstances, by his maternal grandmother. He entered the corps of cadets at Kulm in 1816, whence in 1818 he proceeded to the military school at Berlin, and in January 1821 received a commission in the 14th (3rd Pomeranian) regiment quartered at Stargard in Pomerania. In 1824 he went through the three years' higher course of study at the wax school in Berlin, where he also applied himself with the greatest energy to improving his general education.

In 1826 he was transferred to the 15th regiment at Minden, but in the same year was appointed an instructor in the military cadet school at Berlin, where he devoted himself especially to the subject of military geography. He published in 1832 the well-known Principles of Physical, National and Political Geography, in three volumes (Grundziige der Erd-, Volkerand Staaten-Kunde), which gained him a great reputation, and of which over 40,000 copies were sold in a few years. This work was followed in 1834 by Elements of Geography (Anfaugsgriinde der Erdkunde), in 1837 by Military Geography of Europe (Militiirische Landerbeschreibung von Europa), and in 1839 by The Iberian Peninsula (Die Iberische Halbinsel).

Meantime, in 1832, he rejoined his regiment, and was afterwards attached to the headquarters of General von Miiffling's corps of observation at Crefeld, when he first became alive to the very inefficient state of the Prussian army. In 1833 he was appointed to the Topographical Bureau at Berlin, in 1835 he entered the General Staff, and in the following year was promoted captain and became instructor and examiner in the military academy at Berlin. In 1842, after an illness of two years brought on by overwork, he was promoted to be major and attached to the staff of the VII. corps, in which post he was again impressed with the inefficiency of the organization of the army, and occupied himself with schemes for its reform. Two years later, as tutor to Prince Frederick Charles, he attended him at Bonn university and in his European travels.

In 1848 he was appointed chief of the staff of the VIII. Army Corps at Coblenz. During the disturbances of that year he served under the Crown Prince William (afterwards German emperor) in the suppression of the insurrection at Baden, and distinguished himself by his energy and bravery, receiving the 3rd class of the order of the Red Eagle in recognition of his services. While attached to the Crown Prince's staff at that time he broached to him the subject of his schemes of army reform. In 1850 came the revelation of defective organization and efficiency which led to the humiliating treaty of Olmiitz. In the same year Roon was made a lieutenant-colonel, and in 1851 full colonel. He now enjoyed the confidence of Prince William, and began active work as reorganizer of the army.

In 1857 General von Moltke had been appointed Chief of the General Staff - though not yet the important office it subsequently became - and Albrecht von Roon, the intimate friend of Bismarck, and an unflinching Conservative, replaced (1859) the Liberal General Bonin as Minister of War. Promoted to be major-general in 1856 and lieutenant-general in 1859, Roon had held since 1850 several commands and had been employed on important missions. Moltke, though the public did not know it yet, was the ablest of the Clausewitz School. Roon as a minister regarded himself as the Greek horse introduced by Providence into the Liberal Troy. And he was determined to keep the army free from the interference of the scoundrels in the House of Commons.

William I was above everything a soldier. The Prussian-Sardinian War convinced him that the army needed strengthening, if it was again to be, as in the days of Frederick the Great, the most formidable weapon in Europe. With the assistance of Albrecht von Roon as war minister and Hellmuth von Moltke as chief of the general staff, the king now brought forward a scheme for army reform. Universal military service had been adopted by Prussia during the Napoleonic wars, but many men were never called to the colors or were allowed to serve for only a short time. William I proposed to enforce strictly the obligation to service and in this way to more than double the size of the standing army. The increase of population gave as many recruits in two years as there had been in three. Thus the insufficiency of cadres gradually led to a much reduced call to the colours and a two-years' service, which, in turn, produced a weaker reserve and a Landwehr consisting for the most part of married men. Once in power, the Prince Regent resolved to end this slackness, coached by General Albrecht von Roon, Lieut.-General Helmuth von Moltke, and other officers who afterwards became famous.

The peculiar geographical position of Prussia made it essential that no trouble, exertion, or sacrifice should be spared to provide her with an army at least as efficient as any other military force in Europe. A well organized army for Prussia was as necessary as a powerful navy for England. Her military power, however, in 1859, was very inferior to that of France. Its organization was old-fashioned and unsuited to tbe time. Before he became Regent, the Prince of Prussia had given this matter his anxious consideration, and had been in communication with some experienced officers about it.

The most distinguished of these was General Albrecht von Roon. On the 25th of July, 1858, a conversation took place between the General and the Prince at the railway-station at Potsdam, and Roon promised to draw up a scheme of army reform. Prince William had become regent in 1857, and in 1859 he appointed Roon a member of a commission to report on the reorganization of the army. Supported by Manteuffel and Moltke, Roon was able to get his plans seriously considered and generally adopted. His aim was to create an armed nation, to extend Scharnhorst's system and to adapt it to Prussia's altered circumstances. To attain this he proposed a universal three years' service, and a reserve (Landwehr) for the defence of the country when the army was actively engaged. During the Italian War he was charged with the mobilization of a division. At the end of 1859, though the junior lieutenant-general in the army, he succeeded von Bonin as war minister, and two years later the ministry of marine was also entrusted to him.

Roon became Minister of War on the 5th of December, 1859, the anniversary of Frederic the Great's victory of Leuthen, and he devoted his solid abilities and the whole force of his strong and lofty character to the accomplishment of a work on the success of which, he was firmly convinced, the very existence of the Prussian state depended. His colleagues were far from being either as clear-sighted or as firm. The timidity and vacillation of the Ministry as a whole, encouraged opposition. The opponents of the Government became more and more violent. Men generally intelligent, sensible, and loyal were carried away by high-sounding phrases. Others, whose aims were revolutionary, acquired influence and consideration. The violence and recklessness of the opposition kept steadily increasing, and at last the Lower House of Parliament refused to vote the army estimates.

From the moment that Roon understood the temper in which the scheme for army reform was received by the public, he strongly and persistently recommended that Bismarck should be placed at the head of the Ministry. He was himself in constant communication with Bismarck, and when the latter came to Berlin they used to meet at the house of Herr von Blanckenburg, who was a very old friend of Bismarck, a nephew of Roon, and a respected member of the Prussian Diet. In September, 1862, Bismarck, then Ambassador in Paris, was in the South of France. There he received several communications from his friend, urging him to come to Berlin.

Bismarck started at once, and reached Berlin on the morning of the 20th. Roon saw him immediately on his arrival and then went to King William, who was at the Castle of Babelsberg. He found his Sovereign in despair. The King knew that the entire army estimates would be rejected by the Diet in a couple of days. He was convinced of the absolute necessity of army reform, and at the same time pressure of every sort and kind was brought to bear on him to give it up, by Queen Augusta, the Crown Prince, by other members of the Royal family, and even by some of the Ministers who had supported him hitherto with as much firmness as was consistent with their characters. Roon urged him to stand firm. "Call Herr von Bismarck, Your Majesty," said Roon. "He will not be willing to undertake the task," answered the King; "besides, he is not here, and the situation cannot be discussed with him." "He is here and at Your Majesty's orders," was the reply of Roon.

That afternoon Bismarck went to Babelsberg. When he was in audience the fate of Prussia trembled in the balance. The King sat at a table with papers on it. One of these was the act of his abdication, already signed. He asked Bismarck whether he would undertake to carry on the Government in face of a hostile majority. "Most certainly," was the reply. "Notwithstanding that the supplies may be stopped?" continued the King. "Yes," said Bismarck, and as he used to tell the story, in as decided a tone as he could command. The powerful personality and attitude of the statesman so impressed the King that he there and then tore up the act of abdication, and also a long memorandum of sixteen sheets of foolscap which he had written for publication in justification of his policy and conduct. On the 23d of September the Lower House of Parliament rejected the army estimates in their entirety, and the whole Ministry resigned. Roon saw the King again that day in separate audience, once more besought him not to hesitate, and at five o'clock in the afternoon Bismarck was appointed to the chief place in the councils of the Crown.

Van Roon's proposals of army reorganization met with the bitterest opposition, and it was not until after long fighting against a hostile majority in the chambers that, with Bismarck's aid, he carried the day. Even the Danish campaign of 1864 did not wholly convince the country of the necessity of von Roon's measures, and it required the war with Austria of 1866 to convert obstinate opposition into enthusiastic support. After that von Roon, from being the best-hated man in Prussia, became the most popular, and his reforms were ultimately copied throughout continental Europe. He was promoted general of infantry at the outbreak of this war, was present at the brilliant and decisive victory of Kiiniggratz, and received the Black Eagle at Nikolsburg on the road to Vienna. His system, adopted after 1866 by the whole North German Confederation, produced its inevitable result in the victorious war with France 1870-71, throughout which von Roon was in attendance on the German emperor. The fiftieth anniversary of his entrance into the army was celebrated at Versailles on the 19th of January 1871, when the emperor expressed his gratitude for the great services he had rendered. He was created a count.

In the early days of his power, Bismarck had sincere and disinterested friends to lean on for moral support. Among them was no less a man than Roon. As time went on, they gradually sank into the grave, and Bismarck gradually dropped into a society almost entirely composed of sycophants and parasites. In December 1871, having resigned the ministries of war and marine, Roon succeeded Bismarck as president of the Prussian ministry.

Von Roon's reforms proved worthy during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). He served as War Minister from 1859-1873 and also Minister of Marine in 1861. He was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall [field marshal] on 01 January 1873, but resigned one year later due to ill health. Von Roon at Berlin died on 23 February 1879.

After his death his son published the valuable Denkwiirdigkeiten aus dem Leben des Generalfeldmarschalls Kriegsministers Grafen Roon (2 vols., Breslau, 1892), and Kriegsminister von Roon als Redner politisch and militarisch erldutert (Breslau, 1895). His correspondence with his friend Professor Cl. Perthes, 1864-67, was also published at Breslau in 1895.




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