Dark and handsome, we don’t know. But the Prussian king Frederick William I certainly liked his men tall. It seems he was a sucker for uniform too, once confessing, “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers they are my weakness.” However, for Frederick, they were far more than just a weakness. His Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam (or “Potsdam Giants” as they came to be known) was a complete obsession.
You might have thought trying to form a regiment made up solely of giant men would be a tall order in any age. But, surprisingly, the eighteenth-century Prussian king wasn’t the first to try. In the first century AD, the megalomaniacal Roman emperor Nero recruited a regiment of six-foot-tall soldiers, all from Italy, which he called the “Phalanx of Alexander the Great.” Napoleon too would introduce height requirements of 5”10 (178cm) for grenadiers in his prestigious Old Guard. What made Frederick’s Potsdam Grenadiers so unique were the purposes for which he used them.
The “Soldier King”, as he was known, fell short when it came to actually using his grenadiers in battle. Instead, he placed them at the centerpiece of imperial pomp and ceremony, dressing them up in striking blue uniforms with 18-inch caps (you know, to add to their height…) and parading them for his amusement. It gets weirder. When feeling melancholy, the king would sometimes send for a couple of hundred grenadiers to lead a procession of tall, turbaned moors carrying cymbals and trumpets (not to mention an enormous tame bear at the rear) to march around the palace and cheer him up.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. It’s said that Frederick used to have his grenadiers fitted to racks, believing he could stretch them to even greater heights. There are even claims that he would graze on his lunch while presiding over this horrific spectacle. He was eventually forced to abandon this cruel practice, however, after too many of the soldiers, he submitted to this torture began suffering from one of its most common side effects: Death.
While service in the grenadiers may have inadvertently ended up costing you your life, in a financial sense it paid to be in Frederick’s regiment. His beloved grenadiers enjoyed the best accommodation and the best food available in the Prussian military. It paid to be tall too: for the king devised a pay scale that differentiated according to height (though this may have left some of the littler members of the regiment feeling somewhat short-changed).
The tallest man in the regiment was an Irishman called James Kirkland who measured a staggering seven feet, one inch. Believe it or not, this beast of a man didn’t enter Frederick’s services voluntarily but was press-ganged. In 1730, Kirkland was serving as a footman to the Prussian ambassador in London, Baron Borck. However, his employment by Bork was a guise. In the English port town of Portsmouth, the ambassador tricked him into boarding a Prussian ship on which he was taken to Prussia and forced into the Potsdam Grenadiers.
Kirkland’s wasn’t the only case of a man being kidnapped to swell the ranks of the Potsdam Grenadiers when their numbers were in short supply. Frederick’s devout Christianity did nothing to dissuade him from forcing an unfortunate priest to abandon his vestments in exchange for a blue uniform. Nor were the stories of Kirkland or the priest the worst. One episode even resulted in the accidental death of a press-ganged recruit.