As far as Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm the First was concerned, size mattered.
For his army, that is. And not just the number of soldiers either (which he increased from 38 000 to 83 000 during his reign) which was at least part of the reason he became known as the Soldier King. No, he also wanted big soldiers. Giants. He took the regiment number six, made himself the regimental commander and decided upon a minimum height requirement: six Prussian feet, which works out to 6’2” (or 1.88 m). This remains well above average height, even today, let alone in the seventeenth century.
The King himself was a much more ordinary 5’3” (or 1.60 m).
They were called the Potsdamer Riesengarde (Giant-Guard) or, unofficially, the lange kerls (tall guys).
The first question then is: why? There are a few theories. There’s the idea that the larger-than-normal wingspan of these men made loading the muzzle-loaders of the time quicker and easier. Certainly, there is an intimidation factor, and not just on the battlefield. The King would put these soldiers on display when he had visiting dignitaries from other nations, which would certainly have been quite the spectacle, and while their uniform was similar to other Prussian regiments of their day, the highly ornate and especially tall hats only served to heighten these giants further.
Word naturally got around among these other leaders regarding King Wilhelm’s obsession with tall soldiers, so that it became quite a common gift choice: if you were stuck for an idea for him, just send him some big men! Peter the Great did so after receiving the Amber Room. Naturally, it became quite an international regiment.
But the King’s obsession with these giant soldiers, these lange Kerls seems to go beyond any kind of practical use, particularly since many of the men suffered from genetic defects and gigantism which made them physically unfit for combat. He was reported to have once said that he preferred these men to the most beautiful of women, and he would drill them personally at his Potsdam palace; with a trained bear up front. He also enjoyed painting them in his leisure time.
Due to the scarcity of such tall men, it was of course a challenge to recruit for the regiment. The King made the prospect as attractive as possible by paying and feeding this regiment more than most others. He would also try and actively recruit tall soldiers from other armies. But, even so, press-ganging was common, which is where someone is forced into military service against their will. One of the tallest recorded members of the lange Kerls, a 7’1” (or 2.17 m) Irishman by the name of James Kirkland, was forced into such service in 1730. He had been taken on as a footman, but it had been a trick. He was bound and gagged and sent off to be a lange Kerl in Prussia without a choice in the matter.
Since 1990, however, you do have a choice. Yes, despite the original regiment falling into disuse after the King died (Frederick the Great did not share his Father’s enthusiasm for tall soldiers) and then being disbanded after Napoleon’s victory over Prussia in 1806, the regiment was revived as a historical pastime for, well … tall guys. They meet up and practice the original dress and drill of 1726, and travel the world doing presentations and speaking about the traditions. The height measurement requirement is still strictly maintained at 1.884 m. So, if you’re tall enough, maybe this is a good way to culturally integrate and practice your smartergerman!
If you don’t mind marching around in a tall hat, of course.
Written by Jeremy Davis