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Edselman

Strange History: The Potsdam Giants

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The Potsdam Giants were an early modern Prussian infantry regiment from the late 17th century to 18th century unusual for being made up of men well above average height for the time. The unit was founded by Prince Frederick of Brandenburg, who would later become King Frederick I. It started out as a couple battalions but would grow over time. One reasoning behind such a regiment was that taller men have an easier time loading and firing muskets. The Prussian population had nicknamed the regiment the Lange Kerle: "tall guys." Frederick's son, Frederick William I, was very enthusiastic about the force and expanded it greatly along with the rest of the Prussian military during his reign. He needed several hundred recruits a year for the regiment. Frederick William tried to obtain them from wherever he could and many of them were not Prussian. Other leaders would sometimes send Frederick William unusually tall soldiers as gifts. Peter the Great had sent Frederick William several such giants as a thank you for the Amber Room that had been gifted to Russia from Prussia. Under Frederick William's reign, the giants did not see much action as the king thought they were too valuable. Instead, Frederick William used them in parades and often showed them off to foreign visitors. His son, Frederick the Great, did not share his enthusiasm for the regiment believing it was useless and unnecessary. There were 3,200 "giants" in the regiment at the time. After the death of Frederick William I, Frederick the Great sent many of the giants to other units and downgraded the regiment to a grenadier battalion. They saw action in Prussia's wars of the 18th century such as the Seven Years' War until the unit was finally disbanded early in the Napoleonic Wars after surrendering at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. 

(Left to Right) Frederick I, Frederick William I, Frederick the Great

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The minimum height to join the regiment was 6 Prussian feet, or 6 feet 2 inches. Though well above average, most people today would not consider a man of that height to be a giant one must remember that in the late 17th century to 18th century the average European man stood roughly 5 feet 5 inches in height. Now I do not know much about the height statistics for the time other than the average but if we assume that the standard deviation was the same at 2.75 inches, then a man 6 feet 2 inches tall in the early 18th century would be 3.27 deviations above the mean. Therefore, seeing a man 6 feet 2 inches tall at this time in history would be roughly equivalent to seeing a man 6'5 - 6'8 today (About 6'6.5 to be precise but I widened the answer to take into consideration the fact that different European countries have different average heights). Now of course, 6 feet 2 inches was just the minimum so there certainly were many soldiers well above that height. Some of the tallest soldiers of the regiment were James Kirkland (pictured below left) of Ireland who was 7 feet 2 inches tall and Daniel Cajanus of Finland whose real height is not known but he was roughly 7 and a half feet tall in his prime. The men were treated very well, being paid higher than the rest of the Prussian military, eating the best food, living in the most comfortable quarters, and receiving the best clothing. Coming from various parts of Europe, the make-up of the regiment was very diverse by the standards of the day. It even including a group of tall Moors gifted by the Ottoman Empire. The mascot of the regiment was an enormous bear. Despite the good treatment however, many did not like it there because they were in the regiment against their will. After refusing to join willingly, future giants would be forcibly press-ganged into service. This included kidnapping tall men and taking them into Prussia from wherever they came from. More disturbing still, there are accounts of the Prussians breeding tall men for the regiment. 

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Currently, there are efforts in Potsdam to preserve the memory of the giant unit. An interesting aspect of their story is that the king who favored them so much, Frederick William I, was only 5 feet 5 inches in height. It is thought that many of the soldiers in the regiment would not be fit for combat anyway because they suffered from giantism. 

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More Information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potsdam_Giants

https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/history-of-war/the-potsdam-giants-how-the-king-of-prussia-bred-an-army-of-super-soldiers/

https://books.google.com/books?id=wU4oAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA409&dq=&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false

 

 

Edited by Edselman
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The Vatican's Swiss Guard is also made up of large men.  IIRC the minimum height requirement was 6 feet (since amended to 174 cm) which was a considerable size in the 15th century. 

 

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22 hours ago, iDuckman said:

The Vatican's Swiss Guard is also made up of large men.  IIRC the minimum height requirement was 6 feet (since amended to 174 cm) which was a considerable size in the 15th century. 

 

That's interesting. I looked them up and found a 5'10 minimum that was later dropped to 5'8. Another interesting fact is that average height was actually taller in the Medieval era than in the Early Modern period. A number of factors actually decreased height during this time. That might have explained the decrease in minimum height required. 

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Sounds pretty rough, being kidnapped for an army. I wonder how the bred and raised kids differed from the kidnapped and enlisted? 

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5 hours ago, Yoshiblue said:

Sounds pretty rough, being kidnapped for an army. I wonder how the bred and raised kids differed from the kidnapped and enlisted? 

Well most of them were of extremely unusual height due to the breeding and actually did suffer from giantism which meant they probably were unfit for combat. They were also probably raised for the regiment so most of them didn't really have a purpose outside of it. 

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Forgot to mention this little detail but Frederick William I had once tried to abduct an usually tall Austrian diplomat who visiting Prussia. 

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