The Potsdam Giants

Nov 20, 2023 0 comments

During his 27-year-reign, King Frederick William I of Prussia greatly expanded the size of the Prussian Army, turning it into the largest and one of the best equipped and trained armies in Europe. Frederick William I was particularly focused on creating a well-trained and efficient military force to protect and advance the interests of the Prussian state. The military reforms initiated by Frederick William I laid the foundation for the later successes of Prussia under the leadership of his son, Frederick II, who turned the state from a small German kingdom into a great European power.

Frederick William I inspecting his Potsdam Giants.

Frederick William was obsessed with army and soldiers and that obsession earned him the title of the Soldier King. He had a particularly strange obsession with tall soldiers, despite himself being of very short stature (5 feet 3 inch).

Shortly after coming to power in 1713, King Frederick William I initiated a recruitment drive to assemble a unique regiment known as the Potsdamer Riesengarde, or "The Giant Guard of Potsdam," later recognized as the Potsdam Giants. To populate this special unit, he deployed agents across the continent to seek out exceptionally tall individuals. The king offered special incentives, including compensation to parents who provided their tallest sons and to landowners who released their tallest laborers. Prussian educators were instructed to identify and promptly present tall children to the king. Infants showing signs of potential height were marked with a distinctive bright red scarf. Foreign rulers sent the king their tallest soldiers to foster friendly relations. Peter the Great of Russia reportedly sent Frederick William I more than fifty tall soldiers.

Most men joined Frederick William I’s regiment voluntarily. Daniel Cajanus, the “Swedish Giant,” left the country in 1723 to join the Potsdam Giants. He was reported to have been 8 feet 1.24 inches tall, but contemporary accounts suggest his height was closer to 7 feet 8 inches, which was impressive still. Those who refused to join the King’s regiment were threatened with imprisonment or kidnapped. One of the tallest Giants was an Irishman called James Kirkland who measured 7 feet and 1 inch. He had accepted a job as a footman to Baron Borck, the Prussian ambassador to London but in reality the offer was a trap. Kirkland was sent to a Prussian ship moored in Portsmouth where he was immediately grabbed, bound and gagged. He was then dispatched to the continent.

James Kirkland

The “Giants” were given the best food and accommodation, dressed in exclusively knit blue-and-red uniforms, boots with thick heels and 45cm tall caps to make them appear even taller. The soldiers were paid according to their height; the taller the soldier the greater was the more money they earned. Frederick William I never risked this regiment at battlefield, because he cherished them too much. Rather, he used them for his own enjoyment, forcing them to march in front of his window every day. He even painted portraits of the soldiers from memory, and showed them to foreign visitors and dignitaries to impress them. He once confided to the French ambassador that “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers—they are my weakness”.

When Frederick died in 1740, his “Potsdam Giants” counted about 3,200 men. However, his son Frederick the Great did not share his father's enthusiasm about the regiment, which seemed to him an unnecessary expense. He disbanded the regiments and the soldiers were absorbed into various military units. The regiment itself was downgraded to a battalion and employed during the War of the Austrian Succession at Hohenfriedberg in 1745 and at Rossbach, Leuthen, Hochkirch, Liegnitz, and Torgau throughout the Seven Years' War. The battalion was eventually dissolved in 1806.

The Potsdam Giants during the Battle of Hohenfriedeberg.


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