Karl Friedrich Lebrecht von Normann-Ehrenfels is inextricably linked to the organization, action and fate of the Battalion of the Philhellenes.
A descendant of an aristocratic family, Karl Norman was born on September 14, 1784, in Stuttgart, the capital of the state of Wurttemberg. His father, Count Philipp von Normann, was a distinguished lawyer and served as Prime Minister of Wurttemberg from 1806 to 1812. Karl followed a different course: at the age of fifteen he decided to devote himself to military action and enlisted in the Austrian army, where he soon distinguished himself and became an officer.
It was the time when Napoleon imposed his own order of things on Europe and German Prussia emerged to a great power. In 1803 Norman enlisted in the army of his homeland, and when Wurttemberg allied with Napoleon in 1805, he began to take part in French campaigns. In 1806 he fought alongside Napoleon against Prussia, in a war that ended in victory for the French coalition, in 1809 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and in 1810 he became commander of a Light Cavalry Regiment. He followed Napoleon to Russia in 1812 as head of this corps. There he was seriously injured, but survived and managed to return with what was left of his Regiment.
Even before the last survivors returned from Russia, the state of Wurttemberg was assembling new forces to support again Napoleon, who needed an army because Prussia had declared war on him. This new campaign marked the end of Karl Norman’s military career, and to some extent determined the rest of his life. During the first phase of the battle of Leipzig, during a cease of fire, Norman’s brigade came face to face with Prussian soldiers. At some point, due to a mistake (for which history is still looking for the person who caused it), a battle broke out between them. The result was that the Prussians were wounded and taken prisoner, and Norman was accused of violating the cease fire. Shortly afterwards, during the main phase of the battle (October 1813), following the example of other German states, Norman changed camp, he left Napoleon, and sided with Prussia. But he was now again still exposed to the Prussians, because although they were his compatriots, he had attacked them while they were fighting for their freedom, and at the same time, he was also exposed to the King of Wurttemberg, because he had abandoned his ally Napoleon, without his permission. When he realized that he was in danger of being arrested for treason, he fled to Vienna.
He was barred from military life, and allowed to return home only in 1817. In the meantime he had married Swiss Frida von Orelli, with whom he had two children, and lived alone on the Ehrenfels estate in Metzingen. There he was approached in 1821 by his old comrades from the army and young Philhellenes, who asked him to help the Greek cause. He was persuaded that his name would give a new impetus to the interest of the public opinion on Greece, that it would attract more volunteers and that it would help raise more money for the Greek cause. Indeed, if it were known that a reputable army officer, of aristocratic background, well educated, a veteran of numerous military campaigns, would lead a new mission with noble intentions, this would excite the public. Karl Norman agreed. He believed in the Greek cause, and had a high sense of duty and devotion to the purpose served by the Philhellenic movement of his time. He wanted to help Greece, but also to restore his name. So he left his family and travelled to Marseilles, after being appointed by the philhellenic committees as the leader of the volunteer Philhellenes.
Karl Norman boarded with about 50 Philhellenes (this was already the 4th mission since 1821), on the ship Madonna del Rosario with which they sailed to Greece and arrived in Navarino in February 1822. They had with them weapons and ammunition, which had been bought by the philhellenic committees of Germany and Switzerland: two boxes with 50 French-made rifles, bullets, gunpowder, lead. In anticipation of an official invitation from the Greek government, General Norman began training his men in the use of the weapons and hired craftsmen to repair the walls of the city.
In those days, a Turkish fleet appeared on the west coast of the Peloponnese and landed an army with an aim to seize Neokastro. Its few defenders already suffered from a lack of food and ammunition. When Turkish reinforcements arrived from Methoni, the situation seemed so critical, that even the last men began to desert. The fortress was saved thanks to the intervention of Norman, who used the few canons available and with targeted shots forced the Turkish ships to leave. Thus he prevented the attack and successfully inaugurated his military action on Greek soil.
In the following days, Norman visited the Peloponnesian Senate in Tripoli, where he was received on many occasions with great honors. In a letter he wrote during his stay in the city, he expressed his thoughts on the situation in Greece: “The way the Turks have treated the Greeks in the past is so outrageous, that even the strictest man cannot but forgive the atrocities that the Greeks committed in the first days of the struggle. There is no family which does not want to revenge for some barbarity of the past. […]. Something important will happen this summer, I believe that the Greeks fight very well in their mountains and that they are not in danger of losing what they have won. With a little discipline they would form the best light infantry in the world. It is unfortunate that they do not have weapons.”.
He also wrote to his wife from Tripoli: “I do not know when I will return. The war will last a long time. I hope to stay in Moria and if I am as lucky as I was in Navarino, I will be able to offer you a pleasant stay in this beautiful place”.
Meanwhile, Mavrokordatos, the President of the Greek government (Executive) since January 1822, was planning a campaign to Epirus, with the aim of seizing Arta and relieving the Souliotes. Mavrokordatos envisioned a modern Greek state with a Western European orientation, and he wanted to prove the usefulness of the Philhellenes and the effectiveness of the Regular Army. The presence of General Norman was an opportunity to organize an important military campaign in Epirus.
Thus, three regular Army Corps were formed in Corinth:
1) a corps composed by volunteer fighters from the Ionian islands, commanded by S. Panas,
2) a mixed Regiment composed by regular Greeks and Philhellenes, commanded by the Italian Philhellene Tarella, and
3) the Battalion of the Philhellenes, commanded by another Italian Philhellene, Dania. This battalion consisted of two companies. One company was composed by French and Italians, and the other by Germans and Poles. This division in the Battalion of the Philhellenes reflected the timeless competition between the Germans and the French, which unfortunately sometimes manifested itself with certain side effects for the battalion, occasionally with particular intensity.
Thus, the regular forces consisted of 200 volunteers from the Ionian Islands and 320 Philhellenes. The irregular forces consisted of approximately 1,500 warriors, commanded by various chieftains from Morea, western Greece, Souli and Western Macedonia.
It should be noted here that the enrolment of Germans and French in a joint military unit, with the aim to fight against a common enemy and to defend jointly the same ideals, could only be perceived as a utopia at that time. However, the philhellenic ideals, and the cultural heritage of Greece, functioned miraculously as a connecting link. It took the peoples of Europe more than 130 years to realize again their common destiny, and to design and form a United Europe, once more based on the same principles and values.
It is worth noting, with regard to the Regular Corps of the Greek army, that this was first founded by the French officer, Philhellene and heroic figure of the Greek Revolution, Baleste. Despite the difficulties, a lack of support and resources, and the opposition from the Greek chieftains who did not want a national regular army, Baleste had already done a very good job in training the soldiers of the small regular corps. General Norman and his officers, who were all very experienced in the war, took over and helped relying on their many years of involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.
As already stated, in addition to the regular corps, units of irregular fighters also joined the Greek forces, who were followed by certain chieftains, led by a charismatic Greek leader, Marcos Botsaris. One of the chieftains was Gogos Bakolas. Mavrokordatos was the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces, while General Norman was appointed commander of the three corps of the regular army. At the end of May 1822, the army departed from Corinth towards Epirus, through an adventurous march to Patras. The units of the Philhellenes marched on many occasions in a coordinated and impressive manner, parading while their small band was playing epic tunes. The people they met in their passage welcomed them with great enthusiasm. From the area of Patras, which was then besieged by Greek forces, they sailed with ships to western Greece. A little later, this army started the final phase of the campaign, aiming to approach Arta.
The highly experienced General Norman was observing anxiously many problems of strategy. For example, he was particularly troubled by the fact that the decisions and the movements were slow. Instead of moving quickly towards Arta, without allowing the Turks to assembly an army and take the initiative, the Greek forces let valuable time be lost. On the one hand, the Turks were gathering forces with the comfort of time, and on the other hand, the Greek army was strained, and it begun to suffer from diseases and food shortages. Another big problem was the attitude of the irregulars. And especially the one of chieftain Bakolas. What also worried General Norman, and his staff, was how the units of irregulars would be integrated into the battle plan. In fact, many days before the start of the march to Arta, rumors had already circulated that Bakolas was taking a strange stance and that he was suspiciously related to the Turks. Of course, no one could believe that a Greek would be able to betray the struggle of his own compatriots. Mainly out of courtesy, Norman did not question Mavrokordatos’ assurances and leadership, and he always tried to do his best under the circumstances imposed on him.
The first battle with the Turks took place in Kompoti on June 22, 1822. Before the battle, the brave General and great Philhellene Norman, presented his plan. According to it, “the Philhellenes, being regular army soldiers, should not look for the tops of the mountains to defend themselves comfortably, but to remain in the important and dangerous points and not miss the opportunity to face the enemy.”. Accordingly, he deployed the Regiment and the Battalion of the Philhellenes at critical points at the foot of the hills, taking himself position on the front lines of the battle. The enemy attack was confronted successfully, and the Turks were repulsed to Arta with heavy losses. This battle, in which only Norman was in command, was the first brilliant success of the campaign and revived the morale of the men. The doctor of the Battalion, Elster, narrates in his work the “Battalion of the Philhellenes”, that after the end of the battle, when Norman was the last to return from the battlefield to the camp, even the French soldiers greeted him shouting “Long live the brave Norman!”.
The Philhellenes, already exhausted from fatigue, illness, hunger and thirst, left Kompoti hurriedly and marched overnight to Peta, where the Turkish forces were moving. The rest of the Greek forces also gathered there, and the preparation for the battle began.
A war council took place and it was attended by all military leaders and chieftains. Disagreements surfaced over two issues: 1) The position of the regular army in relation to the one of the irregular fighters. That is, who would be the vanguard and who would be the rearguard, and 2) whether or not fortifications (tambouria) should be built. On the first issue, the view which prevailed was that the forces should be placed in a manner to form a circle around Peta. Norman was dissatisfied with the decision and, realizing the disadvantaged position of the Greek side, he felt obliged to report his concerns in a letter to Mavrokordatos. Although he was the leader of the Greek forces, Mavrokordatos was absent from the battlefield. He had set up his headquarters in Lagada, six hours away from Peta. In his letter, Norman stressed that regular army soldiers numbered only 515. He also noted that he feared that Bacolas would leave his post and that the rest of the irregulars would not be in a position to help. Mavrokordatos was not convinced and the battle plan was not changed. Once more, the experienced General Norman, accepted this decision out of courtesy.
Following the leaders’ disagreement over the fortifications, the prevailing view was that they should be built. In fact, as many sources confirm, the “tampouria” were also used by Philhellenes. This is a rare case in which European soldiers fought in the “Greek way”. That is, with the methods of the irregulars. It is worth noting that the Philhellenes had a different sense of bravery and honor, which is depicted by a position attributed to Dania “our fortifications are our breasts”.
Unfortunately, other mistakes were made, which could not be stopped because they were beyond General Norman’s control. After the battle of Kompoti, Gennaios Kolokotronis and his unit, returned to the Peloponnese, on the orders of his father, an act which was heavily criticized afterwards. At the same time, 1,200 fighters left towards the north to help the Souliotes. They were led by the chieftains Markos Botsaris, Karatasos, Aggelis Gatsos, Georgios Varnakiotis, Alexakis Vlachopoulos and Andreas Iskos. These 1,200 fighters did not even succeed to come close to Souli. The Turks stopped them in the village of Plaka on June 29, 1822 and crushed them. Those who survived returned to Peta. The French Philhellene, Olivier Voutier mentions in his book that Gogos Bacolas (“this deceitful old man”), convinced Marcos Botsaris to move to Souli, and as soon as the unit left, he alerted the Turks to trap them in Plaka.
On the day of the Battle of Peta, a Corps from Mani also arrived in Splantza, led by Kyriakoulis Mavromichalis, to help the Greeks. However, once more this unit was not properly integrated into a single strategic battle plan. A body of Souliotes moved there and joined their positions to confront the Turkish forces sent to repel them. Kyriakoulis Mavromichalis himself was killed in this battle and his warriors decided to leave.
All these moves were not part of a general coordinated plan, and made it difficult for the Greek forces to deal with the main attack of the Turks. But again, despite their small numbers, these forces could still win.
On July 16, 1822, at dawn, the attack of the Turkish forces (7000 to 8000) who had arrived from Arta, began. General Norman woke the men up, cheered them on with warm words, and inspected all the positions of his forces moving from one to the other on horseback. He ran the battlefield to help where needed, “like a god of war”, as reported by Elster. In the beginning, the forces of the Philhellenes and the Regular Corps repulsed the outnumbered enemy troops with great success. The constant and coordinated shots hit the attackers. The key to success in this kind of war is for the soldiers to remain calm, to fill their weapons constantly and quickly, to shoot in a grouped manner, and above all to keep their positions, without allowing a rift in their ranks. The Regiment and the Battalion of the Philhellenes, formed an impenetrable wall. As St Clair notes in his work, the excellent training that the French Philhellene Baleste had begun, was paying off.
Unfortunately, a fatal thing changed the status. Chieftain Bakolas and his men, treacherously abandoned their positions (Bakolas finally changed camp and joined permanently the Turks). The Turkish forces took advantage of this gap, and infiltrated the backs of the solid and well defended positions of the Regiment and the Battalion of the Philhellenes, which resulted in the two bodies being cut off from each other. In the first attempt of the Regiment to be reunited with the Battalion, Commander Tarella fell dead and the Regiment began to retreat. Then this great man, General Norman, was put in charge and led it back to battle, encouraging them with brave words: “For the salvation of the Philhellenes! Victory or death!”. In the attack that followed, General Norman was hit by a bullet to the chest and was transported backwards to deal with his serious injury. Gradually, the Regiment began to retreat and it became progressively an easy target for the Turkish cavalry. The Philhellenes had been abandoned by all the forces of the irregulars. The forces of the Philhellenes and the volunteers from the Ionian Islands experienced a sad and unjust catastrophe. They were surrounded by the enemy at an exposed point and were exterminated.
Many scenes of incredible heroism followed. Dania, who cheered his soldiers until the last moment, was horribly massacred. Fifteen Poles, led by the Polish officer Mierzewski, gathered at St. George’s Church in central Peta and fought with incredible bravery, fighting even on the roof of the church. They were all heroically killed. A French officer, Mignac (who had clashed with German philhellenes during the campaign), also fought with unique bravery. The Turks tried to arrest him alive because he was wearing an impressive uniform and they thought that he was General Norman, the leader of the Philhellenes. Mignac refused to surrender and fought valiantly. In the end, being seriously injured in the leg, because he could not stand, he leaned on the trunk of an olive tree to stay upright and continued fighting in all directions, neutralizing fourteen Turks. His body was full of wounds, and when he broke his sword, he committed suicide by cutting his throat.
Among the volunteers of the Regular Corps, 160 soldiers from the Ionians islands and Philhellenes (one third of the force) were killed. Many of the prisoners were taken to Arta and killed by the Turks after being tortured and humiliated. Many Philhellenes were forced to walk naked for hours, holding the decapitated heads of their comrades in their hands.
The few survivors gathered in Lagada, among them the tragic figure of the day, the noble and brave General Norman. As after the battle of Kompoti, this time he arrived at the camp last and seriously wounded, on his dying horse. He presented himself to Mavrokordatos, to whom he stated: “We have lost everything, Your Highness, except our honor!”. The Battalion of the Philhellenes, and hundreds of enthusiastic European Philhellenes, and Greeks from the Ionian islands, no longer existed.
With the bitterness of the final defeat and the betrayal that caused it, General Norman (who now suffered a serious injury) headed with his comrades to Messolonghi. He stayed there, he continued to offer his services and helped fortify the city. He died shortly afterwards in November of the same year (1822), defeated by the complications of his wound, high fever and the psychological pressure he felt because of his responsibility for the battle of Peta. He had drifted young men to come and fight for the freedom of Greece, and he had done everything he could to lead them to victory. However, he was tormented by the fact that he had realized the mistakes and dangers, and the catastrophe they could cause, and he could have avoided them if he had tried to impose his views and his military authority. Unfortunately, he did not do so out of respect for the Greek administration.
The comments of the comrades in Greece of this great Philhellene General Norman, for their leader, as recorded in diaries and memoirs, are multiple. Many refer to him as “the flower of the Frank knights”, a brave and educated warrior, sensible, approachable and beloved as a father to soldiers. Others attribute to him, based on the developments in Peta, but also on events dating back to 1813 (also influenced by the differences between the Prussians and the French), a lack of confidence and indecision.
However, what no one among them disputes, is his genuine and selfless philhellenic feelings, his bravery and his sincere devotion to the interests of Greece. Ultimately, it is his virtues which prevented him from demanding complete control of the armed forces by Mavrokordatos, and from accepting that Greeks could ever betray their own comrades-in-arms, Greeks and Philhellenes.
It is worth noting here that after the battle of Peta, an imposing memorial prayer took place in Aetoliko, in which all the clergy and the people of the region participated. The French Philhellene Raybaud, describes in his book this ceremony and the pain in the faces of the Greeks and Philhellenes; among others of Mavrokordatos himself who was devastated.
Norman’s contribution to the Greek Revolution was first honored in Messolonghi, where one of the canon positions of the fortifications of 1825-26 was named after him. The body of the great Philhellene was buried there. This part of the fort was completely blown up during the fall of Messolonghi by the Turks.
The name of General Norman is also placed in a central position on the Monument of the Philhellenes of the Catholic Church of Nafplio.
A small street in the historic center of Athens, perpendicular to Ermou Street, bears the name “Normanou Street”, after the great Philhellene General Norman.
A stone column from 1830 in Waldkirchen, Bavaria, also mentions his struggle for the freedom of the Greeks. Finally, his name is also written in golden letters, along with that of other freedom fighters of 1821, and Philhellenes, such as Lord Byron and Fabvier, at the Propylaea in Munich.
General Norman was honored by France with the Order of the Knight of the Legion of Honor on December 10, 1808.
Greece and the Greeks will forever express feelings of immense gratitude for this emblematic noble German General and will always honor him for his heroic contribution to the struggle for the independence of Greece.
Bibliography and sources:
- William St Clair, That Greece might still be free, 2008 (1972).
- J.D. Elster, Das Bataillon der Philhellenen, 1828 (ελλην. μετάφραση Χρ. Οικονόμου, 2010).
- Eugen Schneider, Normann-Ehrenfels, Karl Graf von, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 24 (1887).
- K.Dieterich, Deutsche Philhellenen in Griechenland 1821-1822, 1929.
- Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους τ. ΙΒ’, Η ελληνική επανάσταση, 1975.
- Ν. Κανελλόπουλος – Ν. Τόμπρος, Η στρατιωτική δράση των Φιλελλήνων στη μάχη του Πέτα, Αργολική Αρχειακή Βιβλιοθήκη Ιστορίας και Πολιτισμού 2017.
- ανών., Normann-Ehrenfels, Supplément à la Galerie historique des contemporains (tome 2), 1830.
- Samuel Gridley Howe, Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, M.D. New York, 1828.
- Emil von Normann: Geschichte der Gesammt-Familie von Normann. Ulm 1894, S. 148–152.
- Regine Quack-Manoussakis: Der Deutsche Philhellenismus während des griechischen Freiheitskampfes 1821–27. München 1984.
- Frank Ackermann: Von Ehrenfels nach Missolunghi. Das abenteuerliche Leben des Generals Carl Graf von Normann-Ehrenfels. Kilchberg 2012.
- Graf Normann’sche Familienpapiere. — Starklof, Geschichte des königl. würtembergischen vierten Reiterregiments.