"Wer ist der Gesell, so fein und jung? / Doch führt er das Eisen mit gutem Schwung" - the Prussian Jeanne d’Arc Eleonore Prochaska

5 October 1813 - The “Prussian Jeanne d’Arc” Jäger (rifleman) August Renz, née Eleonore Prochaska, of the Lützow Free Corps, succumbed to her injuries suffered in the Battle of the Göhrde, 50 miles southeast of Hamburg.

“Who is the fellow, so gentle and young? / Who raises the iron with a good swing / Who hides behind the mask? / A virgin, named Prochaska” (“Wer ist der Gesell, so fein und jung? / Doch führt er das Eisen mit gutem Schwung. / Wer steckt unter der Maske? / Eine Jungfrau, heißt Prochaska.“ Friedrich Rückert, “Auf das Mädchen aus Potsdam, Prochaska“)

The scene of her falling after Prochaska received the hit, as imagined by the German military painter Carl Röchling (1855 – 1920)

The growing brutalization and ideologisation of the Napoleonic Wars, along with the cracking of traditional structures of society after the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution saw women increasingly leaving their assigned roles as non-combatants from the previously not unheard-of disguising as men to open participation, especially among the Spanish guerrilla. Though some regions like the northern German-speaking states took to some revolutionary novelties like abolition of serfdom, general conscription and nationalism like a duck to water, female soldiers remained a general exception. The struggle for freedom from French occupation and the strong, often chauvinistic patriotism paired with Romantic sentiment during the Wars of Liberation from 1813 -15 produced some of them, like the Russian staff captain Nadezhda Durova, the Prussian corporal Friederike Krüger alias August Lübeck and Eleonore Prochaska who enlisted at the age of 28 with the “Lützowsches Freikorps” (Lützow Free Corps), a force of a highly motivated, very patriotic, often high educated and abysmally trained volunteers of limited success but high renown.

Georg Friedrich Kersting (1785 - 1847): "Auf Vorposten" (picket duty),
showing members of the Freikorps (1815)

Eleonore was a tall, gangly girl, an army brat, raised in an orphanage and enthusiastic for liberation. She took her savings, bought a gun, a long hunting dagger, a greatcoat and a shako, volunteered under the name of August Renz as a Jäger, irregular light infantry, usually skirmishers and marksmen, without any military training whatsoever but the tales of her father, a petty officer and military musician, who obviously had at least taught her to play the drums. Eleonore attracted a bit of attention because she could cook and sew, her coarse language, extraordinary at least among the rest of the obviously quite educated men of her battalion and that no boots would fit her. She had them custom-made before the army marched out to cut enemy supply lines, towards the Elbe and Davout’s XIII corps who bivouaced near Leipzig. On 16 September, in the forest of Göhrde near Lüneburg, they met their enemy, skirmished with Davout’s tirailleurs, the battalion’s drummer was hit, Eleonore grabbed the drums, played a famous marching song, rallied the Jäger and urged them on towards a platoon of French horse artillery taking position on a hill. Eleonore drummed the “Charge!” and received a hit in the leg herself from a shrapnel and according to the testimony of her commanding officer who marched beside her, she fell, grabbed the tails of his tunic and cried: ”Herr Leutnant (lieutenant), I am a girl!”

"Herr Leutnant, I am a girl" - the death of Eleonore Prochaska, as imagined by W. Lindenschmitt in "Die Gartenlaube" 1863

The surgeon quickly confirmed her true identity to the surprise of the rest of her comrades. Jäger Eleonore was brought to a military hospital in nearby Dannenberg where she died three weeks later. She was buried with all military honours and quickly became a legend, the “Prussian Jeanne d’Arc”, during the war and the rest of the 19th century. Various authors wrote more or less realistic accounts of her fate and patriotic zeal, poets versified it and even Beethoven felt obliged to compose the stage music to a now lost play (WoO 96).