General Georg Carl von Döbeln (1758-1820)
Georg Carl von Döbeln was born at Stora Torpa in the Swedish region of Skaraborg in 1758. He lost his father early, and his fosterparents thought it best for young Georg Carl to become a priest. As his military interest grew, he was later sent to naval school though but after completing this, his relatives again thought of "his best for him"; and that was to be a lawyer instead. For two years he tried studying law, but to no great success. So at the age of twenty, he joined the infantry regiment of Sprengtporten as an officer of the rank of Fänrik.
Hungry for adventure as young men are, Döbeln decided to travel to the Thirteen Colonies in 1780, to join the fight for freedom there. He stayed on in Paris for a year though and at last he was hired at the regiment of Count De La Marck with a personal letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin himself.
The regiment was not on its way to America though, but to India. And in Africa and India Döbeln came in contact with many different cultures, and he described them in his diaries. The trip to India took one year and was filled with hazards, diseases raged aboard "l'Amitie" and the French were unseasoned seamen. Outside Brest, the fleet came under attack by British vessels and had to return to Brest for repairs but could then continue the trip unscathed. Having been wounded in his leg at the battle of Cuddalore (Goudelour) in India Döbeln refused to report himself wounded because he knew that the campaign would then be over for him, instead he showed great bravery in the fighting in India. The battle of Cuddalore was the largest engagement between European forces in India to that date. In September 1783, Döbeln was made captain and then served as Aide to general De La Marck during the six-month trip home.
Döbeln returned home after the adventure in India, but could not find a good job because he had fallen from the Swedish king Gustav III's favour when he was in Paris. The king had actually asked Döbeln to second in a duel for a rival against his good friend general De La Marck, which he refused. Döbeln therefore returned to France and served at the garrison of Strasbourg for four years. And here he also made some interesting friends. During a vacation at the castle of Raismes in Northern France, Döbeln was doing some geometrical measurements and maps of the area. As company he got a "short but nice man" who introduced himself as Bonaparte. It was the future Emperor.
When the war with Russia 1788-90 broke out, Döbeln returned to Sweden. In March of 1789 he was hired as Captain at the Savolax Light Infantry regiment under Colonel Stedingk, and at the battle of Porrassalmi, where the Swedish fought a widely larger Russian force, he was again wounded. This time he took a bullet straight in his head and that is also where he started wearing the famous black silk band over his forehead; to cover the ugly wound. As he was also a very hot-tempered man, people around him thought that his confusing ways of behaving was a direct result of the head-wound. After this incident he attained the rank of Major though.
During the peaceful years between the two wars, Döbeln also spent his time on more peaceful things. He collected himself a small fortune as well and expanded on his estates. In 1805 he was transferred to the Nylands Brigade in Finland.
At the outbreak of the war that would make him legend, Döbeln was in command of the rearguard of the Third Brigade, and as such he had excellent chances in the field; at Ypperi near Pyhäjoki he fought Kulnev with bravery, at Lappo he attacked the enemy left flank and threw it over, at Kauhajoki he charged a superior Russian force and made it retreat. And once again legend tells us about his hot temper and cold bravery. After having witnessed the Russian cruelty towards the population and peasants of the Kauhajoki region, Döbeln and his troops performed a splendid deed of arms in the battle that followed. "It was executed like on the field of exercise", one eyewitness told. And when the Russians came through the first line, Döbeln got up on a nearby milestone and shouted to them: "Run to hell, you lousy! And receive your reward! Here I stand and shall fall! Here you see my monument!".
Another, somewhat bizarre example of Döbeln's temper is taken from the battle of Ypperi near Pyhäjoki at the end of the first retreat. During this hard battle in the winter snow, Döbeln's regimental aide, Erling was shot dead and the blood sprinkled all over Döbeln himself and his coat was stained with the blood. When people later asked him what on earth was all over his coat, he answered that it was Erling's brain. "He lost his head when he rode alongside me".
His most legendary victory came at the engagement of Juthas though, which is written about in Fänrik Stĺls Sägner. The Russian general Kossatchoffskij tried to cut the retreat for the Swedish main army, but Döbeln saved the situation by throwing his Björneborg regiment straight at the enemy. The main army under Adlercreutz fought the battle of Oravais the next day, and if it had not been for Döbeln's victory at Juthas, total disaster would have threatened for the Swedish army. "Döbeln At Juthas" is quite something of a great story. Before the action, Döbeln lay ill in the town of Nykarleby, when he received the information that Russian troops were marching up. Yet, he took himself out to the field, raised the broken morale of the underequipped and badly uniformed troops; then commenced a daring charge that threw the overwhelming enemy over, on a field of battle that was not suited for such an attack. Undoubtably, although the battle of Juthas was nothing but a smaller action, it made Döbeln's mark in history.
During the war, Döbeln was given a nickname by the soldiers, The Black Band, for understandable reasons. After the battle of Lappo Döbeln received the Great Cross of the Order of the Sword and was made Major General after Juthas. He was then stationed as commander on Ĺland islands. On Ĺland he was attacked by Russian troops but was able to make an ordered retreat back to the Swedish mainland. As Kulnev's Russian troops came ashore on mainland Sweden at Grisslehamn, Döbeln was the only military force between him and Stockholm.
Döbeln then took an active part in the campaign in Northern Sweden, where he gave a heartbreaking farewell to the Finnish part of the army. The words he spoke ended the 700-year alliance. After this, he commanded the Swedish troops stationed at the Norwegian border and he was there able to persuade the Norwegian commander to retreat back into Norway without any spilling of blood.
Döbeln's farewell of the Finnish soldiers on the 8th of October 1809 has been described in glorious words in Finnish and Swedish historywriting. And for those of us who have studied Napoleon and his Empire, our thoughts are immediately brought to the event that took place in Fountainbleu in 1814 as the Emperor took farewell of his own troops. The day of October of 1809 was cold and windy; and the entire situation moved von Döbeln to the point that he was said to have torn his black band from his head and sworn to be prepared to die. On one side, stood the newly arrived Life Grenadiers in shining uniforms and with new equipment, then stood other troops from Sweden, and last stood the veterans from Finland; dressed in rags and with lacking equipment. A pitiful sight. Yet it was to these men Döbeln spoke, to bid farewell and give the Finnish nation thanks.
And then during the war in Germany 1813, Döbeln was in command over the Swedish troops in Mecklenburg. From there he assisted Hamburg, which was threatened by French troops. British and Danish troops were sent to assist Hamburg against the French, but these forces were too small and would be late. Swedish hands were also tied, because Crown Prince Bernadotte had not yet arrived and had given strict orders that the Swedish troops, which were in Northern Germany commanded by Adlercreutz, were not to engage the enemy (if not the odds were three to one). Adlercreutz could not decide on whether to take the decision of assisting the city in trouble in his own hands or not. He often resorted to drinking. But Döbeln immediately sent Brigadier general Boije with Swedish reinforcements to Hamburg. After Bernadotte finally had arrived in Germany, and been greeted as "Germany's saviour" by the people of Stralsund, Adlercreutz was finally replaced by Stedingk at the high command. Von Döbeln did not stop his march on Hamburg although Bernadotte wanted the troops to stop right where they were. Döbeln sat in his office with the order from Bernadotte in his hand for an hour, before sending it off to Boije. By the time the courier arrived, Boijes troops were already at the outskirts of the city. And there he successfully fought off a French attack.
Döbeln had promised to assist Hamburg. And he always went his own way, on good or bad. That is why he did it. He was always a man of his word - to the utmost. At one time Döbeln was visiting a couple of ladies and they sat about chatting about things he did not want to hear. He then told them that if they did not stop their useless chattering, he would leave and not come back before ten years had gone. The ladies continued their entertaining discussion without noting his remark. He then stood up and left. And very true, he returned ten years later.
His action at Hamburg was considered insubordination and Döbeln was therefore sentenced to execution, however, Bernadotte personally saw to it that the sentence was not carried out and Döbeln was instead sent to Vaxholm prison. From there he wrote a letter to a relative and expressed the wish that he should be allowed to serve in the Swedish or any of the Allied armies until the war was over, and then he would return volontarily to his imprisonment. This letter touched the heart of Bernadotte so that he cancelled the sentence altogether. The relationship between the two was thereafter good.
Von Döbeln was married to Kristina Karolina Ullström, whom he married and then quickly divorced as a protest as his son was recognised as his legal child. With her he had the son named Napoleon (born 1802). Georg Carl von Döbeln died in 1820.
While Döbeln certainly receives praise worthy of a Greek god in Fänrik Stĺls Sägner, those poetic words are not the reason why he is legend. The fact is that he really was a fascinating figure in real life; with a hot, raging, temper, warlike and strong, yet he could be soft and sentimental, a philosopher. His soldiers and his superiors admired his courage and innovation in the face of the enemy. I wonder what the history books would say today, if a man like him would have been leading the wareffort from the very start. I as the author of this website, must say, that he is the most interesting - yes curious - personality I have come across in my research and writing. He has too many sides that cannot be percieved by historians today. That makes a great hero.
Georg Carl von döbeln - Liv och känsla, Bengt Kummel, Scriptum Vasa, 1998
Svenskt biografiskt handlexikon, Albert Bonniers förlag, Stockholm 1906
Back to Biographies
© Göran Frilund 2000-03, All Rights Reserved.
If you've surfed onto this page from outside and there is no menu on the left,
CLICK HERE for the full Website.