James Francis Edward Keith (in later years Jakob von Keith; 11 June 1696 – 14 October 1758) was a Scottish soldier and Generalfeldmarschall of the Royal Prussian Army. As a Jacobite he took part in a failed attempt to restore the Stuart Monarchy to Britain. When this failed, he fled to Europe, living in France, and then Spain. He joined the Spanish and eventually the Russian armies and fought in the Anglo-Spanish War and the Russo-Swedish War. In the latter he participated in the conquest of Finland and became its viceroy. Subsequently, he participated in the coup d’état that put Elizabeth of Russia on the throne.
He subsequently served in the Prussian army under Frederick the Great, where he distinguished himself in several campaigns. He died during the Seven Years’ War at the Battle of Hochkirch. He received the Black Eagle Order and is memorialized on the Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great.
The overthrow of James II and the subsequent attempts of the exiled Jacobites to restore the Stuart dynasty led to many Scots seeking refuge on the Continent. Several of these ‘attainted’ political exiles found a living through military service, and a prime example of the breed was James Keith. Born in June 1696 at Inverugie Castle near Peterhead, Keith came from a privileged and honourable background. For centuries the Keiths had been the hereditary earls marischal of Scotland, and James’s elder brother George was the tenth to bear the title. George served in the British army under Marlborough but on the death of Queen Anne he stayed loyal to the Stuarts and joined the Jacobites. The brothers were both present in 1715 at the shambolic defeat of the Earl of Mar’s rising at Sheriffmuir and both had to flee the country. In May 1716 they stepped ashore at Paul de Leon in Brittany. James went to Paris to seek service with the exiled king, the would-be James III, but, as he was just seventeen years old, he was told by the king’s mother to stay in Paris to complete his education, for which the exiled royal household would pay. Unfortunately, nothing came forth from the treasury for some time and James Keith, too proud to borrow from friends, had to get by through selling ‘horse furniture . . . and other things of that nature which an officer commonly carries with him’. At last, however, the Stuart promise was fulfilled and James began his studies. A plot in 1717 for the king of Sweden to invade Scotland on behalf of the Jacobites brought James a commission as a colonel of horse before the scheme was abandoned. In June 1717 Peter the Great visited Paris and James tried in vain to secure a post in his service: ‘I thought it high time (being about 20 years old) to quitte the Academy, and endeavour to establish myself somewhere, where I might again begin my fortune.’
Some friends advised James in 1718 to offer his services to Spain, said to be about to invade Sicily in a war with the Holy Roman Empire, but now he had a reason to be reluctant. ‘But I was then too much in love to think of quitting Paris, and tho shame and my friends forced me to take some steps towards it, yet I managed it so slowly that I set out only in the end of that year, and had not my mistress and I quarrel’d, and that other affairs came to concern me more than the conquest of Sicily did, it’s probable I had lost many years of my time to very little purpose, so much was I taken up with my passion.’ Early in 1719 George and James Keith took a ship from Marseilles to Palamos on the Catalan coast, only to be arrested by the local commandant on suspicion of being agents of the French enemy. The confusion was sorted out with the help of the Duke of Liria, none other than a fellow Jacobite, James Fitzjames, an illegitimate grandson of James II. The Keith brothers now became intimately involved in the planning for a Jacobite invasion of Britain via the Highlands, the enterprise we know as the 1719 Rising, and James sailed with the invasion force. The mixed force of Spaniards and Scots reached Loch Duich in mid-April 1719 and set up their headquarters in Eilean Donan Castle. For the Jacobites the campaign came to an inglorious end after a skirmish in Glen Shiel, on the back of which the Spanish surrendered and the others had to look to their own safety. ‘As I was then sick of a feavour,’ wrote Keith, ‘I was forced to lurck some months in the mountains, and in the beginning of September having got a ship I embarcked at Peterhead, and after 4 days landed in Holland.’ A perilous journey through France, then at war with Spain, followed for the Keith brothers before they reached safety in Madrid.
There now ensued a string of unsatisfactory years for the younger Keith, when he found that a bureaucratic mix-up seemed to have deprived him off his commission in Spain and he had to kick his heels and rely on the sympathy of friends. He thought of going home but was advised it would be unsafe to return to Britain. Instead he went to Paris and stayed for two years, pretending to be still receiving treatment for a tumour he had had removed from his shoulder, making half-hearted attempts to join French service, and, it seems, having another love affair. When hostilities erupted in 1726 between Britain and Spain, his offer to join any invasion force was turned down; but he did take part in the siege of Gibraltar in 1727 before he concluded that no further advancement in Spanish service was possible for a Protestant. Hoping for promotion to the command of a regiment of Irish mercenaries, Keith ‘received the answer I expected: that His Majesty assured me that howsoon [as soon as] he knew I was Roman Catholick, I shou’d not only have what I asked, but that he would take care of my fortune’. The Duke of Liria, newly appointed as the Spanish ambassador to the Russian court, agreed to help him and successfully obtained for the young Scot an offer of a post from Tsar Peter II. At the beginning of 1728, Keith set off across Europe to a bright new future.
Reaching Moscow in October, he ‘received orders from the Felt Marechall Prince Ivan Dolgorusky to take command of two regiments of foot belonging to his division, but being as yet entirely ignorant both of the language and manner of service, which I already saw was very different from that of other countries, I desired a delay of three months in which I might inform myself both of the one and the other, which he readily granted me.’ The Russian court was as full of intrigue as it had ever been but, as a newcomer, Keith stayed clear of close involvement with the cabals and cliques, a wise stance in view of the constitutional upsets that took place soon after his arrival. Peter II, the grandson of Peter the Great, fell ill and died, probably of smallpox, in 1730, at the young age of fifteen, and was succeeded by Anna, the Duchess of Courland. The powerful Dolgorusky family hoped to retain the power behind the throne but underestimated the mettle of the new tsarina. Anna won over the loyalty of her troops, and the leading Dolgoruskys were banished to Siberia. Not long after these changes, Keith was surprised to receive a letter one evening informing him that Count Levenwolde, the adjutant general of the army, wanted to see him. ‘I reaved all night what cou’d be the meaning of such a message . . . I concluded I might have some enemy at court.’ The interview, in fact, was to offer Keith the rank of lieutenant-colonel in a new guards regiment, a post he accepted ‘in an instant’. ‘All Mosco was as surprised as I was myself’, recalled Keith, ‘I received hundreds of visits from people I had never seen nor heard of . . . who imagined that certainly I must be in great favour at Court, in which they were prodigiously deceived.’
Early in 1732 he received further promotion, being appointed as one of three inspectors of the army under an inspector-general. Assigned the frontier districts along the Volga and the Don and part of the Polish frontier at Smolensk, he set out on a long journey, travelling more than ‘1,500 leagues’ to visit around thirty-two regiments. He arrived in St Petersburg at the New Year to find everything ‘in mouvement’ because the king of Poland had died and the supporters of the claimants for the elected monarchy were competing for Russian support. The candidates were Augustus, the Elector of Saxony and son of the late king, and Stanislaus Leczczynski, the father-in-law of Louis XV of France; the majority of the Poles favoured the latter but the Russians preferred Augustus and mobilised the army to ensure his ascendancy to the throne. Keith was ordered to lead 6,000 foot soldiers to Ukraine to be ready to cross the frontier. In August, with the election likely to go against Russian desires, troops under the command of the Limerick-born soldier Count Peter Lacy headed for Warsaw. Stanislaus departed from the capital for Danzig, where Lacy hemmed him in. Keith moved to combat pro-Stanislaus forces in the province of Volinia, now the west-central region of Ukraine. In mid-December he led his troops, which now included 4,000 Cossacks, across the frozen Dnieper and spent ten fruitless days in search of the enemy before the Cossacks captured a troop of cavalry on Christmas Eve. Rumours that the Volinian force was increasing in strength prompted the transfer of command to Lieutenant-General Prince Schahofski, who had orders to disrupt the province. Keith found dishonourable the prince’s instruction to ruin the enemy’s estates and tried in vain to avoid such action. ‘In my march I assembled some thousands of cattel, and some hundreds of miserable bad horses, which I sent immediately to the army, and at the same time reported to him [the prince], that the whole inhabitants were abandoning their villages, and most of them retiring into Moldavia; that if he continued to ravage the country it wou’d very soon become a desert, and our own troops wou’d be in hazard of dying of hunger.’
At the end of January the army advanced to Vinnitz on the Bug river. Keith was lodged in the village of Litin when word came in that the enemy was in camp about 12 miles away and preparing to confront the Russians when their westward march brought them through the forest near a place called Latitchef. According to Keith, Prince Schahofski dismissed this warning brought by a spy and refused to countenance a change in the order of the march to meet the threat. In the event, the Poles sprang the ambush too soon, attacking a quartermaster’s party moving ahead of the main army. This allowed Keith to lead some Cossacks and dragoons to the attack and, finding the enemy numbers much lower than feared, routed them for the loss of only twenty on their own side. Prince Schahofski was now recalled to the Ukraine to attend to internal business and command reverted to Keith.
Advancing to Medziboz, Keith was invited to enter the castle where, he was assured by the governor who had met him outside the town, everything had been prepared for his arrival. Leaving his army to make camp and with only twenty-four dragoons as an escort, Keith accepted the invitation. The castle garrison was on parade with drums beating and colours flying. ‘I soon perceived the folly I had committed,’ wrote Keith, ‘but it was too late to retreat, and my only way was to put a good face on the matter.’ He sent his adjutant to bring in his equipage in all haste and to mix grenadiers among the wagons, and then waited fretfully until they came. Ironically, as he had only light artillery, he could not have taken the castle if the garrison had shut the gates in his face, but now he was able to turn the tables on the foe and order the protesting governor to march his garrison out.
Keith’s memoir goes on to describe a series of manoeuvres and small battles across the plains and woods of Ukraine until the text peters out at the end of 1734, with the army going into winter quarters. The War of the Polish Succession came to an end in 1736 and by then Keith’s reputation had grown in stature, bringing a promotion to lieutenant-general. Russia now embarked on another war with the Turks. Keith had a narrow brush with death or at least disability; wounded in the knee at the siege of Ochakov on the Black Sea on 2 July 1737, he was saved from undergoing amputation of the shattered limb only by the intervention of his brother George, who hurried to his aid and brought him away for better treatment than army surgeons could provide. This was good news for the Tsarina Anna, who is reputed to have said she would rather lose 10,000 of her best soldiers than Keith. A two-year convalescence gave the Scot the opportunity to visit Paris and London where, to his surprise, he was acclaimed a hero and received by George II, his Jacobite youth clearly forgiven if not forgotten. He returned to Russia to be the governor of Ukraine.
During peace negotiations with the Turks in 1739 there occurred an incident that has acquired some legendary status in the annals of the Scots who fought in Europe. At the end of a session of talks conducted through interpreters, the Turkish vizier bowed and, taking the astonished Keith by the hand, said in a broad Scots accent that it made him ‘unco happy’ to meet a fellow countryman so far from home. The vizier was the son of a bellringer in Kirkcaldy.
The death of Anna in October 1740 let loose the usual intrigues and attempts to establish power until Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great, emerged the winner in November 1741. Keith at once declared his loyalty to her. By now he was once more in the field, commanding in the war that had broken out against Sweden. At the siege of Willmanstrand he came across an orphan prisoner called Eva Merthens. It was an odd way in which to meet a lover but Keith’s mistress is who Eva became, and to her and their children he left what little wealth he managed to accrue. She died in 1811. Once hostilities with Sweden ended, Keith was appointed to head a military-diplomatic mission to the former foe. Honours now came his way in dizzying fashion: ceremonial swords from Sweden and Russia, the Order of Saint Andrew and an estate in Livonia among them. The former Jacobite ignored the 1745 Rising back home.
By this time, however, dissatisfaction was beginning to cloud the mind of the general. Once again there was an animus against foreigners in the Russian government. George Keith, still seen as a Jacobite, was refused permission to enter the country to visit him and James’s letters to his brother seem to have been intercepted. He should not have been surprised that his position at Elizabeth’s court invited jealousy and resentment – the tsarina paid him a great courtesy when she reviewed the troops at Narva in 1746 – but he felt aggrieved when he sensed he was being passed over and was falling out of royal favour. There was a rumour that the plump, attractive monarch had amorous desires for her general, a delicate problem for Keith, for if he refused her advances he might find himself travelling to Siberia. At last, in 1747, he obtained permission to leave Russian service.
His fame had preceded him and he was at once welcomed into the service of the ruler whom Elizabeth viewed with most suspicion: Frederick II of Prussia. Left broken and wasted at the end of the Thirty Years War, the economy, prestige and administration of Prussia had been restored by the energetic Hohenzollern ruler Frederick William to such an extent that it had become a major power in northern Europe. In 1675 the Prussian army, trained under French officers, had even defeated the more powerful Swedes at Fehrbellin. Frederick William’s skilful foreign policy had extended his rule over East Prussia, and his son Frederick I consolidated the advance by making Prussia a kingdom in 1701, encompassing most of northern Germany and extending east beyond Königsberg, much to the concern of the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick II showed every inclination to build on the achievements of his father and grandfather to extend Prussia’s reach. In 1740 he ordered an invasion of Silesia, then part of the weakened Habsburg Empire. Other European leaders took their cues and their sides, and the result, the War of the Austrian Succession, lasted on and off for eight years. It was thoroughly natural that the bellicose Frederick should wish to draw James Keith into his circle of advisors. With the newly conferred rank of field marshal, and comfortable with a monarch he found affable and polite, James wrote to his brother George, then in Venice, to join him in Berlin, where both began to participate in the cultural and social life of the Prussian capital. In 1749 James became governor of Berlin; he is also credited with the invention of the Kriegsschachspiel, or war-game, as an exercise.
The war with Austria came to an end. Silesia remained in Prussian hands and Austria, fearing Frederick would now descend on Saxony, sought an alliance with France. Prussia formed an alliance with Britain. The flurry of diplomatic shadowboxing and alliances resulted in the Seven Years War, which broke out in 1756 with Prussia’s expected attack on Saxony. Frederick was in a precarious position, with France, Austria, Russia and Sweden ranged against him, but he had, as well as senior officers of Keith’s calibre, an extremely well-drilled, fiercely disciplined army, practised, for example, in a manoeuvre labelled oblique order that allowed the troops to march across the enemy’s front, wheel and exert increasing pressure on the enemy flank. The Prussian fusiliers could fire between three and seven rounds per minute, and the cavalry could sustain a charge over a great distance. These attributes enabled the Prussians to overcome the Saxons in the autumn of 1756 and invade to Bohemia to lay siege to Prague in the following spring. The Austrian army, equipped with new artillery, held them at Kolin in central Bohemia in June 1757 and a few weeks later near Königsberg the Russians overcame the Prussians and swept west along the Baltic coast. Frederick showed that he still had to be reckoned with when his army defeated the advancing French at Rossbach in November 1757, wheeled about and dealt a blow to the Austrians a month later at Leuthen, 250 miles to the east near Wroclaw. In the following year the Russians were checked at Zorndorf on the Oder.
At the beginning of October 1758 Frederick had his army positioned in an elongated formation stretching over 4 miles of countryside in eastern Saxony, facing the Austrians. The central command post lay at the village of Rodewitz. The end of his right flank, 2 miles to the south, under the command of Keith, rested in the village of Hochkirch, a small place huddled on a hilltop around its church. Densely wooded hills, now taking on the colours of autumn, stretched away to the south. ‘The Austrians deserve to be hanged if they don’t attack us here’, Keith is reported to have said. Frederick recognised his vulnerability and intended to move to stronger ground as soon as possible. This proved to be the coming Saturday, the fourteenth. On the night of the thirteenth, however, the Austrians launched a bold and effective move. Cutting a route through the woods during the dark hours, they managed to insert infantry around Hochkirch, ready to attack before five in the morning. The Prussians were caught unawares but they responded quickly and a firefight ensued in thick mist and semi-darkness. The struggle swirled around the churchyard in Hochkirch. In the confusion Keith had mounted his horse, shouting desperately for his aides to assist him to regain control of their predicament, when shots hit him in the right side. Then, as a cannonball knocked him from the saddle, a final fatal bullet struck his heart and he fell into the arms of his servant, an English cavalryman called John Tebay. By 7.30 the Austrians had Hochkirch and Frederick was pulling back. Keith was buried on the following day in the village churchyard with full military honours. Some months later Frederick had the remains brought to Berlin to lie in the crypt of the garrison church, but a memorial urn was placed in the village church in 1776 by the general’s kinsman, Robert Keith, who was British ambassador to Vienna at the time. If one had to summarise the character of all the Scots who sought their fortunes as soldiers in Europe, then perhaps James Keith or Sir Alexander Leslie would emerge as the embodiments of the best.