Do you ever think where and when the various swimming strokes were invented? People have been using most of them for thousands of years, but every now and again someone comes along who develops such a definitive method of performing a particular stroke that it is hard not to call him or her the “father or mother” of that stroke.
Such can be the case with Gen. Ernst Heinrich Adolf von Pfuel (1779-1860) who is often referred to as the Father of the Breaststroke.
Ernst was born into the nobility of the Prussia in the last years of the reign of King Friedrich II the Great. He was the son of 61-year-old Ludwig von Pfuel and his 24-year-old wife Sophie. Ludwig was Marshal of the Court of the Crown Prince and knew Friedrich the Great well.
As was customary for a young noble Ernst was sent at the age of 13 to a military academy. During his first years after graduating as an officer in the Prussian army Ernst met Baron Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), an ex-army officer and writer. An intense love affair began. From their surviving letters it can safely be assumed that the couple engaged in what we know think of as BDSM, with young Ernst von Pfuel being the Master.
During his military training Ernst became an enthusiastic swimmer. However, he later found military life uninspiring and applied several times to be discharged. This was eventually granted and he travelled around Europe with von Kliest. This was also the period of the Napoleonic Wars and Ernst was called upon to serve his nation again and he re-enlisted into the Prussian army.
In 1806 Ernst von Pfuel was present at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in which Napoleon defeated the Prussians. This defeat provides links to my previous two articles. To celebrate his victory Napoleon ordered that the statue on top of the Brandenburg gate, the figure of Victory driving a quadriga, the type of chariot said to have been invented by Erechthonius/Auriga, be taken to Paris, the location of the current Gay Games.
|The 4-horse quadriga statue on top of|
the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.
It was while serving with the Austrian army in Prague that Ernst von Pfuel came up with the idea of a swimming school, the world’s first military swimming school, in 1810. What made him so focussed on swimming was the fact that thousands of soldiers across Europe over the centuries had drowned crossing rivers because they were either not trained in swimming or because they were weighed down by the army kit they were carrying. There was no definitive swimming stroke. Soldiers got across rivers using any stroke they knew. Some strokes were restricted by the kit on the soldiers’ backs.
Ernst believed a special swimming stroke used by all soldiers would be safer and easier for the purpose of troop manoeuvers. The technique, the one still taught around the world today, was inspired by the swimming action of a frog. Ernst’s original training method didn’t involve water. The illustration below from 1841 shows how swimmers were trained, suspended from a leather strap.
Apparently, many soldiers found the new breaststroke training highly stressful. After learning the stroke in the harness they were attached to a pole and plunged into the water where they had to use the breaststroke to stay afloat. It sounds very much like the old witch’s ducking stool. Soldiers were terrified of this part of the training.
Before 1817 Ernst von Pfuel took part in several other battles of the Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Before that he was present at the defeat of Napoleon in Moscow in 1812. After the defeat England and Prussia took control of Paris. Ernst von Pfuel became Governor of the Prussian Sector.
It was at this point that the Brandenburg quadriga statue returns to our story. You may recall it had been languishing in Versailles awaiting repairs and for somewhere to display it. One of Ernst’s first actions was to see that the statue was returned to the top of the Brandenburg Gate. This single action turned him from a war hero into a national hero. He and his family were granted the honour of being the only people other than the Prussian king who was allowed to pass through the central arch.
In 1817 Ernst was appointed as tutor in war tactics in Berlin. It was there that he set up his second and most important swimming school. In its first 50 years this school trained 70,000 soldiers. Other schools were set up in Cologne and Magdeburg. They established Ernst’s breaststroke as the main stroke taught to German schoolchildren and it remains the main stroke taught in them today.
Ernst von Pfuel’s later years was characterised by high political and public office. At various times he was Prime Minister of Prussia, War Minister, and Governor of Berlin. He received many honours and hobnobbed with everyone from Chancellor Bismarck to Karl Marx.
He married twice and had a large family. He died on 3rd December 1866 in Berlin.
None of Ernst’s swimming school survive yet his legacy is still very much alive. Everyone now learns Ernst von Pfuel’s breaststroke, thankfully not in the original manner. Three lgbt Olympians have specialised in the breaststroke – Mark Chatfield, Amini Fonua and Theresa Michilak (Mark and Amini are also Gay Games breaststroke champions).
Before I finish I’d like to show you Ernst von Pfuel’s coat of arms (below). It has a symbolic connection to the lgbt community in that it contains not one but four rainbows.