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German mercenaries failed to help Britain save the American Colonies

Posted in America, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Revolution, War on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about mercenaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Battle of Saratoga, picture, image, illustration

In 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga the British and their Hessian mercenaries suffered a crushing defeat, by Severino Baraldi

It was January, 1783, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at night men cried with the cold. Few could put up a tent properly and many preferred to lie under piles of wet canvas and poles rather than to try to erect them on the rocky ground. They had had no experience of camping since they had been recruited or pressed into service and the few old soldiers among them smartly avoided the extra chore of demonstrating what should be done. The men were dejected. Their officers despaired. But the American spies in the camp whooped exultantly when they returned to their own lines. The German mercenaries whom the British had brought over in a last attempt to subdue their rebellious colonies in America were, they reported, not the monsters they were reputed to be; they were merely whimpering boys.

The mercenaries’ trade had declined in the 18th century as an increasing number of nations kept standing armies of their own. Only in the small states which formed what is now Germany did the tradition survive. The German princelings hired out their soldiers to those who needed them and on two occasions Britain made use of their services. The first time was in Scotland, when Hessian troops were used in the campaign against the Jacobites in 1745. The second time was in America. On neither occasion were they worth the money.

On the night of 21st January two of King George’s hirelings crouched in the shadow of a baggage-wagon, planning to do what many of their comrades had done already – desert. They were sick of the camp at Halifax. There had been little or no fighting; just a few desultory shells from the French who were taking advantage of Britain’s entanglement in America to threaten her again in Canada. And they had come to sympathise with the Americans’ desire for independence and for liberty. Little wonder, when you consider what they had witnessed in their military careers. Take one of them, Johann Seume, for example.

Johann had been a student at Leipzig University, until a quarrel over religion with the authorities had led to his rapid departure. His sword at his side, his spare shirts worn one on top of the other, and some books stuffed in his pockets, he set off for Paris. On his way he passed a night at a tavern in the territory of the Landgrave of Kassel, one of the principal mercenary-contractors. There he encountered two of the Landgrave’s recruiting-agents and by the next morning, without any clear recollection of how it happened, he had been recruited into the Landgrave’s army, which the British had hired to fight in America. The agents tried to cheer him up. The New World, they said, was just the place for a bright young man to make his fortune. And they tore up his civilian identification papers to make sure that he did not miss the opportunity.

Johann was taken to a training-camp where other recruits to the Landgrave’s mercenary force were being assembled. They sat around the camp bewailing the fate which had allowed them to be persuaded, tricked, or forced into the army. When they grew tired of bewailing, they started plotting to escape. Johann would have liked to have plotted too, but one of the impressed men, a Prussian grenadier, warned him against it. “Look, lad,” he said, “if you get involved with this mob you will be running right into the worst sort of trouble. Too many things can go wrong and there are too many opportunities for betrayal. You keep out of it, that’s my advice.”

Johann took it and was glad that he had. A tailor from Salzburg betrayed the plan and was promoted to sergeant. The ringleaders were sentenced to be hanged, although, as King George was prepared to pay good money for them, the sentence was later postponed. The rest were made to run the gauntlet, some 12 to 36 times, past a double line of soldiers wielding the flats of their sword blades. Some men did not survive this barbarous punishment and it was, as Johann later wrote, “simple butchery.”

From the training-camp they were taken to the British troop-ships, where they were inspected by the British agent who had negotiated the deal with the Landgrave. He looked at them in much the same way that he looked at the cattle on his estate, prodded them here and there, then ordered them to embark.

Conditions on the ship were appalling. Hammocks had been removed and sleeping quarters constructed by partitioning the deck and subdividing the compartments into two tiers. Each tier had room for four men but six were crammed into it. They lay on their sides and turned together when they grew cramped.

The food was as bad as the sleeping conditions, although Johann commented later that the cooks had done their best to vary it. One day they would serve up pork and pease; on the next, pease and pork; on the third pork and pease, and so on. On special occasions a pudding was produced; it consisted of mouldy flour mixed with one part each of salt and fresh water, and some old mutton suet. The pork was so old that the outer edges were black and the rest a vivid yellow; while the weevilly biscuits had originally been captured from the French in an earlier war and stored for several years at Plymouth. It was rumoured amongst those who ate them that the French had surrendered them deliberately to undermine British morale the next time war broke out.

Johann was essentially a cheerful youth and he survived the hardships of the voyage but many of the men who had been recruited with him lost heart. Some died from sheer misery. One such was a former monk from Munster who refused to eat or wash and lay brooding on his bunk. At first he was flogged tied to the water-barrel and flogged tied to the table, but after a while, when it was quite clear that Britain was not going to get her money’s worth out of him in the colonies, he was left to rot slowly away. Eventually the two toughest men on board had to be bribed with rum to heave his corpse over the side. Soon afterwards they came in sight of Halifax Bay and disembarked to fight for Britain.

This was the life which the German mercenaries lived and it was scarcely surprising that many of them deserted. Nevertheless Johann did not come to the decision quickly. For one thing, he did not have much time to think. He was promoted to sergeant and, having only learned the rudiments of drill at his training-camp, he had to pick up what he could from his friend the Prussian grenadier. Gradually, however, the hopelessness of the British position, the monotony of camp life and the growing belief that the Americans were indeed fighting against the sort of despotism which had placed him in the Landgrave’s army and taken away his identity, drove Johann to think of escape.

It was then that he met another sergeant, Serre, a youth not unlike himself, who had come to a similar conclusion. Serre had done more, however. He had amassed a secret store of supplies and equipment. And he had plotted an escape route – across great bays and through thick forests, from Halifax down to Boston.

They knew that soon the mercenaries would be deployed and sent to serve with separate British regiments, so they decided that they must make their break soon. Thus it was that on the night of the 21st January, while the sentries hugged themselves for warmth and thought only of their relief, Johann and Serre collected what they needed for their journey and humped it together behind the baggage-wagon.

It was just as they were about to make their break through the cordon of sentries that they heard an uproar coming from the direction of the camp-commander’s tent. They glanced uneasily at each other. Important as they liked to consider themselves in the British war-effort, they had not imagined that their proposed defection would cause quite such a stir. Hastily they covered their gear and sauntered unconcernedly towards the crowd which stood, flare-lit, around the main pavilion.

The commander came out, accompanied by a courier whose hard-ridden horse was being led away to the stables. In his hand the commander held a despatch, his brow furrowed. At last, he looked up and in German and then in broken English revealed the contents of the missive. Peace had been signed between the colonies and Britain. The colonies had won their independence. The war was over.

Johann and Serre thought of the risks that they had so nearly run. Now it would no longer be necessary. They could return to Germany if they wished or they could obtain their discharges and settle freely in the newly-freed country. They grinned happily as they made their way back to the baggage-wagon. At long last their troubles were over.

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