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