Hessen Troops in Mid-18th Century Wars


F1: Grenadier, Leibgarde zu Fuss, 1760

The Leibgarde zu Fuss could trace its unbroken lineage back to the Regiment von Geyso that fought at Lützen in 1632. After the Thirty Years’ War it first became the Kassel Palace Company, and then, when the Landgraf Karl formed his standing army in 1684, the Leibgarde zu Fuss. Notwithstanding this pedigree, in the complex 1760 reforms the regiment was redesignated as 3. Garde, being superceded in first place of seniority by a ceremonial Garde-Bataillon. 45. This grenadier provides a good example of the metal-fronted mitre caps favoured by most such units from northern Germany. In this case the front plate was of tin, embossed with the Langraf’s cypher and the lion of Hesse. The infill of red paint, seen here as depicted by Knötel, is tenative, but it may have been applied when the caps were first issued and then subsequently polished away. The regiment’s musketeers had the usual cocked hats, distinguished by white scalloped lace and red-over-white pompons. Also of interest here are the distinctive dark blue breeches, depicted by the Swiss artist David Morier in his series of paintings executed for the Duke of Cumberland in c. 1748. Originally they were worn by all Hessian infantry, making it easy to distinguish them from the similarly dressed Brunswick troops, but there is some uncertainty as to when they were abandoned in favour of the more conventional straw- or yellow-coloured garments being worn by 1761. It is possible that this change may have occurred as early as 1750, but it is more likely that it was part of the effort to make the army more Prussian in appearance in 1760.

F2: Fusilier, Fusilier-Regiment von Berthold, 1760

As part of the 1760 reforms two infantry regiments, Von Gilsa and Von Berthold, were redesignated as Fusiliers. The change in status was purely cosmetic, and other than the probable adoption of white or straw-coloured breeches in place of blue the only real alteration in appearance was the replacement of the cocked hat with the distinctive brass-fronted cap depicted here. Copied from the Prussian style, this cap as worn by the Fusilier-Regiment von Berthold had a dark blue ‘bag’ rather than orange as previously worn by the regiment’s grenadiers; the caps worn by the fusiliers of Fusilier-Regiment von Gilsa followed their grenadiers by having bags in the facing colour of crearny yellow. Originally raised in 1683, the then Infanterie-Regiment von Capellan had seen action at Hastenbeck in July 1757; on 5 August 1758 at Mehr the regiment was part of Imhoff’s force which repulsed the French attempt on the Allied bridgehead at Rees, and it also fought at Lutterberg on 10 October. The following year it was involved in the debacle at Bergen, when Ferdinand of Brunswick rushed, and botched, an attempt to retake Kassel; it had better luck later in the year at Minden, when it was part of Von Wutginau’s brigade, and it went on to fight in 1760 at Emsdorf and Warburg.

F3: Musketeer, Frei-Regiment von Gerlach

By contrast, very little is known of the Frei-Regiment von Gerlach, reconstructed here from a painting by Richard Knbtel. Other than the obligatory Jäger corps and squadron of hussars Hesse raised very few light troops, in part because the 1760 reorganization meant that nearly all the available recruits had to be pushed into the ranks of the regular army notwithstanding the detrimental effects on efficiency – rather than segregated in auxiliary units such as this. Nevertheless, in 1762 Ferdinand required each of the national contingents to supply a Jäger or Chasseur battalion for a light brigade being formed under Lord Cavendish, and this was the Hessian contribution, originally known as the Chasseur Battalion von Rail. Once again, as in the Prussian Army, their second-class status was indicated by the wearing of coloured waistcoats and breeches, in this case green, rather than the white or straw-coloured breeches sported by regular units.


H2: Hesse-Kassel artilleryman

Both gunners and officers of the Hessian artillery wore dark blue coats, waistcoats and breeches, with red collar, cuffs, and turnbacks, black hats with red pompons and white or silver lace according to rank, and black gaiters. Equipment was largely copied from Prussian models, with a broad whitened buff belt supporting a large powderhorn and a drag-rope on the right hip, with loops on the front for prickers.

The Landgraf Karl died in 1730. His eldest son Friedrich, then King of Sweden, and nominally Landgraf, was a gallant warrior and lover, but politically insignificant. His brother Wilhelm, Statthalter of Hessen and de facto ruler, continued his father’s policy. His aims were to enrich Hessen’s military chest with British subsidies, maintain the traditional alliance with Protestant Prussia, already re-affirmed once in a treaty of 1714, and obtain possession of the County of Hanau, promised to Hessen by a treaty of 1648, whenever the existing ruling house should expire. In the War of the Austrian Succession Wilhelm was thrown into a dilemma, for his paymaster Britain was opposed to Prussia and allied with the Catholic Habsburgs, who had not recognized Kassel’s right to Hanau and supported a Darmstadt claim instead. A corps of 6,000 Hessians was already serving in British pay when in 1744 Wilhelm supported Karl VII, Bavarian candidate for the Imperial crown, in return for the promise of an Electorship and territorial gains. His support included 6,000 men for Karl’s army. Similarly Wilhelm reaffirmed the treaty of alliance with Prussia in 1744.

Thus there occurred the extraordinary spectacle of Hessian troops at war simultaneously on both sides: in British pay garrisoning fortresses in the Low Countries and in the Bavarian army in southern Germany. A secret clause in theory prevented the two contingents facing each other on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the double agreement caused bad feeling later, not least because the treaty with Bavaria included a ‘blood money’ clause: for every dead man Wilhelm was to receive 36 florins, for a dead horse 112 florins and 30 krone, and for a dead horse and rider together 150 florins. Three wounded were to count as one dead. It was just as well that the Bavarians were defeated, Karl VII died, and the Hessian corps in Bavaria was saved from captivity by a speedy declaration of neutrality. They were still interned in Ingolstadt for six weeks before being allowed to return to Hessen. In 1745 Wilhelm renewed the British subsidy treaty, so that henceforth Hessians were available only to England. This apparent double-dealing shocked later historians, but it was nothing extraordinary in the age of cabinet diplomacy, and when Wilhelm died in 1760 Frederick of Prussia wrote to his successor, ‘Germany has lost its most valuable prince, his land a father, and I my truest friend.’

The Hessian soldiers, composed of a larger proportion of natives than the armies of most German princes, was as good as any other of its time. Karl VII of Bavaria, visiting Hessians in his service in October, 1744, noted in his diary, ‘The fine appearance and smartness of these troops cannot be surpassed . . . one could not see better.’ On many battlefields the Hessians ‘held the sum of things for pay’: at Rocoux (11 October 1746) against the French ‘the Hessian Regiment of Mansbach, having stood their ground to the last…refused quarter, so that few of them escaped’. In both 1745 and 1756 Hessian troops were brought to Britain to repel threatened French and Scottish invasions. Guibert, seeing Hessians and Hannoverians garrisoned at Hanau in 1773 wrote, ‘Le bataillon Hessois, surtout, m’a paru beau et bien tenu.’

In the Seven Years War the British alliance cost Hessen dearly. In 1756 the French army under Richelieu broke into Germany, and, defeating the Duke of Cumberland at Hastenbeck, occupied Hessen, making it a theatre of war for the succeeding five campaigns. The French imposed heavy contributions. A tribute of 850,000 talers was demanded in 1757 in an attempt to break the alliance with Britain. Since this failed of its purpose, 500,000 more were demanded each year from 1759 to 1761. A smaller sum was levied in 1762. In addition the French requisitioned grain for their soldiers and hay for their animals. Both the main towns, Kassel and Marburg, were besieged, taken, and retaken many times. Marburg’s famous Elisabethkirche, a centre of pilgrimage before the Reformation, was used as a granary by the occupying French army. The ancient town changed hands fifteen times, the castle on the heights above, seven times.

The effect of a prolonged war in Hessen, with French levies and British subsidies, was to make the Landgraf more independent of the Hessian Parliament (or, more accurately, Estates), the Landstdnde, which was burdened with making good the losses to the country out of its own sources of revenue. The subsidies, however, flowed into the war treasury (Kriegskasse), which the Landgraf s officials controlled and administered. Thus the Landgraf became rich while the Landstdnde lost the traditional power of the purse over their sovereign. A British military historian notes, it was a curious fact that the British Parliament in its reluctance to create a large British army, for fear of military power in the hands of the monarch, helped German princes in their struggle against their own Parliaments by making it possible and profitable for the princes to maintain large forces on hire to the British.’

The Hessian corps fought throughout the campaigns of the Seven Years War. Ferdinand of Brunswick, commander of ‘His Britannic Majesty’s Army in Germany’, regarded them as more able to withstand the hardships of war than any other contingent. Despite its name this army contained more Hannoverians and Hessians than British troops, who only appeared in September, 1758. Of total strength in 1760 of 90,000, some 37,800 were Hannoverians, 24,400 Hessians, 22,000 British, 9,500 Brunswickers, and there were some lesser contingents. Yet it succeeded in tying down double its number of French troops, a service of inestimable value both to British conquests overseas and to Frederick of Prussia in his struggle against a European coalition. When Frederick heard of the conclusion of an Anglo-Hessian subsidy treaty for additional men in early 1759 he wrote to his minister in London, ‘C’est avec bien de la satisfaction que j’ai appris par votre rapport ordinaire du 16 de ce mois la conclusion du nouveau traite de subside avec le cour de Hesse.’ In both 1759 and 1778 Frederick regarded Hessen-Kassel as having an essential role in the defence of his western flank.

With the fighting going on in Hessan, Hessian soldiers were sorely tempted to make off home to see how wives and sweethearts, or livestock and crops, were faring. In 1762 some 111 cavalry and 2,196 infantrymen deserted out of a contingent of 24,000. The strain of maintaining this large corps fell heavily on the small state. By August 1761 the Landgraf informed Colonel Clavering, British representative at his court, that it would be impracticable to get more recruits if the war continued for another year. Recruiting officers sent to Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen picked up only deserters and vagabonds, who were no sooner enlisted than they deserted again. The corps could hardly be kept up to strength until the Landgraf was once again master of his own country. Hessian subalterns and rank and file for the last campaign were sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.

This mainly German army, by tying down French strength, enabled Britain to conquer her first empire overseas. British subsidies were well spent. By contrast the French who paid for the Duke of Württemberg’s corps to serve with the Imperial Army against Prussia got a rabble. Duke Karl Eugen had introduced Prussian recruiting methods to enlist his troops, and in spring and summer of 1757 thousands of young men were forcibly pressed into service. Badly trained and brutally treated, they deserted in droves and were routed by Frederick of Prussia at Leuthen. Only about 1,900 of some 6,000 returned to Württemberg months later.

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