Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens.  By Darren Tan

Scots in Swedish Thirty Years’ War service.

Swiss mercenaries and landsknechte engaged in a push of pike (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)

Unlike the case of privateering, there is no consensus on how a mercenary should be defined. We generally think of a mercenary as one who fights for an employer other than his home state and whose motivation is economic. The soldier of fortune is the ideal type of a mercenary.

However, there are mixed forms of military service that meet one but not both of the aforementioned criteria. For example, British officers who are “seconded” to Middle East armed forces serve a foreign army but do so at the behest of their home state. And the volunteers of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War fought for a foreign military force and were paid but, it is generally agreed, were motivated by political ideals rather than monetary gain. On the other hand, members of an all-volunteer citizen army are paid to fight but hardly warrant the label of mercenaries. Here it is interesting to note that “etymologically . . . `soldier’ carries the meaning `he who fights for pay.’” Mockler may be correct in saying that “the real mark of the mercenary [is] a devotion to war for its own sake,” but since individual motivations are impossible to determine, this is not helpful for analysis. For purposes of this study, I will use the term mercenarism to refer to the practices of enlisting in and recruiting for a foreign army.

Scholars agree that feudalism’s constraints on military service were a major inducement for monarchs to turn to mercenaries. Whatever its other drawbacks, the feudal military system was based on the principle of defense. Knights were duty-bound to serve only a very limited amount of time-something like forty days a year-but, more importantly, were not obligated to serve abroad. Thus, feudal military rights and obligations presented a barrier to launching offensive military campaigns.

In the twelfth century, the English king introduced the system of scutage, which allowed individuals to buy their way out of their military obligations, thus providing the sovereign with the cash to purchase manpower wherever s/he could. By the time of the Hundred Years’ War, landholding in France was based on rent, and “knight’s service had fallen into disuse.” Thus, it appears that the European market for mercenaries was largely the creation of war-makers seeking to escape the constraints of feudal military obligations. War-makers increasingly relied on private or royal subcontractors to raise and supply armies for a profit.

Large-scale mercenarism in the form of the Free Companies flourished in Europe between 1300 and 1450. “Long before absolute monarchy arose, soldiers offering themselves for hire had constituted a major export trade of the Middle Ages, and one of the first to establish a European market.” The foreign mercenaries of pre-Renaissance Italy, so maligned by Machiavelli, gave way after the 1379 Battle of Marino to the condottieri (military contractors). These were “Italians” and, increasingly, nobles. “By the end of the fifteenth century . . . condottieri had become dukes, and dukes had become condottieri.”

The economic scale of mercenarism reached unprecedented proportions in the seventeenth century, when Wallenstein’s private army “was the biggest and best organized private enterprise seen in Europe before the twentieth century.” Unfortunately, few rulers could afford to hire such an impressive force.

These private armies also presented a threat to European rulers. For example, the Grand Catalan Company, a force of some sixty-five hundred men, took service with the duke of Athens only to turn on him in 1311 and establish its own “duchy of mercenaries,” which survived for sixty-three years. Later, Wallenstein, with two thousand square miles of territory as a base for his army, raised suspicions that he was attempting to form his own state. The solution for European monarchs, imposed first by Charles VII of France in 1445, was to integrate foreign mercenaries into their standing armies or to buy army units from other rulers.

These policies had, by the eighteenth century, turned the typical European standing army into a truly multinational force. The table above presents data on the composition of four major European armies in the eighteenth century. Foreigners constituted at least one-quarter and as much as 60 percent of these regular standing armies.

German states were the premier suppliers. A German prince was the first to lease a regiment to another state (Venice) in the 1660s. For almost forty years Hesse-Cassel’s army was subsidized by the Netherlands, England, and Venice. In 1727 it was completely taken over by the British. William III, landgrave of Hesse-Cassel from 1751 to 1760, said “these troops are our Peru. In losing them we would forfeit all our resources.” From 1690 to 1716 the Julich Berg army was paid for by the Netherlands. Wurttemberg’s army served the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company in 1707.73 Hesse, Hanover, Baden, Brunswick, and Waldeck were the main suppliers of mercenaries for Britain. Germans also constituted up to one-third of the prerevolutionary French army.

At the same time, however, German states also employed foreigners. In 1705 two-fifths of Bavarian army officers were foreigners-Italians and Frenchmen. The Bavarian army also “was overrun by Irish refugees” and “French adventurers of dubious character.” One Bavarian regiment included soldiers from sixteen countries. Frenchmen provided one-third of Brandenburg-Prussia’s officer corps, and Walloon, French, Spanish, Italian, and English officers staffed the Palantine army. On the eve of the Seven Years’ War a number of Dutch regiments were on “semipermanent hire to German princelings.” In 1693, 35 percent of the Saxon army was foreign, though by 1730 this figure had been reduced to 11 percent.

Frederick the Great recruited all over the Holy Roman Empire, especially in the free towns and the ecclesiastical principalities. At the onset of the Seven Years’ War he attempted to incorporate the entire Saxon army into his own. After the war he recruited as far away as Italy and Switzerland. Frederick the Great also brought officers from France, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, and Lithuania into the Prussian army.

The Dutch were also both employers and providers of mercenary troops. Their eighteenth-century army was led almost entirely by officers from France, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland. After 1756, the Dutch recruited in the Austro-Hungarian empire. As previously noted, the Dutch loaned regiments to German princelings during the Seven Years’ War, but they also provided troops for the British army. Along with Hanoverian and Hessian mercenaries, the Dutch played an important role in Britain’s 1701 war with France and in suppressing the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion within Britain itself. When Catherine the Great refused to rent twenty thousand troops to Britain in its war with the American colonies, Britain attempted to hire the United Provinces’ Scots Brigade. This Dutch “foreign legion” consisted of Scottish officers and “mercenaries from all over Europe.”

Britain’s army drew its foreign contingent primarily from the German states and the Netherlands, but it also employed Swiss, Albanians, Italians, and Frenchmen during the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain also supplied both officers and troops for foreign armies. Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen served as officers and soldiers in the eighteenth-century French, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, German, and Dutch armies.

“As a peacetime minimum, the French generally possessed nine regiments of Swiss infantry, six from various German states, two from Italian principalities, and six from Ireland.” French armies were 20 percent foreign throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Significant numbers of Scottish and Flemish soldiers also served in the eighteenth century French army.

Switzerland was the main supplier of mercenary troops in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially to France. According to the Perpetual Peace, which France imposed on Switzerland in 1516, “the Swiss agreed never to supply mercenaries to France’s enemies.” During the eighteenth century, Swiss soldiers and officers served in the Prussian, French, British, Austrian, and Dutch armies. According to one scholar, Switzerland is the only European state that has never employed mercenaries.

From 1688 to 1727 Italy subsidized the Hesse-Cassel army and in 1756 recruited in Austria. Italian regiments served in the mid-eighteenth-century French, Austrian, and Prussian armies. Austria-Hungary recruited from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Italy. At the same time, the Dutch, Hungary and Italy were allowed to recruit in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

At the time of Gustavus Adolphus’s death in 1632, less than 10 percent of his army was Swedish, the remainder being mostly German. It is estimated that in the War of Smolensk (1632-34) one-half the Russian army was foreigners. In 1681, Russia’s army, which included eighty thousand foreign troops, was led by Scottish and German officers. As many as one-third of the eighteenth-century Russian army officer corps was foreign. Polish nobles served in the Prussian, Austrian, Swedish and Russian armies. The Royal Deux Ponts Regiment, a force of Germans in the employ of France, fought on the American side in the American War for Independence.

Foreigners were not confined to service in armies; navies displayed a similar multinational character. In the 1660s, six thousand French sailors were serving abroad. One-third of the Dutch navy was French. About seven hundred Frenchmen served in the Sicilian navy, and more Frenchmen than Italians served in the Genoese fleet. At the same time, Italian volunteers and “slaves-North African `Turks’ . . . Russians, Negroes from West Africa, and a few Iroquois Indians”-worked as rowers in the French navy.

During the war between Spain and the United Provinces, the Dutch Republic employed privateers from Zeeland while Spain used the services of Dunkirk’s privateers.

The eighteenth-century British navy employed French prisoners of war and volunteers from Holland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sardinia, Malta, Greece, and Turkey. Part of the reason for the presence of foreigners in the navy was that the British Royal Navy depended on the mercantile marine, whose composition, even in the late Victorian period, was 46 percent foreign.

Though foreigners were supposed to be exempt from British impressment, according to an act of 1739, “a great deal of the correspondence of eighteenth-century admirals is occupied with complaints from foreign embassies seeking to free their subjects.” This controversy intensified after the United States gained independence but Great Britain continued to impress U.S. citizens based on the “rule of indelible allegiance, under which a person once a British subject might, although he had acquired citizenship of another country, still be `recognized’ as a British seaman and be impressed accordingly.” By 1807, more than six thousand U.S. citizens had been impressed into the British navy. This practice was one of the reasons for Madison’s request that Congress declare war against England in 1812.

Lesser naval powers also relied on large contingents of foreigners. In the Russians’ 1713 Baltic Sea fleet, “only two out of eleven commanders and seven out of seventy other officers were Russians.” In the United States of 1878, “60% of the Navy’s enlisted personnel were foreignborn.” On average, “28% of the crews of American warships” in the second half of the nineteenth century were foreigners. At least twenty different nationalities were represented, including British, Irish, Scandinavian, Canadian, Central European, Japanese, and Chinese-despite the legal requirement that two-thirds of the seamen be native-born U.S. citizens.

This overview of the employment of foreigners in military forces is certainly not exhaustive. It does suggest, however, that the practices of hiring foreigners and allowing individuals to join other states’ armed forces were common in the period of 1600 to 1800. Among European states, only Switzerland apparently never employed foreigners. The market for military manpower was as international as it could ever be. Nationality or country of origin was not the primary basis for determining service obligations. The capabilities of officers, the economic or legal desperation of the soldiers, and the economic interests of rulers determined who served and where. State leaders needed military manpower; they were not particularly choosy about where they obtained it.

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