German Auxiliaries

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German Auxiliaries

GERMAN AUXILIARIES. More than 30,000 Germans fought in the War of American Independence, taking part in every major campaign from the Floridas to Canada; and fighting overseas in the campaigns in the Mediterranean and India. Six independent German states contributed units to the British army for service in America: Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Hanau, Anspach-Bayreuth, Braunschweig-Lünenburg (Brunswick), Anhalt-Zerbst, and Waldeck. Hanover, which was ruled by King George III of England, allowed individual recruiting for British regiments, and sent several units to Gibraltar, Minorca, and India. But German units also served in the armies of Britain's opponents—two other Waldeck regiments were part of the Dutch army, and Zweibrücken provided a number of regiments to France, including the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, which was part of General Jean comte de Rochambeau's 1780 to 1782 expedition to assist the Americans.


The common image of the "Hessians" as brutal mercenaries sold for blood money by corrupt rulers is imbedded in the Declaration of Independence and in two hundred years' worth of schoolbooks, but it is not true. It was the result of propaganda efforts initiated by the Continental Congress (with Benjamin Franklin in charge) and by liberal German intellectuals who were deeply influenced by the French Revolution and nineteenth-century nationalism. In point of fact, each of the states that furnished troops to the British did so after negotiating treaties that set forth a variety of conditions and concessions. For example, Hesse-Cassel's situation was the direct opposite of the old myth. It had a formal alliance under which the British and Hanover guaranteed to defend the country from aggressors while the bulk of the nation's army served overseas. In addition, the monies the Landgrave (territorial ruler) gained from the treaty were used to provide social services to the civilian population and to encourage industry.

A second myth is that the Germans deserted in droves whenever they had the chance, or died from combat or disease, leaving only about 60 percent to return home at the end of the war. This is a wild exaggeration, and attempts to depict all units behaving in a manner that applies to only a few. German losses in the Crown's forces were no worse, overall, than those of the British or the Loyalists. Further, the numbers given for "returning" troops disregard personnel who were sent home earlier than the latter part of 1783. They also ignore the large numbers of troops who chose to take discharges in North America and settled in either Canada or the United States.

The third myth about the Germans is that they were all well-disciplined and drilled in the tradition of Frederick the Great. In this interpretation, historians argue that, when first employed, the Hessians were respected by the British and feared by the Americans. As this theory goes, they quickly found that the traditional tactics of the Potsdam parade ground brought disaster in American conditions. It is true that by the end of the 1777 campaigns, Americans had lost their fears and the British had started to relegate German units to garrison duties or service in the second line of battle formations, but not for the reasons commonly assumed. It was not contempt, but rather the recognition that the very tables of organization of the German units limited their ability to maneuver in broken terrain, although they functioned quite well in situations where a premium was placed on frontal attack or solid defense. German formations like the jägers (riflemen) or the highly-trained chasseurs (light infantry) who had organizational flexibility and training to carry out skirmishing provided British commanders with perhaps their best light troops.


When the British government went to war in 1775 the conflict turned out to be very unpopular. The recruits available were barely sufficient to bring existing regiments up to strength. Only one new unit (the Seventy-first Foot) could be raised, and that only by turning to Highland Scots. In this situation the Ministry quickly turned to a century-old tradition and sought to bring foreign units into their service, primarily drawn from the Protestant states in the northwestern part of Germany. Some were procured to provide trained units to the generals in North America quickly (raising new regiments in Britain would require a long period of training before they could be sent into combat). Others were obtained to relieve British regiments from garrison duty so that they could be transferred to the war zone.

Preliminary negotiations began on 2 December 1775, and the first three treaties were submitted to Parliament on 29 February 1776. Not counting Hanover, four states concluded treaties in 1776: Brunswick (9 January), Hesse-Cassel (31 January), Hesse-Hanau (5 February), and Waldeck (25 April). While the terms of each treaty varied, basically the British picked up the costs of paying the troops, providing them with food, and transporting them. The Germans retained responsibility for weapons, equipment, and uniforms, and for furnishing replacements. The treaties also called for cash payment to enable the individual states to conduct recruiting and carry out other preparations, and for each casualty—but this was the same practice used when a new unit was formed in Britain or when a unit had to recruit new troops to replace losses. In 1777 Britain made two smaller treaties with Anspach-Bayreuth (1 February) and Anhalt-Zerbst (October, although the troops did not reach Canada until late 1778 due to transportation problems). Some of the contingents increased (especially by adding more jägers) during the course of the war after supplemental treaties. Table 1 gives a summary of the size of each contingent.

Auxiliary Units
StateUnits FurnishedTotal Manpower Sent
Anspach-BayreuthTwo infantry regiments with a supporting artillery detachment
Six companies of jägers or chasseurs
Anhalt-ZerbstOne infantry regiment (two battalions) with two-gun
artillery detachment
Braunschweig-LunenburgFour infantry regiments
One dismounted dragoon regiment
One grenadier battalion
One chasseur battalion (including a jäger company)
Hesse-CasselComplete division staff
Four grenadier battalions
11 Infantry regiments
Four garrison infantry regiments (reserve formations
called to active duty)
Six companies of jägers (one mounted)
Three companies of artillery
A field hospital
Hesse-HanauOne infantry regiment
One chasseur battalion
One artillery company
WaldeckOne infantry regiment
Supporting artillery detachment (2 guns)
Total manpower32,059


Three significant British defeats involved forces which were primarily composed of Germans: Trenton, Fort Mercer, and Bennington. These failures have been used to argue that the Germans were not an effective combat force, but purely British or Loyalist engagements also ended in stunning defeats. The truth is that the only way that the Ministry could have procured enough troops for the relief of Canada and the simultaneous capture of New York in 1776 was to turn to the policy of treaties. The troops from Hesse-Cassel, Braunschweig-Lünenburg, and Hesse-Hanau generally performed credibly, those of Anspach-Bayreuth and Waldeck competently, and only the small Anhalt-Zerbst contingent could be considered sub-par. When employed properly, they were extremely valuable, and once France entered into the war, no British offensive could have been undertaken without having Germans available to garrison the major bases.

German service in the American Revolution had another impact frequently overlooked by American historians—it was an important learning experience for those participants interested in professional development. The Hesse-Cassel army completely changed both its organizational structure and its tactical doctrine after reviewing the lessons of the war, producing units that were much more flexible and patterned after the Americans they had fought. This change made their forces the most effective in the opening years of the Napoleonic Wars. One Hessian, Johann Ewald, would go on to reach the rank of lieutenant general in the Danish army and become the foremost authority on light infantry tactics in that period.

SEE ALSO Ewald, Johann von.


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――――――, trans. Journal of Captain Pauch Chief of the Hanau Artillery During the Burgoyne Campaign. Albany: Joel Munsell's Sons, 1886.

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――――――, ed. The Siege of Charleston with an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers From the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1938.

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                            revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.