The German “Mercenaries” Who Played a Key Role in the American Revolution

Among the most fascinating but largely forgotten aspects of the American Revolution are the Hessians, German soldiers who fought for the British. Numbering around 30,000, Hessians made up a quarter of all British troops. They took part in virtually every military engagement, from the very first battle (Long Island) to the last (Yorktown). Hessians played a decisive role in most British victories, and it is believed the war would have ended sooner without them.

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Ironically, their presence ended up being an unexpected boost to the American war effort. The Patriots believed King George III had crossed a line by involving “foreign mercenaries”; propaganda campaigns painted the Hessians as brutal and rapacious thug that proved the British were cruel and uncaring towards the colonists. The Declaration of Independence, written roughly a year after hostilities broke out, explicitly cited the use of Hessians as one of the driving forces for independence.

Washington’s famed crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776 was aimed at a sneak attack against Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. The subsequent capture of over 1,000 Hessians was decisive: the POWs were paraded through Philadelphia to boost morale and recruitment among the beleaguered Americans, and prove the British were going too far by hiring barbaric foreigners. Previously neutral or loyalist Americans were said to have changed sides or even enlisted. The Patriots also tried to entice Hessians to switch sides in exchange for land; in fact, several thousand of them stayed in the U.S. after the war, joining an already large German community.

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Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians were not mercenaries, but auxiliaries; whereas mercenaries hire themselves out as individuals, auxiliaries were sent by their government to serve a foreign power. They basically served whoever their government told them to, and remained part of their national armed forces; they even fought in their own uniforms and under their own flag (as in the American Revolutionary War).

Germany at the time was not a unified country, but a broad label that included hundreds of independent German states; most of them, like Hesse-Karel, were small and poor. Since ancient times, the Germans had a reputation for martial prowess and fierceness. Hesse, which provided most of Britain’s German troops—hence the broad label “Hessian” for all German soldiers in the war—was the most militarized state in Europe. One out of four households had someone in the military, and males had to be registered for service at age seven. From age sixteen, virtually all men underwent weeks of drills every year, serving for life or until they were too old.

As a small, resource-poor country, Hesse’s only source of wealth were its troops, who were known for their skill, iron discipline, and high morale. The Hessian army was also among the few that was strictly meritocratic, and its officers were well educated. Europe’s constant wars meant Hesse, as well as other small German states, made plenty of money renting their soldiers; the British alone paid thirteen years’ worth of tax revenue for Hessian troops, allowing the little country to ease taxes on citizens and build impressive monuments and public works. Hessians sometimes even fought on opposite sides of the same conflict, though Hesse itself was never a combatant—it was just doing business leasing its armed forces.

For their part, Hessian soldiers were paid relatively well, while their families enjoyed tax breaks and other state benefits. Their discipline and sense of duty meant they usually fought well even in wars they otherwise had no stake in; Americans learned this lesson painfully on the battles of Long Island, White Plains, and Fort Washington. In fact, Long Island was not only the first battle of the war, but remained the biggest and most decisive, costing the U.S. control of New York.

Despite all this, Hessians remain largely forgotten in American history. Their sole enduring presence, albeit sometimes is forgotten, is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whose iconic Headless Horseman was a Hessian.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.

As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.

In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.

Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)

This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.

For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.

Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.

Alexander Pechersky and the Sobibor Uprising

On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.

Sobibór_extermination_camp_(05b)Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.

As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.

Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading

Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

WWII’s Forgotten Allies

A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.

Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.

China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.

Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice.  Continue reading

The World’s Most Powerful Militaries

It looks like American anxiety about a rising Russia might be warranted; according to the 2016 Power Index conducted by Global Firepower (GFP), the Russians command the world’s second most powerful military, after the United States — and that is without factoring in nuclear capabilities, which includes over 8,500 warheads, of which 1,800 were operational. (The U.S. has 7,500 nukes, with close to 2,000 ready to deploy.)

Moreover, the gap between the two countries is surprisingly narrow: the Power Index judges 126 countries against a perfect score of 0.0000, drawing data from a variety of public sources ranging from the C.I.A. to news outlets. The U.S. enjoys the top rating of  0.1663, with Russia just two hundred points lower at 0.1865.

In third place was China — widely regarded as a rising superpower and America’s main rival — which scored 0.2318. India, another contender for future superpower, came in fourth place at 0.2698, following by a former superpower, the United Kingdom (0.2747). Continue reading

When Brazil Briefly Became a Leading Naval Power

Wikipedia’s latest Featured Article highlights an unusual episode of the early 20th century: Brazil’s acquisition of two of the largest and most cutting-edge battleships in the world: the Minas Geraes and São Paulo (former pictured).

Brazil was only the third country, after the U.K. and the U.S., to have the revolutionary “dreadnought” class (called the Minas Geraes class in Brazil) — ahead of major powers like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Its high profile purchase not only reflected the country’s growing wealth and prestige, but its aspirations of becoming a respected world power.

The ships were an international media sensation, not only for their power and sophistication, but out of surprise that Brazil, of all places, should come to possess them. (In fact, it was initially widely speculated that Brazil was only purchasing the ships on behalf of another power, with each major power pointing fingers at one another as the true buyer.) Upon their completion and delivery in 1910, the U.S. and other powers began courting Brazil as a potential ally, no doubt giving the country the sort of national pride that had partly motivated this move.

This event sparked another lesser known event in the 20th century: the great South American dreadnought race, wherein rivals Argentina and Chile — among the richest and most powerful countries in Latin America — worked to acquire powerful battleships of their own (other participants included Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Like Brazil, each country acquired two powerful dreadnoughts of their own, but ultimately these behemoths would remain as white elephants: symbolically impressive, by strategically unnecessary. After seeing little action, all the ships built in the race would end up being sold or scrapped by the mid-20th century — but not without giving their respective countries a significant, though costly, boost in global prestige and status.

Haiti’s Imposing Citadelle Laferrière

Some of the largest and most sophisticated fortresses in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Haiti, of which the most famous is Citadelle Laferrière. Located in the north of the country, this defense network was built not by the powerful French Empire that ruled this lucrative colony with an iron first, but by the newly freed Haitians themselves.

Citadelle Laferrière

Citadelle Laferrière (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after achieving independence in the early 19th century, Henri Christophe, a former slave and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, briefly took control of the northern part of the country as a self-appointed king. Like most Haitians, he knew full well how shaky the country’s newfound freedom was: it was second only to the United States in liberating itself from European colonialism in the hemisphere. It was history’s first successful slave revolt and first black republic, having managed to fight off three leading powers (France, Britain, and Spain). Needless to say, these factors did not endear the Haitians to the European-dominated global system. Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading