Category Archives: Britain

Killing Horses, Freeing Slaves at Yorktown, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1999-2026:

While Washington believed that a joint American-French assault on New York was the best option, Rochambeau was less than convinced. Their tenuous strategy sessions changed, however, in August when the French commander received a message from the French Admiral Comte de Grasse. In his letter de Grasse claimed that he was en route to Virginia with twenty-nine warships and over three thousand troops, but with hurricane season at hand and other pressing matters in the Caribbean, he could only remain until October. Time was now of the essence, and Washington and Rochambeau believed that if the Admiral de Grasse could blockade Chesapeake Bay with his fleet, Cornwallis could be trapped at his new operational headquarters of Yorktown. On August 19, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau began their march to Virginia; it would be the first time that the American commander had been home in over six years.

By October 14, the scene that was playing out at Yorktown was the stuff of legend. The Admiral de Grasse had successfully blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the city itself was surrounded by almost nineteen thousand American and French soldiers. Like a great wall they fanned around Cornwallis’s forces, trapping them on all sides, and with de Grasse’s fleet in place the British were completely cut off from the outside world. For more than three weeks this had been the setting for General George Washington and the American rebels’ finest hour. It was also a welcome opportunity for the French to deliver a crushing blow courtesy of their world-famous brand of siege warfare.

Inside his headquarters in the besieged city, Cornwallis was growing desperate. His ramparts were being descended on at a rapid rate, and his food supply was running low. Clinton had sent reinforcements southward, but they would be unable to break the French blockade over the Chesapeake. To save vital stores for his men, Cornwallis had taken to extreme measures in a futile attempt to hold out for support. With supplies running low, the general ordered that all of the army’s horses be slaughtered at once and thrown into the York River. [Hessian Captain Johann] Ewald wrote that within days the tide brought the bloated carcasses back to shore, and his Germans were haunted by the somber and chilling sight. In the waning hours of what would be his last battle in North America, the British general took his desperate attempt to hold out a step further. After killing the camp’s livestock to save grain for his men, Cornwallis looked to further eliminate any usage of food that he considered unnecessary. His next demand though would trouble Ewald more than nearly any other experienced yet in America.

On October 15 the general ordered that all slaves, with no discrimination between men, women, or children, be expelled from the camp. In a wave of frenzy these people were thrust from behind British lines and abandoned in the no-man’s-land between Cornwallis and his besiegers. As the enslaved families scattered in the confused melee, Ewald could not sit back and watch. On his own initiative, the captain and his party of Jägers leapt from behind their defensive lines to drive the abandoned people to safety. Ewald recalled the event with great vigor and explained that he led a party of his men into the teeth of the firefight at their own risk. He continued by stating that in hindsight the order was far too dangerous to justify at the time, but he and his Germans could only think of the young families in harm’s way. They were overcome with the desire to usher them to safety.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1781, THE WHITE FLAG OF TRUCE FLEW OVER THE British position at Yorktown and Cornwallis had surrendered.

Today is the second anniversary of the sudden death of my closest brother, just one day short of his 64th birthday. He was a history professor who never got to finish his book on mercenaries (broadly defined) in Colonial America, including Capt. John Smith and Cmdr. John Paul Jones (who later fought for Russia against the Turks). My brother had many stories of mercenaries who proved more rational and humane than the citizen soldiers whose causes they were supporting. John Paul Jones, for instance, was horrified at Russian tactics against Turkish troops and civilians, and the Hessian captain Ewald in the passage above was as deeply disturbed by the barbaric tactics of the Iroquoian allies of the British as he was by Cornwallis’s decision to expel slaves from his besieged forces in Yorktown.

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British–German Army Rental Contracts, 1776

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 326-348:

By January 1776 the British Empire had drafted agreements with five separate German princes including the regional powerhouse of Hesse-Cassel and its sister state of Hesse-Hanau. Along with these treaties there were also signed agreements with Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Anspach-Beyreuth, and the Principality of Waldeck. Later in 1777 the empire would ultimately settle terms with the relatively minor state of Anhalt-Zerbst, bringing their final treaty count to six separate German entities. Although these states would all furnish armies to sail to America and fight George Washington’s Continental Army, like all things in the Holy Roman Empire not all were equal in their contribution. The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel Frederick II supplied the single largest armed force, 16,992 men, for a total sum of £2,959,800. The Duke of Brunswick provided 5,723 souls for £750,000, and Hesse-Hanau lent 2,422 men for £343,000. Margrave Karl Alexander of Anspach-Bayreuth sent 2,353 men, and signing over the least amount of soldiers were Prince Frederick of Waldeck at 1,225 and Prince Frederick Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst at 1,160 for £109,120.

The treaties originally signed with the six individual German princes differed from each other in specifics, but all effectively offered the same general terms. The armies were “rented” for a term of six, seven, or eight years and the agreed-upon subsidy would go directly to the landgrave, duke, or margrave who ratified the treaty. The individual soldiers forced to serve in North America would receive none of those funds, but would be paid by the British Empire at roughly the same rate that they would pay their own regular soldiers. While the treaties were agreed upon in principle there were still small line items to be negotiated. One such point of contention was that some of the German princes demanded that London pay the soldiers’ salaries to the princes directly; British administrators balked at this assertion as they were almost certain that the dishonest German rulers would simply pocket the money for themselves. Another issue was the inevitable matter of wartime casualties, in which the British offered to reimburse the states for each man lost. Perhaps the most startling development, though, came from the inclusion of a contracted casualty reimbursement; for every man killed or wounded their prince would be additionally compensated in turn. The German soldier traveled to the New World knowing that he was, quite literally, worth more dead than alive.

By the winter of 1776 the British Empire had contracted nearly eighteen thousand German soldiers to travel to North America and suppress the growing revolt that was stirring in the Atlantic colonies. Of those men over half were provided by Hesse-Cassel, therefore the term “Hessian” would be generically applied to all German auxiliaries employed in the New World. For the unlucky soldier commanded by his feudal lord to travel across the sea and battle the American rebels there was little hope; they were doomed to fight a rebellion for which they stood to gain nothing.

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Europe’s Rent-an-Army Era after 1763

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 280-95:

The close of the Seven Years’ War saw a great reshuffling of Europe’s imperial hierarchy, and with each great power attempting to reestablish itself within the new geopolitical order. The 1763 Peace of Paris established the northern kingdom of Prussia as the supreme German state in the region and its ruler Frederick the Great proved to be a magnetic and respected enlightened politician. To the south Prussia was challenged for regional superiority only by the long-standing European power broker of Austria.

As Prussia and Austria gained prominence in central Europe in the wake of the postwar reorganization, the smaller polities began to do whatever was necessary to maintain relevance in an ever changing world. For those left out of the Austro-Prussian sphere of influence, there were few ways to remain competitive in the international arena. There were few natural resources to sell on the open market and because of their tiny territorial possessions, few found realistic opportunities to expand their wealth. While they lacked the commodities typically associated with increased revenue through wider economic pursuits, it seemed the only true domestic product that many of the smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire had to offer were the people themselves. With a large population held in subjugation due to an adherence to a dying feudal system, many regional German rulers began exploring new ways to turn their otherwise shrinking revenue streams into hefty channels of profit. Their means of doing so became known as Soldatenhandel, or the soldier trade. Typically speaking, the small states of the German empire, like Hesse-Cassel, bolstered their army’s numbers through either conscription or hiring mercenaries themselves, but few ever considered actually renting their armies to outside powers. When it was discovered that there was a market for such an unusual practice as Soldatenhandel, the kings and lords of the German countryside began to dramatically increase their draft totals. By 1776 in the simplest terms the otherwise insignificant German states made themselves relevant to the great powers of Europe by offering their own citizens to the highest bidder.

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‘It was exploitation, but it worked’

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2690-2710:

Ethel Mannin, the daughter of a postal sorter in Clapham, was a socialist, a feminist, a pacifist, and a leading supporter of progressive theories of education, family and sexuality. In 1920 she was just setting out in life, aged nineteen and married to John Porteous, an advertising copywriter. The couple had set up home in a small semi-detached house in the London suburb of Strawberry Hill. Ethel had a new baby and was a busy writer, at large in the first years of Modernism: ‘Living My Life’, was how she described it in her energetic capitals. A steady stream of romantic novelettes, churned out at a guinea per thousand words, provided Ethel’s income. The household kept a cook-general at thirty shillings a week, a sum Ethel considered generous (the going rate being twenty-five shillings). ‘Cap and apron, of course; blue cotton dress in the mornings; black cloth in the afternoons – and coffee-coloured caps and aprons were just that much smarter than plain white ones.’ Her socialist principles were apparently untroubled by the maid, who called her ‘Madam’ and who referred to her husband as ‘the Master’. As Mannin saw it, domestic help was a necessary component of her freedom. ‘It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,’ she wrote fifty years later. Educated, perceptive, imaginative, free-thinking, questioning, below the frenetic glitter of ‘the amoral decade, the Sweet and Twenties, the Bitter-Sweet Twenties, the gay Twenties, the Bright Twenties, the Roaring Twenties’, Ethel was more conventional than she had imagined herself at the time: ‘I probably gave [the maid] ten bob at Christmas and the occasional dress I was tired of. Quite intensely I dislike the memory of myself when young; but it’s the way I was. I was of my times; quintessentially.’

Though Ethel Mannin was later to write that ‘the war dealt a great blow to snobbishness’, the old awkwardness, the looming divide between women living under the same roof continued to be considered not just normal but necessary. When Rose Harrison first went to work as a lady’s-maid in the mid-twenties, her charge was Patricia Tufton, who was eighteen, the same age as Rose. ‘My relationship with Miss Patricia isn’t easy for me to describe. We weren’t friends, though if she were asked today she might deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us closer; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music, or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at the time.’

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The Psychology of the Servant Problem

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2733-2769:

The author Ronald Blythe has suggested that in the years after the end of the First World War, a terrible shame and guilt crept over people at the sight of ‘unemployed ex-servicemen and their families, these hordes of shabby young men and women made spiritless, drab and ugly by broken promises, malnutrition and loss of hope’. It produced, Blythe went on, in the middle classes, a ‘contempt for working-class people of a kind quite unknown before the war began’….

Helen Campbell, American author of Household Economics, in 1907 defined one of the central paradoxes of the servant-master relationship, certainly as it was played out in the small home: ‘The condition of domestic servitude allows only the development of a certain degree of ability, not sufficient to perform our complex domestic industries. So there we are. When we find a person able to carry on modern household industries, that person will not be our servant. And when we find a person willing to be our servant, that person is unable to carry on modern household industries.’ Most people preferred not to look closely at the relationship, with its awkwardness and its responsibilities. One woman writer in the early twenties, however, was brave enough to address it full on, and with a refreshing determination to look its contradictions straight in the eye. Under the pseudonym Dion Fortune, Violet Firth went on to became a theosophist, occultist, psychic, a founder of the esoteric society, ‘The Fraternity of the Inner Light’, and the author of now long-forgotten works such as The Goat-Foot God and The Cosmic Doctrine. In the years immediately after the war, however, Firth was also a student of psychoanalysis, practising (under her own name) as a lay psychotherapist in London.

In 1925, she published a remarkable short polemic entitled The Psychology of the Servant Problem, which would be a work of radicalism in any age. Drawing on her years of war work as a gardener for a big country house, Firth examined what lay behind the intractable and inexplicable problem of what domestic service meant to those who had to perform it. She recognised, crucially, that what made service so difficult to define, and therefore to legislate for, was the hazy nature of the relationships in the home. ‘Because I was also a servant and had to come in at the back door, I got to know the minds and feelings of those girls I met during those three years,’ wrote Firth, pointing out that the disinclination of girls to become maids was not a matter only of wages but of something deeper: ‘being a servant is very painful to one’s self-respect and no amount of money will compensate that injury to anyone who has independence of spirit’.

Being a servant was an ‘identity’, not just a job. The Psychology of the Servant Problem was a call to the renewal of education for all women, of all classes, for domestic work to be regarded without sentimentality but with the same respect accorded to any other form of work. Firth actually looked forward to a time ‘when the home-help might freely be able to choose a husband from the family she serves’. The ‘servant problem’, as Firth saw it, was not one simply of demand outstripping supply, or of a failure in the ‘quality’ of the servants available, but of deeply held attitudes, of unexamined habits masquerading as unbreachable social certainties.

Violet Firth was far ahead of her time, grasping the knotty contradictions of domestic labour that were to characterise the theme during the rest of the century. How are women to enjoy the fruits of education and liberation if they are not relieved of the burden of domestic work in the person of another woman? When Frances Marshall, intellectual and Bloomsbury set member, set up home with Ralph Partridge in their first flat in Bloomsbury in the late 1920s, she employed a maid, a ‘frightened, middle-aged spinster’, who came to ‘do for us’: poor shadowy Mabel, one of the lonely civilian casualties of war. Frances took care not to tell her that she and Ralph were unmarried lest her respectable sensibilities be shocked. ‘Who bought the bacon, the butter, the fish? I suspect it was our faithful Mabel. I’ve no recollection of doing it myself.’

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Wordcatcher Tales: lych gate, barley-sugar chimney, bloater

Here are some more English words new to me that I found in Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013).

Kindle Loc. 2975:

Designed by a happy lucky-dip [grab bag] of architectural elements taken from all periods – a bit of Queen Anne, some Tudor beams, a stained-glass window over the door, a lych-gate [originally the covered gate into a churchyard (litchfield, from Old English lic ‘corpse’)], a novelty turret or a barley-sugar [corkscrew-shaped (or Solomonic)] chimney – still represented the oldest English ideal of all: the image of the cottage, nestling secure within its own small piece of land.

Kindle Loc. 3019:

Other alternative residential setups included hostels, such as the one where young Bronwen Morris worked as a kitchen-maid, helping to produce three daily meals for ‘young businesswomen’, just off Sloane Square, London. Bronwen was kept busy cleaning the kitchen and peeling vegetables and was later upgraded to the post of cook, producing three large hot meals a day for seventy-two young women who came back for lunch: ‘bacon, bloaters [whole smoked herring] or kippers [split smoked herring] and boiled eggs for breakfast, rabbit stew or rabbit pie for lunch and dinner, or pork, beef with vegetables – also always steam or rice puddings and suet puds‘. By the 1920s there was a proliferation of these residences for girls working as stenographers, typists or clerks or generally what E. M. Forster’s anxious Mrs Honeychurch called ‘messing with typewriters and latchkeys’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kedgeree, Koshary

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3187:

For Helen Mildmay White, whose family lived at Flete House, breakfast was, without fail, ‘bacon and eggs and when there were visitors, four different kinds of eggs and bacon, sausages, kidneys and always a kedgeree, cold ham and cold tongue and scones with butter and Devonshire cream.’

I read this passage a few days after having had my first—very pleasant—taste of an Egyptian dish spelled “koshary” at a restaurant named for that very dish in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. It turns out that British (Anglo-Indian) kedgeree and Egyptian kushari are from the same Sanskrit source, transliterated kichdi in English Wikipedia. Its basis is rice with legumes, like rice and beans in so many other cultures, but the added ingredients vary greatly around the world. A relatively recent addition to the Egyptian version is macaroni.

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