Category Archives: war

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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Air-Raid Shelter Segregation, WW2

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4030-4038:

While most estates changed absolutely and for ever in the course of the Second World War, a few managed to continue as if nothing had happened. In one large country house, air-raid arrangements in the spacious network of cellars were organised along strict lines of precedence: ‘First cellar: for the elderly owner and her guests; Wilton carpet, upholstered armchairs, occasional tables, a ration of best bitter chocolate, a bottle of expensive brandy, petit-beurre biscuits, thermos jugs, packs of cards, a Chinese lacqueur screen concealing an eighteenth-century commode. Second cellar: for female servants; wicker-work armchairs, an oak table, an old phonograph (complete with horn), a half-bottle of cheap brandy, plain biscuits, tea-making apparatus, a Japanese paper screen concealing sanitary accommodation of a bedroom type. Third cellar: for chauffeur, boot-boy, gardeners and stray neighbours; a wooden bench, wooden table, an electric bell connected with first cellar in case owner should wish to summon masculine moral support; water biscuits. No brandy, no screen.’

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Internment of Foreign Domestics, 1940

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3986-4009:

There was public hostility to the influx of foreign domestics, however, from many quarters. The National Union of Domestic Workers in 1938 protested that ‘foreign nationals were making the bad conditions in domestic employment even worse’. In the build-up to war, with tension mounting, the refugees began, to many people, to look like the very embodiment of the enemy within – and what is more, they were within the British home itself. Viscount Elibank told the House of Lords that women were well known to be much more effective spies than men: ‘Today this country is ridden by domestic servants of alien origin . . . And many of them are not trustworthy.’ No matter that of the 75,000 Germans living in Britain, 60,000 by this time were Jewish. The Daily Mail led the panic, calling for internment of enemy aliens. ‘We are nicely honeycombed with little cells of potential betrayal,’ warned the paper in April 1939; the ‘paltriest kitchen-maid with German connections . . . is a menace to the safety of the country.’

The government’s internment policy was a muddle. At first categorised as low-threat C-grade aliens, domestics were not included in the first group of foreign nationals to be interned. In May 1940, however, with the tabloids ratcheting up the panic, C-class men were shunted up to B status and herded into holding camps to await transportation to the government’s vast internment camp on the Isle of Man. When the Schotts moved into a more congenial home from the freezing house where they had been working as unpaid domestics, their previous employer informed the police that they were in the country illegally. Sidney was immediately interned and Elsa too was locked up, first in Winson Green Prison and then Holloway, for much of the time in solitary confinement; they were finally sent to the camp for married refugees on the Isle of Man. Women categorised as B-class, particularly domestics working in coastal areas, were forbidden to have in their possession maps, bicycles or vehicles of any kind. Bronka Schneider and her husband Joseph, stranded in the remote Scottish highlands, found the long walks that had been their chief pleasure were now forbidden. They were bitterly hurt when, although they had been given a C-class categorisation, their employers had locks fitted to all the doors, leaving them more or less trapped inside the servants’ quarters.

The panic over the alien in the kitchen turned out to be short-lived, at least in part because the British housewife found herself prepared to take the risk of harbouring a Nazi spy if it meant help with the housework. By the start of 1941, of the 3,000 unemployed refugee women who had registered with the Domestic Bureau in London in November 1940, all but 500 were re-employed. The housewife was to be thwarted however as few of them returned to domestic service. Educated people with languages and clerical skills could now be more productively employed in war work and were much in demand. Mrs Smith, for example, went to work on the German-language newspaper that was run for refugees by the Foreign Office.

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Massacres at Jiading, 1645 & 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 849-863:

Towns and cities west of Shanghai fell in rapid succession, and everywhere the same pattern repeated itself: quick conquest was followed by comprehensive destruction. In some areas, it was a repetition of the most sinister parts of history. Jiading, a county seat with about 30,000 residents, was known to students of history for its refusal in 1645 to bow to China’s new rulers, Manchu armies from beyond the empire’s northeastern borders. The invaders had imposed a lengthy siege, and once the city fell, they massacred all the defenders. A centuries-old pagoda had been looking down on the carnage then, and in 1937 it was still standing as new blood was being spilled.

This time the conquerors were from the 101st Japanese Infantry Division. They were reservists, several years older than the average soldier in divisions such as the 3rd or the nth [sic; 9th?]. Just months earlier they had been farmers and accountants, and many were fathers of small children. When they took Jiading on November 13, after shelling had leveled one third of the city, they set about killing almost everyone in sight, be they man, woman or child. During the battle and in the weeks afterwards, they were responsible for the deaths of more than 8,000 residents in the city and in the surrounding countryside.

“A city of death,” was how a Japanese visitor described Jiading shortly after the battle, as he encountered “a mysteriously silent world in which the only sound was the tap of our own footsteps.” War had wiped the city clean of most traces of humanity, reducing the few remaining residents to shadowy ghost-like creatures. “All we saw,” the Japanese visitor said, “was the occasional doddering elder crawling out from one of the collapsed hovels and going back in again.”

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Foreign Safety Zone, Nanjing, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2591-2628:

The safety zone, the brainchild of Rabe and a few other foreigners who had stayed behind in Nanjing, started to take form in the first week of December, when it was officially publicized and four committees were set up to take care of food, housing, finance and sanitation. Once the plans for the zone were detailed in the local press, scared Chinese civilians started moving in by the hundreds, convinced that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese took over. A small newspaper’s repeated claim that it was the “duty” of all patriotic Chinese to stay outside the zone and face the Japanese bombs was largely ignored.

The zone was beset with problems from the start, both practical and bureaucratic. Thousands of bags of rice and flour meant for the zone’s future residents were left unguarded and quickly disappeared. Many assumed that they had been stolen by the military. Potentially much more serious problems arose when Chinese military units started digging trenches and setting up field telephones inside the safety zone, which automatically put it at risk of Japanese attack. Chinese officers promised that they would leave, but the situation dragged out, causing impatience among the organizers of the zone. Until the last Chinese soldier had left, they could not put up flags around it, designating it as a truly demilitarized area.

The Japanese refused to officially acknowledge the safety zone, but vowed to respect it. A lukewarm attitude on their part could hardly be considered surprising, but intriguingly some Chinese officers also exhibited direct hostility against the zone. “Every inch of soil that the Japanese conquer should be fertilized with our blood,” an angry officer told Rabe. “Nanjing must be defended to the last man. If you had not established your Safety Zone, people now fleeing into the Zone could have helped our soldiers.” They wanted to leave nothing of use to the Japanese. This included complete destruction of the area inside the safety zone as well. Some nationalistic Chinese officers were also opposed, on principle, as they saw an essentially foreign-administered region in the middle of their capital as an intolerable violation of Chinese sovereignty.

The zone was not the only effort to help alleviate the pain and suffering caused by war. After the outbreak of the battle over Shanghai, the Chinese Red Cross had stepped in where military medicine had failed and set up a number of first-aid teams and emergency hospitals, while also ensuring that wounded soldiers were put up in existing medical facilities. In October, it established a 3,000-bed hospital on the campus of the National Central University, with a staff of 300 doctors and nurses and 400 orderlies. By the end of October, the hospital had 1,200 patients, and carried out more than 50 operations a day, mostly amputations.

However, as the Japanese approached Nanjing, doctors and nurses were transported west up the Yangtze. The entire Red Cross hospital was evacuated, and at the American Mission Hospital, an initial staff of nearly 200 doctors, nurses and trained workers had been reduced to just 11 by the onset of winter. Some were ordered out of Nanjing, while others left on their own initiative, without warning. Wilson, the Harvard-trained surgeon, described in a letter how he had carried out a complicated operation on a bombing victim with the help of an experienced Chinese nurse who doubled as an x-ray technician. “Incidentally that nurse left this afternoon,” he added, “and now we have no one in the operating room.”

With medical facilities close to collapse, a group of foreigners took the initiative to try to improve conditions, and there were small victories. A committee headed by Rev. John Magee, an American-born Episcopal missionary, secured a sizable amount from Chiang Kai-shek and set up a temporary dressing station in the school buildings of the American Church Mission. Overall, it was slow, unrewarding work in a field that many Chinese officials considered redundant. In an attempt to help the injured soldiers who were still piling up on the platforms, a group of foreign volunteers asked the Chinese authorities for ambulances. They were told that ambulances were indeed available, but there was no gasoline and no money to buy it.

Also very active in Shanghai, Nanjing, and elsewhere in East Asia at the time was the Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会, shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì), a Buddhist/Daoist equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

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