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Brass Shako Plate of the Kings German Legion


By H. Wills (Plymouth Model Soldier Society)

Military Modelling magazine

At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it wasn't the first occasion that "Germans" had fought alongside the British Army. As little as thirty years earlier mercenaries from Hesse, Brunswick and other minor States had hired themselves out to George III to fight in the American Colonies. These men however were different — they were free men who had rejected the "Marche Commune" of Napoleon Bonaparte and adopted a self imposed exile in Britain. They fought for and eventually won back their homelands from the French interlopers. The first of these men to arrive were the Hanoverians in 1803, followed in 1809 by the Brunswickers and the newly formed fighting forces known as The King's German Legion and the Black Brunswickers respectively.

Initially, Hanover had been an electorate and Brunswick a duchy, both forming part of the Holy Roman Empire. George III was the Elector and nominal head of State of Hanover and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, nephew of Frederick the Great was the Duke of Brunswick and a serving Field Marshal in the Prussian Army. However in nearby France, revolutions shattered the stability of late 18th Century Europe.

On 4th April, 1792, the Girondists, the leading party of the French Legislative Assembly, to everyone's relief, declared war on Austria, having quite correctly suspected Louis XVI wife Marie Antoinette had conspired with her brother Leopold, King of Austria (and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) and the King of Prussia. The resulting conflict however did not stop at clearing the air in France but swept across Europe for nearly thirty years.

France's military success commenced with Valmy in September, 1792 and during the next few years, Coalitions and alliances were made and broken in efforts to control the march of the French army but She seemed destined to go on for ever.

Hanover fell to Napoleon in 1803 after a charade of "Danegelt" diplomacy on the French side and blind trust from the Hanoverian Prime Minister, Von Lenthe. Despite the ample signs that Napoleon desired the northern coastline, the Hanoverian followed a policy of appeasement and her army personified by Marshal Wallmoden frustrated at every turn. Secret appeals for assistance from neighbouring states, notably Brunswick, fell on deaf ears and even when Mortier invaded Hanover, the German army was held back by Von Lenthe — a minor skirmish did finally occur on 2nd June that year, but only after the French were recognised to have abused the Flag of Truce.

The following day, the Convention of Suhlingen was signed with humiliating terms imposed on Hanover, but even then Napoleon refused to recognise the Treaty. The "War" was on again - finally in the middle of the River Elbe, at Artlenburg Wallmoden was forced to sign the Elbe Convention with terms even worse than before. This time it was George III who refused to recognise the "Treaty" — he authorised the formation of a force for expatriates to fight under the British Flag. Recruits were enlisted in Hanover under French eyes but only after an assurance that the terms of service applied only to the European theatre. A time limit of three months was imposed to find 400 men. From the recruits, the Kings German Legion was formed, eventually to swell to some 15,000, of which 75% were Hanovarians. Mortier also formed the Legion Hanoverienne, but it was a pale shadow of the K.G.L.

Officer of Sharpshooters Parade Dress 1812-1816
The jacket is standard British scarlet with collar and cuffs in the Regimental colours. He is distinguished from Officers of centre companies by the flanker company "wings" of dark blue velvet background overlaid in gilt chain and edged in gold. The shako plume is rifle green and the scabbard slings are in black leather, with sword knots in gold/crimson and a crimson sash. Trousers are standard infantry grey/blue.

Kings German Legion Private. Line Infantryman 1803-1808

Infantryman were almost identical in uniform to the British and in this period, wore the “Stovepipe" shako, with plumes : centre companies white over red ; grenadier companies, all white and light company rifle green. Note the rolled hair, worn with queue and powder until 1808, when short back and sides was introduced by the British Army. As with the British; flanker companies carried "wings" in red edged and striped in white tape whereas centre companies such as our illustration wore white worsted tufts. Buttons are in white metal or pewter with crown and K.G.L. The cross belt plate has a curved belt design with K.G.L. and crown. Breeches were in white but later replaced by the grey/blue overalls.

In 1805, the Legion returned home as part of the B.E.F. but with the news of Ulm and then Austerlitz, cutting short their stay. Interestingly, the treaty of Pressburg which followed, caused Hanover to be given to Prussia - more significantly, the fate of the Holy Roman Empire was sealed and Emperor Francis II was reduced to the mere King Francis I of Austria.

Black Brunswicker Infantryman 1809

Black Brunswickers Helmet Badge in white metal

Within a year, Napoleon offered Hanover back to Britain and finally the somnulent King of Prussia awoke. Enlisting the aid of Saxony and Brunswick, Duke Karl Willhelm Ferdinand led the Prussians to war with Napoleon only to be humiliated at Jena and Auerstadt where he was mortally wounded. Belatedly the Russians joined Prussia but they too were defeated at Friedland and in the middle of yet another river, the treaty of Tilsit was signed. Prussia losing the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Brunswick becoming part of Jerome's Westphalia.

The King's German Legion serving with Lord Cathcart's B.E.F. attacked and captured Copenhagen before marching on the Iberian peninsula. Meanwhile, the disinherited Frederick Willhelm of Brunswick sought exile with King Francis and their combined smouldering vengeance, Austria took up the sword again, taking advantage of Napoleon's absence in Spain, equipping Frederick's supporters in a uniform of black with a shako insignia of a skull and crossbones — so the Black Brunswickers were formed."

The campaign of 1809 was a confused one — fate initially smiling on the two schemers but cruelly ended in tragedy for Austria at Wagram. The Black Duke decided to follow the example of the Legion and escaped to Britain. His passage was 200 miles to the coast through enemy territory and from three points, forces converged on the luckless Brunswickers. The Duke carved a bloody course to Brunswick and thence to the coast — only 1600 boarded the waiting British ships and lived to serve in Spain.

Of the two forces, the K.G.L. was undoubtedly the better, earning the respect of the British Army and looked on as equals. Both took part in the Waterloo campaign and both fought well. The Black Duke was killed at Quatre Bras whilst commanding a force of some 7,000, most of whom were raw recruits. The Legion distinguishing themselves in the defence of La Haye Sainte where only the lack of ammunition forced them out.

When both States were finally liberated, the most important lesson learned by everyone was — never to sign a treaty with the French in the middle of a river!

See also 19th Century Illustrations of Costume and Soldiers