Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Robert “Bert” Dunkerly to the blog as the author of this post.
It is well known that German troops (commonly called Hessians) fought alongside the British during the war. One of the more intriguing questions of the Revolution remains; how did they communicate? At any given time, German units could comprise from one third to one half of the larger British armies. They were also present in equal numbers in smaller detachments.
French was a common language that many European officers would have known, and there is evidence that German and English officers communicated in French during campaigns. The language barrier also impacted daily army operations. For example, Georg Pausch of the Hesse-Hanau Artillery requested an English officer who spoke German for a court martial. Yet most of that procedure was conducted in French.
Written orders from General Phillips in Montreal in 1777 to Hessian Artillery units were given in French, suggesting that this was commonly done in these calm, routine situations.
It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well enough. Adjutant General Major Bauermister of Hesse-Cassel, for example, notes that the English spoke poor French, when communicating with them. Yet what about among small units like companies or battalions?
Would mediocre command of a language suffice for communication in combat situations? Often small groups of British and German troops operated together on patrols or raids. Marching to Freeman’s Farm (Saratoga) in 1777 was a column that included Germans on the left, English on the right, and English troops as flankers. Such situations required close coordination.
Other times they were side by side on battlefields, such as at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, where the German Von Bose Regiment was aligned next to the British 71st Highland Regiment. Close coordination in these cases was essential.
Still another example is from Brandywine, where Captain Johann Ewald wrote that in the army’s advance, were 60 jaegers on foot, fifteen mounted jaegers, a company of Highlanders, and a company of British light infantry. All these troops worked in tandem to protect the army from ambush and clear the way for the advance. Yet Ewald was silent on how they did so.
Captain Ewald, also wrote of his experiences in Virginia, where, in the advance on Richmond, small numbers of troops were interspersed. They marched into the town in this order: Jaegers, British dragoons, more jaegers, and British Light Infantry. There are dozens of other examples.
Despite the many instances of German and British units mingling, there is precious little documentary evidence of how officers, or the common soldiers, communicated. Perhaps they used a combination of French, translators who spoke either English or German, and hand signals or other agreed- upon methods.
Timing and clarity are key in close quarters combat, there is no chance to second guess in an ambush or a raid. There were likely instances of misunderstanding that may have led to mistakes and even led to friendly fire incidents.
Of the many accounts this author has researched, only a few mention how they communicated. Perhaps it was something so mundane, or so well understood, that they saw no need to comment on it in their writings. It is hoped that further research will shed light on this question.