Captain John Ashby and his fellow Virginians would face their greatest test of the war on the afternoon of September 11th, 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine. Following a wide flank march the bulk of the Crown forces emerged on Washington’s right flank, ready to trap and smash the Continental Army. Washington reorganized his line, drawing men north in a desperate attempt to meet the new threat. The Third Virginia was ordered into position far in advance of the American lines – their objective was to hold a wooded hill near the Birmingham Friends Meeting House in order to buy time for the rest of the American troops to take up position. Ashby and his fellow officers arranged their men among the buildings and woodlot of the Samuel Jones farm and awaited the attack that was certain to come.
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.
This is part two in the series by guest historian Drew Gruber. For part one, click here.
On the morning of October 3, 1781, British Colonels Tarleton and Thomas Dundas led another expedition north towards Gloucester Courthouse and away from the protection of their fortifications at Gloucester Point. Their command that day included some of the most renowned fighting men then in service. Cavalry and mounted infantry from Tarleton’s own British Legion, combined with a detachment of Colonel Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers, elements of the 17th Dragoons, men from the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welch Fusiliers), German Jaegers and part of the 80th Regiment of Foot provided an impressive host for their American and French adversaries. Captain Johann Ewald, commander of the Jaegers commented after the war that he was sent out with “one hundred horse of Simcoe’s and the remainder of the jagers and rangers, which amounted to only sixty man in order to take a position between Seawell’s planatation and Seawall’s Ordinary. I was to form a chain there to protect a foraging of Indian corn.”