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An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment Chapter 1: Soldiers for Hire 1240-1781

An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment Chapter 1: Soldiers for Hire 1240-1781

An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment 1795-1816

Chapter 1: Soldiers for Hire 1240-1781

Mercenaries, were a common feature of British military life and warfare in both Europe and India from the earliest times but especially from the 13th to 19th century in Europe, when it was even termed the second oldest profession.[1] Mercenaries featured little if at all during the world wars of the 20th century but were resurrected during the 1960’s when European mercenaries appeared in various theatres of war and were generally deprecated for their actions during deployment in conflicts, principally on the continent of Africa. Described as the ‘Dogs of War,’ an overused phrase by the media, possibly captured by Shakespeare from Plutarch,’[2] mercenaries were employed by ancient Greeks and Romans, though they would not have recognised the military use of the term.

The word mercenary, derived from the Latin mercenarius and later the French mercenaire, was chiefly used in connection with profit or the business of a merchant.

The military historian and soldier, Captain Francis Grose used the term in relation to ‘stipendiary or mercenary troops,’ recruited during the 14th and 15th centuries, either by ‘commissions or indenture’ and who had become general features of British royal armies, ‘during the reign of Edward III and Henry V.’ [3]

In the 14th century an Englishman, Sir John Hawkwood, commanded The White Company, a mercenary unit during Papal and Florentine wars in Italy, fighting for whichever city, state or Pope paid the most.[4]

The definition of ‘mercenary’ began to appear jointly during the 16th century as, ‘actuated by self-interest,’ and linked with, ‘soldiers serving in a foreign army.’ In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined mercenary as a ‘hireling‘ or ‘one retained or serving for pay‘ without specific reference to military service. [5]

For many years, the military definition of a mercenary followed that of a standard modern dictionary as, ‘a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army.’[6] That definition is applicable to the Regiment Meuron but was changed by the Geneva Convention, where a mercenary is now defined as, ‘an individual who is hired to take part in an armed conflict but is not part of a regular army or other governmental military force,’ additionally mercenaries are no longer recognised as legitimate combatants.[7]

During numerous wars in the past the British frequently utilised numbers of foreign nationals, Dutch, French, or Germans, namely Hessians and Hanoverians, as mercenaries and such units as the Corsican Rangers, Greek Light Infantry and Swiss Legions. The East India Company’s, Robert Clive at Plassey in 1757, described Adolphus Gingens, as one of his best officers in the Company army, ‘a Swiss gentlemen and as brave a one as any of his nation,’ whilst among the lieutenants was another Swiss soldier, Huguenot de Vismes.[8]

Switzerland had a distinguished military tradition from the early Middle Ages and provided mercenaries to various European armies from the Renaissance period onwards, most notably the French.

The earliest reference to a Swiss mercenary regiment is in 1240, employed in Italy, whilst another is thought to have covered the retreat of the French at Crecy in 1346. In 1495 the French King Charles VIII, employed 8,000 Swiss mercenaries when he invaded Lombardy, ostensibly to enforce the Pope’s feudal dues.

Under Swiss law military service was provided as payment in lieu of rent or fief, thus the Swiss federation of cantonments in the early 14th century and through to the 16th century possessed what was described as, ‘the most powerful army in Europe.’[9]

Powerful, because it was successful in some twenty conflicts across Europe and for Swiss independence, winning battles in France, Swabian Germany and Italy against superior numbers by discipline and aggression, with a major reliance on pike carrying infantryman formed into squares, impenetrable to cavalry and infantry alike.

Swiss hubris suffered a major setback in September 1515, at Marignano, a battle fought overnight ten miles southwest of Milan, against combined forces of French and Italian troops. The 20,000 Swiss soldiers were forced to retreat by the enemies improved tactical use of artillery, cavalry and arquebus fire. This proved to be almost the last battle the old Swiss confederate army ever fought on foreign soil, from that time on, a policy of national neutrality would replace Swiss bellicosity.[10]

The shattering defeat at Marignano, gave rise to a multitude of unattached Swiss soldiers, all prepared to fight for pay as mercenaries for other nations, whatever the cause.

By 1520 the French had been granted the right to recruit levies in the Swiss cantons and retain them as mercenaries on a monthly salary until they crossed a frontier, when they received three month’s pay whether deployed or not. France used the opportunity in 1521 to recruit Swiss mercenaries to serve in Italy against the Hapsburgs and the battle of Bicocca in April 1522, established France as the Swiss mercenaries’ major employer.


Swiss soldier c. 1580 (courtesy Anne Brown Digital Repository & Collection)

 

Swiss mercenaries, fought in many European wars and by virtue of their good discipline were considered a decided asset despite a reputation for brutality and cruelty. [11]

It should come as no surprise that at any one time it is estimated that between 50,000-60,000 Swiss soldiers served as mercenaries in foreign armies through the 16th to 18th centuries. Overall, Switzerland is calculated to have provided over 1 million mercenaries to other national armies.[12] The first permanent Swiss mercenary units were the Compagnie des Cent Suisses, who served as a bodyguard to the French Kings from 1471 until 1791 and the Swiss Papal Guard established in 1506. The reasons why the Swiss took to mercenary soldiering are not clear.[13] Overpopulation has been predicated, but more likely that in Swiss family tradition the role was regarded as a ‘respectable and accepted professional occupation.’[14]

Swiss soldiers 1724 (courtesy Anne Brown Digital Repository & Collection)

 

The French remained the Swiss mercenaries’ major employer, although Germany, Austria, Spain, Piedmont and the Dutch eventually became equally as important employers and Swiss Protestant cantons provided Britain and the Netherlands.[15]

The French invaded Switzerland in March 1798, and the new puppet government continued to supply mercenaries for the French service until their dissolution, prompting numbers of Swiss to join one of three mercenary regiments already in the British service. Insurrection followed upon the invasion and the French remained in Switzerland only until 1802. Arthur Wellesley received reports in India, that ‘the Swiss had driven the French out of Switzerland with great slaughter.’[16] Though a new treaty with the French was signed in 1803, re-instating the old confederation system and adding six new Cantons, yet still required the Swiss to provide France with 24,000 mercenaries, almost all of whom were to serve in the Peninsular War.

That their soldiers were tough and doughty fighters is to this day honoured by the Swiss for the four Swiss Regiments, deployed with Napoleon’s Army during their retreat from Russia in 1812. By resisting the Russian army for twelve hours, the 1,500 men of the 4th regiment enabled a mass of French troops to cross the Berezina River  and avoid capture and only 300 Swiss soldiers of the regiment survived.[17]

Napoleon admired the Swiss soldier;

The first Swiss regiment is composed of men who have served France and will be loyal to you. The Swiss will give you all you could wish for. They are good soldiers and will not let you down.[18]

The problem of Swiss soldier’s facing each other in someone else’s war was avoided by the Swiss Confederation’s stringent application of State control, rules, regulations, and agreements with foreign governments, although some instances did occur. In 1848 however, new contracts for Swiss mercenary units were banned and the last Swiss mercenaries were disbanded in 1860, with the exception of the Swiss Papal Guard which endures to this day.

The English in 1514, had attempted through an envoy, Richard Pace, to persuade a Swiss league of mercenaries to join a form of alliance against the French but this failed under French intrigue. Again in 1689 another envoy Thomas Coxe, was sent to Switzerland to secure 4,000 mercenaries for William III, yet that too failed on the condition the mercenaries could only be used for defence. From this date however, Swiss mercenaries began to feature more often in the English service and pay.

In 1694 Jean de Sacconay, following a request from William III, provided a Swiss regiment of two battalions, each of four companies each, some 1,600 men in the English pay, to fight under the Duke of Savoy against Louis XIV.

The East India Company, founded in 1601, initially suffered a chronic and persistent problem of recruiting, only fulfilling their military obligations by recruiting from ‘beyond England.’ It became evident that local sources of military labour were readily available and by the mid eighteenth century the Company armies were comprised of largely indigenous native soldiers. [19] These troops were commanded by European officers, and later supplemented by limited numbers of European only regiments in the three Presidency armies of Madras, Bombay and Bengal.

A Swiss infantry company was stationed on the Coromandel Coast and a European company of artillerymen, comprised principally of Swiss, was at Madras in 1696. During 1751, ‘two company’s of able bodyed soldiers,‘ from Protestant cantons in Switzerland, arrived at Madras for service in India. These troops had been raised by Sir Luke Schaub of Old Bond St. London, a Swiss born British diplomat and a Jasper Sellon, each company to be comprised of:

One Captain, two Lieutenants, one Ensign, six Serjeants, six Corporals, one Drum Major, two Drummers, one Fife and 120 ‘private centinels,’ commanded by John Chabbert and John Henry Schaub.[20]

In 1752 two further companies of Swiss soldiers under two officers were sailing to Fort St. George, Madras, when one of their ships was captured by the French and taken to Pondicherry. The captured company, commanded by a Captain Polier, was later released and fought for the British in the Carnatic Wars. At least two Swiss battalions under Colonel Jacques Prevost, were absorbed into a European regiment of the East India Company army in 1757. The registers of St. Mary’s church, Madras record the deaths of thirty-two Swiss soldiers, between 1752-1758. In the latter year a full company of 130 Swiss Protestant soldiers arrived for service with the Bombay army under a Captain A. Zeigler, although 101 of these men were sent to Madras in 1754 to supplement the Company troops there.[21] Between late 1779 to 1781 Colonel James Francis Erskine, then resident in Switzerland, entered into discussions first with HM government ministers and then East India Company officials about raising a corps of 850 Swiss troops for service either under the Crown or in India but due to French intrigue, the negotiations failed, prompting Erskine to publish a book on the pusillanimity of British ministers and the Company Court of Directors.[22]

The East India Company, despite opposition in India and the East Indies generally from the Dutch, Portuguese and the French,[23] had established a firm hold on the sub-continent which left only the Princely Indian states, the Marathas and Sikhs, who often employed European mercenaries, to oppose the spread and influence of the Company which they did with degrees of success.

What Erskine had failed to persuade the British to do, a Charles Daniel Meuron was to be more successful with the Dutch. The Regiment Meuron, originally raised for the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in 1781, passed from memory long ago, but at the very end of the 18th century the regiment transferred allegiance to the British and for twenty one years served as His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment in Ceylon, India, the Mediterranean and finally in Canada.

The Regiment would be the oldest Swiss mercenary regiment to serve in the British army, Louis de Roll’s Regiment, formed in 1795, was disbanded in 1815, Louis de Watteville’s Regiment formed in 1801 disbanded in 1816[24]  together with Roverea’s Regiment who fought for the British in 1799.

The founder of the Regiment Meuron, Charles Daniel Meuron,[25] was born in 1738 at Saint Sulplice, Vaud, Switzerland, where his father owned a tannery, combined with a role as innkeeper and captain of the local militia. Taught by a local priest, Charles Daniel took an apprenticeship as a book-keeper during which he met officers of the Regiment de Hallwyl, a Swiss regiment raised in 1719, for French service. He was sufficiently influenced to give up the apprenticeship in 1756, and enlist as an Ensign in the Marine Corps of the Regiment de Hallwyl.[26]

Charles Daniel de Meuron in uniform of a British Major General (Musee d’Histoire Neuchatel)

 

During December 1757, the Regiment de Hallwyl was serving aboard the seventy-four guns French ship, Florissant, with the intention of assisting the American colonists in their struggle for independence from the British. The Florissant was attacked by HMS Buckingham and so severely damaged that her Captain, de Maureville failed to reach America, seeking refuge in Martinique. During the engagement Charles Daniel Meuron was wounded in the back.[27] Recovered sufficiently by January 1759, he took part in an action to confront a British force invading Grenada and wounded in the lower leg. In 1760, the Marine Corps disembarked at Marseilles and Meuron returned to his home in Switzerland with a gratuity from the French government and six months paid leave. At the close of hostilities in 1763, the Regiment de Hallwyl was disbanded, and Charles Daniel Meuron awarded a wound pension of 450 French pounds.

In 1765 he joined the elite Swiss Guard, responsible for protecting the French King and although his duties were mundane, he was able to develop an influential network including Etienne-Francois, Duc de Choiseul, Colonel General of Swiss Regiments in the French service. Meuron transferred to the Regiment D’ Erlach the same year and after promotion in 1773, was appointed a Chevalier du Mérite Militaire. By 1778, he held a Colonel’s commission, though as a protestant he could not command any French Catholic army unit. During this period, Meuron made a proposal detailed with costs, to raise a Swiss mercenary unit comprised of two battalions with a military establishment of between 1,740 -1,820 troops to serve as ‘settler soldiers‘ in French Guiana, later to become British Guiana.[28] During the Napoleonic Wars, French Guinea changed hands between the Dutch and French and his suggestion was not taken up. In 1781, Meuron left the French service,[29] and granted an augmented pension of 1,000 French pounds. It is suggested he was also granted the particle ‘de’ as a sign of the families higher status.[30]

Hostilities between France and England had broken out during the revolt of the American colonists in 1775, and though the Dutch attempted to maintain a degree of neutrality, their continued trading with Britain’s enemies, sowed the seeds of the 4th Anglo-Dutch War 1781-1784. Irritation with the Netherlands grew in intensity, for which the Dutch suffered drastically at the hands of the Royal Navy and privateers,[31] to the extent they were unable to provide protection for ships of the Dutch East India Company, known by the three letter abbreviation, VOC (Vereenigde Oostendische Compagnie.) Through intermediaries, the Dutch requested assistance and advice from the French, in particular regarding the security of their settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. On the recommendation of the French, the VOC turned to the Prince of Luxembourg, to employ his newly formed Legion and the Regiment de Waldner formed in 1757, both of whom were available for despatch to the Cape, and where the two regiments arrived in April 1782, forestalling a British attack. The Dutch however, appeared distrustful of deploying French adherents in their military service and guardedly expressed a preference for the establishment of a Swiss regiment on the basis of previous experience. The American Revolutionary War had assumed almost global status, spreading to the Sub-continent and Indian Ocean and The Cape became of strategic important to both Britain and France  and France would have expected support from the Swiss garrison stationed there.

In April 1781, Dutch commissaries were introduced to Charles Daniel de Meuron of Néuchatel,, Western Switzerland, who rose to the challenge of raising a regiment, on similar terms to the Regiment de Hallwyl and subject to a contract of twenty-five articles. (See appendix II)

In brief the contract committed to the founding of a regiment comprising of 1,121 men, all Protestants, to be not less than 5 feet tall and at least two thirds of the establishment to come from Swiss cantons. The appointment of officers was to be held by the proprietary colonel namely, Charles Daniel de Meuron, with the Dutch East India Company retaining the nomination of two officers.

The establishment of the Regiment was set at:

A Commander in the rank of Colonel, a Lieutenant Colonel, a Major, ten Captains, ten Lieutenants, a Lieutenant Paymaster, three Ensigns, A chief surgeon with ten assistants, a Sergeant Major, ten companies of one hundred and twelve soldier’s each, with twelve gunners, four sergeants, four corporals attached to each company. All ranks were engaged for five years’ service, and discipline imposed under Swiss Military law.

The commander’s salary was fixed at 3,000 Swiss florins per year, the Major 1,800, Captains 1,200, the chief surgeon and Lieutenants 600, Ensigns 400, a Sergeant 240 florins, and 128 florins for a private soldier. [32]

The proprietary Colonel or owner, would receive 300 French pounds or livre, per man for raising the regiment, although he would forfeit 10,000 French pounds should the Regiment on the day of first muster be 100 men short. The Dutch East India Company would pay 25,000 Swiss florins annually for the replacement of arms and uniform.

The first uniform jackets were of sang de bouef or ox blood colour, with white piping, sky blue lapels and cuffs; however as red was the predominant colour of British army uniforms, against whom the regiment may have to be deployed, the Swiss Meuron uniform jacket colour was changed to blue.

The transition to the blue uniform took place gradually due to supply issues and poor quality of blue cloth. The new uniform included a King’s or regency style blue coat, silver braid, folded collar, lapels and yellow facings, with ten double rectangular buttonholes in white thread, white waistcoat and trousers, the helmet had a crest of black hair for troops and white for officers with gilded fittings and a metal badge bearing the three chevrons of Néuchatel. Officers carried a sword and scabbard, a pistol on the belt and were distinguished by an orange sash, the traditional colour of the royal house of the Netherlands, worn over the coat from right to left.

Privates, Corporals, Sergeants and Farriers carried a flintlock musket, and a dragoon or light sabre style sword. Sappers carried a sabre, an axe, and wore a white leather apron.

Musicians wore the standard costume with an appropriate emblem on the sleeve. The Drum-major wore a black helmet, dark green lapels and facings, edged in silver braid. A black cymbal musician is shown in an illustration held at Néuchatel,, wearing a green bonnet surmounted with a yellow and black turban with ostrich feather.

A contractual agreement was drawn up and signed on 28th May 1781.[33]

Ensign and Banner, Regiment de Meuron 1781-1795, Cape of Good Hope & Ceylon (courtesy Musee d’Histoire Neuchatel)

 

The regiment was granted four standards, the principal flag of a white banner bearing the monogram V.O.C – Dutch East India Company and the motto, ‘Terra et Mare Fidelitas et Honor.’ The Colonel’s standard and two others of black, green, and yellow flames with a broad yellow cross. Twenty drums and a variety of musical instruments were also purchased. Recruitment turned out to be brisk, but not without problems and the Swiss cantons expressed some concerns about existing contracts. Yet by the agreed date of 31st October 1781, the regiment was complete at two thirds Swiss and almost one third German with a sprinkling of other nationalities. The recruit numbers were then decimated by an outbreak of smallpox, requiring de Meuron to fund a hospital and separate graveyard. Deceased recruits were replaced by 380 French criminals freed from the Paris prisons, some of whom deserted immediately. Two deserters caught with their arms and ammunition were sentenced to death, later commuted to a flogging and imprisonment one hundred and one years with hard labour. The regiment took its oath of allegiance with their right hand raised before their VOC employers on the morning of 3rd May 1782 and were complimented on parade by the VOC inspectors, who reported:

…we have noted with great satisfaction, that the regiment is fully equipped as prescribed in the contract of the Honourable Company and that the order and military discipline is better than would be expected from a new regiment, quarantined in widely dispersed villages and also plagued by sickness and death which required recruiting throughout the winter.[34]

De Meuron had recruited his brother Pierre Frederick de Meuron, and second relative, Benoit de Sergeans as his 2nd Colonel, Francois Sandol-Roy as Major and Captain Lieutenant Samuel Jéquier, as regimental ‘grand juge,’ to assist in matters of administration and discipline, he remained with the regiment until his death in Ceylon in May 1789.

 

[1] Sarah Percy, Oxford Bibliographies, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document

[2]  W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, a play first performed in 1599, where Mark Anthony announces a war against Caesar’s assassins and conspirators with, ‘… cry Havoc, let slip the Dogs of War.’

[3] F. Grose, Military Antiquities respecting A History of the English Army, (London: T. Egerton 1801) Vol I pp.71-74.

[4] F. S. Saunders, Hawkwood, Diabolical Englishman, (London: Faber and Faber 2004); S. Cooper, Sir John Hawkwood, Chivalry and the Art of War, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2008)

[5] S. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: J Knapton, Longman, Hitch & Hawes 1755)

[6] C. Onions ed. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, (London: Clarendon Press 1978) vol II

[7] Protocol Additional GC 1977, APGC77. The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949

[8]  Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union, Vol. 54 No. 1-4 1964, p.5, mentions both officers.

[9] J. McCormack One Million Mercenaries (London: Leo Cooper, 1993) Section I, p.2.

[10] The Swiss federal army invaded France in 1815 as part of the allied response to Napoleon’s return.

[11] L Forrer, A Few Notes on Swiss Officers and Mercenary Regiments in the Pay of England, British Numismatic Society, 1945 15pp.  The Duke of Marlborough was rescued by a Swiss Mercenary unit at Ramillies when he found himself surrounded by a French squadron. Captain de Constant d’Hermenches was rewarded by being appointed Aide de Camp to Duke of Albermarle, Colonel General of the Swiss in the service of Holland.

[12] J. McCormack, One Million Mercenaries (London: Leo Cooper 1993) p.180

[13] John Casparis, The Swiss Mercenary System: Labor Emigration from the Semiperiphery, (JSTOR Review, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Spring, 1982), pp. 593-642

[14] J. McCormack, One Million Mercenaries, (London: Leo Cooper 1993) pp.178-179

[15] Officially known as Reislaufers, they were referred to as Switzers.

[16]  Supplementary Dispatches and Memoranda of Arthur, The Duke of Wellington, India (London: J. Murray, 1858) Vol. I. p.99

[17] J. McCormack, One Million Mercenaries, (London: Leo Cooper 1993) pp.173-4

[18] J. McCormack, One Million Mercenaries, (London: Leo Cooper 1993) p.162. Napoleon to his brother, Joseph 30 July 1806.

[19] C. Welsch, The Company’s Sword, The East India Company and the Politics of Militarism, 1644-1858. (Cambridge: CUP, 2022, 2022) pp.28-29

[20] British Library General Reference 12275.aa.19. Calcutta Review 1903; H.D. Love, The Indian Record Series; Vestiges of Old Madras (London: J. Murray 1913) 3 Vols. Vol II   p. 429; Royal United Services Institute, Some Friends in Our Pay, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071841409420136. Apparently, the Swiss ‘centinels’ were absorbed into English military units by 1756.  Accessed December 2020

[21] P. Cadell, History of the Bombay Army, (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1938) pp.59-60

[22] J. F. Erskine, Narrative and Memorial of Colonel Erskine Relative to a Regiment raised on the Borders of Switzerland for the Service of the East India Company (No Publisher or Date.) pp.54

[23] French finally defeated at the Battle of Wandiwash, (now Vandavasi, Tamil Nadu) in January 1760, by an army commanded by Eyre Coote.

[24] L. Forrer, A Few Notes on Swiss Officers and Mercenary Regiments in the Pay of England. C. 1945 https://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital%20BNJ/pdfs/1945_BNJ_25_18.pdf; A. Nichols, Wellington’s Switzers, (Huntingdon: K Trotman, 2015.) pp.53-135

[25] As yet the honorific prefix ‘de’ had not been awarded.

[26] Founded in 1719 as Regiment de Karrer, the name changed in 1752 to de Hallwyl. Disbanded 1763.

[27] M. Moore, The Memoirs and Adventure of Mark Moore, late an officer in the British Navy (printed for the author, by J. W. Myers: and sold by W. Stewart; and J. Parsons, 1795) pp.267. A Reprint edition. Moore was a Midshipman at the time aboard HMS Buckingham. During the engagement Buckingham’s Captain Tyrrell was wounded and the first officer Lieutenant Marshall, assumed command, but was killed whilst praying ‘abaft the binnacle’ when Tyrrell resumed command.

[28] Ministere de la Culture, France, Overseas National Archives ref Col E 311, pp.7-12

[29] A. Linder, The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards 1781-1816. (Cape Town: Castle Military Museum, 2000)

[30] British Library, Africa and Asia Collection MSS EUR F370/1619

[31] T. D Potgeiter, Maritime Power and the Case of the Cape of Good Hope. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37371114.pdf, Accessed 02/01/2021

[32] The florin, was interchangeable with the old Swiss and Dutch Guilder, no longer legal tender after the introduction of the Euro in 2002. The rate of exchange is 1 Euro equals 2.2 Guilder.

The livre was discontinued in 1794 and worth 80 francs.

[33] See Appendix II.

[34] A. Linder, The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards 1781-1816, (Cape Town, SA, Castle Military Museum, 2000) pp.24-25