The Waterloo Association: Members Area

Join: Join the Waterloo Association

The Germans Under The French Eagles: The Soldiers of Hesse and Nassau Chapter I

The Germans Under The French Eagles: The Soldiers of Hesse and Nassau Chapter I

The Germans Under The French Eagles (Translated by Greg Gorsuch)



When the Emperor Napoleon Ist had decided to constitute the Confederation of the Rhine, and to group under the aegis of France the German princes whom he was taking away from Austrian protection and from those of Prussia, he hesitated for some time between two solutions: unite in this new political grouping a small number of States, which he would enlarge at the expense of the secondary States deliberately sacrificed, or else admit into the Alliance a larger number of participants, without allowing the little princes to be absorbed by the more powerful princes.

It was in this last combination that he finally issued and fifteen states entered the Confederation:  alongside the kings of Bavaria and Württemberg, the Grand Duke of Baden, the Duke of Cleves and Berg, and the Prince Primate, came to line up the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, the Duke and Prince of Nassau, the two princes of Hohenzollern, the two princes of Salm, those of Arenberg and Isembourg, finally, the Count of Leyen; but the country of Hesse-Darmstadt was soon sacrificed to enlarge the Duchy of Berg and Württemberg and the principalities of Nassau were incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Baden.  As for the preserved little princes, they counted their existence only to the influence of Talleyrand, to whom the Emperor had declared “that we had no enemies internally more ravenous and that it was in the nature of the circumstances to destroy them all “; however, he had an exception for the Hohenzollerns of Swabia ‘who were not of the party of François II’.

In short, the landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and the two princes of Nassau-Usingen and Nassau-Weilburg escaped the slaughter which encompassed such a large number of principalities, counties, free towns and chivalries.

The federal contingents to be supplied by Darmstadt amounted to 4,000 men; 4,000 men also were to be given by the Duke of Nassau and all the other petty princes of the Confederation ‘in any continental war which one of the contracting parties would have to support, and which would immediately become common to all the others.’  If Bavaria put 30,000 soldiers in line, Württemberg 12,000, Baden 8,000 and Berg 5,000; France on its side engaged with 200,000 men. The 63,000 bayonets of Germans of the Confederation thus had, by this contribution of the French army, a serious support against the foreign desires; and, on the other hand, the Confederation remaining open to the other German States, and all of them soon to join it, this was for Napoleon a final addition of 150,000 German soldiers whose armies he could increase in the European struggles planned and to follow.

We will follow in this study our allies of Hesse and Nassau during the campaigns which they made in our ranks.

They will first fight in 1806 against the Prussian army, participate in our laurels of Jena, then collaborate in the sieges of the fortresses of Colberg and Graudenz, and finally take Stralsund from the Swedes.

Then, they will march with us against Austria in 1809; we will see the ‘Darmstadt’ illustrate themselves with Masséna in Essling and still fight in Raab, Wagram and Znaïm.

In 1812, Prince Émile of Hesse, the most brilliant of the Grand Duke’s sons, was at the head of the Hessian contingent: his regiments were at Smolensk, Moskowa, Krasnoi, Berezina; they shared all the woes of the army and deserved to be reunited with the Imperial Guard.  In this campaign, Prince Émile gained genuine popularity; he inspired one of the most beautiful songs dedicated to German veterans of the Grand Army:

“General! General!  Your image shines in our hearts, as in a hurricane of battles it dazzled, terribly, the eyes of the enemy, great image always luminous! — Napoleon understood you, and he understood how to choose men! — His eagle gaze went to the bottom of his heart; of what price you were for him, your exploits showed it. — Hello, our general!  You live in our hearts, you are the pride of veterans, the golden mirror of heroes, great immortal image!”

On the fields of Lützen and Bautzen in 1813, the Hessians were victorious at our side; they still fought in the dark days of Katzbach and Jüterbock, and their remains disappeared from our ranks in Leipzig where they fought to the end and fell into the hands of the allies; those of them who did not attend the Battle of the Nations defended Torgau, from where they were sent back to their homeland before the fall of the town.

But the most moving pages, the bloodiest too, in the history of our allies, were written by them is in Spain.

From 1808 a regiment of infantry from Nassau and a regiment of infantry from Hesse were sent to the Peninsula, soon followed by a magnificent squadron of mounted jäger from Nassau.  Attached to the army of the Center and under the direction of Marshals Lefebvre, Victor, Marmont, Augereau, they were in all the great battles which ensure the tottering throne of King Joseph:  Medellin, Talavera, Almonacid, Ocaña were witnesses of their intrepidity and of their momentum.  Decimated in this ruthless war by enemy fire, the dagger of assassins, guerrilla ambushes, disease and fatigue, the soldiers of Hesse and Nassau saw their numbers quickly melt away, but their valour still remained.

The regiment of Hesse ‘Crown Prince’, after the magnificent defence of Badajoz where a garrison of 2,500 men put more than 4,000 assailants out of action, fell whole into the hands of the English.  As for the 2nd Regiment of Nassau, its leader defected in 1813 on the banks of the Nivelle and dragged it into the English lines:  quite different was the conduct of the Count von Hochberg, commanding the Baden contingent in Leipzig, who called for allies the honour of being treated as a prisoner of war.

In the army of Catalonia, where the 1st Regiment of Nassau fought from 1810, this body stood out as soon as it arrived in the Manresa expedition, where, united with the regiment of the Duchies of Saxony, it had to fight against the forces twenty times superior and to carry out a difficult retreat during which it suffered considerable losses.

The 1st Regiment of Nassau was disarmed, as well as the mounted Jägers, by order of the Emperor, after the defection of the 2nd Regiment.  The anger and the despair of these German soldiers, in the face of a measure which they could not understand after their loyal services of several years, made them feel the close bonds which attached them to our flags: many broke their weapons or asked to serve in our regiments, showing the star of the Legion of Honour which decorated their chest and the scars of the wounds received in our ranks.

This is because, since 1808, ‘everything had become common between the sons of old Gaul and the soldiers of Bavaria, Hesse, Baden, Nassau …  The banks of the German rivers had provided their contingent of heroes to the Napoleonic Epic.  Our allies of the Rheinbund had their share in the imperial triumphs, and their pages in the Bulletins of the Grand Army which recounted in fashion the wonders of Wagram, Borodino, or the disasters of 1812’.[1]

As Rambaud says with such real emotion:

“Even after the year 1813, when our Rhine allies turned against us, even after 1814, when they followed the army of Prussia and Austria against Napoleon, the memory of a long and glorious contract of arms could not be extinguished in their souls.”

Popular German imagery represented the veterans of the Rheinbund, brave fellows like our old grumblers, weeping over the grave of Saint Helena; other prints show us face to face the unforgettable features of Napoleon and those of the Prince Émile of Hesse, whose sideburns and moustache recall Lasalle and Murat.

These heroic allies of our Grand Imperial Army were not ashamed of having defeated the Prussians, the Austrians, the Russians, the Swedes, the Spaniards, or the English on our side. Their bones must have been shaken under the earth where they sleep when the friends of Prussia spoke in Darmstadt of demolishing (under the pretext of bad artistic taste) the monument erected in honor of the Hessian army and which records its feats of arms: first against the armies of the French Revolution, then against the enemies of the Confederation of the Rhine, finally against Napoleon himself, from Leipzig to the battle of Paris.

The loyalty of the Hessians remains intact in the history of the campaigns of the Empire.  That of the soldiers of Nassau, despite their numerous brilliant actions, is sadly veiled by a defection that politics can absolve, but that military honour refuses to excuse.




Landgrave Louis X of Hesse-Darmstadt was born in 1753 in Prenzlau, where his father Louis IX was garrisoned as a Prussian officer. He travelled in his youth, visited Holland, France, England, married a sister of Emperor Paul I of Russia and remained for some time in Russian service. When he succeeded his father in 1789, he found himself grappling with serious political and economic difficulties. Although an admirer of the philosophers and ideas of the Revolution, he had to participate, as prince of the empire, in the war waged by the first coalition against the French Republic. But, after the King of Prussia, the electors of Hesse-Cassel and Württemberg, and the Prince of Baden had separately made peace with France, Louis X, in his staunch loyalty, did not abandon the cause of the Germanic empire, despite the heavy burdens imposed on his people by the war, and despite the obligation he saw himself to leave his States as a fugitive.

Also, as a price for his fidelity, that was founded on counting on the recognition of Francis I, who had promised him the restitution of all the territories lost on the left bank of the Rhine during the wars of the Revolution, or, at least, equivalent compensation. The emperor was also committed not to conclude peace with France without the knowledge of Hesse-Darmstadt. But these hopes were cruelly disappointed: at the peace of Campo-Formio, Francis I forgot his most faithful ally, and the Congress of Radstadt showed the Landgrave all the duplicity of Austria: the latter, in fact, while officially proclaiming to have ensured the integrity of the empire, recognized by a secret article the Rhine like border of France, and it abandoned Mainz, ‘this door which opened to the French invasions the road to Germany;’ moreover, as the emperor had formally opposed the secularizations of the ecclesiastical principalities to the sovereigns dispossessed of their territories on the left bank of the Rhine.

Renouncing then to obtain anything from Austria, the Landgrave sent Colonel de Pappenheim to Paris who signed on 3 February 1799 with the French government a treaty of neutrality; the Hessian envoy, assisted in his mission by the Minister of State Barkhaus-Wiesenhütten, tried in vain to open the eyes of his prince to the advantages that a closer rapprochement with France could bring to the house of Darmstadt; he could not detach Louis X from the fidelity ‘in spite of everything’ that this Prince wanted to keep to the Germanic empire: it took later the harsh experience of 1805 and the unacceptable disillusions of the peace of Pressburg to finally bring the Landgrave to  move away from the House of Austria, after his stubborn loyalty had put, as we shall see, the very existence of Hesse in peril.

No longer wishing to rely on Austria and making the serious mistake, at this favourable moment, of not strengthening his ties with France, Louis X resolved to ask for the protection of Prussia to which the House of Darmstadt was linked by several marriages.

When a rupture became imminent between France and Austria in the autumn of 1805, Napoleon, who had become Emperor of the French, rallied Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg to his cause, which provided him with military contingents. These three states were to, with Hesse-Darmstadt, form the basis of the German Confederation, already germinating in Napoleon’s brain:  the latter had no doubts about the Landgrave’s membership and asked him to provide him with 4,000 soldiers and 1,000 horses for French artillery transports.

While impatiently awaiting the response from Prussia to which he asked for advice and protection on 3 September, Louis X claimed that the strength was too high for Napoleon:  out of the 3,626 soldiers he possessed, and part of which was necessary for the maintenance of peace and order in his States, he could scarcely, he alleged give more than 2,000 or 2,400; and still it would be necessary that they were maintained and paid for by France; as for the 1,000 horses for transport, it is impossible for him to supply more than 200. These reductions are accepted on 21 September, however, the Landgrave did not send anything:

“The Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt did not seem disposed to give his 4,000 men; he pretended to have great difficulties for the horses and only gives me 120.”[2]

This is because King Frederick William of Prussia had finally sent Darmstadt the consultation requested by the Landgrave: without promising him any formal support, he invited him to observe strict neutrality.

Nevertheless, Louis X still discounted the help of Prussia, which still passed at this time, in the eyes of many, for the first military power in the world:  he would soon realize how weak and obsolete this military power had become. Resolved to remain neutral and not wanting to break the moral ties that bound him to the Germanic empire, he would not allow his troops to take up arms against Austria and was determined not to give a single soldier to Napoleon.

And Napoleon was surprised, meanwhile, ‘that the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt had not sent Marshal Marmont the 4,000 men he had promised’: he wrote to Helflinger, Minister of France in Darmstadt, “that he is surprised by this conduct of a House which has always shown so much attachment to France. “.[3]  Helflinger, who failed to convince Louis X, replied that “the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, on the advice of the King of Prussia, is resolved to maintain absolute neutrality; that his troops were moreover 60 leagues away, or on furlough. Finally, that he wanted in such a serious matter to consult his council.”[4]

This delaying response could not satisfy the Emperor. Also, the Landgrave believed he must write to Marshal Berthier, Chief of Staff of the Grande Armée “that he cannot accept the French alliance for fear of compromising the interests of his subjects, most of whom are in the north of Germany “;[5] and he sent Napoleon his aide-de-camp, Major von Moranville, carrying a letter in which he explained to Napoleon himself the reasons for his determination.

He did not yet despair of convincing his irreconcilable ally.  He addressed the following letter which curiously clarified the situation:

Ettlingen, 2 October 1805.

“I received Your Highness’s letter of 1 October; I spoke at length with your aide-de-camp M. de Moranville; I told him everything I thought about the current circumstances.  When the armies of Bavaria, from Württemberg and Baden join my army, I could not think that the army of Darmstadt would move away. Your Highness does not want to end a friendship of two centuries, in circumstances where it is more necessary than never to the good and the glory of his House. If the circumstances of revolution have interrupted the old system for a moment, everything having returned to the same principles, must be replaced in the same way, and I flatter myself that Your Highness and his House will have for me the same feelings they had for the Third Dynasty.”

“Once our bonds are reformed, Your Highness can be confident that He will find me ready to protect his rights and give him constant proof of my friendship.”



The Emperor wrote the same day to Talleyrand on this subject:  the comminatory terms of his letter vis-à-vis the Landgrave foreshadowed a rupture, in case the latter did not give in:

Imperial Quarter of Ettlingen, 2 October 1805.

“…I received an aide-de-camp from the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt:  I informed him that I needed 3,000 men; I told him that it was necessary for the Landgrave itself.  I believe I have convinced him, and I hope that in his turn he will persuade his master not to betray the interests of his House and suddenly deny a friendship of more than two hundred years.  His country cannot be guaranteed by Prussia, which could not guarantee Bavaria.”

“My intention is to include Darmstadt in my Germanic federation composed of Bavaria, Darmstadt, Württemberg and Baden.  In short, I need 3,000 men from Darmstadt, or the Landgrave will forever relinquish my protection and abruptly break off what he has the right to expect from two hundred years of liaison.”



In the meantime, the passage of French troops through the Prussian enclave of Ansbach produced considerable emotion in Berlin:  Frederick-William, pushed by the Emperor of Russia, approached Austria, and looked to interpose himself between the belligerents and send an ultimatum to Napoleon. Taking advantage of these circumstances, Landgrave Louis secretly sent his aide-de-camp, General von Oyen, to the King of Prussia, to offer him the alliance of Hesse, on the same conditions that had been offered to him by the Emperor of the French: guarantee of his possessions, increases in the event of a victorious campaign, maintenance and pay of the troops of Darmstadt; the question of the taking of the troops (4,600 men, which would be brought to 10,000 men) could not be approved by Prussia, then embarrassed financially; they turned to a banker whose coffers were always open when it came to fighting France: to England; but the negotiations dragged on and were broken off after Austerlitz. For the rest, the King of Prussia made fine promises, but gave no positive guarantees.

And yet the heads of columns of the Prussian army, with which the troops of Hesse-Cassel had assembled, approached the frontiers of Darmstadt, soon crossed its advanced corps which took cantonments on the territory of the Landgrave himself.

But the thunderclap of Austerlitz suddenly dissipated all the clouds: the Austrians and Russians had been crushed, and the Prussian envoy Haugwitz, instead of giving Napoleon the famous ultimatum, signed with him the Treaty of Schönbrunn: Prussia put its sword back in the scabbard, fell into the arms of France “her strong and disinterested friend”, and, as Austria had done in 1805, deliberately sacrificed the faithful friends who had trusted in her protection.

For the second time, Landgrave Louis saw himself abandoned by a great power in Germany, faced with an enemy whose resentment he had every reason to fear. The situation was most critical: 16,000 Prussians descended from the north on the territory of Darmstadt, in the south, Marshal Augereau had just occupied the province of Starkenburg; one spoke of considerable increases assured to Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg for their participation in the last campaign; it was said that major territorial changes were being prepared on the right bank of the Rhine, that Starkenburg would be given to Baden, while the rest of the landgraviate would enter into the composition of a new state created in northern Germany to counterbalance the Prussia. In short, there was a rumour of an imminent partition of Hesse and its total disappearance as a state.

In this extreme peril, the Landgrave Louis finally decided to orient his policy towards France; but would this rudder save the ship, and would not the just causes of irritation of the Emperor of the French make if not impossible at least very delicate, the urgent negotiations to be undertaken?  Had not the charge d’affaires of France, Helflinger, himself declared that he did not know “how such a late approach would be received?”

Nevertheless, on 10 January 1806, Louis X sent to Napoleon, then in Munich, his aide-de-camp Moranville, with full powers “to accede to any treaty of alliance, to offer the employment of the troops of Hesse-Darmstadt against the enemies of France, and, in short, to enter into any arrangements which might be agreeable to His Imperial and Royal Majesty “; the conscious of the Landgrave was at rest: the Germanic empire, collapsed at the peace of Pressburg, was nothing more than a nebulous fiction that the coming dawn of the Confederation of the Rhine was to dispel definitively.

It was late, but not too late. Moranville was received on 15 January by Napoleon, whom he found more favorably disposed than could be expected. What were the causes of such an unexpected welcome? Perhaps the close ties between the House of Darmstadt and those of Bavaria and Baden, to which the Bonaparte family was itself united by the recent marriages of Princess Stephanie and Prince Eugène de Beauharnais; perhaps also the present attitude of Prussia. Finally, Moranville, after hearing from the subject of the past policy of the Landgrave, returned with the hope that the proposed alliance would perhaps be accepted.

Napoleon accepted the alliance: it was in line with his plans to create a French Germany; and he wrote on 16 January to the Landgrave:

“Cousin, you have rightly foreseen that I have much to complain about your conduct. You have allowed your policy to be influenced by the fancy of women: you are on the verge of experiencing what all the princes who have let themselves be led by them have experienced.  Your states are devoured by two armies. If you had only to read the history of your House and walked in the footsteps of your ancestors, you would find yourself not only with the quality of Elector that you seemed to aspire to, but with an increase in power such as that I have  obtained for the kings of Bavaria, Württemberg, and the Elector of Baden.”

“While on the throne of France after the expulsion of the Third Dynasty, I considered myself to be in solidarity with all its commitments, and I have given you very special proof of this in the arrangements which followed the Peace of Lunéville.[6]  You are therefore more seriously wrong than those which politics can accuse you of having failed in recognition. Those for your subjects, as by their attachment to the true system of your House, that is to say to its union with me, you have moved them away… But do not believe, My Cousin, that I do not know how to distinguish this which is specific to you and which is the effect of an influence from which you have not been able to defend yourself.[7] The blood of your ancestors which runs through your veins has always kept you internally, despite the intrigues which surround you, friend of France… Call back your good servants… and you find me fully disposed to forget the past and to be, for you, what the sovereigns of France have always been.”

The Landgrave immediately acceded to the Emperor’s desire: he separated from his minister, General von Oyen, recalled Barckhaus, and sent Colonel de Pappenheim to Paris, who was able, through skilful and measured negotiations, to regain all the lost ground. Not only was the province of Starkenburg returned to Hesse, but the Landgrave was admitted on 12 July 1806 into the Confederation of the Rhine, along with 14 other German princes.

The new Confederate sovereigns declared themselves separated “in perpetuity” from the territory of the Germanic empire: “this word in perpetuity has, in politics, a relative value: when the Germanic Empire will be reconstituted, a relative value:  when the Germanic empire was to be reconstituted at Versailles in 1871, the Grand Duke of Hesse would enter it again, also in perpetuity; the future will tell us how long this perpetuity will last.”[8]

But it is necessary to restore to the Landgrave of Darmstadt this justice which he was as faithful to the French alliance as he had been to that of the Holy See; he will be the last to abandon us in 1813, when Germany will turn against us. His devotion to our cause, so rare among the princes who owed France their independence and greatness, even nearly cost him his crown, for Arndt rallied against him the diplomats and patronesses of 1815, reproaching him for saying that “Napoleon was his friend, whom he owed gratitude to, and he would be grateful as long as he lived!”

Not only did the Emperor save the Confederate states from annexation to Austria or Prussia, but he enlarged and enriched them:  Landgrave Louis X became Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt under the name of Louis Ist, increased by a dozen great fiefs, and henceforth enjoyed “rights, honours, and prerogatives attached to royal dignity.”

As an obligation to France, the protective power of the Confederation, Louis I undertook to supply a contingent of 4,000 men.

It is the military history of this contingent, from 1806 to 1813, that we will sketch in the following chapters of this study.

[1] Rambaud, Germany under Napoleon Ier, p. 180.

[2] Marmont to Berthier, Chief of Staff. Mainz, 26 September 1805.

[3] The Emperor to Helflinger. Strasbourg, 28 September 1805.

[4] Helflinger to the Emperor. Darmstadt, 29 September 1805.

[5] Prince Louis, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, to Marshal Berthier. Darmstadt, 30 September 1805.

[6] The Emperor was alluding to the Germanic recess which brought significant expansions to Darmstadt.

[7] The influence in question was that of the Landgrave.

[8] Rambaud, Germany under Napoleon Ist, p. 20.