Friday 7 October 2016

The Sound of a Distant Drum: North German Foot, Legal Contracts and Oak-leaf brass fret

I’ve been steadily painting throughout September. I’ve finished three battalions of Flemish foot from Laarden (my fictitious town in the Spanish Netherlands of 1688), which are now in the process of being based. More of that in the next Blog post.

I’m moving on to a contingent of allied North German foot, recruited by the civic elders and burghers of Laarden to brace and supplement Laarden's otherwise creaking military capacity. Battalions of foot and horse could still be recruited through private contract and alliance in the late seventeenth century, and these formations have fascinated me for years. However, tracing the history of North German mercenary contingents is an obscure process. The Dutch States General were regular contractors for German and Brandenburg troops in the 1680s. On 5th August 1688, the Dutch States-General concluded a contract with the Elector of Brandenburg for 7,510 troops, a figure adjusted upwards to 7,884 in 1690. John Carswell’s excellent book "Descent on England: Study of the English Revolution of 1688 and its European Background" mentions that the contract, signed by the Duke of Portland, was one of many that summer with half a dozen princes across the North German plain. A treaty with Brunswick-Lüneberg-Celle was signed on 8 August 1688 to provide a further 2,710 soldiers. Agreements were also signed with Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Hesse-Cassel and the Duchy of Wurttemberg in August 1688.

These German mercenaries, hired by their own princes, dukes and electors, replaced Dutch troops which would either accompany William III on his invasion of England, or release Dutch troops to face Louis XIV in the Spanish Netherlands. 

I would love to be able to discover more regarding the actual contractual terms on which these contingents, battalions and squadrons were recruited. Did the contracts specify how long the troops would be hired for? Where would the troops be marshalled in anticipation of the commencement of the contractual term of hire? What conditions of use were stipulated? Was there any detail of any battlefield or campaign deployment mentioned in the contract (such as limitations on use in sieges, or in a geographical area "such troops not to be deployed south of the Sambre", and so on)? What provisions in the contract was made for death, wounding or desertion of troops, or loss of equipment?Did the troops bring any accompanying artillery? What did the contract state about looting, or what would happen if the formation was destroyed in action or on campaign?

Unfortunately, none of the books I have read cover these sort of details. It may be that this is yet another of those mysteries from the late seventeenth century which is probably under our noses, but well hidden.  Alternatively, it is perhaps more likely that the contracts for hire of such formations were fairly simple, just stating that a number of troops would be hired from a particular prince or elector by a certain time at a particular location. 

 But, as ever with wargaming, it’s fun to imagine the terms of contracts which might have been drafted by one of the Laarden civic dignitaries in a candlelight Flemish Voorhuis with the military plenipotentiaries from Emden, Lübeck, Leer or Bremen present in the room and looking on as the contracts of hire were negotiated. 

Here’s some (very draft) ideas which I’m thinking of building into a play-test set of battle rules for the period which I’ve been working on for the past few months:

Hired Battalion Contractual Conditions (roll 2D6)

“…the Hirer shall be at pains to ensure casualties are remain as low as can be achieved…”
The battalion will seek to withdraw two full moves distant from the enemy once disordered, and rally before being recommitted.

“… the Hirer agrees that he shall not wantonly expose the hired formations to close action …”
The battalion requires an extra command initiative point to be expended before engaging in close combat.

“… all battalions and squadrons to be marched in good order at all times…”
The hired formations require double command initiative point cost to be spent for first move made on the table.

“… such battalia to be used in the Field at the reasonable discretion of the Hirer…”
Troops to be used as desired.
“… the hiring of a battalion skilled in the art of the manoeuvres of the Great Gustavus …”
The hired formations may make complex manoeuvres at no additional command initiative point to complete.

“ … all formations to be well victuall’d at all times…”
The battalions are well supplied, with an additional baggage element added to the Trayne.

Turning to the North German troops I have in mind for my formations, I’m again using Dixon’s 25mm Grand Alliance range, mixed with a few Wargames Foundry figures to make up a forlorn hope (or “verloren kinderen”, if you prefer). 

To mark out the troops on the tabletop battlefield, I’ve been adding etched brass fret oak leaves to the soldiers’ hats. This is less fiddly than might appear. As long as you have a very sharp modelling knife of scalpel, the brass oak leaves can be cut out, bent and glued in place using tweezers pretty simply. I know that some figure manufacturers make these, but the etched brass fret are, I think, worth the extra trouble. 

You can pick up the etched brass oak leaves (and other leaves) from either Hasslefree or Scalelink. Both of these suppliers are great to deal with, and come recommended by me. The Hasslefree frets are very reasonably priced and are slightly thinner than the Scalelink ones.

Next time, it'll be a quick look at basing and more flags from Laarden.  Hope to catch you around for that!


  1. Looking good, I shall enjoy watching your project progress and reading the background info.

    1. Thanks so much Phil - and great to see you stopping by!

  2. Now all you need is a rousing marching song, perhaps stolen from the Royal Navy and translated into Flemish - Hats of Oak?
    Very clever idea to distinguish these troops.
    I used to think the idea of hiring bands of mercenaries seemed very old school and quaint until I realized that, according to some figures, there are nearly as many in Afghanistan as there are regular western military. Only difference, we call them contractors. Plus ca change.

    1. "Hats of Oak" - that's a wonderful idea! Mercenaries - and how they were recruited and raised, how they fought, which nationalities predominated - seems to be a very respectably subject for scholars in all periods. There's a great deal on mercenaries in the Italian Wars, and a fair amount on the seventeenth century also (although mainly focused on the Thirty Years War).

      I agree with you entirely, that its very interesting as to the rise of Private Military Contractors, and their debatable and potentially deniable role in modern wars.

      Are some mercenary formations used because they are expendable? Or because they are experienced and veterans? Or, perhaps, because they are simply available? Or maybe all of these, and more?

      Perhaps a good focus for another post!

    2. From what I know of 21st century American practices, I think contractors are favoured because they come trained and experienced (many are ex US special forces), because they are deniable and unaccountable to rules of engagement, they do not have to be publicly reported as casualties, and they do not have extensive health care costs attached to them. The first criteria is applicable to the 17th century, the rest, not so much.

    3. Great additional comments, Mike. The point on health care costs is one I'd not considered, but a very good one. I'm thinking that the subject of mercenaries (17th century) deserves another Blog post in the not too distant future!

  3. Marvellous. The brass are a great idea and will look really good. All you have to do now is keep them out of the pub

    1. Thanks Martin. Funny you should mention that. One of the next terrain items is a tavern from Laarden's less salubrious district ...

  4. A jolly interesting post mate. Keen to see how the brass fret works out.

    1. Thanks Millsy. I shall keep you posted on the brass-work

  5. I like your contractual chart Sid! This reminds me of a recent article in WS&S on how to reflect the contractual disagreements that often cropped up during the Italian Wars. These will add a fun bit of friction to your games. Perhaps you need ones for when pay has not been provided (and so the troops will not move at all) and another for when the officers have been caught skimming from the regimental paychest (Mutiny!).

    1. Cheers Curt. Great minds think alike. I promise I have not looked at the WSS article first before this post. But I know I do have that edition of WSS, and would have read it, so it is entirely possible that I have subconsciously ripped it off in some way - for which apologies!

      As you've guessed, it is all about adding "friction" in all its forms to the game. Hopefully, in this case, adding friction in a form which is little period specific. I do like your other examples of shortages of pay and light-fingered officers. Perhaps we should have a "Hired Soldiers Attitude Chart"!

  6. What tremendous progress my good man, can't wait to see some of these come to life.

  7. Not sure which I like more - the wonderful idea for field signs in the hats, or that chart! Very imaginative.

    1. Cheers Ed. As ever, I'm inspired by everything you guys do - in particular the numerous charts in your own, great games!

  8. I like the brass etched oak leaves, very nice and the chart is fun , a bit like m class troops in George Gush's wrg renaissance rules looking forward in equal measure to the based troops and the tavern.
    Best Iain

    1. Hi Iain! Thanks so much - Gosh, I had completely forgotten the Class "M" troops from the WRG 2nd Edition Renaissance rules. It is high time I dug those out from the box of rules in the attic room! Great memories - thank you!


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