The Hessian soldiers, composed of a larger proportion of natives than the armies of most German princes, was as good as any other of its time. Karl VII of Bavaria, visiting Hessians in his service in October, 1744, noted in his diary, 'The fine appearance and smartness of these troops cannot be surpassed . . . one could not see better.' On many battlefields the Hessians 'held the sum of things for pay': at Rocoux (11 October 1746) against the French 'the Hessian Regiment of Mansbach, having stood their ground to the last… refused quarter, so that few of them escaped'. In both 1745 and 1756 Hessian troops were brought to Britain to repel threatened French and Scottish invasions. Guibert, seeing Hessians and Hannoverians garrisoned at Hanau in 1773 wrote, 'Le bataillon Hessois, surtout, m'a paru beau et bien tenu.'
In the Seven Years War the British alliance cost Hessen dearly. In 1756 the French army under Richelieu broke into Germany, and, defeating the Duke of Cumberland at Hastenbeck, occupied Hessen, making it a theatre of war for the succeeding five campaigns. The French imposed heavy contributions. A tribute of 850,000 talers was demanded in 1757 in an attempt to break the alliance with Britain. Since this failed of its purpose, 500,000 more were demanded each year from 1759 to 1761. A smaller sum was levied in 1762. In addition the French requisitioned grain for their soldiers and hay for their animals. Both the main towns, Kassel and Marburg, were besieged, taken, and retaken many times. Marburg's famous Elisabethkirche, a centre of pilgrimage before the Reformation, was used as a granary by the occupying French army. The ancient town changed hands fifteen times, the castle on the heights above, seven times.
The effect of a prolonged war in Hessen, with French levies and British subsidies, was to make the Landgraf more independent of the Hessian Parliament (or, more accurately, Estates), the Landstände, which was burdened with making good the losses to the country out of its own sources of revenue. The subsidies, however, flowed into the war treasury (Kriegskasse), which the Landgraf s officials controlled and administered. Thus the Landgraf became rich while the Landstände lost the traditional power of the purse over their sovereign. A British military historian notes, it was a curious fact that the British Parliament in its reluctance to create a large British army, for fear of military power in the hands of the monarch, helped German princes in their struggle against their own Parliaments by making it possible and profitable for the princes to maintain large forces on hire to the British.'
The Hessian corps fought throughout the campaigns of the Seven Years War. Ferdinand of Brunswick, commander of 'His Britannic Majesty's Army in Germany', regarded them as more able to withstand the hardships of war than any other contingent. Despite its name this army contained more Hannoverians and Hessians than British troops, who only appeared in September, 1758. Of total strength in 1760 of 90,000, some 37,800 were Hannoverians, 24,400 Hessians, 22,000 British, 9,500 Brunswickers, and there were some lesser contingents. Yet it succeeded in tying down double its number of French troops, a service of inestimable value both to British conquests overseas and to Frederick of Prussia in his struggle against a European coalition. When Frederick heard of the conclusion of an Anglo-Hessian subsidy treaty for additional men in early 1759 he wrote to his minister in London, 'C'est avec bien de la satisfaction que j'ai appris par votre rapport ordinaire du 16 de ce mois la conclusion du nouveau traite de subside avec le cour de Hesse.' In both 1759 and 1778 Frederick regarded Hessen-Kassel as having an essential role in the defence of his western flank.
With the fighting going on in Hessen, Hessian soldiers were sorely tempted to make off home to see how wives and sweethearts, or livestock and crops, were faring. In 1762 some 111 cavalry and 2,196 infantrymen deserted out of a contingent of 24,000. The strain of maintaining this large corps fell heavily on the small state. By August 1761 the Landgraf informed Colonel Clavering, British representative at his court, that it would be impracticable to get more recruits if the war continued for another year. Recruiting officers sent to Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen picked up only deserters and vagabonds, who were no sooner enlisted than they deserted again. The corps could hardly be kept up to strength until the Landgraf was once again master of his own country. Hessian subalterns and rank and file for the last campaign were sixteen- and seven teen-year-olds.
This mainly German army, by tying down French strength, enabled Britain to conquer her first empire overseas. British subsidies were well spent. By contrast the French who paid for the Duke of Württemberg's corps to serve with the Imperial Army against Prussia got a rabble. Duke Karl Eugen had introduced Prussian recruiting methods to enlist his troops, and in spring and summer of 1757 thousands of young men were forcibly pressed into service. Badly trained and brutally treated, they deserted in droves and were routed by Frederick of Prussia at Leuthen. Only about 1,900 of some 6,000 returned to Württemberg months later.
The hardiness of the Hessian folk fitted them to endure the rigours of military service. A young German traveller noted in the 1780s that the men were stout and strongly built, and matched the country, which was rough and wild, abounding in woods and hills. The air was cold but wholesome, the food not luxurious but nourishing. Not only were the young Hessians of sturdy limb, but from early years they were mentally prepared for the soldier's life:
to the use of formidable weapons; so when he has reached the size necessary to take a place in the valiant ranks, he is quickly formed into a soldier.
Proportionately the Hessian army was the largest in Germany. In 1730, in peacetime, some 14,000 men were under arms, roughly one in every nineteen of the population of a quarter million. Prussia had only one of every twenty-three of her people under arms. One commentator felt this was too many:
The people of this country are numerous and warlike, being disciplin'd and train'd, perhaps more than what is for the good of the Country. The Prince might employ them a great deal better in making them labour the ground, and take to useful trades.
The Landgrafs would have denied this. The army was the country's greatest source of revenue, its 'Peru' as Wilhelm VIII called it. Although the chief tax in Hessen was the military Kontribution, internal revenues alone could not pay for such forces. Kriegskasse accounts for 1742, a good year for subsidies but one in which a corps had to be maintained in the field, show that without subsidies from Britain of 933,000 talers, the state would have had a deficit of 445,000. With those subsidies it had a surplus even greater, 488,000 talers. In the years from 1730 to. 1750 the subsidy payments totalled some 8.3 million talers (£1.25 millions). The total revenue in taxes in that period was not much over 20 million talers.
Despite the country's warlike constitution, the transition from the old-fashioned levy of armed men to a modern state army, financed by taxes collected by bureaucrats and recruited systematically, was only gradual. Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, the old duties of the Hessian farmer to quarter both horse and man and to provide them with sustenance were commuted into cash payments which were used to build barracks. The requirement to provide horses and wagons for the army's train also became a cash duty called Heerwagengelder. The obligation to provide haulage for the transport, Vorspanndienst, was only reckoned as a set payment after it proved too much of a burden in the Seven Years War. After this war Hessian troops were supplied for the first time, not directly by farmers in kind, but by magazines erected on the model of the French ones seen in Hessen.
The feudal obligation of certain parties to provide horse and weapons became submerged in the more universal requirement of military service. In 1762 the new Landgraf Friedrich II divided Hessen on the Prussian model into recruiting cantons, one for each regiment. Recruiting by violence was forbidden and large elements of the population were exempted, either by paying taxes or by profession, from being called up. Certain towns like Kassel, Marburg, and Ziegenhain were exempt from the cantons, although the artillery and the Guards regiments could draw volunteers from them. Propertied farmers, apprentices, salt workers, miners, domestic servants, students, and other important workers and taxpayers were also exempt, very much in accord with mercantilist principles of preserving vital elements of the population. Otherwise the names of all 'strong and straight-limbed' young men aged sixteen to thirty, not under 5 feet 6 inches, or 5 feet 4 inches if still growing, were enrolled on lists, kept by the local bailiffs, as available recruits for military service. The young men were to present themselves yearly at Easter and the lists kept up to date. Thus by the end of the Seven Years War the Landgraf, by converting the traditional duties of his subjects, had obliged everyone to support the army, either by actual service or by paying taxes. When the Swiss historian Müller visited Kassel, he wrote, 'Before I came to Hessen, I scarce knew what a military people were. Nearly all peasants have served: thus in every village there are men of fine stature, manly form and bearing, and everywhere they talk of war: for in this century the Hessians have not only fought against the French in Germany, but even in Sicily and the Peloponnesus, and in Hungary under the great Eugene, and now in the New World.'