Bexhill and The King’s German Legion (by F. E. Rye)

In the summer of 1814 an air of excitement and expectation filled both Bexhill Barracks and the town. Candle-lit decorations called ‘transparencies’ filled parlour windows in celebration of victory over Napoleon. Those of Thomas Wedd, the Parish Overseer were more colourful than any others. It is believed that he lived in ‘Granville Lodge’ in the High Street.

As battalion after battalion of King’s German Legion (KGL) marched in, local girls, who had married Hanoverian at St Peter’s Church were looking anxiously for their husbands, as were their Hanoverian counterparts. Records indicate that many womenfolk came to Bexhill from Germany with the KGL.

Among the ladies whose hopes were fulfilled was Mary Ann Holtzerman nee Pumphry (or Pomphrey), the daughter of Thomas, the Bexhill Customs and Excise Officer. The family lived in the white clapboarded house and coach house which still stands in De La Warr Road, now two semi-detached houses almost opposite the exit from the Manor Gardens car park.

Mary Ann had married Captain Philip Holtzerman of the 1st Light Battalion KGL, on 6th January 1812 at St Peter’s Church.

Background and Formation

In 1803 a French army led by General Monier invaded and occupied the Electorate of Hanover, the domain of Britain’s king, George III. The king’s youngest son, Adolphus Frederick, Duke of Cambridge, fulfilling the role of Viceroy, was anxious to lead the ill-prepared Hanoverian army against the French, but the Electorate’s leading politicians, currying favour with the invaders, frustrated his plans. Thoroughly disgusted, the Duke sailed home with his Hanoverian aides-de-camp.

Once back in Britain, the Duke of Cambridge corresponded with his brother, Frederick Duke of York and Commander-in-Chief of the British army, proposing the formation of a German Regiment. Subsequently, the king approved and issued letters patent to Major Frederick von der Decken and Major Colin Halkett to raise battalions of Hanoverian troops.

Officers, including Baron Christian von Ompteda, responded enthusiastically but other ranks were slow in coming forward, fearing they might be sent to distant and unhealthy colonies. However, a second and more promising royal proclamation resulted in a flood of volunteers. The decree authorised the establishing in the British Army of a corps to be known as the King’s German Legion with the Duke of Cambridge as its Colonel-in-Chief.

By the autumn of 1803, there was a steady flow of officers and other ranks of the former Hanoverian army, passing through the port of Husum in Schleswig Holstein en route to Heligoland. There British Naval Transports conveyed them to Portsmouth. In nearby Lymington the recruits were posted to cavalry, artillery and infantry regiments. An engineer unit of officers was also established.

In a matter of months the KGL consisted of two regiments of cavalry, two light battalions, four line battalions, two horse batteries of artillery, three foot batteries of artillery and a unit of engineers. By 1806, 7,876 officers and other ranks were serving. Within a year the legion doubled its size. By 1816 more than 25,000 men had served with the KGL over a period of thirteen years, so heavy were the casualties suffered by the corps.

The main cavalry depot was established at Radipole Barracks in Weymouth. Subsidiary depot were centred in Ipswich, Guildford and Canterbury. The main infantry depot was sited in the barracks at Bexhill in 1804. These barracks were founded in 1798. Here there seems to have been established a permanent garrison battalion which, in 1813, was incorporated into a veteran battalion. There were 25 acres of infantry barracks on the north west slopes of the hill shielded from the sea and the beaches. At the top of the Down were about 15 acres of cavalry and artillery barracks.

The infantry barracks site included a military cemetery where hundreds of military personnel and dependants were buried over the years, including at least 152 members of the KGL. Later the cemetery was used as an extension of St Peter’s churchyard. Alas, there is no memorial whatever to those KGL and British soldiers who died on active service from wounds or sickness in the Napoleonic wars.

Bexhill barracks ranked among the largest in the country according to Professor John Breihan of Loyola College, Baltimore, USA who visited the site in 1989 whilst researching the subject of barracks in Britain. They had great strategic importance having easy access to about fifteen miles of beach between Hastings and Eastbourne on which stood a line of Martello Towers. British army engineers had alerted the government that this was an ideal area for Napoleon to land the fleet of flat bottomed boats which he had massed at Boulogne on the opposite side of the channel.

Fortunately Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 frustrated Napoleon’s invasion plans. As a result, the KGL, who had been especially chosen to play a leading part in repelling the French, began eleven years of distinguished active service in other theatres of the war. These included north Germany 1804; the Baltic area 1807; the Mediterranean and Sicily 1808-1811; the Peninsula and southern France 1808-1814; Walcheren 1809; Italy 1814; north Germany 1813-1814; Malta and Sicily 1812-1816 and finally Waterloo in 1815 where they held key positions in the centre of the line alongside the elite of the British army.

The KGL gained numerous battle honours, remembered in north-west Germany to this day. In the small towns of Goslar, about forty miles south-east of Hanover is garrisoned a Jager Battalion, formerly of the Royal Guard, which is directly descended from the 138 and 2′ Light Battalions of the KGL. The regimental war memorial in the town especially mentions the period of service with the KGL. These light battalions were closely involved with Bexhill, even helping with the initial excavation of the wrecked ‘Amsterdam’ at Bulverhythe. There were local marriages including that of Mary Ann Pumphry to Captain Philip Holtzerman.

There were births and deaths too.

In 1814, while KGL cavalry made their way across France to the Low Countries, the KGL infantry were re-mustered here at Bexhill. Their numbers exceeded 5,000.

Thomas Wedd, the Parish Overseer was given authority by Hastings Magistrate Edward Milward the younger, to commandeer farm wagons to convey families and baggage eastwards en route fro Ramsgate, Deal and Dover to embark for Holland and home in Hanover. This document is in the museum archives.

Napoleon’s escape from Elba changed everything! Wellington was thankful to be able to recall his Peninsula veterans of the KGL for many seasoned British regiments had been posted to the colonies. Once again these elite Hanoverians stood shoulder to shoulder with their British comrades in the centre of the allied line at Waterloo.

The Tid Light Battalion, led by Major George Baring, with reinforcements from the 1′ Light Battalion, were out in front of the line holding as a strong point the farm La Haye Sainte. In a similar manner British Guards with KGL pioneers were defending Hougoumont Farm on the right. At La Haye Saite, Major George Baring and some 400 men frustrated Napoleon’s efforts to break through by pouring fire into their flanks. He swore on St Helena that the stubborn resistance met at La Haye Sainte had cost him the battle. The KGL men fought heroically until late afternoon when they ran out of ammunition for their Baker rifles. Desperately they resisted the onslaughts of the French with rifle butts and bayonets. Finally they were ordered to withdraw to the allied line. Barely forty, including an injured Major Baring, survived. In the confusion George Baring became separated from his men who were searching for ammunition. Finding a mount Major Baring fell in with the KGL Hussars.

Meanwhile the British 3rd Division commanded by General Sir Charles von Alten of the KGL, the only German general ever to command a British Division, were very heavily engaged with the enemy. Alten’s 211″ Brigade led by Colonel Christian von Ompteda of the KGL were ordered, very unwisely, by the 1″ Corps Commander, the Prince of Orange, to advance in line. This brought disaster. Initially the cheering men of Ompteda’s 5th Battalion drove back the enemy infantry but French cavalry nearby turned on them nd cut them down. Colonel Ompteda out in front was shot in the throat and killed. By his side fell Lieutenant Edmund Wheatley who, in 1812, had joined the legion at Bexhill. Luckily he was only stunned and later taken prisoner. After some rough handling, he managed to escape during the French retreat.

Mary Ann’s husband, Captain Holtzerman of the 1″ Light Battalion was killed leading re-inforcements into La Haye Sainte.

Additional notes on characters of the period

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon, who was born in Corsica in 1769, began his military career as a junior artillery officer. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, he survived several potentially disastrous situations. In 1795 his swift suppression of a Parisian insurrection that threatened to overturn the government, resulted in him being appointed Commander of the Army of the Interior. This was the beginning of great things and by 1804 Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor.

His downfall began with his ambitious invasion of Russia in 1812, it was settled by his defeat at Leipzig in 1813 and Wellington’s successful conclusion of the Peninsular War in 1814. By April of that year, he was en route to the Mediterranean island of Elba.

Napoloeon’s audacious escape in March, 1815 and incredible re-organisation of the French Army was, however eclipsed by the cool courage of the allied army at Waterloo, the superb srategy of Wellington and the loyalty of Blucher. These qualities despatched Napoleon unceremoniously to the South Atlantic and St Helena, in the care of His Majesty’s Navy which throughout his campaigns had frustrated his ambitions.

The Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley, 1″ Duke of Wellington had one thing in common with his arch enemy – he was born in 1769.

Born in Ireland the son of an Anglo-Irish nobleman, he was educated at Eton and a French Military Academy. Then followed service in both the British Army and politics. The military experience gained in India and the Peninsular War, plus his own brand of cool, calculating genius, enabled him to out-manoeuvre Napoleon and with Blucher’s help, destroy the French army at Waterloo.

He thought highly of the KGL which, together with many newly raised Hanoverian regiments, formed almost half of the British contingent. He entrusted vital positions in the centre, including La Haye Sainte Farm to the KGL.

Colonel Baron Christian von Ompteda

Christian von Ompteda, a member of a Hanoverian noble family, began a distinguished military career in 1777 as a member of the Royal Corps of Pages in Hanover. In 1781 aged sixteen he was appointed an Ensign in the Hanoverian Foot Guards. He was very loyal and efficient officer and on intimate terms with members of the Royal family.

He was among the first to offer his services to the crown after the fall of the Electorate. With the personal approval of the Duke of Cambridge, he was appointed commanding officer of the 1st Line Battalion of the KGL.

During the winter of 1804 at Bexhill he became ill and left The barracks to be billeted at Woodsgate Farm in Gunters Lane., the home of John Lansdell and family. He was very impressed with the kindness shown to him.

He saw much active service in Spain and elsewhere but serious ill-health interfered with his career. At Waterloo Colonel von Ompteda commanded the 2nd KGL Infantry Brigade in General von Alten’s 3″ Division. Unfortunately an unwise decision of the corps commander, the young inexperienced Prince of Orange, resulted in the 5th Battalion of the KGL with the intrepid Colonel von Ompteda at its head being exposed to a fierce attack by French cavalry. The 5th were cut to pieces and Christian von Ompteda, on horseback and surrounded by the foe, was shot through the neck and killed.

Lieutenant-General Charles Count von Alten KCB

General von Alten is the only German officer ever to command a British Army Division. He served throughout the Napoleonic wars. As an infantry officer he was a frequent visitor to the depot at Bexhill.

While serving at Waterloo in the centre of the Anglo-Allied line, as the Commanding Officer of the British 3″ Division, he was severely wounded. After Waterloo he played an important part in the re-establishing of the Hanoverian Army.

Major George Baring

Major Baring evidently served with the KGL from the early years. He commanded the 2nd Light Battalion at Waterloo and showed exemplary leadership in the defence of the farm La Haye Sainte. He was honoured and promoted as Major-General Baron von Baring.

Major-General Sir Colin Halkett KCB

Colin Hackett, a young Scottish officer, was granted authority in 1803 to raise a battalion of Hanoverian infantry after the State of Hanover fell to the French General Mortier.

In the same year he joined forces with Colonel von Decken and under the supreme command of George III’s youngest son, Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, who was very popular with the anoverians, helped form the King’s German Legion.

During one of his frequent stays in Bexhill, Colin Halkett led a party of KGL soldiers on an attempt to excavate the wreck of the ‘Amsterdam’ at Bulverhythe. General Halkett commanded the 5th British Brigade in General von Alten’s 3′ British Division at Waterloo.

Colonel Hugh Halkett

Hugh Halkett was the younger brother of Major General Halkett. He served like his brother, from the early days of the KGL. He was a frequent visitor to Bexhill Barracks and eventually became the Commanding Officer of the 7th Line Battalion.

At Waterloo Hugh Halkett was seconded from the KGL to the command of the newly formed 3rd Hanoverian Brigade in Lieut-General Sir H Clinton’s 2′ Division.

In the closing and chaotic phase of the battle, while advancing at Hougoumont, Colonel Halkett captured single handed the French General Cambronne. Edmund Wheatley Edmund Wheatley of Hammersmith, London was gazetted Ensign in the KGL in November 1812.

He reported to the infantry depot at Bexhill and was subsequently posted to the 5th Line Battalion of the KGL which, at that time was fighting in the Spanish Peninsular. He made a close friend of another British officer in the regiment named Henry Llewellyn whose portrait he sketched and included in his remarkable diary.

As Lieutenant Wheatley, he served under Colonel Ompteda at Waterloo and took part in that ill-fated charge which cost the Colonel his life. Wheatley was rendered unconscious by his Colonel’s side and was held prisoner by the French during their retreat. In the confusion that followed Wheatley managed to escape.

Wheatley’s diary is one of the few written on active service. It was dedicated to his sweetheart Eliza Brookes whose family disapproved of him. He evidently overcame their opposition, perhaps by his courage and bravery and married Eliza in February 1820 at St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe in London. They were blessed with three daughters.

“Squire” Arthur Sawyer Brook 1811-1890

“Squire” Brook is quoted as saying that he remembered as a little boy hearing the singing of the German soldiers in St Peter’s church, Bexhill.

His father, Arthur Brooks, a local gentleman farmer and land owner, kept a large pack of South down Hounds, now extinct. Officers from the barracks, including those of the KGL are said to have joined in the excitement of the hunt. ‘Squire’ Brook continued the traditions of hunting at Bexhill and had the honour of entertaining His Royal Highness Edward Prince of Wales, later king Edward VII.

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