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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

The Crimean War

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The Crimean War was the last of the old wars: initiated for spurious reasons, using outmoded battle tactics and contested between combatants who had no real cause to be enemies at all.

The soldiers at the battlefront were a motley mixture of professionals and mercenaries. The latter, of course, were there mainly for the money and the adventure.

The war began in March 1854 when Russia invaded a couple of Turkish principalities, apparently angry that the Sultan had appointed the Catholic Church to be custodian of the holy places in Palestine.

Hostility between Russia and Turkey was nothing new, happening on average every twenty years. What was strange in this case was that several countries in Europe chose to become involved in the war -- countries like Britain, France and Sardinia.

The initial clash was quickly over and the Russian army driven out of Turkey. A war without a struggle, however, surely provides no reasons to celebrate! And so the fighting continued, attempting for no apparent reason to capture the fortress of Sebastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.

When the war began, Britain found it difficult to recruit sufficient soldiers and so went into battle severely under-strength. Conditions within the army were generally appalling and the pay so poor that few nationals would have wanted to enlist -- at least, not as privates.

On the other hand, hiring foreign adventure seekers was a time-honoured procedure and so Britain once again turned to creating a foreign legion. They came from all over Europe, although the majority were from the various German states.

This presented problems, especially because Prussia and Austria -- the largest of the German states -- had their own interests in the war. Although neither became involved, they nevertheless did not want Germans joining the campaign on either side.

On the other hand, the Germans had not seen warfare for some years. Officers and privates -- who had joined the national armies for the excitement of fighting -- were understandably bored with endless exercising. They would have loved to become involved in the Crimean War on any side.

Many of these soldiers, upon hearing of the creation of the British German Legion, promptly deserted their own armies and stole across Germany to Heligoland to enlist -- large numbers even without passports.

When the war was over, the legionnaires found themselves in an awkward situation where they were not welcome to return home. They had in fact committed treason by taking an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria.

On the other hand, the war was ending while many of these legionnaires were still undergoing training in camps at Aldershot, Colchester, Hythe and Shorncliffe. Even though they had not seen battle, Britain was nevertheless bound to pay them their contractual dues.

What then to do with men who needed to be supported but who were not welcome to return to their homes? The War Office thought of Sir George Grey and his warnings that the Eastern Cape frontier was about to erupt into another conflagration -- and it decided to offer him the British German Legion.

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