From the time George I ascended the throne of England in 1714 until the end of the reign of William IV in 1837, the Kings of England also ruled as Electorates over Hanover in Germany. In 1803, however, Hanover was occupied by Napoleonic troops. Though the German States had no quarrel with the French at the time, Napoleon justified his occupation of Hanover by pointing out that since it was under British rule, it was fair game.
Due to extreme apathy on the part of the Hanoverian government, little importance had been placed on military strength in the electorate. The nominal strength of the armed forces, including infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers was counted at 15,546. In reality, more than a third of these men were on furlough, leaving the real force at around ten thousand men. There were numerous vacancies throughout the regiments, leaving a dearth of both officers and soldiers. Fortresses had been neglected, and military discipline had relaxed almost to the point of being non-existent. Thus, when the Electorship of Hanover was overrun by French troops, the army of Hanover posed little opposition and quickly surrendered. This led to the signing of the Convention of Elbe, which formally dissolved the Electorate of Hanover.
George III refused to recognize the Convention of Elbe, however. He quickly sent off a letter to Colonel Friedrich von der Decken commanding him to raise a corps of soldiers to be called “The King’s German Legion.” In August of 1803, thousands of soldiers from the former electorate army emigrated to England to become part of the King’s legion. By December of 1803, the King’s German Legion was officially established and placed under the command of His Royal Highness Adolphus Frederick, Duke of Cambridge.
So many soldiers answered the call that they exceeded the original plans for a light corps. The King’s German Legion incorporated soldiers in all positions, including horse and foot artillery, light and heavy cavalry, light and line infantry, as well as a corps of engineers.
Though they had come from the rather undisciplined ranks of the Electoral army, the King’s German Legion became known for its outstanding discipline and fearsome fighting skills. Its cavalry ranked as one of the highest in the British army, and according to historian Alessandro Barbero, the Legion “had such a high degree of professionalism that it was considered equal in every way to the best British units.”
Edmund Wheatly, who procured a commission in the KGL in 1813 was duly impressed and noted that, “The Germans bear excessive fatigues wonderfully well, and … will march over six leagues (18 miles) while an Englishman pants and perspires beneath the labour of twelve miles.”
Though the Legion never fought on their own, they participated in numerous campaigns, lending their strength to the bulk of the British troops. They fought alongside the British in Hanover, Pomerania, Copenhagen, and Walcheren under General Sir John Moore. They then went on to serve under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Campaign, fighting in the battles of Bussaco, Barrosa, Fuentes de Onoro, Albuera, Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Garcia Hernandez, Burgos, Venta del Pozo, Vittoria, San Sebastian, Nivelle, and Sicily, as well as throughout eastern Spain and Northern Germany.
Possibly the most famous, however, was their participation in the Battle of Waterloo. The 2nd Light Battalion, along with members of the 1st Light and 5th Line Battalions, dug in to defend the road at “La Haye Sainte.” Reinforcements were cut off before they arrived, and the KGL battalion was forced to defend the road and farmhouse for six hours without ammunition or reinforcement. Eventually, however, they had no choice but to retreat and abandon the farm.
After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Hanover once again came under British rule and was re-founded as the Kingdom of Hanover. A new Hanoverian army was formed, and some officers and soldiers of the Legion were integrated into its ranks. Others settled in England – particularly in Bexhill, where parish records show quite a number of marriages between KGL soldiers and local girls.
At its strongest point, the King’s German Legion employed approximately 14,000 soldiers and officers, though over the 13 years of its existence, the King’s German Legion counted as many as 28,000 men in its service at one time or another.