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The British German Legion, British Swiss Legion, British Italian Legion

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This article was originally one of a set of memoranda available only on paper in The National Archives' reading rooms. It acted as a signpost to records of interest on a particular historical subject. It may have been compiled many years ago and could be out of date. Please feel free to edit this page to improve the information


Crimean War

Recruitment of the Legions

At the outbreak of the Crimean War Britain had difficulty expanding the army because of the policy of voluntary enlistment. As a result, foreign mercenary troops were recruited for service in the Crimea, forming the British German Legion, British Swiss Legion and British Italian Legion. Recruitment for the British German Legion commenced in May 1855 and continued until 31 March 1856; for the British Swiss Legion, recruitment commenced in May 1855 and continued until 28 February 1856; whilst for the British Italian Legion, recruitment commenced in October 1855.

Strengths of the Legions

Totals of Men enlisting in each of the Foreign Legions during the Crimean War

German Swiss Italian
Officers 441 136 160
Non-commisioned Officers 539 165 195
Rank and file 8,702 2,995 3,226

Stations of the Legions

German Legion

Four regiments, 4,250 strong, were sent to the seat of war; they were stationed at Kulilee, on the Bosphorus, when peace was proclaimed.

The other stations were, the depots at Heligoland and Shorncliffe, at Haslar Barracks, and in camp at Aldershot, Colchester, Hythe, Terlingham, and Browndown.

Swiss Legion

A brigade, 2,200 strong, was sent to the seat of war; it was stationed at Smyrna when peace was proclaimed.

The other stations were, the depots at Schlestadt and Dover, and in camp at Aldershot and Shorncliffe.

Italian Legion

In Italy, Novara, Suza, Chivasso; subsequently at Malta. Emigrants at York, Burnley, and Ashton.

No men were sent to the seat of war.

Expenses Incurred

German Swiss Italian
£ £ £
For recruiting, embodying and concentration 96,380 22,820 6,840
For clothing &c. 30,155 9,525 13,751
For bounty, including kit 57,378 18,960 28,526
For pay of officers 76,408 25,715 56,401
For pay of non-commissioned officers and men 190,717 61,133
For subsistence 27,470 9,112 11,567
Gratuities to officers on joining and discharge 47,672 16,591 78,069
Gratuities to non-commissioned officers and men on discharge 138,800 63,200
For conveyance home 22,820 8,430 8,501
£ 687,800 235,486 195,655

The arms were lent by Her Majesty's Government, and returned into store, repairs having been paid for by the men.

Disbandment of the Legions

The recruitment of the Legions was unpopular at home and abroad, so the British Government was anxious to disband the legions as soon as possible after the Crimean campaign. The East India Company declined to employ the men to strengthen its force in India, and there was opposition to the idea of retaining highly paid foreign troops in Britain for garrison duties. In most cases, repatriation was out of the question as their respective governments were reluctant to re-admit legionaries who had served a foreign state.

As a result, many legionaries settled in the colonies. Those who could afford to support themselves for a while opted for North America, but a number were persuaded into joining the military settlement scheme in Cape Colony. The Swiss Legion was disbanded by October 1856, the German Legion was disbanded by November 1856 and the Italian Legion by December 1856.

Settlement of the German Legion in Cape Colony

Numbers of each Rank of the German Legion settled in the Cape Colony and their Pay

Rank Pay per day Rank Pay per day
1 Major-General 37s 11d 2 Dispensers 7s 6d
1 Brigadier-General 31s 3d 2 Chaplains 5s 5½d
2 Lieutenant-Colonels 8s 6d 44 Cadets 1s 2d
5 Majors 8s 11 Sergeant-Majors 1s 6d
22 Captains 7s 3½d / 5s 9½d 1 Bugle-Major
12 Lieutenants 4s 6d / 3s 3d 22 Colour Sergeants 1s 2d
3 Paymasters 12s 6d 87 Sergeants 11d
3 Surgeons 13s 114 Corporals 8d
6 Assistant Surgeons 7s 6d 2,024 Privates 6d

Under this scheme, participants and their families were provided with free transport to Cape Colony. Settlers were granted half pay with an advance of £5 for equipment. A subsidy towards the cost of building a house in an allotted area was given: officers received £100-£200; NCOs £20; privates £18. Officers were required to enlist for three years and men for seven years. Refusal to renew enlistment meant automatic forfeit of house and land.

TNA Documents

Catalogue ReferenceRecords
WO 15Muster rolls, nominal rolls, service records and attestation forms of the British German Legion, British Swiss Legion and British Italian Legion.
WO 15/1Register of military settlers in Cape Colony.
WO 3/190
WO 4/398
Formation of British Foreign Legions 1855.
WO 6/196Proposal to transfer Legions to service of East India Company 1856.
WO 3/98
WO 6/196
Facilities to members of Legions for settlement in Colonies.
WO 6/196
WO 3/32
Disbandment for Legions and arrangements for discharge.

Further Reading

For further reference see: Mercenaries for the Crimea by C C Bayley (McGill-Queens University Press, London, 1977.
Alphabetical Guide to the War Office List and Indexes LIII.

The statistical information etc is from Parliamentary Papers, Volume 27, 1857

Note: the British German Legion is not the same as the King's German Legion, which was formed in 1803 and disbanded in 1816.