During the Seven Years War, troops from Hesse, near Frankfurt, were stationed in Hampshire to guard against French invasion. Excavation outside Winchester has now uncovered physical traces of this mid-18th-century episode. Richard Osgood and Paul McCulloch report.
In the mid-18th century, an army of over 8,000 German mercenaries set up camp at Barton Farm on the north side of Winchester. This was no invasion force – the militia had been deliberately recruited from the region of Hesse, near modern Frankfurt, to help guard Britain against French attacks at the onset of the Seven Years War (1756-1763; Hessians also fought on the British side during the American War of Independence in the 1770s). For just under a year between July 1756 and April 1757, this patch of rural Hampshire was the Hessians’ home – and it was there that their ranks were immortalised in a sketch by William Godson that depicts both the camp’s layout and the army arranged in regiments. All physical traces of the camp were removed when the militia returned to Germany – but this summer, an excavation by Pre-Construct Archaeology (PCA) brought its secrets to light once more.
The investigation came as part of a wider project exploring some 70ha of land ahead of a planned housing development – a project that has uncovered important evidence of how the landscape had evolved since the Neolithic period. In the last few years PCA has excavated a Neolithic pit circle, a Beaker burial, an Iron Age settlement and burial ground, a small Roman cemetery, a section of Roman Winchester’s aqueduct, and two Anglo-Saxon buildings, but the most recent phase of this work focused on two 18th-century militia camps.
One of these was a short-lived camp established for a few months in 1761 by the first Hampshire militia. Among their number was a young Edward Gibbon, who in later life went on to write his monumental work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is, however, another example of his writings – his diaries – that shed light on his time in the militia, and the lasting impression he had of military service: mainly, a lot of marching. The other camp was, of course, the one occupied by the Hessians, and it is this that we will explore further below.
HUNTING FOR HESSIANS
While today nothing of either camp can be seen above ground, the locations of both were picked out in geophysical surveys which revealed two different alignments, one an interrupted line of square outlines and the other of circles. In 2015, an initial investigation of the square features confirmed these to be Hessian field kitchens, as depicted on Godson’s plan, while close-by PCA unearthed a number of dugouts corresponding to what appear to be tented structures in the same drawing. Clearly there was much more to be learned about these camps, and this summer PCA opened up some 3.5ha to explore both in greater detail.
Given the military theme of the site, it seems only fitting that, for a week, this work was also assisted by three veterans from Operation Nightingale (the MOD initiative that uses archaeological fieldwork to aid the recovery of wounded former service personnel; see CA 338). Robert, Kris, and Rob are all currently studying Archaeology at the University of Winchester, and thus the excavation could not have been better located for them. We nicknamed the project ‘Exercise Sleepy Hollow’ in honour of perhaps the best-known Hessian soldier of all, the headless horseman from the eponymous American story, and while no headless skeletons were forthcoming among our finds, the investigation did reveal the remains of structures associated with three of the Hessian regiments – the Granadiers, the Corps, and Prince Charles – along with evidence of the Sutlers who supplied them.
Some of our ex-military volunteers felt a particularly personal connection with these discoveries. In 1759, Hessian soldiers fought alongside the Hampshire Regiment at the Battle of Minden in Prussia. ‘Minden Roses’ can still be worn in the regimental headdress of soldiers belonging to the regiments that took part in this engagement, and its name is still emblazoned as a Battle Honour on the colours of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (PWRR). By happy chance, the PWRR is the successor of the Hampshires, and it was in this regiment that two of our Operation Nightingale diggers, Kris and Robert, had served. What could we learn about the men that their predecessors had fought alongside?
Apart from Godson’s plan of the Hessian camp, further clues come from letters and newspaper reports of the time concerned with the well-being of these ‘foreign’ soldiers and the covered ‘booths’ dug into the chalk that housed them. From the remains we excavated, these seem to have fallen into two groups: smaller, rectangular dugouts with a fireplace at one end and stairs at the other, which were perhaps officer accommodation, and larger, circular examples that would have housed regular soldiers. These latter ‘booths’ were rather spartan living spaces, furnished with a ledge running around their outer edge, but the soldiers who occupied them had tried to make them a little more hospitable – scorchmarks in the centre of their chalk floors, scattered about with broken crockery, bottles, and clay tobacco pipes, evoke images of the men huddling around fires for warmth and company as they avoided the more inclement elements of a Winchester winter.
These were not crude constructions, though – they were impressively made, dug to a depth of just under 2m – easily achievable when you have thousands of soldiers at your disposal. The postholes that surround them at surface level could have supported some kind of roof (possibly akin to the tented superstructures depicted on William Godson’s plan). While further postholes cut into the dugouts’ floor could also have helped to hold this up, they might also represent the remains of timber or wicker shuttering, or even props for a curtain to keep the wind from whistling down the chalk-cut stairs into the Hessians’ home. Given that candles would have been an important light source – possibly held in the recesses that we saw cut into in the chalk walls – it would have been crucial to keep out draughts as well as the cold. These efforts may also explain the design of at least one set of steps, which was almost spiral in form, possibly intended to help keep warmth within.
In the dugout that Operation Nightingale helped to investigate, the most structurally exciting component was without doubt the chimney stack. It was a truly ‘engineered’ feature, well-built with hand-made bricks that were still mortared together and rose to a vent at the top of the dugout. You could not describe these ‘booths’ as primitive, merely the 18th-century version of a Sunken Featured Building. Yet these subterranean structures certainly spoke to our former servicemen. For Robert, Kris, and Rob, sitting in drafty dugouts or troop shelters was something that they all had extensive experience of in their military careers. The fact that our excavation ran through this year’s particularly hot summer perhaps made it more difficult to appreciate just how cold these shelters would have been in a tough winter, but the chimneys offer a persuasive clue. Our veterans empathised; during military service they would have found it pretty luxurious to have such heating methods in their dugouts, but at least they would have had military accommodation to return to after exercises. For their Hessian counterparts, this was home.
As to what kind of home this was, while the camp site was fastidiously cleared following the Hessians’ departure, the recent excavations have recovered a broad range of finds to illuminate what life was like within its bounds. Among these, by far the most common were pieces of crockery, wine bottles, clay tobacco pipes, and pieces of oyster shell; probably all sourced locally, they shed invaluable light on the soldiers’ diet and habits in the camp. Further evidence for the troops’ diet came from their field kitchens. These were shallow and square in form (in contrast to the succeeding structures of the Hampshire militia, which were circular), and the remains we excavated conform beautifully to Godson’s site plan of 1756. Their function was also clear from the burnt material from cooking, which stood out beautifully against the chalk surroundings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for military facilities, they were fastidiously clean and did not yield a huge number of finds, although Rob did discover a collection of 18th-century pottery hidden away in a small oven. Analysis of backfill that was presumably pushed into the redundant structures after the Hessians departed also gave up a few clues, producing a number of animal bones and copious quantities of oyster shell. It seems that life here was not entirely one of privation, though the Hessians left little in the way of personal effects to tell us more about them as individuals. One fragment from an enamelled glass schnapps bottle presumably travelled from Germany with one of the soldiers, however – its contents as much a reminder of home as a comfort to the man who owned it.
What impressions did our modern ex-servicemen form of the Hessian camp? Their military backgrounds meant that they were able to share a wealth of insights into what life in the ‘booths’ may have been like c.250 years ago. Kris, an ex-serviceman from 2PWRR (2nd Battalion the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment) found the archaeological remains particularly evocative, both as a former soldier and a member of the regiment whose predecessors occupied this site after the Hessians.
‘Transit accommodation, and any situation where soldiers are grouped together for extended periods of time in less than comfortable surroundings, is where the real bonds of brotherhood and friendship are made. It may be in modern terms the “shell-scrape” we are living out of, or the “stag” position we are put on, or – in common with this case – the 10- to 20-man transit accommodations that litter Salisbury Plain or in barracks around the world,’ he said. ‘They provide an area for soldiers to gather and release frustrations, whether this is complaining about a rubbish task, poor exercise conditions, the cook house (always a favourite), and especially the command elements within the company or battalion. This complaining – or, “monking”, as it is sometimes called – provides common ground and creates bonds that last for a lifetime. It is not on the march: marching is silent. It isn’t on the battlefield: there is too much going on. It’s in these gathering places where the military microsocieties form, where the new guys learn their place, but also where they find a way into a close-knit group.
‘In essence, although these closely confined, poor-looking accommodations dug from the chalk may look like a cruel way to house our heroes during a critical period (and they are), they also provide the backbone for the brotherhood that remains today in our modern military. While digging this site, in my mind’s eye I could almost see the group of men gathered around, sharing a smoke, a drink, a story, and a nugget of wisdom on any given situation. Every man has his say, and no one would be safe from the banter that would stun a civilian speechless.’
Robert Steel served with the 1st Battalion of the PWRR. He reflected on the nature of military digging during his work on the Barton Farm excavation: ‘My experience of dugouts within an armoured infantry role changed radically after my integration with snipers. During the deployment of armoured vehicles on defensive operations, it was standard operating procedure (SOP) to “dig the vehicle in” to a depth that reached the height of the turret ring to provide cover and concealment. In an armoured setting, this was easily accomplishable thanks to vehicles adapted to the task provided by the Royal Engineers. Within snipers and reconnaissance, though, the use of dugouts changed dramatically: they were used as a form of complete sub-surface observation post (OP). This was dug by hand, at night, to a depth of about 1m, and was wide enough to fit a three-man team in it. This type of dugout is similar to the Hessian ones due to its depth and size, but its use is very different – the Hessian dugouts were used as a form of residence, not in a tactical or kinetic role.’
Our third ex-soldier, Scots Guard Rob Cummings, was most taken with ‘the size of the hearth they had constructed in the field kitchen’. For Rob, the time he had previously spent in features cut into the chalk was very different, as it occurred ‘during any tactical event where we were in trenches to observe for any possible enemy attacks. The other main difference was that when we did have time for rest, we were in shell scrapes sleeping in a bivvy [sleeping] bag!’
While the absence of surface features on the site certainly reflects well on the civilian contractor that had been paid to clear the Hessian camp immediately after their departure, excavation has revealed that a wealth of clues survive below ground. The construction of new houses at Barton Farm is now well under way, but the new residents would probably be most surprised to learn that, c.250 years earlier, a sizeable army had lived in those same fields – in some cases, in small dwellings boasting brickwork to rival the quality of the houses going up today.
This feature appeared in CA 345.