THE ARRIVAL OF THE KING’S GERMAN LEGION
The defence of La Haye Sainte by the King’s German Legion
British army engineers had alerted the government to the fact that the unbroken shoreline between Eastbourne and Hastings would be an ideal area for Napoleon to land his fleet of flat bottomed boats, amassed at Boulogne on the opposite side of the channel.
Very quickly, a line of twelve defensive Martello Towers was erected and in 1798 work began on the barracks- perched on the vantage point of Belle Hill.
View of Martello Towers near Bexhill
by John F. Tennant
Elsewhere, Napoleon’s occupation of Hanover saw the Hanoverian Army disbanded. Soldiers and officers loyal to King George III fled to England, and in 1803 the King’s German Legion (KGL) was formed. Within months, the KGL consisted of two regiments of Calvary, two Light Battalions, four Line Battalions, two Horse Batteries of Artillery, three Foot Batteries of Artillery and a unit of Engineers.
The purpose built site covered 40 acres, stretching from the top of Belle Hill to the downs, and north along Holliers Hill reaching the southern edge of Sidley. Bexhill Barracks ranked among the largest in the country, with its position above the line of defensive towers giving it great strategic importance. At its height the 5000 infantry-men and officers stationed in the town dwarfed the towns population of approximately 1,000 people.
The KGL remained part of the British Army for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15), and played a vital role in several campaigns, most notably the Walcheren Campaign, the Peninsular War, and the Hundred Days.
Soldiers, while stationed at the Barracks, mixed freely with the locals, helping to excavate the remaining goods from the wreck of the Amsterdam at Bulverhythe, joining in the local hunt organised by Arthur Brook and no doubt keeping the Bell Inn very busy.
It is of little surprise that St Peter’s parish records during this time show many marriages between KGL soldiers and local women, including the union between Captain Phillip Holtzermann and Thomas Pumphrey’s daughter Mary Ann.
After the victory at Waterloo in 1815, the Electorate of Hanover was re-founded as the Kingdom of Hanover. A new army had been reconstituted even before the final battle, and the King’s German Legion was dissolved and integrated into this new Hanoverian force.
In a book published in 1884, Dr Wills wrote that after the Napoleonic wars, Bexhill ‘settled down again into its farming and smuggling: the drill ground was ploughed up, the barracks turned into cottages, and the mess, billiard rooms into an infant school and carpenters workshop.’
Over time, most of the martello towers were reclaimed by the sea, but a handful of others were destroyed for the purpose of testing the Military’s first breech loading guns.
For more information regarding the King’s German Legion, please visit the Bexhill Hanoverian Study Group’s website.
Alternatively, you can watch this short film made in conjunction with the Hanoverian Study Group, that charts the impact of the KGL on the town.
History of Kings German Legion in Bexhill from Shaun Taberer on Vimeo.
The Barrack Road Memorial Gardens
The Barrack Road Memorial Gardens is now all that remains of the Barrack Road Graveyard. The graveyard came into existence on the barrack land and was used solely for military burials. The site in the north east corner of the barracks contained the graves of several hundred soldiers of the British Army, including over 150 personnel of King George III’s German Legion.
Later in the 19th century, when St Peter’s graveyard was full, it was used by the local community and covered a larger area than is seen today. It was little used after 1901 and during World War 2, a bomb fell and obliterated many of the tombstones. After the rubble was cleared, the cemetery was turned into a Memorial Garden. A few headstones survive, the majority standing around the edge of the boundary wall.