Mercenaries vs. Auxiliaries

My exuberant Mercenaries! snark prompted a reignition of the complex question of how we define the term. Motivations, labor relations, national-vs-regional identity: they all get tangled up in one big early-modern Gordian knot.

I don’t claim to have a better typology than I did when we discussed the issue two years ago, but in the meantime I did find this brief English excursus on the definition of a mercenary in 1712, that I’ve been meaning to post.

For background, this discussion comes from The Examiner, a periodical started in 1711 in the wake of the Tory victories of the previous autumn. Its editors and contributors included Tory figures like Henry St. John (future Viscount Bolingbroke) and Jonathan Swift – thus it opposed continuing the war, which included attacking the Duke of Marlborough’s conduct as well as that of the Dutch. The periodical was a political document to be sure, but it seemed to reflect a significant segment of the English electorate at the time.

The particular incident that the following excerpt discusses took place in mid-1712: the British army formally abandoned its allies in the field and marched home. All the signatories of the second Grand Alliance had relied heavily on German troops – the Maritime powers alone employed almost 100,000 the previous year. Thus when the British commander the Duke of Ormonde ordered his British army home, those foreign regiments in British service needed to make a decision: should they join their British paymaster, and presumably be released from service shortly thereafter, or should they switch sides to continue both the fight and their employment? Not surprisingly, they chose to switch to the pay of the Dutch and Austrians, which likely disappointed the Tories, who sought an end to the war and feared that a reinforced Dutch-Imperial army might upend their negotiations.

Here, then, is the Examiner‘s response to foreign complaints that the paper had previously referred to these troops as “mercenaries.”

The Examiner Vol. 2, #40, August 28-September 4, 1712
p2 Postscript
The Writers of the Dutch News-Papers, as well as other Persons of Importance Abroad, have, it seems, taken great Offence at our use of the word Mercenary, when applied to the Foreign Troops, which were lately in Her Majesty’s Pay. And though the Vindication of it may be a Task more proper for the Gazetteer, than for the Examiner; yet to oblige a Brother-Writer, who ’tis likely is otherways engaged, I here observe, that those who make the Objection cannot be very well acquainted, either with Latin or History: For that Word is the only proper one to signify such Troops as are wholly maintained by a Foreign Power; especially if their own Sovereign has no part in the War; which is the Case of the Danish, and some of the German forces. It need not therefore be taken for a Term of Reproach; there being no other Word, which so properly expresses the Thing intended. For Auxiliary Forces, as some would have these called, are only those who engage as Allies; and either wholly or in part provide for their own Subsistence. Suppose however this Word to be taken in it’s worst Sense; (for I own it is sometimes used in no very good one) even then perhaps it would not be ill apply’d, to those who are the Subject of the present Debate. We should have a wrong Notion, sure, of the Wisdom, Sagacity, and profound Politicks of some Princes, were we not persuaded, that when they ordered their Troops so dishonourably to leave their honest old Paymasters, they were well satisfy’d that the Emperor and the States, would at least make them amends for all the Losses they might sustain by such a Desertion; and that they received further Assurances that those Potentates would continue the War, and consequently these Troops in their Service; whereas if they adhered to Her Britannick Majesty, they would be maintain’d at most but a few Months longer. We shall therefore still take the Liberty to say, that in every Sense of the Word, they are Mercenary, very Mercenary Forces.”

What do we learn from this?

  1. That the period’s newspapers frequently argued with one another in print.
  2. That the term “mercenary” could be used pejoratively at the time.
  3. That the historical precedents of the Romans were still relevant.
  4. That the author made a distinction between mercenary troops (those from a country whose ruler was not directly engaged in the war) and auxiliary troops (whose ruler was an ally, and therefore directly engaged in the war). I can also add that this sense of auxiliary was also used in treatises and histories of the period, e.g. when discussing Roman auxiliaries.

Anything revolutionary in all this? Not really. But it does provide an interesting little window into a contemporary distinction made between mercenary and auxiliary, as well as a hint that these definitions themselves, when applied to specific forces, could be politicized, and therefore up for debate.


2 responses to “Mercenaries vs. Auxiliaries”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    I’m curious as to how the fact that the Empire was one of the belligerents might play into this. I know for practical purposes there was a great deal of autonomy on the part of the various princes, but under international law (such as it was at the time), would not the armies of the various German states be considered part of the Emperor’s forces regardless of who paid them and whether their local sovereign had formally declared war? It’s not quite as tangled a set of allegiances as was common in the feudal period, but much less clear than the present time.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    Tangled? Not a bit of it. A mere fifty volumes of decrees and enactments, properly digested, will allow anyone to understand how imperial constitutional law is to be digested in an individual case.

    But, yes, “mercenaries” is not as precise as it could be. The King of Britain is also the Elector of Hannover, sometimes member of leagues of German princes, sometimes the subject of Charles VII in right of Hannover (that is, the Bavarian who sat as emperor for most of the 1741–8 wars.)

    All of this being said, I’m personally a great deal more interested in the far less well parsed distinction between the Irish and English establishments of the British armies, which has a significant bearing on the development of Ireland and of the American colonies. If the “Scotch-Irish” emigration is actually a massive ethnogenesis along the American inland frontier –that is, Indians becoming “Americans”– then the distinction between the Irish and English establishments may be being usefully elided to create the ambiguity within which this wholesale transformation of identities can take place. Of course, the same is probably true in frontier German-American communities, but, as far as I know, did not root itself in military connections.

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