The minor armies on the Allied side—those of the Dutch-Belgian kingdom of the Netherlands, the electorate of Hanover, and the two duchies of Brunswick and Nassau—provided nearly two thirds of the troops under Wellington’s command and shared one characteristic: They had all been constituted—or reconstituted—very recently. Belgium and Holland, annexed to France by Napoleon, had regained their independence only in 1814; later that year, the Congress of Vienna amalgamated them into a single kingdom. Its new army could count on a fairly extensive recruitment pool, because the Low Countries had furnished Napoleon with the obligatory annual conscript levies, and a great many Dutch and Belgian officers had made their careers in the armies of the revolution and the empire. By absorbing these veterans, the army of the Netherlands secured for itself a cadre of excellent officers; however, they had fought under Napoleon’s orders for too long not to arouse some suspicions about their current loyalties. Indeed, fears of this sort are understandable when one considers such biographies as that of Jean-Baptiste van Merlen, who commanded an Allied cavalry brigade at Waterloo: At the age of fifteen, he volunteered to join the Belgian revolutionaries in their struggle against Austrian domination; after fleeing to France, he enlisted in the French army, becoming a second lieutenant at nineteen; he was a veteran of the Peninsular War in Spain, where he gained distinction—fighting against the British, no less—as a cavalry commander; and in 1812 he was promoted to general and named a baron of the empire. Like many other Belgian and Dutch officers at Waterloo, Major General van Merlen found himself going into battle for the first time against the army in which he had served all his life.
The armies of Hanover and Brunswick had been reconstituted in 1813, after the two principalities regained their independence from France. Each consisted of recruits commanded by professional soldiers who had fought under the British in Spain and by officers and noncommissioned officers from the former Napoleonic Kingdom of Westphalia, which had been dissolved in 1813. At the time of Napoleon’s return from Elba, Hanover was still in the process of organizing a Landwehr militia alongside its regular troops; three months later, the task had been rushed to completion. The troops fielded by both the Hanoverians and the Brunswickers in 1815 were rather young and short on experience. The Brunswickers in particular, despite their menacing black uniforms and the death’s heads that adorned their shakos, struck the English officers as excessively young.(“They were all perfect children,” Captain Cavalie Mercer observed.) The average age of the company commanders in the army of Brunswick was twenty-eight, and their battalion commanders averaged thirty, both very youthful by the standards of the age. Moreover, because of grave losses suffered at Quatre Bras, several Brunswick battalions were commanded by captains, and one of the brigades by a major, on the day of the battle.
The mercenary King’s German Legion (KGL) was quite different, however. In 1803, after the French invaded Hanover, many soldiers and officers of the Hanoverian army fled to England, where King George caused them to be formed into a unit and maintained in his personal service. In the course of the following years, the KGL had fought under Wellington in Spain and attained such a high degree of professionalism that it was considered equal in every way to the best British units. Yet the effort to assimilate the KGL into His Majesty’s army had not been completely successful: Its troops wore English uniforms and were trained, at least in part, according to the British manual of arms, but orders continued to be given in German. Assimilation was more advanced at the officers’ level: In 1815 many junior officers were English, while some German officers originally attached to the KGL held command positions in the British army. Karl von Alten (“Sir Charles Alten” to the English), for example, commanded a division at Waterloo.
The experience of the Nassau troops was similar to that of the KGL, but it had been gained on the other side. For years, Napoleon had maintained two infantry regiments recruited from this Rhineland duchy. Incorporated into the French army of Spain, the Nassauers acquitted themselves well. In December 1813, after Wellington invaded southern France, one of these regiments—the Second Nassau, commanded by Colonel von Kruse—deserted to the British; a year and a half later, it was still part of the Allied army in Belgium. The French disarmed and interned the other regiment, the First Nassau, in Spain, but in the course of 1814, the men of this regiment returned home. Kruse had reconstituted the regiment around a nucleus of these veterans, recruiting army volunteers as well as a militia battalion. A third regiment, called the Orange-Nassau, had been recruited by the Prince of Orange, whose principality bordered the duchy of Nassau. Like the Second Nassau, this unit was also built around officers who had served Napoleon in Spain.
All told, these regiments accounted for more than seven thousand men—more than a tenth of Wellington’s army—but they by no means constituted a discrete, coherent entity For example, after the Congress of Vienna gave the Prince of Orange-Nassau the new Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Orange-Nassau Regiment was incorporated into the Netherlands army and wore its uniform. The Second Nassau, though continuing to wear the green uniform of the duchy, also entered into the service of the Netherlands. Therefore these two regiments were united into a single brigade (officially part of the army of the Netherlands, even though the brigade’s troops were actually German) and placed under the command of Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. By contrast, the First Nassau, which was mostly composed of barely trained recruits, had joined the army only a few days before the beginning of the campaign and constituted an independent force under the command of Kruse, who in the meantime had been promoted to general. Thus the organizational complexity of Wellington’s army precisely reflected the heterogeneity of the political coalition from which it had sprung.