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The First to Fight

Posted by Adam on September 17, 2017 at 7:30 PM

The initial armed encounters of the Heligoland Crisis in 1895 were between units of the invading Imperial German Army and the islands' sole defenders., the Heligoland Garrison Regiment. The Heligoland Garrison Regiment (HGR) was an unusual and neglected offshoot of the British Army. The first garrison of the newly captured islands in 1810 was a handful of men from the Invalids Company Royal Artillery and a battalion of  the Royal Veteran Regiment. After Waterloo and peace in Europe the islands' defence was taken over by a ragbag of auxilliary formations, which had fought for the British in the Peninsula and elsewhere. Gradually these units were disbanded and the soldiers returned to their homelands, more or less enthusiastically.  


The need for a permanent garrison was recognised but under ancient  and renewed rights, the population of the islands could not be compelled to provide any military service to the islands' ruler. The inception of the Heligoland Garrison Regiment was only possible in 1818 by the recruitment of a core of French Exiles, who could not return to Royalist France. In the main these Frenchmen were officered by "volunteers" from British line regiments and, unsurprisingly, these officers were not high calibre men that a Regiment's Colonel was going to miss. Fortunately the rank and file had mostly seen service through the long years of war on the Continent, so a passable imitation of a military formation was acheived. In later decades a compromise was concluded, that allowed Helgolanders to serve in the HGR on a "permanant loan" from the islands' volunteer militia. However foreign recruitment was still practised and  French surnames continued to feature strongly amongst the officers and men of the unit.


The inexperienced soldiers of the Heligoland Garrison Regiment bravely confronted the elite German forces that landed in 1895, only grudgingly giving up their native farms and villages as the invader's numbers told.


The HGR had settled to a constant size and organisation by the middle of the century. Not conforming to any typical pattern the unit was formed of four companies, three of "fusiliers" and the fourth all gunners. A static defence role was seen as the regiment's only real option manning the battery positions and coastal forts its natural home. Some of the unit's commanders had other ideas training their infantry element as everything from light infantry to ship-board marines, but the reality mostly remained a coastguard/customs role. The gunners of the HGR tended to have a higher status (at least in their own eyes!) Their drill was up to the highest standards even if much of the ordnance was of an older or inferior stock.


The uniforms of the Regiment followed the general scheme of other British Regiments. The War Office beurocrats rigorously supplied the latest equipment and uniforms to the Islands even if not with the highest priority. The unusual status of the HGR did lead to their most distinctive item of uniform. In 1879 the regiment received a supply delivery including tropical service, white pith helmets. As a foreign stationed unit they had been mistakenly sent on the assumption that Heligoland was in warmer climes! As the unit had not yet received their new spiked Home Service Helmets they enthusiastically adopted the pith helmet into their parade order of dress. Despite occasional demands to relinquish them, the HGR  steadfastly kept them and they were worn almost without exception in preference to the Home Service headgear.


Shown here the typical dress of the HGR circa 1889. The tricolor flash

on the left upper arm the most obvious regimental distinction.


The status of the HGR was in doubt for a time when the negotiation for the handover of the islands was under way. The decision had been made to disband the unit and distribute any personel who wished to remain in the Army to other regiments. When the treaty fell through the HGR found itself in a bit of a limbo state with all War Office plans for the future already regarding them as no longer in existence. The Regiment continued its normal duties but it was some years before it regained official acknowledgement as being still operational. This did nothing to improve the already disgruntled morale of the unit. They entered the conflict in 1895 with out of date uniform jackets and black powder rifles but with the burning indignation of a disregarded servant to the British state.

Categories: Painting Projects, Campaign News, Heligoland Victorian War

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