Lt-Colonel Hermann Hesse: From Prussian Blue to British Khaki, An Alien in the Cheshire Regiment?
By David Kelsall
Hermann Hesse is, quite possibly, unique in the story of the British Army in the Great War, as he may well have been the only officer to have served in both the German and British armies. Hesse had been an officer cadet in the Prussian army in the 1880’s and yet, despite the open hatred of all things German in Britain during the war, still managed to rise to the level of battalion command, where others of much greater stature and far fewer German connections, were subject to extreme prejudice and fell by the wayside.
Family Life before the War
According to the 1911 census, Hermann Hesse was born in Manchester, Lancashire in 1869, two years before the fragmented German states were united following the Franco-Prussian war. His father, Max Hesse, was born in 1839 in Dessau, today in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Sometime before 1881, Max had moved to England, married Alice, originally from Warrington, and was living at 2, High Lane, Chorlton. Max was a ‘merchant importer of foreign goods,’ according to his census return and, judging by the size of his house and household, was a doing very nicely. He and Alice had six children, Hermann being the second. In Max’s employ was a 36 year old servant/cook, a 22 year old nurse from Stockport and a 30 year old governess from Hamburg, Agnes Schregel.
There is a possibility, however, that Hermann was actually born in Germany. His nationality entry on the 1911 census form is ambiguous and the family was not in Britain during the 1871 census period, when Hermann was 2. This absence may just have been a brief visit to relatives, for example, but could well have been a much more extended stay abroad, with the possibility of Hermann being born there. In addition, Robert Morton, an ex-officer in the 6th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment who knew Hesse well, was convinced that he was born in Germany and stated that he spoke with a guttural German accent. The entire family are missing again from the 1891 census, there being a distinct possibility that they had moved back to Germany.
According to Morton, Hermann Hesse had been drafted into the Prussian army as an officer cadet as a young man at college in Germany. Since Hermann was not in England for the 1891 census, this is another possible explanation as to why. Morton also states that Hesse hated his time in Germany and returned to England to escape the harshness of Prussian army life. Indeed, the whole family, minus Max, were back in England by the time of the 1901 census. Certainly, discipline in the German Cadet institutions was strict, and it is unlikely that Hesse would have been conscripted had he not been born in Germany or his father had intended to move the family back there for good.
By 1901, Alice was living without Max in Chorlton, just south of Manchester, although the census return did not state that she was widowed. Perhaps she had brought the family home to her native Britain to escape conscription. She was now 58, and was living with four of her grown up children, all in their twenties. The other occupants of her home suggest she was no longer with Max and his substantial income. Alice had taken on 6 boarders: two Americans (her niece and her husband); a Portuguese commercial clerk; a Cuban; a lady from Ashby-de-la-Zouche; and a German from Berlin. Also in the house was a live-in cook from Dublin.
By 1901 Hermann had a business and family of his own. He had married Beatrice, born in Manchester in 1895, and was living at 1, Station Road, Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire. He had two surviving children – Annie Victoria (born in 1897) and Edith Blanche (born in 1901). A third daughter, Beatrice Joan, was born in 1910. Hesse was registered as a button manufacturer, and, according to Robert Morton, produced German based goods. His business must have been relatively successful as he could afford a live-in servant, a 21 year old Florence Turner. By 1911, the family had moved a few hundred yards up the road to 16, Queen’s Road, Cheadle Hulme: a large, recently built 8-roomed, semi-detached property, in this suburb of rapidly expanding Stockport. He became a self-employed manufacturer’s agent, dealing in lace – perhaps another German connection as Plauen lace, manufactured in Saxony, had been exported throughout the world since the 1880’s.
His experiences as an officer cadet in Germany had, evidently, not put Hesse off all things military. On 8th June 1896, he was commissioned into the 4th Volunteer Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment (4thVBCR) as a 2nd lieutenant. The Volunteers were formed in 1859, as a result of a perceived threat of invasion by the French emperor, Napoleon III, Britain’s erstwhile ally in the Crimean War of 1854/55. They were part-time soldiers, drilling one or two nights a week with a training camp in the summer. By the 1890’s, however, the threat of invasion had long gone and Volunteer units were regarded by many to have deteriorated into little more than gentlemen’s social clubs. In the 1890’s and early 1900’s, German ancestry and connections were no bar to recruitment and promotion. Indeed, Queen Victoria herself was German and the Prussian army, following its rapid success over the French in 1870/71, was revered and emulated by the British: the spiked helmet and jerky drill movements of Britain’s army having been copied from the Germans.
Hesse was rapidly promoted to lieutenant and then captain in July 1902, first of ‘G’ and then of ‘F’ Company; but then things began to change. France became Britain’s ally and Germany was seen as the most likely potential threat to European peace and the stability of the British Empire. The Volunteers were seen to be hopelessly inefficient and of being incapable of defending our shores and forming a basis of army expansion in a future European war. As a result, War Secretary Richard Haldane reorganised the Volunteers into the Territorial Force which proved itself capable of doing just that. The 4thVBCR morphed into the 6th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment (Territorial Force) at a hot-pot supper in their headquarters at the Armoury in Stockport on the evening of 1st April 1908, with most of its members, including Hesse, transferring into its new incarnation.
The following year there were major German invasion scares, fuelled by innumerable tonnages of pulp fiction and newspaper articles, hours of plays and huge doses of spy hysteria and anti-German feeling, all of which lasted up to and throughout the Great War. In the same spirit, paragraph 81(d) of section 3 (Recruiting, Discharge &c) of the 1908 Regulations for the Territorial Force, did not beat about the bush when it read, ‘The following classes will not be allowed to enlist (or re-enlist) into the Territorial Force….(e) Foreigners.’ Because the census stated that he was born in Manchester, Hesse was regarded as British, not foreign, despite his time in Germany. In 1909 he came second, behind the hawk-eyed Major Rawlinson, at the snap-shooting competition at the Brushes rifle-range at Stalybridge and second again to Rawlinson in Colonel Sidebotham’s cup in the same year.
The Great War
Within days of the war’s outbreak, the government passed an Aliens Registration Act which allowed it free rein over the lives of those foreigners, especially Germans, within the country. All had to register at a police station, or risk a £100 fine, they were banned from certain areas of the country, many were told to leave immediately, and thousands of German nationals were interned in camps, including on the Isle of Man. Even if they were born in Britain, the anti-German hysteria of the time didn’t allow for subtle differentiation so that many of those with German or German sounding names were harassed by the public.
In Stockport, for example, a sausage producing family company, Stimpfig’s, was hounded out of business, despite being very popular before the war and despite the firm’s generosity in giving food to the poor. Only after the war and having changed their name to Simpson, were they allowed to trade again. Even War Secretary Richard Haldane, the founder of the Territorial Force, lost his office. Though British to the core, he too was suspect as a result of having attended a German university and being able to speak the language. Things therefore looked bleak for the Hesse family, especially following the tales of German atrocities in Belgium, the shooting of nurse Edith Cavell, zeppelin raids over the England, the naval bombardment of the north-east coast and the sinking of the Lusitania.
The men of the 6th Cheshires volunteered to serve overseas within days of the opening of the conflict and they, including 45 year old Captain Hesse, left their homes, jobs, and families for training in Northampton. It was here, on 15th October 1914 that Hesse was promoted to major. Colonel Alan Sykes was deemed unfit to serve and lead the 6th Cheshires overseas and so Major Heywood took his place, allowing Hesse to be promoted to be one of the two majors in the battalion. They sailed to France on the night of 9th November 1914 and soon found themselves manning a most unpleasant sector of front-line below the Messines Ridge, just to the south of Ypres.
Conditions were appalling – so much so that during three weeks in December around 120 men were invalided out with frostbite, trench foot and rheumatism – including, on 18th December, Colonel Heywood. Of the two majors in the battalion who were eligible to replace Heywood, Hesse was chosen, possibly out of seniority. He officially received his new rank of temporary (for the duration of the war only) lieutenant-colonel on 18th January 1915. Hesse now found himself leading the battalion as they took part in the now legendary Christmas Truce.
Hesse would not have been in the immediate front line at the time and it isn’t known whether he participated in the truce with the Germans, but he would have been aware of it. How he felt about it can only be imagined; the hatred he felt about the German military system perhaps being balanced by the view that these were his fellow countrymen – the people he had traded with which, in turn, had allowed his family to flourish.
Certainly, the brigadier of the 15th Brigade, was more sympathetic than people today are often led to believe about the Great War higher command. The brigadier, Hesse’s immediate superior, was Major-General Count Albert Edward Wilfred Gleichen, the only son of Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and a half nephew of Queen Victoria: a man with German credentials if ever there was one. Although he officially he couldn’t condone fraternising with the enemy, Gleichen wrote that he fully understood that British soldiers simply could not fire on an unarmed enemy walking across No Man’s land and that they could do little else but to go out to meet them halfway.
Like Hermann Hesse, Gleichen’s German connections did him no harm whatsoever; in 1915 he was promoted to command the 37th Division before, in 1917, going on to become Director of the Intelligence Bureau despite all the spy hysteria back in Britain. More incredibly, he was allowed to keep his German titles and surname when even the royal family found it necessary to change theirs to Windsor in 1917.
The Cheshires left the front line in March 1915 when Hesse was reported by the Stockport Advertiser to be in ‘great condition.’ The 6th Cheshires spent the rest of that year on line of communication duties, which included guarding the base ports of the British Expeditionary Force in France and escorting German prisoners of war back to camps in England. Hesse was based in Le Havre, though the four companies were split up among the base ports, which must have given him many command headaches and necessitated great skill in keeping them together, in spirit at least.
And together they came – in January 1916. The battalion now found itself in the collapsing chalk trenches of the Fricourt sector of the Somme, manning the front line and carrying explosives to the mine tunnels which being dug under the German defences. From there they were taken north to the front line between Givenchy and Festubert, where they held the isolated, sandbagged islands, which passed for trenches, in the surrounding marshland in the spring and early summer of that year. While here, Hesse acquired a reputation for bravery, as told to me by a couple of 6th Cheshire veterans, but also, like many officers, enjoyed a tipple or two to relieve the stress of command. One veteran told me that Hesse was looked upon with some suspicion because of his Germanic name by the higher command, though he certainly seemed to be popular amongst his own men. Be that as it may, Hesse relinquished his command and his temporary lieutenant-colonel’s rank on 16th August 1916 and was seconded to ‘take over duties at the Prisoners of War Working Camp.
By early 1916 there was a desperate shortage of labourers to keep the wheels of war turning in the British sector of the Western Front. This led to the British Expeditionary Forces utilising German PoWs to work in quarries, maintain roads and construct railways, build huts and work in the forests behind the front lines, instead of sending them back to Britain to languish in PoW camps like the one at Handforth in Cheshire. This freed much needed British soldiers who had been taken out of the front line to labour behind them instead. As the numbers of prisoners grew during the Battle of the Somme, PoW labour companies were formed, each of 450 men, with a British captain or major to administer and command each one. By 1917 there were 47 such companies.
It isn’t known whether Hesse was chosen to command one of these units because of his major’s rank and his ability to speak German, whether prejudice against ‘German’ officers was at last manifesting itself in his career, or whether he saw it as a way of possibly surviving the war and returning to his family at the end of it.
The London Gazette of 10th August 1917 reported that, ‘Major H Hesse is restored to the establishment – 27th February 1917.’ Why there was a need to take him off the Army establishment in order for him to command a PoW company, or if there was another, more sinister reason, isn’t known by the present writer but, from 28th April to 4th June 1918 Hesse bounced back to take command of the 6th Cheshires once more, with an acting lieutenant-colonel’s role. This was a period towards the end of the German Spring Offensives when the British army had suffered enormous casualties and were desperately short of officers and men. Soldiers were being combed out from wherever they could be found, so perhaps Hesse returned to his labour company in June when the worst of the crisis was over and the Allies, once again, were preparing to go on the offensive.
Hermann Hesse returned home safely to his family in Cheadle Hulme at the end of the war. However, for whatever reason, he didn’t attend the festivities associated with the return of the 6th Cheshires to Stockport in September 1919. Three other ex-commanding officers did and had their photos taken to prove it, but Hermann wasn’t amongst them.
After 26 years of service to the 6th Cheshires, Major Hermann Hesse T.D. (Territorial Decoration) resigned his commission, was granted the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and given ‘permission to wear the prescribed uniform.’ Hesse and his family could be described as nothing less than ‘international’ in their background and dealings.
Hesse died in Cheadle Hulme at the age of 73 in September 1942, in the midst of another and even larger conflict with his former countrymen. Rightly or wrongly, the two World Wars have been described as European civil wars and from the viewpoint of Kadet Hermann Hesse, or from that of Lt-Colonel Hermann Hess, they most certainly were.
‘No Labour, No Battle.’ John Starling and Ivor Lee. Spellmount. 2009.
‘War History of the 6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment. Charles Smith. 6th Cheshire O.C.A. 1932.
The Stockport Advertiser and Stockport Express. !908 – 1919.
The London Gazette 1901 – 1921.
The memories of Capt. Robert Morton and Sgt Joseph Barber.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1871 – 1911.