Baron von Steuben: Washington’s Drillmaster

Arnold Whitridge describes how a veteran from Frederick the Great’s army crossed the Atlantic in 1777 and helped to train the Continental forces.

Two hundred years ago a number of young men, most of them French but with a liberal sprinkling of Germans and Poles among them, were streaming across the ocean to fight for American independence. They came for a variety of reasons. Some were genuine idealists. Every one in Europe who claimed to be a liberal felt that the American colonists were fighting his battle as well as their own. One downcast French volunteer wrote, shortly after his arrival in America, ‘there is a hundred times more enthusiasm for this revolution in any cafe in Paris than there is in all the United States together’.

But General Washington soon found that many of the foreign volunteers who offered him their services were hard-bitten soldiers of fortune rather than idealists. They may have believed in his cause; but that was not necessarily the determining factor. Among other things they wanted pay, promotion, adventure and bread-and-butter.

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