“The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion” is set in a small village in Dorset, a rural coastal community in southwest England. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars, the period between 1797 and 1815 when England was at war with France. The “German Legion” referenced in the title of the story was a real branch of the British Army made up of German expatriates in England. Hardy’s short story, though fictional, is based on a real account he read in newspapers from the Napoleonic era about two members of the German Legion being executed while posted in Dorset.
In addition to capturing the sociopolitical context of the early 19th century, Hardy also spends time describing the geographic elements of the rural community in which his characters live. In the opening lines of the story, for example, he helps readers visualize the landscape:
Here stretch the downs, high and breezy and green, absolutely unchanged since those eventful days. A plough has never disturbed the turf, and the sod that was uppermost then is uppermost now. Here stood the camp; here are distinct traces of the banks thrown up for the horses of the cavalry, and spots where the midden-heaps lay are still to be observed.
When Hardy describes the "downs," he is referring to grassy hills composed of chalk that covered much of southwestern England. Readers can picture these “high and breezy and green” hills as well as the nearby military camp and its “midden-heaps” (where the members of the camp would pile their garbage). It is notable that, when the narrator says that the downs are “unchanged since those eventful days,” he makes it clear to readers that the story is being told many decades in the future. This adds to the nostalgic and melancholic tone of the store.
The rural setting of the story also acts to bring Phyllis and Matthäus together—Phyllis is completely isolated in her home with her introverted father, and Matthäus cannot share openly with the other soldiers about how deeply he longs to abandon his post and go home to Germany. They end up connecting over their shared struggles and slowly start to fall in love.