Thursday, May 23, 2013

Soulful Soldiers

Dear Reader,

In the modern world, we associate soldiers and militarism with brutality, violence, and masculinity, (and by connection perhaps-stupidity.) Often, we read this stereotype into the past. As far as eighteenth century warfare is concerned reading the present into the past is a severe problem in historical thinking. Christopher Duffy addresses this issue in his excellent book, Military Experience in the Age of Reason. 

As much as modern literature and fiction might attempt to present the past accurately, this is a task for trained and professional historians. A perfect example of this is the excellent web-comic Family Man, by brilliant writer and artist Dylan Meconis. Meconis gives an excellent representation of Central Europe in the 1760s, (if you ignore the occasional vampire or werewolf) down to rabbit and wolf hunting with a Jägerbüsche. However, her detailed representation as just that, a representation. 

In order to be truly "historical," a work of non-fiction needs to draw on the writing of individuals who lived during that time, and other evidence remaining from the past. Returning to the premise of this article, some 18th century soldiers were certainly brutal, pipeclayed, villainous men, who raped, stole and murdered throughout Europe. However, many of the soldiers of the 18th century were not this type of man. Some were Seelenmensch- Soulful men. This was exceedingly evident in the Prussian army. Frederick the Great, for all his spikeness, was a man of great sensitivity and feeling. On the death of his general Hans Karl von Winterfeldt, he remarked, "He was a good man: a soulful man. He was my friend." 

How do we know that 18th century soldiers were soulful, you ask? Their writings. Many soldiers from 18th left behind a plethora of writings on military matters, but some also left poetry about their personal lives. These soldiers played music, wrote poetry, and attempted to bring culture into their world of death. Here is a selection of poetry from eighteenth century soldiers:

Miniatures of Hessian Soldiers

The first poem is by Johann Heinnrich Ludewig Grotehenen, a soldier who served in the Western German army during the Seven Years' War, under the command of Ferdinand of Brunswick

Ein Soldate bin Ich eben
I was only a soldier,
und steh vor meinen feind.
and stood before my enemy
In freud und lied muss leben
I must live in joy and song,
wie mirs gott Hat bereit
How God has prepared me!
und wenn ich stehe in feld
For when I stand in the field
und lieg in meinen zelt
and lie in my tent
Hab ich mich gott befohlen
Have I myself instructed God?
Er mags wie es ihm gefält
He makes things how he pleases.

The second is a selection from the 1759 Quebec campaign, by an anonymous author.  It describes the death of General Wolfe. The author here spells it Wolf.

The British at Quebec
The first part of the poem describes a young man who enlists because he is heart broken. The second part begins:

Then this brave youth took to the ocean,
to free America from those invasions;
He landed at Quebec, with his party,
to attack the city, being brave and hearty.

Wolf drew up his men in a line, so pretty,
On the plains of Abraham, before the city.
A distance from the town, the French did meet him.
With double numbers, they resolve{d} to beat him.

The French drew up their men: for death prepared.
In one another's face, they flood and flared.
Whilst Wolf and Montcalm together walked.
Betwixt their armies: they like brothers talked.

Then each took his place, 'twas of attire.
And then this numerous host began their fire.
Suddenly from his horse fell this brave hero,
You may lament his loss in fields of sorrow.

The French began to break their ranks and flying,
Wolf seemed to revive whilst he lay a dying--
He raised up his head, where the cannons rattle,
and to his army said: how goes the battle?

His aid-de-camp reply'd: 'tis in our favor.
Quebec and all her pride, nothing can save her.
She falls into our hands, with all her treasure.
O, reply'd brave Wolf: I die with pleasure.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

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  1. Excellent article with a nicely different perspective. It does seem that we look into the past without admitting our modern lenses. In this case, I think looking at historic warfare in a post-General Sherman's Total War world we tend to imprint that perspective on our studies. You remind me as well of the Duke of Wellington's orders in the Peninsular War that his troops pay for anything that they took from the Spanish and how it ended up fostering a very different relationship than the pillaging French had with them.

  2. I found it quite interesting. When reading this I was immediately thinking about the British Peninsular Army, made up of cut throats, thieves, murders,and basically people who either could enlist or be put to death. Scum of the Earth, I believe he called them several times. However, with the help of a very ardent group of Provosts, he was able to create that relationship Jason mentioned.

    I would be interested in seeing if there is, and I imagine there is, a direct correlation between the brutal vs. soulful in regards to volunteer vs. conscription.

  3. Jason and Bran, thanks for the comments!

    As you are both discussing Napoleonic soldiery, we should make sure that we don't conflate Kabinettskriege era ideas with the Napoleonic period. Armies had swelled to an enormous size by the Napoleonic period, and there was less focus on the rules of war than in the Kabinettskriege period.

    Thus, as a result of the changing times, (and the methods of conscription introduced during the Napoleonic period)we see less of the soulful soldiers during the 1789-1815 era. Ancien Regime monarchies still attempted to prevent their soldiers from running wild, and in many cases resorted to Provosts in order to maintain harsh discipline. Soldiers in the Napoleonic period were mass-produced, whereas soldiers in the Kabinettskriege period were trained and recruited at a much slower rate.

    In addition, from my reading, their appears to have been a better relationship between officers and soldiers during the Kabinettskriege period. It is easier to accept orders to exercise restraint if you respect the man handing them out.