Monday, June 19, 2017

How Far did the Average Mid-Eighteenth-Century Soldier March in a Day?

A mixed war-party with men from the King's Regiment in North America (Photo Credit: Tommy Tringale)

Dear Reader,

Historians of other eras often assert that: ""In general, an ancien regime [eighteenth-century] army was a slow and unwieldy mass of disgruntled and terrorized soldiers led by untrained and unimaginative officers."[1] By doing so, they prepare the way to discuss how armies in the era of Napoleon were fast moving, lithe, killing machines led by professional soldiers promoted on merit alone. Leaving aside the fact the Ilya Berkovich as destroyed the notion that eighteenth-century soldiers were "disgruntled and terrified," we should turn our attention to the question of whether an eighteenth-century army was a "slow and unwieldy mass." 

Christopher Duffy has addressed this issue in some detail in his book Military Experience in the Age of Reason. He asserts that it would be normal for an eighteenth-century soldier to move between 6-8 miles a day, and perhaps move as fast as 12 miles a day during "urgent phases of a campaign" and that this speed was sustainable for two weeks.[2] However, it has been thirty years since the publication of this fine book, and so some reassessment might be helpful. Duffy is at least clear that eighteenth-century armies gave nothing in terms of speed to their Napoleonic counterparts, quoting this source:

It would appear mistaken to claim that recent wars [the Napoleonic Wars] are the only ones which have demanded great physical exertion, or that these exertions were greater than those of our ancestors. We would be just as wrong to suppose that the soldiers of those times, most of whom were probably aged between thirty and forty, could not have been a match for our present soldiers, the majority of whom are between twenty and thirty.[3]

So, how far did soldiers march in eighteenth-century campaigns? To answer this question, I have drawn together data on marching from a number of armies between 1755 and 1781. For this project, I looked at around 410 individual days of marching, and the distances of covered by soldiers on those days. Of those days, around 243 represent troops marching without impediment, and 170 of them represent troops cutting a trail through wooded terrain. For now, just looking at the 240-odd days of marching, how far did the average soldier march in the mid-eighteenth century? 

According to the data which I gathered, the average mid-eighteenth-century soldier marched around 14.3 Miles, or 23.19km per day. While Duffy's figure may be more accurate for the entirety of the eighteenth century, I argue that my sample size is large enough to push for a slight revision upwards for the era between 1755 and 1781. At the very least, this difference is worth further investigation. Duffy's estimate may well be more accurate, but his claim does not seem to be supported by a citation. 

With that in mind, let us look at the averages by army, from lowest to highest: 

A (not completely accurate) depiction of Prussian soldiers on the march, by Carl Roechling.
 The Seven Years' War Average: 14.44 Miles per day (23.25km) 

The French Army in the Seven Years' War: 11.7 Miles per day (18.9km) 
(14-day average) 

The Russian Army in the Seven Years' War: 12.9 Miles per day (20.85km) 
(7-day average) 

The British Army in the Seven Years' War: 14.1 Miles per day (22.7km) 
(35-day average) 

The Austrian Army in the Seven Years' War: 15.75 Miles per day (25.4km)
(26-day average) 

The Prussian Army in the Seven Years' War: 17.74 Miles per day (28.6km) 
(44-day average) 

These numbers are interesting in their consistency. The only army even within Duffy's original range is the French army, apparently the slowest of the five armies in question.

Reenactors portraying North Carolina militia working on Forbes Road in 1758
Cutting Trail during the French and Indian War: 2.75 Miles per day (4.42km) 
(170-day average) This total comes from work on Braddock's and Forbes' roads during the French and Indian War. Braddock moved much faster than Forbes, who steadily approached his target (Ft. Duquense) at a crawling pace of 2 miles per day. On the other hand, Braddock's army was annihilated as a cohesive fighting force. 

Reenactors portraying American forces during the War of Independence

The American War of Independence Average: 16.15 Miles per day (26.01km) 

The British Army in the American War of Independence: 14.8 Miles per day (23.8km) 
(25-day average) 

The American Army in the American War of Independence: 17-18 Miles per day (27.5-29km) 
(92-day average) In this case, potentially erroneous data makes only an estimate possible. 

Of all the armies in the eighteenth century, the Continental army under George Washington may have been the most capable of fast, sustained movement. The British army was capable of sustained spurts of great speed, as incidents like the Race to the Dan show, but fell somewhat short of the American total.

Reenactors portraying men of the 8th Regiment of Foot on the march

Obviously, this is a very small sample size compared to all distance/days marched by soldiers in the eighteenth century. Obviously, soldiers did not march this far every day, as armies took occasional rest days after moving long distances. It seems, then, that we should update our evaluation of how fast eighteenth-century armies could move. Or, at the very least, call for more detailed and thorough research on the subject. The myth that eighteenth-century armies were slow and unwieldy is simply untenable. Napoleonic armies were certainly capable of moving quickly; the 70-mile march to action at Austerlitz comes to mind. However, when the armies of the eighteenth-century were capable of moving 145km (approx 90 miles) in 3 days, as Prinz Henri's army did in the Seven Years' War,  does the Napoleonic era truly represent a watershed in army movement?

Please feel free to share if you know individuals who might be intrigued by this post.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1]Andrew R. Wilson, "Master's of War: History's Great Strategic Thinkers" (lecture, The Great Courses, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island).
[2] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 160.
[3] Lossow, Denkw├╝rdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 10-11.


  1. Just did some math. My ancestor's IR13 fought against Napoleon on Oct 14 1806 in Jena and his battalion was surrendered after retreating 420km to Stettin in exactly 20 days. That's 13 miles per day. Fits your numbers perfectly. :-D

    1. That is really cool, Joerg! Thanks for sharing the story! I had thought your ancestor served early in the 18th century.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Actually 1785-1806. However his father in law (who is a direct ancestor too) served in the same IR13 and enlisted ~1775 (when his daughter was already 6 years old!). I doubt there were any earlier Prussian musketeers in my family tree, but who knows. :-D

  2. Here's another small sample. I have my patriot ancestor's travels (by horse, batteau, and foot) mapped from 1775 through 1781.

    Conditions mattered, and could restrict any mode of travel to about six miles in a day. For marches, good conditions and need pushed the upper end to 37 miles.

    Out of 320 days marching, the mean was 14.7 miles/day with a standard deviation of 7.75 miles.

    On horseback a single rider could easily top 50 miles in a day, and I found one instance of doing so starting at midnight from the camp at Wyoming PA (in 1775) back to Easton PA by 8AM the same morning.

    1. I am glad to see that he matches the average from these armies so closely.

  3. That should be Wyoming in 1779, not 1775.

  4. That is really interesting! Was he in the PA state militia, or another formation?