Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Percentage of Soldiers were Killed and Wounded in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Battles?

Corporal Douglas' advance at Guilford Court House starts to run into trouble.
(Photo Credit: C.S. Young Jr. Fine Art Photography)


Dear Reader,

I thought I would follow up my previous post with a corollary: what percentage of soldiers were killed and wounded in eighteenth-century battles? Being an eighteenth-century soldier was a risky business, and not just from death on the battlefield. More soldiers perished from disease and inclement conditions than died from enemy fire on the battlefield. Indeed, this is a common feature of most pre-twentieth century wars, and Andrew Bamford has just published an excellent book on the subject in the Napoleonic era, entitled Sickness Suffering and the Sword: The British Regiment on Campaign 1808-1815.  Between 1740 and 1783, how many soldiers became casualties on the battlefield?

I hope this post will be useful for any military historians working on the collection of casualty data for this era. However, as with the previous post, I produce this mainly for reenactors and wargames, in a hope that their displays and simulations of eighteenth-century combat might be as accurate as possible. Like many wargamers and reenactors, I imagine, I have been party to events and scenarios where one side takes more than 50% casualties on a regular basis. How accurate are these representations? As in the previous post, I will aggregate data from a large number of battles in the era, and present the data in a number of different arrangements.

It should also be noted: Christopher Duffy has already presented much of the data for the European Seven Years' War in two books: his second edition of The Army of Frederick the Great, and By Force of Arms: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years' War, Vol II.  In the case of the European Seven Years' War, I am truly standing on the shoulders of a scholarly giant. In terms of the statistics, I have included as losses men who were killed, wounded, missing, and captured on the battlefield. Large surrenders like Yorktown, Bennington, or Maxen only include soldiers who were captured in the course of the fighting, not in surrenders after the battle.

And a final note: these were all real men, with lives and hopes. To counteract the faceless nature of these statistics, read this letter from Franz Reiss:

"all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for my health. In the very first cannon shots {my friend} Krumpholtz took a cannon ball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands.  But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was a horrifying sight. Now, dear child, just think of how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.”[1]

Total Average: 
Average percentage of losses suffered in combat, Europe and North America, 1740-1783:
(Battle sample size: 69) 14.552% 

Average by War 
War of Austrian Succession 
(Battle sample size: 9) 15.811%

Seven Years' War in Europe and North America
(Battle sample size: 33) 15.403%

American War of Independence
(Battle sample size: 27) 13.093%

La Pegna's depiction of the attack at Hochkirch
Average by Theater of the Seven Years' War
War in Central Europe (Brandenburg, East Prussia, Saxony, and Silesia)
(Battle sample size: 18) 20.522%

War in Western Germany (Hessen and Hanover)
(Battle sample size: 10) 9.11% (No wondered Frederick II was angry with Ferdinand.) 

War in North America (Canada and the Ohio Country)
(Battle sample size: 5) 19.4%


La Pegna depiction of Finck Surrendering at Maxen


Average percentage of loss by Nation/Army in the Seven Years' War (Highest to Lowest)
British(Outside Europe): 24.56%
Prussians: 22.8%
Russians:  21.92%
Austrians: 18.53%
French (Outside Europe): 14.4%
French (in Europe): 10.6%
Allies(British/Hessians/Hanoverians/et al in Europe): 7.58%

Don Troiani's Reimagining of Oriskany 


Average Loss by Armies in the American War of Independence (Highest to Lowest):
Americans and their allies: 16.80%
British and their allies: 12.09%



Notable Battles: 
Rossbach: Prussians 2.4% Franco-Imperials 24.1% : Average 13.3%
Zorndorf: Prussians 35.5% Russians 42.7% (highest  loss percentage of the SYW): Average 39.1%
Oriskany: Americans 55.4% (highest loss percentage in 18th century) British 18.6%: Average 37.0%
Eutaw Springs: Americans 26.3% British 44.1% : Average 35.2%

A Few Thoughts: 

The above data certain surprised me in several areas. First of all, engagements like Zorndorf or Oriskany (which was much smaller but with a comparable percentage lost) did occur, but they were the exception, rather than the rule. On average, about 14.5% of men became casualties, and includes killed, wounded, missing, and captured on the battlefield. I was shocked by the relatively low casualties on the western front of the Seven Years' War in Europe, and by the relatively high casualties suffered by the Americans in contrast to the British during the American War of Independence. I should say, the largest British losses in terms of percentage come near the end of the war, at places like Cowpens, Guilford Court House, Hobkirk's Hill, and Eutaw Springs. Finally, looking at the data for the Seven Years' War and American War of Independence, it does not appear as though percentage of soldiers lost has any direct bearing on the outcome of the war. 

So, losing 30 men in a reenactment of 100 is possible, but not encouraged. Often, these losses were concentrated in a small number of units, such as the Royal Highland Regiment at Carillon, Regiment von Itzenplitz at Hochkirch, or the 1st Maryland Regiment at Long Island. So, while having a unit be destroyed or beaten up rather badly is accurate, taking above 40% losses for an army should not be. Likewise, wargamers should be able to quickly play battles in which armies are broken as a result of losses, but not destroyed by enemy fire.

Please feel free to share this post if you know people and groups who might be intrigued by these statistics. 


Thanks for Reading,




Alex Burns 



[1]Hans Bleckwenn, eds. Preussiche Soldatenbriefe Mit Einer Einf├╝hrung Von Hans Bleckwenn, (Onsnabruck, 1982) 29.



8 comments:

  1. Another terrific and useful article: thank you!
    My experiences reenacting seem to be rather the opposite of yours: at the 2016 reenactment of the 1759 British seige of Ft. Niagara, on Saturday, I led a squad of Maryland Provincial Regulars, (Joshua Beall's Company) on the right end of the British line. We (the entire British gorce) had been instructed, that morning, to take heavy casualties. As we advanced into the French outworks, I looked into the ravine, and saw that Company Dumas was about to fire a volley at us. As all of my men were focused on reloading, and I was the only one watching, I took a hit. It would seem, however, that the rest of the Line considered one 280-lb Serjeant to be a heavy-enough casualty, to meet our obligation! NOBODY ELSE FELL! Whatever shall the line do, if I manage to lose this weight, and am no longer heavy? Shall we be ordered to take reasonably fit casualties? :-)

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  2. More American losses than British? That's not how it's usually presented to people. Interesting. Thank you!

    Now I'm off to see if Zorndorf ("angry rage village") received its name before or after this gruesome battle.

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    1. Joerg,

      It does fly in the face of what we think, and I will admit, I was a little surprised by the results.

      I'd love to hear more about your visit to Zorndorf!

      Best,

      Alex

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  3. Even re-enactors fall prey to the common notions that huge casualties were normal or at least not rare. Most of us do not take the time and interest to compile such impressive amounts of information and raw scientific conclusions! Thank you for doing so.

    Having just found this Blog, I plan to contniue following it! I suspect that much of the info. will be driectly relevant to my own period and interpretationL: British, 1812-15

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    1. Peter- thanks for the comment! I am glad to have you along for the ride.

      While 1812-1815 falls outside the scope of the blog, I am certainly interested in the Napoleonic era as well, and many of the sources for my dissertation research come out of that era.

      Best,

      Alex

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  4. In a miniature wargame, the casualties are by my estimate 10% higher that the "actual" casualties in a historical battle. This accounts for men who in the confusion of battle manage to slip away from their unit to avoid combat or if when their unit retires from bad morale they are straggling back to reform the unit. Even though it was against the rules some soldiers would assist a wounded comrade to the rear for medical attention, and would be slow/very slow to retun to their unit

    In the SYW most of the Austrian/Prussian battles have casualties of 25% of the total force. In a wargame that means casulties of 35%. On the extreme of heavy casualties, at Zorndorf the Prussians took 30-35% casualties and the Russians 40-45% historically, so in a game both sides will be near 50% casualties if not above.

    Another thing to think about. In a battle where a 20-35% of an army is not heavily engaged or only engaged in the the pursuit/retreat phase when the battle has been decided, and the army takes 15% casualties, then the units in the main action are taking 25%-50% casualties.

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    1. Fritz- Yes- absolutely, in wargame terms, you need to account for men who are not merely casualties, but also not active in combat.

      I think you are right to point out that situations like Zorndorf did exist, but they were not the norm. In the Central European Theater, casualties were normally around 20%, the Austrians losing 18.5% on average, and the Prussians losing 23%. Even in wargame terms, 30% should be a good average, perhaps as high as 40% when account you for troops actually fighting vs. those in reserve, etc.

      You've brought up some excellent ideas: does your modified version of warfare in the age of reason produce these type of results?

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  5. Fascinating stats you have posted here. I note that the cumulative total of the averages of casualties and engagements means that the average regiment suffered nearly 60% in battlefield casualties in the course of the war. Of course the biggest killer for this era (and right up until the mid 19thC) was illness and disease. I don't know what it was for the SYW but the first reliable records of the Napoleonic era put it at many times that for battlefield casualties - at least 3 for every battlefield casualty. If you consider this rate of attrition is it is little wonder many regiments had to be raised several times in the course of the conflict.

    With regard to battlefield casualties its also worth considering that the majority of the wounded either succumbed to their wounds or were permanently incapacitated so that they could not rejoin their regiments but even a modicum of medical treatment could have an astounding result. Unfortunately this did not occur in any organised way until the Napoleonic period - a good example being the Guard as Aspern Essling where over 500 of the over 800 wounded treated were able to recover from their wounds and eventually rejoin the ranks. One would imagine this just did not happen during the SYW.

    Also of interest, Prussian General Staff studies after the Franco-Prussian War discovered that if any unit had suffered 30% casualties in a single engagement, that unit was considered kaput! The 25% casualties suffered on average by armies in single SYW battles meant a truly catastrophic result for the losing side!

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