Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How Hard was Daily Work for Eighteenth-Century Soldiers?

Reenactors portraying a soldier and sergeant prepare for a work detail

Dear Reader,

Despite the agreeing with Matthew Spring's assessment that the "the ultimate purpose of all armies is to fight," the life of the soldier includes many army-related tasks that do not involve combat.[1] Rather than give some sort of numerical average, this post attempts to examine daily work in the armies of the eighteenth century and provide a picture pieced together from a number of qualitative sources. Assuming that the army was not marching or fighting a battle, what might daily life look like?

Usually, the day would begin quite early. The Prussian regulations indicate that reveille was beaten when visibility reached forty paces. In some armies, soldiers would immediately fall in for accountability formation, to make sure that no one had deserted during the night. After role was called on a campaign, the mess group would immediately begin to perform its daily tasks. In a peacetime garrison, the whole body of men might perform drill after cleaning their uniforms and equipment, depending on the day of the month.[2]

A Seven Years' War era NC Provincial officer assigns his dejected soldiers yet more work.

Daily work depended greatly on context and environment. Let us first examine the setting of a military campaign, and then turn to peacetime garrison. Usually, a large portion of the mess group would be assigned to manual labor, such as cutting wood, or digging and hauling earth. One member of the mess group might be detailed for food preparation. The army frequently sought out soldiers with particularly useful trades such as cobblers, tailors, carpenters, and masons (stoneworkers), and bricklayers.[3] Soldiers were often paid slightly more for work details. Unlike peacetime garrison duty, there was relatively little "free time" in the campaign setting. Regiment von Itzenplitz private Ulrich Braeker described the nature of daily work, giving a blow by blow of the Kameradschaft's duties: 
One man cleaned his musket, another did laundry, the third cooked, the fourth mended breeches, the fifth [repaired] shoes, the sixth cut wood... each tent had its six men and one extra, among these seven, one always had to be clean and prepared. Of the six remaining, one went on guard, one cooked, one fetched provisions, one gathered wood, one went after straw, one handled paperwork.[4]

Corporal Douglas cleans his musket

There were, of course, exceptions to this. If the army was granted a rest day after a long march, the men would be relatively free to move about the camp, provided they did not attempt to leave the picket lines. Once again, Braeker gives us an excellent account of this type of freedom outside Pirna in 1756: "With exception of the watch, everyone could do as he pleased, bowling, horse-play, in and around the camp."[5]  Fires were often extinguished at sunset, and a special squad of guards was detailed to be sure that noise was kept to a minimum after sundown.

The author constructs fascines at the July 2017 Fort Niagara siege event

In the course of a siege, the daily workload of a soldier, especially in the besieged fortress, would greatly increase. Officers noted the tiring natures of sieges and all the, "various chores necessitated by siege operations."[6] In the final stages of a siege operation, it was common for the defenders to go without sleep entirely. Soldiers would work in various states of dress. During the 1759 siege of Fort Niagara, a French sortie encountered a number of British soldiers, "naked to the waist."[7]

The relative ease of peacetime garrison

Peacetime garrison, by contrast, was a relatively free environment. After officers called the roll, and performed drill if required, soldiers were free to spend their afternoons working in the civilian sector or taking their ease. Depending on the army and year, soldiers might have lived in a fortress or barrack room, or have been quartered on the civilian population. Civilians and officers complained that soldiers grew idle and fat in peacetime service:

If the peace continues very long, I may live to see the foot [infantry] of England carried in waggons from quarter to quarter, for with their vast size and the idleness they live in, I'm sure they can't march... soon [a soldier] is incapable of wielding anything more than his musket. His hands become as delicate as a young girl, and are no longer equal to gripping a spade or pick.[8]
Reenactors at the 2016 Siege of Yorktown

  This polemic author seems to be exaggerating. Other observers took a decidedly different view. In late-eighteenth-century Prussia, a traveler found off-duty soldiers, "without uniform of any kind, dirty, uncombed, some even without their breeches, going about just as they pleased. There are soldiers on every street corner, pursuing every means of employment imaginable."[9], Ulrich Braeker portrays a quite similar scene in the 1750s:  "hundreds of soldiers occupied themselves loaded and unloading merchant's wares, while the timber-yards were full of toiling warriors."[10]

In conclusion, whether or not the army was on campaign, the life of soldier could be quite busy. Unless on a rest day, or during an afternoon lull in fortress garrison service, eighteenth-century soldiers worked industriously at the business of war, or if in an urban setting, contributed a ready workforce to the economy.

Feel free to share if you know individuals who might find the post interesting. 

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

[1] Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, xi. 
[2] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 80. 
[3] Campbell, The Royal American Regiment, 136. 
[4] Braeker, Der Arme Mann von Toggenburg, 143. 
[5] Ibid.
[6] Pouchot, Memoirs of the Late War, 211
[7] Ibid, 234. 
[8] Hawley, "General Hawley's Chaos," JSAHR, XXVI, 93. 
[9] Guibert, Journal D'un Voyage En Allemagne, 166. 
[10] Braeker,Der Arme Mann von Toggenburg, 121. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alex,
    Fascinating work! My area of interest in military labour in general, with a particular focus on Australian military labour history. See my work here: