Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the Seven Years' War

A Contemporary depiction of the 1760 siege

Dear Reader,

Today is popularly remembered as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If you are a grumpy cat historian like me, you might point out that November 11th, not October 31st, is really 500 years on from October 31st, 1517. On that day in October, Augustinian Friar Martin Luther circulated his 95 Theses, beginning a large and eventually successful movement to change theological understandings concerning Christianity. Luther, a professor of Theology at Wittenberg University, supposedly nailed this document to the doors of the local church, a common practice for circulating ideas. The doors of the schlosskirche, or Castle-Church (often referred to as All Saints Church in English) were much like a bulletin board, and Luther likely did not intend to start anything more than a local conversation. Despite that, he touched off a movement that would irrevocably change the world.

Luther's (rebuilt) church in Wittenberg, as it looks today

To this day, Luther's significance is widely debated. Many Catholics and some historians argue that Luther horribly divided European Christianity, and created the (in their view) horrible pluralistic society we live in today. Many Protestants, both Lutheran and otherwise, view Luther as a hero, who created the theological framework for their religious beliefs. Finally, there is the category I and others fall into: the belief that Luther was a deeply flawed individual, who greatly assisted created the modern Western World, with all of its flaws, foibles, triumphs, and achievements. It is possible to view Luther creator of much of the human freedom which has developed in the west since 1500: freedom of speech and religion being two of the largest consequences of his movement. It is important to note: as a late Medieval man, Luther would have been horrified at many of these developments, but he helped create them nonetheless.
Luther in 1520, by Lukas Cranach the Elder

After Luther's death in 1546, religious conflict devastated Europe for the next century. From 1546 to 1648, the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years' War, caused an intense amount of suffering, particularly in German Central Europe. After the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648, European statesmen began to realize that wars fought to enforce religious belief were often less than successful. The desire creation of a universal Protestant or Catholic Europe faded, and religious toleration began to grow, in fits and starts. Wars were fought between princes and states, not between fanatic adherents of rival religious groups.  Soldiers could still be incredibly religious: indeed, Swedish troops in the Great Northern War were some of the most devout religious believers in European history. Religious differences as a cause of war, however, became less common.

Hans Karl von Winterfeldt:
A Protestant-Warrior in the Eighteenth Century
By the mid-eighteenth century, warfare began to stoke the tensions of the religious conflict, not the other way around. The British developed an anti-French and anti-Catholic identity, while in German Central Europe, the birthplace of Luther and the Reformation, religious tensions remained. Indeed, the Seven Years' War in Europe may have been caused by Protestant ambitions on the part of one man: Prussian General Hans Karl von Winderfeldt. Winterfeldt, one of Frederick II of Prussia's closest confidantes, dreamed of "the creation of a new Protestant German Empire."[1] Frederick's record of religious toleration was mixed, he certainly sponsored it at times in his life and built Catholic places of worship, even in Berlin. However, he also persecuted disloyal Catholics in the County of Glatz during the Seven Years' War, and executed a Catholic priest. Prussian and Britain governments used religion as a weapon of propaganda in the Seven Years' War, in an attempt to represent the conflict as religious in nature. Frederick enjoyed a high reputation among Protestant and Catholic minor princes in the Holy Roman Empire, and Austrian Minister Kaunitz wrote that "favoured by fanaticism, the tempting prospect of the secularisations, and the strong solidarity which exists among Protestants ... the kings of England and Prussia could become effectively the masters of the whole of Europe."[2]

The remains of the fortifications of Wittenberg

For their part, the Austrians took steps to solidify their religious position. Fear of defections among Protestant troops within their own armed forces prevented them from using religious propaganda to full effect, and Maria Theresa was warned, "Your Majesty would run the risk of losing a considerable number of generals and officers from Your army, or at least be unable to rely on their loyalty."[3] The greatest event with a legacy to the reformation occurred on the 10th-13th of October 1760. Wittenberg, the sleepy town where Luther had ignited the Protestant Reformation, had been occupied by Prussian forces and was surrounded and besieged by an Austrian Army.  The Austrian bombardment ignited wooden buildings within the town, and fire quickly spread to the schlosskirche, the church where Luther had circulated the 95 Theses. In the course of the fire, the church, and Luther's tomb were burned. According to rumor, the Austrian commander, Grumbach, had wanted to destroy Luther's tomb. This moral victory, and the enterprising work of Austrian light troops who destroyed the locks with kept the wet ditch secure, quickly allowed the Austrian forces to capture the town.[4]

The rebuilt schlosskirche doors in Wittenberg
In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, the church was rebuilt, and in the nineteenth century, Frederick II's great-great-great nephew, Frederick William IV, had commemorative doors cast in bronze, to replace the original wooden doors lost to the bombardment. Eventually, a Protestant-led German nation-state was created, but by that time, the fire of Christian religious conflict had faded from Europe. Even 500 years on, Luther remains a divisive figure.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life, 86.
[2] Quoted in Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 349.
[4] Christopher Duffy, By Force of Arms, 280.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How Common was Desertion in the Eighteenth-Century Armies?

Soldiers from Germanic armies often had a reputation for desertion. Was it deserved?

Dear Reader,

I was speaking on the phone with one of my friends a few weeks ago. A veteran reenactor, and living-historian in his own right, he made a peculiar statement. He said that sickness, death in battle, enterprising foes and surprise attacks by the enemy all might be difficult for reenactors to simulate, and indeed, some (like death) should remain impossible to do so. "But desertion," he said, "desertion, I understand." Leading reenactors often feel a slight sense of betrayal at the tendency of unit members not to show up at events.  As a unit commander, he believed that he had a rather good understanding of how a regimental commander might have felt while facing desertion, as his (modern) eighteenth-century soldiers trickled away from his control.

This brings us to another question: how common was desertion in eighteenth-century armies? Like the previous post on sickness, this post is connected to my average soldier series. It may seem at first glance as though desertion was quite common: indeed it was much more common than it is in militaries today. J.A. Houlding quotes Frederick II of Prussia (as so many people do), who supposedly said that, "If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army." [1] This is at least as true as Frederick's statement, "Soldiers should be more afraid of their officers than the enemy," that is to say, not at all.[2] Christopher Duffy has shown, from research in Austrian archives, that Prussian prisoners of war often refused to desert their army, and as prisoners frequently preached their thoughts on the positive qualities of their prince.[3] How likely, then, were most soldiers to desert from their armies?

Recaptured deserters would "run the gauntlet" 12, 24, or 36 times, often a death sentence

Much more qualified scholars have spilled a great deal of ink on this subject. For German speakers, Michael Sikora's excellent work, Disziplin und Desertion: Strukturprobleme militärischer Organisation im 18. Jahrhundert, provides an excellent baseline of understanding. Once again, Christopher Duffy is our leading light for Central-European armies, but he is now joined by Ilya Berkovich, whose outstanding new book, Motivation in War, devotes a chapter to this important subject.  André Corvisier has long provided a rough estimate for France, arguing that between 1700 and 1763, approximately 1/5th of all French troops deserted. Berkovich implies that this figure has been taken for an eighteenth-century standard too often.  Sylvia Frey and Glenn Steppler give excellent information for the British Army during the American War of Independence, while James H. Edmonson, Charles Royster, and Mark Lender contribute to this topic with regards to the Continental Army. So, without further adieu, how likely was an eighteenth-century soldier to desert?

Any sort of exact average figure, when dealing with multiple armies, over the course of the eighteenth century, is rather difficult. By way of a rough estimate, perhaps 11% of soldiers deserted, though that figure was much smaller during peacetime, and potentially greater in wartime.  However, it may be possible to venture a more accurate guess when figures are separated by era and army. At times, it is only possible to give a percentage of total losses. Thus, we will begin data from armies over long periods of time, and then move to figures connected with the Seven Years' War era, and move to the American War of Independence. Despite the problems connected with the datasets, it is possible to observe several trends. Ilya Berkovich gives the best summary of trends during this era, which I will quote here:
"[N]ew recruits and foreigners were more likely to desert than veterans and native-born soldiers. There were more deserters in wartime than in peacetime. Units on the march were particularly susceptible to desertion, as were regiments whose soldiers learnt that they were to be send abroad. Not unlike recruitment, desertion rates demonstrate correlations with economic conditions, or even particular months of the year. Finally, armies whose desertion figures were examined over a prolonged period reveal that peacetime desertion rates declined as the century progressed."[4]

The Prussian Army in peacetime
Longterm Desertion (years):

Prussian Army (1713-1740): 3.2% per year.

French Army (1716-1749): 4.4% per year

Saxon Army (1717-1727): 7% per year. 

Average:  4.9%  [5] 

The Battle of Krefeld 

Seven Years' War Era:

Hanoverian (Electorate of Hanover, not British) Army: 14%

Austrian Army: 6-7% per year or 20.49% of total losses  (circa 62,000 men)

Prussian Army: 18% Total
                            28% of total losses   (circa 70,000 men) 
Data from the Hacke Regiment indicates a desertion of  6% of regimental strength per year on average during the Seven Years' War.

French Army (estimate 1700-1763): 20%

Average: 17.3% [6]

Perhaps surprisingly, the British Army had a low rate of desertion 

American War of Independence Era:

British Army: Frey: 4% (circa 3,700 men) 
                       Steppler: 7-8%, with recaptures/reenlistments a net loss of 4.4%
Sylvia Frey: "[D]esertion was apparently not a significant problem."

Hessen-Kassel Army in North America: 11.5%

Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel Army in North America: 11.7% 

Continental Army: 20-25%.

Average: 12% [7]

Continental Army desertion was somewhat higher than this stalwart pose might suggest.

Let us analyze these figures. The Prussian army, oft-maligned as harsh and draconian, had lower figures than some of its competitors. The Continental Army, suffering frequent privations and battlefield reverses, suffered a great deal at the hands of desertion. Perhaps most surprising is the relatively low figures for the British army, and it should be noted, they are not exact. However, Frey and Steppler concur that desertion in the British army was "not the most serious drain on the army's manpower."[8]

In summary, the data seems to imply that desertion was often less common than we have been led to believe. Although, admittedly, desertion in this era was much greater than in the 20th century, when less than .5% of the U.S. army deserted in Vietnam. However, desertion was perhaps less of a problem then has previously been believed. It remained a headache for eighteenth-century commanders, as desertion could skyrocket in adverse circumstances, much like illness. In one campaign in 1744, Frederick II lost 15% of the entire Prussian army to desertion.[9] Rarely, however, do the figures support the longstanding belief that it was normal for more than 20% of an army to be lost to desertion during a campaign.[10] Ilya Berkovich has recently used this more developed figures to argue that lower rates of desertion and higher rates of retention could have implications for the motivations of soldiers in the eighteenth century. Inflated claims regarding desertion have long been a part of the "these soldiers were the scum of the earth" myth, and deserves to be evaluated in greater detail. Desertion was a scourge in the minds of eighteenth-century commanders, but perhaps not totally debilhatating for eighteenth-century armies.

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook,  or following us on twitter. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns


[1] J.A. Houlding, Fit for Service, v.
[2] See Sascha Möbius, Mehr Angst vor dem Offizier als vor dem Feind?: Eine mentalitätsgeschichtliche Studie zur preußischen Taktik im Siebenjährigen Krieg. 
[3] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 201.
[4] Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War, 59-60.
[5] Willerd Fann, "Peacetime Attrition in the Army of Frederick William I," 326-327.; quoted in Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War, 58.
[6] Data comes from: Michael Sikora, Disziplin und Desertion : Strukturprobleme militärischer Organisation im 18. Jahrhundert, 74.;  Berkovich, Motivation in War, 77.; Duffy, Instrument of War, 212.; Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 85.; Daniel Krebs, A Generous and Merciful Enemy, 252.; Bagensky, Regiments Buch des Grenadiers Regiments koenig Friedrich Wilhelm IV., 79.; André Corvisier, L'Armee Francaise, 736-7.
[7] Data comes from: Sylvia Frey, British Soldier in North America, 72.; Glenn Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III," 189.; Daniel Krebs, A Generous and Merciful Enemy, 251-252.; James Edmonson, "Desertion in the American Army during the Revolutionary War," pg. 261.
[8] Steppler, "The Common Soldier," 189.
[9] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 84.
[10] Willred Fann, "Peacetime Attrition" 323.; Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 172.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

How Sick were Eighteenth-Century Soldiers?

Men from the 7th and 8th Regiments of Foot. Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum

Dear Reader,

Today, we are confronted with some rather heavy subject material. At the large Battle of Brandywine reenactment recently, I was fortunate enough to find myself lying on the ground, in a sense of general malaise, having just emptied the contents of my stomach into the grass next to me. I fell prey to one of the classic blunders: don't attempt to fight George Washington in 80-degree heat while suffering from a fever/sinus infection. Against the protests of my significant other, I allowed the allure of a revolutionary war reenactment potentially numbering over a thousand individuals to draw me away from where I should have been: recuperating.

In the vein of the average-soldier series I embarked on earlier this summer, this post will examine data from a number of eighteenth-century armies, in an effort to establish how frequently sickness played a large role in the life of soldiers. To put it another way, how sick, on average, were eighteenth-century soldiers? How likely was an eighteenth-century soldier to die from disease?

Image result for Military Hospitals 18th century
Camp life in the era of the American War of Independence,
A number of scholars have written on this topic, usually with reference to a particular army and era. As usual, Christopher Duffy provides a window into the experience of armies in Central Europe. Sylvia Frey has written on the British army in the later eighteenth century, while Bill Potter and Piers Mackesy provide interesting supplementary information. Caroline Cox and Ann Becker write on sickness in the Continental Army, with an eye to the experiences of ordinary soldiers. Charles Lesser's work The Sinews of Independence provides a great mass of material on this subject. Those willing to step outside this era should examine Andrew Bamford's excellent book Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword, which examines the Napoleonic Era.  So: how sick were eighteenth-century soldiers, on average?

At first glance, it may appear as though eighteenth-century armies were quite sickly. Legends abound about the notoriously bad hygiene of these soldiers. Certainly, by modern standards, bad hygiene was rampant, although not, perhaps, in the grotesque ways often believed. As the eighteenth-century wore on, more military manuals called for soldiers to bathe frequently, and regimental orders bear this out.[1] Many Americans picture the Continental Army when Washington took command or the months or the hardship at Valley Forge, but these were perhaps outliers in terms of sickness. However, when smallpox, dysentery, and other quickly transmitted diseases could spread rapidly the setting of a military camp, ensuring that if an epidemic broke out, it would quickly incapacitate a large section of the army.

Image result for Prussian Soldiers Marching Menzel
The Prussian Army suffered from the heat on the way to Zorndorf in 1758.

On average, it appears that just less than 10% of any given military formation might be listed sick during the eighteenth century. During epidemics, that number could spike in a worrying way, up to about 1/3 or an army or more. Although there is not clear data for all armies in all situation, a surprising amount of data does exist regarding the levels of sickness in eighteenth-century armies. What is clear is that military forces with a clear framework for treating their sick men had an advantage over armies who were establishing organizations and treatments as war continued. The data for this post breaks down into three broad categories: estimates of army-wide sickness throughout conflicts, numbers of sick men in individuals regiments throughout a conflict, and individual regiment return percentages. Though 10% may seem like a small figure, it could quickly escalate in the face of highly contagious diseases.

In 1757 during the Seven Years' War, the Austrians suffered quite heavily at their defensive camp at Zittau, when 24,000 men fell ill, perhaps around 28% of their army in Silesia. This is an extreme example, usual army totals were likely lower.  In 1751, Austrian army doctor Giovanni Gabavlio estimated that some 28% of peacetime casualties were caused by fever, 18% were caused by scurvy, 15% were caused by infection, and 11% by venereal disease. The remaining 28% were seemingly unknown.[2] The Prussian army acquired "Hungarian fever" from Austrian prisoners after Leuthen in December of 1757, and by April of 1758, 15,000 men, or 27% of the army under Frederick's command, were still suffering from illness.[3]

His Excellency visits unwell soldiers (probably wounded, not sick)

During the American War of Independence, I estimate that the average number of British soldiers sick out of the entire British army, including militia in Britain, was 4.6% of the entire army. The data used to make this estimate runs from 1775-1780.[2] By contrast, I estimate that the average number of sick Continental Army soldiers was about 20%  of the army as a whole.[3] The reason for this extremely high number is that smallpox devastated the continental army in the early years of the conflict, with 31-37% of the army falling ill (not just from smallpox) during this crisis. After 1778 and Washington's program to inoculate the army, the average number of sick men dropped to within much the more normal levels of 13-15%. Perhaps 18,000 in the American military forces died of disease during the War of Independence. By contrast, between 1775-1780, the British lost 6,107 men to disease in North America. Despite this, British regular army losses and American losses are quite different (about 25,000 Americans to 43,000 British) so, as a result, it is possible the British lost heavily from disease in other theaters of war, in addition to battlefield casualties taken in other theaters.[4]

In places like Fort Niagara, the King's Regiment suffered little compared with the Continental Army
Leaving the army level, the post will now examine incidents of disease among individual units.
Thanks to the industrious research of Bill Potter, we have a sense of the level of illness among the King's Regiment during the later years of the American War of Independence. All in all, 7.5% , or around 40 men, of the King's Regiment were sick during the years between 1778 and 1783.[6] The regiment was relatively healthy in 1770 when 2.6% of its soldiers were listed sick, but in the months of 1781, Regiment had fallen prey to disease, when 11.75% (55 men) of the regiment fell ill on average. By the end of the conflict in 1783, the total number of men listed sick had returned to roughly average, around 7%.  Other regiments from this era follow this trend. In May of 1775, around 6.9% of the Royal Highland Regiment was ill, or 24 men out of 346.[7] During the Trenton Campaign, the Rall Regiment had 12.3% of its rank and file listed sick, while the Knyphausen Regiment had just 5.8% of its complement sick.[8]  When large-scale epidemics were not a factor, just less than 10% a regiment seems to have been sick, on average.

How likely was death by disease for an eighteenth-century soldier? Roughly 60% of all deaths in the Continental Army came from disease, meaning a soldier in that army was perhaps twice as likely to die from disease than in combat. Again, however, the Continental Army suffered from greatly from disease. On average, though, it was still more likely that a soldier would perish from illness than combat. Christopher Duffy argues that this trend continued throughout all eighteenth-century armies.[10] Sylvia Frey counters by suggesting that soldiers in the British army were no more likely to die from sickness than civilians, but her figure of 6,107 British soldiers dead of disease from 1775-1780  still outnumbers combat deaths in North America in the same era. Disease, not combat, killed more men in eighteenth-century armies. Soldiers died via disease in large numbers, and their experience involved great sacrifice.

I know this post has been rather heavy, and despite charges of insensitivity, I think it best to end on a humorous note. To the question: "How sick were eighteenth-century soldiers?  I think I can safely answer:  "They were, like, totally sick, man."

Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum 
If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook,  or following us on twitter. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1] Sylvia Frey, The British Soldier in North America, 51.
[2] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 338, 341.
[3] Christopher Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 204.
[4] The data for this estimate comes from: Frey, British Soldier, 52; Piers Mackesy, The  War for America,  523-527.
[5] The data for this estimate comes from: Charles Lesser, The Sinews of Independence; Ann Becker, "Smallpox in Washington's Army," The Journal of Military History, (2004), 392-394, 419-420.
[6] Caroline Cox, A Proper Sense of Honor, 134-5; Frey, British Soldier, 52.
[7] Bill Potter, "Redcoats on the Frontier" MA Thesis, pg. 133-141.
[8] Waterford Inspection, Online Version
[9] David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, 396.
[10] Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 170.