Thursday, February 21, 2013

Soldiers' Life Experience in the Kabinettskriege World

Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, Sir David Wilkie

New Military History vs. Old Military History

Dear Reader,

Since the 1960s, writing about combat, leaders, and campaigns, (Old Military History) has been out of favor with military historians. Today, most books focus on the cultural and social aspects of life in and around the military. In addition, historians tend to focus on the lives of non-elite persons, as they provide us with a wider picture of the historical world. So, in this post, let us look at this New Military History. Hopefully, we will come away with the understanding that BOTH aspects of military history are important, and worth studying.

Reasons for Enlistment?

The classic picture of recruitment, especially in the 18th century, is that soldiers were tricked into joining the ranks through false offers of pay, intoxication, and other ploys by the recruiting officer. The 1970s movie Barry Lyndon shows the this side of military recruitment, with the protagonist deserting from one army, and then being almost kidnapped into a second. This view certainly has some basis in fact.

In his diary, Swedish Karoliner Robert Petre tells of his interest in enlistment, but also that he was promised a large sum of money by the recruiter, Captain Björnberg, which he never actually received. The English language verb, "to dragoon" literally means: to force or coerce someone into doing something. In the 18th century, a dragoon was a type of cavalry soldier. This term arose because so many soldiers were forcibly recruited, and many became dragoons, or were captured and enlisted by dragoons.

Despite these negative connotations many soldiers hoped for a better life, and enlisted for pay, food, or dreams of social advancement. The first chapter of British Soldiers, American War Don N. Hagist deals with the experiences of young men who simply wanted adventure, or were interested in having regular meals. The young soldier described in this chapter is told by the recruiter, that in the towns taken by the British army, the pigs run around with silverware attached to them, just waiting to be eaten. While the soldier is actually interested in recruitment to escape his dull life at home, he is also enticed by the prospect of military life. John Childs, in his book, Warfare in the Seventeenth Century shows that Swedish soldiers were prompted to enlist by the higher social standing granted to members of the military establishment. In the British 1706 stage play, The Recruiting Officer, playwright George Farquhar includes the following song, which may be somewhat familiar to my readers:
Our 'prentice Tom may now refuse
To wipe his scoundrel Master's Shoes,
For now he's free to sing and play
Over the Hills and far away.
Over the Hills and O'er the Main,
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain,
The queen commands and we'll obey
Over the Hills and far away.
We all shall lead more happy lives
By getting rid of brats and wives
That scold and bawl both night and day -
Over the Hills and far away.
Over the Hills and O'er the Main,
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain,
The queen commands and we'll obey
Over the Hills and far away.
Courage, boys, 'tis one to ten,
But we return all gentlemen
All gentlemen as well as they,
Over the hills and far away.
Over the Hills and O'er the Main,
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain,
The queen commands and we'll obey
Over the Hills and far away.
British musician John Tams revamped the song for the memorable Sharpe's television series, starring Sean Bean. For the musically inclined,the Tams version is available here.  While not truly historical (in that Sharpe is a fictional character) the series gives an excellent idea of life in the British military during the Napoleonic Wars, a series of wars directly after the Kabinettskriege period.

Military Life

So, after joining the army, soldiers were trained. Christopher Duffy points out that one of the reasons the Prussian military was so effective was its early system of training. Fresh recruits would be placed in the care of a older soldier or non-commissioned officer, who would carefully show them the basics of military life. At the same time, greenhorn Prussian would take continue to take part in drills with the rest of the new recruits. and This system of training very similar to the modern business practice at companies such as Enterprise Rent A Car, where large groups of new employees train together, but then disperse to satellite offices and shadow more experienced employees on an individual basis.

Once accustomed to the practices of military life, the soldiers would be placed in garrison towns during peace time, where they would look for work outside military life. Otto Busch covers the Prussian system of social-military practice, while the best English language work on the Russian Arteli system remains Russia's Military Way to the West by Christopher Duffy.

Once war broke out, soldiers would be mobilized from their garrison towns, often with tearful farewells to local families, spouses and children. Contrary to modern perceptions of soldiers and masculinity, it was often the soldiers weeping, with the children, siblings, parents, and spouses, attempting to comfort saddened fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands.

On the march, the food was generally not as good as in civilian life, and soldiers usually marched between six and nine miles a day. Some armies were capable of "sprinting," covering much longer distances in shorter periods of time. In high summer, this often lead to deaths from heatstroke, such as the Prussian "sprint" to face the Russians at Zorndorf in 1758.

Care for Soldiers after Service

After a battle, the loss of human capital was catastrophic. Many soldier died, and even more lost limbs, or were unable to serve any longer.  In order to care for these men, some nations instituted military quasi-insurance programs. In the late 17th century, Sweden had step up an a system to for continued care for wounded veterans, and a hostel system for veterans around the country. Letters between Frederick William II and Leopold von Anhalt-Dessau (The Old Dessauer) indicate a need to, "care for soldiers, who have lost their healthy limbs before the enemy." (Acta Borussica)

Many of the old soldiers would spend their twilight years at military care facilities, such as the famous Chelsea pensioners, pictured at the top of the post.  In the painting, you can see the old men, veterans of the Kabinettskriege period, (most likely American War of Independence veterans) being read the news of the victory at Waterloo.

African Experience
Interestingly, there is an African soldier pictured in the middle of this painting. African soldiers were much more frequent in the armies of Europe than it might seem at first glance. They were often forced to wear "Turkish" style military dress, or a different style uniform. In the painting, The Death of Major Pierson, by John Singleton Copley, (above) an African soldier is shown in a different style uniform. In the American War of Independence, many African soldiers fought on the British side after being offered their freedom. In the Russian army, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, a former black slave, rose to the rank of major general, and was adopted by Peter I of Russia! Today, Gannibal is most famous for being Alexander Pushkin's grandfather.

Military life in the 18th century is more than just the battlefield experiences of soldiers, or the study of cultural ideas around soldiers. By studying them together, we can gain a fuller understanding of the Kabinettskriege period.

Next Post Vote:

Vote on what I should work on next:

(Just paste your letter choice in the comments)

A) Karoliner Military Effectiveness in the Great Northern War

B) British Military Effectiveness in the American War for Independence

C) Analysis of a Kabinettskriege period soldier's diary

D) Kabinettskriege Warfare as Business: Regiments as Companies?

E) You Choose! Give me a topic you are interested in!

Thanks for reading,

Alexander Burns

(Portions of the above are part of an academic paper written by the author, and his intellectual property. 2013 copyright pending)