|Soldiers from Germanic armies often had a reputation for desertion. Was it deserved?|
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."  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. 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. 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."
|The Prussian Army in peacetime|
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% 
|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.
Average: 17.3% 
|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% 
|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."
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. 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. 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.
Thanks for Reading,
 J.A. Houlding, Fit for Service, v.
 Sascha Möbius, Mehr Angst vor dem Offizier als vor dem Feind?: Eine mentalitätsgeschichtliche Studie zur preußischen Taktik im Siebenjährigen Krieg.
 Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 201.
 Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War, 59-60.
 Willerd Fann, "Peacetime Attrition in the Army of Frederick William I," 326-327.; quoted in Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War, 58.
 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.
 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.
 Steppler, "The Common Soldier," 189.
 Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 84.
 Willred Fann, "Peacetime Attrition" 323.; Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 172.