Monday, June 12, 2017

How Old was the Average Late-Eighteenth-Century Soldier?

Photo Credit: Jerry Wolford/Perfecta Visuals

Dear Reader,

This weekend I was reading for my dissertation, and I came across the following quote:

"One old [British] veteran I observ'd (that was shot through both legs and not able to walk) very coolly and deliberately loading his piece and cleaneing it from the blood. I was surprised at the sight and asked him his reasons for it. He, with a look of contempt, said, to be ready in case any of the Yankeys came that way again." [1] 
I asked myself: how old is an "old veteran"?

To answer this question, we are going to examine a topic near and dear to military and social historians, and reenactors, but perhaps less intriguing to wargamers. (Sorry guys, but I am sure you have plenty of lead to paint anyway.) As you consider military life, it may be natural to assume that soldiers are young. Men over the age of 25 rarely enter the military as recruits, and after age 26 are no longer eligible for the selective service system in the United States. War, it seems, is a young man's game. This trend has led to much commentary from intellectuals, from Herodotus ("In peace, sons bury their fathers, in war, fathers bury their sons.") to the present day.

I have spoken to reenactors who are old enough (refraining from specifics) that they feel sheepish at their portrayal of soldiers who were supposedly much younger: but is such sheepishness warranted? How old was the average eighteenth-century soldier?

As you look deep into the eyes of this Prussian Grenadier from the late 1730s, do you get the impression he is a young man?

Once again, I am standing on the intellectual shoulders of giants as I make this post. The leg-work for the present claims was performed by industrious historians such as Glenn Steppler, Sylvia Frey, and Willerd Fann and Claus Reuter. Their research and their arguments are well worth considering for those truly interested in learning more about the social life of eighteenth-century armies. By bringing their research together, we can hope to get a more accurate picture of the life in eighteenth-century armies.[2]

The data used to make these assertions is drawn from the British, Braunschweig and Prussian armies between the years 1775 and 1783. They rely on ages from a relatively small number of soldiers, (some 9,500) drawn from 17 regiments, twelve of infantry, and five of dragoons. With any amount of luck, social-military historians such as Don Hagist may be able to give us a better window into these questions in the future.

Soldier Study, Phillip James de Loutherbourg

The average age of these men appears to be 30 years old, which matches the individual assertions regarding the Prussian case (made by Willfred Fann) and the British case (made by Sylvia Frey.)  The two data sets from Prussian regiments are much larger, (some 3,000 out of the total) but from significantly different units, one containing much younger men in 1777, the other containing older men in 1783. On the other hand, Sylvia Frey's British data is skewed by the inclusion of the 8th Regiment of Foot. Her use of a 1782 return shows that the King's Regiment possessed an average age of almost 37 years old. As we discussed last month, in 1782, the King's Regiment was 14 years into a 17-year deployment to North America, so men who were young in 1768 had grown gray in service during their tenure in North America.

Recruits to the regiment, on the other hand, were much younger. In Prussia, the average recruit was in his early twenties. In Britain, peacetime recruiting seems to suggest that men between 16 and 25 were highly valuable, but in wartime, around of third of total recruits were men over the age of 26 years old.[3] The length of service also differed from state to state. The British average was just under 10 years (9.75), with the King's Regiment again moving the data towards the long end (14.7). In Prussia, the average length of service for in Musketeer Regiment von Hacke was 8.8 years, but the Grenadier company's average length of service was almost double that: an impressive 15.7 years. Data suggests that in German armies (Prussia and Hessen-Kassel) the average NCO served for much longer.[4] The oldest regiment of men between all three armies considered was Braunschweig Grenadier Battalion von Breymann, with the average age of 38 years old.[5]

The epitome of an old soldier: the 89 year-old Jean Thurel in 1788

However, as the title suggests, these are averages. The outliers are interesting in their own right. Both the British and Prussian cases include large numbers of men over 40, and unlike the British calculations, the Prussian regiments include a low number of men over fifty and a very small number of men over sixty. Men like Jean Thurel, despite the appeal of their stories, were very much a rarity even if they did exist.

Kabinettskriege warfare was an active business in the eighteenth century, and men in their prime were in high demand. However, the average soldier was an experienced man in his late twenties or early thirties, with close to ten years of experience in the service. Younger soldiers certainly existed, but they might be more susceptible to disease, having not built up the immunities necessary for the crowded conditions of military life. Perhaps this is why Frederick referred to the younger cantonists as "weakly boys" during the crisis Seven Years' War.[6] Middle-aged, experienced soldiers, not eighteen-year-old recruits, were the staple of eighteenth-century armies.

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Creswell,  A Man Apart, 171.
[2] Sylvia Frey, The British Soldier in North America, 23-26; Willfred Fann, "On the Infantrymen's Age in Eighteenth Century Prussia, Military Affairs, (Dec. 1977)
[3] Steppler, The Common Soldier in the Age of George III, 229.
[4] Fann, "On the Infantrymen's Age," 168.; Atwood, The Hessians, 40.
[5] Reuter, Brunswick Troops in North America, xii.
[6] J. Preuss, Friedrich der Grosse: Ein Lebensgeschichte, Vol I: Urkundenbuch, 75.


  1. During ancestral research I came across some books from the Prussian garrison church in Berlin. During some periods they listed the enlisting age of people who got married. (My own ancestor was 19 in the 1780s) Going through those books one should be able to get a good average. Assuming of course none of your sources have done this kind of work already.

    1. Joerg- that is fascinating! Are the books held in some sort of library in the garrison church? Could you give me a bit more information?

  2. Alex,
    I access them through ancestry dot com. One can just flip through all the pages there. If you like I could make a screenshot of a page and also the cover page to give some idea on what to look for. Maybe there are even some hints regarding the location of the originals.
    As far as I know this church doesn't exist anymore but the originals have to be somewhere or else our Mormon friends couldn't have scanned them.
    I'll try to find your email address. :-)

    1. Thanks Joerg! It is on here in the "about the author page" on the top of the screen.


    2. Perfect, Alex!
      Just send you the data. Even found a 95 year old soldier getting married to a 25 year old. (though if you can read old German better than me you might figure out that he has been retired for 9 years already or whatever was up there) Definitely curious what you think.
      Let me know if the email didn't go through due to all the attachements.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Tom Pickrel, in the photo, looks like he's contemplating retiring the Service. He has already retired the moustache!

  5. This matches what I have read. I believe Christopher Duffy put the average of an 18th Century soldier at 30 or 35. I recall Dr. Selig stating the French Expedition as a bit on the young side with an average age of 25 because Rochambeau transferred the old soldiers to other regiments in exchange for younger more active soldiers. I believe the fellow in the picture is Steve Rogers a fine gentleman reenactor and one of several older reenactors I know who show that at least for a weekend the old fellows can keep up with the kids.

    1. Adam- you are absolutely right! Duffy, looking at soldiers' ages, says that, "the ideal soldier was a well set-up man in his early thirties"(Military Experience in the Age of Reason).
      The fellow in the photo is actually Tom Pickerl. He is an institution of 18th century Germanic reenacting in the United States.

  6. What was the age of enlistment? If it was 16 to 18 then given the length of time, mid 20s would seem right.

    1. I address age of enlistment in the post. In Prussia, 21-25 was average, in Britain, 16-25 was quite common, although in wartime recruits between 26-30 were also quite normal.

  7. One of my ancestors, a Captain during the American Revolution recruited a company in the early part of 1777. The average age was 22.97 years. I believe, however, average is not such a good statistic for this information. Here are the ages:

    34,34,33,30,30,29,29,28,27,27,27,27,27,26,26,25,24,23,23,22,21,21,21,21,20,20,20,20,19,19,18,18,18,18,18,17,17,17,17,16,16, and 15.

    Note the histogram for that list would be low near the average value.