Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Series introduction: The Best and the Worst Regiments of the Eighteenth Century

Prussian Guards attack the Church at Leuthen
Dear Reader,

In the past series, we looked at some of the experiences of the "average" eighteenth-century soldier. Now, we are going to turn from that task to evaluating some military organizations on both ends of the spectrum.  In order to do that, I am going to lay out some groundwork here at the beginning of the series. What makes a great, or horrible regiment? To answer that question, we are going to evaluate these military organizations by the following five criteria:

1) Noticed by its Peers
Eighteenth-century soldiers were keen observers of regimental reputation. They would often recall if a particular regiment had a good or bad reputation within the army. Thus, if a regiment was praised or criticized by fellow officers and soldiers, that will be a vital step in its selection.

2) Performance on Campaign
If the regiment repeatedly drove all enemies before it, it is perhaps deserving of a place among the best regiments in the eighteenth century. If, on the other hand, its' soldiers fled repeatedly, or surrendered to the enemy en masse, it might be numbered among the worst.

3) Opinions of the Army Commander
Eighteenth-century army generals were not afraid to bestow praise or criticism on a unit. Often, this is the most available type of source on a particular regiment. 

4) Reputation of the Regimental Commander
Many colonel-proprietors or chefs had a stellar or infamous reputation in the eighteenth century. Soldiers particularly used this officer's reputation as an indication of the esprit-de-corps within a particular formation.

5) Verdict of History
What have other historians said about this particular regiment? Evaluating soldierly effectiveness was a favorite pastime among 19th and early 20th century historians. Needless to say, this will be the least important category. Historians are at best, a necessary evil.

Finally, in has been brought to my attention by a number of individuals that this series may ruffle some feathers. Some of the units under review are portrayed by modern reenactors, or loved by certain historical institutions. Being among the worst regiments in an eighteenth-century army did not mean that these soldiers were incapable, or experienced the horrors of war with any less vividness. For reenactors, I would say that there is still intense value in portraying units that were poorly viewed by their comrades.

So, reenactors may raise an outcry against these posts, but wargamers, I think, may find them useful. Almost every wargaming system I am familiar with, from Final Argument of Kings, to Warfare in the Age of Reason, to Flames of War, attempts to realistically rate units on a scale of effectiveness. Assisting eighteenth-century wargamers in doing this forms part of my rationale for these posts.

The other part of my rationale is that the "average" soldier series we have just left behind was rather faceless, and impersonal. With this series, I hope to encounter concrete individuals and experiences from the past. Maybe together, these will bring us closer to a sense of what eighteenth-century warfare might have looked like.

I look forward to embarking on this series with you!

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


  1. I look forward to the discussion (AND the ruffled feathers)!

  2. You are of course joking. There were no bad regiments under Alt Fritz.
    Jim Sullivan
    Masters Candidate in Military History

  3. Interesting idea. Though for the Continental Army, I have never had the sense that units had the continuity, and therefore the continuity of perception that some of the British units had.

    The officers and commanders changed frequently, as did the composition of the private soldiers, given short enlistment periods, etc. I have the impression the commander's reputation was far more important.

    There were a great many Continental Army regiments, and even Wright's "The Continental Army" doesn't include all of them. For instance Scammell's Light Infantry in 1781, which existed for about six months, or Dearborn's picked men at Freeman's farm. Then there is Morgan's Rifle, which has benefited from being as unique as their commander, and both are often written about.

    I honestly think you're out on a limb with what you're proposing. However, just systematically collecting data on the five criteria you've laid out would produce a fascinating collection, and there would be no need to quantify, rank, or name a winner.

    1. Charlie- I certainly don't intend to quantify these results into anything so concrete, rather, I intend to give weekly snapshots into individual unit histories.