Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: soldiers’ lot

In Search of Adventure, Prestige, and Fortune

September 23, 2023

Being a miles did not mean being a vassal, that is, an individual who had been granted lands in exchange for military service. Initially many knights were soldiers in the court of a great lord who provided a livelihood and the accouterments necessary to fight on horseback. Naturally the people selected combined physical vigor and fighting skill with fealty and homage to the lord. The profession of knighthood attracted those who could find the weapons, armor, and horses necessary; as such, it became the refuge of the younger sons of a lord to whom the future may have seemed financially bleak (by custom, only the firstborn son inherited most of the father’s lands). As Duby claims, knighthood was the profession of youth in search of adventure, prestige, and fortune, which they expected to receive from war or sometimes from marriage to a rich woman. Initially it attracted not only the sons of the lower nobility but also better-off peasants who owned the instruments of a heavy cavalryman. This was the case of Guigonnet of Germolles, a rich peasant of the twelfth century. Guigonnet had his living quarters not in a tower or a fortified manor or castle, like the nobility, but in an agricultural center, where the products of the land—wheat, wine, fruits—were gathered. What distinguished him from the other peasants was his higher standard of living. Probably he did not work the land with his own hands anymore; he had subordinates to do that. Moreover, he spent time hunting like the aristocrats and belonged to religious organizations, where he met social superiors. But the most important aspect of his life was that at times he wore the knightly weapons and armor that he owned, rode his strong horse, and joined the other knights.

Guigonnet is obviously the exception, even at the emergence of knighthood….

Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels, p. 173

What Really Destroys Armies

March 25, 2023

Combat does not destroy armed forces; it merely hastens the process. The real killer is day-to-day wear and tear. Armies die by inches, not yards. Attrition is people and their equipment wearing out. Even in peacetime, up to 2 percent of combat aircraft can be lost to accidents and deterioration each year. In wartime, up to 50 percent of aircraft will be lost each year to noncombat wear and tear. Rarely more than 90 percent of armored vehicles will be in running condition at any one time. Those vehicles that are running will likely break down after going less than 500 kilometers. More important, people wear out, too. Without enough people to tend them, the machines wear out even faster….

Annually, disease and noncombat injuries often cause far more loss than the dangers of combat. Most major wars go on for years. Battles are relatively infrequent. As long as the troops are living in primitive field conditions, they are more prone to disease and injury. The annual loss rates in the wars of [the 20th] century, expressed in terms of average daily losses per 100,000 men, bear this out. Battle losses, killed and wounded but not prisoners, varied from a low of six per day in World War II theaters such as North Africa to over 200 Germans a day on the Soviet front. Soviet casualties were sometimes double the German rate. World War I had battles where the rate exceeded several thousand per day….

The World War I casualty rates, and the numerous mutinies they eventually caused, were not forgotten. The butchery of World War I made an impression, and the casualty rates were consistently lower in World War II. Since World War II, still more efforts have been made to protect the troops. Armored vehicles and protective gear have become more commonplace. Daily loss rates of 40 per 100,000, similar to the Western allies of World War II, can be expected in the future in a war between equally matched armies….

Non-battle casualties, primarily from disease and especially in tropical and winter conditions, regularly reach 200-500 men per day per 100,000 strength. Malaria alone can cause nearly 200 casualties a day. Another constant menace in populated areas is venereal disease, which can render ineffective as many as 40 men per day. Injuries often exceed battle losses. The troops tend to get careless in the combat zone. Vehicle and weapons accidents were so common in the past that they often reached 20 men per day per 100,000 troops….

It’s not unusual for armies to waste away to nothing without ever having come in contact with the enemy. Historically, natural causes have killed or disabled far more soldiers than combat. Many wars are won by the side best able to maintain the health of their troops. Perceptive military commanders have long recognized the substantial assistance of General Winter, Colonel Mud, and the carnage wrought by pestilence, poor climate, thirst, and starvation. An armed force may be an impressive sight. Yet people have to live. They must eat, sleep, and escape the elements. Disease and injury are ever present. Adequate medical care prevents minor afflictions from becoming major ones. More important is public sanitation. Many diseases thrive in careless accumulations of human waste. Public sanitation, even within an army on the move, eliminates the cause of most disease….

How To Make War, pp. 517-20

Captains Held Enormous Power Over Their Companies

January 25, 2023

Every captain in an early modern army held enormous power over the rank and file of his company. In absolute charge of discipline he could flog, fine, or otherwise humiliate his men whenever he chose; because he alone decided who should perform sentry guard and other onerous duties, the captain was free to victimize the men he disliked and excuse his friends…. [Without] interference from above, [a Spanish Empire] captain chose the two sergeants and eight corporals of his company (the cabos de escuadra or corporals were in charge of twenty-five men and received a wage-bonus of 3 escudos each per month), and he distributed at his pleasure 30 escudos of treasury bonus-pay among his men. As if this were not enough, the insolvency of the military treasury made the company captains into money-lenders and welfare-officers as well. Every company had a chest (caja) kept by the captain and used by him to advance subsistence wages (the socorro) to necessitous men when no money arrived from the treasury. The captains were also responsible for ransoming, re-arming, or re-horsing any of their men who had the misfortune to lose their liberty, their weapons, or their mounts. Naturally when the treasury did contrive to pay an [installment] of wages the captains expected to receive it first in order to deduct the sums already advanced “on account”. The scheme was excellent in principle, but it assumed that all captains were honest and scrupulous men. Of course they were not…. “The arrangements for paying the troops played right into the eager hands of the captains, who took full advantage of the generous opportunities afforded them.”

The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659, p. 160

Commercializing Armed Violence

June 2, 2022

Initially, the decay of primary group solidarity within the leading cities of Italy and of the town militias which were its military expression invited chaos. Armed adventurers, often originating from north of the Alps, coalesced under informally elected leaders and proceeded to live by blackmailing local authorities, or, when suitably large payments were not forthcoming, by plundering the countryside. Such “free companies” of soldiers became more formidable as the fourteenth century [C.E.] advanced. In 1354, the largest of these bands, numbering as many as 10,000 armed men, accompanied by about twice as many camp followers, wended its way across the most fertile parts of central Italy, making a living by sale and resale of whatever plunder the soldiers did not consume directly on the spot. Such a traveling company was, in effect, a migratory city, for cities, too, lived by extracting resources from the countryside through a combination of force or threat of force (rents and taxes) on the one hand and more or less free contractual exchanges (artisan goods for food and raw materials) on the other.

The spectacle of a wealthy countryside ravaged by wandering bands of plundering armed men was as old as organized warfare itself. What was new in this situation was the fact that enough money circulated in the richer Italian towns to make it possible for citizens to tax themselves and use the proceeds to buy the services of armed strangers. Then, simply by spending their pay, the hired soldiers put tax monies back in circulation. Thereby, they intensified the market exchanges that allowed such towns to commercialize armed violence in the first place. The emergent system thus tended to become self-sustaining. The only problem was to invent mutually acceptable contractual forms and practical means for enforcing contract terms.

From a taxpayer’s point of view, the desirability of substituting the certainty of taxes for the uncertainty of plunder depended on what one had to lose and how frequently plundering bands were likely to appear. In the course of the fourteenth century, enough citizens concluded that taxes were preferable to being plundered to make the commercialization of organized violence feasible in the richer and better-governed cities of northern Italy. Professionalized fighting men had precisely parallel motives for preferring a fixed rate of pay to the risks of living wholly on plunder. Moreover, as military contracts (Italian condotta, hence condottiere, contractor) developed, rules were introduced specifying the circumstances under which plundering was permissible. Thus, in becoming salaried, soldiering did not entirely lose its speculative economic dimension.

The Pursuit of Power, pp. 73-74

Emphasis mine.

A Wildly Unstable Environment

September 17, 2021

…[The] soldier’s view [on a battlefield] will also be much more complicated than the commander’s. The latter fights his battle in a comparatively stable environment—that of his headquarters, peopled by staff officers who will, because for efficiency’s sake they must, retain a rational calm; and he visualizes the events of and parties to the battle, again because for efficiency’s sake he must, in fairly abstract terms…. The soldier is vouchsafed no such well-ordered and clear-cut vision. Battle, for him, takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment; he may spend much of his time in combat as a mildly apprehensive spectator, granted, by some freak of events, a comparatively danger-free grandstand view of others fighting; then he may suddenly be able to see nothing but the clods on which he has flung himself for safety, there to crouch—he cannot anticipate—for minutes or for hours; he may feel in turn boredom, exultation, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, even that sublime emotion we call courage….

John Keegan, The Face of Battle, p. 47

Emphasis mine.

The Despised Foot Soldier

May 1, 2008

Protected by plate armor and the pride of chivalry, the noble felt himself invulnerable and invincible and became increasingly contemptuous of the foot soldier. He believed that commoners, being excluded from chivalry, could never be relied upon in war. As grooms, baggage attendants, foragers, and road-builders—the equivalent of engineer corps—they were necessary, but as soldiers in leather jerkins armed with pikes and billhooks, they were considered an encumbrance who in a sharp fight would “melt away like snow in sunshine.” This was not simple snobbism but a reflection of experience in the absence of training. The Middle Ages had no equivalent of the Roman legion. Towns maintained trained bands of municipal police, but they tended to fill up their contingents for national defense with riff-raff good for nothing else. Abbeys had better use for their peasants than to employ their time in military drill. In any epoch the difference between a rabble and an army is training, which was not bestowed on foot soldiers called up by the arrière-ban. Despised as ineffective, they were ineffective because they were despised.

A Distant Mirror, p. 89

Emphasis mine.

In Every Army There is a Mob Waiting to Escape

March 7, 2003

It is common to assume that battles involving masses of men engaged in close combat were horrifically bloody; in fact, they were rarely so, at least as long as the units remained engaged. When the infantry was arrayed in close phalanx formation, only the first two ranks could actively engage in any fighting, and then not for very long. It has been estimated that the lines of the phalanx could remain engaged in actual combat for less than thirty minutes before exhaustion began to take its toll. Men in the front ranks would be quite fortunate to remain in contact for half that time before being overcome by exhaustion. Moreover, until the introduction of the Marian reforms in the Roman army (100 [B.C.E.]), no army had learned the technique of having its front ranks break contact, withdraw in good order through the other ranks, and be replaced with a fresh line of infantry. For the most part, stamina governed the tempo of the battle….

As long as the men within the phalanx held their ground and remained together, it was difficult for any significant killing to occur. Even the cavalry could not be decisive against infantry formations that held their ground. Cavalry charges were inherently unstable to begin with due to the absence of the stirrup, and horses would not throw themselves against a packed wall of humanity, especially if the spears of the formation were raised against them. Yet, in every army there is a mob waiting to escape, and its motivation is fear. The real killer on the ancient battlefield was fear. Men in combat have their instinctive flight or fight responses held in delicate balance by the thin string of intellect. Continued stress increases the probability that someone within the ranks will lose his nerve and run. Sometimes the actions of a single soldier are sufficient to forge the onset of panic in an entire unit. Once the integrity of the formation began to erode, the ancient soldier was at very great risk of death or injury.

From Sumer To Rome, pp. 83-84

Emphasis mine.

Disease, the Wild Card of History

March 7, 2003

Disease has to be counted as one of the wild cards of history, an unforeseen factor that can, in a matter of days or weeks, undo the deterministic sure thing or humble the conquering momentum. History is full of examples. There was the plague that ravaged Athens for more than a year and led to its capture and the dismantling of its empire in 404 [B.C.E.]. An outbreak of dysentery weakened the Prussian force invading France in 1792 [C.E.] and helped to convince their leaders to turn back after losing the battle of Valmy, thus saving the French Revolution. The ravages of typhus and dysentery are the hidden story of Napoleon’s calamity in Russia. The war-vectored influenza epidemic of 1918 [C.E.] may not have changed immediate outcomes, but how many potential reputations did we lose to it—people who might have made a difference to their generation? Bacteria and viruses may thus redirect vast impersonal forces in human societies, and they can also become forces in their own right.

Robert Cowley (editor), What If?, p. 2