I noticed a long time ago that students tended to enjoy lectures in which lots of people died. It is impossible to lecture poorly about the battles of Cannae or Gettysburg—there is more than enough blood to stir the imagination of even the most bored students. We remember such battles, but we tend to forget the soldiers who fought in them and that most of their life in the army was not spent in actual combat, but in the seemingly endless periods of tedium and exhaustion that were only briefly interrupted by terror.
Such a two-dimensional view of these men cheats them and robs them of their true identity. So let us look at some of the individual men who fought, and what it was like to be a soldier waiting for battle.
Probably almost any soldier today could write a modern version of this story, but since I’m only a historian, I’ll tell you a little about a soldier in Napoleon’s army.
On the night before the battle at Austerlitz, Napoleon visited the outposts of his army with some of his staff. It was the classic dark and foggy night with no moon. The party got a little lost and accidentally made contact with a detachment of Cossacks before it could break away. To keep this from happening again, the Chasseurs (elite light infantry) of the escort improvised torches from straw and pine boughs so as to light the way.
The troops recognized the party and twisted the straw of their beds into thousands of torches to light the way for Napoleon as he moved through the army. It was the anniversary of his coronation and the emperor, moved by the demonstration of loyalty and affection, said, “This is the finest evening of my life.”
Neither Napoleon nor his troops slept much that night. His men stayed up and talked over past successes (or those they counted on achieving shortly). I’m sure the younger soldiers were excited—no doubt in part by the romance of the Napoleonic legend. A more realistic outlook was recorded by an officer, a veteran of many battles:
I could not escape the feeling that something huge and destructive was hanging over all of us. This mood led me to look at my men. There they were, sleeping around me on the cold, hard ground. I knew them all very well… and I was aware that many of these brave troops would not survive until tomorrow evening, but would be lying torn and bloody on the field of battle. For a moment it was all too easy to wish that the Russians would simply steal away again during the night, but then I remembered how we had suffered over the last few weeks. Better an horrific end than a horror without end! Our only salvation lay in battle and victory!
Such feelings were common and the evidence suggests that soldiers usually welcomed the prospect of action despite the risk it brought of death and mutilation. An English soldier wrote:
On the 24th of December 1808 our headquarters were at Sahagun. Every heart beat with joy. We were all under arms and formed to attack the enemy. Every mouth breathed hope: “We shall beat them to pieces and have our ease and enjoy ourselves”, said my comrades. I even preferred any short struggle, however severe, to the dreadful way of life we were, at this time, pursuing.
The hardships of campaigning cannot be overstated. These kinds of details get lost over time, we remember the battles, the treaties, the generals, and the wars, but the suffering of a private simply fades into the background. Let’s follow one of those soldiers, nineteen year old Jean-Baptiste Barres, a private in the Imperial Guard, through the advance to Austerlitz. At first, Barres was very enthusiastic:
We left Paris quite content to go campaigning rather than march to Boulogne. I was especially so, for war was the one thing I wanted. I was young, full of health and courage, and I thought one could wish for nothing better than to fight against all possible odds; moreover, I was broken to marching; everything conspired to make me regard a campaign as a pleasant excursion, on which, even if one lost one’s head, arms, or legs, one would at least find some diversion. I wanted, too, to see the country, the siege of a fortress, a battlefield. I reasoned, in those days, like a child.
Okay, he was young—but I don’t want you to think our typical soldier an idiot, so let me move forward quite a bit, breaking the flow of our story and give you a line from the end of his memoirs:
At the moment of writing this, the boredom which is consuming me and four months of marching about, months of fatigue and wretchedness, have proved to me that nothing is more hideous, more miserable, than war.
Our young man obviously wised up over time, but let’s go back to our story. Barres was marching off to war. He wrote that the march was beautiful, but long and the weather constantly fine. Yet Barres fell ill, lost his appetite and suffered from a fever. However, he refused to go into hospital or ride in the carts provided for the ill. He wrote:
I reached Strasbourg still intoxicated with glory. Several of my colleagues not more unwell than I was, stayed behind in the hospitals and there found their deaths… Woe to those who go into hospital on campaign! They are isolated and forgotten, and tedium slays them rather than their sickness.
At Strasbourg the soldiers were issued fifty cartridges, four days rations, and their campaigning equipment. Crossing the Rhine River, Barres wrote:
I had a secret feeling of contentment when I recalled to memory all the noble feats of arms which its banks had seen. These warlike reminiscences made me long for a few glorious encounters in which I might satisfy my eager impatience. But by ten o’clock that night after a long march, I was so weary that I could neither eat nor sleep.
Our young man was learning. A few days later, he briefly fell out on the march—probably because of dysentery—and could not find his unit for several days—a dismal time without friends or food. It took him a whole day to rejoin his regiment. “Ah, it is a nasty thing to be lost in the midst of an army on the march.”
The army was approaching the Austrians. Barres spent two hours on sentry watching an Austrian sentry across the ravine, but neither fired on each other. Later, Barres was shocked at his first sight of the destructiveness of war when he saw a farm plundered and half demolished for firewood to the keep the troops warm.
I shed tears over the fate of these poor villagers, who had in a moment lost all their possessions. But what I saw later caused me to regard them as happy in their misfortune. As I was a novice in the military art, all that was contrary to the principles in which I had been trained surprised me; but I had time, afterwards, to become accustomed to such things.
Barres was learning rapidly. For the first time he camped in the open during bad weather.
I did not find it very fascinating; it is a dismal way of going to bed, no straw on which to lie, little wood for burning, and a north wind that was like a wind of Lapland. I passed a wretched night; roasted on one side, frozen on the other. That was all the rest I got.
Our poor soldier, suffering in the cold—well, not really that cold. It was only October, so he hadn't yet truly experienced real winter.
A few weeks later the army reached Vienna and Barres was disappointed that the army was restricted to the Palace grounds. No leave and no peace, for the army was ordered across the Danube and told to continue the war. Barres continues:
The Russian army retreated and drew us perforce into the most frightful country, and this, above all, at a time of the year unsuitable for marching. I confess frankly that this departure displeased me sorely. The only consolation being the many cellars filled with Moravian wine which were met with along our route.
By the time the army reached Austerlitz, Barres had been on the move for three months, had marched a thousand miles, and had yet to fire a shot in battle.
From these excerpts, we have a pretty good idea what Barres—a young, inexperienced soldier—was thinking. What about the veterans? Some welcomed the freedom and excitement of life on the road, especially compared to the boredom and strict discipline of life on garrison duty.
Battle added an element of excitement, glamour and purpose to a soldier’s life—it was the culmination of the campaign, and the chance to prove the man, the unit, and the army. Confidence was vital to the soldier: confidence in himself, in his comrades, in his officers, and in his commander. The soldier who entered battle expecting defeat was already half beaten. One British officer recalls the mood in the army before the Battle of Salamanca in 1812:
There assuredly never was an army so anxious as ours was to be brought into action on this occasion. They were a magnificent body of well-tried soldiers, highly equipped, and in the highest health and spirits, with the most devoted confidence in their leader, and an invincible confidence in themselves. The retreat of the four preceding days had annoyed us beyond measure, for we believed that we were nearly equal to the enemy in point of numbers; and the idea of our retiring before an equal number of any troops in the world was not to be endured with common patience.
This self-confidence was built on past successes, esprit de corps, and faith in a commanding general. This was far more effective than background factors such as patriotism, hatred of the enemy, or ideological commitment.
Individual soldiers might have varying reasons. A young soldier might want to prove himself. A veteran on the brink of his third engagement might want to gain a promotion by proving himself on the battlefield. An old veteran of forty, with a long record of insubordination and drunkenness, who knew promotion was out of reach, might look to his own survival and hope for plunder.
Everyone, however, had a nagging fear of being killed or horribly wounded. The soldier who pretended to have no fear was a liar. And this was worst just before the battle. One British officer wrote:
Time appears to move upon leaden wings; every minute seems an hour, and every hour a day. Then there is a strange commingling of levity and seriousness within himself — a levity which prompts him to laugh he scarce knows why, and a seriousness which urges him from time to time to lift up a mental prayer to the Throne of Grace. On such occasions little or no conversation passes. The privates generally lean upon their firelocks, the officers upon their swords; and few words, except monosyllables, at least in answer to questions put, are wasted. On these occasions, too, the faces of the bravest often change color, and the limbs of the most resolute tremble, not with fear, but with anxiety; while watches are consulted, till the individuals who consult them grow weary of the employment. On the whole, it is a situation of higher excitement, and darker and deeper feeling, than any other in human life; nor can he be said to have felt all which man is capable of feeling who has not gone through it.
Historians frequently say that the age of Napoleonic conflict was one in which military commanders were willing to risk defeat in the hope of gaining a decisive victory. This was in contrast to the usual 18th century warfare where cautious maneuvering to gain an advantage was more commonplace. Between 1790 and 1820, there were 713 battles in Europe. Most of these were only partial combats between detached forces.
Quoting the number of recorded battles in a span of thirty years seems to lend credence to the idea that war meant an endless series of large battles, but it is actually just another case of lying with statistics. In actuality, fighting was comparatively rare in the life of a Napoleonic soldier. Barres experience was not unusual for his spending months of tedium punctuated occasionally by hours of terror.
And when the battle finally came, it could be very bloody—But, not necessarily for everyone. At Austerlitz, the French had 8,500 casualties out of an army of 65,000 and out of these, 1,305 died. This means that 49 out of 50 soldiers present at Austerlitz survived.
Let’s make those numbers a little personal. Picture in your mind, your local Starbucks—all the customers and the baristas are sent back in time to fight in this battle. Chances are greater than 50% that all of them would come back alive. Four of them would be wounded, but "gloriously" so.
Now, that is only taking into account the men who were actually present at Austerlitz. Napoleon’s total army in 1805 was approximately 400,000. Between guard duty, sick call, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, over half of the army in 1805 never saw combat at all that year.
Given all this, it is not surprising that the greatest killer of armies at this time was not the enemy—it was disease and starvation. Let us take an extreme example, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia: the best estimate is that for every twelve soldiers who went, only two returned alive. One fell in action or from wounds, two were taken prisoner, the remaining seven froze, starved, or died of disease.
Nor was anything much better in the British army. Consider the Peninsular Campaign in Spain: depending on the time of year, between twenty and thirty-five percent of Wellington’s army was sick at any given time. Probably about 240,000 soldiers in the British army died between 1793 and 1814, but of these only about twelve percent died in battle or from combat wounds.
The soldiers may have expressed their fear of dying or being maimed in battle in their writings, but they were at much greater risk of dying away from battle than dying in it, or of injuries resulting from it.
It has been two centuries since these battles. Weapons, tactics, the treatment of disease...all of these have changed dramatically. What has not changed are the men who fight the battles, and what people will remember—and forget—of their lives.