Counting numbers and naming names

Discussion of one aspect of the Leuthen post merits promotion to its own post, so it doesn’t get lost. Namely, what methodologies are used/should be used to assess early modern army sizes? Bear with me as I record my stream of consciousness attempt to make sense of this.

Liste general de toute les Trouppes des haut alliés qui doivent servir au pais Bas l’année 1712

Perhaps the eagle-eyed among you noticed that my book’s database of Spanish Succession sieges didn’t include any sizes. I had wanted to, but it was surprisingly difficult to find figures for every siege, and different sieges usually had different measures (usually #regiments or #men) and sometimes at different stages (#regts at open trenches, #regts or #men in a day’s trench duty, #men involved in a particular event such as a storm detached from unspecified regiments, #casualties…). Not to mention the various contradictions between the various sources. I was tempted to just round the numbers up to the nearest 1,000, maybe even 5,000 for besieging armies. At the least you could just count the regiments assigned to the siege, but those too change over the course of a siege with shifts between siege and observation army, and vary particularly in the trenches as they advance towards the covered way (closer to fortress = fewer workers and guards needed while fewer will fit in the trenches anyway). But if one is going to compare the statistics across the period, I’m hesitant to use different methodologies for each case.

Daily manpower at Orange’s attack, Douai 1710

Battle sizes and campaign strengths have similar issues. In the case of replacing the Leuthen stats of Duffy 1996 with Duffy 2003, my concern is what tweaking combat strengths in a few cases will do to the overall pattern. For a more accurate understanding of a single battle, it might make perfect sense. But I think the key is why exactly a revision was made – did Duffy find a new (better) source for Leuthen? Or did he decide on a different (better) way to come to his total, maybe count regiment-by-regiment instead of just going off of a contemporary’s overall estimate? Are we just seeing the artifact of the 7YW being more studied, so the 7YW figures have more accuracy and precision than those of the WAS? Are the assumptions Duffy made c. 2003 for Leuthen now different from those he had made for Hohenfriedberg in 1996; did he find a new document that includes updated figures for several other battles as well, or just Leuthen? Do we need to now go back and redo those other sizes before we can compare apples with apples?
[Edit: Duffy subtracted 10-15,000 from Austria’s army at Leuthen – why? regts that he thought were there weren’t actually there? or maybe certain regts had significant detachments elsewhere? or maybe the strengths of the bttns were weaker than previously thought? A decrese in effective strength of one-sixth is significant, so it’d be good to know.]

How other historians count army sizes, in other words, is not entirely clear to me. In Lynn’s discussion on the growth of the French army (most recent version here) he applied a discount rate based off of contemporary suggestions in a few sources. Whatever you think of that method, if we want to get serious about army sizes, we need to explicitly discuss our methodology like Lynn did, and provide a margin of error.

When you think one number is more accurate than another, what criteria are you using to come to that conclusion?

All this begs the question of why this numerical precision matters in the first place – what is an acceptable margin of error and why? To what extent are numbers more important than quality? Raudzens had an article in War and Society back in 1997 regarding God being on the side of the bigger battalions, but I don’t recall being impressed with his methodology. On the other hand, contemporary manuals said smaller disciplined forces would always beat larger numbers. What difference is there between having a 2:1 advantage vs. a 1.5:1 advantage? Is this a linear function of advantage, or are there levels/steps at which just a few more men make a big difference (if that makes any sense)? For a tactical example (and I am weak on this, so correct me), are there minimum numbers of troops needed to maintain the frontage of a battalion, etc., or do they just stretch out fewer men to cover that frontage? If the latter, at what point does this threaten the cohesion of the formation (may vary whether linear or column formation…)? All those drill manuals might discuss this issue I guess. Operationally, is there a minimum field army size needed to perform the functions of an early modern army? We know contemporaries in the 18C talked about a maximum size for their optimal field army, and this obviously shades into the development of the divisional system. Is there a minimum ratio of size A:sizeB? Is it true that another ten regiments in the Low Countries would’ve necessarily been better than sending them to a different theater? Contemporaries cited various recommended siege ratios of besieger to garrison, e.g. Blondel, Field of Mars: “It is evident that there ought to be a certain proportion or relation between the besieging army and the garrison that defends the town: but this proportion is extremely difficult to determine…. There is hardly any but the general that can determine this proportion according to the circumstances of time and place.” Was there a similar consensus for field forces? I came across this speculation from 1707, which suggests that the devil is always in the details: “It seems but too clear we can never hope to obtain any success on this side and in this country [Flanders] that can force France to yield to so great demands as we make, unless we could bring an army of at least 25 or 30000 men to the field superior to what they have, foras their frontiers are all covered by very strong towns and well fortified, and ours are all open.” Any others come to mind?

So it seems there are a lot of issues if one wants to really be careful with army sizes. The general issues as I see them:

  1. What are you measuring? Do you want to measure total size of a country’s establishment? does that include the navy? the administrators? the militia? foreign mercenaries? Do you want to measure the total number of forces in a theater; does that include garrisons and posts and escorts and detachments as well as the field force? Do you want to measure the size of a field army in a specific theater? What if they detach forces from that army, reinforce it from another theater, or create another (smaller) field army altogether? What happens regarding disease, death and/or desertion during a campaign (are you interested in the state’s capacity, its field strength, what the state pays for…)? Field strength might even increase in size due to enemy deserters joining the other side’s ranks, or withdrawing garrison troops to strengthen the field army. Do you want to measure the forces involved in a particular combat, and is that army the same size as the same army that was reviewed three weeks earlier? Given a particular number of men, do you know if that includes replacements and new recruits? Are camp followers included in the figures? You may need to if you’re dealing with logistics, carrying capacity of an area… Are we talking tactics, operations, logistics, strategy, grand strategy, impact of war/military on society, or what? Lots of things to keep track of, but you need to start by specifying what exactly you’re measuring and why, then figure out which measure makes the most sense.
  2. Precision of measures (separate from accuracy of measures, as in #3), from most general to most precise: vague ordinal descriptions (a lot, une quantité, a third); ballpark number of troops, usually rounded off to nearest 1,000s; total count of regiments; number of troops based off average size of a regiment x total number of regiments or # of rations; list of the specific regiments involved (i.e. not just a total number of regiments); numbers based off of regimental returns or other administrative documents, rounded or not. Most of the time, you only find sources identifying individual nobles killed and wounded, and often you’ll see a source that mentions that ‘above 100’ of their regiment were ‘reduced to a retched condition.’ Presumably records at the lower level, e.g. company-level, are likely to be more precise. Parrott’s discussion of French army sizes in the 30YW led him to throw up his hands and refuse to even attempt a numerical/graphical summary. I think we need to do better, even if we sacrifice some precision.
  3. Accuracy of size info by type of source: rumors of sizes (very common in correspondence and news reports); Inherent Military Probability à la Delbrück’s downward revisions of the Ancient armies (not sure about this one); direct references in correspondence/planning docs (rare and usually ballpark precision); troop returns (precise figures but unsure of accuracy due to #4); logistical documents such as ration contracts or pay records (probably accurate, but see #4 again); garrison evacuation/casualty/POW lists (probably the most accurate, esp. for POWs since they were exchanged, but not a full count of the total). I’ve come across some quite detailed reports on the comings and goings of garrison troops – the informant claimed to dine with the officer in charge. But I don’t want to think about possible misinformation…
  4. Paper vs. discounted/’actual’ sizes: account for fraud and extra rations, attrition…
  5. The official full-strength sizes of regiments changed over time as well (change size of companies, add companies to a regiment, change # of officers…), although this is usually easier to discover because it happened rarely and royal edicts declared their sizes.
  6. Counts that include officers and men, vs. counts that only include men. Not important in the grand scheme of things, but regiments often had officers (esp. colonels) absent, with or without leave.
  7. Manipulating numbers for ulterior motives: a source might inflate its estimate of the enemy in order to highlight the magnitude of the victory over that enemy or justify inaction against him. Or a losing commander minimizes his numbers to excuse the loss. At the retreat to Nijmegen in 1702, for example, it was said that the French buried their dead so as to hide their losses. English papers also compared the figures from French accounts with those from their own allies, pointing out discrepancies. Millner bragged that “by their own common computations and accounts, [the French] exceeded the Allies army both in the number of strength and loss in all battles and skirmishes, sieges excepted, in which their loss also in every respect whatsoever therof, was always accounted equivalent with the besiegers, considering their mighty strong empostments, number of strength, and cover of the fortifications thereof.”
  8. Reliability of sources: Do we trust one specific person’s numbers, and if so, why? His proximity to the scene or because he’s elbow-deep in the paper trail? Or because we accept his judgment in other matters? Do we trust one type of person more? maybe we trust logisticians’ estimates the most? do adminstrators know better than officers in the army? What type of source is most reliable to you? Even more broadly, how numerate were our sources’ authors in general – did they use “10,000” to mean “a lot”?
  9. Uncertainty of sources: Anecdotes (don’t remember where off-hand) about commanders admitting they really had no idea of how many troops they had. Always remember that these figures are incredibly imprecise, and contemporaries themselves rarely knew the exact figures themselves. Again, how precise are our sources, and how precise do we need them to be?
  10. Counting regiments seems easiest since that seems to be how contemporaries tended to keep track. With the regiments the property of the colonels, and with fame and dishonor to distribute, they named names. Occasionally you’ll come across a document where a superior will tell his informant to report specific regiments by name rather than the vague “two regiments marched nearby last Tuesday” – they apparently wanted to track the movements of specific regiments. Of course you need to deal with the naming conventions issue across time.
  11. Detachments probably complicate things a bit. If they rustle up X number of men from each regiment to make a 2,000 man detachment, that makes it harder to identify particular regimental strengths, especially if those weakened units then go on to participate in some action.
  12. Quality of info varies by size/length of engagement: smaller events (skirmishes, brief sieges) tend to draw less attention from contemporaries and therefore have fewer sources available on them.
  13. Do casualty figures have the same issues? Do they have other issues that size figures don’t?

    Casualties by approach by day, Douai 1710

  14. This is particularly challenging if we want to make broader arguments about EMEMH. One important component of the military revolution debate is the growth of armies, but in order to compare across countries and centuries, it’s easiest to rely on pre-processed tabular data from secondary sources. Those with the most convenient and broadest range of data are usually the least reliable and least consistent. Counting all those regiments and reconciling contradictory sources is time-consuming, so there are necessarily large gaps in particular periods and places.
  15. A minor but interesting study would be to compare the reality of a field army’s size with the perception of that size, both by that army, and by its enemy. How often does intelligence give an accurate estimate of an army, and how often are armies’ estimates of the enemy way off? I’d assume it’s already been done for specific campaigns, but an overview might be interesting.

What say you?

Suggested Readings:

  • Lynn, John. “Revisiting the Great Fact of War and Bourbon Absolutism: The Growth of the French Army during the Grand Siècle.” In Enrique García Hernán et al, Guerra y sociedad en la monarquía hispánica: política, estrategia y cultura en la Europa Moderna, 1500-1700. Madrid, 2006.
  • Parrott, David. Richelieu’s Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Wilson, Peter H. German Armies: War and German Society, 1648-1806. London: UCL Press, 1998.
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2 responses to “Counting numbers and naming names”

  1. jostwald says :

    A minor point I should’ve also mentioned is that source accuracy on army sizes will likely vary by period, or at least with variation in the centralization of the state bureaucracy that tries to crack down on fraud.

  2. jostwald says :

    I just noticed in Clausewitz’s On War his chapter on superiority of numbers (Book 3 Chapter 8) argues that an emphasis on the size of armies had been rare until his period, for “most military histories of the eighteenth century – even the most extensive ones – either do not mention the size of armies, or do so only in a very casual way; certainly they never emphasize it.” I’ve noticed the same thing in my researches on the Spanish Succession – army sizes are sparsely scattered throughout historical narratives, never consistent enough to make direct comparisons. Yet more work to do…

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