Counting numbers II: Measuring in Regiments, Battalions, Companies

One more point about army sizes: we usually convert army sizes into an absolute number of men, even though numbers of units (regiment or battalion or company) are the most frequently occurring measure in the sources, and sometimes the only size information available. Whenever we are forced to rely on unit totals, we need to constantly remind ourselves of the weaknesses in measuring size this way.

Royal army sizes in French Wars of Religion from Wood, The King’s Army, p. 230.

The problems? First, we think in absolute numerical terms, e.g. 5.000 vs. 10.500, and it takes some mental effort or research to figure out what was the full-strength of a regt in period X – as an author we should do this for the reader whenever possible. This is made more mentally taxing when we have to recall the difference between numbers of men in the standard foot and horse units – 30 infantry battalions and 150 cavalry squadrons sounds like a huge disparity in numbers between the two, but aren’t nearly as lopsided in absolute numbers as it seems if squadrons have only 150 troopers. Then, if all you have is a total number of regiments, you’re necessarily comparing Red Delicious apples to crab apples, without knowing how many you have of each. You can (and probably should) list the regiments by name if at all possible, for accuracy and reproducibility of your results. We’ve already discussed some of the issues: regiments might have one or two battalions, depending on the country and type of regiment (e.g. Guards regiments often had two), so you need to make those calculations. Battalions in turn might have increasing or decreasing numbers of companies, especially from peace to wartime. The official strength of the regiment changes over a longer time frame, so you need to correct for that if you are doing any longitudinal comparisons. The sizes of regiments will vary according to the campaign season as well. Weak battalions might have 350 men, whereas a full-strength bttn could be 700, maybe 750 with officers. So with a single bttn you could easily have a range of 350-750 men, or 50% variation. Then, multiply that (making the untenable assumption that all bttns will have the same discount rate) by the number of regts or bttns, and you see how the absolute numbers can be hugely inflated: a difference of 400 men might not be a big deal, but 50 bttns could range anywhere from 17,500 to 37,500 troops – a 20,000 man difference. That’s almost an entire additional field army!

Theoretical and actual French company sizes, Corvisier in Histoire militaire de la France, p. 362

So how do we indicate this margin of error? If we were social scientists, we’d come up with an index I suppose (a strength of thirty-four 1660-bttns). Here’s my suggestion. I think at the least we need to say what type of bttn measurement is being used: men, men+officers, don’t know. This is particularly the case if we’re combining different types of sources. If you took the trouble to do those calculations yourself, let the reader know how you did it so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We should also count in bttns rather than regiments, given the possible variation there, even though we need to keep track of the regiments by colonel’s name. We should also give a margin of error. So maybe in 1706 the field army size was 55,000 ± 500 because it was a relatively easy campaign – between an estimated minimum of 54,500 and 55,500 at maximum full-strength. Then in late 1710, after a long series of sieges which saw many casualties and much disease and desertion, the field army size is now 75,500 ± 15,000 (between 60,500 and 90,500). This way the reader gets a sense of how precise those measures are, and how much variation there was from campaign to campaign, perhaps even month to month.

When displaying sizes graphically, the Corvisier example above shows how easy it is to used a stacked bar chart for actual vs. paper strengths. When looking at troops for a particular campaign however, it might make sense to use error bars, or maybe a boxplot if you have multiple possible measures. Just one graph that had each regt on the X axis and # men on the Y axis with error bars for each regt (or aggregated, with campaign year on the X and # men in army on the Y) would really force home the point about variation. I’ll try to make one up sometime when I get a chance, unless someone knows of one already done? Calculating an average discount rate for an army is a start, but even better is to show whether this discount rate is evenly distributed through all the army, or whether there are certain regiments that are way below their strength – you could of course tie this to particular combats. The table below gives us a sense of the wastage rates, but even more of the spotty nature of our sources. Is there a better way to visually display this info?

30YW wastage rates from Parker, ed. Thirty Years War, p. 181.

As the table above suggests, we should also make note of when the sources we’re using were made. Campaigns have a rhythm, so it’s important to know when the numbers were measured during the campaign – at the beginning when the army was at full strength? right before a battle, right after it? at the end of a long exhausting campaign? Sometimes they’ll review the troops because some event just happened (say, a battle) which now makes them doubt their previous figures. Anybody know about the decision process for when to make a review of the full army?

Wastage rates in Dutch Revolt from Parker, Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 178.

In the past I’ve considered taking precise-sounding numbers (4,325 men) and rounding them off to even-sounding numbers to indicate the imprecision and forestall any sense of spurious accuracy/precision, but this has the disadvantage of making it difficult to trace the sources that you got that info from; at the least, you’d want to wait till the end to round off.

Again, I think some historians have done some, or even most, of these things, but I still see plenty of generic “34,550 men” in published works, when you have no idea where those numbers came from, and how big the real range is likely to be.

Sound off.

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5 responses to “Counting numbers II: Measuring in Regiments, Battalions, Companies”

  1. Andy Copestake says :

    I often wonder ifi ts because many historians can research the when and the why but are less interested in the how.”big picture” historians often appear to find military minutae tedious or unimportant sodifferences in regiment/battalion/company /squadron/troop/battery foragiven army or period may elude them- or their publisher….

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comment. It’s quite true that such minutiae can be tedious, but on the other hand some types of military historians (“buffs”, amateurs, wargamers, etc.) really get into that kind of detail, at least that’s the stereotype. A combination of the bigger questions asked by academic historians plus the detail-oriented eye of those other kinds of historians is a good combo I think. Frankly, I think laziness (time constraints, to be charitable) is a big part of it. I know I was taken aback at first when I realized as a grad student that collecting all the data about sieges in the Spanish Succession was not going to be as simple as the neat-looking list in Lynn’s trace italienne article made it seem (Parker criticized Lynn’s use of encyclopedic sources in his rebuttal in “In Defense of the MR”). In the siege case, you had multiple measures for each start and end date, different sources with different pieces of information, different sources with conflicting dates. Heck, there were even lots of sieges that weren’t even listed in existing datasets (I discuss all this in the appendices to my book). And this was only with dates, the easy stuff! Numbers of troops have a much larger range, don’t follow the basic rules of arithmetic that dates do (e.g. if X happened before 12/5 and I know it couldn’t have happened until at least 12/3, then it likely happened on 12/4), and are therefore even more challenging.
      As for whether these details are important or not, that was what prompted my question of whether a 2:1 ratio is significantly better than a 1.5:1 advantage. If it isn’t that significant, then is it worth the mental effort of counting all those battalions in the first place, or correcting figures?
      I also agree that what the publisher wants also plays a big role, especially regarding lists and discussions of methodology, which take up a lot of space and are “boring”.

  2. Sheldon Clare says :

    Jamel, your work on cleaning up the siege data in the War of the Spanish Succession is a tremendous contribution to the literature of that period. In my own research I found the same problems that you encountered – bizarre dates, typos, and varied interpretation as what constitutes the beginning and end of a siege, and even of just who is a party to the siege. Lynn’s work on these matters is also a great help. Like many of us, I started out as an enthusiast who would pick out the mistakes in war movies – it is quite a different role than that of someone who has to look at the significance of events to place them in their proper context. Notwithstanding that, attention to detail has its place, as long as the details are given their proper context. Sometimes small details have later had large effects upon events. A literary example that has some application is the old poem of “…for want of a horseshoe, a rider was lost…” and so on. Bad pieces of equipment affecting troop performance are easily found examples. History is respendent with examples of small problems having larger effects that were not apparent to those affected.

  3. Gene Hughson says :

    As a member of the “buffs”, amateurs, and wargamers tribe, I find this type of minutiae interesting, but not necessarily critical. Ranges rather than absolute numbers appear to be more credible given all the factors that can impact unit size: casualties, illness (both men and horses), desertion, detachments, etc.; not to mention contemporaneous number fudging for propaganda or profit.

    As far as the impact of numbers on combat effectiveness, it is a factor, but only one of many. Officers (both in terms of skill and temperament), morale, supply, training, battle experience, fatigue, weapons, weather and terrain all combine to determine the outcome of an encounter. Quantity may have a “quality all it’s own” (I know, wrong period), but I haven’t run across a definitive system that integrates all those qualities. Given the difficulties in measuring some of them, such a system may not even be possible (though hope springs eternal).

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comment. In January we’ll have battle as our Topic of the Month, and hopefully we’ll be able to talk about these issues in a bit more detail.

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