The Psychology of Battle

Another aspect of the history of battle is the literature which has developed around the psychology of pre-modern battle. Numerous people have noted the ‘foreign-ness’ of early modern combat, especially the stereotypical version of the 18C linear battlefield. Rather than heading for the nearest foxhole when the shooting starts, you stand tall in rows and ranks, shoulder-to-shoulder with your compatriots, while incoming cannon shot and musketballs whizz around your head and tear up clods of dirt in front of you. After a preparatory bombardment, your officers order a march forward at a steady pace, “opposing [your] naked Breasts to the Showrs of the Murthering Shot.” As American history students well know, you are ordered to hold your fire till you see the “whites of their eyes.” If your advance is successful, you might finish it off with a bayonet charge, although I think most historians would agree that by the time of the bayonet charge, the defenders would usually have thrown down their arms or fled. Various movie-makers have tried their hand at envisioning such a perplexing scene, including Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and Mel Gibson in The Patriot. John Lynn has termed this odd-seeming behavior as the “battle culture of forebearance,” and many historians have described the drill and maneuvers required to train thousands of men to just stand there, to march in step, to slowly (and then increasingly-quickly) advance toward the enemy. Trying to imagine such behaviors, and comparing it with their experience from more recent wars, it’s no surprise that military historians study the psychology of battle.

Ardant du Picq’s Battle Studies provided an early emphasis on how the primitive instinct for self-preservation had to be overcome through motivation, discipline, leadership and tactics. In the 20C, John Keegan reinvigorated the subject by asking academic military historians to put themselves in the boots of the soldier on the battlefield, to imagine what it would have felt like to fight with black-powder muskets. Many have obliged, as mentioned in a previous post. In the 1990s a veteran/therapist Dave Grossman wrote a book setting out a universalist, late 20C psychological understanding of the experience of combat, drawing on modern psychological concepts such as the ‘well of courage,’ and of course relying on the by-now-well-established concept of primary (i.e. peer) group cohesion. Duffy’s Military Experience in the Age of Reason also has a long chapter that goes through the mechanics of battle, including how soldiers likely responded.

French military historians in particular have embraced this psychological approach to battle, not surprising given their deep interest in War and Society topics. Perhaps most surprising is André Corvisier, the doyen of institutional French military history, who turned his hand to writing about the panic and enthusiasm expressed by French soldiers at Malplaquet in 1709, a topic taken up in more detail by Malfoy-Noël.

More recently, Yuval Harari has taken a broad synthetic approach to the subject of the experience of battle, arguing that the idea of combat as revelation was a development of the Enlightenment, with early moderns interpreting the battlefield experience as a matter of mind over body.

This topic necessarily crosses disciplinary boundaries, raising philosophical and psychological questions that a lil’ ol’ military historian like me isn’t qualified to weigh in on. So, that leaves it up to you…

Questions to discuss:

  • What are the best depictions of early modern battle in the movies? How do you judge the realism of early modern battle scenes?
  • How would describe the historiography of the psychology of battle?
  • What kinds of sources would shed light on the psychology of battle participants? Which sources have you found particularly striking for their discussion of the psychology of early modern battle?
  • To what extent can we talk of a “universal soldier,” vs. participants who thought and acted differently from us (the Other)?

Suggested Readings:

  • Du Picq, Col. Ardant. Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1921.
  • Keegan, John. The Face of Battle.
  • Corvisier, André. “Le moral des combattants, panique et enthousiasme: Malplaquet.” Revue historique des armées 12 (1977): 7-32.
  • Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  Little, Brown & Co., 1995.
  • Malfoy-Noël, Dorothée. L’épreuve de la Bataille (1700-1714). Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007.
  • Harari, Yuval. The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


7 responses to “The Psychology of Battle”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    Although it’s out of period, I give the Battle of Antietem scene in ‘Glory’ high marks just for the sound effects. The whistling noise of the bullets is eerily accurate. I’ve heard it before (fortunately from a much safer position than the characters) and even sitting in a theater it made me cringe.

    The first battle scene from Barry Lyndon on YouTube looked plausable for the most part. The numbers falling out of line per volley appeared excessive, though, given what I’ve read re: effectiveness of musketry. I’d also expect more in the way of recoil and recovery from the attackers rather than the stoic maintenance of pace. Lastly, I’d expect more in the way of orders and encouragement from the officers and NCOs.

    On the negative side, exploding shells tend to raise my hackles on anything pre-US Civil War. I know they existed prior to that, but without the necessary circumstances (howitzer or mortar in the scene or British Napoleonic era gun), then it just smacks of “punching up the impact of the scene”. Ironically, the only depiction I’ve seen of the most devastating artillery round of this period (canister shot) was from the movie ‘Gettysburg’.

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    To what extent can we talk of a “universal soldier,” vs. participants who thought and acted differently from us (the Other)?

    I can’t claim to have anything scientific to offer here, but as a general impression, it seems that the human psyche seems remarkably stable over the ages, with more similarities than differences between peoples. Nuances attributable to cultural and circumstantial factors (such as the greater and earlier exposure to mortality experienced by our ancestors) certainly have an impact, but don’t seem to radically alter perceptions (the sentiment “war is hell” seems pretty ancient).

    My opinion, for what it’s worth, would be to start with a common reference point and adjust for those factors rather than starting from an assumption of “the other”.

  3. Gene Hughson says :

    One last thought for now…Richard Holmes’ “Acts of War” seemed a good treatment of this subject when I read it.

  4. Erik Lund says :

    No-one has the money to do a real cavalry charge, but the CGI-thickened scene in Return of the Kings</i. comes close. Very realistic, apart from the orcs and the lich riding a flying dragon and the giant elephants and the fact that it would have been one of the largest charges in history if it had been "real," raising the question of whether in practice the formation wouldn't have spread out a lot more.

    • Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus says :

      Interestingly enough, the original narrative of the charge of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings mentioned the line clumping and fragmenting into several large wedges as it carved its way through the opposition–something also seen in some actual charges where cavalry actually passed clean through the enemy line, as in Churchill’s account of the Battle of Omdurman!

  5. Erik Lund says :

    Oops. Imagine that there’s a closed tag in there somewhere.

  6. Gene Hughson says :

    If your advance is successful, you might finish it off with a bayonet charge, although I think most historians would agree that by the time of the bayonet charge, the defenders would usually have thrown down their arms or fled.

    The tactical aspect of battle psychology is the one I find most intriguing. As you note above, typically, before two lines of infantry actually met, either the attackers would have recoiled or the defenders fled. Success or failure of a frontal attack on formed infantry by cavalry likewise appears to rely largely on the morale of the infantry.

    At the operational level, the morale of an army could be a delicate thing as well. The cry “La Garde recule” turned a near run thing on Wellington’s part into a rout for Napoleon.

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