The wounded is to the dead as four to one

Prompted by a previous thread about dead combatants in the early modern period…

Back in high school I was first introduced to the rather devious idea that a combatant might desire to wound an enemy rather than kill him outright. The idea was that, even if the wounded soldier wasn’t used as a decoy to draw additional forces into a killing zone (a staple in war movies), more resources would be expended caring for that casualty than if they were simply killed in action. I think I probably heard about it in the context of the Vietnam war (punji sticks or some such, maybe small mines that incapacitated rather than killed outright). Seemed logical but cold-hearted.

So as I started looking at my primary sources that contained the word “bury” (thank you database and full text), I came across this quote, which not only evoked early memories of human cruelty, but which also serves as a reminder that anything we can do, the pre-moderns could do too.
It is now sixty days that the Duke of Vendôme is diverting himself at this dirty siege [of Verrua, 1704-1705]; and I think we ought to set up a statue to his memory in every street of Turin. By the best accounts which we can get, his infantry is now reduced to about 7000, and a great part of these will be good for nothing but to recruit their hospitals, before we have done with them. If the accounts which we get from the Milanese, and the enemies’ quarters are just, there are near 18000 French at present in the several hospitals, belonging to the two armies, which are commanded by the two gracious brothers [the two French theater commanders were the duc de Vendôme and his brother, the Grand Prieur]. I observe this with the greater pleasure, because every useless poor creature in these hospitals does cost their master as much as four grenadiers who mount the trenches; and this is one of those expensive articles upon which the French King is cheated in Italy, as much as any King of Spain ever was. O rare Italy! which has served, in all ages, to murder, and to bury Frenchmen.”
(Correspondence, vol. 1, pp. 471-472, Richard Hill to Charles Hedges, Turin, 17 December 1704)

I’m not going to declare this the first recognition of the attritional benefits of casualties (versus KIAs), but it strikes me as pretty early. And this undoubtedly wasn’t an intentional Allied tactic, but early modern medicine being what it was, I can’t imagine the survival rate in those hospitals was very high. (Yet another prompt to look into that military medicine literature.)

As a side note, the personality of Richard Hill shines through the quote as well, particularly his glee at French suffering. His historical recognition of Italy as the burial ground for generations of French soldiers is also a nice touch. Unless you happen to be French.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: