I’m trying to finish up one of my main projects this semester (the West Point military art textbook), and have come across yet another example of the dead (and wounded) on early modern battlefields.
In a few near-contemporary paintings illustrating field battles during the War of the Spanish Succession (when else), there are several very prominent dead bodies, stripped naked. I want to use one (of the paintings, not the dead bodies) in my chapter, but will undoubtedly need to explain in the caption why those naked bodies are there.
Here’s one of Ramillies:
Note the dead bodies (at least partially stripped) in the foreground right and the proximate sword and pistol play around the tree. The (presumably dead) body with arms sprawled ‘up’ appears to be totally naked, his privates shielded from view by a conveniently-placed bush. Presumably the other victim’s blue pants link him to one of his still-living compatriots fleeing for his own life, sans shoes or any other accoutrements. I’ve heard of throwing down your weapons and equipment to flee, but that’s a bit much.
Here’s one from Malplaquet, perhaps giving a little more insight:
Notice on the left how a female camp follower is taking the shirt off of a wounded/dead soldier with some combat in the background. I knew that the wounded/dead were often stripped after the battle; I guess I didn’t appreciate how quickly such wealth was redistributed. The early bird… I guess.
Finally, another from Malplaquet:
This last one is a bit more surprising to me, given how close the dead bodies (center left) are to the fighting. If accurate and not simply an artistic convention, it suggests the possibility that stripping the dead might have happened even in the midst of combat, presumably by soldiers.
Is that likely? Or is there some other explanation? There is clearly some significant fighting going on around it, which makes one think it isn’t the mop up phase of the battle, unless there was a lull and then a return to fighting. Perhaps it’s noteworthy that there appears to be a soldier over the bodies and not a female camp follower? Perhaps the wooded terrain of Malplaquet made it easier for people to avoid the heaviest fighting yet still claim their prizes?
Any thoughts, examples or parallels? If anyone has access to those expensive books on war in early modern art, they might give some guidance too.
Come with me
Into the trees
We’ll lay on the grass
And let the hours pass...
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.
(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.
Andy Tumath writes in, wondering:
“I was wondering if anyone had any information about what happened to soldiers killed on campaign during the early-modern age. I’ve seen documentaries about Napoleon’s Grand Armee’s retreat from Russia, and how the troops who fell during the long march home were either left where they dropped, or were given the most perfunctory of burials.
Was this standard practice? I’d be surprised if there were mass cremations of the fallen, and even more so if any but the highest ranking officers were actually repatriated – but I just can’t think of any grave sites belonging to the early-modern period, even in the Low Countries where war was such an ever-present factor of existence.”
I don’t have time to respond in much detail right now (other than to make a mental note to go back and look at my war and society books), but if someone else wants to chime in and steal my thunder, please do. Citations would also be appreciated.
Off the top of my head, I know that occasionally when siege storms of the covered way were very bloody and unsuccessful, there might be a truce for both sides to gather their dead, since they “lye as thick as ever you saw a flock of sheep.” I also know that empty bread wagons often returned back to their bases behind the front lines with wounded (and possibly dead) soldiers among their cargo.
One other possibility: would military manuals’ discussions of encampments discuss the matter? Is this something camp followers attended to? Presumably the corpses were picked over pretty well by other soldiers, camp followers or even locals.
I don’t know if they had the idea of their body being buried back at home – perhaps some ballads from the period might mention the matter…
A comment to a previous post made by Gavin (Aug. 4) prompted me to make a flippant response, when really I should have been paying attention to his serious point. It deals with how we think about the ability of early modern armies to become more effective over time, i.e. learning curves during wartime. He suggested that armies sometimes (often?) learn over the course of a war and get better, and then are apt to forget those lessons during peacetime.
I think it’s difficult to know if there is a general tendency one way or the other in many/most wars – measuring it strikes me as quite challenging given all the counterfactual argumentation required. I would, however, argue that in the early modern period, most wars (perhaps even the British Civil Wars if one looks at them over their entire length?) were long and bloody, and since professionalism spread slowly in the period, attrition likely took away a lot of the (good) veterans, whether soldiers, officers or technicians. Perhaps those that survived late into a decade-long war were better, but I can imagine there being an inflection point after which competency declines rather than continues to increase. As a concrete example, I talk about the effects of engineering attrition in Vauban under Siege, chapter 5: Vauban claimed that there were so few good engineers because so few survived long enough to learn the lessons, and I show the Allied engineering corps suffered the same fate in the Spanish Succession.
I’d bet attrition-induced mediocrity (if I can coin a phrase) is a broader phenomenon. I believe this was also associated with Frederick the Great’s late campaigns as well – certainly historians have framed the Old Regime’s avoidance of field battle in terms of fearing the loss of trained veterans that battle casualties would incur (even though I’ve often wondered about that logic on many levels). Some historians have also argued this happened with Napoleon’s late campaigns; his quote about only being good for another ten? years comes to mind.
Such trends might also be influenced by specific policy decisions, e.g. Wick Murray arguing that in WW2 the US army air corps intentionally held back some of its best pilots to train new ones, whereas the Japanese ended up getting all their aces killed in combat. Perhaps whether officers were expected to lead from the front or direct from the back makes a difference here: a look at casualty rates among early modern officer corps might be informative in this regard. I think a few scholars have presented data that would be useful here, i.e. the seniority and service experience of officers. (Erik? Corvisier? Rowlands? Drévillon?)
Some historiography has undoubtedly addressed the issue: a few of the contributions to the Military Revolution debate certainly must have some insight (but I can’t think of who off hand); J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts on Greek and Roman warfare emphasizes the importance of antiquarianism among the Ancients; and just about any work on military culture likely addresses the issue, since one of their major themes is how culture encourages military men to make decisions that seem to go against ‘rational’ choice (as defined by modern Western professional standards).
Do you think early modern armies got better or worse as their wars went on? Specific examples, conceptual categories and general hunches appreciated.