Q&A: The Historical Reasons for Conscription

I have a question about mandatory soldier conscription. Are armies REALLY going to send incompetent, poor, uncooperative soldiers, or especially ones who don’t want to be there out to fight? They’d get thrashed if the enemy are only sending out soldiers who voluntarily join, pass tests with high score, and get selected. What nation wants a high body count because they have piss poor soldiers they forced to join??

So, to answer your first question, “yeah.” In answer to your second, “The 28th of July, 1914.” So, let’s unpack.

Economically, it’s not viable for most feudal states to maintain a significant standing military. This was the general problem for European warfare for over 1000 years. During that time, conscription of the peasantry was used to quickly assemble an army, and then disbanded when they were no longer needed (and could no longer be paid.)

The results were large armies of disposable shock troops backed by small cadres of elite forces (such as knights, and mercenaries), composed of professional combatants. This structure works surprisingly well when paired against a similar force, comprised of a large expendable infantry, backed by a small elite cadre.

Throughout much of European history, the number of troops you could bring to the battle was considered more important than the individual quality of those soldiers. If you can only field a few hundred elite troops, and your enemy can field ten thousand disposable fighters, you’re screwed.

Now, someone is going to read that paragraph and cite The Battle of Thermopylae. There is one very important concept about melee based warfare, the number of soldiers you have in total is less important than the number of soldiers you can put into contact with the enemy. Thermopylae was about the Greek soldiers constricting the Persian advance so that only a small number of soldiers (on either side) could engage at any given moment. This effectively negated the numerical advantage of the Persian forces. (And, yes, Greek. While discussions on the Battle of Thermopylae tend to focus on the Spartan fighters, they comprised a fraction of the Greek forces present.) This isn’t relevant to the overall discussion of conscription, but there are ways for a numerically inferior force to overcome a numerically superior one even before we get into technology.

The major takeaway for conscription, as historical behavior, was that, it worked. As with much of Europe’s military history, armies on both sides were using roughly similar military doctrine, and if both forces are relying on conscription, you’re going to be throwing equally unprepared soldiers at one another.

In the early modern era, militaries started transitioning to maintaining standing forces in peacetime. The example that comes to mind was the Prussian Army, which also functioned as the beginning of modern military training practices. This also saw the expansion of professional officer corps, and even standing militaries. However, conscription persisted (in a number of forms.)

The other major change was technology. So, let’s look at those dates I listed earlier, and why they matter.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. This triggered a declaration of war, which then triggered additional declarations of war based on existing defensive treaties between the various European governments, beginning the first World War one month later to the day. (I’m being incredibly reductive here, and if you want more detail, I’d strongly suggest you take some time and read up on the geopolitical situation, because I cannot do it justice in a couple paragraphs.)

In the decades before World War I, there had been skirmishes between European powers, and in some ways the writing was on the wall for what was about to happen. However, there hadn’t been a war on the continent between the major powers in nearly four decades. (Yes, I’m cherry picking a little bit for this statement, and trying not to get bogged down under a string of, relatively minor, border skirmishes. If you want a takeaway from this aside, Europe was not a stable place in 1914.)

If you know your firearms history, you’ll remember that there were significant technological innovations in the 19th century. The European powers had been taking advantage of this technology, against non-European powers. They’d used early machine guns to quell resistance in their colonial holdings, but military leadership (at least among the British) failed to grasp how much these had changed warfare. They were content to attribute the force multiplier from automatic weapons to their own troops “superiority,” rather than address the idea that these weapons functionally negated contemporary military doctrine. (This is in addition to other new technologies, including the deployment of chlorine gas, the use of airplanes in war, and the introduction of instantaneous, electric communication via the telegraph.)

I’m going a very bold statement, and I realize I haven’t evidenced this enough to fully back it up. In fact, if someone has a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it. The exact moment that mass conscripts lost their value came sometime in the fall of 1914. If you really wanted, you might be able to pin this down to specific battles, maybe even identify a specific day. “This is the moment in history, when mass conscripted shock troops were outdated by technology.” You might also prefer to shift the date back to the development of the Maxim Machine Gun.

Historically, conscripted soldiers had value as cannon fodder. Conscripted soldiers would chew through enemy resources. They would protect more valuable fighters from enemy attacks. They’d literally soak incoming fire (hence the term cannon fodder. “Food for enemy cannon fire.”) While they wouldn’t be effective against the enemy elite forces (unless a conscript landed a lucky blow), they would slow and wear down enemy combatants. There was a real point to fielding large numbers of troops.

Then World War I.

If a small number of soldiers with ready access to ammunition could effectively negate entire masses of enemy troops, there isn’t nearly as much point to throwing out as many soldiers as possible. In fact, the proliferation of firearms actually flips the logistic economics. There’s a significant danger of conscripted troops being non-lethally injured by incoming fire, and requiring medical attention, straining the army’s medical corps (whatever name it’s working under.) At this point, cannon fodder becomes an actual liability.

As for high casualty rates? Most nations that sustained massive casualties didn’t particularly care about their losses. At least, their military leadership didn’t. If we’re looking back at the medieval levy system, the peasants called up to serve were viewed as disposable by their leaders. Similarly, even as recently as World War I, heavy losses were expected, it was simply the volume of casualties that military leaders weren’t prepared for, and political leaders had difficulty spinning.

While I’m saying this universally, the American military didn’t get especially sensitive about their casualty rates until Vietnam. The presence of press on the front line, with extensive footage being broadcast on the same day, combined with the continuation of the draft (along with other factors) helped to contribute to a sensitivity about about casualties (and also press access in wartime), that hadn’t existed before that. It wasn’t even that the numbers in Vietnam were particularly high, it was the war’s unpopularity and media coverage. (There’s a lot more to unpack on this subject that I can’t go into right now.)

So, to be brief, conscripted forces used to have a function. It was a horrific function that viewed them as expendable resources. It’s an important part of the discussion on standing military forces, and some of that persists today, even in volunteer forces. In some cases, soldiers (even those who choose to enlist) are viewed as expendable. Especially by the bureaucracy.

Nations conscripted because they needed bodies and didn’t care about the quality. (I’m specifically not addressing nations that require some form of civil service, potentially including military service as an option, from their citizens, that’s a little different from what you’re talking about here.) It used to be there were real considerations behind it. That’s less true today, and conscripted shock troops have very limited applications today.


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One thought on “Q&A: The Historical Reasons for Conscription”

  1. The argument that WWI ended the era of conscription is rather flawed, given that UK had profesional armed forces before the war and was forced to introduce conscription when it dragged on.
    I think the thing that really pushed conscription out of use in developed countries is the prolonged peace and relative stability – Profesional forces are better for short small scale conflicts and cheaper to retain during peace time, but are ill-suited for prolonged wars of atrition. Yes, profesionals fight better than fresh conscripts, but but as the war drags on the recruits become veterans the quality gap vanishes – all surviving veterans will be of comparable quality, wether volunteer or conscripted.

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