Tag Archives: military history

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.

-Starke

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Q&A: British Military Recruitment Physicals

I’m planning a story with an English character who joined the army during WW1 (because he didn’t want to be considered cowardly) but eventually became disillusioned with war and with the British Empire. He was born physically disabled but managed to conceal the disability in order to enlist. Are there any disabilities for which this would be plausible?

No. It would be difficult to hide any serious disability during the recruitment medical examination. In 1914, the sheer volume of recruits meant that examinations were fairly cursory, but, anything significant would have gotten washed out. Also, he wouldn’t be alone in that respect, somewhere between 40% and 60% of volunteers were turned away for being medically unfit.

There two major exceptions, that were sometimes, “overlooked,” by the recruiters.

The first was height, a British Soldier was required to be at least 5’3″ (later revised up to 5’6″ to reduce the number of recruits that were being processed), though this was not always strictly adhered to.

The second was age, the British military required recruits to be 19 or older, though estimates put the number of underage British soldiers who served in World War I at around a 250,000.

It is important to understand, “fear of being viewed as a coward,” was not a leading cause to join up. Certainly not for someone who had a disability that they would need to work to conceal. Peer pressure was a factor among underage recruits. For adults the leading factors were patriotic impulses, or an opportunity to adventure.

Worth remembering, World War I was a significant turning point for the perception of warfare in Europe. It was brutal, and destructive on an incomprehensible scale. Twenty million people died from 1914-1918. Another twenty million were seriously injured.

That last part is important for reference. There were a lot of soldiers that went to war with the idea that it would be a grand adventure. They swore to protect king and country, but returned horrifically maimed, after receiving front row seats to industrialized warfare’s opening act.

War has a long history of taking young, healthy individuals and returning them in much less intact conditions. Even if your character left for war in good shape, it’s entirely plausible they wouldn’t return that way.

Even though the characters are German, not British, All Quiet on the Western Front is probably something you’ll want to read. You may also want to check The Great War channel on YouTube.

-Starke

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Q&A: Conscription

How would military conscription work? Specifically wondering how the military would prevent/handle evasion of service, and the mental effects of getting signed on for a war you don’t want to fight.

How would it work, or how does it work?

Historically there have been many different forms of military conscription, ranging from press gangs, drafts and compulsory service.

Impressment was the practice of forcibly “recruiting” people into the military, usually via the use of a press gang. In most situations, they would simply go out, grab some civilians and drag them back. This was at it’s height in the 18th century, and is basically unheard of today in developed nations. In most cases, impressment was naval, so press gangs were looking for sailors.

Worth noting, impressment didn’t, necessarily, restrict itself to members of one’s own nation. For somewhat obvious reasons you wouldn’t want to forcibly conscript civilians from a hostile power, and then place them on your warship, but at the same time, there were a number of incidents where British press gangs picked up American sailors in British ports in the late 19th century, and even an incident where a British sailor was pressed into service on the U.S.S. Constitution.

Drafts are a form of conscription where military recruits are drawn from the general population. The exact method of selection varies, but again, if selected, off you go.

Mandatory service still exists and several countries including Switzerland and Israel require that every citizen serves at some point. Though, there are additional nuances to this. Such as, any civil service being eligible, or potential exemptions, such as medical conditions. (These also tend to exist with drafts.)

How does the military handle evasion of service? Well, they can lock you up, or kill you. That’s not an idle possibility. Under British rule the penalty for resisting impressment was execution by hanging. In the case of drafts and mandatory service, criminal penalties, either by the civilian courts, or military ones, exist. Attempting to avoid a draft could result in a warrant, arrest by police, and imprisonment.

Once you’re in the military’s hands, they have all sorts of creative forms of punishment available to them, not including actual Courts Martial for serious crimes such as desertion, or dereliction of duty. Also, remember, that desertion in wartime is frequently a capital offense. So, what can they do to make you comply? Well, they can lock you up, and or kill you.

As for the mental effects, historically it’s a grim picture. Until the last thirty to forty years, combat induced PTSD was viewed as cowardice. Not a psychological condition. Not something that needed to be addressed. Just cowardice. Called things like, “combat fatigue,” or “shell shock,” these weren’t regarded as psychological conditions that needed treatment. It was, simply, viewed as a soldier trying to shirk their duties, and would result in punishment.

But, I mean, we’re talking about a military that has no qualms about dragging someone off to die alone, on foreign soil, thousands of miles from anyone they ever knew or loved. Why do you think they’d give a moment’s consideration to anyone’s feelings?

Concern for a soldier’s psychological well being (regardless if they’re conscripts or volunteers), is shockingly recent, and there’s still a long way to go on that front. Some are doing better than others, but still.

-Starke

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Q&A: Spartan Military

So how would a “spartan-esqe” military work? If you’ve already answered all of this, can you just link me to the article(s)? Thanks!

The very short answer is, it wouldn’t. Which may sound somewhat strange given the Spartans certainly enjoyed some success with their methods, so why am I saying it doesn’t work?

It’s more accurate to say the Spartans tried a lot of different things, some intentionally, and others accidentally. Some of those factors made them more effective, while others actually undermined their ability to operate and (to varying degrees) lead to their destruction.

The stuff that worked, has been adapted and, in many cases, become the norm. The stuff that doesn’t work gets picked up by people who don’t know what they’re doing and emulated, often with disastrous results.

It’s also worth remembering that it is impossible to separate the Spartan military from their society as a whole. In most societies, you can segregate their military out and examine it as a distinct entity. This isn’t possible with the Spartans.

The biggest advantage the Spartans enjoyed game from the concept of a professional soldier. This is something that should be familiar to any modern reader. You have soldiers who are, primarily, soldiers. You’re not fielding a military of craftsmen and other professions who you pressed into service, or who volunteered to form a militia when called for.

This is true of every modern military. However, for the Greeks it was unusual. The norm was for someone to have a domestic profession, but when called they would set their daily life aside and go to war.

Spartans would train for combat, and their entire culture revolved around preparing for war. When the time came, they were far better prepared to deal with the challenges and foes they faced.

On the whole, their abusive training methods, particularly against their children, were a net negative. They couched it as removing the weak, and strengthening their survivors, but that’s not really true. It did impair their ability to replace lost soldiers.

There’s a kind of sick irony here. Malnourishing kids (which the Spartans did) will permanently impair them. They’ll miss growth milestones, which you never really get back. So, the result will be smaller, weaker adults with cognitive impairment, and diminished immune systems. (This is a partial list, if you want to look it up, childhood malnutrition can result in a horrific list of symptoms.)

Starting at age 7, Spartans would take male children from their mothers and send them to be trained in Agelai (“herds,”) at the Agoge. The individuals in a herd would be overseen by older boys in their mid-teens, who would be responsible for their discipline and training. In turn those older boys would be disciplined by adults. The important takeaway is that there was brutality all around.

Children in the Agoge weren’t provisioned food. They were expected to forage for food from the surrounding farms, stealing what they needed. There were harsh penalties for getting caught, so the goal was to become an effective thief. This is where that malnutrition thing comes in, because no matter how skilled they became, it’s a safe bet these kids weren’t getting enough food.

The intent was to build up toughness. There’s a certain logic there, not logic that applies to reality, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s read a tryhard YA novel which takes Nietzsche’s, “that which does not kill me,” line a little too literally.

Take a similarly aggressive approach to training, but make sure your recruits (or kids) are well fed, and aren’t freezing to death in the night, and you’d see dramatically better results. (This also involves incentivizing the recruits, to get them actually committed to the training, but that’s another issue.)

Training is also one of the easiest, and most useful components to emulate. Ironically, looking at something like the Boy Scouts you get a similar result without damaging the participants. Scouts (who reach Star rank or higher) have a solid background in wilderness survival, orientation, and other skills with direct paramilitary application. I’d say, you don’t teach them combat skills, but then again the Marksmanship and Archery badges exist. It’s also where I got my medical training, some of my hand to hand training, and where I first learned to shoot. It’s also where I first learned the basics of Criminal Investigation. So, kids who come out of the BSA with an upper rank do end up with a surprising skill set, even if I tend to think of it as normal.

I’m singling out their training methods, perhaps unfairly, because it’s not the major reason their forces became irreplaceable.

The military forces we think of as Spartan, were the full citizens, called Homoioi (I’m told this roughly translates to “Equals,” or “Similars.”) A male Spartan Homoioi would be put through the training I’m mentioning above.

Spartans who failed in a wide varieties of ways were permanently removed from the Homoioi, and became Hypomieones (Inferiors). A Hypomieones, and their descendants, could not reascend to the Homoioi. Someone could be demoted for a wide range of transgressions, including insubordination, cowardice, showing fear in combat,  failing to be recruited by a communal mess hall at the conclusion of their training, or failure to pay dues to their mess. (These last two may sound trivial, but the Syssitias were a significant component of the way Spartan society was organized. It was, however, still a very easy way for a prospective Homoioi to be removed from their culture’s elite over a relatively minor social infraction.)

The Spartans also maintained a very strict victory or death outlook. According to Plutarch, their soldiers were told to “come back with your shield; or on it,” when leaving for war. (Worth noting that Plutarch lived four centuries after the Spartan collapse. So the exact phrasing may be apocryphal, though the philosophy was accurate to Spartan philosophy. By Plutarch’s time, Sparta had been reduced to what Josiah Ober has called, “an antiquarian theme-park,” where tourists from the Greek world would come to see recreations of classic Spartan training turned spectacle.) Something really important to understand, if you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you need to actually survive those mistakes, and learn. The Spartans disagreed, if you survived a losing battle, and you could be blamed for cowardice, there was a pretty solid bet that anything you saw would be regarded as irrelevant. This kind of, “accept no failure” approach has a long term effect of crippling your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your character is soldier in 550BC, or 2017AD, they need to be able to learn from their mistakes, or the mistakes of others. Modern social behavior among cops, soldiers, and even martial arts predisposes you to tell stories about, how someone you knew screwed up and got severely injured or died. You may not think about why, or how, but this does serve a very real purpose. It’s normalized to the point where this is borderline instinctive behavior, but, this is one very solid way that modern combatants learn from mistakes. If your social structure penalizes this severely, that’s not going to happen, and your military force will become insular and inflexible.

By the fifth century BC, the Spartan military did employ auxiliary units that were pulled from the Hypomieones, and other lower castes (including the Helots (serfs/slaves. Worth remembering that the Hypomieones who saw combat may not have undergone Spartan training, as it was entirely possible that their ancestor had been demoted.) This was more an act of necessity, as their military was getting into a place where there were no longer enough Homoioi to reliably field them exclusively.

Because of the way demotion worked, and the artificial attrition the Spartans applied to the children of citizens, battlefield losses were irreplaceable. Specifically, the infants of citizens would be examined at birth for any defect or weakness, and if they failed this they would be left to die of exposure.

There’s an application here that’s a little abstract. Having elite forces can be a major advantage in warfare. However, when the entirety of your forces are, “elite,” you’re going to have a hard time fielding enough people to actually fight. A modern comparison would be trying build an entire fighting force off of Special Forces and eliminating everyone else from the system. You would get some very effective combatants, but you wouldn’t be able to replace standing forces lost to attrition. Which was exactly one of the problems that late Sparta faced. Where battlefield victories with hundreds of Spartan casualties, set the stage for later conflicts where they couldn’t field enough soldiers to fight.

The other major advantage the Spartans had was an illusion. In the Hellenistic world, Spartan soldiers were seen as virtually invincible. Particularly during their early campaigns, the rigorous training applied against inexperienced combatants lead to the belief that Spartan warriors were an indomitable force. There’s plenty of surviving records of enemies routing at the sight of a Spartan advance.

To be clear, this reputation was earned. However, as the other Greek city-states became more familiar with Spartan tactics, they began to learn how to exploit them. In part, Spartan tactics were predictable, but deviated from normal Greek military doctrine, resulting in a decisive advantage against foes who were unfamiliar with their methods, but could be countered by an opponent who’d seen their approach to combat before. The end of the illusion was The Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, when the Spartans were dealt a crushing defeat by Theban forces lead by Epaminondas.

This particular illusion can be very potent psychological advantage for a military force. Particularly when you’re dealing with a small elite cadre that can be selectively deployed. Your foes never know where they may pop up, and will be on edge facing your conventional forces.

It’s also, somewhat apparent (from surviving reports), that the Spartans actually believed this illusion as well. From a military standpoint this is borderline suicidal. You want your enemy to fear your forces and think you’re invincible. You don’t want your own troops, or especially your leaders, to believe the same thing.

Sparta wanted soldiers who were absolutely loyal, with unlimited conviction. In the long run, they created an inflexible, unrelenting system that ultimately cannibalized themselves. There are a lot of lessons that can (and have) been taken from the Spartans, but those are peppered with cautionary examples of what not to do.

-Starke

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I just realized I made a huge mistake… I’m writing a novel set in that late 1800’s… I’ve been using gun technology from today (now I can’t believe how ridiculous I was being, but it made sense as I wrote it.) So there’s a war going on, but I never actually go into detail on the war scenes. What kind of stuff would troops have on them as they go in? Should they be carrying a sword as well then?

Without knowing exactly when in the 19th century, it’s really hard to say what the appropriate equipment would be. Consider you’re talking about the century that saw the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the rise of the telegraph, and railroads. Standard infantry kit went from a musket to a bolt action rifle, even the actual powder used changed from traditional gunpowder to much more powerful mixtures that reduced fouling and allowed for substantially more complex firearm designs.

When it comes to overall military technological development, the 19th century saw one of the largest jumps in human history. In 1801 a cavalry saber was still a practical combat tool, but by 1900 it had been superseded by accurate, multi-shot rifles, semi-automatic handguns, even the modern pump-action shotgun, and heavy automatic weapons such as the Maxim Machine Gun.

In case the name is unfamiliar, the Maxim was one of the first, recoil operated, heavy machine guns. It was belt fed, water cooled, and entered service in 1886. You couldn’t carry these things around (they weighed something around 60lbs), but you could set them up in an emplacement and hose down anything that looked at you funny.

It’s worth pointing out that Europe wouldn’t realize how far the 19th century had really taken warfare until 1914, but most of the technical groundwork was already in place, and being used, before the century ended.

If you’re looking at 1801 to 1815, the first two examples that come to mind are Patrick O’Brian’s Audry/Maturin series and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. O’Brian focused on naval combat, while Cornwell focuses on infantry combat (technically the first chronological novel is set in 1799.) Both have also been adapted, Master & Commander on the Far Side of the World, and multiple Sharpe novels. You’ll probably want to supplement these with some actual history texts, but they should give you some background and help for lit review.

-Starke

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(I got kind of interested based on the last ask) What are some examples in history of berserkers being used regularly? Either in armies alongside regular infantry as mentioned, or otherwise

Off the top of my head, early northern European forces. So, that’s primarily the Norse and Celts. The word itself is derived from Old Norse, though it didn’t actually get introduced into English until the 19th century.

I don’t know when the practice was abandoned, though the Romans did write about encountering it. Which would mean it was still alive in the first or second century, AD.

-Starke

Do you have any recommendations for where to look up how the military/armies work, (I don’t know of any difference aside from the name, so at this point I’m assuming they’re the same thing) or worked? I haven’t got a time period pinned down yet.

Well, an army would be ground/land forces, as opposed to a navy, while military is usually a catch all term for both. But, “when” is critically important here. The history of armed conflict in human history is so varied and scattered that without knowing when or where, you’re really not asking a question that can be answered. I’m sorry.

You can start with a world history text, or Wikipedia if you want a time frame to start with. For that matter, Wikipedia is a pretty decent research primer these days. Just, remember to actually check other sources before you accept something as fact.

If it’s a fantasy setting, then asking yourself what setting (or settings) inspired you, and researching what pieces of history they used could be helpful. Also, role playing games with well fleshed out settings, like D&D’s Forgotten Realms (or Dragonlance, or Dark Sun, or Planescape, or…) and White Wolf’s Exalted can provide an absolute ton of world building to work with. Even just trolling a wiki for games like The Elder Scrolls or Kingdoms of Amalur can offer you some insights into world building. And of course, if you’re writing fantasy, read some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, no, seriously, read them.

Also, once you’ve got a time frame in mind, the military history section of any convenient bookstore should have some good resources to work with, even if it’s not 100% applicable, you’ll learn a lot from there.

-Starke