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"Was 18th C warfare the most humane ever?" Topic

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Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member01 Oct 2017 1:11 p.m. PST

I am interested in if the well-read experts and thinkers here would describe classic European 18th century warfare, the Age of Reason, the era of the soldier kings, as more humane than typical warfare since that time, less humane, or pretty much the same?

When war was a matter of statecraft, with acknowledged "rules", set campaign seasons, armies composed largely of professionals and largely officered by aristocrats, with battles infrequent and of short duration, with civilians generally treated as non-combatants -- all things considered, would you agree or disagree with the idea that war in this period was less disruptive, less destructive, and less murderous than it was before or has been since?

Were atrocities committed with the same frequency, and we just don't hear as much about them? Was it truly a more genteel time, or is that just our rosey-hued vision of the past? Have we progressed, or regressed? Discuss, if you will!

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 1:40 p.m. PST

I think Wargaming is the most humane, all the dead rise again and go back in the box!

basileus66 Inactive Member01 Oct 2017 1:43 p.m. PST

Short answer: no, it wasn't.

Longer answer: you are assuming an European Westerncentric approach to the history of warfare. In the Americas, for instance, civilians were routinely targeted, their crops destroyed, murdered or enslaved. It wasn't much better in the Balkans, or in the Ukraine. Even in Western Europe, war was less "genteel" that some would like to think. In Savoia, for example, during the War of Austrian Succession, the small war against the Barbets -a short of militias cum guerrillas- was as brutal as any other COIN war.

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART01 Oct 2017 2:03 p.m. PST

Rosey hued. All war is nasty.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 2:05 p.m. PST


foxweasel01 Oct 2017 2:15 p.m. PST

No. The 18th century was when what we like to think of as the officer class really came to the fore. They were the direct descendants of the older knightly classes and the swashbucklers of a few years before. But now there was a definite unwritten code between officers of warring nations. This was all very nice, but didn't get in the way of the real business of warfare, killing as many of the enemy as possible and his countrymen if they happen to get in the way.

Personal logo Cacique Caribe Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 2:26 p.m. PST

Humane warfare? Oh yes, the good old days! :)


Personal logo etotheipi Sponsoring Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 2:41 p.m. PST

If you were one of the oligarchy, war was more humane for you. If not, not. So … Link

Lascaris01 Oct 2017 2:57 p.m. PST

I do believe the OP was not stating that 18th century warfare was humane, his premise was that was more humane (less inhumane?) than other periods. I'm struggling with an example of a less inhumane period but perhaps someone else can state one.

Personal logo Cacique Caribe Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 3:15 p.m. PST

Is he really implying ever? As in more than today?

If today's media (and photographers) had existed back then, I seriously doubt they would have painted it in those terms.


14Bore01 Oct 2017 3:31 p.m. PST

Well a step up from the 30 years war anyway.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 4:13 p.m. PST

So nearly as I can see there's a cycle which was European and may now be world. You hit a peak which usually involves leveling cities and herding the population of a village into a church before setting fire to the church, then everyone backs off--though the existing generals don't back off much--and you hit a trough of very polite civilized warfare building up to the next peak.
Mind you warfare is still pretty rugged, but at troughs, civilians are mostly not targets, and defeated enemies are fed and given railway tickets home, or permitted to take their personal horses with them. Doesn't mean warfare is a pillow fight--but it's also not something out of Goya.

Peak: 1631. Trough (approx) 1757.
Peak: 1812. Trough (approx) 1866.
Peak: 1944-45. Trough (approx) 1991.
No, I am not optimistic about the near future. I think things will get worse before they get better.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 5:58 p.m. PST

I agree it depends a lot on your perspective – 18th century warfare in Europe involved small armies of troops dragooned into serving, led for the most part by privileged and sometimes imbecilic officers, these armies only moving slowly and during the day lestwise the lower ranks all desert – very tough on the peasants in the areas where they fought, not much impact elsewhere except for the taxman

USAFpilot01 Oct 2017 6:35 p.m. PST

Perhaps more humane for some. I'm thinking of how officers (who considered themselves gentlemen) treated each other. As example Marshal Bernadotte held Swedish POWs under his care during the Napoleonic wars. He treated them so well that years after their release these men asked Bernadotte if he would be their King since the current old King hadn't produced any heirs. (He accepted and is later quoted as saying, "I was once a Marshal of France, and now I'm just a King.)

Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member01 Oct 2017 10:03 p.m. PST

The OP here -- yes, I am speaking from a Eurocentric perspective, I can't apply the "Age of Reason" to any other part of the world, they have their own timelines and ebb and flow. I could include perhaps the various "colonial" wars and the wars in No. America, but to me they are not quite on the same level as the "polite" wars in Europe of the time. I'm not saying these conflicts were "humane", only would you judge them more horrific or less horrific than, say, the wars that came before (Thirty Years War, pretty horrific compared to the Seven Years war? Crusades? Punic Wars?) or after (even the Napoleonic wars seem tame compared to WWI, or WWII).

This was sparked by watching the Ken Burns/PBS Vietnam War series and thinking what a bloody mess most 20th century armed conflicts were like compared to what Frederick the Great or Marshal de Saxe experienced. Or was this just as bad for all involved, and bystanders?

In these olden days you have more disease, poor medical treatment, face-to face combat and daily violence in a way moderns do not. On the other hand, they didn't have aerial warfare, deliberate targeting of civilians on a mass scale -- or did they? -- ideological hatreds, chemical or atomic weapons, long-distance killings beyond the range of the battlefield, utter destuction of cities (or did they?) -- I'm not making a claim either way, just curious how we perceive things from OUR perspective today.

BrianW01 Oct 2017 10:43 p.m. PST

I don't think the XVIII century was any more humane than other wars. There is a quote in Christopher Duffy's The Army of Frederick the Great where a soldier talks about taking all the foodstuffs an old lady in Silesia had. His rationale was that they were retreating, and wouldn't be coming back this way again.

I'm also not too sure about that code of gentlemen thing, at least among officers on the same side. Duffy's Army of Maria Theresa has a tale about one colonel who keeps throwing men into a gate covered by the Prussians,where they are being shot down like dogs. Finally, another Austrian officer runs up, grabs the offending colonel by the collar and coattail, then tosses HIM into the gate, where he is killed.

From our perspective though, yes we probably see it as a more civilized time. It would seem that primary accounts (yes, I realize Duffy is not a primary source, but he is quoting primary sources) should probably make us reconsider our perspective

Personal logo Der Alte Fritz Sponsoring Member of TMP01 Oct 2017 11:40 p.m. PST

If you were an officer, getting captured was not all bad in some cases.A prisoner could be exchanged ( they had a formula much like the NFL's draft choice valuation system in which, say a major was equal to "x" number of captains, etc.).

A prisoner could be paroled and,released, which was pretty sweet for you. For example, in the Forty Five Jacobite Rebellion, some Hessian troops were stationed in England and there was a concern about what would happen if they faced off against any French troops in the Jacobite army because they had been paroled by the French.

There are a number of examples of generals returning captured personal effects to a General in another army. A famous example involves the return of Frederick's greyhound Biche to him by the Austrians. Likewise, Fredrick returned a,nice leather map case to an Austrian officer, minus the maps, of course.

magister equitum02 Oct 2017 4:52 a.m. PST

For the soldiers it doesn't make difference because they got killed and maimed all the same. For the common people (at least in Europe) it's true that XVIIIth century warfare seems (relatively) less brutal than in other epochs. I'm not saying that violence didn't happen, in fact reading local histories you see how people suffered where the armies marched, it was not as rosy as it seems but there are indeed some differences. I think this is explained by the fact that armies were now professionals and with an aristocrat officer class in stricter control, for this reason soldiers had somewhat less chances of being undisciplined and enjoying widespread plunder & violence like in other times. Of course this could change quickly when the enemy is insurgency…

Midway Monster Inactive Member02 Oct 2017 5:42 a.m. PST

No. Marlborough burnt his way through Bavaria before the battle of Blenheim. Sieges were brutal affairs and, whilst most capitulated to an agreed timescale that does not diminish the suffering in the meantime. Swedish troops were walking home from captivity many many years after the Great Northern War had ended.
If you were an officer you could expect relatively decent treatment. Even more so if you were a senior officer. if you were a private then things were not great once captured & the best you might hope for is to be enlisted in the army you were captured by.

FatherOfAllLogic02 Oct 2017 7:04 a.m. PST

Civilians along the route of march always suffer. 18th century armies had supply trains so foraging was minimized, unlike previous eras. Unless the supplies broke down. Battlefields were small and weapons were fired LOS, minimizing collateral damage. Ultimately it depends on what your are comparing. 18th century versus Thirty years War and WWII? Yeah way 'nicer'. Unless you were a farmer in Belgium, northern Italy or the Danube valley. Or Silesia.

Personal logo Fergal Sponsoring Member of TMP02 Oct 2017 8:01 a.m. PST

When I was really into the 7 Years War I read everything I could about it. I found a book by Duffy that explained the Russian army of the time, not very humane treatment of their own enlisted men, even if there were rules to engagement between armies full of white men. Also read a little about how Frederik the Great kept his army staffed, seems a little in-humane as well.

coopman02 Oct 2017 9:42 a.m. PST

Of course not. Tell that to the people that were killed in the church scene depicted in "The Patriot".

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP02 Oct 2017 2:44 p.m. PST

coopman, I'm going to give you credit for not being serious. Is that a bad call on my part?

Sobieski Inactive Member02 Oct 2017 5:31 p.m. PST

Whatever do you mean, Fergal? Few staff have ever complained about their appointments, surely? And they were almost invariably nobility, who had very little to fear from inhumane treatment.

Mike Target03 Oct 2017 6:28 a.m. PST

IIRC there was an account from one of Marlboroughs battles where an English soldier attacking a french held barriace managed to gouge out his opponents eyes with his bare hands…when the french defence gave way before this aggression hundreds of frenchmen drowned in the river trying to retreat.

Doesnt sound particularly humane….

DGT123 Inactive Member03 Oct 2017 10:32 a.m. PST

As far as civilians treated, Yes 18th Century (at least WSS was much more humane than the 30 Years War. Marlborough did burn Bavaria but in no way did this compare to something like the 25% or more of the population being destroyed in the 30YW. There also AFAIK there were no towns totally wiped off the map in WSS, I could be wrong. This happened to often in the 30YW.

138SquadronRAF Supporting Member of TMP03 Oct 2017 10:41 a.m. PST

Granted Voltaire's comments in "Candide" I don't think so:

Candide's service in the Bulgarian (Prussian Army is described in Chapter II.

From Chapter III we have this

"At length, while the two kings were causing Te Deum to be sung each in his own camp, Candide resolved to go and reason elsewhere on effects and causes. He passed over heaps of dead and dying, and first reached a neighbouring village; it was in cinders, it was an Abare village which the Bulgarians had burnt according to the laws of war. Here, old men covered with wounds, beheld their wives, hugging their children to their
bloody breasts, massacred before their faces; there, their daughters, disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be despatched. The earth was strewed with brains, arms, and legs.

Candide fled quickly to another village; it belonged to the Bulgarians;and the Abarian heroes had treated it in the same way. Candide, walking always over palpitating limbs or across ruins, arrived at last beyond the seat of war, with a few provisions in his knapsack, and Miss Cunegonde always in his heart. His provisions failed him when he arrived in Holland; but having heard that everybody was rich in that country, and that they were Christians, he did not doubt but he should meet withthe same treatment from them as he had met with in the Baron's castle, before Miss Cunegonde's bright eyes were the cause of his expulsion thence."

The Kabinettskriege of the 18th Century are characterised by small armies, noble officer corps, limited war goals, and frequently changing coalitions among the belligerents. In this they differ from the period immediately proceeding them which had religious overtones; or the "nation in arms' the later period.

Do not confuse this with humanity.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP03 Oct 2017 11:33 a.m. PST

No. War is not humane.

basileus66 Inactive Member03 Oct 2017 9:51 p.m. PST

To the OP:

What distinguished war in the central years of XVIIIth Century, was the limited geographic scope of the violence unleashed by armies. Contrary to 30YW, roving bands of soldiers and/or deserters were almost unknown, or at least weren't less common than in 30YW. War wasn't a private enterprise anymore, but controlled by the State. That meant that violence was more focused, directed to achieve specific goals. It affected less people, therefore. So, in a sense, WAS or SYW in Europe were less brutal than 30YW or the Wars of Religion because it affected smaller geographic regions… yet, those that suffered the effects of war wouldn't have noticed any difference whatsoever.

Sobieski Inactive Member03 Oct 2017 11:54 p.m. PST

Far fewer suffered systematic massacres in the name of religion or competing governments. Yes, such things still occurred; but to argue that people who die in hospitals are just as dead as those who die in burning buildings, and hospitals therefore useless, (which is the logic of a number of posters on this thread) is plain stupid.

Ottoathome Inactive Member04 Oct 2017 1:28 p.m. PST

I will argue that in some sense it was. There was not the regular massacres of the Thirty Years War, and there was an attempt at discipline unlike that earlier period or the wholselale looting of the peasants and rapes and rioting and looting of the Napoleonic wars who were bringing the blessings of "Liberty Equality, Fraternity" to the poor benighted masses of Europe.

From the standpoint of the person hurt by it, the wounded, killed, casualities and looted of 18th century Europe were as wounded, killed, hurt, and looted as their forefathers had been or their descendants would be. But unlike the wars of the previous age or the latter ones (where under nationalism one could do and was justified in doing what on wanted to a foe of "impure blood" in revenge for assumed wrongs, at least the 18th century had the illusion and tried to live by it from time to time. It is a far cry from the hypocrisy of "restraining war" to believing and acting that war was supposed to be to root and branch, tooth and nail, and an exercise in murder.

Sobeiski is right.

Besides there is a certain quality in an age of "Gentlemen of France you may fire first!" or of where we have a certain internationalism where we have such typically "Austrian" names in the "Queen of Hungary's Army" such as MacDonald, O'Toole, Serbelloni, Monteccucoli, Windischgratz, Jellalic, Keith, Oblonof, and in which even a few Turks served.

Perhaps it is only an illusion but it is a happy illusion taken from a few facts that allow us to think that way, but nevertheless how much more wonderful to think that way. At least there are some games in our hobby of war games were we can have this happy illusion where war is not war to the knife, but in some case waged in accord with "Code Duello".

Consider a paraphrase from Hendrik Van Loon's "Lives" in this case from that of Descarte.

"For the better part of the year the armies hibernated in their winter camps. Then when the whether grew less inclement it was time to resume the contest in the great out of doors. But why exhaust yourself plodding around the countryside. Better yet to sit down before some enemy town and fortress and besiege it, seeking to gain a valuable piece to negotiate with at the peace table.

This you did and dug like moles for a few months until you came to the time when you could under flag of truce announce to your opponent. "Sir, tomorrow if I blow my mines and give touch to my cannon, I will destroy three of your bastions, four ravelins, eight redoubts, ten of your demi-lunes and 700 yards of your curtains, whereas you can demolish at most only two miles of my trenches, you can plainly see that your position is hopeless and I have won and you have lost. Will you not consider honorable terms to avoid a useless effusion of blood? Whereupon you, after being led on an inspection of the besiegers works, probed the mines, seen the preparations will make a few calculations with your pencil and say

.,"Honerable Sir you have indeed won and I have lost. I shall accept whatever terms you care to offer. Whereupon you reach to unbuckle your sword and present it to your opponent.

He steps forward and stays your hand and says "Please ! Keep your sword! I would no more accept your sword than strike the brush from a Raphael or the pen from an Erasmus."

"Sir, you do me too much honor!"

"Nothing of the kind! You are a valiant and formidable foe!"

"Sir what terms do you offer?"

"Whatever terms Monsieur that you yourself will write."

"You are too kind may I invite you to dine with me tonight!"]

"It would be an honor sir provided we dine on whatever the garrison will eat tonight."

Which is where Christopher Duffy notes that I believe it was Marlborough and Marshall Boufflers sat down to a thin horsemeat steak.

In the morning the besieging army was lined up on the road out of the fortress. The gates would swing open and the besieged would come marching out flags flying bands playing the airs of the besieger and the besieges would answer with their own bands in kind. You would take your place of honor and review the regiments leaving with all their arms and cannon, and then review the besiegers marching I. Officers who were old friends from both sides, often family members would meet and catch up on family gossip. there would be parties.

After battles where you might be captured if you were an officer you would likely as not be immured in a fortress, where upon your word you had the run of the town and would be invited to all the balls and parties and dinners by the local gentry eager to show off their daughters to dashing foreign officers, and hopeful marriages, and to hear all the gossip and latest fashions as people do travelers tales was not so bad. For the rank and file they would also be released on patrol, might find employment in the local watch or in other ways.

Then there is the testimony of Lee Kennett in the French Army of the Seven Years War, about how the Duke of Brunswick received a letter across the lines from Marshal Chevert about the Chevalier so and so of the Lameth Dragoons, who was prisoner of the Duke and begged him to release him otherwise he would not be able to make a fashionable and profitable marriage back in Versailles. One can imagine what the sour-humored misogynist back in Sans Souci would have said, but I do not doubt that even he would have stood in his way. It was that type of age.

And finally for the most part when Oktoberfest was come the armies went into winter hibernation again, and officers went back to the capital for the holiday celebrations and of course the riotous season of Carnival, and the soldiers hunkered down in cabins, barns or some fortress.

Yes it may be in large part a romanticism and a fairy tale, but there was some substance to it.

And besides. This is war games and we are free to adopt and adapt what myths we want, so I in my part believe and game this way. It sounds to me an utterly delightful way to get on with the messy business of war.

But if you truly want to imbibe the spirit of the age, listen to Haydn's "military" Symphony or "The Clock" Or Neubauer's battalia symphony where the armies move by an elegant minuet and a contretanz.

I'll take the myth with an extra helping of Schlagzahne thank you very much.

Unlike Frederick in my armies, as that of Soubise, I have forty cooks and one spy and think that quite enough (spies I mean, one can never have enough cooks.)

What's the point of dying like the lower class if you cannot live like the upper class.

Sobieski Inactive Member04 Oct 2017 5:41 p.m. PST

Soubise – greatest claim to fame (apart from being thumped with overwhelming odds in his favour) is the superb onion sauce he gave his name to.


Try it with a roast.

William Ulsterman04 Oct 2017 7:38 p.m. PST

Which is the more civilized?

(a) A street fight

(b) A cage fight

(c) A boxing match

(d) None of the above

I suggest the many wars of the 18th Century fall into the category of (c) – or attempted to.

However there were several lapses – the fighting in North America in the SYW and AWI would clearly have to be categorised as occurring under either (a) or (b) in the main. Likewise any fighting against the Turks or the Indians was category (a). Fighting the Jacobites was clearly (b), at best.

But if you were a pale face fighting in Europe against other pale faces it was generally limited to 12 rounds of three minutes with a one minute break in between rounds. Gloves were compulsory and the match had a ref. Medical services were immediately available – sounds most civilized. One could almost forget that the sole aim of the event is to render the opponent incapable of resistance by the application of physical force to his person.

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