Fireside Friday, February 26, 2021

Fireside this week, but next week we are diving into our long awaited series on pre-modern textile production, though we will be particularly focused on the most important clothing fibers in the Mediterranean world, wool and linen (rather than, say, silk or cotton).

Trusty Research Assistant Oliver helping me find the right volume of the Journal of Military History.
I am running short of pictures of me by the fireplace, but I thought this might serve that function.

For this week’s musing, I want to expand on an issue that came up in the discussion in the universal warrior series, which was the question of changing lethality in warfare. Just how likely were you to die on the battlefield in different eras, and how did changing offensive, defensive and medical technologies alter that balance? One assumption I see frequently is that since the advent of modern medicine has made serious infections survivable, it must follow that basically all wounds were fatal in the pre-modern period. Of course balanced against this is the relatively higher lethality of modern weapons, which strike with much greater energies and in consequence do much more damage to the body. So where does the answer lie?

(Just a quick reminder that these musings are just that: me talking through an idea and to some degree thinking out loud with the information I have available. Consequently, you should take any of the conclusions here as preliminary; whatever level of confidence you place in my normal ‘Collections’ ramblings, a ‘musing’ is probably at least a half-a-notch lower in the ‘epistemological certainty’ scale.)

Unsurprisingly, it is complex. The first question we need to ask is what kind of mortality we are interested in. If we include non-combat related disease deaths, those will swamp combat related deaths, but there are problems with this. Estimates for disease-losses in pre-industrial armies (some of these figures compiled in Rosenstein, Rome at War (2004), 130-2) vary tremendously; late nineteenth century rule of thumb held that disease casualties would be four times battle deaths; but in the American Civil War and the Boer War they were only twice battle deaths and in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War, they were actually four times less than battle deaths. Basic sanitation, it turns out, matters a lot here. The next problem is that here our question needs to be about excess deaths because of course some level of disease is prevalence in the larger society; that is even harder to calculate, but if we fail to adjust for that, all we are doing is measuring the size of armies, since the background disease death rate in the pre-modern world was so elevated. In this case, I think it is best to remove non-combat disease deaths from the equation, since the concern here was the experience of battle, so we should limit ourselves to violent death in war.

Except that brings us to the next question, which is the word ‘battle.’ Are we limiting ourselves to battles or not? If we want to consider warfare as a totality, then the evidence is fairly clear that violent death per capita (so adjusting for population growth) decreases as a function of time (on this, note A Gat, War in Human Civilization (2006) rather than S. Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Yes, I am aware that the former has spoken highly of the latter’s book, but frankly the more careful and cautious argument of War is to be preferred). This decline isn’t necessary a smooth curve, but seems to move in steps with lots of variation within those steps. Lifetime violent mortality among early hunter-gatherers and other non-state peoples seems to have been on the order of 15% (with some examples above 25% generally. These deaths were concentrated among males; a 15% overall rate of violent mortality might mean a 25% rate among males and only a 5% rate among females). For pre-industrial agrarian state-societies, that figure falls to single-digit percentages, often very low single digits, but perhaps sometimes as high as 5-10% (some estimates for the military mortality of the Romans during the worst years of the Second Punic War run up to 20% of the adult male population, so c. 7% of the total population; I think this is a smidge too high and perhaps 5% is more correct). In post-nuclear, post-industrial states where conventional war is often sharply constrained by deterrence and the industrial revolution means that returns to trade and investment are higher than returns to war (the reverse being true previously) that figure often falls to fractions of a percent, but again with potentially wide variance in the event of rare but extremely destructive wars.

But – and you knew there was a but coming – but that absolutely massive hunter-gatherer lethality level isn’t generally in battles. The bulk of those deaths occur during very one-sided ambushes and raids, directed at individuals who are effectively incapable of fighting back. So we might ask the question a different way: what was the chance of dying in a particular battle at a given point of time? Once again, that’s complicated, in part because reliable casualty statistics for losing armies are often frustratingly rare even well into the modern period. But there are a few observations we can make in terms of how technology might have impacted these changes. First, in both West Africa and North America, we can observe that the introduction of gunpowder so radically increased the lethality of open battles that tactics shifted entirely away from them. Now, this might not be surprising in North America, where the battles in question were of the first-system type – lower lethality missile exchanges when the raid or the ambush had failed . But in West Africa, the battles in question were often state-on-state and concluded with shock infantry engagements (with a notable use of blunt weapons, since part of the goal in battle was for the victor to take many captives; on this see Lee, Waging War, ch. 8), yet even in that context the increased lethality of gunpowder meant that such battles had to be discontinued in a context where the demographics of the underlying society simply couldn’t support massive losses. So the strong suggestion here is that gunpowder weapons represented a significant increase not merely in the lethality of the weapons but of the battles themselves.

We might also compare individual battles or campaigns. Rosenstein (op. cit.) estimates that for the Romans from 200 to 168 BCE (the period of our most sustained data, due to Livy), the Roman battle-death rate was very roughly 8-9% of soldiers engaged. That accords fairly well with the general 5-15% rule of thumb often posited for hoplite combat in Classical Greece (but note the difficulties with those figures). To compare with, say, the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), there the French had c. 75,000 men and the coalition c. 90,000 and the former took c. 9,000 casualties to the latter’s c. 36,000; so out of 165,000 men engaged, 45,000 had become casualties (27%); it’s hard to say exactly how many died because the looser’s casualties in Napoleonic battles often aren’t broken out clearly between dead, captured and injured (because the loser is not in the position to count the field). At least on the French side, the wounded outnumbered the dead roughly 5-to-1. At Waterloo, where it is the coalition who won and thus have the more precise figures, British wounded outnumbered dead about 3-to-1, while Prussian wounded outnumbered dead by 3.5-to-1. At Gettysburg (1863), with 104,256 Union and 75,000 Confederate forces engaged, there were 23,055 union casualties (3,155 killed, a WIA-to-KIA ratio of 4.6-to-1) and perhaps 23,231 confederate losses (4,708 killed, a WIA-to-KIA ratio of 1.2-to-1); about 25% of men engaged had become casualties of some sort, about 4-5% of those engaged had been killed. I’d suggest that the flurry of figures there suggests, broadly, casualties moving very broadly within the same basic range as a percentage of men deployed. Our ability to get a sense of the impact of wounds is complicated by the fact that pre-gunpowder sources tend not to give solid numbers for the wounded at all.

Now the question is how does the industrial revolution and antibiotics change this? Well, for some World War I examples (post-industrialization, pre-widespread antibiotics), at the First Battle of the Marne (1914), roughly 1 million British and French troops had squared off against 900,000 Germans; both sides took around a quarter of a million losses (so c. 25%) of which c. 149,400 were killed (7.8%). At the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes (also 1914), 215,000 Germans met 146,000 Russians with 10,000 German losses and 70,000 Russian WIA or KIA and another 30,000 prisoners, so roughly 30% casualties, but unclear what slice of those were deaths. At Kolubara (1914), 400,000 Serbs faced off against 450,000 Austrian troops, with 405,000 total casualties, of which 52,000 were deaths (the WIA to KIA ratio was 5-to-1). I’ve tried to pull major battles in 1914 because the long battles of the trench stalemate are difficult to generalize figures from as units rotate in and out. Taking a longer view, some roughly eight million Frenchmen served in the first world war, of which 1,150,000 died in combat (not counting disease), suggesting a combat mortality rate over the whole war of a staggering (by modern standards) 12.5% (though note above that many non-state societies lived in a situation of WWI casualty levels in every generation).

(Update: note that the casualty figures here include KIA, WIA and MIA, so I’ve obtained the WIA-to-KIA ratio by by directly comparing those two figures, without the MIAs. That seemed to have been confusing some folks in the comments.)

For post-industrialization, post-antibiotics, options are narrower. American, British and Commonwealth forces had good access to antibiotics in WWII (but other armies less so). The Battle of the Bulge involved, at its peak around 700,000 men, of which 19,200 were killed and about 48,000 wounded (a mere 2.5-to-1 WIA to KIA, due in part to the cold weather), a 10% casualty rate (and c. 3% fatality rate), but then that was in an allied victory and the German casualty rate (out of a peak deployment of c. 450,000) was perhaps as high as 15% (2.3% KIA). That said, modern conflicts can also be very lethal; US, Iraqi and British forces inflicted some 1,200-1,500 KIA on insurgent forces at the Second Battle of Fallujah (2004), an estimated 37.5% of all of the insurgents engaged.

Consequently, conclusions are hard to draw and hard and fast rules (‘lower casualties due to modern medicine’ or ‘higher casualties due to industrial firepower’) don’t always hold for individual battles. The chance of a person dying in war seems fairly clearly to have fallen over time, but less as a result of medicine and more as a result of declining incidence of war combined with increased economic specialization meaning that a smaller portion of the populace goes to war (since there is often a more complex economy to run at home). That said, the lower incidence of war can conceal that modern wars are often individual more destructive; military mortality among French people 1820-2020 is almost certainly much lower than the c. 3% (please note that c.; this is a ballpark combining several estimates) the Romans had from 218-168 BC, but of course for the generation that had the singular bad luck of coming of age in the 1910s, it was comparable and in some cases higher (around 4.5% of the population of the France died in WWI).

Notably, KIA-to-WIA ratios mostly fluctuate within a range from 2-to-1 to 6-to-1. The Second Battle of Fallujah’s ratio was 6-to-1 for the Coalition forces. There’s a fairly clear drift towards higher ratios in the gunpowder age (as medicine makes wounds more survivable) but it is important not to overstate this. More to the point, in the absence of really reliable wounded statistics (almost never reliably preserved for ancient battles) makes it difficult to project that same ratio earlier. That said, the evidence we have seems to suggest to me that wounds delivered with muscle-powered weapons (which is to say, basically all pre-gunpowder weapons) were often survivable. Scarred veterans form a common literary topos in many pre-gunpowder societies, which points to wounds being survivable, and individuals with physical disabilities from wounds were also by no means unknown. Simon James (“The Point of the Sword” in Waffen in Aktion eds. A.W. Busch and H.J. Schalles (2010)) suggests that perhaps ‘serious’ wounded might have been roughly equal to KIA in Roman warfare, which might in turn suggest a WIA-to-KIA of something like 2 or 2.5-to-1 once light wounds are accounted for; I’d argue that the comparative evidence from muscle-power military systems responding to the increased lethality of muskets suggests that the WIA rates should be a bit higher, but it must be noted that all of this – my suppositions and James’ – is essentially guesswork as the figures simply don’t exist to give a confidence answer to the question (though a very large bone study might offer some interesting hints if done in the right place). Though I will say the notion that functionally any wound was likely to be fatal in a pre-modern medicine world is often wildly overblown: even most wounds in the 19th century were survivable, as revealed by the WIA-to-KIA ratios above, well before modern antibiotics and infection treatment.

Again, this is something where my confidence on most of the conclusions is relatively low, save for the observations that overall military mortality decreases in steps at key stages of social and technological development and that it doesn’t seem like ancient casualty figures are wildly higher or lower than modern ones when dealing with conventional armies fighting pitched battles. More granular conclusions seem speculative and limited by the dearth of good evidence for the pre-modern period.

The Pedant and his Trusty Research Assistant Oliver, at rest after a long day of research and writing. This isn’t a fireside photo per se (the fireplace is just off camera to the left), but I couldn’t resist posting it.

On to recommendations!

First off, this excellent video of a practiced horse archer showing off is pretty amazing. Notice especially how as he rides he is stabilizing himself to allow for a remarkably stable (and thus accurate) firing platform. The same channel also has some older videos discussing the construction of composite hornbows as well.

Next, for those interested in the discipline of ‘Classics’ (that is, the study of Greek and Roman antiquity; the name is now rather a sticking point in the field), the past couple of weeks have brought an intensification of what classicists are calling ‘The Discourse,’ which is to say continuing arguments about what – if anything – the future of Classics should be. One of the limitations of that debate – especially in explaining the debate to folks who are interested in Greek and Roman antiquity but do not have an intimate knowledge of the structure of the field – is that the whole thing can be very hard to follow and it can sometimes be hard to pin down what a given ‘side’ in the debate actually wants. A lot of this is because many interlocutors here spend their time responding to the most heated rhetoric of the other side (increasingly in the form of what are effectively op-eds as subtweets which make little effort to fairly represent the other side) rather than the concrete proposals the other side makes, which makes it tricky for newcomers to a get a sense of what the stakes are here.

To that end, I think this blog post by Dr. Rebecca Futo Kennedy and the pseudonymous Maximus Planudes does an excellent job laying out both a very strong version of the ‘reform’ camp (sometimes also called the ‘burn it down’ camp), their arguments and their aims. Crucially, Kennedy and Planudes lay out in very practical terms what they would like to see change, which is I think a far more helpful stance than some of the High Rhetoric which decries the field but doesn’t explain, in practical detail, what needs to happen going forward. On the other side (what we might call the ‘traditionalist’ position), I don’t think there is quite any similarly excellent ‘one-stop shop’ but James Kierstead manages to pull together most of the dominant strains of the ‘traditionalist’ arguments being made so far without getting too overheated. For those looking for a more complete rundown of the entire debate, the Rogue Classicist has actually compiled a fairly complete list of the essays (by classicists and non-classists) involved. Of particular note on that list, though it is paywalled, is Mary Beard’s “What is ‘Classics’?” given that Mary Beard is probably the classicist with the highest public profile right now.

I have my own views on this topic, as you might imagine, but they aren’t quite yet well formed enough in my mind to be worth writing out and arguing for just yet, so they will have to wait for a future date. What I will say is that while many of the arguments frame this as some all-or-nothing dispute, Dr. Kennedy and Maximus Planudes are correct about a very important thing, which is that the decisions are going to be made department by department, not for the whole field. Consequently, there are likely to be many different answers for how the field of Classics ought to proceed. Given the continued pressure on the humanities, departments whose changes succeed will survive, those whose adaptations fail, will get shut down and so every department has to consider for itself what direction is best for survival; this will not be one-size-fits-all.

Update [Friday Morning]: Late Arriving reading suggestion, from the Peopling the Past blog (which you should follow if you have any interest in the ancient world) an excellent primer on one of the less discussed major Middle-to-Late Bronze Age kingdoms, the Mitanni, by Mara Horowitz. Occupying northern Mesopotamia and much of Syria from the 17th century BCE to around 1350 BCE and a significant player in the Late Bronze Age ‘concert of powers’ between the Hittites, the New Kingdom in Egypt and Babylon (under the Kassites).

For the book recommendation this week, I am going to recommend P. Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (1989). I have been asked a few times to recommend a book that offers a broad overview of the mechanics of pre-modern societies and Crone’s slim volume (214 pages in paperback) is probably still the best ‘beginner’s guide’ to many of the features that dominate the structures of agrarian societies before the industrial revolution. While Crone does not delve deep into, for instance, hard-numbers oriented demographic or economic modeling or even the specifics of individual cultures, what she does do is lay out in general the way that agrarian economies and societies tend to be oriented, the ways they tend to view the world, organize their economies and politics and so on. The overall mental model presented of these societies is excellent, albeit a bit more oriented towards Europe and the Mediterranean.

Of course the real value for a work like this is to act as a first stop, not as a last stop. Crone ought to be read as a beginning to looking at pre-modern societies, particularly as a way to break through many of our modern assumptions about how we may assume the world has ‘always’ worked. That said, as Crone forthrightly admits, every society is different and so any actual historical society is going to deviate from her model. Moreover, as you may note from the publication date, the book is now thirty years old and while most of the observations here are still very much valid, in some very important cases our knowledge of past societies has moved forward in important ways. Consequently, I think Crone is best used as a foundation text, to be followed by the reading of more recent and focused worked which can offer more insight into particular societies. But, as that foundation text, I know of no newer or better replacement for Crone’s book.

And that’s it for this week. Next week, textiles!

80 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, February 26, 2021

  1. Question for anyone knowledgeable in this area; which books would be a good starting point for learning more about premodern and early modern African history? It seems like an interesting topic, but it seems like people in North America don’t learn a whole lot about that outside of the slave trade and Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage.

    1. from nothings a decent Youtube channel that covers the subject. He probably has recommendations for books.

    2. I do not really fit into the category of being “knowledgeable” about that area, but I was interested in John Reader’s Africa: the Biography of a Continent, and Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa. Although the first book is 20 years old, and the second book is half about colonial and post-colonial Africa.

  2. Excellent as always.
    But we need more percival too! Or is Oliver the only one helping with the research?

  3. > increased economic specialization meaning that a smaller portion of the populace goes to war

    Plus increased technical specializaton meaning that a smaller portion of the armed forces in time of war is actually in the firing line? I recall reading in Stephan Bungay’s *Alamein* that casualties in front line infantry at El Alamein were similar to casualties in front line infantry in WW I western front battles, but a far lower fraction of the forces engaged were front line infantry (sorry, don’t have my copy of the book to hand to check right now)

    1. Also very good. The advantage of the simpler clothes of the Polish archer is that it is easier to see the ‘form’, the stability Bret talks about, which is quite incredible in both videos. Really brings home just how difficult it must be to deal with skilled horse archers in open landscapes.

      1. And another horse archery video:

        I can’t tell whether the Polish/Czech archers are putting the arrow on the left or the right side of the bow (or switching). The Japanese archers always put the arrow on the right (the opposite of modern western target archery).
        All of them seem to be using a similar grip on the arrow – again, different from modern western target archery.

        Japanese horses apparently are descended from Mongolian horses. Also, I’ve seen an old “haniwa” image in a museum that was described as showing a warrior wearing armor similar to central Asian style, but I’m not sure how accurate that was.

  4. During WW2, RAF bomber command suffered 44.4% fatalities. If you restrict the count to just aircrew, it rises to ~55%.

    1. That’s in the nature of the technology. Few survive falling a few kilometres, and exiting a bomber is tricky, even if there is time. For much the same reasons, U-boat casualties ran to around 80% killed (amazingly, it was a volunteer service, and they had no problem finding volunteers right to the end).

      One pre-gunpowder casualties, there have been a few forensic examinations of mass graves after battles (Towton was one, and another in Sweden). They show quite a high proportion of older males (in their 40s or early 50s) who had survived several previous wounds – often quite serious.

      1. Oddly enough one of my grandfathers a B-29 tail gunner survived having two planes shot down.Never talked much about that only the bit where spending a lot of time the middle of nowhere Burma was enjoyable until the Army found him again and stuck him back in an airplane.

    2. My uncle was an RAF bomber pilot, he flew Lancasters. He was shot down 3 times, ditched in the channel once and crashed on British territory twice. But he told of a ship bombing operation in which 2/3 of his squadron was killed. Helluva thing to live through.

  5. Typo (or math error) in the 7th paragraph: “and perhaps 23,231 confederate losses (4,708 killed, a WIA-to-KIA ratio of 1.2-to-1)”
    My calculations suggest the accurate ratio should be 2.69-to-1, assuming we are using the figures from Bucey and Martin (2005), and discounting MIA. Otherwise, great read! Really appealing to my mathematically inclined preferences!

  6. > there were 23,055 union casualties (3,155 killed, a WIA-to-KIA ratio of 4.6-to-1) and perhaps 23,231 confederate losses (4,708 killed, a WIA-to-KIA ratio of 1.2-to-1)

    How are the above ratios calculated? I tried dividing the number of wounded by the number of deaths and I get different ratios (7.3 for unions casualties and 4.9 for confederates casualties)

    1. Omitting MIA & captured from the KIA/WIA ratio (however they are included in the casualty totals). Union MIA are estimated at 5369, CSA missing and captured at 5830. Sourced from Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg (Busey & Martin, 2005)

    2. I tried first subtracting the KIA from total casualties to obtain WIA, but ratios still do not work out.

      23 055 – 3 155 = 19 900. 19 900 / 3 155 = 6.3.

      23 231 – 4 708 = 18 523. 18 523 / 4 708 = 3.9.

    3. The total casualty counts include MIA too, which is what is throwing your numbers off. I didn’t include a discussion of MIAs because that seemed outside of the scope of the discussion.

  7. Possibly I am just a bit dense but I have never understood–when people are collecting the statistics does the “deaths from disease” in war include people succumbing to infection later on? If you are wounded in action at Gettysburg and then die two weeks later from sepsis, you’re not being counted as KIA right? I assume you would have been WIA and then you are counted as a disease death?

    1. I believe the statistics often come from counting the dead littering the battlefield, and maybe also counting wounded soldiers who were retrieved from the field but succumbed to blood loss/brain damage/whatever soon after. If you died weeks after the actual battle then it’s not a death in battle.

      Disease deaths are complicated by the fact that for a very, very long time, we didn’t know how disease spread. Some treatments actively made infections worse (i.e. deliberately dirtying a wound to cause inflammation and pus, which was thought to be a good sign that a wound is healing), so there are definitely wounded people who have died *only because they were treated* as well. An infection in a wound doesn’t guarantee sepsis and death. Many people honestly just lived with chronic abscesses before modern medicine and antibiotics. Human bodies are weirdly resilient.

      1. That’s what I was thinking too…I guess my confusion is that we often see the statistic that more people die from disease than action but I would suggest that succumbing to your wounds a few days later should be attributed to action.

        I recall once seeing an article that amusingly commented that many more died of disease than action in the civil war because “the mid-19th century was a terrible time for five million men to go camping for six months” and while I am sure that’s true it made me curious about the specific breakdown. That said I appreciate there are no clear lines…if you get a small wound in the Wilderness but it’s infected because you’re stuck in a dirty trench at Cold Harbour, are you dying of action or disease? There are clear cases though, if you get fully shot though and die in a hospital a few days later though I would think you’re better considered KIA, at least for the purpose of dividing deaths between disease and action.

        1. The problem of course is that for most conflicts we have nowhere near that kind of granularity. At most we have some kind of casualty reports (and the breakdown might differ depending on how the guys making the records decide to categorize things) at worst merely guesswork, or somewhere in-between: Payrolls or similar that cna be used to indirectly assess casualties.

  8. I agree with Adam! Those are some beautiful kitties 😍 I can see they are making you very happy, as cats do.

  9. Hello!

    I do not think I see a definition for WIA and KIA in the article. I think you mean “Wounded In Action” and “Killed in Action” Right?

  10. I might have cracked why Mongols (and knockoff Mongols) keep getting silly flaming arrows. I was reading over some stuff about the introduction of gunpowder to Europe, and many think a crucial moment was at the Battle of Sajo River, when the Mongols invaded Carpathia. Interestingly, many of the primary sources from the Hungarian side describe what historians now believe to be gunpowder missiles as “fire arrows”. Why wouldn’t they, as they were vaguely arrow-shaped and had the inexplicable ability to set things very on fire? As the invasion(s) of Carpathia were one of the major interactions between Europe and the Mongol Empire, this legend spread, getting more distorted across space and time.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, people should stop giving their Khanates silly arrows, and give them bazookas instead.

    1. There were a couple of centuries of experiment with gunpowder-like concoctions in China before the gun – fire lances, bamboo tubes shooting balls of gunpowder and so on (see Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age). The reference could be to Mongol use of one of these.

      1. Yes, that’s how I understood it as well. Some sort of ranged gunpowder explosive, possibly arrow shaped.

        1. The gunpowder weapons în 13th century were defensive weapons. They were used at the moment of contact to confuse the attackers and take their momentum. The arab, Rusian and Hungarian chronicles mention several siege techniques used by the Mongols but never a Wonder weapon based on gunpowder.

  11. Given the common idiom about cats and curiosity, I would question whether it’s responsible to use them as research assistants.

  12. I’m a bit disappointed at the lack of archaeological references. For example, the remains of the Battle of Wisby tell us a lot about the lethality of muscle-powered wounds, which is quite high. I posit an alternative theory, mainly that tactics have changed over time as technology has improved. Nobody wants to fight to the death and morale has always been an issue to manage. I very strongly suspect that the casualty figures you cite have more to do with *avoiding* combat rather than surviving combat. I can’t quote the sources, but I recall an oft-repeated comment of the greatest medieval causualties of battle (after disease) occured during the post-battle route rather than the battle itself. I also suspect that the casualty rate you report are reflective as a percentage of the armies as a whole rather than of the actual combattants. I find it incredulous that in a given battle, only 10% of the victor’s side is wounded or killed. How frequently did armies surrender or flee when just 10% were wounded? In many if not most wargames, a morale check is not called for until a given side has lost their leader or 50% of the combattants. That strikes me as much more plausible than 10%.

    On the whole, I have greatly enjoined the series as well as your other ones because of their thoroughness. This one, not so much.

    1. The problem with Visby is that it is an unusually lopsided battle, with an under-equipped, under-trained force being trapped and crushed by a larger, better trained and equipped semi-professional force. The losses among the losing side are very high in comparison to other battles of the period.

      As for wargame morale checks at 50+%, they are set wildly too high as the giant pile of actual historical casualty data here and elsewhere shows

      1. Absolutely correct. For the modern period there has not been much OR work on forced posture changes, but some attacks have stalled because of 5% casualties.

    2. “I find it incredulous that in a given battle, only 10% of the victor’s side is wounded or killed. ”

      It sounds quite plausible if you assume a large fraction of casualties were inflicted by the victors cavalry on the fleeing defeated infantry. And that certainly sounds like something that should cause a large fraction of casualties, given that horses run faster than men, and that most men find it hard to defend their back.

      Put it another way: most battles are fought by armies that want to destroy the enemy army, but have an even greater desire to not be destroyed themselves. Victorious armies are going to tend to be armies that have succeeded in at least the latter aim.

      1. Even infantry pursuit can be quite deadly, to assert that all post-rout chase and kill is done by horsemen is not correct.

        1. infantry pursuit could be deadly, but it hardly ever happens. Nearly all the casualties will be inflicted by cavalry, especially light cavalry such as steppe or Turkish horse archers, European stradiots and borderers, or later on Cossacks and Hussars.
          If the enemy are panicking and running away, routing rather than retreating, infantry can’t pursue cavalry. Or at least not with any realistic hope of catching them.
          Routing infantry will discard heavy stuff such as shields and spears for more speed. Any pursuing infantry can’t. So again, any pursuit is not going to last very long because running is hard work. Especially when there are less strenuous options available such as looting the enemy camp.

          1. From ancient and medieval accounts, the defeated often did suffer heavy casualties in the rout. Partly this might be because, when a line breaks or is flanked, some portion will be effectively surrounded. Another might be terrain – where the defeated are penned against a river or marsh or thick forest (as happened at Bannockburn and the Lechfeld and many others). A third is that pursuit gives the winners fresh energy, while the losers are weighted by despair. Also, fresh rear troops will take up the chase, against weary losers.

          2. Also while kills and wounded is part of the pursuit, a lot of it is also going to be people who end up deserting, or just cut off and having to make their way home on their own (or dying of starvation or wounds in a forest somewhere) routing is likely to mean the end of an army as an effective force if only because a bunch of people scattered across the countryside isnt an effective fighting force even if they are technically not dead or wounded.

        2. Bear in mind that by the time pursuit happens, the winning side has been engaged in physically very strenuous activity for several hours. They’re unlikely to have enough energy left to mount a terribly vigorous pursuit.
          This is why you want a pursuit force kept in reserve; they will have the energy to chase the fleeing foe.

      2. Though I note that there are exceptions: The battle of Lund saw 50%+ casualties on both sides, for instance, with 70% total casualties. (though Lund is a bit of an unusual case, in that at times both armies ended up disorganized and subject to pursuit, before elements rallying and continuing the battle)

    3. 50% casualties before a morale check is even called for is wildly wildly wildly high. Sure there were some battles that were complete meat grinders that went on and on and on that wracked up horrible casualties but even in those battles you generally had plenty of failed morale checks. People charging and running away and then being rounded up and charging again (in some battles you get a HUGE number of waves of attacks with the attacker moving back in between), part of an army running away and then having reserves sent in to help, etc. etc.

      On the opposite extreme you had some battles where one side breaks and run before the fighting even starts and in general people don’t want to stick around and die if they think it’s a lost cause.

      As for why the winning side only taking a few casualties, that’s normal when the losing side isn’t fighting to the death. Also in a battle that’s not a horrible meatgrinder but rather pretty short and sharp a lot of the winning side soldiers in the back ranks were never in real danger for the whole battle. If you had much higher casualty rates for victorious battles a lot of historical campaigns in which an army fights a whole string of battles and is still intact at the end would just be impossible.

    4. You might find two of Dr. Philip Sabin’s works interesting in reference to designing wargames. First is “Lost Battles” in which he steps through the design of a board wargame for the classical ancient period. He follows with the game analysis of 30 battles for the period 394 BCE to 48 BCE.

      The second is “Simulating War” where he details the analysis and trade off’s involved in design. He provides several examples with detailed discussions of them.

      Dr. Sabin is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, UK. He has worked with various Western armed forces and the UK Defence Academy.

      1. Thanks for these references.

        On wargame rules requiring 50% casualties before a morale check, the widely used (Anglosphere anyway) WRG rules for Ancients/Medieval battles have always used much lower figures. My 1992 copy requires a unit morale check after 4% casualties, not 50%. Later editions (DBA, DBM) did away with counting casualties entirely, the designer stating that whether or not a unit/formation was pushed back or broken had little or no direct relation to the number of dead and wounded.

        The 50% casualties = morale check is common in many wargames across an entire army or major subcommand as a convenient approximation for “this is where real world formations would definitely start to disintegrate”. But it’s never the only cause, things can go wrong before then.

        There’s also the “game” aspect of wargame, on the spectrum from simulation to amusement. The WRG rules strive to be realistic, but they still have to be playable and enjoyable. (For example the point system to create theoretically balanced battles, while of course real world commanders do their best to ensure the battles aren’t fair.) So a morale check at 50% would be appropriate for a game about ultra heroic combatants (like the Spartans of “300”), even if unrealistic, if the wargame players *want* battles to turn into meat grinders.

        1. Funny you should mention WRG Ancients. A recent Rand report (titled “Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units”) referred to them as a good example of an attempt to model morale effect within a wargame. There has been generally much less effort to model morale/will-to-fight within the professional wargaming community as opposed to recreational games.

    5. Generals of losing side will try to avoid defeat. This required first to survive the day of the battle by disengaging and retreating to their camp. Second they needed to have enough soldiers on the next day so they could march of or face an assault on the camp. The battles with 50% casualties require that the losing side has a complete break of morale and unit cohesion and also some serious obstacle on their path of retreat: a ravine, body of water or the open steppe when fighting mounted nomads.

  13. Curious if the ratio of front line troops to logistical support has changed over time. Presumably it has shifted a lot since pre-modern times where everyone was both at the tip of the spear and supporting the community simultaneously. But has it changed much since classical times? And does that impact the numbers being reported as battlefield casualties?

    I could see maintenance personnel in a tank division counting as participants in a battle, but not necessarily directly in the line of fire or impacted by the increased lethality of modern weapons. Not sure if the same would be true for armorers in a Roman Legion – would they participate in battles as front line infantry too?

    1. The romans had small tails but ancient and medieval armies had about 25-30% frontline soldiers. There were engineers and workers, drivers and animal caretakers, merchants and all kind of service providers. The skirmishers who ravagii enemy teritory, foragers, security and reconnaissance units were rarely placed în the battline.

  14. I’m very wary of wounded in action to killed in action ratios, on account of the fact that in isolation, they can distort the picture. Two hundred injured and one hundred killed in a force of five thousand is very different from two hundred injured and fifty killed in a force of a thousand; a simple wounded to killed ratio in the first case of two to one makes that case look much worse than the four to one ration of the second case, despite the fact that in the context of the overall picture, the casualties represent a much lower percentage of the total force involved.
    (If I were doing some sort of spreadsheet calculation, ideally I’d try to set up something taking into account casualties as a percentage of a force as compared to the size of the force that they were fighting against, if all the numbers were available…)

    But anyway….

  15. One thing that needs to be taken into account wrt lethality, is that (the very latest stage of the demographic transition aside) is that many medieval and early-modern wars took place in societies with (compared to the 19th and, in most of the world, the 20th centuries) very low population growth. Even relatively small wars can often have a nasty demographic effect (especially as wars act as vectors for disease and the disruption causes famine) in a way that modern wars often are not.

  16. Is that low population growth even to fill a carrying capacity, or low growth because they were at the limit of carrying capacity? How would we tell?

    I’ve been told that the New England colonies filled fairly quickly with Pilgrim kids, most subsequent immigration preferring further south. And that’s 16-1700s.

    I note that if a bunch of war was triggered by climate change reducing carrying capacity, you wouldn’t expect ‘recovery’ afterwards because there wouldn’t be enough food around.

  17. Prof. Kennedy’s piece falls into the “rearranging the deck chairs” category. It’s true that the future of classics (even if it’s renamed “ancient Mediterranean studies” and whether or not it includes Akkadian) will not be determined by Wall Street Journal op-ed pieces, and also it will not ultimately be determined by university administrators: it will be determined by students. (I know Prof. Kennedy would say that’s an excuse, but she hasn’t been besieged by angry parents whose children can’t get into an Intermediate Finance section, while at the same time five students are taking Greek Prose Composition from a full professor.)

    There are two ways to entice students: make them believe that what you’re teaching will help them make money, or that it will give their lives meaning. (Or that you give easy A’s, but no foreign language course will win that competition.) Unfortunately, no course involving the ancient Mediterranean–even one that critically approaches the entire region and its entire history–will help anyone but a tenured professor make money. And Kennedy is ideologically committed to the idea that the ancient Mediterranean writers have no idea what gives life meaning, because only modern “critical” thinkers know that. So there’s no real hope for the discipline, which is too bad.

    For myself, knowing Greek has been a constant source of joy and insight, not least because i can read the New Testament in the original. But I’m pretty sure Dr. Kennedy would rather teach a classroom of Proud Boys than a classroom of believing Christians, even though they are the one set of people whom one might convince that ancient Mediterranean peoples knew the road to life and truth. Ego eimi he odos kai he zoe kai he aletheia.

    1. I could be wrong but as I understand it Greek became the lingua franca of the eastern mediterranean and that Akkadian had faded into history long before the period we call ‘Classical’. Akkadian belongs to the Ancient Mideast which should IMO be a distinct cultural thread from the Greek- Roman.
      The Mediterranean Basin was , self evidently, a melting pot of civilization with the a lot of cultural exchange in all directions with the Hellenic strain becoming dominant joined by the Roman strain.
      North Africa was an important part of the Roman empire and Punic descended Romans became a major force but sub-Saharan Africans were a very small presence as their civilization was on the edge of the Roman sphere. The Middle East beyond the Levant was also very much its own sphere, intersecting with but independent of the Greco-Roman world.
      Trying to muddle all these civilizations together for the sake of appeasing modern political sensibilities seems to me a mistake.

      1. That’s not really true, Akkadian remained in use at least as as a written language well into the classical period (certainly by Alexander’s day, and probably later)

        1. Cuneiform continued to be used for formal records, inscriptions and some learning down to the first century CE, but it had been replaced by Aramaic for everyday use from late Assyrian times. Aramaic and Greek mingled, but cuneiform and the associated culture (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian and the off-shoots into Hittite, Mitanni and so on) had dwindled away by Hellenistic times. It really is a separate study.

        2. I didn’t know that, thank you. I was under the impression it had disappeared with the bronze age collapse.

  18. A somewhat controversial analysis of losses in combat through time with an emphasis on the gunpowder period is “Numbers, Predictions and War” by Col. T.N. Dupuy.

    What makes it controversial is that he puts forward a deterministic model for predicting combat outcomes and loss weights. Regardless the model is used by several different nations armies for combat analysis.

  19. Also I’m imagining a huge amount of subjectivity between different counts of wounded. Sure the guy losing a leg is going to get recorded as wounded but what about the guy with a few small cuts from shrapnel? Does he get recorded as wounded? What if the cuts aren’t so small? Where’s the cut-off? I’m sure that cut-off varies enormously from battle to battle.

    1. This is very much a live issue in WWI studies. The British Army recorded all wounds needing treatment, the German army only wounds that needed the wounded man to leave the unit for (from memory) a month. So German WIA figures need to be adjusted upwards for a comparison. But adjusted upwards by how much? No one can agree. And hence widely varying estimates even at a time of meticulous recording. (Full disclosure: another problem is that some German records were subsequently destroyed, but this is true even where they survive.)

    2. In modern armies, “wounded” means “incapable of further combat”. Minor injuries that do not necessitate removing that soldier from duty while they heal don’t qualify.
      Admittedly, such minor injuries would not have counted for much in pre-modern armies, either. I’d expect even the victors of a 13th-century cavalry engagement to have any number of contusions, bruises, minor cuts and light concussions, which would simply not have been worth mentioning.

  20. “with a notable use of blunt weapons, since part of the goal in battle was for the victor to take many captives”

    Interesting, I was absolutely sure “use blunt weapons to get more captives” was just a computer game mechanic. But I guess it’s more about beating enemies into submission than hitting them on the head once and wait until they wake up several hours later as captives without any health issues?

    1. Don’t hit them on the head. Break their arms and legs instead, as a blow to the head can easily be fatal, especially since you’re unlikely to carefully calibrate your blow to only give a concussion, rather than a skull fracture. Or their ribs, that’ll put your target out of commission with minimal, too, risk of death.
      By comparison, a sword strike sufficient to break an unarmoured limb has a significant chance of severing a artery, which is likely to be fatal.

  21. “First, in both West Africa and North America, we can observe that the introduction of gunpowder so radically increased the lethality of open battles that tactics shifted entirely away from them.”

    What exactly is the evidence that a) gunpowder caused b) increased lethality caused c) avoidance of open battles?
    On the face of it a thrusting spear would have a range of ~ 6 feet, compared with perhaps 60 feet for a musket fired at a single figure, and an even greater distance for a musket fired at a large block of men. That should make it a lot easier to surprise and ambush enemies when using firearms. So you might expect a move away from open battles whether the weapons were more lethal or not.

    I seem to recall suggestions that gunpowder battles had a more even casualty distribution between victor and vanquished, as ranged weapons made it easier to withdraw in good order. Since most armies that chose to accept open battle presumably expected to win, higher casualties for the victor would tend to discourage them from accepting an open battle, even if lower casualties were expected for the loser. Few people go to war planning to lose.

    So how can you tell if tactical shifts were cause by an increased lethality of gunpowder weapons, rather than increased range?

    1. Not an expert, but re: increased lethality: a spear will generally make a medically straightforward cut or hole in the target. Firearms projectiles will rip their way in and then sometimes swerve around in the most bizarre ways (especially if they deflect off bone), winding up an absurd distance from where they enter. They may also fragment on entry, meaning you get multiple wounds spiraling off in odd directions. That’s going to cause more damage to more organs, in ways that pre-modern medicine is not well equipped to treat.

      1. I might think so, but the gunpowder age European battles do not look much more lethal, as a fraction of either casualties or forces engaged, than the pre-gunpowder Roman battles more than a thousand years before. If we do not see a big change in areas where we have better records, why assume a big change in areas where we have worse records?

        OTOH, we can be quite sure that soldiers with muskets fought at greater ranges than those armed with swords and pikes, so we should at least consider the possibility that the change in effective ranges caused a tactical shift.

        1. Dupuy (see my comment above) postulates that you get a lowered density of troops as weapons lethality increases. This then gives relatively constant loss rates.

          This is difficult at best to check, because of the factors mentioned above about counting losses. It does seem to hold for the modern period starting with WW1–>1973 Mid-East War.

    2. The native populations renounced body armor, battles în openfield and scattered vilages after the arrival of Europeans and fireweapons. They concentrated în large, heavily fortified villages and used only skirmishing tactics even for large scale confrontations. A bullet could be stopped only by the best steel armor which nobody could afford în the New Word. A well trained warrior/ soldier could parry most weapons but not a musquet. There was a predilection of initially shooting commanders and experienced warriors as they were at the front în a batleline and it will cause a collapse of morale.

  22. Trying to read the articles about the future of classical studies makes my head spin. Writers seem to go from perfectly sensible points like the Roman Empire was seriously multicultural and diverse to White Supremacists have used classics in their propaganda which makes the classics EVIL! And then everybody gets emotional and defensive or aggressive and forget rational analysis.

    1. One pattern I have observed, especially when center-right-leaning readers look at the opinions of left-leaning writers, is that what left-leaning writer Alice sees as a structural problem with X, the center-right reader Betty characterizes as “Alice thinks X is evil.”

      Typically, it’s not that simple. The left is,among itself, far more preoccupied with denouncing structural problems than it is with making long lists of people who are evil. Accusations of personal malice are generally reserved for those who are seen as specifically, actively defending structural problems… or for fellow leftists in the infamous “circular firing squad” phase of any intra-left debate.

      But when Alice writes “there is a serious structural problem with the field of classics, I’m not sure how to fix it, but if we don’t, the field doesn’t deserve to persist while doing this much harm to others,” Betty tends to see “Alice thinks the classics are evil.”

      It’s not… about personal evil in Alice’s mind, in my typical experience; it’s about contributions that make the personal good or evil of the action or even the system irrelevant. Leftist thinking on such matters can often (not always) be paraphrased as:

      “If I forge the Devil’s sword, it is largely irrelevant to the Devil’s victims whether I did so knowingly, or because I was tricked, or because I have a long tradition of making swords for anyone who asks me to and I’m not about to stop just because my current customer has horns and a barbed tail. The only question that really matters is how I react when someone shouts at me “STOP MAKING WEAPONS FOR THE DEVIL!” ”

      What gets the left to point fingers and say “you know what, that’s evil” is when to them it seems perfectly obvious that the other side is knowingly enabling a bad system, and refuses to stop when called out on it.

      Whether they are right about the ‘is knowingly enabling’ or ‘system bad’ parts are a separate issue left as an exercise for now, because I’m talking about the mindset, not so much the factual merits of the case.

  23. Bit late commenting, but I just thought I’d mention that I am currently undertaking a study of battlefield casualties during the Waterloo Campaign so I found you discussion of relative casualties fascinating!

    I wanted to add something I thought was interesting that has become apparent from my studies of the period and this campaign in particular. First of all, as far as Wellington and the Anglo-Allied army was concerned, Waterloo was far deadlier than any battle up to that point they had fought in. Total casualties at both Salamanca and Vitoria were around 11%, and Talavera were around 15%. Quatre Bras and Waterloo killed or wounded 25% of the Anglo-Allied army, with the British taking the heaviest hit proportionally out of all the national contingents under Wellington.

    BUT, by the same token, 25% was NOT unusual for Napoleon. Austerlitz, where around 10% of his army were casualties, was the exception – Jena-Aurstedt was just under 20%, high estimates at Eylau put it between 20-33%, Wagram was 25%, Borodino was 20-25% (and a far higher proportion of the army died of wounds).

    So what was the difference? In my opinion, it was massed, concentrated artillery fire, something Napoleon was a master at, and something his most common enemies (Russia, Prussia and Austria) responded to in kind. Most of the eye-witness sources from Peninsular War veterans at Waterloo talk about the terrifying weight of the bombardment they were under all day, something they hadn’t experienced before, but the Prussian veterans under Blucher don’t really mention it at all!

    1. Fascinating! I think you are absolutely right about the massed artillery fire being more lethal. I recall a good sense of that in the sources, especially when infantry were receiving artillery fire but couldn’t break formation to take cover because of nearby enemy infantry or cavalry.

      Love to see that study published somewhere when it’s done. Be sure to drop a comment if it appears somewhere in print!

  24. Greetings, greetings! Lurking reader here! My apologies in advance for asking about something entirely unrelated to the topics of this Fireside Friday, and about an area outside Dr. Bret’s expertise at that.

    So, since I entered an university last year (not in a history course, but in another of the Humanities) it’s struck me that much of the history I’m being taught seems to be of an… outdated kind—ancient Greeks left all superstition behind when philosophy came around, fall of Rome (always Western Rome, there’s not much mention of the East) led to a thousand years of superstition and backwardness, Renaissance and Enlightenment brought back Roman cultural advance. Ye olde Dark Ages stuff, although with a few begrudging mentions of some advances made during the Middle Ages.

    So… being an avid reader of this blog (amazing place btw) and a less-avid reader of a few other history blogs, I sort of feel compelled to push against this sort of stuff… except my historical knowledge is at best amateurish, and I don’t think my teachers would take very seriously me citing (to them) random internet blogs over actual academic books and articles.

    I’d like to ask Dr. Bret, then, if he could point me towards any academic books that give a more updated take on the Middle Ages and/or the Renaissance, specially if it focuses on the relationship between science and religion, as being a Christian myself I’m a bit wary of swinging the pendulum too far the other way and whitewashing things like religious persecution, for example.

    My thanks in advance, even if it turns out you can’t help. (I realize your focus is Ancient Rome).

    (Ah, and since I’m already commenting here, may I ask if you have any future plans for more articles on the Byzantines?)

  25. (I’m sorry if you get this comment multiple times, I’m having some internet problems here and i’m not sure if my previous attempts at sending this were succesful)

    Greetings, greetings! Lurking reader here! My apologies in advance for asking about something entirely unrelated to the topics of this Fireside Friday, and about an area outside Dr. Bret’s expertise at that.

    So, since I entered an university last year (not in a history course, but in another of the Humanities) it’s struck me that much of the history I’m being taught seems to be of an… outdated kind—ancient Greeks left all superstition behind when philosophy came around, fall of Rome (always Western Rome, there’s not much mention of the East) led to a thousand years of superstition and backwardness, Renaissance and Enlightenment brought back Roman cultural advance. Ye olde Dark Ages stuff, although with a few begrudging mentions of some advances made during the Middle Ages.

    So… being an avid reader of this blog (amazing place btw) and a less-avid reader of a few other history blogs, I sort of feel compelled to push against this sort of stuff… except my historical knowledge is at best amateurish, and I don’t think my teachers would take very seriously me citing (to them) random internet blogs over actual academic books and articles.

    I’d like to ask Dr. Bret, then, if he could point me towards any academic books that give a more updated take on the Middle Ages and/or the Renaissance, specially if it focuses on the relationship between science and religion, as being a Christian myself I’m a bit wary of swinging the pendulum too far the other way and whitewashing things like religious persecution, for example.

    My thanks in advance, even if it turns out you can’t help. (I realize your focus is Ancient Rome).

    (Ah, and since I’m already commenting here, may I ask if you have any future plans for more articles on the Byzantines?)

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