Armies: Recruitment, Organization, and Social Composition

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Military life in the period from 1450 to 1750 underwent, it has been argued, a process of "proletarianization." If medieval conflict was the preserve of specialist warriors, drawn heavily from the upper ranks of society, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, according to this argument, marked by war based on quantity rather than quality of soldiers. In practice, medieval armies drew on a more diverse range of troops than exclusive focus on the highly trained, mounted knight would imply, and they could count substantial forces of semi- or unskilled soldiers in their ranks. This greater diversity in medieval armies notwithstanding, it is nonetheless assumed that the composition of armies changed greatly from the later fifteenth century.


What the Swiss pikemen and German Landsknechte who dominated the battlefields of the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries offered was a combination of group identity and cohesion, together with brute force deployed within a solid phalanx, thousands strong. A subsequent move toward infantry armed with handguns did not restore military specialism but encouraged still greater reliance upon unskilled recruits. In contrast to crossbows or longbows, an infantry harquebus or musket required no great skill, training, or physical strength to load or fire. As soldiers' expertise was of minimal importance in putting a force into the field, it is assumed that contracts for mercenaries, a feature of the entire early modern period, were the obvious mechanism for recruitment. Early modern warfare was a seasonal affair, most campaigning taking place between April and October, while few wars before 1618 lasted longer than two or three consecutive campaigns. Hiring and firing mercenary forces thus appeared to make military and financial sense. Why create an elaborate military infrastructure if the raw material of warfare was rapidly recruited, minimally trained, and destined for short service?

But handing over the recruitment of soldiers to profiteering officers operating under mercenary contracts rendered military service unattractive to all but desperate or marginal elements of society. Enlistment brought danger, poor working conditions, and irregular pay and supplyas much through the machinations of the officers as because of the inadequacy of state revenues. From this comes the pervasive myth that the early modern army was populated with the refuse of society. Recruitment was based on an unholy alliance between rapacious officers and local elites, who saw military service as a device to clear jails and round up vagrants and other marginal elements. Any genuine volunteers were debtors, criminals, or beggars, the rootless with no stake in established society, and they signed up for the lure of a modest recruitment bonus and hoped to desert as soon as possible. The violence of military life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both among soldiers and between soldiers and civilians, reflects this lowest-common-denominator recruitment. Mass disbanding as soon as a campaign neared its conclusionor simply because the officers failed to provide basic wages, food, and drinkensured that soldiers, who were little more than a temporary association of vagrants and criminals held in service by brutal discipline, were regularly tipped back into civilian society, exacerbating problems of law enforcement, local violence, and vagrancy.

An image that fueled so much popular literature and was entrenched in the rhetoric of the ruling classes is unlikely to have been based on pure fiction. There were plenty of cases where recruits were acquired via jails or roundups of vagrants. There were certainly officer-proprietors down to the end of the eighteenth century who were none too rigorous about the quality of their recruits and their relations with the civilian population. Levels of desertion from early modern armies were extraordinarily high: rates of 50 percent or more over a few weeks' campaigning were not unusual. Hans Jacob Grimmelshausen's contemporary account of soldiering in the Thirty Years' War, Abenteuerlicher Simplicissimus (1669; Simplicissimus the vagabond), paints a picture of soldiers who were indeed petty criminals but were themselves victims of the exploitation and corruption of their officers and administrators. Yet this is not the entire story of early modern soldiers, and it fails to explain how military effectiveness was achieved, where recruits in these centuries were really drawn from, and how they related to civilian society.

The assumption that early modern warfare was simply a matter of mass recruitment, minimal training, and rapid turnover needs qualification. It never applied for mounted soldiers, for instance. Training a cavalry trooper to a decent level of military proficiency and horsemanship or finding recruits already possessing equestrian skills could not be neglected, and cavalry remained a major element in all early modern armies. But even within the pike square or other infantry formations, it was important to distinguish between the ordinary, mid-file ranker, who may indeed have required little training, and an experienced core of soldiers. The importance of experienced troops became even more significant with the development of more effective infantry firearms. It was the veterans who set the pace of firing, maintained cohesion between musketeers and pikemen, and followed instructions rapidly and efficiently. Thus military effectiveness depended on soldiers who would remain in service, and inducements were needed to reward them. The pay structure of early modern armies reflected the different levels of skill and experience between ordinary and veteran soldiers. An elite French unit in the 1630s would contain three categories of veteran below any official noncommissioned officer rank, whose skills and service were recognized with between 20 and 50 percent higher wages than those of the ordinary recruits. One good reason for reliance on mercenary proprietors was not that they could produce bulk levies of easily disposable troops, but that the best-connected of the "military enterprisers" controlled or had access to units with a higher proportion of experienced veterans than the majority of local nobles or even government administrators could achieve in any recruitment exercise.

What other inducements existed to draw soldiers into long-term service? One possibility would be enforcement through conscription. In states with a relatively small population and substantial military commitmentsseventeenth-century Sweden being a good exampleconscription of a proportion of the peasantry offered a means to build up a core of career soldiers. At the price of deep resentment from the Swedish peasants on whom the lottery of conscription fell very heavily, the system provided good-quality, long-serving troops during the Thirty Years' War. But across most of west central Europe, conscription was regarded with suspicion by rulers and ministers convinced that it generated poor-quality and unsuitable recruits, aggravating already substantial problems of desertion. And for much of the early modern period, they could rely on voluntary enlistment. Demographic pressure leading to polarization of economic resources was squeezing the peasants and artisans in these states, eroding their earning power and economic independence. Recruiting officers were by no means dependent upon the most marginal and criminal elements in society. Indeed the vast majority of recruits whose backgrounds can be established were drawn from ordinary peasant households or were semiskilled artisans who would have enjoyed modest status, if not formal citizenship, in the towns.


In comparison with the worsening economic climate outside, military life could offer some advantages. Basic wages were comparable with those of an unskilled artisan, while the pay of more experienced soldiers and noncommissioned officers was significantly above this level. Volunteers who enlisted for a fixed period would be bribed by a substantial bonus to stay in service for another term of duty. The main disadvantage for soldiers was that military wages were almost always in arrears. Paying outstanding wages, even assuming money was available to distribute, would remove a good means of keeping men in service, and meeting wages in full would inevitably bring days of alcohol-induced incapacity. When soldiers, and especially veterans like those in the Spanish Army of Flanders, could squeeze their arrears out of the military paymasters, they could end up with accumulated lump sums of 1,000 ducats or more, enough to establish themselves as substantial property-owning peasants. Moreover, unlike those of civilian populations, the wages earned by soldiers were not subject to tithe, seigneurial dues, or ever-increasing taxes imposed by the central state. Difficult to quantify were informal sources of revenue: plunder and booty from captured towns, ransoms of captured prisoners, and the informal tide of local extortion, pillage, and theft practiced by soldiers when opportunity permitted. These were probably diminishing in significance, but especially in the period before 1650 they should not be neglected as a potential attraction to military service.

Men drawn from the ranks of the respectable if hard-pressed peasantry or established artisan classes in the towns had traditionally enjoyed a modest status within the local community and some small personal autonomy, and they were governed by codes of honor and association that could provide both social solidarity and a degree of protection from outside interference. As these became more difficult to sustain in the face of worsening economic pressures in civilian society, the perception of distinctive status and the strong degree of group identity and cohesion associated with long-term military service became increasingly attractive.

Soldiers were emphatically not at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the two centuries down to the end of the Thirty Years' War. It was common for ordinary soldiers to have one or more servants, and while marriage might be discouraged in certain armies (notably the French), all forces were accompanied by large numbers of women followers, serving as prostitutes, laundresses and seamstresses, cooks, nurses, and housekeepers. Two Bavarian regiments lodged at Schweinfurt in 1646 numbered 961 combatant soldiers, 310 servants, and 540 women and children, and maintained a baggage train that required 1,072 horses. Apart from a few elite regiments or units that were the property of a wealthy noble, soldiers did not wear uniforms before the mid-seventeenth century and could adopt styles of dress to flatter their vanity or signal group identification. With the notable exception of the Dutch army, whose mercenaries explicitly accepted this as a contractual obligation, soldiers did not expect to dig earthworks or engage in other manual labor; pioneers attached to the army or conscripted peasants would be employed to build or demolish siege-works or construct encampments. At the core of most long-serving units, whether informally accepted or formally recognizedas in the case of the Spanish system of camarades, for examplewere groups of companions who lived and fought together and whose primary focus of loyalty, obligation, and identity was their small group.

Soldiering might involve extreme danger. Battles in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could involve high casualties; defeated armies in flight could be all but annihilated. The opinion of contemporaries, moreover, was that the pitched battle was less dangerous than active siege warfare. That said, the majority of military losses came not from combat but from disease. It was probable that close-packed encampments of soldiers placed themselves at greater risk of infectious disease than civilians. Yet levels of mortality in cities and from epidemics like the plague, which spread across much of Europe in the 1590s, could easily equal levels of disease-related mortality among soldiers.

Much of a soldier's life was intermingled with that of civilian populations. The winter quarter, roughly from October to April, would see permanent troops garrisoned in frontier or other towns and cities, lodged with householders and subjected to limited military discipline. Many who had pursued previous occupations as artisans or craftsmen resumed these during the winter months as a supplementary or alternative source of income. Other soldiers who were formally laid off during the winter quarter would return home, possibly to re-enlist in the next campaign. Even during the campaign season, numbers of troops were not engaged in active fighting, but were in garrison, occupying territory or holding defensive positions. Again, in most such cases, military discipline was imposed lightly, and troops mixed with the civilian population and sought opportunities to supplement their wages. Soldiers frequently abused their relative freedom, presenting problems of drunkenness and disorder for the local authorities and provoking violent confrontations with the artisan or peasant communities, but they were not a marginalized underclass. Rhetoric about the violent, godless, and uncouth soldiery did not prevent them being seen by townspeople and peasants as a valuable source of cash income.

While the life of an early modern soldier was far from attractive to all recruitsthe massive levels of desertion in armies throughout this period make that evidentit can nonetheless explain why for a significant minority long-term military service could seem an attractive alternative to a harshening economic climate and increasingly uncertain status in civilian society.


A number of changes occurred in the nature of military service from the mid-seventeenth century, and these had a substantial impact on the character of recruitment and army life. Reliance on voluntary enlistment down to the later decades of the seventeenth century had been in part assisted by the worsening economic prospects for the great majority of the rural and urban poor. It had also been helped by the relatively small size of armies in proportion to the populations of the larger European states. Though, for example, a significant number of males may have had a brief experience of military service during four decades of French military activity from 1620 to 1660, at any one time an army of seventy to eighty thousand troops represented a low military participation rate for a state with a population of eighteen to nineteen million. From the 1670s to the 1680s this situation changed. While first-rank European powers with substantial human resources like France and Russia were maintaining military establishments by the early eighteenth century of 250,000 to 350,000 troops, even states like Britain, Holland, and Spain, whose resources would place them in the second division of European powers, were raising armies of over 100,000 men.

In some cases this demand for soldiers was considered too great to rely exclusively on voluntary enlistment. In France, conscript local militias were used from the 1680s in order to supply, none too effectively, the demand for regular soldiers. More successfully, in return for upholding and reinforcing the privileges of serfdom, the tsarist regime in Russia persuaded its local elites to accept the conscription of a proportion of peasants for permanent military service. A similar, slightly more humane mechanism based on part-time compulsory service (the cantonal system) allowed the second-rank Prussian state to maintain a peacetime army of 83,000 by 1740. Elsewhere conscription was still regarded with suspicion, but the only way that substantially larger forces could be raised on the basis of voluntary recruitment was to ensure that a higher proportion of the troops stayed in service for significant periods of time. Recruiters would quickly scrape the bottom of the barrel if several hundred thousand new troops needed to be found for shortterm service each year.

The establishment of these permanent armies changed the life of the soldier. Wage rates for common soldiers did not improve, but into the eighteenth century and across much of Europe, the assumption that soldiers should receive no more than a recruitment bonus and some subsistence money was supplanted by regular payment made in accordance with formal accounts. Regular wages were part of an implicit contract; in return for pay, more rigorous standards of discipline could be demanded and soldiering could be turned from a part-time into a full-time occupation, whether outside of the campaign season or in peacetime. All of the operations concerned with recruitment, equipment, and details of service were formalized through military bureaucracies, which grew more elaborate and orderly in their record keeping. Uniforms were standardized, in part to discourage desertion, but more importantly to impose a disciplined culture that sought to eliminate individuality from military service.

Some aspects of this new ethos were perceived in negative terms. A determined attempt in many states to separate soldiers from civilian life was most evident in the construction of barracks. Soldiers were less likely to be billeted on civilians and were deliberately separated from the outside world, subject to pervasive military discipline backed by a heavy emphasis on drill and military duties. Administrators believed that sequestering soldiers in barracks reduced the incidence of disorder. It certainly created a deeper gulf between soldiers and civilians and contributed to the perception of the soldiery as a marginalized class, not apparent before the mid-seventeenth century. Penalties applied under military discipline were not necessarily harsher, but they were more systematic. Failure in the precise performance of drill, especially by experienced troops, was regularly punished in the armies of the eighteenth century, whereas such punishment had been haphazard before 1650.

A more positive consequence of permanent military establishments was a recognition that soldiers were more likely to continue to serve if they had some assurance of being supported in old age or disability. The Hôtel des Invalides, founded in 1670 on the outskirts of Paris, was the first of many hospitals for military veterans. The practice was not universally followed; Prussia was notoriously slow to acknowledge any obligation to old or wounded soldiers, but such a policy was increasingly out of step with other European powers by the mid-eighteenth century. There was also a readiness to try to appoint noncommissioned officers on the basis of deserving, lengthy service. Commanders or rulers like Frederick II of Prussia (ruled 17401786) resisted the automatic distribution of the posts of sergeant and below to clients of unit officers, seeking to build a promotional structure at this level that would reward merit. And while soldiers were more isolated from civilian society, the uniforms, rituals, and distinctive identities of units increased in importance. The great majority of regiments in the period before 1660 could never have acted as a focus for loyalty since they enjoyed only a short-term existence, three to five campaigns being a decent life expectancy. A permanent army created a mass of permanent units, whether recruited from specific localities or associated with a particular aristocratic family. The relationship of ordinary soldiers to their units is usually ambiguous: the regiment imposes burdensome duties and harsh discipline, but it is also the source of group identity, loyalty, and rivalry with other units. Although increasingly deracinated from civilian society, soldiers possessed a pride and strong sense of esprit de corps through the identity of their units that would earlier have been the possession of only a few elite formations.


The transformation from an army where the great majority of units were short-term creations into one dominated by permanent regiments also had an impact on the European officer corps. For many nobles and other wealthy individuals in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, military service involved paying to recruit a cavalry or infantry unit, assuming the command and filling the junior officerships with clients or relatives. Training or experience was irrelevant to this financial transaction. To a large extent, the experience was less a permanent step into military life than a rite of passage allowing a noble to validate social status through a campaign or two of military service, and a wealthy bourgeois or recently ennobled figure to engage in an appropriately "noble" activity. Some regimental proprietors saw the opportunities of warfare in more directly commercial terms and sought to create a unit of experienced soldiers with a high market value. But the majority of unit commanders were temporary officers, and the state made little attempt to retain them in service once their units lost military effectiveness through casualties, disease, or desertion. Insofar as the question of officer training was addressed in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century armies, it was assumed that the habits of command and authority possessed by a ruling elite would be sufficient to provide leadership. The most obvious role of the unit proprietor was to advance his own financial resources to meet shortfalls in supply and funding that would otherwise threaten the dissolution of the troops.

Developments in the character of weaponry and tactics, however, challenged the notion that the officer corps could successfully be based upon short-serving amateurs, filling the subordinate ranks of the company or regimental hierarchy with their clients. As more units gained a permanent status, it was possible to modify in certain respects the ethos of the officer corps. This in no sense excluded the nobleman or the wealthy, or the role of influence and birth in securing posts and promotion. Officerships in permanent units in most states were bought and sold, the system usually operating within the officer corps as a combination of entrance fee and pension provision. While the state and its military administrators might, sometimes grudgingly, accept the principle of purchase, now that far more units were permanent it was also feasible to expect rudimentary training for many of the officers, whether through service as cadets in a prestige unit or even through institutions such as the military colleges that were emerging in the eighteenth century. The efficacy of this training may be questioned; in practice the day-to-day business of running a regiment would be handled by longerserving junior or noncommissioned officers. But as expectations of the length of officer service increased in the eighteenth century, so inevitably did the level of basic military education and experience at all ranks. Permanent military service was a feature of most nobilities in central and eastern Europe, but even in the west those nobles and wealthy commoners who became officers did so with the expectation that this was a career choice. To say that the officer corps became more professional, in all but specialized branches like the artillery and engineers, would be an exaggeration. It did, however, adapt itself to the demands and requirements of a permanent military institution and contributed substantially to its distinctive identity.

See also Absolutism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Grimmelshausen, H. J. C. von ; State and Bureaucracy ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


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David Parrott