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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics


The Fog of War

By Jeff Lewis

History has come down to us as the records, official documents, memoirs and private writings. In addition we have the artifacts, pictures, and buildings they have left behind. While much can be gleaned from these sources particularly when there are several different sources describing the same events we are left inevitably with an impenetrable fog that hides the crystal clear picture we all crave. The problem is made all the more difficult when studying war and its associated events. Allthough the pen is mightier than the sword it is invariably the victor that gets to write the official history, the vanquished often unwilling to write of their shame. The descriptions that come to us are then often more propaganda intended for contemporary consumption than unbiased descriptions recorded for posterity.

This would appear to leave us entirely at the mercy of the biased opinions and propaganda writers of the era gone by. After all it is not conceivable in terms of money or morality to train hundreds of thousands of people in the techniques of Napoleonic warfare and have them kill each other in various experiments for us to view alternate possibilities and work out the probabilities of what really happened. This is not to say that we should abandon ourselves to blithely accepting the views and claims of past popular authors or even of the contemporary commentators. Other sciences have similar problems of not being able to conduct experiments under test conditions in laboratories to prove their theories in the same way that the basics of chemistry and physics were done. Among these for example is astronomy, where clearly even the smallest dwarf star cannot be crammed into a human made laboratory nor useful results seen within one lifetime. The techniques used in these other sciences are equally applicable to history. One main technique used is comparative methodology.

We should have certain basic standards for accepting a statement about the past as a fact.

It can be accepted if it is verified from physical data that still exists.

It can be accepted as an event if recorded by separate original sources found reliable in other details.

For other matters such as cause and effect, how wars were really fought, and what impact different factors played in the wars, in the absence of physical proof we must look to consistency and comparitive methodology.

Does the supposition hold true in most circumstances when compared with similar contemporary occurrences with similar factors involved.

Does the supposition hold true when compared with occurences in other eras including the modern era when the main factors remain unchanged.

If the supposition does not display consistency across a wide range of comparisons it cannot be held to be true, investigation must be made of other factors.

It has been held that some matters are too complex and involve too many factors to be treated this way, yet the claimants of this are usually found to be trying to prove a particular point of view and unwilling to accept contrary evidence. Proper and thorough investigation unfortunately often requires a broad view of both prior history to understand the evolution of the mechanisms involved, or an understanding of other sciences to be able to find the simple explanation that eludes a blinkered approach.

As a simple investigation let us consider the description of the average Napoleonic soldier.

The wealthy aristocrat the Duke of Wellington described his own common soldiers as 'the very scum of the earth'. This biased and uninformed comment has been unthinkingly repeated in books and articles down the years and still gets used today. Before the worthy Duke it previously made its appearance in other nations too. From Frederick the Great of Prussia we have "the dregs of society". From the French in the time of Louis XIII we have 'the bottom of the social heap' as a politer but similar description. It is true that contemporary sources can be found describing the evasion of military consciptions and the occasional use of criminals for tropical postings. There are also, however, contemporary descriptions of widespread voluntary hiring from militias, unemployed factory workers, and artisans.

Some consideration of the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Century soldier should be carefully considered for comparison here. The Duke of Monmouth's Drill Book of 1675 has thirty-eight separate steps in practising the handling of a musket, each with its own paragraph of explanation. The French Ordinance of the King in 1750 has a total of sixty one steps made up of one hundred and twenty eight separately defined motions. This is at least as complicated as many skilled machinery tasks found in factories at this time.

In addition the sergeants and senior corporals of the companies were not merely experienced soldiers, they were also required to keep the basic records of the company. This required counting, reading, and legible writing, yet this was an age of general illiteracy without universal schooling.

That military life was just as harsh as civilian life, and also requiring living and sharing in a close community, cannot be doubted.

So from the depths of the dropouts of civilian life, the unemployable, illiterate, and technically incapable, does it really seem possible that such technically proficient soldiers with a high enough proportion of men capable of a Sergeants responsibilities could be found? The comparison against required skills says it could not.

On the rolls of British regular infantry regiments of the time men joining voluntarily from the militia are referred to as volunteers, other as recruits. The depot records of men joining frequently show more men from the militia during the Napoleonic Wars than from all other sources. The Grenadier Comapny of the 2nd Battalion of the 73rd Infantry Regiment at Waterloo for example shows 55% of its men to be ex-militia. The militia being a locally based part time force far more of its ranks consisted of willing men. The earlier origins of the militia gives a description of the expectation "None of the meaner sort nor servants, but onely such as be of the Gentrie, Free-holders, and good Farmers" (His Majesties letters September 21, 1628)

Data from France in 1716 confirms this showing the declared profession of the recruits father to be approximately 19% educated or nobility, 35% skilled worker, and 36% full time farmer or agricultural labourer. Less than 8% show up as itinerants, part time labourers, or unknown.

This is a clear example of comparative methodology, where a comparison of the skill level required creates an expectation contrary to the old prejudice, but which on proper investigation we then find to match historical data. The data backs up the expected skill level required of a soldier to suggest that the average soldier was at least semi-skilled with a good number of educated men within the ranks.

The historical prejudice which had been received from the aristocrats of the time, and should not therefore have been taken so carelessly as a truth, is shown to be inconsistent with both skills comparison and fact. To be kind to the Duke and King, an Eighteenth Century aristocratic definition of "scum of the earth" may well have included the vast majority of the population outside the highest nobility, todays definition is much narrower.

Whilst it is true that a few soldiers were the worst kind of criminal it seems far more probable on this examination that the average soldier of Napoleon's time was no more scum of the earth than todays soldiers are.


Age of Napoleon #33 (referenced to Military Illustrated #25 June 1990).

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel Vintage; 1998.

Buck, Thomas and Roger Daniels: Directions for Musters 1638 London : Partizan Press; 2000.

Glover, Michael. Wellington as Military Commander London : Sphere Books; 1973.

Lynn, John A. Giant of the Grand Siecle Cambridge : Cambridge University Press; 1997.

Luvaas, Jay (ed.) Frederick the Great : on the Art of War New York: Da Capo Press; 1999.

Tincey, John (ed.) Monmouth's Drill Book Partizan Press; 1986.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2000.

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