recruiting soldiers -- 5/22/23

Today's selection -- from Iron and Blood by Peter H. Wilson. Criteria for recruiting soldiers in the 1700s and 1800s:
"Hans Joachim von Zieten resigned from the Prussian army in 1724 when he was passed over for promotion on account of his small stature. Although he later re-enlisted and rose to become one of Frederick II's most distinguished generals, he did so by joining the hussars, which accepted shorter men. Height became a significant factor determining recruitment after 1714 as armies began specifying minimum thresholds and recording each soldier's stature in the regimental rolls. The general minimum was around 165 to 167 cm for infantrymen and 168 to 173 cm for cavalrymen, or considerably above what was specified later; Austria took men as short as 153 cm in the early twentieth century. Height served as an obvious, if crude, measure of physical fitness, while it had a practical purpose when muskets were about 155cm long and heavy cavalry rode large horses. Big men also looked imposing and were preferred for grenadiers and other elite troops.

Prussian Langer Kerl by Johann Christof Merck, 1718

"The obsession with height assumed an extreme form in Prussia where it was associated with Frederick William I, but in fact it had already begun during his father's reign and continued during that of his son. Governments seeking Prussia's favour sent exceptionally tall men as diplomatic gifts, while Prussian recruiters targeted large men, some­times even kidnapping them, knowing they would be rewarded. The concern for height unintentionally exempted many men from conscrip­tion. For example, Infantry Regiment No. 3 had 20,737 potential recruits enrolled in its canton in 1773, most of whom were children. Only 4,247 were over five foot, of whom only 124 reached the required minimum of five foot five inches (about 165 cm). Given that the unit needed 60 to 120 recruits annually to maintain strength, virtually all the tall men would automatically be drafted. No wonder mothers told their children: don't grow or the recruiter will catch you!

"Conscription generally took younger, unmarried men, with most new recruits in Prussia aged just under twenty-one. Foreign recruits were around four years older, with the average age of men in the ranks being in the low thirties. The same was true in Münster where the bishopric's soldiers were around ten years older on average than their predecessors in the later seventeenth century. Grenadiers were considerably older than musketeers because they were selected from veterans. In short, eighteenth-century armies placed a premium on age, considering mature men as more reliable and better able to cope with the rigours of service. Austria's reduction of the minimum age for service from twenty (or twenty-one) to eighteen in 1746 was considered an emergency measure, rather than desired. Nonetheless, as with officers, peacetime led to superannuation as men were retained because it was too expensive to pension them off and pay bounties to find replacements. The situation was usually worse in the smaller forces: less than half of Augsburg's civic guard were fit to take the field when the city had to provide its contingent to the imperial army in 1795. 

"Older men tended to have previous military experience, particularly the foreign recruits who had often served in several armies. Otherwise, recruits frequently gave no prior profession when their details were entered in the regimental rolls. Former textile workers usually formed the largest occupational group, reflecting that trade's often precarious character, but most regiments had a small minority of educated profes­sionals who had perhaps fallen on hard times. There is little evidence, however, to substantiate the cliche that the ranks were filled with con­victs or prisoners of war. Soldiers were far more likely to be sent to the workhouse for punishment than inmates be pressed into service. The exception was when units were being raised for foreign service, since this was often done at short notice and provided a convenient way of getting rid of undesirables. Armies were reluctant to accept deserters from other forces, rightly suspecting they would abscond once they had received their enlistment bounty.

"Prisoners of war were only recruited in large numbers during the Seven Years War. The entire Saxon army of 18,177 men was pressed into Prussian service after it surrendered in October 1756. More than half of the unwilling soldiers deserted within a month, and soon 10,000 had reassembled on Habsburg territory to reform their old units and continue the fight against Prussia. Prussia conscripted 18,800 Saxons to replace those who had left, but these soon fled as well, and the whole episode damaged its army's morale, since soldiers in the old units distrusted their unwilling comrades. Both Austria and Prussia also recruited each other's soldiers once prisoner exchange arrange­ments collapsed in 1759, with the latter using rather more coercive measures than the former. The Americans made considerable efforts to persuade captured Germans to enlist during the Revolutionary War, as did the Russians with captured Rheinbund troops in 1812-13, both with mixed results."



Peter H. Wilson


Iron and Blood


The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press


Copyright Peter H. Wilson, 2022


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