Jörg Muth. Flucht aus dem militärischen Alltag: Ursachen und individuelle Ausprägung der Desertion in der Armee Friedrichs des Großen. Freiburg: Rombach, 2003. 213 S. EUR 19.80 (paper), ISBN 978-3-7930-9338-1.
Reviewed by Dennis Showalter (Colorado College)
Published on H-War (August, 2004)
The Rights of a Man and A Soldier: Desertion in Eighteenth-Century Prussia
Muth integrates a spectrum of fresh archival sources with a perceptive analysis of eyewitness material in this ground-breaking revisionist analysis of desertion in the Prussian army during the era of Frederick the Great. Conventional academic wisdom makes desertion a central issue of the army?s effectiveness, and ascribes it to a flight from the compulsions and brutalizations of early modern military systems. Muth instead demonstrates desertion in peacetime was considered an ordinary matter, no more and no less significant than issues of hygiene, uniform, and company administration. He further makes a convincing case that desertion in the field was a far less significant problem than Frederick himself believed. Even after battles like Zorndorf or Torgau, with murderously high casualty lists, the Prussian army never lost enough men through desertion to impair either its ability or its will to continue fighting. Nor?-a final shibboleth demolished-?were foreigners significantly more prone to desertion than native Prussian conscripts despite having exponentially less to lose, since a cantonist who succeeded in deserting paid with the near-certainty of sacrificing family ties and hopes of inheritance.
In two short introductory chapters Muth surveys contemporary academic perspectives on desertion and analyzes its place in the armies of Russia, France, and Austria. He concludes that the system of punishments was essentially similar: desertion was a capital crime. At the same time a certain percentage of loss by desertion was considered as normal as a certain rate of loss by disease, or suicide. It was part of the inescapable cost of maintaining a standing army. In that as in so many other matters, Prussian experience served as an example. That in turn requires investigating a Prussian army?s structures and routines.
Muth?s Chapter III addresses recruiting, living conditions, and organizational factors. The latter is particularly significant, since desertion rates differed significantly among arms and services, being highest in the infantry. Muth?s dismissal of this material as a ?sketch? understates significantly its value in demonstrating the army?s relative success in integrating both its cantonists and its foreigners. Training methods were based on levels of individual instruction impossible to the mass armies of a later generation, with their large intakes and small cadres. Non-commissioned officers were instructed to deal patiently with recruits who showed good will. As in any army, a disproportionate amount of punishment fell to a disproportionately small number: the dull-witted and the loud-mouthed, the sullen, the vicious, and those unfortunate enough to be made scapegoats by their superiors or their fellow-soldiers.
Nor was a Prussian soldier?s life one of unrelieved misery in an alien environment. After his initial training the cantonist was at home on furlough as much as ten months of every year. A good part of any soldier?s time with the regiment was spent in civilian billets, outside the immediate supervision of his officers and sergeants, with corresponding opportunities to cultivate contacts and relationships that ranged from the romantic to the criminal. The uniforms were durable and the pay was regular. Old soldiers were not as a matter of policy cast adrift to end their days as beggars.
Though Muth does not emphasize this factor, the precision drill that made such high demands on the parade ground was also directly linked to survival in combat. The unskilled or unwilling soldier in an eighteenth-century firing line directly endangered his comrades as well as himself. A musket out of alignment could mean a burst eardrum for the man in front of it. A man breaking ranks could be the first step in the destruction of an entire battalion by a cavalry charge. Any recruit who did not understand drill?s practical importance was correspondingly likely to become the subject of direct and uncomfortable enlightenment by the old soldiers of his company.
In wider contexts Prussia?s conscription system may have thrown disproportionate burdens on poor peasants and farm laborers. Relative to the numbers eligible, however, peacetime call-up rates were low, under 10 percent in some districts. Even when the Seven Years? War is included, fewer than half of the nearly nine million men registered ever donned a uniform. This degree of flexibility created ample opportunities for families and villages to assert control over their young men by deciding who went to the army and who stayed home. On the other side of the coin, men doing military service were under military law, to which they could and did appeal against both communities and landlords. The result was a complicating of traditional patterns of authority, and sometimes of deference as well, in the Prussian countryside.
None of these points made a soldier?s lot happy?-only acceptable in the context of reasonable alternatives. In Chapter IV Muth specifically addresses the subject of desertion. He demonstrates that its legal definition was complex, with numerous loopholes and ambiguities. He shows that officers too were guilty of the offense: 10 percent of their loss in one regiment can be traced to desertion. Desertion, moreover, was much of the time a reasonable risk. Soldiers were too valuable to be casually executed or sentenced to crippling physical punishment. Especially in peacetime, reduced or suspended sentences in the regiments and individual or general pardons granted by the crown served to return men to the ranks and keep them there.
Even more useful is Muth?s presentation of the principal reasons why common soldiers deserted. Fear of battle or desire to escape brutal discipline played limited roles. A far higher proportion of desertions can instead be traced to what amounted to breach of contract: overt violation of enlistment conditions or unacceptable living conditions. Company commanders might compel a soldier to pay for lost or damaged items when regulations required their replacement from company funds. Or they might charge for official documents and pocket the money. What emerges from these pages is an image of a body of men who, far from being voiceless victims, were reasonably aware of their contractual rights as soldiers and ultimately willing to assert them in the most extreme way practical: by withdrawing service.
Muth?s final text chapter offers the Potsdam garrison as a case study. Potsdam was Prussia?s military center; its records were comprehensive and enough have survived to provide a comprehensive overview of conditions of service, opportunities for desertion, and methods for controlling it. What emerges is specific confirmation of the contractual aspects of military service in Prussia, and the relative degree of off-duty freedom enjoyed even by the strictly-disciplined Guards. For example, a soldier whose reliability was questionable could nevertheless obtain leave by putting up a security deposit.
Chapter V is more successful in depicting conditions of service than in relating them specifically to the issue of desertion. For that reason the author or his editor would have been correspondingly well advised to reposition the chapter between the general discussion of service conditions and the specific analysis of desertion as a phenomenon. In its current place it seems tacked on. That, however, is a minor flaw in a work demonstrating desertion in the Prussian Army was personal and situationally based, as opposed to being a structural problem generated by ill treatment and brutal discipline. Prussian soldiers, moreover, possessed and asserted a significant body of legal and customary rights in the framework of an absolutist state. These points, by challenging widely held conventional wisdom, merit wide attention among scholars of eighteenth century history.
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Dennis Showalter. Review of Muth, Jörg, Flucht aus dem militärischen Alltag: Ursachen und individuelle Ausprägung der Desertion in der Armee Friedrichs des Großen.
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