University of Cambridge > > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > Discipline and defiance: toward a reciprocal model of power relations in eighteenth-century European armies

Discipline and defiance: toward a reciprocal model of power relations in eighteenth-century European armies

Add to your list(s) Download to your calendar using vCal

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Gui Xi Young.

The fire fight between two opposing infantry lines which formed the foundation of eighteenth-century battlefield tactics, was won not by the physical extermination of enemy soldiers, but by causing them to break formation and flee. Victory was thus achieved when the collective mental endurance of your troops outlasted that of their opponents. Modern scholars cite this rationale when explaining the alleged brutality of old-regime military discipline. According to this view, continuous chastisements in peacetime inured the soldiers to prefer the uncertain fate of marching against enemy cannons, rather than face certain punishment at the hand of their superiors, as Frederick the Great himself has said.

Until now, the sources used to examine the effectiveness of these disciplinary mechanisms were military regulations, court-martial proceedings and officers’ memoirs. No attempt was made, however, to study systematically the perspective of the men who were actually subject to these measures. By looking at written testimonies of old-regime common soldiers, this paper not only deals with a largely untapped source of evidence, but also with material best suited to assess the practical implementation of the eighteenth-century disciplinary regimen. According to these accounts, rather than straightforward top-bottom disciplining, the interaction between officers and men was more reciprocal. Soldiers could act assertively organising boycotts, petitions and carefully-orchestrated displays of public displeasure. Instead of mercilessly crushing such instances of discontent, officers often reacted mildly resorting to threats, negotiations and pardons. Although they occasionally challenged formal discipline, soldiers usually stopped short of mutiny, while officers stopped short of punishment as soon as their authority was again complied with. The power relations between the two groups have thus resembled a continuous tug-of-war in which the men were able to extract considerable concessions from their superiors. This means, however, that rather than solely enforced by terror, the obedience of soldiers was also based on willing consent. Therefore, the view which attributes old-regime combat motivation to successful disciplinary inoculation cannot stand. As long as soldiers agreed to enter combat, it must be assumed they had a more active reason to do so.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

Tell a friend about this talk:

This talk is included in these lists:

Note that ex-directory lists are not shown.


© 2006-2024, University of Cambridge. Contact Us | Help and Documentation | Privacy and Publicity