Soldiers are warriors who fight for pay and, as such, are comparitive latecomers to the field of human conflict. The warrior may be as old as human society itself, born of its need to protect family, territory and possessions against the greed and envy of neighbours. This book is an attempt to trace how warriors became soldiers.


00 Foreword & Introduction
01 The Face of Battle
02 Fighting Spirit
03 Infantry
04 Cavalry
05 Gunner
06 Tank
07 Casualty
08 Sapper
09 Air Power
10 Commander
11 Sinews Of War
12 Irregular
13 Experience Of War


"The process of human beings making war against each other simply fascinates other human beings, and that includes us. Exactly why it does must be a matter for moralists and philosophers, and none over the centuries has really come up with the ultimate answer. We know only that we do appluad our victorious fighters, we do thrill to a marching band, and we do pay authors and film-makers to describe for us or show us acts of warfare. However, a moral tract or even an explanation of the 'why' of warfare this book is thankfully not. The 'when' of warfare is a simpler matter, an affair of historical study, and this is only touched upon in this book to explain and clarify. It is the 'how' of warfare that concerns us here and makes this book a new addition to our understanding...
Here we meet the infantryman, from the great empires of the ancient world to the Roman legionary tramping with sword, shield and spear, pack and bedroll, complaints and blisters, along the dusty roads of Europe; we follow him down the centuries to the oh-so-similar Marine truding across the bleak moors of the Falklands with his rifle and rain-cape, his blisters and his identical complaints about the sergeant, the food and the asterisking weather...
War changes men and it changes Man; it alters our world and our history, our political systems, our social attitudes, our perceptions and our moralities. By showing how men go into it, pass through it and emerge from it, 'Soldiers' tells us something we need to know."
    - Foreword by Frederick Forsyth

From the mid-16th century onwards, European campaigning was dominated by the foot soldiers. And, increasingly, he was the permanently employed servant of one royal master, a 'regular' soldiers, armed and clothed in a uniform manner.
The model on which the bodies of regular infantry were based was still that of the old mercenary companies of the late Middle Ages, in that the tactical unit remained the companu, commanded by a Captain, with a lieutenant and sergeant-major as his principal assistants. Under the new dispensation, however, the rule of 'regiment' of a Colonel, appointed by the King, was imposed on groups of companies for administrative purposes. These regiments, about a thousand men strong, became the principal instrument through which the European states settled their religious, dynastic and political differences from the 17th to the 19th century.

Resolute infantry which kept its ranks closed nevertheless remained impervious to successful attack by any save its own kind.

In 1940, tanks, tactical aircraft, self-propelled artillery, motorized infantry; these elements of machine-age warfare were to invest its operations with the rapidity and reach not seen since the irruptions of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

Hardship and suffering are inseparable from the human experience of war; it is, indeed, war's purpose than humanity should suffer, to the point where one side is unwilling or unable to sustain the strain.

The hoplites of the Greek city state militias took their place in the phalanx at the side of their neighbours whose good opinion counted more strongly with them than fear of the enemy. The Roman legions made their smallest tactical unit the tentful of men who messed together throughout their service. Regular armies made the platoon or company the unit of both comradeship and firepower. And in the great conscript armies of our century, drafts of reservists have been trained together from the start of their service to foster that comradeship between them that they will need to see them through the fires of combat.
This 'buddy' system, based in the words of the American military theorist, SLA Marshall, on a man's fear of losing 'what he holds more dear than life itself, his reputation as a man among other men', seems ultimately to be what armours the individual against the terrible experience of war. His personal observations from two world wars led him to believe that, above all, men were unwilling to appear cowards in the eyes of their comrades: 'personal honour is the one thing valued more than life by the majority of men'.


"The courage of Achilles came from the knowledge that with his superior strength and skill, if he attacked with vigour, he would triumph always. His courage was his best shield, it protected his life. The courage of the modern soldier - alas what good is our courage? Does a man defend himself against the earthquake which is going to swallow him up?"
        - Jean Galtier-Boissiere, First World War veteran

The face of battle known to the knight was one seen at close hand, often at arm's length, a face larger than life, stark and menacing in feature, blood-suffused, grimacing, contorted by the rictus of a war cry thrown into the teeth of the enemy. The face shown to the fusilier is veiled by smoke and distance, an impersonal face, impressing its features upon its victims by indirect and insubstansial means - noise, shock wave, psychological sensations. The medieval man-at-arms confronts danger in the person of a man like himself, armed and caparisoned for combat hand-to-hand. The soldier of the industrial world apprehends danger through his nerve-endings, guessing at the risks he runs and sustaining his courage not by seeking to fill his enemy with fear greater than his own - since the enemy is unseen - but by denying his own fear to himself through an act of will.

Battle, as far as we can tell, was not a Stone Age activity. The emergence of battle as an activity is related to the abandonment of a hunter-gathering existence for one based on pastoralism or agriculture.

Pride in rare and precious weapons and individual skill at arms remained the basis of success in battle until very late in history. The successors of the barbarians who overthrew the Roman Empire continued to depend for victory upon skill and courage in single combat almost until the end of the Middle Ages.

The onset of mass-produced weapons, something approaching which was made possible by the introduction of iron about 1200 BC, confronted the champion of single combat with a threat he had not previously had to face. It was that of a body of enemies who, because they could match him both in quantity and quality of weapons, did not need to equal him in skill in order to beat him. Not, at least, if they were prepared to undergo collective training and to conform vigorously to drill and to orders during the course of action.

Hector and Achilles fight as individuals, indeed as Homer tells us, almost as performers under the eyes of their assembled supporters. The object of each is to outwit the other in the skill with which he handles sword and shield; their encounter is certainly a duel, even a variation on a sporting contest, despite the grim and bloody outcome it will for whoever proves the loser.
There is nothing duel like about Chinese battles in the fourth century BC. It is a conflict of masses, armed and dressed in uniform fashion, ordered in ranks behind banners that mark where they must take and keep station and maneuvered against the enemy by drumbeat. Their activity is not one enhanced or furthered by individual initiative. On the contrary, success depends on the subordination of self to the will of the group, upon obedience to orders, in short, upon discipline.

140 German divisions attacked the Western armies in May 1940, a force of some 1,200,000 fighting soldiers. At the end of the campaign, six weeks later, their fatal casualties were fewer than 30,000, or about 2% of those engaged. If the wounded are included, German casualties in a campaign that overwhelmed Belgium, Holland and France were less than half of those the Kaiser's army had suffered at the battle of Verdun in 1916. Verdun had ended in stalemate; the 1940 campaign had made Germany master of the West.


It was the robust, hard-marching and hard-fighting legionary who played the leading role in taking and holding an empire which, at its height, ran from Scotland to Egypt and from Portugal to Syria. Other empires were won by swarms of horsemen or wide-ranging fleets, and later conquerors had burgeoning technology to aid them. The Roman empire was that uniqye phenomenon: an infantry empire, carried on the hobnails of legionaries' caligae and won by the rough iron of their pila.

Good weapon-handling had always been essential in any closely packed formation, but with the presence of large amounts of gunpowder in the ranks, and the use of muzzle-loading muskets whose manipulation required a series of precise actions to be carried out in a set order, the consequences of errors of drill were very serious. Indeed, Marshal Gouvoin Saint-Cyr was later to estimate that one-quarter of all French infantry casualties during the Napoleonic Wars were caused by men in the front rank being accidentally shot by their comrades in the rear.

A late 18th century Prussian experiment, in which a battalion of infantry fired at a target one hundred feet long by six feet high, representing an enemy unit, resulted in 25% hits at 225 yards, 40% hits at 150 yards, and 60% hits at 75% yeards. Under the stress of battle the propotion of hits would inevitably decline still further.

The footsoldiers firearm, which had undergone little change for over a century, was transformed by the technological developments of the 19th century. First. in the 1830s and 1840s the flintlock was superseded by the simpler and more reliable percussion lock. Next, the smooth-bore musket was replace by the rifle. The latter was already a proven weapon for picked troops, but its extension across the whole of the infantry greatly increased the range and accuracy of the weapon in the hands of the humblest foot soldier.
The American Civil War was the first major conflict in which most of the infantry on both sides carried the rifled musket, and it demonstrated, at grievous human cost, that the new weapon gave the defender the advantage over the attacker. To launch a frontal assault upon steady infantry armed with the rifled musket was to invite catastrophe.
In the 1860s and 1870s the muzzle-loader was replaced by the breech-loader: the soldier was now spared the wearisome ritual of tipping powder and ball into his weapon and ramming it home. What was more, he could easily load and fire lying down.
Finally, towards the end of the century, metallic cartidges and smokeless powder made possible the bolt-action magazine rifle, which was to remain the major infantry weapon until the end of the Second World War.


Some four thousand years ago, when somewhere on the egde of the great sea of grass that fills the plain of Central Asia, man first tamed the horse and broke it to his will, it was the beginning of a relationship that would transform warfare, and so trade, agriculture and politics.

By about 1800 BC, the Steppe people of Southern Central Asia succeeded in co-ordinating their skills as horsemasters, harness makers, smiths and wheel-wrights, and so produced the revolutionary war chariot.

The war chariot must have been an enormously expensive creation, requiring for its construction and maintenance a heavy investment of rare skills and rarer commodities. Those who drove and fought from chariots came naturally to constitute a distinct class whom pre-historians call the 'chariot aristocracies'. However obscure their origins, the chariot aristocracies were rapidly to make a mark upon the world which would not be forgotten. Bursting the bounds of their Central Asian heartland, they overthrew the established order in all the regions that surrounded it. The Aryans took the chariot through Persia into India, the Hitties and Mitani to Mesopotamia and Syria, the Kassites into Babylon, the Hyskos into Egypt, the Celts into Europe.

The armoured horsemen had always suffered from severe operational limitations; in the Holy Land, for example, the Crusaders - perhaps the epitome of the type - carred all before them when the enemy agreed to fight on their terms. When they did not - which was the more usual behaviour of the Saracens, originally Turks of the steppe nomad type - the Crusaders were unable to deliver their battle clinching charges.
By the beginning of the 16th century, a more serious threat than evasive tactics challenged the knight. His armour, as well as his horse, had been vulnerable for over 200 years to the crossbow. The appearance of hand-held firearms really did spell the end to the knight. The fully armoured mounted disappeared from history, like frost from a sun-warmed battlefield, in the first quarter of the 16th century.

Cavalry performed with considerable effect during the Crimean War of 1854-6; the charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava is remembered as a legendary disaster but the charge of the Heavy Brigade in the same battle was a success of the traditional sort.


"Nobody won the last war but the medical services. The increase in knowledge was the sole determinable gain for makind in a devastating catastrophe." (First World War Austrian Doctor)

For many a soldier - be he lancer, legionary, Panzergrenadier or parachutist, hoplite or horse archer - there comes a moment when luck runs ou, and he fails to dodge the pilum, walks into a machine gun's beaten zone, or is framed by the sniper's sight like a fly in a spider's web. Suddenly he is defined by that most bland of collective euphemisms: he is a casualty.

It was not until the 20th century that the majority of casualties in war were caused by enemy action. During the American Civil War the Union army had 96,000 men killed in battle, while almost twice as many - 183,287 - died of disease. In the Crimean War, a conflict infamous for the ravages of disease, 4285 British soldiers were killed or died from wounds, and 16,422 perished from cholera, dysentry or simply from exposure. The Crimea's grim statistics are dwarfed by those of the Seven Years War (1756-63): no less than 135,000 of the 185,000 men recruited into the Royal Navy died of disease.
Even in the First World War, when battlefield technology had increased the killing power of weapons and medical science had made inroads into sickness, 167,000 British officers and men were killed or died of wounds received in France and Belgium, and 113,000 died there of disease or accidental injury.

The remarkable fact is not that a high proportion of the wounded died during the Napoleonic Wars, but that any survived at all. The fortunate few owed their recovery to physical strength and endurance, and to stoical disregard for suffering which was an important attribute in an age when even the pain of a simple headache had to be endured.

The First World War posed a formidable challenge to military medicine despite all the advances of the previous half-century. Science had aided the doctor, but it had also helped the gunner. During the First World War shells, bombs and grenades caused the overwhelming majority of casualties - 60% - in the British Army.

Only 1% of the wounded reaching a medical facility in Vietman died, a figure which compares favourably with the 2.2% in Korea, 4.5% in the Second World War and 7% in the First World War.


The armies of 17th century Europe resembled nothing so much as huge maggots gnawing their way across the face of the land, leaving a trail of famine and destruction behind them.

Whatever deduction theorists might draw from the campaigns of Napoleon, one thing was clear enough: a logistic system based upon pillaging would not meet the needs of 19th century war.

The technological advances of the 19th century influenced logistics as much as they did tactics. Preserved food, in the form of dried or salted meat, had long been available, though the fact that it was often unpalatable made it less than popular. During the Napoleonic wars the French experimented with boiled (boulli) beef in glass jars. The jar soon became a tin, and the name was anglicized into bully beef. TE Lawrence was later to write that the 'invention of bully-beef had modified land warfare more profundly than the invention of gunpowder'. Although tinned food was never to replace fresh rations entirely, it was widely used from the 1860s onwards.

If it is the brilliance of Civil War Confederate commanders like Lee and Jackson that catches the eye, we should forget that, as Peter J. Parish writes, 'the North excelled in the seven-eights of the military iceberg which never surfaced onto the field of battle itself - in supply and organization, and in the relationship of military matters to the grand strategy which embraced much else besides'.

The mechanization of armies had far-reaching logistics consequences. JFC Fuller pointed out that, although an army's requirements for petrol would grow as motor vehicles replaced horses, petrol was less bulky and more easily transported than fodder. Horses munched their way througn fodder even when resting: motor transport used fuel only when running.

In mounting her devastating Blitzkrieg operations in 1939-41, Germany fired the starting pistol for a race that she could never win. The creation of panzer divisions represented a concentration of finite resources which had painful consequences for less favoured formations: as late as 1944 the infantry divisions facing the Allies in Normandy relied heavily upon horse-drawn transport. In contrast the Allies built up a logistic superiority which enabled them to crush the Germans in a 'Materialschlacht' - a battle of equipment.

Charles Moskos estimated that 'approximately 70% of men in Vietnam cannot be considered combat soldiers except by the loosest of definitions', while Peter Bourne suggested that only 14% of American soldiers were actually involved in combat. American commanders were constantly bedevilled by a shortage of infantry. In mid-1966, when US strength was 276,000 and the Koreans and Australians produced another 30,000, there were only 44,800 infantrymen, and just 30-35,000 of them were available for operations away from bases. The 'world of the rear', with its insatiable demands, soaked up American manpower.


The irregular appears in many guises. He may be a peasant or townsman, fighting covertly against a government he despises; an intellectual visionary, striving to bring about the collapse of society in the hope that something new and worthwhile will emerge from the rubble; or even a specially trained member of a regular army, using the irregular tactics of subversion, ambush, demolitions and dirty tricks.
Whether fighting in a revolutionary army, or in a specialist unit operating behind enemy lines in a conventional war, the irregular needs initiative, perseverance and dogged courage: for him the path to glory all too often leads to the scaffold or the firing squad.

Urban guerrilla movements in many Latin American states achieved impressive short term successes. Yet usually their long-term effect was to produce a repressive regime, with a military and police apparatus designed to combat the urban guerrilla. In Uruguay, for example, the skilful, almost puckish 'Tupamaros' succeeded in bringing down a liberal government and replacing it by an authoritarian regime which promptly obliterated them. As Regis Debray observd, they had dug the grave of democracy and fallen into it themselves.


"The first lesson to be learned on the battlefield was that the closer you were to an enemy, the less did you hate him."
        - Hannah Arendt, "The Warriors"

Alfred de Vigny went to the heart of the military experience when he observed that the soldier is both victim and executioner. Not only does he run the risk of being killed and wounded himself, but he also kills and wounds others.

For centuries the act of killing was direct and personal, accomplished at close range: it may even be so on a modern battlefield.

When rumours of atrocities or the work of propagandists inject hatred into battle, men kill without mercy. This sort of behaviour generates counter-atrocity to produce a vicious circle of mutual crutality, and tends to be most common where opponents are divided by strongly-held political views or by racial or cultural barriers.
Even when enemies have much in common, the rough law of battle often dictates that prisoners are not taken. A man who offers to surrender during a firefight, when his opponent's blood is up, has at best a 50-50 chance of having his offer accepted. "No soldier can claim a right to 'quarter' if he fights to the extremity", maintained Charles Carrington.

Outside those moments of supreme crisis, however, the soldier may well be reluctant to kill his enemy, recognizing him as a fellow human being who too has to run war's perilous gauntlet. Soldiers go to war focusing on an abstract image of their enemy, an image formed by training and propaganda. As they meet him in his human form, this cariacature is replaced by a concrete image of the enemy as a man: hostile, perhaps, but a man nonetheless.

"Thinking about Vietnam once in a while, in a crazy kind of way, I wish that just for an hour I could be back there. Maybe just to be there so I'd wish I was back here again."
        - American Vietnam veteran


Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.

By Keegan: Intelligence In War * Second World War * First World War * History of Warfare