Corvisier, Andre (2007). “A Dictionary of Military History”, English edition edited, revised and expanded by John Childs, Translated by Chris Turner.
Desertion. A soldier has deserted when, after officially enlisting, he subsequently leaves his unit without permission. Desertion was endemic in all professional armies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its increase started after the opening of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 coinciding with the reduction in the number of mutinies and mass refusals by soldiers to obey orders, outbreaks which had characterized the Spanish armies in the Low Countries during the Eighty Year’s War against the rebellious Netherlands, 1567-1648.
An officer who left the colours was rarely treated as a deserter, even if he entered the service of a foreign power. The deserter was nearly always a soldier or a non-commissioned officer who defaulted on his contract of enlistment made with his commanding officer in which he undertook to serve his sovereign and defend his country. No distinction was made between the billardeur, a man’s who “cannoned” from one regiment to another in order to received several enlistment bounties, and the man who vanished completely either back into civilian life or into a foreign army. The solder who deserted with his arms, equipment and uniform compounded his offence as his company commander was put to the expense of providing a new recruit complete with his accoutrements and, in the British Army, the deserter would not have finished paying his commanding officer for his clothing. Company officers went to considerable lengths, including advertising in newspaper, to recover theirs lost sheep. Desertion was treated as a very serious offence in all armies. It was, however, principally a problem confined to the ill-paid infantry; the better-off cavalrymen, usually from higher social strata, did not show the same distressing tendency to run from their colours.
Desertion was not a peculiarly military phenomenon. It as endemic in civilian life as well as in the army and the navy; servants ran from their employers, apprentices escaped from their masters, sailors fled from their ships and soldiers left their colours. Society was under-legislated and their notion of contract and social responsibility was ill-developed. Also, many of these lower-class occupations were little better than penal servitude into which young people had been forced against their wills. After 1693, British recruits were supposed to have their “voluntary” enlistment “attested” by a justice of the peace but, in reality, the majority of soldiers were directed into the army by poverty, destitution, the need to escape the law, press gangs, trickery and “crimpers”, kidnappers who took civilians forcibly from the streets before selling them to recruiting agencies. Soldiers took the first opportunity to desert. A poor harvest might cause a dearth of agricultural employment leading to many labourers entering the army. In reverse, an upturn in agricultural employment could also lead to a spate of desertions. Desertion was also easy. British soldiers were billeted in groups of three or four in public houses across the country, irregularly supervised by non-commissioned officers. Soldiers quartered in London often had part-time jobs and did not see their officers for weeks on end. On active service, opposing armies were often in close physical contact making desertion to the other side a simple business. Indeed, most armies encouraged such desertion as it depleted the enemy, augmented one’s own forces and provided intelligence of enemy movements and intentions. Frederick the great enlisted the entire Saxon army into his own after the surrender at Pirna in 1756. Most of it evaporated within the next twelve months.
Despite the death penalty, service in the French galleys, flogging, running the gauntlet and other ferocious punishments, armies could not stem the flood of desertions. During the 1743 campaign in the War of the Austrian Succession (1742-8), it was common for forty Frenchmen to desert every day. Towards the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the French lost 10,000 men a year through desertion despite a deserter having to run the gauntlet ten times for the first offence plus an additional eight-year enlistment, if he was caught, and fifteen years behind the oars of a Marseilles galley for a second offence. In the peacetime decade of the 1780s, an average of 3,000 men deserted every year. The Prussian army lost enormous numbers from among its foreign soldiers. Infantry regiment no. 39 lost 1,650 betwrrn 1756-63, and the Guard Regiment of Postdam, one of the foremost in the whole army, saw 3 officers, 93 non-commissioned officers, 32 musicians and 1,525 men desert, besides 130 suicides and 29 executions. Prussian camps were guarded day and night to prevent desertion and a special detachment of the provost marched behind the rearguard to discourage deserters. Desertion reached its peaks among defeated and retreating armies. Thousands left the Prussian army during its withdrawal from Bohemia in 1744 and after the Battles of Zorndorf in 1758 and Kunersdorf in 1759, the Prussian army melted away from a combination of casualties and desertion. As the remnants of the Franco-Bavarian army fell back from Blenheim in 1704, it disintegrated amidst the mountain passes of the Black Forrest. Desertion was the bane of George Washington’s army during the American War of Independence. Even after the founding of the Continental Line Army, it proved almost impossible to prevent soldiers trickling homewards.
The coming of the conscription during and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars largely brought the problem of massive desertion to an end. It has continued on a small scale, both in wartime and in peacetime. and a clear distinction is now drawn between the deserter who simply leaves the forces without permission and the defector who flies abroad. Universal conscription and short-service enlistment have also done much to reduce the need for desertion, along with improvements in pay and status. Where all young males have to undergo a two- or three-year term of conscription, the duty becomes unavoidable and the social stigma attached to obvious desertion unacceptable. The wider the military recruitment net has been cast, the smaller has been the problem of desertion. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the problem for European armies has been the avoidance of the draft rather than desertion. However, where foreign nationals have been mobilized by another power, especially if the have been coerced, massive desertion has continued to be the order of the day. Poles absconded from the Russian army, Czechs escaped from the Austrian and the Saxons deserted Napoleon. Desertion in peacetime is now a peripheral issue for armed forces but it remains a difficulty for certain armies in wartime.