Huffpost Books
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

William Dietrich Headshot

Napoleonic War Versus the Afghanistan Grind

Posted: Updated:

My Ethan Gage novels take place during the Napoleonic Wars. Did combat of that time produce Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? And was it bad enough that it could it be blamed for killings like the deaths of 16 civilians in Afghanistan allegedly committed by Army Sgt. Robert Bales?

In large part, no. There ware atrocities, yes. Those have occurred in all wars, in all times.

PTSD probably, although that term and its predecessor, shell shock, had yet to be invented.

But Napoleonic combat was a very different kind of warfare, with different trauma, than what American combat infantrymen experience today. The early 19th century was a brutal era with virtually no psychological treatment beyond religious counseling, but Napoleon's soldiers escaped the constant stress of today's warriors.

One of the challenges when writing historical fiction is imagining physical and social conditions very different than our own. In Ethan's day, life moved more slowly, with long pauses between combat.

Certainly Napoleonic war was on a scale not experienced since ancient times. Historians have roughly estimated that the Napoleonic wars killed a million combatants, with many more civilian deaths. It was the first time in many centuries that massive numbers were drafted, with 1.5 million Frenchmen conscripted.

Yet even in the most desperate period of 1813-1814, the French army actually enlisted only about 40 percent of the 20-25-year-olds of primary draft age. Avoidance, desertion, or the paying of substitutes was rampant.

The carnage in a single day of battle was staggering, with a third of the men fighting at Waterloo, Borodino or Leipzig dead or wounded by the end of combat.

But while war became increasingly unrelenting in Spain and Russia, there were long periods in which military rivals had no contact. As bad as battles were, they ended relatively quickly. There was no aerial bombing or long-range artillery or missile attack.

Muddy roads and lack of tents meant operations slowed or shut down in winter. Poor communication meant soldiers had little idea of family problems back home.

In reading first-person accounts of warfare in that time, the constant reality was endless marching with about 65 pounds of gun and gear, with little idea what was going on. There was no news as we know it. Shoes and boots were the equivalent of today's rubber and gasoline, and drafted cobblers were often kept from combat to repair footwear.

Living conditions were less comfortable. Once on campaign, shelter was rudimentary. It took too many horses to bring along tents for everyone, so ordinary soldiers either temporarily crammed into houses wherever they were marching, or slept without covering outdoors. But campaigns had an end in sight. You marched in spring, finished by fall, and usually rested in winter.

Food and water were a constant preoccupation. The huge new armies were difficult to feed and had to steal much of their provisions from whatever countryside they were marching through. Soldiers were often wet, hungry, thirsty, and frequently sick.

Massacres occasionally occurred after hard-fought sieges, but an Afghanistan-like slaughter was difficult. With each shot, a gun was empty until laboriously reloaded. Muskets were so inaccurate that a separation of as little as a quarter-mile could leave a soldier reasonably safe from small arms fire. Foxholes and trenches were almost unknown.

Napoleonic armies wielded the bayonet, but actual metal wounds from face-to-face fighting were rare. A bayonet charge usually resulted in one side or the other running away.

For the individual soldier, battle was a thing of confusion. Black powder smoke was so thick, and guns so loud, that soldiers fought half-blind and half-deaf. One officer ordered to charge at Waterloo was so disoriented by the smoke that he had to ask in which direction.

Combat was an ominous march to within 50 or a hundred yards from an enemy, volleys of incredible violence through a blinding fog, and then, after one side or the other broke, a pause. The unrelenting grind of modern fighting was not experienced.

The brief moments of combat were probably worse than today's, with the soldier exposed, casualties horrific, and medical care almost nonexistent. What was different was that combat was confined to battlefields that at their biggest were about three and a half miles wide, and that the slaughter usually ended at sunset, not to be repeated for weeks, months, or years.

Recruits were much poorer than today's soldiers, but also had little stress from financial decision-making. Marriage was infrequent, and any wives and children stayed with extended families.

That doesn't mean Napoleonic war was better, or worse. It does mean the stresses were very different. Napoleon's biggest battles, from Austerlitz through Waterloo, took place in less than a decade. Combat in Afghanistan has already extended longer than that, with no end in sight.

Small wonder that some modern soldiers snap.