To Soothe Themselves and Forget Danger

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Napoleon said, “The instinct of man is not to let himself be killed without defending himself,” and so soldier fire their weapons, Colonel Ardant Du Picq notes — to soothe themselves and forget danger:

And indeed man in combat is a being in whom the instinct of self preservation dominates at times all other sentiments. The object of discipline is to dominate this instinct by a greater terror of shame or of punishment. But it is never able entirely to attain this object; there is a point beyond which it is not effectual. This point reached, the soldier must fire or he will go either forward or back. Fire is then, let us say, a safety vent for excitement.

In serious affairs it is then difficult, if not impossible, to control fire. Here is an example given by Marshal Saxe:

“Charles XII, King of Sweden, wished to introduce into his infantry the method of charging with the bayonet. He spoke of it often, and it was known in the army that this was his idea. Finally at the battle of —— against the Russians, when the fighting started he went to his regiment of infantry, made it a fine speech, dismounted before the colors, and himself led the regiment to the charge. When he was thirty paces from the enemy the whole regiment fired, in spite of his orders and his presence. Otherwise, it did very well and broke the enemy. The king was so annoyed that all he did was pass through the ranks, remount his horse, and go away without saying a word.”

So that, if the soldier is not made to fire, he will fire anyway to distract himself and forget danger. The fire of Frederick’s Prussians had no other purpose. Marshal Saxe saw this. “The speed with which the Prussians load their rifles,” he tells us, “is advantageous in that it occupies the soldier and forbids reflection while he is in the presence of the enemy. It is an error to believe that the five last victories gained by the nation in its last war were due to fire. It has been noted that in most of these actions there were more Prussians killed by rifle fire than there were of their enemies.”

It would be sad to think the soldier in line a firing machine. Firing has been and always will be his principal object, to fire as many shots in as short a time as possible. But the victor is not always the one who kills the most; he is fortunate who best knows how to overcome the morale of his enemy.

The coolness of men cannot be counted on. And as it is necessary above all to keep up their morale one ought to try above all to occupy and soothe them. This can best be done by frequent discharges. There will be little effect, and it would be absurd to expect them to be calm enough to fire slowly, adjust their ranges and above all sight carefully.

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