Cannon Fodder

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

The great European armies relied on cannon fodder, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) explains:

Often the best cannon fodder came from ethnic groups that were systematically crushed by the empire, then groomed as cannon fodder, where their desperation made them easy marks for flattery for “bravery” in the service of the empire that had destroyed their people. The Prussian Army recruited heavily among the Poles, Belarussians, Lithuanians and other Slavic groups. Slavs were excluded from Prussian institutions, which worked out very nicely, guaranteeing recruiters a steady supply of men of military age with no other option. And if they didn’t speak German, they could be taught by the rod.

That’s the horrible logic of recruiting the lowest of the low: The worse their lives become, the easier it is to sign them up as cannon fodder. If you look into the history of the most famous, illustrious military units, you find their origin in a minority ethnic group that’s been brutalized, walled off from the civilian economy, and then offered a chance to take the king’s shilling. Since European armies loved elaborate uniforms, these units would be “honored” with headgear or some other ethnic marker. And sure enough, whip-sawed by desperation and flattery, these units performed heroically, generating more flattery and a tradition of joining up, making the recruiter’s job even easier.

Which is why certain highly-decorated British regiments wear kilts. The Highland Scots, now extinct, scared the life out of Britain in 1745 by wading through better-equipped regular-army units staffed by English soldiers at Prestonpans. The Highlanders weren’t cute, quaint, or beloved in the minds of the London elite, when they heard how the Scots had charged out of the fog, swinging huge broadswords and screaming in Gaelic. The Highlanders were alien monsters — and Papists to boot, the worst crime of all in 18th-c. Britain.

After the inevitable defeat of the small, disorganized, half-armed Scottish invaders, the Empire pursued a classic two-phase plan. First, the extinction of the Highland Scots’ culture. The Earl of Cumberland, in charge of this phase, issued a classic “No prisoners!” order covering all Gaelic-speaking men of military age, armed or not. Anything associated with the rebel ethnic group was banned. Wearing tartan and playing the bagpipes were capital offenses in Scotland in 1746.

So how did it happen that this brutalized ethnic minority ended up marching in the Empire’s parades, decked out in tartan, with the pipes blaring, all through Victoria’s long century? That was phase two, and it worked very well, as it usually does. Once the insurgent ethnic group has been destroyed, it can be made quaint. Its markers — tartan, the pipes — can be used to flatter young Highland men into taking the king’s shilling. And best of all, the utter devastation of their homeland gives them no other options. And that’s always been the bottom line for getting good-quality cannon fodder: Make sure they have no other options.

You’ll find that grim sequence behind every military unit recruited from a crushed ethnic group.

Americans, fixated on skin color as a “racial” marker, tend to understand what the empires did (and do) to non-European groups like the Sikhs but miss how the technique — crush’em, then recruit’em and flatter’em — worked on other “white” European minorities just as well.


  1. Because the Scots were a despised, crushed minority in 19th century Britain…

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Quiet, Scipio, you’re interrupting The Narrative…

  3. Isegoria says:

    Well, the Highland Scots were a despised, crushed minority in 19th century Britain.

  4. Candide III says:

    Mr. Brecher is certainly full of it sometimes. I seem to recall, for instance, that the Roman army of the Punic Wars period consisted of citizens until Marius, that the Russian army that marched into Paris in 1814 was recruited by force from serfs of the same nationality as Suvorov, Kutuzov and Tsar Alexander himself, and that the IJA/IJN suffered under the same handicap. Etc.

    Also, he’s way off the mark with the attention he gives to Soviet penal units. He ought to know that Stalin didn’t use his main units much better. They went after the penals, but that was all. They had the same barrier troops behind, and the kill rate was horrific. Battalion commanders could go through several complements of men just taking a single height. Soviet war memoirs are full of examples.

  5. Suvorov had Swedish and Armenian ancestry. Alexander was at least part German.

  6. Cassander says:

    Left out is that hill people often require rather violent suppressing because they are violent to begin with. Not nearly as bad as horse people, to be sure, but hill people tend to be considerably more ornery than lowlanders.

  7. Thanks, Isegoria. I hadn’t known that the clearances went on that late.

  8. Toddy Cat says:

    Brecher’s biggest problem is massive overgeneralization, plus a need to make somewhat outrageous statements as clickbait. Someone (I think possibly Steve Sailer) once suggested that “Gary Brecher” was actually a pseudonym for some more respectable academic, who used it to vent and give voice to his more outrageous and speculative opinions. I believe that Victor Davis Hanson was mentioned as a possible suspect…

  9. With the thoughts you'd be thinkin says:

    Toddy Cat, Gary Brecher is a pen name of academic John Dolan.

  10. Toddy Cat says:

    Thanks, didn’t know that. Is this commonly known? I didn’t know it.

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