Do we know how many?

Counting plays a crucial role in evaluating war. We often discuss wars in terms of numbers – number of troops, number of troops killed, number of prisoners, numbers that reveal the cost of campaigns.

British Weekly Army Return, 16 August 1762, Cuba

the national archives, Kew (London), WO 34/55, 192-3

The image shows a weekly ‘return’ – a type of military document that became increasingly common in European armies across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Under headings of ‘fit for duty’; ‘sick in camp’; ‘sick in hospital’, and so on, officers recorded numbers of officers and rank and file troops. These completed forms were then sent back to headquarters – in this case, the Secretary of War based in London – for officials to keep track of the total number of effective troops as well as rates of sickness, death, and desertion.

As with all forms of paperwork, the practice did not live up to the ideal. Even though these forms were to be sent in regularly, and monthly returns would be checked against weekly returns to catch mistakes, historians are wary of taking these numbers at face value. And it isn’t surprising that during war, officers sometimes struggled to fill returns out regularly, or even post them back. Yet the expectation of regular counts indicates the importance officials ascribed to numbers.

Numbers are not always about accuracy. In his history of measurement, Alfred Crosby uses the example of a Medieval war poem to point out that numbers were “used for effect, not for accuracy.” The victorious side killed 1,000 men; or took 10,000 prisoners; or fought against an enemy that outnumbered them ten to one. People were not so foolish as to think that these numbers were accurate. Instead, they served as symbols that represented the great effort applied or the impressive feat that was accomplished. This is why military historians are often skeptical about the accuracy of numbers in battle accounts: it isn’t clear if those at the time were recording numbers for their own sake, or were using numbers to convey the magnitude of the challenge facing them.

The nineteenth century is usually seen as the period in which numbers – accurate numbers – became central to ways of thinking about the world. Governments increasingly demanded numbers, or statistics (measurements to do with the state); medicine also became focused on numbers as ways to evaluate disease and health. The philosopher of science Ian Hacking has analysed the ‘avalanche of numbers‘ that developed in this period; the historian of science Theodore M. Porter likewise points out that the increased use of numbers also required trust in numbers. In his 1871 inaugural address to the London Statistical Society, the epidemiologist William Farr captured the optimism and ambition – as well as the Anglo-centrism – of nineteenth-century numerical methods. “Statistics underlies politics; it is, in fact, in its essence the science of politics without party colouring” claimed Farr; “it embraces all the affairs in which governments, municipalities, local boards, and vestries are concerned.”

Who counts?

Although Farr contended that statistics provided an objective science of politics free from partisan concerns, he was also explicit that statistical methods were part and parcel of political power. England’s numerical expertise was both its method of imperial governance and a justification for its rule. According to Farr, the English were, “like every governing race, statistical.” Farr and others thus counted and calculated British power, usually through a population or military census, tabulating who was a Great Power of the world through numbers. Numbers were a reflection of a nation’s or empire’s strength.  Indeed, numeracy was a way to establish power and a tool by which to wield power: it identified what was important (what was worth counting) as well as who was important because of their ability to count.

Yet numbers could also challenge those with power. Farr, for example, worked with Florence Nightingale to enumerate and publish how many soldiers died of disease, especially due to poor sanitation – rather than combat. By comparing mortality rates of military men with their civilian counterparts during the Crimean War (1853-56), Nightingale and Farr used numerical data collected in Army Returns – just like the one pictured at the top – to criticize existing military conditions and military officials, pressuring policy makers to enact reforms.

This diagram compares the mortality of men aged 15 – 45: the black bar shows the number of English civilian deaths; the red bar captures the number of English soldier deaths. The first four categories are all diseases; only the last category is ‘violent deaths’. As with her famous ‘coxcomb’ or ‘rose’ diagrams, Nightingale (likely with Farr’s assistance) made extensive use of the numerical data captured in Army returns, re-formulating these numbers into images and tables that forcefully conveyed her argument about the importance of sanitary reform.

Simply having accurate numbers could also challenge those in power. If we re-examine the weekly return at the start, recorded in Cuba in August 1762, it captures high rates of sickness. Because returns had columns for ‘sick in camp’ as well as ‘fit for duty’, rates of sickness were highlighted for those recording manpower returns and those reading them. And Cuba was particularly sickly for British soldiers in 1762: often more than half the soldiers became sick from so-called foreign diseases, a notorious challenge for military campaigns.

Only 76 out of a total of 233 rank and file soldiers were fit for duty in Lieutenant General St Clair’s regiment; in Lieutenant General Whitmore’s regiment 491 were sick in camp, compared with 299 fit for duty. Those sick would have required attendants, eating up even more precious manpower.

Numbers did not need to be associated with disease to be dangerous. After the French won the Battle of Lauffeld against the Dutch in 1747, some people in Paris challenged the official account of victory. As historian of French public opinion Tabitha Leigh Ewing explains, rumours soon swirled over how many men each side lost, and thus whether the French were indeed victors. The French Army numbered 125,000 men; the Dutch and its allies 100,000. Early reports claimed that the French only lost 8,000 killed and wounded, compared with the enemy’s 14,000 killed and wounded plus 4,000 taken prisoner. Yet a few days later, conflicting reports of 9,200 – or even 14,000 – French losses circulated, compared with only 10,400 for the Dutch. In contrast with French official reports, foreign newspapers reported that, indeed, French losses outnumbered those of the Dutch and their allies by more than 4,000. With these numbers, was it still a French victory? Even more crucially, the public’s demands for and appeals to exact numbers threatened to undermine French royal authority.

In modern democracies, knowing exact numbers is a crucial part of responsible governance. We are used to demands for information from the government.  Indeed, freedom-of-information requests often focus on the release of numerical data, so that we can evaluate the true ‘cost’ of policy. For warfare, this is often calculated in terms of financial cost – how much is expended on military campaigns. But we are also sensitive to the cost of war in terms of the number of lives lost. Military historians often point out that the cost of war, in terms of manpower, has generally been decreasing for Western nations. That is, as a proportion of troops serving and as a proportion of the total population, the number of military deaths in recent wars is fewer than in previous wars. Yet, because we have detailed reporting on exact numbers, if not the individual behind each number, many of us believe the price of any loss is too high. Our views have been shaped by the long history of using numbers to evaluate war. 

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