And Away He Goes -
and There Goes Another!
One way soldiers coped with bad rations and irregular pay was to desert - sometimes in ruinously large numbers. Often alone or in small groups, soldiers would quietly slip away from their regiments and disappear. One or two men at a time may not seem much, but one or two hour after hour, day after day, week upon week - well, you get the picture. Some units of the Army of Flanders lost seven percent a month to desertion; in 1576, that army shrank from 60,000 in June to 11,000 in November. In 1636, the French Army of Champagne operating in the Netherlands shrank to 6,000 by June from a strength of 14,200 at the beginning of the year. A few Spanish companies had their captain, the ensign, a drummer, another officer or two, a couple of sergeants and perhaps a dozen men. Precise numbers of soldiers, however, were hard to obtain; captains were often paid amounts set by the captain's count to disperse to their men and a captain who overstated his company's strength kept the difference.
Of course, commanders used measures to help prevent desertion but were far from 100 percent successful. For those caught, measures could range from execution to corporal punishment to onerous duties around camp. Sentries were told to be on the lookout for those going out as well as in. To get by sentries and roving officers, a soldier could pretend to forage and range farther and farther out until... Or while on sentry duty, go out to "investigate a sound..." A few simply bolted for escape. One way or another too many were successful during some campaigns.
Once escaped, a deserter may have attempted to find his way home, not so difficult if he was English in the English Civil War or a lad from Flanders just across the border in France. But if he was from, say, Spain and deserted in the Lowlands or a Finn and skipped out in southwest Germany, returning home was a challenge, sometimes too challenging. Those deserters could have tried to engage in legitimate work in their new homes or, as often happened, resorted to begging and/or banditry. Some actually rejoined the military, on occasion the other side.
A strong distinction is to be made between desertion and mutiny at this time. Whereas desertion was an act of one or two or three, mutiny could involve as many as an entire army. Furthermore, the soldiers did not leave military service, they vowed instead to do less than their expected duties until their grievances were corrected. Doing less usually meant refusing to do battle unless in self-defense. And the grievance was usually that of tardy pay. For a mutiny, the discontent in the Army of Flanders even selected their own representatives to deal with commanders and purse holders. The Swedish Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, after taking over the Swedish army after the death of its commander, King Gustavus Adolphus, was coerced while held hostage during a mutiny in 1635 to fork over bishoprics and rich land in Germany to displeased officers and scrape together enough coin to cool the soldiers. One mutiny that degenerated into a ruinous riot was by Habsburg soldiers frustrated over lack of pay - some had not been paid in four years - who stormed Antwerp in 1576 and sacked it, killing an estimated 8,000. Like excessive desertion, a mutiny could complicate a siege.