Casualty Rates

by Rob Morgan

Earlier, I was reading an article in John Tunstill’s magnificent old Miniature Warfare, vol. 2, no. 11, from December 1969, since you ask. The writer, D.B.Clark, takes the late and venerable Charles Grant to task over the now old fashioned ‘50% Rule.’ Remember it? Anyway, in his criticism, Clark mentions several battles in which regiments suffered more, far more, than 50% casualties and, in a few cases, fought on. He sticks solidly to the Horse & Musket era, by the way.

The most devastating losses he mentions, and he does provide almost a dozen examples, is Albuera 1811, during the Peninsular War – an encounter where three British foot regiments, including the 48th, lost around 66% of their strength. At Waterloo, the 2nd Battalion King’s German Legion lost 86%! The heaviest casualty rate he can provide is for Gettysburg, where, during Pickett’s Charge, the 26th North Carolina, he says, lost 87% of its officers and men.

I haven’t searched through the standard texts looking for losses greater than that, but of course in the modern, and presumably the Ancient and Medieval periods, losses could be almost total. In this case, Dien Ben Phu, the French Indochina catastrophe, seems to rank among the worst of all with around 95% casualties, including POW’s.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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16 Responses to Casualty Rates

  1. jimr says:

    The US Army assumes 25% losses are the limit. They will if possible pull out a unit with that many losses and replace them with a fresher one. I do not remember where I read that, but it lodged in my memory. Anyway, I think 50% is extreme. It can happen but it is not typical. But it is ok for modeling. Or, why not rotate your frontline units. After a round in reserve, you can consider the unit refreshed even if depleted.

  2. Peter R. Barkworth says:

    I think the 50% rule was a mechanism invented by Brigadier Peter Young and Colonel Lawford for their wargames rules and book “Charge”, then it was used by Charles Grant and caused many arguments in the pages of “Battle for Wargamers” magazine among readers who wrote in to the magazine stating whether they were for or against it. I always liked the rule – it seemed just right for those types of rulesets. In the Ancient World many units just ran away before any casulaties were suffered, whilst others fought to the death – the Theban Sacred band at Cheironeia had 100% or almost that dead and wounded; some Celtic units fought to the death (some ran away very quickly too) as did some Punic Wars era Spanish. In 1066, it appears many housecarls of King Harold died fighting at Hastings, though we don’t really know how many he had to start with.
    Every wargamer reads and often interprets information in differing ways, so after a lot of research everyone has to make up their own mind about what seems realistic losses on the wargames table weighed against what makes a good game. I have to admit to just reading up and then doing what feels correct to me.
    A very interesting thread.

  3. Martin Smith says:

    Also, in wargaming we have in the past often failed to differentiate between actual casualties suffered and the degradation of a unit’s ability to fight.
    eg I use both Bob Cordery’s Portable Wargame and Neil Thomas’s One Hour Wargames, where a unit might suffer Strength Point losses or take ‘hits’ before being removed, and have to remind myself (and an occasional ‘real’ opponent) that this is a reduction in ability to continue, rather than reduction in number of men still standing. How many members of the unit have been killed or wounded isn’t the decider – it’s the unit’s will to carry on that’s being nibbled away at by ‘hits’ or SP losses. Much harder to quantify than actual casualties.
    In DBA a ‘destroyed’ unit is also specifically noted in the rules as having been scattered, routed, dispersed, lost the will to continue…rather than all KIA.
    Perhaps rules where we removed actual figures from a unit reinforce the idea that we’re measuring casualties, rather than fighting ability??

  4. Rich Barbuto says:

    Martin has it exactly right. Removal of figures or strength points signifies loss of combat power, not just killed and wounded. There are soldiers so shocked by combat that their physical ability to fight is degraded. Their feet are frozen to the ground, or they are cowering behind cover. Individuals believe they have given all they can give and must now save their lives. The unit cannot deliver firepower commensurate with the number of unwounded soldiers. It certainly can’t move forward. I can think of two factors that will restore combat power in the moment. The first is charismatic leadership. Is a leader present who can restore confidence in victory? The second is visual sight of a unit on the immediate flank that is moving forward. The refusal to appear weak in the sight of comrades can spur men on to start firing or to charge alongside fellow soldiers. It may take that charismatic leader to call attention to the possibility of being considered cowardly while others are still actively in the fight. I suspect most morale rules give attention to these two factors. Also, consider restoring figures or increasing combat strength to physically show that a unit is back on its feet.

  5. jimr says:

    In the Rebels and Patriots rules from Osprey, if a company loses 50% of its starting points (normally 12 points), then every unit in the company must take a morale test to see if it still has the will to fight. If the company has lost 75% of its points (normally 18 points), then all units must rout and leave the field.
    In these rules any unit may attempt to rally on each turn. This is used to recover disordered and broken units. Disordered units do not fight or fire at full effect and broken troops are about to run away.
    I am not recommending these rules, but they show one way to take into account degradation of units under fire and also the ability of some units to recover. This is modeled as a random process, not something you can control as the commander of your army.

  6. Brian Cameron says:

    In the early days of wargaming the removal of figures must have seemed like the obvious way to track the declining effectiveness of a unit. That probably became a problem when some players would fight (pointlessly) to the bitter end. With a lack of morale rules applying an arbitrary figure of 50% seemed reasonable given casulaty rates in the rules. I recall the arguments about ‘realism’ but it was actaully about playability.

    One can always find instances in which units suffered particularly high losses, often among units on the loosing side but many battle loss figures for the Napoleonic period are under 20% though that average disguises a wide range of casualties across units.


  7. jimr says:

    When a unit breaks, we might call that loss of morale. If a unit fails an activation roll, we might say that is due to momentary loss of morale. A rally roll restores the will to fight. That seems to operate like a saving roll. My point is by the terminology varies by rule set but the same function is being performed. Degradation happens but it might be reversed.
    I have switched back to individually based figures. A hit removes a figure from a unit. When all six are gone, the unit is broken. The invisible guys run away. Maybe six are invisible. Maybe 12.

  8. Brian Cameron says:

    Jimr – apologies, I didn’t intend to knock individual removal of casualties (I play ‘A Gentleman’s War so can’t), I was just outlining what I recall from the 60s and 70s.

    I’m quite happy to place (scenic) counters for casualtieds either prior to removing a base or with no figure removal at all. It takes me so long to paint figures that I want to keep them on the tabletop for as long as possible!

    I’ve thought for some time that loss of effectiveness is loss of morale. For instance, I was reading about the Indian Mutiny and several instances in which British troops halted after “the most ferocious fire we ever knew”. So ferocious that if you checked the casualties they were low double figures or less. Usually, a general would ride up, make a brief rousing speech to the unit which then ignored the ‘ferocious’ firing andf charged home. I keep making notes on a game where there’s no shooting or firing, it’s all just morale tests. Anyone who has read any of my recent articles will know that I no longer write melee rules, charges are all settled by morale tests. I think tha was how it worked given mellees are rare in many periods. Even cavalry fights in the English Civil War are down to morale rather than the concept of masses of horses and men piling into each other at speed which would, surely, have produced horrendous losses.

    • jimr says:

      Those are good points. In the ACW, casualties from saber and bayonet wounds were very low. Does this mean a charge would find no enemy soldiers at the top of the hill? Maybe they ran away due to loss of morale.
      Regarding reluctance to remove your carefully painted soldiers, I find I am so enamored with carefully setting the board that I don’t want to mess it up by fighting the battle. My battle at Rowlett’s Station involves a blown trestle bridge. I have carefully placed a derailed train but would like a better bridge. Also I need to squeeze in an open field whether the Hoosiers stopped a cavalry charge by forming square.

  9. George Banic says:

    G’day All,
    Some very interesting ideas and comments. I have been thinking about casualties and losses in a campaign context, the former defined as combat injuries and the latter as combat ineffectives due to sickness, straggling, POWs etc. I believe the biggest contributing factor to loss of combat effectives is/was sickness, with disease culling numbers far in excess of losses due to combat over the course of a campaign. Similarly, I also believe the biggest cause of losses to an army came during the retreat or rout from a defeat, particularly where the enemy victor was able to implement a vigorous pursuit. In this case, whole units could be lost through surrender, as noted in the historical accounts, particularly the Napoleonic period. If we’re talking ancient/medieval, then actual casualties I believe were generally higher in the post battle pursuit, when the vanquished had lost cohesion (and will to fight), ditched their weapons to flee and had their backs to the enemy, with historical accounts usually using the term ‘slaughter’ to describe the result! Woe to the vanquished!
    In terms of battle casualties on the tabletop, unless you’re playing 1:1 ratio, the casualties/losses a unit is sustaining due to ‘combat’ is an abstraction, to varying degrees, depending on the focus and/or granularity of the tactical rules in use. My preference is for ‘army’ level games, where there are several Corps sized formations on the tabletop. At this level of abstraction, numbers of dead/wounded are not tracked, the emphasis is generally on a unit’s will and capacity to follow orders and continue to fight. There may be a degradation in combat power to reflect either loss of manpower (actual muskets on line), but could just as easily reflect a breakdown in fire discipline due to panic, confusion, loss of cohesion etc. This would also lead to the unit being less likely to stand and face an advancing enemy in good order. I agree with Brian and Jim that morale appears to be the key factor to a unit’s staying power. I am tending to interpret the ‘hit points’ that units accrue on the tabletop as ‘blows to morale’ rather than troops laid low. In almost all rulesets, high quality (i.e. high morale) units are generally able to shrug off a larger number of ‘hits to morale’ than a green/conscript unit would and also keep advancing and fighting, rather than being halted in their tracks and/or fleeing in panic. However, even elite units can experience shock on the battlefield which can cause them to retreat, e.g. the Old Guard at Waterloo. You also have the issue of panicked troops spreading their panic amongst other nominally steady troops, which again can be attributed to a morale factor. I have to assume that the reason we have an interest in casualties is primarily for the purpose of a campaign? In a set piece, or pick up battle, the tactical rules generally always give you some form of victory conditions, points based on units lost, percentage of army ‘lost’, achievement of specified victory conditions, etc. To my mind, where casualties/losses really become a factor is in the campaign context, as this directly affects the strength of units fielded on the battlefield, and the ability to reconstitute units after battle. Just as important to the number of troops is their morale state, noting the previous comments and examples in the thread. This also directly affects the resilience of the units during maneuvers to the battlefield, and both during and after the battle. The result of the battle (and subsequent battles) will likely also affect general army morale (along with national will/morale), although even in defeat there are historical examples of units and armies that still maintained high morale, so there are no universal truths in that regard. To track casualties, you can either randomise it via die rolls within certain parameters, or there may be a level of granularity in teh tactical rules that indicates how a unit was removed from the battlefield or otherwise sustained casualties, continuous incremental casualties in the firing line, routed due to a cavalry charge, etc which may give some modifiers to the percentage of troops KIA, WIA and POW etc. I don’t have any mechanics to offer in that regard as yet, but it is an area I am currently looking at.

    • jimr says:

      After pondering your post, a Push back/no casualties system comes to mind. Assume all hits are against morale. If a unit suffers a morale hit, no figures or bases are removed. Instead, the unit must back up, vacating its position. If it has been pushed back to the edge of the board, another hit takes it out of the game.

      • George Banic says:

        Hi Jim,
        I like the sound of your ‘pushback’ system! It’s pretty much where I intend to go.

        • jimr says:

          I have been testing a push back rule. Game duration is increased from an average of fifteen rounds to 21. I like it.

          • George Banic says:

            Hi Jim,
            I’m very interested in your push back rule, any chance of getting the details when you’re happy with it?
            Let me know if you need help play testing!

  10. Brian Cameron says:

    An excellent source for the ACW is Battle in the Civil War: generalship and tactics in America 1861-65 by Paddy Griffith. It takes you through all all stages of a battle and particularly explains combat well. Out of print but widely available secondhand.

    My recollection (it’s a long time sicne I’ve seen it) is that the film Red Badge of Courage (the 1951 John Huston version) has a great depiction of a charge.

  11. jimr says:

    George, it is simple. If a unit gets a hit, it backs up one move. In my case, that is six inches for infantry and twelve for cavalry. On their next turn, they can Reid not the original position. The attacker should concentrate fire, trying to push the defender back another move. If pushed off the board, they are scattered. However, I use the event cards from One Hour War games. The rally card allows units to be returned to the board.

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