Tuesday, April 6, 2010


For some reason the word stragglers came into my mind today. In my teenage years I used to read a lot of military history, and especially a lot of books on Napoleon and his campaigns. In such books, you become acquainted with the term stragglers. The majority of all armies at the time were infantry, and they marched great distances, day after day. Sometimes there were forced marches, meaning at increased speed or duration, to get to some location before the enemy expected you to get there. Stragglers are those soldiers who cannot keep up with the main body of the army. They stop to rest, or just walk more slowly. They may be physically weaker, or they may be deliberately malingering, planning to desert. If the march is a retreat, and in poor conditions---for example, the retreat of Napoleon's Grande Armée in the Russian Campaign---most of the stragglers will become casualties: deserters, killed by the pursuing enemy, or simply die of exposure.

When the word came to mind today, I realized it must be a dying word, because even the infantry in modern armies is mechanized, and do very little marching, except as physical training. Our army flies to places of conflict, or gets there by naval transport. So I looked up stragglers in my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. It didn't even get its own entry, but was reduced to being appended to the verb straggle, as its noun form. The definition made no mention of armies:

straggle vi straggled: straggling 1. to wander from the direct course or way: ROVE, STRAY 2. to trail off from others of its kind (little cabins straggling off into the woods) straggler n

Next I looked in a more comprehensive dictionary, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, where straggler still had its own entry:

straggler noun 1. A person who straggles; spec. (a) a person who strays away from or trails behind a main body, esp. on a line of march; . . . . .

So ordinary dictionaries have relegated the word to obsolescence, and only the extraordinary dictionaries keep this barbarous relic of the past in their repertoire. It's not a bad thing that stragglers are a relic of the past, of course. But for those of us who like to learn from history, it's good to know the OED is still there to define the terms the modern world has left behind.

Postscript: To give some idea of the numbers of stragglers a failed campaign can have, here is Wikipedia's description of Napoleon's retreat from Russia:

It [the Grande Armée] reached its maximum size of 600,000 men at the start of the invasion of Russia in 1812. All contingents were commanded by French generals, except for a Polish and an Austrian corps. The huge multinational army marched slowly eastwards, with the Russians falling back before it. After the capture of Smolensk and victory in the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and a large part of the Grande Armée reached Moscow on 14 September 1812; however, the army was already drastically reduced in numbers due to bloody battles with Russians, disease (principally typhus) and long communication lines. The army spent a month in Moscow, but was ultimately forced to march back westwards. Assailed by cold, starvation and disease, and constantly harassed by Cossacks and Russian irregulars, the retreat utterly destroyed the Grande Armée as a fighting force. As many as 400,000 died in the adventure and only a few tens of thousands of ravaged troops returned.

1 comment:

Robert Tracy said...

Interesting post. In my day (1967-71) with the Marine Corps we still used the term in a very derogatory way: if a Marine was holding up the rest of us, or falling back on say a long run or march, he was loudly admonished by the DIs as a “straggler”. And the rest of the group would be punished because of this straggler—we had then to run say an extra mile (etc.) in punishment for his straggling. And during a break or as soon as possible we were encouraged to “gang up” on this straggler to “encourage” him verbally and sometimes physically to work harder so that we would not pay a price for his malingering. This was a common term in boot camp because the group was the whole idea, and being in great physical condition was one of the goals. Yet there was a seeming contradiction later. At least in a recon patrol in the jungles of Vietnam, we insisted on going only as fast as the slowest member could manage. This was totally practical because Recon Marines were in supreme physical and mental condition beyond most regular Marines and were a “tighter” group in the knowledge of this. So that the “straggler” was in effect telling the group (the squad) that his effort was the right one. That to “lose” (i.e., ignore) him would be to endanger the rest.