Archive | January 2012

Mapping the Military Past: A Personal Journey

Remember when I said that historians do a lot of work that rarely makes it to publication? What follows is a visually-illustrated history of my experience with mapping history. EMEMH that is.

Way back in the late 1990s, I took a course as a History grad student in Cartography. Even though the professor was horrible, it was one of the best courses I took because he taught us how to use a relatively new technology called a scanner – technically it was a digitizing tablet, because software back then couldn’t handle large raster images. You taped a paper copy of a map to the digitizing tablet, and used the digitizer ‘puck’ (calibrated with a wire grid marked out on the tablet) to digitize points and lines on the map. The resulting line and point positions would be imported into a CAD program (Computer-Aided Design, used by architects and engineers the world over), and you could then add other features to put whatever you wanted on the map. I think one of the assignments was to create a graduated circle map of Australia’s population.

While I had little interest in Australia per se, that cartography course opened up the possibility to make maps all by myself. I recall a friend of mine talking about making his maps by cutting out place names from a printed sheet of paper and pasting them onto a hand-traced map before photocopying the whole thing – remember tracing paper? That sounded like too much work for me (little did I know…), and I’m not artistically inclined enough to draw my own map like something you see in a fantasy novel, so the more I can have the computer do the work, the better. I purchased AutoCAD (thank you, educational discount) and over the remaining years of my graduate career slowly learned how to create my own maps. Here is the tale of my journey from cartographic novice to cartographic dilettante, may you glean some wisdom from it and share your own. Read More…

New Citing this Blog page

Reading and writing about copyright, I decided to make a permanent page to discuss copyright and citation as regards this blog. Check it out if you want to use any of the illustrations that I’ve created and posted to this blog.

The Psychology of Battle

Another aspect of the history of battle is the literature which has developed around the psychology of pre-modern battle. Numerous people have noted the ‘foreign-ness’ of early modern combat, especially the stereotypical version of the 18C linear battlefield. Rather than heading for the nearest foxhole when the shooting starts, you stand tall in rows and ranks, shoulder-to-shoulder with your compatriots, while incoming cannon shot and musketballs whizz around your head and tear up clods of dirt in front of you. After a preparatory bombardment, your officers order a march forward at a steady pace, “opposing [your] naked Breasts to the Showrs of the Murthering Shot.” As American history students well know, you are ordered to hold your fire till you see the “whites of their eyes.” If your advance is successful, you might finish it off with a bayonet charge, although I think most historians would agree that by the time of the bayonet charge, the defenders would usually have thrown down their arms or fled. Various movie-makers have tried their hand at envisioning such a perplexing scene, including Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and Mel Gibson in The Patriot. John Lynn has termed this odd-seeming behavior as the “battle culture of forebearance,” and many historians have described the drill and maneuvers required to train thousands of men to just stand there, to march in step, to slowly (and then increasingly-quickly) advance toward the enemy. Trying to imagine such behaviors, and comparing it with their experience from more recent wars, it’s no surprise that military historians study the psychology of battle.

Ardant du Picq’s Battle Studies provided an early emphasis on how the primitive instinct for self-preservation had to be overcome through motivation, discipline, leadership and tactics. In the 20C, John Keegan reinvigorated the subject by asking academic military historians to put themselves in the boots of the soldier on the battlefield, to imagine what it would have felt like to fight with black-powder muskets. Many have obliged, as mentioned in a previous post. In the 1990s a veteran/therapist Dave Grossman wrote a book setting out a universalist, late 20C psychological understanding of the experience of combat, drawing on modern psychological concepts such as the ‘well of courage,’ and of course relying on the by-now-well-established concept of primary (i.e. peer) group cohesion. Duffy’s Military Experience in the Age of Reason also has a long chapter that goes through the mechanics of battle, including how soldiers likely responded.

French military historians in particular have embraced this psychological approach to battle, not surprising given their deep interest in War and Society topics. Perhaps most surprising is André Corvisier, the doyen of institutional French military history, who turned his hand to writing about the panic and enthusiasm expressed by French soldiers at Malplaquet in 1709, a topic taken up in more detail by Malfoy-Noël.

More recently, Yuval Harari has taken a broad synthetic approach to the subject of the experience of battle, arguing that the idea of combat as revelation was a development of the Enlightenment, with early moderns interpreting the battlefield experience as a matter of mind over body.

This topic necessarily crosses disciplinary boundaries, raising philosophical and psychological questions that a lil’ ol’ military historian like me isn’t qualified to weigh in on. So, that leaves it up to you…

Questions to discuss:

  • What are the best depictions of early modern battle in the movies? How do you judge the realism of early modern battle scenes?
  • How would describe the historiography of the psychology of battle?
  • What kinds of sources would shed light on the psychology of battle participants? Which sources have you found particularly striking for their discussion of the psychology of early modern battle?
  • To what extent can we talk of a “universal soldier,” vs. participants who thought and acted differently from us (the Other)?

Suggested Readings:

  • Du Picq, Col. Ardant. Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1921.
  • Keegan, John. The Face of Battle.
  • Corvisier, André. “Le moral des combattants, panique et enthousiasme: Malplaquet.” Revue historique des armées 12 (1977): 7-32.
  • Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  Little, Brown & Co., 1995.
  • Malfoy-Noël, Dorothée. L’épreuve de la Bataille (1700-1714). Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007.
  • Harari, Yuval. The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Guest Question: Fortress artillery

John Grenier (that’s GREN-ee-er or GREN-ee-ay, as you like it) asked a question in the comments, so I’ll move it here for greater visibility. I’ll give my answer in the comments, and others can chime in as well.

“OK, so I’m looking at the Oct 1756 intelligence reports from Rogers’s Rangers on the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. One of RR’s prisoners reported that Ti held 33 guns (12 18#ers, 12 15#ers, and 9 8#ers) and Crown Point held 18 total, with 18#ers being the largest. I know that is miniscule compared to the numbers in most forts in Flanders, but then again, Crown Point and Ti were (are?) in the middle of nowhere. I wonder, is there some kind of ranking order (1st-rate thru 6th-rate, etc.) for forts, no? Where would a fort with 33 smallish guns, and another with 18, fall in the scheme of things? Of course, these were pretty much stand-alone operations — no mutually supporting forts (unless you consider Ti and CP), garrisons, and magazine systems to help in times of siege. It’s clear by the fall of ’56 that the earl of Loudoun (the Britrish CINC) knew he did not have the transporation system that would allow him to get enough men, guns, and materiel in front of the forts for a siege (yet Montcalm was able to do so the next summer, and had already done so at Oswego). Anyway, just looking for a little context, and I figure this is a good place to ask. Cheers”

The Mercenary’s Wages of War

Discussion of how to explain military behavior ongoing in this post.

We’ve had a discussion about mercenaries and their ilk in the early modern period – hopefully I’ll have some time in the future to create a summary chart, and maybe the discussion will even pick back up! Lots more works out there to dragoon into service.

Going through my notes database I came across this letter from the English writer Joseph Addison to his friend William Congreve. It poignantly described the wages of war:

“I believe this is the first letter that was ever sent you from the middle Region where I am at this present writing. Not to keep you in suspense it comes to you from the top of the highest mountain in Switzerland where I am now shivering among the Eternal frosts and snows. I can scarce forbear dating it in December tho they call it the first of August at ye bottome of the hill. I assure you I can hardly keep my Ink from Freezing in the middle of the Dog-days. I am here enter­tained wth the prettiest variety of snow-prospects that you can Imagine, and have several pits of it before me that are very near as old as the mountain it-self: for in this country ’tis as hard and as lasting as marble. I am now upon a Spot of it that must have falln about the Reign of Charlemain or  King Peppin. The Inhabitants of the country are as great Curiosities as the country it-self. They generally hire themselves out in their youth, & if they are musquet-proof till about Fifty, they bring home the money they have got and the Limbs they have left to pass the rest of their time among their Native mountains. One of the gentlemen of the place, that is come off with the Loss of an Eye only, told me by way of Boast that there were now seavn wooden Legs in his Family, and that for these four generations there had not bin one in his line that carryd a whole [34] Body with him to the grave.”

Papal Swiss Guards flag

From Joseph Addison, The letters of Joseph Addison, edited by Walter Graham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), 33-34. Dated 1 August 1702. This letter was also printed in Richard Steele’s Tatler on 12 November 1709.

Honor in battle, not-as-much for the others

I don’t want to constantly short-circuit discussion in the comments by moving my responses to a post, so keep an eye on the Recent Comments list on the right, or subscribe to them. But Gene mentioned something in a comment in passing that I was going to address as a post at some point, so now is as good a time as any.

The issue raised is: what does “honor” have to do with battle? That is, what is a more important explanation for military behavior and practices (on the individual, group, unit/army, institutional levels): honor, or military pragmatism, i.e. the practicalities of trying to kill the other guy while avoiding being killed yourself? This is obviously a huge issue, and hardly a true dichotomy; the literature on cultural explanations of war is an expanding field that deserves discussion. I don’t have a full answer yet to this broad question, but I thought I’d start a discussion by throwing out there a few thoughts that Gene’s comment triggered.

I’d argue that we need to take honor seriously as an explanatory variable. I don’t have a fully-fleshed-out argument, but here are my thoughts thus far:

First, and as a prefatory remark, honor motivated those doing the fighting – although early moderns tended to think that only the elites (nobles, officers) could be motivated by honor. We need only recall that the early modern period was the golden age of duels, and what were duels but the extension of personal honor from the battle field to the dueling field? And duelers not only risked their own safety, but also potential arrest and imprisonment since, as Louis XIV put it, the officer’s honor on the dueling field was to be replaced by the honor of fighting in his armies. All the other standard aspects of martial honor apply as well: that ‘baubles’ such as medals and awards encourage men to risk their lives, that the peer pressure of shame is a powerful force, that certain failures in combat threaten the honor of one’s manhood, etc.

Specifically regarding the honorable associations of battle, contemporary publications frequently made explicit associations between the honor of battle and the (relative) dishonor of siegecraft. Even today, honor affects how we think about military events, generals, wars and even countries. The honorableness of battle helps frame which types of combat we consider interesting. Look at the number of siege wargames played vs. the number of battle scenarios played by wargamers (lets keep it pre-20C to avoid the battle-siege conflation we’ve discussed elsewhere) – why do we want to relive only the battles over and over again? Another example: why are the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns far more popular than William III’s? And what is it specifically about Marlborough’s campaigns that everyone writes about? Would Marlborough be considered “England’s greatest general” if he hadn’t won Blenheim and Ramillies, but just had “his” conquests of Lille and Tournai? More broadly, who are the “Great Captains” of history and what do they have in common? They win battles, or, perversely, they even lose battles, but at least they were honorable enough to “fight like a man,” and not skulk behind walls. (From Google Books it looks like one of the earliest published appearances of the phrase “fight like a man” comes from 1677.) See my “The ‘Decisive’ Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare,” Journal of Military History, 64 (2000): 649-677 for a discussion of how historians have discussed Marlborough’s campaigns in exceedingly battle-centric terms, and denigrated those who were less willing to fight battles, portraying battle avoidance as practically a pathology.

Non-battle tactics are certainly used, sometimes they even dominate wars, but: 1) contemporaries preferred the honor of battle even as they besieged, 2) the most honorable parts of a siege were those that most closely resemble battle on the open plain (i.e. storming the covered way or a sally for the garrison), and 3) today we aren’t as interested in those wars and tactics, and when we do talk about them, we’re just as apologetic as contemporaries were, often talking as if they weren’t ‘real’ wars. Westerners have been worried about the effect of skulking behind fortifications since the Ancient world – this is a hint that there’s a fundamental Western (universal?) principle at work. Even if you are besieging an enemy fortress and you entrench your own position so it is impregnable against a relief force, you still complain about how you wish they would come out and fight you. We see the same ambiguity with light infantry tactics – they and their practitioners take a surprisingly long time to be accepted into widespread use in Europe, and even then, it is still accompanied by concerns about what effect it will have on the men, and what it says about you that you have to resort to such measures. It’s those thieves, Celtic bandits and Indian savages that skulk behind rocks and trees. Heck, it’s more manly to burn down their villages. A few early moderns I’ve come across explicitly say that while partisan and siege warfare are necessary, there is little honor in them. We could also look at what jurists and warriors have said regarding assassination and ‘feminine’ arts like poisoning the enemy; stratagems are a whole other area where we see this ambiguous debate in the West (and probably elsewhere). You use stratagems, but the best stratagems are those that force a battle, and then those that allow you to avoid a battle. Most importantly, you want to make sure that you aren’t dishonored by getting taken in by an enemy stratagem. In short, you may have to adopt less-than-honorable tactics and weapons, but you don’t brag about it too much, you don’t focus on it, and you don’t fully embrace it for fear of the effects it will have on your self-identity.

Then there’s the question of whether there are ‘more honorable’ forms of fighting or not, i.e. certain weapons or tactics seen as more honorable than others. Most immediately projectile vs. melee weapons comes to mind, and the fact that the differences between them have been discussed in the West for millennia should tell us something. Consider the “Western way of war’s” idealization of hand-to-hand combat, whether it’s Victor Davis Hanson’s account of the hoplites or the persistent view of Orientals fighting sneakily described in Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. And while one *uses* projectile weapons and ‘machines’, if only because the enemy is doing it or because you need to make up for  other disadvantages, the full adoption (and particularly the psychological embrace) of such weapons can take a long time to develop, if ever. This is where honor comes in: it’s not something many (early) adopters are proud of having to hire others to use, or are particularly proud of if they use it themselves. There is less honor in striking down your foe from a distant hiding spot than baring your breast to your opponent, meeting your enemy on the open plain in a fair fight. Look at the ambivalence with regard to snipers vs. a soldier who is brave enough to expose himself to enemy fire. Which of these is a more honorable way of fighting? Which branch gets the most recruits? Which branch is given priority in funding and receives higher status, both social and professional? Unlike the tradition of the steppe plains, the West never really sees its military elite fully adopt projectile weapons as its main weapon – the shock of lance and sword dominate. Even in the age of pike and shot, it’s the pike that is the ‘queen’ of weapons, more honorable because of its connotations of strength and cold steel. I’m not sure, but I wonder if the 18C officer’s honor was validated by the fact that his primary weapon is still bladed, and contrasted with the fact that his inherently less-honorable men use muskets?

We are of course talking in broad generalities here, as there are obvious exceptions to every historical ‘rule,’ and there is at least somewhat of a divide between what the public at large thinks vs. what ‘professional’ military soldiers are told to think in their manuals – although we need to avoid the assumption of modern professionalism in our early moderns. There are distinctions between how you actually fight, how you describe your own way of fighting, how your enemy fights, and how you describe your enemy’s way of fighting. The differences between these tell us a lot about how you view yourself and your wars. Honor plays a key role in this, by describing some ways of war as more honorable than others, – battle and hand-to-hand combat particularly. It may not dictate how every member of your army fights all the time, but it influences how you talk about the method of fighting that you do use, how you would prefer to fight, how long it takes you to change your style of combat (look at the resistance to Vauban that I chronicle in Vauban under Siege), how you respond to the enemy’s actions, and what kind of constraints you put on your fighting. Honor is obviously malleable enough to be wrapped around a variety of ways of war, i.e. you justify your own actions whatever they are. But it’s a lot easier to claim honor if you’re fighting a battle and coming to blows with the enemy.

It seems the importance of honor depends on how you view its construction. Is it an instrumental concept, i.e. a tool people use to encourage certain types of behavior and discourage others? Or maybe there’s a Western or universal honor ideal that people aspire to, an ideal that shapes their identity or provides prescriptive rules of behavior? Perhaps a cynical view is required, where honor is simply a post hoc justification for what you’ve already done or want to do. A big question.

Thoughts would be appreciated, as this topic will be a big part of my battle book.

In the near future I’ll post an extended American football analogy to illustrate my points further.

Suggested Readings

  • I don’t know if anyone has really written a sustained discussion of martial honor in its own terms. Brian Sandberg and Michael Hughes have recently published on masculinity and honor in a military context. John Lynn has talked more generally about different cultural views of combat, and while I disagree with some of his views on Enlightened warfare, it’s an important starting point for a ‘cultural’ approach to war and includes a useful model for the interactions between ideal and real war. There’s been a lot of literature on contrasting ways of war in North America (Patrick Malone, John Grenier, Wayne Lee….) that highlight the ambiguity and hybridity of frontier fighting, including how European/American colonists may have adopted native techniques, but they were clearly uncomfortable embracing them.

Distinguishing battle from siege

Following on previous posts, we’ve broadened out our discussion of battle into battle vs. siege, since I think this is a key dichotomy in military history, at least in military historiography. Sheldon Clare’s comment on a previous post started me musing on how to define siege (vs. battle), and I quickly realized that my response’s length indicated that 1) I need to get a life, and 2) it deserves its own post. So I’ll focus on #2.

To quote Sheldon: “When I think of a siege, I think of a permanent position under attack by a force that has moved into position to isolate, invest, and reduce such a position with the aim of capturing or destroying the value of said position. Trench lines and saps really seem to me to be a type of fighting…”

This reinforces an important point – what criteria do we use to define battle vs. siege? As with everything else, there are numerous criteria one could use – in the previous post I mentioned three: who is attacked (e.g. using Sheldon’s criteria of an encircled garrison in a permanently fortified position), how they are attacked (type of tactics used), and what the objective is. Focusing on the ‘who is being attacked’ is a common tendency, and is certainly justifiable. But I think we need to do two things: 1) separate discussion of siege tactics from siege events before we combine them back together, and 2) give more thought to how the ‘tactics’ of siegecraft were viewed, and what they tell us about military history and about battle as the norm. Too much of this is implicit, and I’d like to see it made more explicit.

Read More…

The Language of Battle and Siege

For those who are too lazy to do the Google Ngram Viewer themselves, here are a few more results.

We’ll start with a repeat of the English language works from last post (recalling that English language works include both English and American works, maybe even a Commonwealth publication or two):

Relative frequency of "battle" and "siege" in Google Books Ngram Viewer

Of course it’s always fun to try to fit such trends to historical details. One minor detail that I’m struck by, but will let you explore at your leisure: why the big drop in “battle” right before 1800? A lack of wars to talk about, or interest in?

Read More…

Naming Conventions for Battles and Sieges

We’ve already talked about some of the weird naming conventions one needs to deal with in EMEMH, but there’s another fundamental issue of terminology that military historians haven’t discussed enough. This requires acknowledging the dominance of ‘battle culture’ in military history and among the public more generally. One way to see this is to look at how we name different military events, i.e. to talk in general terms about the relative popularity of the terms “battle” and “siege,” both in terms of how we label specific events as well as their use as metaphors. I will start with a question that is admittedly a bit outside EMEMH but still instructive to our field.

The question: do you know if anybody has researched the use of the terms “battle” and “siege” as applied to World War I? As far as I can recall, just about every major operation of WWI has a name like the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of the Somme… A quick search of Google Ngram Viewer suggests that this was even the case at the time. So why did they/we choose to refer to these giant operations as battles rather than sieges? Most of the combat itself consisted of trench warfare, supposedly using some of the same techniques as Vauban, with vigorous sallies across no-man’s-land, etc. Isn’t this far more siege-like than battle-like? Read More…

Modern/Historical Analogs as Aids to Understanding

Gene’s comment in the Face of Battle post prompted me to promote this topic to its own post. He raises the issue of how to determine whether understanding a modern phenomenon helps us understand the past better – whether it helps us fill in the blanks of history. Using modern examples is particularly problematic for academic historians, since we tend to ‘Otherize’ the past, i.e. highlight the differences between then and now. How do we decide which modern examples apply and which don’t?

Clausewitz discusses the other side of the coin  – relying on historical examples to support a general claim. I’m not a big fan of citing Clausewitz, but the methodologist in me has always been intrigued by this section from Book 2 Chapter 6 ‘On Historical Examples’ (p172ff in the Paret edition):
“Instead of presenting a fully detailed case, critics are content merely to touch on three or four, which given the semblance of strong proof. But there are occasions where nothing will be proved by a dozen examples – if, for instance, they frequently recur and one could just as easily cite a dozen cases that had opposite results. If anyone lists a dozen defeats in which the losing side attacked with divided columns, I can list a dozen victories in which that very tactic was employed. Obviously this is no way to reach a conclusion. …. An event that is lightly touched upon, instead of being carefully detailed, is like an object seen at a great distance: it is impossible to distinguish any detail, and it looks the same from every angle. …. Another disadvantage of merely touching on historical events lies in the fact that some readers do not know enough about them, or do not remember them well enough to grasp what the author has in mind. …. [W]here a new or debatable point of view is concerned, a single thoroughly detailed event is more instructive than ten that are only touched on.”

On the one hand what he’s saying is quite sensible. But on the other hand, this chapter has its problems.
It could be read as an appeal to replace broader comparative study with the study of particular cases. Obviously a happy medium is required, and there’s as much danger in getting stuck in the weeds as flying above at 10,000 feet. Historians, for example, have been too ready to overgeneralize from their particular focus – looking at the actual year range (and geographical focus) of books that have “Early Modern Europe” in their title would illustrate this.
His successive claim that since history is difficult to recover, “examples should be drawn from modern military history, insofar as it is properly known and evaluated;” he identifies the Austrian Succession as about as far back as one can go and still have good info. This argument is most problematic from an early modern perspective, as it could be read as encouraging modern military historians to ignore anything that happened before Napoleon (or Frederick II), losing any broader sense of the alternatives to modern warfare provided by pre-modern military history. Clausewitz acknowledged that this method only applies to “matters that depend on a precise knowledge of the actual circumstances, or on details in which warfare has changed.” If one limits this qualification to operational and tactical history, maybe. But is Clausewitz saying that you can only go back to the Austrian Succession regardless of when you are living, or rather that you can only go back 70 years or so from your present, or maybe he was only talking about his experience with the German/Prussian historical record? It certainly makes more sense for Clausewitz to argue this than for us to do so today: warfare in 1815 was a lot more similar to the warfare waged in 1615 or 1740 than the warfare of 2000 is to the warfare of 1615 or 1740. I tend to interpret this section as Clausewitz establishing criteria for the military practitioner/theorist focused on the (i.e. his) present, rather than Clausewitz discussing methodology for the military historian. Though he did write military history, he didn’t (from what I know) visit foreign archives, so he presumably had no idea what information is in there, and there’s a lot more than what was available to him from published 18C sources. His historical reflections on the War of the Spanish Succession were based on the published correspondence of Madame de Maintenon after all.
Finally, he indirectly provides contradictory evidence against his point (or at least violates his own strictures), an error which not only highlights the cumulative nature of historical knowledge, but also reminds us of the more systematic nature of modern academic historical research. His “general glance at the age of the Condottieri” (p174) is enough to convince him that the condottieri were divorced from their [Italian] political and civil context – how much detailed case study is this “general glance” based on? More recent historians of Italy, studying the question in far greater depth, have had little problem explaining how the condottieri were a perfectly understandable response to an isolated environment consisting of small, competitive mercantile city-states.