The Face of Battle
Historiography seems to be a popular choice, so I’ll start off our discussion of battle with an off-the-top-of-my-head overview of the literature on early modern battle. (I should probably note that I’ll define battle here in its traditional sense, i.e. as combat in the open field between main armies – we can discuss sieges, small war and naval combat elsewhere. Also, as usual I’ll limit myself to English language works.)
Appropriate to the battle theme, I recently heard of this blog focusing on the mechanics of pike and shot tactics in the early modern period. As of today it only has three posts and seems to have gone dormant awhile ago, but the posts are rather long and set out a question of interest not only to re-enactors and buffs, but to academic military historians as well. In a nutshell: how exactly did the mechanics and physics of pre-modern combat work? Below I’ll provide a cursory historiographical overview of how historians have addressed this issue, and end with a few questions for discussion.
For decades wargamers have turned to publishers like Osprey to provide details on the weapons, equipment and tactics used in battle. Though these topics have usually been considered too buffish for academics looking for approval from their colleagues, John Keegan’s Face of Battle offered academic military historians the opportunity to approach the subject from a more analytically-respectable perspective. In this seminal work Keegan dissected the ‘rhetoric of battle history’ and sought to uncover the face of battle, the experience of combatants on the battlefield across several centuries. Since then numerous scholars have applied this social history of combat to their own periods. Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece spawned a debate among Ancient historians over whether Greek hoplite warfare resembled a crash of charging walls of hoplons, a rugby scrum, or the poking and prodding of pikes past shields. Even earlier, medieval historians like Verbruggen had sought to slay the stereotype of medieval battles consisting of individual duels, and pointed to the discipline and training required for medieval combat. In the early modern period, Michael Roberts’ military revolution emphasized the distinction between shock vs. firepower, and arcane terms like tercio, countermarch, caracole and platoon fire have been popularized as the Military Revolution debate reignited under Geoffrey Parker’s instigation. Historians of the 17C and 18C such as John Lynn have summarized the gradual shift from column to line, as firearms became more reliable and their rate of fire increased. Matthew Spring’s With Zeal and Bayonets Only has recently analyzed how the rugged North American theater influenced British tactical doctrine in the American Revolutionary period. John Lynn’s earlier work on Bayonets of the Republic analyzed the reality of line vs. column with French Revolutionary arms. Roy Muir’s Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon asked this same question of the British combat experience during the Napoleonic Wars. In other words, interest in the mechanics of battle remains high across all periods.
The role of mounted warriors has been less examined by military historians, perhaps because they and their mounts are more foreign to modern men than the foot soldier? Several works have, nonetheless, sought to remind us that the horse still played a dominant role on early modern battlefields. Gervase Phillips highlighted the difficulty finding clear patterns of tactical evolution in his ‘Of Nimble Service.’ As cited in a recent post, Gavin Robinson’s recent article on English Civil War cavalry inquires more directly whether cavalry actually charged and crashed into the enemy (displaying skepticism akin to Keegan’s regarding the physical impact of the bayonet charge); he similarly inquires whether they actually used the caracole – another one of those terms that sets off debates at Society for Military History conferences.
An important aspect of the mechanics of battle is drill, training and tactical doctrine (if that’s not too anachronistic a term). Historiography has focused here primarily on the extent to which various national establishments were using the most ‘advanced’ techniques, whether they were fully a part of the tactical Military Revolution or not. The stage for this debate was set by Robert Quimby’s early account of the 18C debate over line vs. column set off by iconoclasts like the chevalier de Folard. Prussia’s Frederick the Great has been (perhaps unjustly?) famous for his iron discipline. Houlding’s Fit for Service approached the topic a bit more broadly, looking at how the British army trained its troops across the 18C. David Lawrence’s recent The Complete Soldier applies the history of the book to the topic, looking at the context of English manuals as much as their content. One of the main debates within this subfield revolves around dating the advent and spread of specific tactical maneuvers. For example, who developed the countermarch: was it the Dutch, as Parker and others have argued, or instead the Spanish, as González de León has recently claimed? A similar debate exists regarding platoon fire: are the British stealing Dutch credit for this ‘innovation’?
Some scholars have argued for particular ‘national’ ways of war on a tactical level. Most notable in this regard is the work of the (interesting to say the least) J. Michael Hill, who argued for a Celtic way of war based on the famous Highland charge. Other scholars have discussed the difficulty of countries facing opponents in very different theaters, such as the Russians (Christopher Duffy) or Austrians (Alexander Balisch), who faced both ‘modern’ Western European powers like Sweden and France, while at the same time needing to defend themselves against the steppe warrior tradition along their wilder border, threats embodied by the Tatars and Turks. Historians of the American colonies have been the most active contributors to the “ways of war” debate, with scholars from Patrick Malone to John Grenier emphasizing the tension between bravely fighting like ‘civilized’ Europeans vs. skulking and scalping like brute savages.
In short, lots of historians have addressed these issues of the mechanics of tactics. What have we learned from this? What is left to study?
Specific questions to discuss:
- What general lessons have we learned about the methodology required for reconstructing the face of battle? For example, what should be the proper relationship between eyewitness accounts, theoretical training manuals and appeals to the ‘universal’ physics of combat (and what sources allow us access to that)? How do we balance what the manuals and accounts tell us vs. what our “common sense” (tactical Inherent Military Probability?) tells us about things like the push of pike, etc.? As an example, how convincing do you find Keegan’s argument that it was impossible for bodies to pile up around a defensive position (as described in contemporary descriptions) because film footage of Holocaust camp bodies illustrate the physical impossibility of such piles? Or Robinson pointing to modern footage of thoroughbreds colliding on the racetrack to illustrate the impossibility that cavalry charges crashed into the enemy? Or modern test firings of period weapons (as descried by Bert Hall among others)?
- How do we explain these tactical practices? To what extent were they shaped by ‘paradigm’ tactics, or were they dictated instead by theater-specific considerations (climate, terrain, troop-type availability…)? How much of this change over time is explained by the military quest for tactical perfection (responding to specific threats), vs. cultural views of which tactics best fit a particular people?
- More broadly, how useful is such a discussion of the details of battlefield tactics to academic military history? How important are battlefield tactics for the academic field of EMEMH? Are we spending too much time on it, at the expense of other factors?
So, what do you think?
- Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Quimby, R. The Background of Napoleonic Warfare: The Theory of Military Tactics in Eighteenth Century France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.
- Nosworthy, Brent. The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics 1689-1763. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990.
- Jörgensen, Christer, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World AD 1500 – AD 1763: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005.
- Houlding, J.A. Fit for Service, The Training of the British Army 1715-1795. Oxford University Press, 1982.
- Lawrence, David R. The Complete Soldier: Military Books and Military Culture in Early Stuart England, 1603-1645. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008.
- Lynn, John. “Tactical Evolution in the French Army, 1560-1660.” French Historical Studies 14 (1985): 176-191.
- Lynn, John. The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
- Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996 (orig. 1988).
- González de León, Fernando. “‘Doctors of the Military Discipline’: Technical Expertise and the Paradigm of the Spanish Soldier in the Early Modern Period.” Sixteenth Century Journal 27, no. 1 (1996): 61-85.
- Muir, Roy. Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
- Verbruggen, J.F. The art of warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages: from the eighth century to 1340. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1997 (orig. 1954).
- Rogers, Clifford. “Tactics and the face of battle.” In Frank Tallett, ed. European Warfare, 1350-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Phillips, Gervase, “‘Of Nimble Service’: Technology, Equestrianism and the Cavalry Arm of Early-Modern Western European Armies.” War and Society 20, no. 2 (2002).
- Spring, Matthew H. With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
- Duffy, Christopher. Russia’s Military Way to the West: Origins and Nature of Russian Military Power 1700-1800. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
- Balisch, Alexander. “Infantry Battlefield Tactics in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries on the European and Turkish Theaters of War: the Austrian Response to Different Conditions.” Studies in History and Politics/ Etudes d’histoire et de politique 3 (1983): 43-60.
- Malone, Patrick. The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
- Grenier, John. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Robinson, Gavin. “Equine Battering Rams? A Reassessment of Cavalry Charges in the English Civil War.” Journal of Military History, 75, no. 3 (2011): 719-731.
- Hill, J.M. “The Distinctiveness of Gaelic Warfare, 1400-1750.” European History Quarterly 22 (1992): 323-345.