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.
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25 responses to “Honor in battle, not-as-much for the others”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    I personally don’t put a lot of stock in considerations of honor.

    Offhand remarks will be the death of me. So much of what I say and write is the product of careful consideration, but the odd throw-away line here and there winds up coming back to bite me. I’ll attempt to pry my foot from my mouth.

    Without a doubt, honor was (and remains) a significant motivation for warriors, both officers and men. The soldier’s fear of failing his companions is obviously a powerful incentive, one that has been well documented. In my opinion, considerations of honor provided much of the basis for the laws and customs of war prior to formal codification in international treaties (thus serving as a force for good). That being said, I regard honor as a more powerful motivator for those being led rather than those leading (at the army level).

    Perhaps it’s cynical on my part, but I suspect that the “Great Captains” were guided more by the practicalities. Louis’ policy re: dueling essentially forced his officers to subordinate their honor to the needs of the crown. Likewise, Napoleon’s quip about “baubles” would lead me to believe that he held them in lower esteem than those upon whom they were bestowed. Fabius’ tactics led to his being replaced by the more honorable Varro. After Cannae, however, his influence returned.

    Some utilitarian counters to some of the examples given:

    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

    Of course. You’re wasting valuable campaign time sitting on a position that you can’t afford to storm and can’t afford to bypass. Given the state of hygiene, chances are your men are falling ill with far more frequency than they would if mobile. Wishing that your enemy would commit a serious blunder is quite natural.

    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.

    Given the numbers of Hessians that chose to stay in the US after the revolution rather than return home, if I were a general, I’d be a bit leery of the “effect on the men” of light infantry tactics as well.

    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’d imagine the fact that it could keep adversaries (particularly cavalry) at bay while the musketeers were reloading didn’t hurt either. The declining ratios of pike to shot as the firearms improved, along with their relatively quick disappearance with the emergence of bayonets, would lead me to doubt that honor was the main rationale.

    In closing, without a doubt, my remark in the previous post was a bit too cavalier. At the same time, it seems like those who chose a pragmatic approach over a more chivalrous one, lived to triumph. General Braddock was a gallant commander, but Washington was the better commander.

    • jostwald says :

      Never fear – my post wasn’t intended as a gotcha, and your comments have been very helpful in forcing me to think things through. Your aside only struck a chord because it is a fundamental debate in military history, especially fierce every time a cultural explanation for military behavior is offered. It merits more discussion.

      Regarding honor’s relevance to different levels of the military hierarchy, that’s an interesting question. As for the rank and file, the elites didn’t see them as capable of true honor, though that’s not to say that they didn’t actually have their own version of honor. You do see a fair amount of English bravado about the vaunted English soldier. The officer corps, including the generals, were nobles and as a result were extremely concerned about status, though I won’t declare a winner in the debate between Guy Rowlands and Hervé Drévillon over whether French nobles were honor-seeking or profit-seeking in their purchasing of regiments. In reading through the numerous English writings from the period, I’ve been struck by how important honor was to the reputation of a commander – the Great Captains are those who sought and (to a slightly lesser extent) won battles. Their supporters and cheerleaders emphasize the importance of battle to the commander’s honor – e.g. how the Dutch refusing to allow Marlborough his battle insulted his personal honor, and how when battles are won, it’s to the greater honor of that specific commander as much as the honor of the English/British nation. The honor of the captain-general is mentioned not just in the panegyrics and celebratory poems, but is also used when battle doesn’t happen, but should/could have. There is honor is acting (vigorously), doing something, rather than just sitting around in camp, much less behind trenchworks. I don’t know how many generals really cried when comparing their conquests to those of Alexander, but the public sphere was full of comparisons of these Great Captains from the past. The fact that Marlborough and Wellington are still England’s two most famous generals means that they personally got the honor from their battlefield victories whether they wanted it or not. One of the things I’ll do in the book is look at who early moderns considered the Great Captains, why they did, and what they thought of alternative commanders. I’ll also check out Marlborough’s correspondence for his discussion of honor, personal and otherwise. Of course he’s also well-known for his avarice.

      Regarding the desire for battle even when besieging: the question isn’t so much why they didn’t want to besiege, the question is why battle was the obvious alternative. There are a variety of military strategies one could engage in, but regardless of which one is chosen, battle is consistently held to be the preferred option #1. This is the case even when they don’t really want to fight a battle at all, witness the general apologizing to his foe that he can’t meet in a field engagement at this time. And notice as well that you assumed that the relief army’s decision to accept battle would be a blunder – in accepting a battle from a relief force, a besieger could just as easily lose the field engagement, which might be worse than just continuing with the siege; even a tie on the battlefield would mean you had that many fewer troops to conduct the siege with. If it makes a difference, by the Spanish Succession the sieges were short enough and successful enough that serious wastage from disease and desertion was much less of an issue than it was in the early 17C (see the Appendix C in my Vauban book for lengths), although they clearly hated the delays nonetheless. Marlborough had the same idea during the siege of Mons, briefly abandoning the siege to attack the French in their field fortifications. The result was his “victory” (as he initially saw it) at Malplaquet 1709; after the Allies lost 20,000+ men, they returned to their attack on Mons. The “defeated” French commander Villars quipped: “God give us another defeat like that.” The French relief force’s decision to stay and allow the battle-hungry Marlborough to launch his troops at their fortified position was hardly a blunder. Besides, if the besiegers really wanted a battle as they said they did, they shouldn’t have chosen to build up those lines of contravallation and withdraw troops from the siege trenches to reinforce their observation force, thus making a battle much *less* likely by putting all the odds in their favor. Battle isn’t just praised when it’s won, it’s assumed that that battle victory will end the war, even after previous projections had proved premature. Further, it’s excused when it’s lost, hoped for when it’s nowhere on the horizon, while expressing a desire for it serves as an inoculation against accusations of inactivity and cowardice. To me, this is battle-centrism and the cult of vigor in a nutshell. I’m not criticizing you personally, but I think your comments illustrate how common this cult of vigor still is, and the assumptions that underlie it. I find that I often have the same kind of immediate response as you did, which is what makes me think that battle is so ingrained in our military culture that it’s hard to appreciate how pervasive it is, and how thoroughly it shapes the way we think about war.

      Regarding the evolution of tactics, I think we need to figure out how to estimate how long it should take for changes to occur, and then see how long those changes actually took. I briefly discussed this issue in my Vauban book, where I mused about how long it took for the adoption of ricochet fire, despite the fact that its adoption didn’t require systemic institutional changes and that it was a known tactic. In that kind of case, I think we have to look at cultural/non-pragmatic factors to explain the delay in adoption. In the case of light infantry, I think it doesn’t help that it’s those crazy Hungarians hussars who are the face of irregular warfare till the mid-18C.
      As for pike vs. musket, I don’t know how to judge whether it was quick or not. If you include the variety of bayonets they went through (plug, ring, socket), we’re talking first half of the 17C, with Vauban’s more advanced socket bayonet coming around 1680. Pikes don’t get fully abandoned till the 1700s (War of the Spanish Succession), and administrators like Louvois actively opposed the innovation, so it’s not just a simple matter of military professionals adopting something because it “works.” Weapons are a technology and technology is social… As much as we might hate to admit it, cold steel is not only honorable, but it’s sexy too. Just ask the U.S. Marines.

      In your conclusion about the pragmatic living to triumph, I’d suggest that the pragmatic are more likely to live past their years of military service, but their triumph is more likely to remain personal rather than public. There’s living out the rest of your life, and then there’s living forever as a military hero (Alexander the Great and Caesar lived a long time ago). Many young men throughout history have given their lives in part because they believed that honor and martial glory would allow them to “live” forever, and we try to honor that belief through memorials and various commemorations, and with awards like the Medal of Honor. Personally I want my honor and glory to consist of citations and assigned classroom readings of my works long after I’m gone, but I realize there are lots of people (young men, mostly) who still believe in a much older sense of honor. As they say as they pass you through checkpoints at West Point: “Honor, Duty, Country.”

      Personally, I waver between idealistic and pragmatic explanations. That’s one reason why I’m intrigued by combining the two – where a sense of honor is real, but it is constructed for particular purposes. Kind of like Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism version of anthropology.
      Thanks for the comments.

      • jostwald says :

        Correction: it’s “Duty, Honor, Country” – from a MacArthur speech.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        Never fear – my post wasn’t intended as a gotcha, and your comments have been very helpful in forcing me to think things through.

        No worries, I didn’t take it that way. I’d shot from the lip and made a careless assertion that even I didn’t want to defend in its original form. I’m glad that my comments have contributed something to the discussion…I’m certainly finding it both enjoyable and informative.

        There is honor is acting (vigorously), doing something, rather than just sitting around in camp, much less behind trenchworks.

        Indeed. Perhaps my hangup is more semantic. I can accept that, for a variety of reasons, victory in battle is more honorable than a siege successfully conducted. When I think of “dishonor”, however, I tend to think of cowardice rather than things like siege tactics, light infantry tactics, etc. The hodgepodge of ethics, ego, and acclaim that go into “honor”, make it a complex topic. There’s also the fact that I’ve read more widely on the Napoleonic period than this one. Exposure to scoundrels like Massena and even Napoleon himself probably colors my opinion.

        And notice as well that you assumed that the relief army’s decision to accept battle would be a blunder – in accepting a battle from a relief force, a besieger could just as easily lose the field engagement, which might be worse than just continuing with the siege; even a tie on the battlefield would mean you had that many fewer troops to conduct the siege with.

        When I read “you still complain about how you wish they would come out and fight you”, my thought was that the wish was for the besieged to sally forth, which I would consider a blunder in most cases. If you have sufficient troops to take on the besieging force, you should do so before they settle in to siege works. Attacking a fortified enemy is a costly undertaking, whether one is storming a citadel or attempting a breakout.

        The possibility of having to deal with a relief force is yet another practical reason to dislike sieges. One has the dilemma of lifting the siege temporarily, splitting the forces, or giving up freedom of maneuver (a la Alesia). None of the three are good options, so you have to choose the least bad option given your circumstances.

        If it makes a difference, by the Spanish Succession the sieges were short enough and successful enough that serious wastage from disease and desertion was much less of an issue than it was in the early 17C (see the Appendix C in my Vauban book for lengths), although they clearly hated the delays nonetheless.

        Interesting, I wasn’t aware that the sieges of this period were shorter. More evidence that I need to dig more deeply into this era.

        Marlborough had the same idea during the siege of Mons, briefly abandoning the siege to attack the French in their field fortifications. The result was his “victory” (as he initially saw it) at Malplaquet 1709; after the Allies lost 20,000+ men, they returned to their attack on Mons. The “defeated” French commander Villars quipped: “God give us another defeat like that.”

        Indeed. The blunder there (in the sense that a blunder is a gamble lost) was Marlborough’s. Even though his losses weren’t disastrous from a military standpoint, they still cost him politically.

        To me, this is battle-centrism and the cult of vigor in a nutshell. I’m not criticizing you personally, but I think your comments illustrate how common this cult of vigor still is, and the assumptions that underlie it. I find that I often have the same kind of immediate response as you did, which is what makes me think that battle is so ingrained in our military culture that it’s hard to appreciate how pervasive it is, and how thoroughly it shapes the way we think about war.

        Again, no worries. I don’t take offense at disagreement. I always try take it as an opportunity to re-assess my own position.

        I’d think it fairly natural that a cult of vigor exists. This is consistent with what I wrote about leader vs led. From the lowliest private up to the divisional commanders, aggressiveness is an extremely important attribute to cultivate. One’s superiors would reward it. There is also plenty of cultural history to reinforce it as well.

        Regarding battle-centrism, you have me curious now as to your views on that subject. A forthcoming post?

        Regarding the evolution of tactics, I think we need to figure out how to estimate how long it should take for changes to occur, and then see how long those changes actually took. I briefly discussed this issue in my Vauban book, where I mused about how long it took for the adoption of ricochet fire, despite the fact that its adoption didn’t require systemic institutional changes and that it was a known tactic. In that kind of case, I think we have to look at cultural/non-pragmatic factors to explain the delay in adoption.

        Indeed, that would be an interesting inquiry. I’d agree that a conservative streak can be found in most, if not all, military organizations. It’s more an opinion than anything I can substantiate, but it seems that there’s a fair amount of “follow the leader” involved in innovation. A Gustavus Adolphus comes along and after some spectacular results, acquires emulators.

        In the case of light infantry, I think it doesn’t help that it’s those crazy Hungarians hussars who are the face of irregular warfare till the mid-18C.

        Hussars and Cossacks are both examples of units far different from the norm: in usage, in origin, and in discipline. Frederick allowed his hussars leniency that would have been foreign to his infantry. I find it interesting that light infantry tactics are far more common among those less likely to desert as soon as they’re out of formation.

        Weapons are a technology and technology is social… As much as we might hate to admit it, cold steel is not only honorable, but it’s sexy too. Just ask the U.S. Marines.

        No argument there.

        Personally, I waver between idealistic and pragmatic explanations. That’s one reason why I’m intrigued by combining the two – where a sense of honor is real, but it is constructed for particular purposes. Kind of like Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism version of anthropology.

        Absolutely. I think we converge here. There are many factors, rational and irrational, pragmatic and idealistic, that go into the equation. Some generalizations may be possible, but ultimately the quantities vary by individual.

        Thanks for the comments.

        My pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed the posts and the discussion so far. Thank you for providing this forum.

      • jostwald says :

        One of the things that really jumps out from reading English contemporaries in the late 17C is how cowardice is also embodied in encamping and entrenching. That is, refusing to fight a field battle, regardless of what else you might do, still shows a degree of cowardice because you’re unwilling to fight – it may not be as cowardly as running away during battle, but in a sense you’re running away *before* the battle even begins. The “battle-avoidance as cowardice” claim is self-serving in large measure, exactly how self-serving I’m still working on. And, as mentioned already, early Americanists have written a lot about the dishonor (yet inevitability) of the skulking way of war.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        The “battle-avoidance as cowardice” claim is self-serving in large measure, exactly how self-serving I’m still working on.

        Interesting…I can think of a few categories of the self-serving:

        – political opponents looking to score points
        – political allies looking for victories to bolster their position
        – military rivals looking for a career boost (or damage control) by running down the competition
        – civilian pundits looking for recognition

        You mentioned that it was common theme among the English, does it also show up on the continent?

      • jostwald says :

        That question will take up the final chapter of the book, but I haven’t looked at the French sources for this question yet. I know of anecdotes that suggest that the French of Louis XIV’s age, who are reputed to have feared battle at all costs, were more ambivalent than they are often given credit for. There are definitely some commanders (e.g. Villars) that sought battle with some frequency, even if Louis would have preferred a bit more reticence from him at times. I think one of the points I’ll make is that battle is the norm even when it’s not fought, because it still affects expectations and shapes how strategy is discussed – this being in addition to the extent to which avoiding battle influences operational movements and plans. When battle isn’t fought, those who decline to fight need to somehow account for that fact, i.e. they need to justify their decision to not fight, if not outright apologize for their lack of vigor. You don’t hear that expectation about sieges.

    • Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus says :

      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’d imagine the fact that it could keep adversaries (particularly cavalry) at bay while the musketeers were reloading didn’t hurt either. The declining ratios of pike to shot as the firearms improved, along with their relatively quick disappearance with the emergence of bayonets, would lead me to doubt that honor was the main rationale.

      Interestingly enough, I think we usually have it backwards when it comes to the roles of fire and cold steel. Throughout the 18th century, and indeed well into the 19th century, musket fire was the weapon of choice in defending against a cavalry attack while the bayonet’s primary role was as an offensive implement utilised for driving off enemy infantry. It’s quite instructive to note that most 18th-century armies thought that decent infantry was perfectly capable of repelling a frontal attack by cavalry even when arrayed in a shallow line formation, and that the shift to squares at the end of the century was largely about making sure that the flanks and rear were covered by fire in the event of a cavalry attack. Otherwise we wouldn’t have seen so much emphasis on the checkerboard formation of squares, which provided the infantry in the formation with interlocking fields of fire against cavalry attempting to thread through the gaps between the squares.

      Taking it back to the Pike-and-Shot era, I think the pike was also in reality more of an offensive anti-infantry weapon than an anti-cavalry defense, and the retention of the pike into the first decades of the 18th century was largely due to fears about losing the infantry’s offensive potential if all of them were given the ability to stay at a distance and take potshots at the enemy. Similarly, the ring/socket bayonet was intended to allow musket-armed infantry to take the offensive without having to switch to another weapon. It’s worth noting that the neck of the musket stocks became thinner at around the same time the bayonet was being introduced, which made the musket more fragile and less effective as a club (though apparently still effective enough that the Native Americans copied the shape of the butts for their gunstock clubs!), and this made me wonder about whether the thinking behind the change was really a matter of “Oh great! Now that we have this long pointy thing sticking out in front, we no longer have to turn the musket around and beat the *******s over the head with it!”

  2. learnearnandreturn says :

    Maybe I’ve missed something in your earlier posts, but have you mentioned the sheer boredom of a siege, compared with open battle? It may be different in a gun culture like the US, but here in Australia, the media’s version of a ‘siege’ occurs every time an overwrought man seizes his wife and/or kids, locks himself in a house, and rings the cops/family/TV.

    The police surround the place, and begin negotiating. Within a very short time, everyone – reporters, police, neighbours – but NOT the family (feminization?) – are longing for the whole thing to be over, and the negotiation and slow starving of the inhabitants to be replaced by the short sharp shock of battle.

    Apply this to the early modern period and I think there was the same sense of frustration with the potential stalemate of the siege, compared with the rapid results of battle. And if you’re going to die of something, perhaps a wound is preferable to the various diseases that inevitably followed from an army and its latrines staying put for a long time.

    In terms of honor, a siege inevitably involves the suffering and death of civilians – so does a battle, if the locals don’t get a chance to plant or reap their crops, but it may not be so immediately evident to the other side, who will have moved on by then.

    • jostwald says :

      Yes, the boredom of a siege is definitely a common theme in early modern discussions, and even today most people don’t find it nearly as interesting as battle. Yet the English newspapers of the Spanish Succession were full of such details, week after week, month after month. I sometimes wonder if all that discussion didn’t bore the readers, but then presumably the papers would’ve stopped printing unpopular material. I’ve come across complaints about too much reporting about sieges, when they really wanted to read about battles. Plus ça change… Of course instead of complaining, we moderns can simply ignore early modern warfare and read all about Napoleon and WW2! Or maybe we’ll look at the battle-seeking early moderns, such as Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough, and Frederick the Great.

      The boredom element is one reason why I termed the opposite of the cult of efficiency the cult of vigor – you need ACTION, vigorous action. Of course, this begs the questions of 1) why trenchwork isn’t seen as a form of action, or inherently as interesting, and 2) why action itself is preferred. It would make sense (instrumentally) to privilege action (i.e. battle in this case) if it could be shown that consistently seeking action leads to success, but history is a bit messier than that. The problem is that these fascinatingly active battles rarely seem to actually end the war, yet we still want them, coming up with all sorts of reasons for why it *almost* worked (“just a few more hours of daylight and the war would have been ended…”), and next time will be the charm. I’ll talk more about this in the book, especially as it regards the concept of the decisive battle, and how persistent it is throughout Western (only?) military thought.

      Your inclusion of the average soldier’s view of the siege is important, but their view wasn’t especially relevant to the decision-makers at the top. The primary option soldiers had was to ‘vote with their feet’, sometimes even deserting *into* the town to get out of the trenches. Or, by the late stages of the Spanish Succession, the mere rumors of another siege led to waves of desertion, even among the hardened veteran German mercenaries. But overall you’re correct; the “fatigue” with siegecraft was a constant comment, made with especial force by the public back home. Siege fatigue and battle prattle.

      From what I’ve seen, early moderns (at least before the mid-18C) weren’t overly concerned about the suffering of civilians in a siege. You’ll see instances where the garrison commander expels the “useless mouths” and the besiegers wouldn’t allow them to pass through their siege lines, so they starved in the no-man’s land in between – I think the latest example of this was sometime in the 17C. On this topic I can see a cynical interpretation fitting quite well. The English, for example, will play up Louis’ devastation of the Palatinate and how cruel he is, but then they’re more than happy to burn down towns along the French coast with their fleet, in addition to bombarding every town they besiege (I talk about this in Vauban under Siege, 290-293, plus discussion elsewhere on using bombardment as its own tactic separate from a siege). The usual besieger’s response to appeals for humanity from civilians inside the town? “It’s your own fault for allowing the garrison to defend itself. Open the gates and we’ll stop the bombardment.” And let’s not forget Marlborough’s devastation of Bavaria in 1704, as he attempted to force the Elector to surrender. Of course, that’s different because Marlborough was “forced” to do it… Not that modern military forces have ever argued that the safety of their troops are worth much more than the lives of the enemy’s civilian population!
      Yet at the same time, early moderns will also adhere to niceties like allowing the defending commander’s wife and the women of the town (only the high-status ones?) to evacuate the town before the siege begins. As with the rules of chivalry that coexist alongside chevauchées, humanitarianism in siegecraft is entangled with the status of the potential victims.

      • Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus says :

        Or maybe we’ll look at the battle-seeking early moderns, such as Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough, and Frederick the Great.

        Gustaf II is a funny example in this case, since we tend to see only his strategy after Sweden’s entrance into the Thirty Years’ War, and from this viewpoint he does appear to be relatively more eager for battle than his contemporaries. But when we look further backwards into his campaigns against the Poles, we see just the reverse–the Swedes won when they avoided pitched battles and relied more on a strategy of territorial capture and consolidation, while if they sought (or accepted) battle too eagerly they often got creamed by the Poles. I get the impression that they (or he–Gustaf II in this case) would have done much better if they had pursued their territorial strategy more consistently and not get lured into the occasional battle, especially early on when their armies were still relatively inexperienced.

  3. Campmaster says :

    “One of the things I’ll do in the book is look at who early moderns considered the Great Captains, why they did, and what they thought of alternative commanders.”

    Very interesting thoughts professor, and I am very interested in the progress of your book, since, in particular, I am interested in the discussion regarding what it meant to be a “Great Captain” in EME, and, by extension, in what was the nature of good decision making within the context of an early modern campaign. Moreover, I do not think that the question can be restricted to EME, because we should also take into considerations other periods (both earlier and later), the differences in circumstances, and hence, the differences in the nature of generalship, to draw more general conclusions about the nature of sound generalship.

    We could approach the question of generalship in many ways, like for example by examining the opinions of contemporaries of different backgrounds about who were the “Great Captains” of the period, but also, and it seems to me more accurately, by drawing conclusions on what good decision-making constituted by analyzing the nature of war itself within all its’ levels: logistical, geographical, infrastructural, social, and so forth.

    It would also help to consider the different types of generals during this period. In your book about Vauban you consistently talk about a dichtonomy of sorts between the engineer’s way of war and the general’s during the War of the Spanish Succession, and perhaps during this period this is not at all unfair considering what Christopher Duffy said about engineering (doubtless a key element of warfare at this time) becoming a sort of ‘arcane’ art for commanders at around this time. However, Duffy also mentioned how before that time engineering and generalship were often blended into the same person in men such as the Duke of Parma, Maurice of Nassau, Turenne, the Duke of Alba, Spinola, Montecuccoli, and the Duke of Guise. Specially when considering warfare before the War of the Spanish Succession, I think it is also fair to point out that not all successful generals subscribed to the ‘vigorous’ approach to warfare, and it would be helpful to consider such figures as a contrast when assessing the methods of the ‘cultists of vigour’ and their value. After all, Spinola, Parma, and Frederick Henry never even fought a single battle during their tenure as commanders-in-chief of their respective armies; Alba, in a military career of more than 40 years, only fought three, two of these were more like ambushes, and all of them invloved all odds stacked on his favour; Wallenstein’s battles were either defensive and behind earthworks(as at Lutzen and Alte Veste) or like Wolgast or Steinau, involved great numerical advantage; the Duke of Guise only fought at Dreux, and he wasn’t even the commander-in-chief; while Maurice of Nassau only fought defensively at Nieuport and Turnhout was basically an ambush. Turenne and Montecuccoli do strike me on the more aggressive side of the equation but still were rather cautious compared to Marlborough and Eugene.

    However, even in this early period we see more vigorous generals such as Henry IV, Count Tilly, Torstenson, Gustavus Adolphus, and Conde. The latter two, in particular, were perfectly capable of Malplaquet-style frontal assaults on well-prepared, fortified positions, as at Lutzen and Freiburg, something that became increasingly uncommon after battles during the Italian Wars such as Cerignola and Biccoca proved the defensive strength of earthworks and firearms/artillery in conjunction. Despite the fact that such assaults still happened sporadically during the 16C (as at Heiligerlee), they seemed to have gained a new popularity during the TYW, perhaps because of the importance of winter quarters, after all, both Freiburg and Lutzen resulted in the freeing of of important contribution zones from the depredations of the enemy. It is also important to note the fact that states which adopted ‘vigorous’ strategies, such as Sweden and Bavaria, often did not have the resources for a long and protracted ‘attritional’ war. In that logistical context, different as it is from that of the War of the Spanish Succession, we may wonder if vigour was really so wrong, at least within the conditions of the TYW and some of its’ particular parties. Of course, that is not to say that objectives which were achieved through aggressive tactics could not have been achieved more efficiently: Wallenstein for example, instead of attacking Gustavus Adolphus in Bavaria to expel him from the territory(as Gustavus did in Saxony), first threatened his lines of communications and when the latter moved north to respond, trapped him at Nuremberg, which eventually forced the king to launch an unsuccessful assault of his camp in the Alte Veste in despair. Similarly when the Duke of Alba expelled the army of the Schmalkadic League from Bavaria, his army(initially outnumbered) avoided battle until his enemies allowed themselves to be trapped at Ingolstadt, which allowed Alba to well his numbers with troops brought from Flanders and Italy and then to maneuver – while taking towns – the Schmalkadics until their army broke up and retreated through lack of pay and demoralization.

    Of course, in such cases, the numbers and financial resources of each side must be taken into account, but it does seem to me that there was an alternative to ‘vigorous’ generalship in Europe. This is specially so before the War of the Spanish Succession, but even after it there were more strategically prudent figures such as Leopold von Daun, Moureau, Archduke Charles and Wellington who achieved great successes, though, of course, they are often considered inferior to their more aggresive counterparts – evident in the general tendency to consider Frederick as superior to Daun, or Napoleon superior to Wellington, and so son – even when these less aggressive commanders were successful against their counterparts. Of course, the conditions during the Napoleonic Wars in particular, were so different from those of EME(as you point out in your book), that perhaps here vigour may well have been justified (see the successes of Suvorov against Moureau or Napoleon against Archduke Charles – these latter though are more ambiguous); but I do think more scrutinity and data are neccesary. At any rate, my intention is not to make any general claims but to foster more discussion on this fascinating topic.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comments.

      Personally I’m content to focus my efforts on EME, but the issue of Great Captains obviously is generally applicable. It is interesting to see how lists of Great Captains (of All Time) change slightly over time; the Ancient Great Captains tend to stay pretty constant in particular – Everett Wheeler gave a talk at the SMH a few years back listing off who different authors saw as the Great Captains throughout the millennia. On the other hand, Turenne or Montecuccoli may have been important to 18C Europeans, but they get buried by the likes of Frederick the Great and Napoleon for later generations. I could speculate that territorial conquests are more striking for near-contemporaries, but as time goes on, the specific lands won and lost fade and only the battles remain.
      Speaking of Erik Lund’s passion for patronage, in one late 17C manual’s preface James II is praised up there along with Caesar! The manual was published pre-1688, needless to say.

      Different periods have different conditions, which encourage different military styles. Yet Westerners (in general) keep coming back to the battle-centric ones, either skipping over periods that don’t have a lot of battles, or focusing on those few that do within an otherwise ‘boring’ period. Also, the reason why I’m interested in the personal honor of the commander is because this honor is what allows us to elevate a not-so-successful general to the upper echelon, sometimes passing over a more-successful-yet-not-as-aggressive commander. They may not have conquered or defended as much territory, but at least they fought battles…

      Determining whether a specific general really approved of battle is very difficult, since there are all sorts of different measures one might use. Marlborough constantly expressed his belief in decisive battle, yet only fought four in a decade of command. So then you have to look at the very difficult question of whether he could/should have fought more, or whether he really didn’t want to fight any more but felt he needed to express his preference for battle… In other words, to what extent is an individual commander free to choose battle, and to what extent is he expected to want battle? I’m finding more and more evidence that regardless of whether a general might want battle or not, and whether he fought it or not, it was expected that he would want it.

      I will be spending a fair part of my book looking at the concept of “prudent” generalship – in Vauban under Siege I do briefly allude to it as well, although prudent generals weren’t the ones giving the engineers problems (and the vigorous ones were often the ones in charge). Ira Gruber refers to this military strategy as “prudential”, while medievalists tend to describe it in terms of Vegetius (or, as Cliff Rogers would have it, the Gillingham paradigm, which Gillingham in turn would prefer to see as the Smail paradigm). Early-period early modernists tend to talk about it in terms of Lipsius and neostoicism. FWIW, Gillingham suggests a methodology similar to yours – trace the careers of different generals to see if they can be declared “battle-seeking” or not.

      There are all sorts of possible influences on the frequency of different military strategies. Parker’s concept of a ‘heartland’ is useful, at least paying close attention to theaters that are heavily fortified (battles less likely, sieges more, e.g. Po valley, Low Countries) vs. those theaters that have few fortifications per area (much of central and eastern Europe). Yet another random example (tying in to an ongoing discussion about cavalry elsewhere): cavalry officers seem to have been considered more vigorous than infantry officers. Vigor = speed.

      I’ve found an interesting dichotomy regarding prudent vs. vigorous generalship in my research thus far, and I’ll be exploring how these two competing views were manifested during the WSS. There are more than two military strategies to choose from, of course, and in the future I’ll post my strategy matrix up for suggestions.

      Lots of things to look at…

      • Gene Hughson says :

        I ran across this passage on this page today (somewhat by accident, it was linked from another page criticizing Keegan and Liddell-Hart’s criticism of Clausewitz). You may already have it, but in case not, it’s a contemporary example of the prudent school of thought:

        Marshal Saxe, who ranks as a great general because he won three famous battles beginning with Fontenoy, wrote in his “Reveries” a chapter on the qualities that the commander of an army ought to have. Among them are: “The art of providing subsistence for his army and of sparing it; of so posting himself that he cannot be compelled to fight except when he wishes.” He goes on to say: “I am not for battles, especially at the beginning of a war, and I am persuaded that a clever general might make war all his life without being compelled to fight one. Nothing reduces the enemy so much and advances matters more than this plan. You must constantly fight actions and wear down the enemy little by little … but for all that I do not pretend to say that when you find the chance of crushing the enemy you ought not to attack him nor to take advantage of any false moves he may make; what I mean is that you can make war without leaving anything to chance … when you do give battle you must know how to profit by your victory, and, above all, must not be satisfied with merely remaining master of the field.” [Editor’s note: Meaning that a victory must be followed up with a (necessarily bloody) pursuit.]

      • jostwald says :

        Yep, de Saxe is often cited as a prudent general. I believe this is based off of his Reveries, which I think were written before his campaigns in the Austrian Succession (published posthumously). No idea if they were really written under the influence of opium or not. There are also passages in it where he also expressed his disdain for sieges, even though he conducted many (and, as you mention, fought several battles as well). So I suppose one could argue that his idealized published preference was for maneuver/attritional (small?) war. But to declare a general “battle-seeking” or not requires coming up with criteria. Most historians take the easy route and rely on stated (theoretical) preferences in a treatise, but I think there are other criteria that are probably more important. I don’t know of anyone who has actually compared a treatise author’s theoretical statements with their correspondence and thinking in ‘real-time.’ For the 17C-mid 18C (my period) this would include people like Monck/Albemarle, Montecuccoli, Santa Cruz de Marcenado, Feuquières, Quincy, Puységur, de Saxe, Folard, and maybe Guignard. Doing so might be very informative.

        The quote does raise all sorts of interesting questions: how do we treat ‘should do’ vs. ‘does do’; the importance of pursuit; what Clausewitz thinks about de Saxe’s claims (Clausewitz was generally quite battle-centric). One of the most important questions that I’ll be focusing on for prudence is the conditionality of it all – under what conditions is it ok to fight, and what does this tell us about their view of battle?

        Jean-Pierre Bois has a biography (in French) of de Saxe that came out in 1992.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        I don’t have my copy of On War handy at the moment, but I’d expect Clausewitz to value pursuit greatly. Having the examples of Prussia in 1806, the Grande Armee in 1812, and again in 1815 close to hand, it would be hard for him to do otherwise. A vigorous pursuit prevents a beaten enemy from reforming, whereas failure to do so (a la Grouchy after Ligny) may cost you dearly.

        I agree that a comparison of private vs public thoughts on the conduct of war would be interesting. Likewise matching up the various leaders ideals with their practices.

        In regards to the conditionality of prudence, I’d think (for what it’s worth) that it’s the essence. Slavish devotion to rules/principles/etc. tends to betray both a lack of creativity and an understanding of the “whys” behind those principles.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        wow…proof-reading might help. That last sentence should read “Slavish devotion to rules/principles/etc. tends to betray both a lack of creativity and a lack of understanding of the “whys” behind those principles.”

  4. Campmaster says :

    “For the 17C-mid 18C (my period) this would include people like Monck/Albemarle, Montecuccoli, Santa Cruz de Marcenado, Feuquières, Quincy, Puységur, de Saxe, Folard, and maybe Guignard. Doing so might be very informative.”

    I remember reading on Delbrück’s volume on early modern warfare a chapter in which he cites maxims from most of those authors(maxims very similar to that of de Saxe posted by Gene) and others to argue that during the period circa 1500-1800(in other words, EME), theoretical orthodoxy favoured his “strategy of attrition”, which he defines not as a pure maneuver strategy but rather one in which battle and maneuver are both used, but the former is not considered the main ‘tool’ of war and is rather to be used only when certain conditions are met; he contrasts this with the strategy of “annihilation”(attributed to Napoleon) which seeks victory through the destruction of the enemy army. I’m rather skeptical about Delbrück’s dichtonomy to be sure, but it seems nonetheless, like a good starting point for any debate on the subject. More particularly, it raises questions on the many ways in which we may categorize strategy.

    As for Maurice de Saxe, I’ve read his Reveries and some superficial accounts of his campaigns(from a biography of Louis XV and wikipedia, go figure) and he strikes me quite vigorous as a commander and somehwat ‘prudential’ as a theoretician. Perhaps he was merely following the trends in vogue among other writers in his own work. However, leaving aside the fact that he fought three battles in 3 years(quite a lot compared with truly ‘prudential’ commanders), I feel that I still have plenty of reason to think that the ‘prudential’ aspect of his writings is mostly derivative, especially when his vigorous tendencies spill over into his theory, seen not only in his depreciation of sieges(already mentioned by prof. Ostwald), but also in some of the more bizarre claims that pop up here and there in his Reveries, claims that seem like they could have come from a ‘vigorous’ theoretician, such as when he insists on the uselessless of fieldworks and how trenches have “never” stopped an enemy attack successfully, despite all evidence to the contrary(perhaps opium is not too far off the mark!)

    Even Frederick the Great, a man considered a precursor to Napoleon, famously contemptuous of engineers, and decidedly vigorous, claimed many times that he only fought battles because he had no other choice, and Delbrück even cites him asserting that Daun’s method(famously dilatory) was the ‘correct’ one. Not to mention that in his later years, as Delbrück notes, he tends more and more towards a pure maneuver strategy.

    In the light of all this, I do agree with prof. Ostwald that we should be more skeptical about what generals say in their memoirs and study their campaigns closer. However, I must also say that do do so we should perhaps settle first how can we most meaningfully categorize the different types of strategy, which brings us back not only to Delbrück’s dichtonomy, but also to the distinction that prof. Ostwald makes between vigour, and efficiency.

    Though it’s been a long time since I last read Vauban Under Siege, it seems to me that prof. Ostwald’s distinction(the easier to analyze because he is here!) is mostly one of means. That is to say, it is mostly a distinction of how different leaders(which could be not only generals, but also engineers) achieve certain objectives, whether this is done efficiently or vigorously(inefficiently). Therefore, it strikes me as more of a distinction between leaders who attempt to achieve their objectives with minimum possible losses, and those that do not. Of course, inefficient generals are not inefficient for no reason at all, they often have motivations to be so. IIRC, the main causes you identify for inefficiency are 1) saving time 2) efficient methods are ineffective 3)honour(also discussed here) 4) psychological effect: Marlborough seems to have thought winning battles would cause such a shock to his enemies that they would eventually surrender, even if they had the troops and resources to keep fighting. These seem to be the general elements of ‘vigour’, though these reasons(for avoiding efficient siegework and siegework itself), are very different, and at least 1,2, and even 4 seem to have a pragmatic orientation, while 3 seems more of an element of ethos. Number 4 seems closely related to Number 3, in that they both involve appearances, more than ‘material’ gain.

    My basis for adding Number 4 is that I remember prof. Ostwald citing Marlborough’s correspondence after Malplaquet to the effect that the Duke thought that the battle would force the enemy to make peace, even though he must surely have known that his enemy still had an “army-in-being”. Notice the subtle difference with any “strategy of annihilation” in that Marlborough didn’t seem to think he could ‘annihilate’ the enemy forces, but only intimidate them into submission. Of course, this is all off the top of my head, and simplified to its’ basics. I should give Vauban Under Siege another read in the following days to refresh my memory since it’s been a while since I last read it, so please correct me if I am wrong or missed anything on your analysis of vigour and efficiency professor.

    Regarding Delbrück, his distinction between attrition and annihilation superficially seems one related to the objectives of an army than the means they use, after all, he accepts the fact that the attritional strategy involves a variety of methods, and not just one, for the same end: the exhaustion of the enemy, and a favourable peace; while ‘annihilationists’ seek the destruction of the enemy army. Yet, his categorization seems mixed because it not only provides two types of strategy with different objectives, but also recognizes that their means are also different in nature: in attrition there is a variety of means other than battle, among which we may include maneuver, siege, small war, winning over allies(more poltical-diplomatic than military), among others. In annihilation, however, Delbrück seems to think that battle is the only valid method. However, this is not necessarily true, easy examples: a force trapped inside a town can be annihilated when the besiegers storm it, and an army that has been attacked in its’ camp during a night attack can also be destroyed. Therefore, what’s the distinction between a strategy that seeks the destruction of the enemy army, and another that seeks its’ surrender, if diverse means may be used for both objectives? Well, again, it’s been a while since I read Delbrück, so I hope not to be putting words in his mouth, and I can’t recall whether he saw the elements of these strategies as embodied in their respective exponents (with himself merely as a describer) or whether he consciously created ‘ideal’ types of strategy.

    In general, I don’t think the goal of strategy is to “destroy the enemy” but rather, is entirely dependent on the political context it is situated: therefore a good strategy is only so within the context of its’ political purpose. To think of a ‘goal’ of strategy entirely divorced from politics, as if strategy were itself an end and not simply a tool or instrument for some end, seems to me quite absurd. Even the aggressive Clausewitz’s famous dictum on “the continuation of politics” seems to represent a similar order of ideas. Notice for example, the war of Philip II against the Pope Paul IV shows a case in which one party’s political objective is inconsistent with ‘annihilating’ the enemy à la Dalek: How could a monarch who styled himself as the champion of Catholicism be expected to destroy the holiest figure of his confession, and occupy his capital (let’s remember the earlier Sack of Rome was mostly an accidental act of indiscipline from the soldiery)? Therefore, the Duke of Alba’s conduct of the war was extremely limited and cautious.

    At least that’s my conception of strategy and its’ purpose. Within that context it seems to me that the best strategy is the one which is most likely to achieve one’s political objectives within the context of one’s military/financial/diplomatic/domestic/geographic/etc conditions. But that is admitedly quite vague.

    Prof. Ostwald’s made a comment earlier about a ‘matrix’ of types of strategy which sounds very interesting: a matrix should be a more useful instrument to categorize strategy than a dichtonomy, so perhaps he could elaborate on that idea? Perhaps he will on his upcoming book?

    Well, those are some general considerations but more, much more could be said about a topic as broad nd essential as this.

    • jostwald says :

      Now you’re making me feel old, saying you read my book so long ago. And making me realize I wrote it even longer ago…

      Delbrück’s work (the Renfroe translation) was one of my first introductions to the battle-siege-maneuver-whatever strategy debate way back in my first years of grad school. Beatrice Heuser adopts the exact same approach in her recent Evolution of Strategy (using almost all of the same authors as Delbrück in fact). My questioning that methodology was informing my comments elsewhere on the blog, including your mention of distinguishing theory from reality.

      I think even Clausewitz would emphasize the importance of psychology when he defines victory as destroying the enemy’s will to resist – this could be by destroying various centers of gravity, whether they be the field army, the capital city, etc. Of course elsewhere he goes on to say he thinks battle and the field army are the true center of gravity, but it’s hard to get out from underneath that Napoleonic shadow sometimes.

      I am indeed looking at the psychological elements for this book on battle. I am particularly interested in how English contemporaries viewed battle’s potential for decisiveness in general, then how this hope was expressed while the campaigns were going on, how this informed their reactions to missed opportunities for battle, and how it shaped their reactions to reports of other people’s battles. I want to also trace the timing of their reaction to “English” battle victories – from what I’ve seen their immediate reaction is consistently a relieved “The war’s almost over!” and this happens in battle after battle – battle-decisiveness seems to be the default belief, and it’s a belief that dies hard. I’ve already found a variety of 17C publications which feed this belief in battle-decisiveness, but I’m also curious to see: how long the English expected the WSS to last after each supposedly-decisive battle (maybe not in a day as Weigley had it, but usually before the next campaign starts), how long this post-battle euphoria lasted before reality (or disillusionment) set in, how they explained the failure of a ‘complete victory’ to end the war, and if they ever learned anything. To me, the fact that they keep coming back to battle winning the war suggests that there’s something psychological going on here – they need to believe in decisive battle. Once that belief starts to waver, the support for the war crumbles as well. I’d also note that some blue water proponents shared this belief in a quick end to the war, even if it was through different means (economic blockade and descents). Maybe it’s just a common belief (wish fulfillment?) that wars will be over quickly? I think Geoffrey Best Blainey’s The Causes of War probably discusses this briefly.

      The matrix of strategy will appear sometime this month.

      I’d have to give more thought to the means vs. goals framework, but I’ve been surprised at how much attention late 17C Englishmen gave to fighting the ‘right way’, i.e. with battle (going back to ‘honor’, as the military orientalism discussed by Porter highlighted in another post).

  5. Campmaster says :

    I forgot to add something else on the above post which I think is worthy of consideration as well: the relationship between the concept of attrition and efficiency. Within the context of EME, and especially the heavily fortified ‘heartland’ of Geoffrey Parker, war presents itself as ‘attritional’, that is to say, most combatants openly recognized(if sometimes not at the beginning, then almost always at the end, of conflict), that they could not just outright conquer their enemies, annex all their land, and eliminate them as political entities, in the style of Alexander the Great. There were very few exceptions to this, and they involved special conditions(such as the Spanish annexations of Portugal and Naples). Therefore, sometimes since the start, and others at the later phases, of a war, most sides seeked mostly to exhaust the enemy. It is true that sometimes more ambitious designs were conceived, as David Parrott points out on his paper on the TYW(citing the ambitious offensives planned by Olivares, Richelieu, and Gustavus Adolphus IIRC), however, these were seldom successful. Within that context, it seems to me that ‘outlasting’ one’s enemy was the key to really ‘winning’ any war. It is here that the idea of efficiency comes in.

    If we accept the nature of war in this period as I described it, does efficient leadership always cause more ‘attrition’ on the enemy? How can we measure attrition? What was the most valuable asset which could be lost within the context of a modern war? Was it money, soldiers, territory-as-economic-base, political support, time? Perhaps a warring party will lose more soldiers than the other through inefficient operations, but if the conditions of such a party’s state are such that they do not support a protracted war, though we may blame of incompetence the person who started the war, for the decision-maker on the field perhaps inefficiency is the better poison(though sometimes political leaders were the same person as the field-commander as in the case of Gustabus Adolphus or Frederick II). If one party has the better financial apparatus and can pay its’ soldiers for longer than another one with an army of equal or similar fighting potential, perhaps maneuver is better than battle. On reverse conditions, perhaps the contrary solution in the wiser one.

    It is always well to remember that battle and siege were not the only instruments of war. The former (if successful) could cause attrition to opponents in terms of men, the latter in terms of land and contribution base(though it also had clear defensive advantages, and granted territorial proximity, both gains that are harder to quantify). Just to make my point, I will mention another type(amongst many others) of operation: there was blockade, which attempted to undermine an enemy’s economic strength. As an example, the strategy of the Dukes of Alba, and Parma on the Netherlands involved isolating the rebel provinces from trade(naval predominance, never achieved despite notable successes of the Armada of Flanders, was considered essential for this strategy). Even the Count-Duke of Olivares’s immensely ambitious project of the Rhine-Maas canal and his had similar ideas in mind. Of course, the division between operations which cause loss of men on the one hand, those which cause loss of money on the other, and loss of land on the other, is not as neat and clear-cut as it would seem. Of course blockade could undermine an enemy in other ways, such as preventing reinforcements, and battle can also be helpful in gaining control of land, especially in scarcely fortified areas, therefore they are intertwined.

    Also, in what proportion were some types of assets lost compared to others? That is to say, when a leader weighs the different types of advantages he may secure in exchange of others, should he not only consider the degree with which he can replace a certain asset in comparison to others, but also the degree in which he loses an asset in relation to another? To what extent politicians and generals of the peiord in question could weigh such things accurately? I am aware that to answer these questions would require not only thinking but some serious collecting of data in not only the military but also other fields, such as social-domestic conditions, economics, etc. But I think nonetheless that they are worth posing, even if they may introduce a huge amount of complexity into our considerations.

    • jostwald says :

      Interesting. My brain runneth over with thoughts, so I think I’ll promote it to a post.

    • jostwald says :

      I’m working on a post that discusses the issue of attritional more generally, but as for the use non-battle/non-siege strategies, my book will discuss those in some detail. Right now I’m working on a chapter (separate project) laying out the variety of methods the English used to defeat the French in the WSS. Yet, the thing that most English contemporaries talked about was battle – either who was to blame that they weren’t fighting them, or else celebrating their latest victory. Even for the mercantile seafaring English, the lure of battle was strong. Most of them didn’t want to fight an attritional war – they definitely referenced costs in the debate over the war, and the anti-war among them (or at least those Tories opposed to a strong continental commitment) explicitly raised the specter of an attritional war as a reason to avoid continental entanglements and focus instead on a blue water strategy. From my reading of the English c. 1700, an attritional war was broadly accepted as a bad thing, a reason to avoid a particular type of fighting because it might lead to attrition. Once they got into a land commitment and combat in Flanders, the pro-war among them needed to come up with reasons why they should continue to bash their heads against stone walls, so I think an intentionally attritional war was a much harder sell. The reality was that most wars ended up like that, but that’s not what most contemporaries wanted. The extent to which this is unique to the English is hard to tell – it’s enough work just tracing the debate in England.

  6. Campmaster says :

    Professor I noticed your reply as I was finishing that last post, I hope I am not wasting too much of your time with these discussions, but as a dilettante, I always find it interesting to hear what a professional to say about these things.

    The whole Clausewitzian concept of center of gravity comes under heavy fire (at least within the context of EME) in prof. David Parrot’s paper on the TYW; and one need only point out at insurgent warfare, of war against nomadic confederations and the many forms taken by what we call Asymmetric Warfare to see that the Center of Gravity principle is hardly universal. But it is true that the Napoleonic experience must have left an imprint on contemporaries and on proximate generations that is hard to understand for us moderns. Delbruck, who in many ways followed Clausewitz, was considered one of the most skeptical historians of his time (perhaps too much for some), and yet his passionate defenses of Napoleon’s generalship shows the immense power that the man had on teh 19th Century.

    On the information about the English. I think this kind of data can open up new areas of inquiry, especially the interplay of strategy and domestic-political conditions.

    And yes, its’ been a while since Vauban Under Siege,it was out on 2006 wasn’t it? I personally found it a rather welcome break from the old Eugene-worship or Marlborough-worship that often pervades the historiography of this period(depending on whether one is reading Austrian-Italian or Anglo-Saxon history).

  7. Gene Hughson says :

    Ran across this over the weekend. Note the comments from both George II and Washington himself. It seems to suggest that age and rank tempered the spirit of vigor.

    • jostwald says :

      Indeed, although the Duke of Marlborough was in his 50s and he was still vigorous! But then there’s Charles XII… I should look at the ages of the various commentators.
      I’m not sure yet how the issue of soldier vs. officer vs. commander: age and rank.
      The Journal of Military History had a recent article relevant to this, talking about the medieval term juvenes (spelling?), and one aspect was their youthful (over)exuberance.
      The Washington story also fits perfectly the prudential style of mid18C British officers described by Ira Gruber.

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