What’s so special about the field of battle?

Just got back from a very interesting conference at West Point where we were discussing a new e-textbook for the Western military art under construction. I’ll post more details as the project becomes more concrete.

In the meantime, a comment in a previous post on how to decide whether the 1709 battle of Malplaquet was a ‘victory’ for the Allies or not made me revisit the issue. In my future battle book I’m thinking I might look at the different ideas of how contemporaries measured battlefield victory. In this context, I’ve always wondered about the possession-of-the-battlefield criteria for victory. I can see a variety of explanations for it, but I don’t feel particularly satisfied by any of them.

  1. Maybe it goes back to the olden days when you’d erect a victory trophy (hoplons and helmets…) on the spot. (Does any of the war memorialization literature discuss this?)
  2. In some cases the specific battlefield might be an operationally/strategically important location (as in a relief battle), whose possession would be of continued importance. But most of the time the selection of battlefields seems to be as much a matter of where both armies could find the space to array their respective forces, and where their dispositions were even enough to encourage both sides to fight, vs. one side having a clear advantage and therefore the other side refusing to engage.
  3. Perhaps occupying the battlefield in good order is an indication that the army is still “in being” (still “keeping the field”) and therefore ready to continue the fight, vs. being dispersed and unable to continue operations?
  4. Maybe possession of the wounded left on the battlefield was important, for POW or ransom purposes?

Thoughts? Has somebody written on this already?



17 responses to “What’s so special about the field of battle?”

  1. Björn Thegeby says :

    I think there are several factors at play. The Thirty-Year War and the Civil War in the British Isles had been particularly brutal, where the annihilation of the enemy was the desired aim. The latter 17th century showed a reaction to this in the military mindset, but Louis XIV had also a specific aim to expand France to its “natural” borders. The Rhine, the Alpes and the Pyrenees were easy to define, but in the North such an aim resulted in a battle for territory through siege warfare. Being in possession of the battlefield acquired an excessive importance.

    Add to this the domestic battle for preferment and promotion. Losing a battle could be a personal social and economic catastrophe for the invoved general, to the point of losing their lives (vide. Admiral Byng). The result is that anything that could be claimed as a victory, inevitably was. The counterpoise was that any possibility you had to denigrate your foreign and domestic enemies was used to the full.

    ..and you thought an academic career was tough;-)

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for your thoughts. I tend to agree with your statements, but I’m not sure how well the first one answers the specific question I had. When contemporaries talked about possessing the battlefield, they literally meant the battlefield on which the battle was fought – i.e. not a particularly large area. The battlefield proper wasn’t even necessarily the most important strategic point in the area (versus, say, a nearby town with its bridges across a river and magazines and bread ovens). And this possession of the battlefield claim wasn’t just a tendency of the late 17C, but earlier as well – territory has always been one of the objectives of war. But perhaps that small parcel of battlefield space was symbolic of larger land possession? This wouldn’t be very convincing, however, if said field was in the shadow of a fortress still occupied by the defeated enemy. Hence the contrasting views of Turenne and Vauban over whether a field battle gains you the towns or not. In short, I’m not sure how the broader strategic goal of territorial conquest/occupation provides a logic for the need to possess a specific field after battle, unless on a purely symbolic level (and this symbolism seems very easily denied by the enemy, in which case it wouldn’t be such a persistent universal marker for ‘victory’). What happens to that broader territory after the battle would seem to be much more important, yet they don’t define battlefield victory in those broader chronological/geographical terms. You really see this with the contemporary application of the phrase “complete victory” to battlefield victories that had very little operational impact.

      You are quite right that anything might be claimed as a victory, and I want to catalog which criteria they used because I think there are a limited number, even if the events they were attached to ranged from a tie (or worse, a Pyrrhic victory) to a smashing success. That being said, however, there were checks on how much one could claim. Not only because exaggerated claims of total victory will soon be contradicted by the enemy’s continued resistance, but also because those domestic and foreign opponents that you mention could also contest your outrageous claims, leading to public (even international) debates about whether X really was a victory or not. [The question of whether there was a consensus typology, or clear gradations of victory, also interests me.] I think we see this most clearly in England, but even in absolutist France, the Court and streets were full of gossipers, wags and balladeers more than willing to make fun of puffed-up claims to victory. Or, if your domestic opponents don’t contest that it was a victory, they could contest who exactly deserves credit for it (not you but the Queen, or one’s own political allies, or the bravery of the common English soldier which you clearly had nothing to do with…). There are several interesting examples of all these in the Spanish Succession that I’ll discuss in my book. Those cultural historians with their “contested” and “constructed” categories are certainly relevant to explaining military success and defeat, or at least claims relating to.

      Similarly, excuses for losses were self-serving and also informative:

        “we lost, but we were outnumbered/at a disadvantage, so we’re still more brave than them”
        “we lost, but they fought dirty so it doesn’t really count and we’re still more brave than them”
        “we lost, but our enemies were extremely brave, so we still get some honor”
        “We lost the battle, but we’ll win the war so our honor will still be intact”

      In these cases, what’s interesting to me is how honor always has to be saved, and that it can be expressed even in defeat – just because you lose the battle in a modern functional sense, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost honor; honor is always a fall back, and it’s easier to rescue even in defeat (e.g. giving a defeated garrison the ‘honors of war’). [I’ll leave aside the separate issue of whether a tie or loss might still be a strategic victory, in terms of attrition or psychological impact on either side’s will to fight.] A battle defeat might be a strategic disaster and a successful battle might not have any real strategic benefits, but how our men and our commander performed in the battle can often be more important to those involved than the political/policy effects of battle that Clausewitz would emphasize. This separation (or divergence) between the implications of battlefield defeat for honor and for policy intrigues me, and I think helps explain why some of our greatest and most famous military captains ended up being huge losers, yet we remember them all the same because of their battle exploits. We talked a bit about this in an earlier post on the relative merit of honor in military history.
      In this vein we could also mention the tension between wanting to make fun of your enemies (e.g. the English obsession with mocking the French) and the desire to heighten your own glory by magnanimously praising your enemy’s abilities, in order to highlight what a valiant and courageous foe you defeated.

      A random thought: how does post-battle possession of the battlefield (you’ll sometimes hear of camping overnight on the field of battle) fit with vigorous pursuit of the enemy? Are the two mutually exclusive?

      • Gene Hughson says :

        “A random thought: how does post-battle possession of the battlefield (you’ll sometimes hear of camping overnight on the field of battle) fit with vigorous pursuit of the enemy? Are the two mutually exclusive?”

        I wouldn’t think so…typically, at least for the period I’m familiar with, pursuit would be the province of the light cavalry who would likely not have had a big part in the battle and therefore would be fresh. The heavies and the infantry, exhausted, would follow on later.

      • Björn Thegeby says :

        Maybe we are looking at this too much “from the balcony”.

        I just looked in Luttrell’s A Brief Historical Relation for the days following Malplaquet and the first news were of a second Ramillies. Only slowly did more facts arrive, (still claiming excessive losses for the French). Once the initial claim of victory was made, it would have been impossible to change it (unless this provided an opportunity to topple the sitting government).

        In this context, possession of the battlefield is the one incontrovertible fact. Dead soldiers can be fudged.

      • jostwald says :

        I will spend a significant portion of my book on contemporary responses to battles won and lost – what pre-battle expectations were, what initial reactions to battle were, how those reactions changed over time (or not) – as I’ve noted elsewhere, Malplaquet was indeed interpreted rather oddly by Marlborough and his supporters. I may even have a section discussing how confusing Malplaquet was for the English, i.e. the variety of ways in which people interpreted the results of Malplaquet and how it morphed over time and varied according to political proclivities. I’ve found many interesting examples in the archives and elsewhere.

        FWIW, you do find in the correspondence corrections (and some commentary) on changing casualty figures as time goes on.

        Regarding possession of the battlefield being incontrovertible, my initial reaction was one of agreement, but then I wondered why that would be the case. How can you prove that you possessed the battlefield to people who weren’t there? You constantly see accounts of events debated in the press (e.g. French vs. English accounts of the same event), so I could imagine the same could be true for battlefield possession as well, but I can’t recall coming across any. It begs the question of whom exactly you are trying to convince. Yourself (the commander), your troops, your domestic audience, your allies, civilians in theater, your enemy (ruler, army, public), or future military men and students of history?
        And then the significance of such possession still requires justification, i.e. so what that you were last man standing? – maybe the enemy went somewhere even better, or bloodied your nose pretty good in the process… Oudenaarde 1708 is interesting, because half of the French army was defeated and the other half retreated northward and fortified behind the Ghent-Bruges canal – the result was the siege of Lille (I haven’t had a chance yet to trace in detail how that was discussed over the months after the battle). In England last month I saw that it is still apparently seen as one of Marlborough’s great battle victories, yet I’m skeptical since the battle didn’t alter the likely future course of the campaign (i.e. a siege). Unless you measure the victory in narrow tactical terms, of in terms of the honor of the Great Captain and the English/Allied soldier. Or maybe in an attritional sense (and even then).

        Casualty figures can indeed be all over the place and are difficult to verify (except for famous people killed), but POWs are much more concrete, as are captured standards which are paraded back home.
        When there was debate over someone’s behavior in a particular action, or even whether X or Y happened, contemporaries would often mention the names of (upstanding) witnesses who could verify their story (or say they have a supporting letter written by neutral person Z that they are happy to show to anyone who asks), in essence using the honor of the witnesses as evidence.
        I’ll have to keep tabs on the types of evidence contemporaries used to ‘prove’ battle success.

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    Have we switched roles where it’s my turn to push the “honor” argument and you’re looking for a more pragmatic reason? 🙂

    • jostwald says :

      I just made a (long) separate reply before yours posted. In that comment, you’ll be relieved to see that I’m still toeing the honor line! I think my motivation was more trying to come up with a pragmatic reason for why that criteria started (hence my vague speculation about ancient Greek religious rituals where the land itself had mystic significance), or why it was at all convincing to contemporaries for centuries. It seems such an arbitrary and problematic marker for victory, unless you’re fighting over that particular plot of land (which you’ve certainly messed up with all the blood, body parts, spent munitions, etc. that somebody will have to clean up), which rarely seems to be the case. Or maybe it has to do with tendencies to bury the dead on the spot, in which case you can control the terms of the interment? I wonder how often trophies, victory columns and the like were defaced?

      Other victory measures are used by contemporaries, criteria that make much more sense to me both in a pragmatic and symbolic sense: number of enemy killed and captured; enemy casualties relative to your own, or relative to the size ratio of forces; high ranking officers/generals/commander killed and captured; number of cannon, standards/colors captured; baggage train captured… Come to think of it, my sense is that these measures are far more commonly mentioned, so maybe the possession-of-the-field claim is just a medieval vestige, a last-ditch attempt to save some face when you can’t really point to much success using the other criteria.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        I’d definitely agree that the more rational measures are the more meaningful ones and possession of the field is a vestige, but of even more ancient vintage. I’d imagine that the sense of satisfaction around retaining something one has fought for is something deeply set in the lizard portion of our brains.

      • jostwald says :

        And being able to survey the ground you’ve defended likely has an important psychological effect as well – you stayed and they fled.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    I like the honour explanation, but I’d take it in a slightly different direction. The field of battle is the field of honour. Which is to say, the place where honour is enacted.
    Warmaking is a social compact between the state actor and the actual soldiers. The state actor gets to win wars, while the soldiers get to earn social capital. (Impress the chicks!) That has to be done out in public, and in such a way that everyone can appreciate it. You have to be around for the curtain call.

    • jostwald says :

      Sounds quite plausible – performing for your peers particularly makes sense back when everybody-who-was-anybody (i.e. sword nobles, including the ruler and his retinue) would be *at* the battle. By c. 1700 the audience of ruling elites has broadened quite a bit (especially since you’re much less likely, for any number of reasons, to have the monarch and their Court campaigning). Therefore far wider dissemination of the battlefield accounts is required: official messengers sent by the commander to present details to Court, published accounts, and tangible evidence in the form of captured standards and cannon.

  4. Björn Thegeby says :

    I don’t have much more to add on the substance, but it strikes me that leaders like Michael Collins or El Empecinado would view our discussion as missing the point. It is in a way similar to those die-hard Americans who insist they won in Vietnam because the enemy never defeated them in battle.

    • jostwald says :

      The initial post was indeed a trivial point, but I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere, so I was curious and thought perhaps somebody else had an idea. Sometimes it’s the little clues that can give us disproportionate insight into contemporary minds (Mr. Microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg wrote an article on the subject entitled “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method” back in 1980).

      The centrality of battle to Western (or at least English) warfare is the theme of my book, and one of the key questions is ‘Why were they/are we so obsessed with battle?’ There’s the actual role battle played in the war, and then there’s how contemporaries viewed battle and its role in the war. Possession of the battlefield might not be important in explaining why the war (or even a campaign) ended the way it did, but at the least we need to figure out why contemporaries thought it (battle, maybe even possession) was important. If public perception of the war’s direction is important, it’s critical to figure out which criteria the public used to determine how well the war was going. Your mention of the cognitive dissonance between never losing a battle and losing the Vietnam war actually highlights the significance of the question, because it suggests that this battle-centrism is a persistent construct, and therefore needs to be explicitly analyzed. Why is it a seeming contradiction to win the battles yet lose the war? What does it tell us about how people view war, and how people view battle and its alternatives? If we want to move beyond the narrow question of “Why did the Allies win the Spanish Succession?” (and the Spanish Succession is a well-known war *because* of its battles), we need to figure out why this battle-centric ideal sticks around as long as it does, even surviving in an age of sieges and indecisive battles. Why, for so many different people in so many different places in so many different time periods, is the field battle (and often battle alone) the central event in understanding war? I’m as interested in the history of mentalities as the ‘objective’ facts on the ground.

      Thanks for your comments, they’re helping me clarify my own thinking.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        While the value of possessing the battlefield may have become trivial by this time, it’s impact on behavior was anything but. Anyone who had heard of Pyrrhus should be able to comprehend the “win all the battles/lose the war” concept, but that doesn’t mean they would be able to move past the pull of tradition (and honor). That takes both a certain genius and the track record to get away with it.

      • jostwald says :

        Pyrrhus is interesting. He’s rarely mentioned in England in the late 17C that I can find, at least in a military context. But by the 1720s European authors are associating Malplaquet in particular with Pyrrhus. I still need to look into it more though.

  5. Erik Lund says :

    As someone who thinks about operational maneouvre a great deal, I’m always intrigued to find a meeting engagement characterised as a battle.

    Now, I’ll concede that the distinction is often hard to make, but when we think about battle, it is always implicit that it is chosen. A meeting engagement isn’t necessarily chosen by either side. In fact, generals are usually encouraged not to commit to meeting engagements. That is, the vans run into each other and begin fighting, but command should be very careful about attempting to reinforce the fight.

    The distinction between battle and meeting engagement is pretty fine, though. You can always call a meeting engagement a battle if you happen to need battles in your narrative.So I guess that what I’m saying is that battles don’t have to be rare or common. They can happen just as often as you’re willing to construe whatever fighting actually occurs on campaign as “battles.”

  6. Cliff Rogers says :

    Jamel, I think you are missing the simple explanations. 1. If you hold the field of battle, you get to save your wounded, kill or take prisoner the enemy wounded, and plunder the dead (which was very profitable for your soldiers). 2. Despite the excuses that could be offered, it was generally accepted that (mainly for reason 1) you did not give up the field of battle unless you had to; hence retreating was admitting defeat, saying uncle, confessing your inferiority. [This is why holding the field was so important for honor reasons, as you and the other commenters have realized it was.]

    Admittedly all this was partly a hold-over from ancient and medieval battle when factor 1 was much more important since your own wounded were more likely to be savable (arrow wounds or sword cuts are more likely to be treatable than ball wounds) and the enemy wounded could be enslaved or ransomed. But even if lessened in force, the same logic did still apply in the early modern period.

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