A Military Enlightenment?

A comment by Campmaster in a previous post prompted the following speculation regarding whether EM contemporaries adopted past or future models when pushing for military change.

I think there’s something to the Military Enlightenment, i.e. an 18C shift from backwards-looking reform to forward-looking reform, especially post-1713. Whenever someone explains everything by simply applying the zeitgeist, say the Enlightenment, I see that as a bit lazy and over-determined. But there is good evidence for a Military Enlightenment. Not only do you have institutionalized technical developments (e.g. the professionalization of the various technical branches, the growth of academies…), but you also have some new, significant theoretical developments that seem quite different from the previous century. Given the relative peace after 1713, there was a lot of free time for military thinkers (veterans of recent wars) to assess past military performance, e.g. the War of the Spanish Succession and the Seven Years War for France, the Austrian Succession for Britain. The results were often reform programs, sometimes proposing wide-scale changes. To mention a few examples: the chevalier de Folard (who admittedly drew from the Ancient past but through the prism of the Spanish Succession) and the ensuing column-line debate, Guibert, the Liechtenstein/Gribeauval developments in artillery (with the earlier failed precedent of the nouvelle invention cannon under Louis XIV), the Montalembert attack on trace italienne fortifications, theories of mountain warfare, the development of the divisional system…

There also seems to have been a more general systematization of military practice in the field. For example, when comparing French archival documents from 1702-1712 and 1745, I’ve been struck by how much more systematic the 1745 documents were; English histories and manuals published right after the Spanish Succession (e.g. Bland) are also distinctly different from late 17C manuals – there was much more of an effort to systematize knowledge, and quantification as well. I’d guess the bureaucratization of the military (particularly in the field) is a modern mindset, and really seems to take off in the 18C. Administratively, the Dutch were probably ahead of their time (and possibly other republics like Venice, à la Mallett and Hale’s The Military Organization of a Renaissance State), but the English and French only seem to have rationalized their military administrative structure later (perhaps much later) in the 18C, possibly Austria too. War always makes a mess of grandiose plans, so I think the relative peace probably made a big difference, and we should always expect backsliding in wartime, as well as asychronous developments in different countries and regions. We could also talk about the role of increasing State control over its military forces, the increased training and subordination of its officer corps, etc. etc.

Similarly, there’s a strong contrast between the theoretical military literature of the 17C and 18C century. The 17C English manuals focus on basic “fundamental” tactical skills an army needs: battlefield maneuvers and weapons drills, and basic geometry for siegecraft (I’ve already discussed the significant changes between Vauban’s 1672 siege treatise and his 1704 edition, which was only published in the 1740s). The 17C manuals that do address the higher levels of war, particularly the art of commanding an army, are largely generic retreads of Ancient advice on the subject, although you do start to see some criticism (historicist and practical) of various Ancient authorities, just as you do among 17C academics. It’s like 17C Europeans were focusing on the basics, and only later, once they had learned how to walk (march and shoot), could they focus their attention on the higher levels of war, the grand tactical and operational in particular. You clearly see military change occurring in the 17C, but it is slow and, more often than not, rarely discussed publicly if at all. The shift from matchlock to flintlock, from pike and shot to fusil and bayonet, the development of firing systems like platoon fire, the systematization of Vaubanian siegecraft, as well as various administrative changes are all important, but they seem much more haphazard and tenuous. And perhaps they were all necessary preconditions for the Military Enlightenment.

When you get into the 18C, you see full-blown systematization and wide-ranging explicit debate, a broader range of subjects covered in more detail. Ira Gruber’s work on British military libraries (Books and the British Army) shows a clear move away from the Classics by the second-half of the century, although how contemporaries used the Ancients is as important as whether they used them or not. Even Folard’s excursus on Polybius and Puységur’s comparison of Turenne and Caesar is far more detailed and thoughtful than anything I’ve read from the 17C. I am not clear exactly what we should conclude from this difference, other than to avoid, as Stephen Jay Gould emphasized, a knee-jerk teleological Whiggish “today is better” view.

But then there I go, claiming “first.”

Agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Too much to cite, but the Military Enlightenment has been discussed (in various guises) by people like David Bien, John Lynn, J.A. Houlding, Armstrong Starkey, Ira Gruber, Pat Speelman, as well as a whole French school discussing more general issues of how French nobles and technicians defined ‘merit’ (Jay Smith, Ken Alder, Rafe Blaufarb, et al)…


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8 responses to “A Military Enlightenment?”

  1. Gavin Robinson says :

    Shakespeare was already ridiculing an obsession with classical military theory in 1599: Fluellen in Henry V is a comedy military history nerd as well as a comedy Welshman.

    John Cruso’s Militarie instructions for the cavallrie contradicted itself about how much had changed since Roman times, possibly as a result of copying bits from different books without thinking about how they’d fit together.

    Peacetime sometimes leads to wild speculation and wrong predictions, like some of the stuff in de Saxe’s Reveries, which ranged from brilliant to bizarre.

    • jostwald says :

      Good point on peacetime fantasies. Opium use aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if military innovation follows an evolutionary path in that long-periods of peacetime allow evolutionary experimentation (wide speciation) which then gets pared down in the more challenging environment of wartime. I believe Bert Hall may have talked about this (Weapons and Warfare) regarding the variety of early gunpowder weapons, and you could talk about the same thing for the variety of early gunpowder fortifications in the 14C-15C.

      J.R. Hale had a good article discussing the 16C debate over military strategy with Machiavelli et al, illustrating how some Italian Renaissance humanists were already losing their religion as they found more contradictions and confusions in the Ancients.

      • Gavin Robinson says :

        Sometimes successful armies were at the top of a learning curve at the end of a war, then got complacent in peacetime and had fallen behind by the next war. Just compare the British Army in 1918 and 1940. I see the New Model Army as the result of 2 1/2 years of experience and experimentation. Of course the problem with this argument is that it easily slips into a vaguely fascist view that wars are necessary to encourage toughness and that peace makes men effeminate!

      • jostwald says :

        A fascist argument yes, but of course Englishmen were making this exact argument about effiminacy in Charles II’s reign too (and probably elsewhere/elsewhen – certainly this was the classic stereotype of the foppish French dandy). Unless it has Roman fascist (fasces) origins, perhaps we should call it a Restoration/Carolinian idea instead of giving fascists all the credit?

        On second thought, maybe that was their problem with Charles II, his adjectival form was Caroline? A sissy name if you ask me…

  2. Gavin Robinson says :

    Maybe it’s more militarist and nationalist than specifically fascist. Donald Lupton made the same argument in his Warre-like Treatise of the Pike in 1642 (see Lawrence, The Complete Soldier, pp. 255-6).

    If it went back to the Romans that would bring us back to classical influences in an unexpected way.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    “Part of the Romans’ motive in make war in Dalmatia was that it had been twenty years since the last war, and they were afraid that peace was making the Italians effeminate.” It’s a quote from an author quoting Polybius, I think. (I would actually have to find the link again and reread the essay to be sure. That’ll be the excuse I stand on, anyway.)

  4. Erik Lund says :

    And just to end on a semi-scholarly note, check this out: Sara Elise Phang, Roman Military Discipline.

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