Did Early Modern Armies Get Better or Worse During Wartime?

A comment to a previous post made by Gavin (Aug. 4) prompted me to make a flippant response, when really I should have been paying attention to his serious point. It deals with how we think about the ability of early modern armies to become more effective over time, i.e. learning curves during wartime. He suggested that armies sometimes (often?) learn over the course of a war and get better, and then are apt to forget those lessons during peacetime.

I think it’s difficult to know if there is a general tendency one way or the other in many/most wars – measuring it strikes me as quite challenging given all the counterfactual argumentation required. I would, however, argue that in the early modern period, most wars (perhaps even the British Civil Wars if one looks at them over their entire length?) were long and bloody, and since professionalism spread slowly in the period, attrition likely took away a lot of the (good) veterans, whether soldiers, officers or technicians. Perhaps those that survived late into a decade-long war were better, but I can imagine there being an inflection point after which competency declines rather than continues to increase. As a concrete example, I talk about the effects of engineering attrition in Vauban under Siege, chapter 5: Vauban claimed that there were so few good engineers because so few survived long enough to learn the lessons, and I show the Allied engineering corps suffered the same fate in the Spanish Succession.

I’d bet attrition-induced mediocrity (if I can coin a phrase) is a broader phenomenon. I believe this was also associated with Frederick the Great’s late campaigns as well – certainly historians have framed the Old Regime’s avoidance of field battle in terms of fearing the loss of trained veterans that battle casualties would incur (even though I’ve often wondered about that logic on many levels). Some historians have also argued this happened with Napoleon’s late campaigns; his quote about only being good for another ten? years comes to mind.

Such trends might also be influenced by specific policy decisions, e.g. Wick Murray arguing that in WW2 the US army air corps intentionally held back some of its best pilots to train new ones, whereas the Japanese ended up getting all their aces killed in combat. Perhaps whether officers were expected to lead from the front or direct from the back makes a difference here: a look at casualty rates among early modern officer corps might be informative in this regard. I think a few scholars have presented data that would be useful here, i.e. the seniority and service experience of officers. (Erik? Corvisier? Rowlands? Drévillon?)

Some historiography has undoubtedly addressed the issue: a few of the contributions to the Military Revolution debate certainly must have some insight (but I can’t think of who off hand); J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts on Greek and Roman warfare emphasizes the importance of antiquarianism among the Ancients; and just about any work on military culture likely addresses the issue, since one of their major themes is how culture encourages military men to make decisions that seem to go against ‘rational’ choice (as defined by modern Western professional standards).
Do you think early modern armies got better or worse as their wars went on? Specific examples, conceptual categories and general hunches appreciated.


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16 responses to “Did Early Modern Armies Get Better or Worse During Wartime?”

  1. Gavin Robinson says :

    I was specifically thinking about the British Army during and after WW1 there (which may not be directly relevant to our period because of technology, but the basic idea of learning curve might be transferable). They definitely had attrition-induced mediocrity – they pissed away most of their experienced regulars and enthusiastic volunteers for very little gain in the first two years – but the crucial thing is that they developed systems to overcome it. Gary Sheffield points out that 46th Division had a mediocre record but then broke through the Hindenburg Line. A lot of this had to do with technology, especially artillery and light machine guns, but they also had systems of infantry tactics and training that could make mediocre conscripts effective. This may or may not be relevant to early modern warfare.

    • jostwald says :

      The point I was getting at, I think – we need to consider early modern military institutions (if that’s even the term) distinct from modern versions. At least with the military engineers c. 1700, there wasn’t much of a system in place, and when you have high attrition, low pay and low status, disputed command hierarchies, and bickering within the corps, it all adds up to trouble. The artillery corps was more institutionalized earlier (at least in France), yet they too had various internal debates and struggles with their sister technical service. But, as you suggest with WW1, sometimes technology (brute force firepower in the siege case) can overcome systemic weaknesses. Just win, baby.

      We probably want to start by specifying what exactly an army was supposed to “learn”: tactics, operations (movement), strategy (however defined), logistics, command (e.g. working within a coalition army)… Given how complicated war is, there were probably multiple lessons, and for most belligerents, any solution that “worked” (i.e. helped you win the war) is good enough. Undoubtedly some of these lessons could really only be learned through direct experience. And we shouldn’t over-rationalize the lessons to be learned: if your favorite solution doesn’t “work”, you blame the failure on something else (wrong commander to implement it, freak occurrence, God is chastising you…). Many possible solutions to achieving victory, though some might be more efficient than others.

      Then the question is to specify what types of ‘systems’ were beneficial, and whether they existed in the early modern period.

      By the 17C most armies were clearly focused on tactical (battlefield) training, although I’d guess it was pretty ad hoc to the extent that colonels still owned their regiments. Presumably these systems became more coherent and universal as the the late 17C shaded into the 18C, and as manuals began to focus on the day-to-day tasks of an army (I’m thinking of Bland et al), i.e. beyond simple battlefield evolutions common in early 17C works and beyond general repetitions of Ancient advice. So tactical drill is one system.

      I suppose we could also talk about manpower recruitment/replacement systems – the French revolutionary amalgame c. 1793 is usually portrayed as a significant advance by melding old and new. There’s also the general question of how army establishments grew and shrank between wartime and peacetime. Did armies just raise new regiments, raise new companies for existing regiments, increase the number of soldiers in each company…? What did they do in peacetime, e.g. did they decrease the number of privates in each unit but keep the unit top-heavy (accordion style), etc.? And according to what criteria was disbandment implemented – patronage, or professionalism, or both? Presumably each system had its own advantages and disadvantages (witness the Vietnam debate over how to incorporate replacements into a unit). Given the importance of patronage and regional recruiting, I’d assume there was a certain advantage (primary group cohesion and all that), but then they’d take those regional units and combine them up in a multinational army, sometimes mixing individuals together for various tasks. Regarding officers, England had a fair number of half-pay officers that they kept on the books, which provided an experienced pool to draw from when raising new regiments. Lots of questions I don’t have the answers to.

      Mercenaries are another possible avenue. I’m not sure if any of the works on early modern mercenaries (Mallett, Wilson, Ingrao) have explicitly discussed whether these units were really better and why, beyond a general sense of them being constantly in action. Were mercenaries hired because they were better, or because countries needed all the men they could get their hands on? Presumably the good merc units must have had a decent system to incorporate new recruits? Anybody know?

      • jostwald says :

        I should’ve also cited Houlding’s Fit for Service. He argued that all of the peacetime non-training activities British soldiers performed left them poorly prepared for combat in the early phases of most of their 18C wars.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    It’s very hard to get at differential officer versus other ranks casualties in the extended War of the Spanish Succession period because the damn genealogists keep stealing casualty returns. I found exactly one in the Kriegsarchiv for the period that I can think of, for a disastrous river crossing operation in Italy early in the war.

    I can tell you that generals have virtually the same lifespan as other famous people of the time, and that their death rates in battle were low, but that their death rates in the year after a campaign were distinctly elevated. Stress, not battlefield injury, was the great killer of senior officers.

    For engineers, I remain somewhat skeptical of Vauban’s line, which strikes me as to directly aimed at aggrandising the honour of the corps to be taken entirelly at face value. Exercising my cynicism down Speculation Walk just a few paces further, I suspect that he understates the role of private sector recruitment. That is not speculation for the “topographical engineers” of the staff, but here my evidence is for mid-century data from the old staff archives that doesn’t bear on the precise period or for actual war years.

    For sieges during the WSS, I would instead point to the very large number of engineers off in the interior of the Empire, doing technical work on fortresses not currently subject to siege. At the pointy end of battle, there was also a tendency for regimental officers to volunteer for engineering work. Though God help me if I have to put numbers to that claim.

    • jostwald says :

      The English and Dutch do have a fair number of casualty lists for the WSS’s main battles and especially sieges, although that number is obviously relative, depending on how many you’re expecting to find. They do allow casualty-by-rank comparisons, but I haven’t done that yet. Will be interesting to compare officer-to-soldier casualty ratios between battles and sieges.

      Regarding Vauban and the engineers, I went through and broadly quantified engineering establishments and casualties during the Spanish Succession (in VuS, chaps. 5 & 6), at least from the Maritime Allies and France, and they were quite high relative to their numbers; this being the case even after Vauban had improved the conduct of French sieges. The military administrators corroborate this with their constant complaints about the shortage of engineers. Many ordinary engineers were indeed of the volunteer variety, and their turnover from siege to siege was also quite high.
      I’d argue Vauban was more concerned about the lives of his subordinates (and French troops more generally) than he was about the honor of the corps, and even the honor of the corps was a means to achieve his ends (i.e. getting them to follow engineering prescriptions) in order to conduct more efficient sieges. From Vauban’s perspective, volunteers and private sector wannabees lacked the training and discipline required for efficiency à la Vauban.

      It makes a difference, obviously, if we’re talking siege service vs. fortification design/construction more generally. I’m pretty sure the French didn’t rotate their military engineers off of the front line, though I’m not sure if anyone has traced the peregrinations of the lesser engineers during the course of a war. In any case, the shifting activity in various theaters did leave some theaters more quiet than others for periods of time.

      The volunteer trench officers’ tendency to ignore the engineers’ orders also begs the question of who’s learning what from their siege experience. Engineers learned that the other branches needed to follow their projects, the artillerists learned that they needed to wrest control of the siege batteries away from the engineers, while the non-engineers learned that they could ignore the engineers and still win the town if they relied on brute force. James Duke of York learned a very different lesson from his experience in the Fronde, and Marlborough under Turenne in the 1670s, than Vauban would have liked.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    On skills, my interest in learning-by-doing in sieges (and my thesis about what is of really key importance here) goes back to the civil economy, so I’m more interested in volunteer engineers learning how to manage a construction site than whether said construction site terminated too far from the the bastion it was attacking.

    On the “honour of the regiment,” as the issue presented itself to Vauban or any other colonel-proprietor of an engineer corps (and, yes, I do think that a regiment and an engineer corps can be seen as equivalent patronage machines), it strikes me that there is a huge incentive to inflate engineer casualty totals. And so, completely out of my ass, I suggest that volunteer engineers are getting enrolled in the well-known casualty lists. It doesn’t to a disservice to Vauban, it just aligns his personal experience of a perpetual shortage of skilled engineers with the one more familiar to me, of a perpetual shortage of skilled topograhical engineers, which very specifically goes to a leakage, presumably into the private sector, of men with the key drafting skills. (And possibly the agricultural management skills entangled with the ability to ride around the countryside reducing vistas into abstract representations of the military characteristics of landscapes.)

    In the sense that early modern states are paying people to get better at civil engineering, and that this skill is coming back to war at some point, the issue is then precisely the officers doing construction and maintenance work in backwater theatres that are then activated when the Allies try to take Toulon or advance up the Moselle, or when the French besiege Landau-im-Breisgau.

    • jostwald says :

      I guess it would require going through and name-checking engineers and casualty lists, tracing individuals (who were more often than not unnoted in the records I’ve seen) in and out of military service. That’s something I have little desire to do in the foreseeable future; I recall Blanchard not having too much luck in her dictionary on French engineers, at least till later in the 18C. Hélène Vérin has also written more broadly on engineering military and civil, and of course Janis Langins…

      Re: inflating engineering casualty figures. Hypothetically the chief engineer and his interests could benefit from such inflation. But empirically, it’s not just the engineers that were complaining about a shortage of engineers (and the casualties), it was non-engineers (e.g. the Dutch field deputies) and even people who actively disliked the engineers and what they stood for acknowledged the constant shortages, even as they helped contribute to them. Neither the French nor the English nor the Dutch nor the Austrians had enough military engineers, so clearly the engineering supply wasn’t keeping up with military demand. Various countries were competing for the same international pool of technicians while trying to train up their own – La Vergne talks about this is some detail regarding losing the good engineers to other countries; the English Richards brothers were famous for their travels trying to find work and experience. Why the pool of civilian engineers couldn’t supply these needs is a separate issue (specific training needed for siegecraft, low pay, dangerous duty…), and more open to debate.

      This may relate as well to both La Vergne’s and Vauban’s opinion, as well as a few other treatise authors, that you don’t just learn by doing, or at least you don’t automatically learn the “right” lessons. Too many potential lessons to learn depending on your predispositions, you need to be told what you should be learning and then perform (as scholars today would call it) “intentional practice”, etc. This shades into the contemporary debate over learning by practice vs. by book-reading.

      Sounds like Parrott’s book on The Business of War would be of interest to you – it explicitly focuses on the private-public ‘leakage,’ but I haven’t read it yet.

  4. Gavin Robinson says :

    Going back to the period I know most about, I suggested that the New Model Army was part of a learning curve. I think this is definitely true of finance, admin and logistics. The NMA was adequately supplied for significantly longer than its predecessors, but this was the result of trial and error, not a moment of inspiration. At the tactical level it’s not comparable with WW1 because there was no training system (training battalions, Infantry Base Depots) and new recruits were just sent straight to their units where they had to learn on the job. I don’t see any significant tactical innovations by anyone in the ECW (Swedish infantry drill may have eventually become more widespread than Dutch drill, but so what?). Although the NMA was very successful from 1645-51 (apart from some setbacks in Ireland), it didn’t do very well in the West Indies in the 1650s, but I’m not sure why that was.

    My general impression of the British Civil Wars is that the death rate for officers was very low (whereas in WW1 infantry company and platoon officers possibly had the most dangerous jobs of all). An added complication was that lots of men changed sides, which was an extra source of attrition and an extra source of recruits. Maybe not too unusual in this period as there were lots of contract armies and international mercenaries in Europe.

    The replacement rate for ordinary infantrymen was huge, but the biggest cause was probably desertion rather than death. There could have been a core of experienced and motivated veterans who came from the old armies to the NMA, but Jeff Hoppes might disprove that soon.

    • jostwald says :

      Good points. Most people do think in terms of tactics first, but the other categories are far more important for overall military success. I’d think we should probably even separate out different types of logistical “experience” (hopefully Gordon Bannerman is reading this and can comment. A general administrative ability is one thing, another (possibly related) ‘skill’ is access to quick cash or credit. Much different would be having contacts with local provisioners that can actually supply the goods in theater. Aaron Graham has been working on this, as has John Stapleton. For logistics particularly, it begs the question of how much experience matters versus resources that can be mobilized. “You’ve got the brawn, I’ve got the brains, let’s make lots of money.”

      Mercenaries and desertion/enlistment across national service certainly is a complication. I think you’re right that there is an assumption that mercenaries and desertion meant that everybody evened out, that Europe generally developed a cosmopolitan way of war with similar ideas and experiences. You certainly see this claim with all the talk of England’s 17C way of war catching up with the Continent via all those British mercenaries in foreign service. Not sure about the reality though.

      • Erik Lund says :

        It did come to my attention when I actually researched the issue that the Habsburg service was less cosmopolitan than it has been presented as being. At the same time, the actual mechanism of military cosmopolitanism is one of international patronage networks, such that French families like the Bussy Rabutins gave the Habsburgs generals for one generation after another.

        Does that bring the international sharing of experience back to the manor house, and the context of family education?

  5. Gene Hughson says :

    In the technical arena, I would expect improvement over time. Likewise higher level command. Regimental officers and rankers pose a problem, however. A certain amount of seasoning should confer steadiness. Unfortunately, that same steadiness provides almost no benefit to survivability (arguably, it probably was detrimental in most cases). A veteran would be equally vulnerable as a green recruit, placing an upper limit on the ability to improve.

    • jostwald says :

      Your mention of seasoning reminds me of Grossman’s book On Killing, where he talks about the ‘well of courage’ – that a certain amount of combat experience was good, but that you could only go back to the well of courage so many times before you became exhausted and combat ineffective. Don’t know if this applies to an organization or not.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        I haven’t read that one (though it’s on the list now). Certainly combat stress is not strictly a 20th century phenomenon. As to the effect on an organization, that’s an interesting question. I would definitely expect the behavior of the veterans to strongly influence the less experienced in the ranks.

  6. Björn Thegeby says :

    I seem to recall that both in WWI and in WWII the rule of thumb was that a division peaked 18 moths after its first active service. Before friendships were broken due to losses and the soldiers were fully aware of the risks. After that, the feeling was that it was the “other guy’s turn”. I can see no reason it would be longer in 1702, given the short training times. On the other hand, leaving the Army generally meant starvation and begging. Do we have any good estimates of WSS attrition rates? From illness and fighting?

    • jostwald says :

      I’ve seen almost nothing on attrition rates. I’ve only come across one single estimate of non-combat casualties during sieges – perhaps surprising given our tendency to think of trench foot and the diseases rampant in stationary camps. Maybe there are more sources somewhere…

  7. Erik Lund says :

    It might be possible to construct one from regimental rolls. The problem is that they don’t tend to survive. The single published volume of the Italian (that is, Piedmontese) official history of the War of the Spanish Succession is very largely a compilation of rolls from the garrison of Turin during the siege. If there’s equivalent material in the Italian archives (perhaps with the unpublished volumes?), someone might be able to do some kind of database for that one army.

    If. Add that to the very long list of research projects that could be done in early modern military history if the field had a large population of researchers.

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