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.