Thinking too much about naming wars

I’m pleased my SMHBLOG post on naming wars has received a variety of comments, mostly providing specific case studies. Feel free to continue the discussion there.

I’m interested in the issue of naming wars in part because in the past I’ve tried to create a list of early modern wars and been stymied by the lack of names for many of them (in English at least). My interest has also been piqued because it’s surprisingly contentious – particularly by historians of different countries (say, what a French historian might call a war vs. what an English historian would call that same conflict – I’m thinking of the Nine Years War in particular). Naming wars is also intriguing because it illustrates how complicated history is, how much trouble we have trying to wrap up messy historical events in tidy little packages. Would you like to read my further thoughts on the complicated and seemingly-random process of naming wars? Of course you would.

First we have the surprising fact that many contemporaries didn’t bother to help a historian out by formally naming the contemporary conflict that they were engaged in. Is this an indication of a lack of historical perspective on the part of contemporaries? I thought all those historical actors were supposed to be so concerned about their historical legacy…

Further, many names that were eventually chosen had all sorts of assumptions. Who was the aggressor? What was the cause or objective of the war? Who exactly was a combatant and who wasn’t? Which of many possible alliances was most responsible for the war? Popularly a war might be named after the ruling monarch, or perhaps even a successful commander – loyal readers know who(m) I mean – or to score political points. I’m hoping pedants won’t disabuse me of the notion that the British and the Spanish really were fighting over possession of this Jenkins guy’s ear, or that the Prussians and Austrians were fighting over a bag of potatoes as much as for the Bavarian succession.

Then we have the interesting cases where the European conflict is called one thing (the Nine Years War, or the War of the Spanish Succession, or the Seven Years War), while the war in the colonies goes by a different name (King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, the French and Indian War) – why is that? Did the English label them one thing and Americans label ‘their’ part of the war differently? And let’s not forget all the little belligerents whose motives are swallowed up in the war named over the leviathan’s concerns. All this is, shall we say, complicated.

Of course the clashing belligerents didn’t have to agree on a common name for the war they’d just fought, unless the victors put that in the peace treaty – “You, my defeated foe, must from henceforth refer to this war as ‘The-Allies-Kicked-Our-Ass War.’ Refusing to do so will be an act of war.” (Come to think of it, they probably thought about doing that at Versailles 1919. Or is it Versailles 1918?). For that matter, how often would historians or journalists or diplomats take the easy way out and just translate some foreign name for a war into their own language? And which type of war name (belligerents, duration, cause, monarch) was most easy to translate from one linguistic/cultural context to another?

Uninvolved countries might very well come up with their own generic names for other countries’ wars: who really cares, after all? Did the French, for example, call it the Franco-Prussian War? What does it suggest about the English-language early modern historiography that the ‘Dutch War’ means Louis’ 1670s war with the Netherlands, but the three naval wars between the Dutch and the English are called, even by English historians, as the Anglo-Dutch Wars? And yet I haven’t seen the Dutch war for independence aka Eighty Years War aka Dutch Revolt ever referred to as the Hispano-Dutch War (the Batavo-Spanish War?). Maybe some wars aren’t important enough to merit debating what to call them?

Then you have problems when studying multiple wars. Those brave enough to be comparative historians need to specify which Civil War they’re referring to – there were quite a few after all. And what are we to do with wars waged by the same two countries again and again? At least the Anglo-French wars are given different names (unless they occurred between 1337 and 1453), but I remember as an undergrad having a heck of a time trying to keep all those 18C wars between Russia (or Austria) and the Ottoman Empire straight: Russo-Turkish War of [insert years here]. And avoid at all costs the landmine field that is the Great Northern War(s).

Even in a specific country, historians can alter the name of a war over time. I won’t bore you by repeating the example of the War of the League of Augsburg morphing into the Nine Years War (and possibly the generic-sounding War of the Grand Alliance). Makes it a challenge searching through the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

So given all of these complications, I wouldn’t be surprised if the frequency of the boring “Country A-Country B War”, or the “X-Year War” (aside: can we get a grammarian’s judgment on whether we should make those possessive or not?) is due to historians wanting to appear more ‘objective,’ or else deciding it’s not worth the effort trying to come up with a better name. Tradition and the dictates of historiography probably discourage experimentation with war names – [interrupting your point mid-sentence] “Wait, what war do you study? why the hell do you call it that?” Frankly, I haven’t even seen these conventions spelled out. For example, on occasion my research on the British war effort will mention the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1712), the years intended to indicate when the British were actively involved in the war. But I have no idea if other historians even understand that shorthand or not. Hopefully I’m not confusing them too much.

But (there’s always a but) I’d argue that naming wars by their duration isn’t that much of an improvement. Obviously naming a war by its duration is something done after the fact, since it requires waiting till the war is actually over – otherwise we’d teach our students about World War I, which, as we all know, was over by Christmas 1914. More importantly, it depends on the purpose of naming a war in the first place. Is a duration war name purely intended to distinguish it from other wars (a nominal duration, if you will)? Possibly, but I’d bet most people draw further inferences from such names, since numbers naturally prompt us to compare, thereby converting it into a ratio duration. Thus it’s obvious that the 80 Years War was only 80% of what the Hundred Years War was (or 69% of what the 116-year Hundred Years War was), but 2.6 times what the Thirty Years War was. (We’ll ignore the fact that the second half of the Eighty Years War actually was ‘part’ of the Thirty Years War – or is it the other way around? – and the Thirty Years War was also conflated with the first half of the Franco-Spanish War from 1635-1659.) Duration names may very well encourage readers to make substantive conclusions about the conflict that may not be appreciated by those familiar with the details of the conflict. I know I’ve occasionally caught myself thinking – man, how in the world did they manage to wage war for one hundred years straight!

Given this tendency, we need to fully appreciate the methodological issues involved with naming wars after their duration. The first problem is the need to decide which start date to use (readers of my Vauban book will be having déjà-vu all over again by this point). Do you date it from the formal declaration of war? Was that before or after hostilities began? Was a formal declaration of war even issued? If these are alliance conflicts, do you date it from the earliest clashes by any members of the two sides (say 1701 in northern Italy between the Franco-Spanish and Imperials), or should you date it from the second Grand Alliance’s formal declaration of war in 1702, or is the signing of the alliance treaty itself in September 1701 close enough? If you call Louis XIV’s second-to-the-last war the War of the Grand Alliance, does that mean that you have to start the war in 1689 (you know, the Eight Years War) instead of 1688? Does it makes sense to make a principled choice of what to name a war if the name involves causes, but ignore that reasoning when naming a war after its length?

A second problem comes from end dates, and this always confused me. In the early modern period it was not uncommon to have negotiations drag on for months after the main campaigning ended; often these final diplomatic touches were applied over winter quarters. So that could mean that a war technically ends the calendar year after the campaigning was over. You read that the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, lasted from 1701-1714, but of course the reality is far messier. Two of the three major Allied belligerents stopped fighting the French in 1712 and signed the peace in 1713. Only the Austrians and Imperials held out for another year, or is it two? So as far as actual campaigning is concerned the war lasted 1701-1713 for the French, 1702-1712 for the English/British (and let’s not forget that the British actually stopped fighting several months before their allies, so they should get half-a-year penalty), 1702-1712 for the Dutch (but they fought as auxiliaries for a few months before the formal declaration, though still in 1702), 1704-1712 (kinda) for the Portuguese, 1701-1713 for the Imperials/Austrians… And how do we even count the war from the Spanish perspective? In Iberia major land campaigns only started in 1704 (along with some coastal descents in 1702) and ended with the fall of Barcelona (and the Balearics minus Minorca) in 1714, in Italy from 1701-1706 (or 1708 if you include Naples), in the Spanish Netherlands from 1702-1712, and who knows when at sea and overseas. (OK, I don’t know exactly, other than that there was almost constant low-level skirmishing in the wilds). Probably a good idea that we just stick with “the War of the Spanish Succession” (unless you were a belligerent who wasn’t fighting for a piece of the Spanish pie).

Participants in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1702-1712-1713-1714)

Participants in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1702-1703-1712-1713-1714)

So how exactly do we measure duration: from first hostilities to peace treaty, from first hostilities to end of hostilities, from formal declaration to peace treaty? It seems the standard is to go from first hostilities to peace treaty. Which is kind of odd in its asymmetry – it acknowledges that war can begin before a formal declaration, but it apparently doesn’t believe that war can end before peace is declared. Why is the diplomatic measure the only standard, or, at least, why wasn’t I warned that the war’s fighting duration may be shorter than advertised? For a military historian like myself, I always wondered why we don’t do something like what we could do with monarchs: Louis XIV (1638-1643-1661-1715).

What if the war isn’t of equal intensity across the entire period, or, even worse, includes a truce in the middle? Take the Dutch war for independence from Spain. Let’s put aside the problem of a diplomatic start date, as the Spanish were unlikely to ever formally declare war against their rebellious subjects, that would imply the rebels were a legitimate organization. The Eighty Years War only lasted 80 years if you measure it from 1568 (the first exile invasions from Germany I’m guessing) to Westphalia, counting every year between those two dates as ‘war’. Other possibilities are the Eighty-Two Years War if you want to start it with the wonderjaar. But no!, someone objects, that wasn’t actual military campaigning, just people smashing things! Fair enough, but then we should probably take out the Twelve Years Truce (from 1609-1621) to be consistent, leaving us with the Sixty-Eight Years War, or even the Sixty-Six Years War if you want to take out the two years of ceasefire from 1607-1609 before the formal signing of the truce. For that matter, why not start with 1567, when the Duke of Alva started cracking Protestant heads with his Army of Flanders? And this isn’t even the most complicated example – Hundred Years War anyone?

Hundred Years War timeline

Hundred Years War timeline

Are those minor dating differences important? Maybe not. But given how historians rise to the question of what non-numerical name to give a war, or what to call the people who lived in modern-day Austria, I’d think there’d be more discussion. We need to remind ourselves more frequently of these complications, and be more cognizant of how simplistic labeling of a war (fought between a dozen belligerents) encourages non-experts to view it as a single, cohesive conflict, and how that shapes their (and our) understanding of its conduct.

And since we’re historians we won’t get all mathematical, wondering whether we should count up the number of months of active campaigning and divide by twelve: the “7.3 Years War.” Nor will I question whether a war that ends with a peace signed in February include that year in its count.

This also ignores the broader interpretive question of whether conflicts interspersed with periods of ‘peace’ should be grouped together as the same war or not. Modern historians have argued about whether WW1 & WW2 were part of the same conflict, just as a few historians have referred to the series of wars between England/Britain and France between 1689 and 1815 as the ‘second hundred years war.’ And I believe some medievalists aren’t too keen on even calling it the Hundred Years War in the first place. That kind of compression encourages all kinds of conflation.

Nor do duration names help clarify matters when historians of William III blithely appropriate the “Nine Years War” as their own, stealing it from the Irish Nine Years War (aka Tyrone’s rebellion). But I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that the English would confiscate something from the Irish.

All in all, I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to name a war after its duration, just that:

  • it’s more complicated than one might think at first
  • we’re not always consistent with which years we choose as the start and end dates
  • without discussion of methods there doesn’t seem to be a basis for consensus so people will get confused over what exactly those years represent
  • using numbers gives many people inaccurate notions of how comparable the “lengths” of these different wars are.

So until we start explicitly discussing the matter, we should probably refer to the Eighty Years War as the “Seventy-Four Years War ±8”.



19 responses to “Thinking too much about naming wars”

  1. Martin Gibson says :

    Put this here rather than on the SMH blog as it refers to a couple of points

    The French and Indian War lasted from 1754-63, whereas the European conflict did not start until 1756. Possibly the longer North American theatre has a different name from the overall war in order to avoid calling the war the Second Nine Years War?
    The website of the musée de l’Armée in Paris calls the Franco-Prussian War la guerre franco-allemande de 1870.

    • jostwald says :

      Yet more confusion.
      Might be worth checking Ngram Viewer French books to see when guerre franco-allemande takes off. I would think adding the name of your country to a war had to come later, presumably in a more pan-European context: as European historians started more cross-cultural collaborations? Maybe there was a slow increase in national histories outside of the big three (English, French, German) that made it necessary as the list of wars worth studying expanded? The rise of the EU? Maybe it was even a 19C nationalistic thing? No idea myself, but all sorts of possibilities.
      Point taken on 7YW, though I wonder how contemps viewed it: when was French and Indian War coined vs. 7 Years War? And it doesn’t explain the other wars.
      Ah, history…

    • Mark Danley says :

      Moreover, the fighting in South Asia that historians later came to consider part of the “Seven Years’ War” began in 1751. I believe the fighting in North America became known as the “French and Indian War” because that terminology reflected the (rather narrow) point of view of the Anglo-Americans who fought it. In time, the narrowness was forgotten and the term became conventionalized, even among commentators who should have been aware of its origin.

      • jegrenier says :

        Drake and the antiquarians called it the French war, not like all of them, since at least 1690, weren’t French wars. The problem is, of course, some toad will get all froggy on you about what you call the war (tho’ we know which one you’re talking about) and use that minor detail to ignore your argument. Try being an American (assumption: privileged white dude who’s an oppressor) who writes about Indians, or Native Americans, if you will? Do we call them Mi’kmaq, Micmacs, or Mikmaqs? Does it make me a really bad person if I just don’t give a sh!t? Should we just say The Indian, excuse me, Aboriginal people, who inhabited a portion of what today is Nova Scotia, or should I call it Acadia, or Mi’kmaqia (see above), or just throw out some GPS coords, but wait, you use a different datum than I so lets not communicate with each other and instead defend our rice bowls. And we wonder why Jane and John Doe don’t take us seriously or care about what we have to say. Oh dear?

  2. Wienand Drenth says :

    I was looking into the wars in North America between France and Britain. In English called King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, etc, as re-iterated already. However, the French wiki uses the terminology First Intercolonial War, Second, Third. I don’t know when that terminology came into being, but it sounds a bit more objective, and more close to the location, than the title King William’s War.

    • jostwald says :

      Bizarre. “Intercolonial War” is a horrible name – there must’ve been at least fifty of those, and it doesn’t even tell you where the “Twelfth Intercolonial War” was fought – Africa? Asia?… Let’s try to be a bit more original and descriptive, French wikians, shall we?

      • Wienand Drenth says :

        Well, it sounds a bit vague. But ‘King William’s War’ isn’t very specific either. How many kings were called William, and how many of those did go to war?
        I don’t know if the ‘Guerre Intercoloniale’ was invented by ‘les Wikians Francais’, or that it is used in French historiagraphy.

      • jostwald says :

        I still say it’s awful. Has no personality, sounds awful in English (more like a scifi war), and making it ordinal compounds the problem. I’m going to contact my Senator to have Congress ban it, maybe even contact the UN…

    • Mark Danley says :

      When writing the introduction to our recent volume Seven Years’ War: Global Views (Leiden: Brill, 2012) I tried to deal with the issue of ‘naming’ the Seven Years’ War. It is not just a problem of the point-of-view determining certain names, but that those certain names imply certain scopes that differ from each other. There’s also the issue of the term “Great War for Empire”, coined by later historians. That’s just as generic; i.e. one could conceive of many “Great Wars For Empire”, going quite a ways back in history.

  3. jostwald says :

    We should also distinguish ‘umbrella’ wars from more specific sub-wars. For example, the First and Second Silesian wars (over whether Frederick the Great or Maria Theresa would control Silesia) occurred in the larger War of the Austrian Succession, while the ‘Third’ Silesian War occurred in the *next* umbrella war, the Seven Years War.
    So what kind of rules do we need to come up with? Sub-wars allow specific names like Country A-Country B, whereas the larger umbrella wars must be more generic?

  4. Erik Lund says :

    “Wars of the Austrian Succession…”

    And since eighteenth century British wars always entangled the legitimacy of the British state, it makes sense to me to name them after the sovereign. Part of the issue was whether William, Anne or the American Congress would get to be in charge! (So it is interesting that the one in the middle isn’t “King George’s War.”)

    • jostwald says :

      Turns out someone’s referred to it as King George’s War, if wikipedia is to be believed. Which in turn makes you wonder whether that was coined after the French and Indian War, or else it should’ve been the First King George’s War? Or are we’re talking the King Georges’s Warses? The Second King George II’s war? Does the originating king get the name if he dies halfway through the war? I suppose that’s why you give your son your name.

      I don’t want to think about how many wars would be subsumed under the Wars of the British Successions.

      • Mark Danley says :

        Yes, indeed, Anglo-Americans have long referred to the *North American* elements of the conflicts of the 1740s as “King George’s War” without anyone fully addressing the issue of overlap with the “War of Jenkin’s Ear” which is also called one of the “Anglo-Spanish Wars” – that latter term, of course, causing problems similar to what Jamel raises with the term(s) “Russo-Turkish War”

  5. jegrenier says :

    I encountered no end of issues with this, back in the day. WAS didn’t work, nor did War of Jenkins’ Ear. I settled on Wars of King George II, which is inelegant, ugly, and not real original. I’d like to add, however, that Father Le Loutre’s War now has a wikipedia entry, so I figure I have arrived as a historian. If Father Rasle can have a war (also called Dummer’s, Grey Lock’s, 4th Anglo-Abenaki) named after him, so too can Father Otter. Why not, right?

    • jostwald says :

      I’d argue that lack of originality is probably a good thing. Historians seem to not like standardization (or at least they always find things to quibble about), but we can’t exactly talk to our colleagues if we each come up with our own special names for wars. You could put “Father Le Loutre’s War” in your paper title, but I’ll have no idea what it even means. I’d imagine a publisher would expect a more familiar name, for the average reader’s sake.

      Ultimately, historians should at least figure out if we want war names to be purely descriptive (geographical, belligerents, duration), or whether we want to impart some sense of cause or origins (which leads to all sorts of problems). I’d suggest the biggest problems occur when we try to incorporate the cause/origin of a war into its name – this only encourages frequent revisiting of war names.

      • jegrenier says :

        Agree. The problem is, if you’re someone interested in small wars, like me, you have to find new ways to contextualize things or your areas of study continued to get ignored or overwhelmed by the SOS. Breaking new and significant ground as a historian is really hard … I think that’s why we (the collective we, as a discipline) recycle so much, despite all our claims to originality. Of course, we can break new ground in areas no one really cares about, which leads to more balkanization. Thus, I’d say we should probably stick to the established norms … In Central Europe, for example, we’ll call it 1st and 2nd Silesian Wars and switch to WAS when rolling westward, and the KGW when we get to No Am, after we have started with WJE … Ah hell, i’m going to go eat a bowl of chili and let you worry about this 🙂

      • jostwald says :

        Re: SOS. And it doesn’t help when you’re discouraged as a grad student from pursuing topics that haven’t been written about before – ‘gap filling’. I understand the reasoning behind that advice, i.e. 1) that your choice of case study needs to have some broader argumentative relevance, and 2) that you want a marketable topic (both in terms of the job market, as well as funding and publishing opportunities). But half of the time, popular topics are popular (esp. in military history) NOT because those events are necessarily the most important aspect of the period/subject, but rather are popular due to ethnocentric and/or linguistic influences. (Back to my concern about how popular publishing pressures are shaping academic research.) For example, you can’t really tell how important the English are to an allied war effort until you look at the contribution of its allies. Result: the SOS as you say.

  6. jostwald says :

    Just found this book chapter that might be of interest for the English Civil Wars/English Revolution/Wars of the Three Kingdoms… It focuses on how the name of these conflicts shapes our understanding of the causes of these events (religion in particular).
    Morrill, John. “Renaming England’s Wars of Religion.” In England’s Wars of Religion, Revisited, edited by Charles W.A. Prior and Glenn Burgess, New edition., 306–26. Farnham, Surrey ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

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