Guess I need to check with Liverpool University Press more often. This one slipped through the cracks of my existing Google alerts and publisher email notifications:
PART 1: Nationhood
1 ‘The eighteenth-century British army as a European institution’, Stephen Conway
2 ‘Soldiering abroad: the experience of living and fighting among aliens’, Graciela Iglesias Rogers
PART 2: Hierarchy
3 ‘Effectiveness and the British Officer Corps, 1793-1815’, Bruce Collins
4 ‘Stamford standoff: honour, status and rivalry in the Georgian military’, Matthew McCormack
PART 3: Discipline
5 ‘“The soldiers murmered much on Account of their usage”: military justice and negotiated authority in the eighteenth-century British army’, William P. Tatum III
6 ‘Discipline and control in eighteenth-century Gibraltar’, Ilya Berkovich
PART 4: Gender
7 ‘Conflicts of conduct: British masculinity and military painting in the wake of the Siege of Gibraltar’, Cicely Robinson
8 ‘Scarlet fever: female enthusiasm for men in uniform, 1780-1815’, Louise Carter
PART 5: Soldiers in Society
9 ‘Disability, fraud and medical experience at the Royal Hospital of Chelsea in the long eighteenth century’, Caroline Louise Nielsen
10 ‘Making new soldiers: legitimacy, identity and attitudes, c. 1740-1815’, Kevin Linch
Finally getting through some of my backlog posts.
Thinking about Vegetius (author of the famous De re militari, a reformist treatise on Roman warfare written before 450 AD), I remain puzzled over what appears to be a mainstay of strategic conventional wisdom. It appears in Vegetius’ General Maxims (Book III chapter 26), wherein he states, to use Milner’s translation:
“In all battles the terms of campaign are such that what benefits you harms the enemy, and what helps him always hinders you. There we ought never to do or omit to do anything at his pleasure, but carry out only that which we judge useful to ourselves. For you begin to be against yourself if you copy what he has done in his own interest, and likewise whatever you attempt for your side will be against him if he chooses to imitate it.”
Other military authors have stated much the same, usually when advising generals to avoid being forced into a field battle, and it has been favorably cited by modern military historians as well. To quote from an English translation of Frederick the Great’s Military Instructions to his Generals: “Those battles are the best into which we force the enemy, for it is an established maxim, to oblige him to do that for which he has no sort of inclination, and as your interest and his are so diametrically opposite, it cannot be supposed that you are both wishing for the same event.” [There’s some context around this quote that merits consideration too.]
But once I start to analyze this logic, my head hurts. It seems like there are a number of rather questionable assumptions underneath this conventional wisdom, or, at least, complications that make me wonder about its utility as a heuristic.
“Forcing an enemy to fight a battle they don’t want” and “Avoid fighting a battle your enemy is trying to force upon you” seem like reasonable advice on the surface, though perhaps the second is more reasonable than the first. Although one of the key assumptions seems to be that victory goes to the one prepared for battle, i.e. it assumes the enemy doesn’t want to fight because he’s not ready for it and will therefore lose. This fits the prudential argument that preparation and discipline are key, but seems to be undermined by the corresponding prudential point that battles are inherently risky and chance plays a key role, regardless of how well prepared you are. If the outcome of a battle is decided by chance or fortuna or the Wheel of Fate or God or whatever, what does your intention and preparation have to do with anything? (I don’t recall seeing the old “God helps those who help themselves” quoted in this context, but I know Eugene of Savoy mentioned it at least once.) Or maybe the military sages don’t really believe the “battle is dictated by fate” line after all? Maybe that’s more of a platitude than practical advice.
This advice leaves me confused on another level (but, then again, what doesn’t). Another major assumption is that a strategic zero-sum game is in effect – most clearly stated by the Prussian Great Captain. But is it usually true that military operations are a zero-sum game, that the two sides are diametrically opposed? Can it be rational for two sides to both pursue the same strategy, to want the same thing, e.g. to fight a field battle? (Especially if we assume that the outcome of battle is a roll of the dice, in which case it wasn’t necessarily a mistake for the losing side to seek battle.) Isn’t it possible that the same event (say, a battle), could actually benefit (and harm) neither side, or end up helping/harming each side equally, i.e. end up being a wash? Haven’t we seen one or two indecisive field battles in history?
This conventional wisdom also seems to imply an omniscient understanding of both yourself and your enemy, in wartime no less. There seem to be several levels here, and I’m not sure about their correspondence with each other: a) what you want to do, b) what you want your enemy to think you want to do, c) what your enemy wants to do, d) what your enemy wants you to think he wants to do, e) what you should do that will help you, f) what you should do that will hurt your enemy, g) what the outcomes (tactical, but also operational and strategic) of those actions are. Some possible complications:
- What if you are wrong about your weaknesses? About your enemy’s? Do people, particularly people in the emotionally-charged, dangerously-competitive and deceptively-secretive atmosphere of wartime, always know what is best for themselves, and what is worst for their enemy? Maybe heuristics for generals should encourage them to question their assumptions, to contemplate their origins, rather simply embrace them? Or does that only promise indecision and paralysis?
- Should you avoid acquiescing to you enemy’s desire for battle if your enemy is wrong? If he’s adopting a flawed strategy, or relying on flawed intell, etc.?
- How well do you really know your enemy’s intentions? Should you reassess your strategy based off what your enemy is attempting to do? Only forcing the enemy to do things which they have “no sort of inclination” is an important qualification, but what level of certainty does this require, and how do we achieve that level of certainty in wartime? How does the frequent discussion of stratagems and tricking the enemy relate to knowing what the enemy wants? What if, for example, your enemy is using a stratagem to get you to react? (“Let’s see, I know that he knows that I know…”) If the enemy gives out that they want to fight, should you avoid a battle? How do you even know your enemy really wants to fight, and isn’t just yanking your chain to waste the campaign season?
- If applied blindly, the heuristic of “avoid what your enemy wants” seems to imply that you should abandon your predefined objectives if they end up telling you to do what the enemy seems to want you to do. How is one to reconcile the contradiction when your predefined strategy coincides with what the enemy wants to do, especially in Frederick’s world of diametrical opposition? Let’s say the mediocre French commander Villeroi is marching towards the Allied army to engage in battle. Does that mean the Allies should avoid the battle because the enemy wants it? (Spoiler alert: they happily accept the French will to fight and thrash them at Ramillies.) So the “judging for yourself” actually seems to be the key and almost too obvious to merit explicit formulation, yet it usually gets buried underneath the doctrinaire “what helps your enemy always hinders you.” Why so strict a formulation? Why bury the lede?
- Where is the guidance as to how you should measure what helps vs. what hinders? Perhaps a battle victory might help with one problem but hurt you on another level. Oddly, the reasons often given for why you should fight a battle, often revolving around the potential future loss of numerical or moral superiority, seem fleeting, hypothetical and hardly fatal, yet they are portrayed as catastrophic enough to induce one to commit to a field battle. Is this fear of battle?
In other words, the thought process here seems so simplistic and confusing that I wonder what utility contemporaries actually derived from such formulaic advice. Did they debate these issues, perhaps prompted by the theoretical manuals? Or am I totally missing the point? Fodder for my battle book.
Or, War before the Time of Cholera.
Having emerged, disease-free, from my gauntlet of Christmas-holiday air travel (1700 miles each way, and that was only halfway across the US), I can now appreciate the publication of this new work even more.
With the semester drawing to a close, I’ve gathered all my little slips of paper scattered about the house and am typing up all the various notes, questions and thoughts I’ve had over the past semester. Many of the fragments are quite specific and will eventually appear in some type of publication, but occasionally I have a meta-thought, usually in a generic methodological vein, that would probably sound weird if I wrote it in a publication (usually either too preachy or too tentative, or maybe too simplistic or too obvious), so I might as well put it here, where every post is tentatively simple in its preachy obviousness.
For example, most of you can probably think of examples where the strongest evidence to support claim X, or at least the most frequently cited evidence, is the fact that an opponent agrees with claim X. The two examples that come to mind most readily for me (or at least which I’ve been reminded of this semester):
- English troops are obviously superior to other Europeans (“races” as they might have said in the early modern period), a Truth evidenced with a quote from a foreigner who praised the quality of the English soldiery.
- A battle not-fought, a missed opportunity for battle, would have been a decisive battle if it had been fought, because one of the enemy admitted that had they been attacked, they would have been defeated entirely.
At first blush, these confessions from an opponent (or at least from one beyond your own tribe) seem a convincing piece of evidence. After all, your competitors generally resist giving you credit for anything, so when they do, they must be overwhelmed by the Truthiness of your claim.
But at some point I realized that an opponent’s “confession” is a bit more slippery than that. There’s an obvious problem with the second, counterfactual, example above – few people really know what might have happened but didn’t (‘fog of war’ making it that much worse in wartime), so the confession’s evidentiary strength depends entirely on the perspicacity and vantage point of the confessor. So you have the basic questions of “What did this person know, when did he know it, how did he know it, and did he generally form accurate judgments about such matters in such situations?” Pretty basic stuff as far as reconciling various accounts go, though actually answering those questions can be quite challenging.
Both examples raise another question, however, about the motivations of the confessor. When I come across such claims I’m left wondering about the context in which the confessor made their admission (there’s probably a name for this logical “fallacy” already). Was it intended as a straightforward factual statement, or was there an ulterior motive behind it? Who was the intended audience, and how did that shape the statement? For example, if some foreigner was bragging about how great English soldiers were, was it because it was a truth universally acknowledged? Or might it have been because the confessor was trying, for example, to butter the English up to provide them with more mercenary troops (who may or may not have been the best troops available – they usually needed all the men they could get)? Was it an attempt to play on English vanity in order to acquire their acquiescence, in other words? Or maybe it was intended as a way to indirectly insult or praise some other group? Dunno without the context.
In the case of a Frenchman admitting that their army would have been defeated if it had been attacked, is it possible that he said that for some reason other than to state the unvarnished Truth? Was it possible such an admission was really a critique of a competing French general (e.g. the commander of the said retreating army)? Was there some kind of factional or command dispute that might help explain such a statement, and thereby weaken its utility as a piece of evidence for the other side? Maybe an attempt to curry favor with someone, even someone on the other side? To assess the strength of the evidence, we need to contextualize the “confession” in order to figure out what it actually meant. But we rarely seem to get that contextual information.
Further, we really need more than just that one single juicy confession. The problem, in my experience at least, is that such frank admissions are incredibly rare in the sources, and readily brandished by partisans on either side, which makes me wonder whether such a ”frank” view would have even been accepted by other contemporaries, people who were likely in as good a position to know. For example, on a couple of occasions I’ve found “well-established” judgments about specific tactical or operational events (repeated ad nauseum in secondary sources) brought into question by other contemporary eyewitnesses. In a few cases a less-quoted source might actually say “Some uninformed people believe X, but I’m on the scene and it’s actually Y.” That should shake your confidence in the original confession, and in confessions generally if we entertain the notion that this obscure source might just as easily be wrong. I had this same problem in Vauban under Siege, where I couldn’t figure out whom to believe in the debate over which front was best to attack a fortress on.
Given how little information historians can recover of specific operational and tactical situations, how contentiously various candidates used such opinions in their jockeying for reputation and remuneration, and how contradictory various contemporary accounts often were,* perhaps we should hesitate to accept such blunt opinions at face value? At the least, let your readers see your argumentation, rather than just say “Trust me.” Assuming your publisher will let you interrupt your ripping yarn to do so…
* Seriously, now that we early modernists have dozens of contemporary accounts of the same event to compare, we really need to stop assuming that there was consensus on much of anything.
I’d like to think the Habsburgs and Bourbons fought over the territory of Lorraine because it held the secret to Duke Leopold’s quiche recipe, but Phil McCluskey’s new article doesn’t even mention it. It’s probably worth a peek anyway…
McCluskey, Phil. “Louis XIV, Duke Leopold I and the Neutrality of Lorraine, 1702–1714.” European History Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 34–56.
During the War of the Spanish Succession, the duke of Lorraine trod a difficult path in his attempts to maintain the independence of his state. While Louis XIV agreed in principle to respect his neutrality, the French nevertheless imposed significant restrictions on the duke’s sovereignty. The Grand Alliance, meanwhile, viewed Leopold’s neutrality with suspicion and refused to assist him unless he publicly declared for the coalition. The dissonance in views regarding the status of Lorraine reflected a long-term clash of sovereignties in the region, between France, Lorraine and the Holy Roman Empire. It also reflected the evolving status of neutrality in international relations, as well as attendant tensions within the European dynastic system: though the duke’s policy of neutrality may have saved Lorraine from potential devastation in the war, it severely impeded his dynasty’s ambitions.
His book on Absolute Monarchy on the Frontiers is also worth checking out.
Warning to wordpress users: be careful when using key shortcuts in the new Create Post interface. As I just discovered, trying to italicize text with the old key shortcut will inadvertently post the post. Not good.
… is now available online. Meets next April in Montgomery, Alabama.
Of note for EMEMHians, I counted two medieval panels (I consider them honorary members of EMEMH, but perhaps it should be reversed), a couple of papers on the American Revolution, three panels on the Age of Revolutions with emphasis on the Napoleonic (‘natch), and a couple of panels on publishing military history.
Personally, I’ll be teaching and preparing for a research jaunt in the summer, but any attendees are welcome to share their thoughts post-conference.
New article in Social Science Computer Review using GIS to analyze the 1714 siege of Barcelona.
I also have the number of daily workers, so a casualty rate over the length of the siege could easily be calculated.
And, finally, a colorful map that emphasizes the importance of musketry for the defense:
Now I remember why it took me so long to finish my dissertation – because I wrote 1.5 of them instead of just one.