Tag Archive | great captains

A Conferencing We Will Go

Just got word that our panel for the SMH conference next March 14-16 has been accepted. I’ll take the liberty of posting my proposal for the panel (Mark and Margaret: let me know if you want your proposals posted here as well). A fuller schedule of the conference should appear by mid-January. Let’s hope there are several early modern panels.

Panel Abstract: Remembering the War of the Spanish Succession

2013 marks the 300th anniversary of the Peace of Utrecht, a treaty that determined the end state of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). England – “Britain” from its 1707 union with Scotland – was central to the war’s initiation, and remained integral to the Grand Alliance’s struggle against Bourbon France and Spain. Allied arms enjoyed a string of military victories, yet Britain alone essentially ended the war when it abandoned its erstwhile allies in order to negotiate a separate peace with Louis XIV. The Dutch, and later the Empire, were forced to acquiesce to the resulting terms, which re-established a balance of power on the Continent and established the framework for future British growth overseas. In retrospect, it is clear that Britain’s successes in the Spanish Succession facilitated its ascent to great power status. But how did Britons remember the Spanish Succession before their later victories against the French, in 1763 and then again in 1815, cemented their status as a world power? What lessons did they draw from their first major victory on the Continent in over 300 years? This panel will discuss both short term and longer term memories of the war during the 18th century, contributing both to a larger discussion of the rise of Britain as well as the construction of martial memory.

To this end, Margaret Sankey’s paper (‘“It is Plain no comparisons are to be made for my justification”:  The Jacobite ’15 as Epilogue to the War of the Spanish Succession’) analyzes the final direct echo of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. Despite a change from Stuart to Hanover, the British would fight the ’15 in a strategic context reminiscent of the previous war. Many of the same British military personalities drew upon still-fresh memories of counterinsurgency and island defense, while both Hanoverians and Jacobites sought to enlist recently demobilized British troops in yet another struggle over the succession to the English crown.

Jamel Ostwald’s paper (“Remembering Marlborough after the War of the Spanish Succession”) examines the British memory of their most successful commander of the war, the Duke of Marlborough. Already a controversial figure by the time of his dismissal in 1712, Marlborough’s military career would be the subject of numerous biographies from 1712 into the 1740s. The Georgian Whig ascendancy, and the efforts of his wife Sarah, would guarantee that Marlborough would emerge as one of England’s greatest Captains. Ever since, British memory of the War of the Spanish Succession has revolved around England’s leading role as the arbiter of Europe.

Mark Danley’s paper (“British Strategy During the Seven Years’ War and the Historical Memory of Amphibious Operations during the War of the Spanish Succession”) provides a longer-term view of the war’s legacy, as he analyzes the way in which ‘lessons’ from the Spanish Succession reinforced British strategic thinking. Focusing on the mid-18th century debate over how best to defeat a resurgent France, Danley explores how the British sought to assimilate the mixed lessons of Allied amphibious operations from the Spanish Succession into workable strategy.

Remembering Marlborough after the War of the Spanish Succession (my paper)

Most details of past wars quickly fade from memory, yet battlefield victories of Great Captains live on. The story of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), alone among Louis XIV’s wars, continues to be repeated over the centuries, with almost two dozen histories penned within the past hundred years. The popularity of this war in Anglo-American memory can be attributed to the vigorous campaigns of Britain’s commander, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. But the triumphalist account of Marlborough’s’ battlefield victories over a French tyrant was not inevitable. Though widely hailed today, his status as a Great Captain was in doubt even before the Spanish Succession ended. To be sure, hundreds of sermons, poems and pamphlets had praised the Duke for his battlefield victories between 1704 and 1708 – Donauwert, Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenaarde particularly. Celebrating these defeats of the traditional French foe also served a political purpose, enabling Whig partisans to make political hay from martial glory. Yet political advantage ebbed along with military advantage: the diminishing returns of British battlefield successes from 1708 onward allowed a new Tory administration to come to power in 1710. This ministry launched its own assault against the Duke’s military credentials, and by extension the war. The result was two polarized views of Marlborough as military commander – one portraying him as an English revival of past Great Captains, the other describing him as a money-grubbing mercenary captain seeking to control the Crown from behind the scenes. In the short term the Tory attack on his character took its toll: formerly one of the most powerful men in the country, he was dismissed from his offices at the end of 1711. The Duke was brought up on corruption charges the next year, and forced into exile. His return home coincided with the accession of George I, and was smoothed by a new Whig political ascendancy. Since his health and advanced age prevented him from authoring his own justification of his actions, his military legacy would be determined by others. It would be the tone of his first biographers, encouraged by his widow Sarah, which established his place in the pantheon of Britain’s greatest generals. The military memory of Marlborough had been set.

This paper will analyze Britain’s public discourse on the War of the Spanish Succession, and of the Duke of Marlborough in particular. Specifically, it will trace the evolution of British publications discussing the Duke: starting with a brief summary of the war-time discussion, then focusing on his dismissal in 1712, his return from exile in 1714, to the eulogies and retrospectives precipitated by his death in 1722, and finally to the biographical treatments that helped cement his reputation for future generations of Britons in the 1730s and 1740s. Throughout, the paper will trace the ebb and flow of particular themes in the portrayal of Marlborough as Great Captain: his role as vigorous battle-seeker versus his portrayal as a prudent general; Marlborough as peer of the Great Captains of the Ancient world; Marlborough as the midwife of a revived English courage; as well as the political ascendancy of the Whigs which allowed a pro-Marlborough, pro-Continental interpretation of the Spanish Succession to rule the field for several critical decades after 1712.


To come: a peek behind the curtain that is academic history conferences.

A Sporting War, pt. 1

Honestly, I don’t actually read much sports commentary at all. But in my online perusals of regular news websites, I occasionally find a sports discussion that raises parallels between sports culture and military culture. Thus we have another edition of odd parallels between sports and war. This time it’s not so much about gender, as the reasoning for choosing one strategy over another.

What piqued my interest recently were two articles that relate to the unwritten conventions of American football, and how those conventions also seem to apply to warfare, generalship in particular. I’ll talk about the first article today, and then do a follow-on post on the second. Read More…


For those unaware, it was a thing back in the 90s among conservative Christian circles to sport a fashionable WWJD? bracelet, which served as a reminder to always ask one’s self the timeless question: “What would Jesus do?” The past few days have prompted me to ask an even more important question: “What would Vauban do?” What would he do indeed, what wouldn’t he do, and why would he do or not do? That is the question. [No: the question is not “What would Voldemort do?” Nor is it “What would Voltron do?” Not even what Vader would do.]

Vauban, pointing out what is to be done

I’ve been asking myself that question more than usual over the past few days. Doing so has forced me to come to terms with questions that have dogged me throughout my career. And these questions should dog every historian. Let me explain.

My first sense of unease developed from a comment Erik made on a previous post, daring to impugn the reputation of one Monsieur Vauban. I took umbrage, as any one should when le Grand Vauban‘s reputation is at stake. He speculated that Vauban might have had ulterior motives when describing high engineering casualty figures. I was therefore forced to respond, objecting that of course he wouldn’t lie, he was a good guy, or something to that effect. But I did feel on solid ground, logically if not empirically. I hadn’t the evidence to show that Vauban’s engineering casualty figures were accurate, or that these casualties were suffered by full-time members of the military engineering corps. But I knew that other contemporaries, including some otherwise disrespectful of the engineers, agreed with Vauban’s claim. That’s the end of that, I thought. Vauban wouldn’t lie. He was truly one of the good guys of Louis XIV’s reign. I not only knew what Vauban would do, but I also knew what he wouldn’t. And he won’t do that, to quote Meatloaf.

This incident, so innocent on its own, was quickly followed by a second, the combination of which turned me defensively pensive. Just a day later a colleague emailed me a straightforward question: ‘Some of Vauban’s contemporaries claimed that he made sieges more difficult than they should have, “so as to present his designs in a favourable light.” Would Vauban do this?’ A fair question, but now I was invested and surrounded on all sides – my boundaries of Vauban-knowledge clearly being tested, prodded for weaknesses. Now I was not only being asked to explain why Vauban did something, but whether he would have done something. Things were getting a bit hypothetical – the fog of war obscured my vision. It didn’t help that this friend was unsatisfied with my first, heavily-qualified answer that sought to provide a context for why such contemporary criticisms were made. Replying quickly to my refusal to submit to his terms, he cut to the chase: “As an expert, do you think Vauban would do that or not?” My WWVD? bracelet was mute, and even worse, the enemy had loosed the “e” word from his arsenal, automatically releasing the fear of being found out as a fraud, exposed as having only empty uniforms guarding the walls. Like a slave reminding the triumphant Roman general that “All glory is fleeting,” doubt mocked me: “Shouldn’t you know more about Vauban, Mr. Fancy-Pants Expert?” Errrr, well, it depends…. Then another, much older, fifth column, the ghost of uncomfortable-questions-past, chimed in: “Yeah. And how can you, someone in the 21st century, know anything about how someone would have acted 300 years ago, much less why they would have acted that way?” How indeed, I fretted. Sensing my wavering, doubt committed its reserves. A flood of memories stormed the walls: the numerous occasions from the past when I had heard people make bold statements about so-and-so being a great general, while in my mind, even if I knew the general and his oeuvre, I realized I had far less conviction that I knew the answer. And even less conviction that I could say why.

And then, suddenly, the siege was lifted, or at least its ultimate outcome no longer in doubt. I realized that with both questions I was in fact trying to answer WWVD? by coming up with a plausible explanation for why he might do such a thing as lie about casualties or make a siege harder than it should have been. I could imagine many implausible reasons: that Vauban lied about it for personal gain; that he drew out the length of a siege for personal aggrandizement; and so on. More plausible, however, were more laudable motives that I associate with Vauban: he might have done it to make a point about the need for better pay and training of his beloved engineer corps; or maybe he did it to illustrate the need to follow his rules closely. Those motives I could at least understand, because they fit my image of who Vauban was. Just as quickly, however, I realized that I had just fallen into one of the oldest traps the human mind has invented, confusing a plausible explanation for actual evidence. The two questions are distinct despite being constantly confused with each other: “How do we know that X is true?” (the claim and reasons together forming an argument), and “Why is X true?” (the answer being an explanation). As logicians and philosophers phrase it, an explanation is not a reason to believe a claim – I can give you multiple reasons why my 3rd grade teacher was an alien, but no matter how many explanations I give, none of them are evidence that she actually was. Yet, despite my repeated lecturing to students about this distinction, I had fallen back onto it – I had in fact been captured not by formal siege, but instead by a ruse. I didn’t know, empirically, if Vauban had ever intentionally attacked a fortress at its strongest point to make some larger point. Nor did I know whether he had lied about engineering casualty figures. But then, maybe if I could come up with reasons why he might do such a thing, I could decide whether or not those sounded like the Vauban I know. And only in doing that could I come to a satisfying answer: “I doubt Vauban would do that, but if he did, he would have only done it for some laudable purpose. And he certainly wouldn’t do it if it hurt other people.” And I was satisfied (as was my interlocutor) – not because I had found the answer, but because I had squared a seemingly-bad (hypothetical) act by Vauban with a (hypothetical) motive that was good.

My point? More like questions. What makes us think we can “understand” why someone did something, or, more to the point, whether someone might do something or not? Are people, are historical actors, that transparent? Are they that consistent in their behavior – and how much of their behavior do we really know on which to base our model of their behavior? Will men on the battlefield (or in the trenches) act consistent with their personality? And if we don’t have evidence, “proof”, that somebody did not do something, what basis do we have to say “I know him so well that I know he wouldn’t do that”? And let’s not even start thinking about how we come up with counterfactual evidence for why so-and-so wouldn’t do such-and-such because we just know he’s not that kind of guy. For someone who tends to think of human motivations in terms of situational ethics, I’m a little uncomfortable here.

Somebody talk me down.