Tag Archive | professionalism

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.

A Military Enlightenment?

A comment by Campmaster in a previous post prompted the following speculation regarding whether EM contemporaries adopted past or future models when pushing for military change.

I think there’s something to the Military Enlightenment, i.e. an 18C shift from backwards-looking reform to forward-looking reform, especially post-1713. Whenever someone explains everything by simply applying the zeitgeist, say the Enlightenment, I see that as a bit lazy and over-determined. But there is good evidence for a Military Enlightenment. Not only do you have institutionalized technical developments (e.g. the professionalization of the various technical branches, the growth of academies…), but you also have some new, significant theoretical developments that seem quite different from the previous century. Given the relative peace after 1713, there was a lot of free time for military thinkers (veterans of recent wars) to assess past military performance, e.g. the War of the Spanish Succession and the Seven Years War for France, the Austrian Succession for Britain. The results were often reform programs, sometimes proposing wide-scale changes. To mention a few examples: the chevalier de Folard (who admittedly drew from the Ancient past but through the prism of the Spanish Succession) and the ensuing column-line debate, Guibert, the Liechtenstein/Gribeauval developments in artillery (with the earlier failed precedent of the nouvelle invention cannon under Louis XIV), the Montalembert attack on trace italienne fortifications, theories of mountain warfare, the development of the divisional system…

There also seems to have been a more general systematization of military practice in the field. For example, when comparing French archival documents from 1702-1712 and 1745, I’ve been struck by how much more systematic the 1745 documents were; English histories and manuals published right after the Spanish Succession (e.g. Bland) are also distinctly different from late 17C manuals – there was much more of an effort to systematize knowledge, and quantification as well. I’d guess the bureaucratization of the military (particularly in the field) is a modern mindset, and really seems to take off in the 18C. Administratively, the Dutch were probably ahead of their time (and possibly other republics like Venice, à la Mallett and Hale’s The Military Organization of a Renaissance State), but the English and French only seem to have rationalized their military administrative structure later (perhaps much later) in the 18C, possibly Austria too. War always makes a mess of grandiose plans, so I think the relative peace probably made a big difference, and we should always expect backsliding in wartime, as well as asychronous developments in different countries and regions. We could also talk about the role of increasing State control over its military forces, the increased training and subordination of its officer corps, etc. etc.

Similarly, there’s a strong contrast between the theoretical military literature of the 17C and 18C century. The 17C English manuals focus on basic “fundamental” tactical skills an army needs: battlefield maneuvers and weapons drills, and basic geometry for siegecraft (I’ve already discussed the significant changes between Vauban’s 1672 siege treatise and his 1704 edition, which was only published in the 1740s). The 17C manuals that do address the higher levels of war, particularly the art of commanding an army, are largely generic retreads of Ancient advice on the subject, although you do start to see some criticism (historicist and practical) of various Ancient authorities, just as you do among 17C academics. It’s like 17C Europeans were focusing on the basics, and only later, once they had learned how to walk (march and shoot), could they focus their attention on the higher levels of war, the grand tactical and operational in particular. You clearly see military change occurring in the 17C, but it is slow and, more often than not, rarely discussed publicly if at all. The shift from matchlock to flintlock, from pike and shot to fusil and bayonet, the development of firing systems like platoon fire, the systematization of Vaubanian siegecraft, as well as various administrative changes are all important, but they seem much more haphazard and tenuous. And perhaps they were all necessary preconditions for the Military Enlightenment.

When you get into the 18C, you see full-blown systematization and wide-ranging explicit debate, a broader range of subjects covered in more detail. Ira Gruber’s work on British military libraries (Books and the British Army) shows a clear move away from the Classics by the second-half of the century, although how contemporaries used the Ancients is as important as whether they used them or not. Even Folard’s excursus on Polybius and Puységur’s comparison of Turenne and Caesar is far more detailed and thoughtful than anything I’ve read from the 17C. I am not clear exactly what we should conclude from this difference, other than to avoid, as Stephen Jay Gould emphasized, a knee-jerk teleological Whiggish “today is better” view.

But then there I go, claiming “first.”

Agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Too much to cite, but the Military Enlightenment has been discussed (in various guises) by people like David Bien, John Lynn, J.A. Houlding, Armstrong Starkey, Ira Gruber, Pat Speelman, as well as a whole French school discussing more general issues of how French nobles and technicians defined ‘merit’ (Jay Smith, Ken Alder, Rafe Blaufarb, et al)…