Tag Archive | tactics

Proof that early modern Europeans had war elephants

From the 1702.01.03-06 Flying Post:

This is to give Notice, That there is lately arrived a large Elephant, the biggest that ever was in Europe, and performs varieties of Exercise for Diversion and Laughter, viz. exercises the Musket, flourishes the Colours very nimble and swift in several Postures; he also bears two Persons upon his Trunck; two upon his Ears, and ten upon his Back; with several Varieties. Is to be seen at the White-Horse Inn in Fleetstreet, from 10 in the Morning till 5 at Night.


Early modern movie battles

I’m thinking about making a few minor changes to my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course next semester. Past versions have focused a fair amount on the narratives of various wars: out of the 38 class meetings (50 minutes each), I devote one class meeting each on the 100YW, the Ottoman wars, the Wars of Italy, the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch Revolt, the 30YW, L14’s wars, Frederick the Great’s wars, the French Revolutionary wars, and the Napoleonic Wars. The rest are topical.

This time I’ll be condensing a few of the war narratives and warfare topics into a single class (sorry Dutch Revolt, sorry French Wars of Religion). Thus I’ll focus on the Italian Wars, the 30YW, Frederick’s wars, the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars, but more and more Louis XIV’s wars. This will give me more space to read a few of the new French books out, and focus a bit more on the actual process of campaigning, Louis XIV-style. This includes dedicated classes on small war, professionalization (military ranks/organization…), maybe even the fiscal-military state. Shockingly, I hardly mention the Military Revolution in the course – I’m not a big fan of sweeping historiography at the undergrad level. Even in a course that covers almost 500 years of European military history!

But to the reason for my post: Any suggestions for good early modern combat sequences from movies? I’ll include a few scenes from Alatriste, and there are a few things on YouTube, but if you have any other favorites, let us know in the comments.

Help identifying things

I’m finishing up my edits for the final version of my West Point History of Warfare iBook chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually they’ll release it beyond those lucky cadets who get to read it for their course.

Among other tweaks, it was suggested I incorporate the following image and include various hotspots. Here’s a low-res version of the whole thing:


The image is available from the Rijksmuseum to view and download in all its gory and glorious detail (once you register). All rights belong to them, of course.

I’ve spoken about the bombardment of Gelder before, and will have plenty to say about it for this image. One of the features of the chapter, however, is to give the reader a sense of the nitty-gritty reality of war. And since I’ve personally participated in at least thirteen early modern sieges (and have the wounds to show for it), I’m obviously the expert who can explain what all of these things are.

And yet, somehow, I don’t know everything. In fact, there are a few things in this panorama of a bombardment battery that I don’t know. A few others, I have speculations. But we certainly can’t let the West Point cadets rely on guesswork.

Since I’m leaving for France in the morning, I don’t have time to look through my Saint-Rémy and various other artillery manuals right now. Thus I’m hoping someone already knows what these things are, and is looking to impress. (Bonus points if you can cite a source or point to other examples.)

To help contextualize, recall that this depiction of a battery is only a bombardment of a poorly-garrisoned town, not a full-blown siege, which means there aren’t approach trenches or saps, and the bombarding side likely isn’t expecting sallying troops to charge all the way to the battery across all that open ground. (See the appendix in my Vauban under Siege if you’re still unclear on the difference between a bombardment and a siege.)

Let the quiz begin.

First up, what are these bucket-like objects resting on the parapet in the guard trench in front of the battery? What were they used for? And please don’t say they’re helmets. (And I sure hope they’re not airing out their chamber pots either.)

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 buckets

Next up, I’m thinking this might be a mechanical planer of some sort (given the boards, possibly a rough pre-board in the back and an after-planing straight board in the front). Can anyone confirm?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 planer

And what are these things on the ground at the bottom, which look like a metal container with some black cloth attached to their tops?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 possible funnels

I’m guessing they might be funnels: I’d speculate the pliable cloth opening is pushed into whatever-size hole and then you tip up the container and gunpowder goes in – either down a muzzle or in a bomb. The other staff-like objects are for loading and cleaning cannon obviously.

Next question: What goodies do these little huts hold?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 powder sheds

Less-likely speculation: are these fascine-topped huts gunpowder storage? In the entire image, there’s surprisingly little gunpowder that I can see, apart from (possibly) a few pony kegs. Admittedly, one would rather not have gunpowder lying around willy-nilly, but this strikes me as a very clean battery. There’s a solid-looking red shed on the far left that would be a logical place to store gunpowder barrels, but you’d think they’d have more illustration of gunpowder being transported to the different guns (unless maybe those funnel-like containers are actually gunpowder carrying case + funnel. Which might make sense now that I think about it).

More-likely speculation: Or perhaps the fascine-roofed sheds store pre-filled mortar bombs? I don’t see any obvious equipment (other than possibly the funnels) that indicates that they are filling the gunpowder-filled bombs on-site, so possibly they were delivered to the battery already full, or filled all at once, and then placed in the shelters for some minimal protection. The fact that these fascine sheds are directly behind the mortars, whereas the grates heating the red-hot shot are behind the cannon, might support this idea.

Final question: Who’s a brave doggie?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 doggie

You are!

Now it’s your turn

The first week of the Spring semester, and as usual I’m behind already. I’m teaching the Historical Research and Writing course, a senior seminar on Late Stuart England, and my Religion, War and Peace in Early Modern Europe – tomorrow’s lesson: the Old Testament!

So I’ll just throw this out there until I have time to compose a real post:

A colleague wants to know what the latest consensus is (if one exists) about the old saw that British red coats in the American Revolution stood up proud and tall in nice straight linear formations while American militiamen fired at them behind trees and rocks with their rifles.

I’ve read Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only and Grenier’s First American Way of War and a couple of the recent works on Native American warfare, but since several skulkers focus on the American Revolutionary era and since I have enough trouble keeping up with works on Europe between 1650 and 1750 while doing my own research, I thought I’d check to see what the current status of the topic is. So for this post only, consider this EMEMH blog temporarily a EMAMH blog.

Comment away!

Merry Christmas

If your idea of a Christmas present is watching a guy in 15C armor running on a treadmill, Merry Christmas. The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences), argues that steel plate armor doubled the energy expended by unencumbered soldiers. I seem to recall medievalists arguing that the finely-crafted balance of plate mail made it not much of an encumbrance at all, so I wonder if this is a revelation or not. Here’s the abstract from the journal article:

In Medieval Europe, soldiers wore steel plate armour for protection during warfare. Armour design reflected a trade-off between protection and mobility it offered the wearer. By the fifteenth century, a typical suit of field armour weighed between 30 and 50 kg and was distributed over the entire body. How much wearing armour affected Medieval soldiers’ locomotor energetics and biomechanics is unknown. We investigated the mechanics and the energetic cost of locomotion in armour, and determined the effects on physical performance. We found that the net cost of locomotion (Cmet) during armoured walking and running is much more energetically expensive than unloaded locomotion. Cmet for locomotion in armour was 2.1–2.3 times higher for walking, and 1.9 times higher for running when compared with Cmet for unloaded locomotion at the same speed. An important component of the increased energy use results from the extra force that must be generated to support the additional mass. However, the energetic cost of locomotion in armour was also much higher than equivalent trunk loading. This additional cost is mostly explained by the increased energy required to swing the limbs and impaired breathing. Our findings can predict age-associated decline in Medieval soldiers’ physical performance, and have potential implications in understanding the outcomes of past European military battles.

Of course this leaves all sorts of questions unanswered, assuming the scientists included all the relevant variables in their experiment. The British media has framed the question around the battle of Agincourt, no surprise, where the French men-at-arms famously dismounted and slogged their way across a ploughed field to get at the awaiting English. As an aside, the first exam in my first grad school foray into EMEMH (a Joe Guilmartin course) required me to put myself in the greaves of a French knight as I slogged across that soggy field. I don’t remember my grade, but I do remember ending it with dying thoughts of my petite chouchou back home, whom I would never see again. But I digress…

I wonder if the Agincourt framing is a bit misleading, since the English are generally said to be among the first to dismount their own knights, to shore up their archers. So I guess I’m left wondering how we incorporate this information into our understanding of late medieval battlefield tactics. Presumably it provided further encouragement for the preference for defensive dispositions in battle, as Cliff Rogers emphasizes. Any other thoughts?

Beware Conventional Wisdom

Reading through Gavin’s interesting post on cavalry lancers, I’m struck yet again by how easy it is for us in the present to commit the common historical fallacy of assuming that in any given period contemporaries operated within a broad consensus. (that’s probably one of Hackett Fischer’s Historian’s Fallacies.) That there was a widely-accepted view on any given topic; that authorities dictated beliefs and practices. Undoubtedly this has to do with just how ignorant we really are of how people thought back then; the further back we go, the murkier it becomes. Of course, if we give it much thought, we realize that just about everything today is up for debate, and there’s little reason to believe the case would have been that different three hundred years earlier. But then the traditional historiography of the whole pre-modern period seems to just beg us to assume such unanimity: it was, after all, the Age of Absolute Monarchs and (for a while at least) the all-powerful Catholic Church, and there certainly wasn’t any agency below the rank of noble. But then everybody got science and enlightenment in the 18C, only to reject it all and turn Romantic and stuff. Or maybe that’s just how historians have simplified it for too long…

This expectation of consensus is certainly true in the case of early modern warfare. And yet it’s also absurd on so many levels, once we consider the relative impotency of most early modern rulers, the vast number of different conflicts raging across Europe, the variety of combatants engaged, as well as the stakes involved. Not only could such topics be a matter of life and death, which would invariably generate heated debate in councils of war and cabinets, but there was also status to be earned (and denied to your competitors) by winning, not to mention money to be made; even artisans could make a buck by selling their new-fangled idea to the military (ask Galileo or Da Vinci), which required pointing out how useless every other invention was.

Several specific military examples of the contested reality of early modern warfare come to mind. In addition to Gavin’s detailing of the 16C debate over projectile (reiter) vs. shock (lancer), we could mention J.R. Hale’s discussion of the 16C debate between Machiavelli and his fellow humanists regarding whether one should fight in the open field or instead rely on fortifications (see his “To Fortify or Not To Fortify”). Similarly, my Vauban under Siege book explored yet another military debate over differing interpretations of what a “good” siege was – was it a short one, or one that minimized both casualties and time, sacrificing whatever time was needed to spare unnecessary bloodshed? In all three of these cases, we can point to all sorts of historical literature that has blithely assured us that the 16C was the age of THIS, the 18C the age of THAT. In short, zeitgeist substituting for analysis, historians doing what they do best – overgeneralizing. As a result, it’s surprisingly refreshing to see some contemporaries admit that there was in fact no consensus on a particular issue, whether it be the merits of the longbow vs. the arquebus, or whether one should defend or abandon the covered way.

Beware the Whiggish Interpretation of Tactics – one that assumes a linear progress from worse to better. And be particularly leery if important tactical advances are attributed to a Great Captain.

Facing up to the Face of Battle

By now most of you have already heard of the death last week of John Keegan (1934-2012). A prolific author whose interests ranged widely through time and space, he spent the last decades of his life writing about modern military history, as well as current conflicts in the Daily Telegraph. An instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, best-selling author and newspaper columnist, he wrote broad surveys of military history, including The Mask of Command (1987), A History of Warfare (1994), and Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1997).

For academic military historians, however, his career was defined by his earliest work, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1976). Simply put, chapter 1 – “Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things” – is required reading for anyone with any interest in the history of war, while the successive chapters illustrate his attempt to recover what the experience of battle was really like. Whether you’re a pacifist, military professional or gunhead, his call for a more realistic view of the face of battle from the fighting soldier’s perspective resonates, and this chapter deserves frequent rereading. On his passing, allow me to honor his work by providing my personal assessment of his influence over the field, one that diverges slightly from the encomia elsewhere. Read More…