Saturday 29 June 2013

Military Romanticism

Some of you may have worked out that I rather like John Lynn’s book ‘Battle: A History of Combat and Culture’ (Westview, Cambridge, 2004). If you have not, then you should perhaps reflect on the fact that this is, by my count, the third post on the subject, one in which the topic turns perhaps a little more closely to wargaming.

Lynn, as I have already mentioned, does not believe that warfare is technologically determined. This is not to say that he ignores the fact that technology changes, and that that does imply changes in how armies are organised and campaigns conducted, let alone how battles are fought, but, he argues, that of more importance is what the people involved in such activities though about them, or, perhaps more specifically, how they thought of them.

The concept of a battle, Lynn suggests, varies over time. A Greek hoplite thought of a battle as a specific thing, in which certain things happen, such as sacrifices, and rousing oration, a chanting of war cries and a horrid clash of two lines. To a Scottish spearman of the fourteenth century a battle might be a plod uphill to be shot down by English arrows after being ordered to by King and landowner. And so on. The Battle of Britain was a different object in many ways from the Battle of Marathon.

I have previously suggested that the threads of the Enlightenment were present in military thinking. Enlightenment thinking was strongly influenced by rationalism and the rise of science in the early modern period, and hence military thinkers and, more pertinently, commanders, thought in terms of mechanics, lines and timetables. Battles, being unpredictable, were somewhat frowned upon as irrational and risky ways to decide anything. Winning a campaign or war without a battle was deemed perfectly acceptable and, in fact, to be encouraged.

This viewpoint changed, of course, as a result of the French Revolution.

Obligatory joke: Chairman Mao (or someone similar, accounts vary) was once asked what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were. He replied ‘It is too soon to tell.’

Follow up joke: Someone asked Gandhi what he thought of western civilization. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

The French Revolution, whatever else it did, created much larger armies than the eighteenth century armies, of conscripts, often motivated by ideological ideas and flung across the continent of Europe in badly supported but almost unstoppable campaigns. Napoleon, even after the establishment of the Empire, still fought battle which did bring the campaigns to an end and, more often than not, forced to opponent to surrender.

The age of the decisive battle had arrived.

Intellectually, the French Revolution also went along with Romanticism. This was a movement of individualisation and the acceptance of, for example, the mysteries of nature (rather than believing that the universe was a mechanical device). It accepted (or tried to) that life was messy and that things were often chancy, dicey and with unclear outcomes.

These two events, the French Revolution and the rise of Romanticism, led to a different view of warfare. This view is, of course that it is perfectly possible to knock an enemy out of the campaign, and hopefully the war in a single action which destroys their field army and, hence, their will to resist.

The principle agent of this view was Clausewitz, who, himself, was heavily embedded both in some of the warfare, as a commander and staff officer in the Prussian army, and, subsequently, in intellectual life in Berlin. There are lots of intellectual influences on Clausewitz’s views which I will not delve into here, but it is worth, I think, considering the implications of the decisive battle, romantic view of war.

Historically, Lynn argues that Clausewitz’s most unfortunate legacy to the world was World War 1. The Schlieffen Plan, for example, envisaged a decisive campaign and, possibly, a decisive battle, to knock the enemy out of the war. France was to be bought to terms before Russia managed to mobilize.

Similarly, during the war, this decisive push mentality led to many more battles which petered out into bloody futility, such as The Somme and Verdun. Military Romanticism was not, of course, the only reason for the various powers launching these offensives; political considerations were always writ large, but the discourse of ‘one last push’ was still involved.

Indeed, Lynn suggests that Clausewitz still pervades our thinking about war today, although in a slightly different form. Limited war, and how to win one, is much more in the forefront, but I think that we can still see the influence of the decisive battle on modern military campaigns.

This romantic discourse of war is, I think, highly influential on us as wargamers. Given that our culture and society is still heavily influenced by Romanticism, it can hardly fail to be. If you do not believe that we are heavily influenced by Romanticism, then just walk down my road on a nice summer’s day and view the number of people enjoying the countryside. Pure Romanticism.

And surely we, as wargamers, are interested in battles, and really not much else. The influence of Clausewitz and Napoleon pervade our thinking about warfare, and lead us along the lines of focussing on the, well, romance of battle. The courage, heroism, tragedy and cowardice of all forms of battle, the more decisive the better.

Furthermore, we then project this back on to other periods of warfare. Our pre-Revolution armies attempt to fight decisive battles, which their originals would have baulked at. Few commanders would have started a battle on equal terms, although many, if not most, wargames have some sort of equality built in, if not equal numbers then equal ‘points’, whatever they might mean.

So, to try to summarise, we are all military romantics, and, just in case you were still wondering, I do not mean schmoozing by the base line. I mean that we buy in to this discourse of the decisive battle, and play our games accordingly. But the concept of varying military discourses may suggest that wargames do not have to be this way.


  1. You sure seem to have to ignore or twist a lot of history to back up such a conclusion.

    Intentionally seeking decisive battles certainly stretch back as far as recorded history. Just look at the campaigns of Cyrus, Alexander and Caeser amongst others. There are 3 elements to the decisive battle, one is to seek and win it militarily, the next is to have the resources and willpower both politically and militarily to use the temporary advantage to best effect, and the last is the wisdom to know your limits.

    Marleboroughs victory at Blenheim which was actively sought over the protests of his paymasters saved Vienna and the Alliance, knocked Bavaria out of the war and set France onto the defensive for the 1st time in a generation. But he did not have political backing and permission to push the campaign vigorously as he desired. Hence the long years and battles leading to Ramilees which led to the French being driven out of the Netehrlands for 100years just as the nearly simultaneous victory by Eugene in Italy drobe the French and Spanish out of Northern Italy until Napoleons campaigns. Oudenarde then brought France to sue for peace and offer huge concessions in territory and power. Only the incapability of the allies to agree and their ability to be generous in victory led to the war being continued with the French breaking all the rules to cobble together a defence and fight until both sides were exhausted. If the allies had taken their winnings in 1709 instead of trying to go for it all it would have been a 7 year campaign that changed the map of Europe and the balance of power for a 100 years, as it was it took 15 years to get the same result.

    Frederick the Great's first Silesian campiagn is another example of an Age of Reason general seeking and winning decisive battles that lead to lasting territorial conquests, a 200 year shift in power in Germany and a swift peace.

    The French Revolution took 20 years to leave Europe more or less where it was when it started.
    The armies of the republic initially fought out of desperation and enthusiasm and were initially crushed by old men who had little vision. Their philosopy may well have affected their campaign ends but less so tactics on the battlefield but their new methods of converging columns and maneuver were attempted without the infrastructure, staff, doctrine etc to support it. Any study of the armies of the republic show that by the late 1790's the volunteers had been swept away and the ranks full of trained veterans who had largely been called up as compulsary conscripts and who are happy to have an Emperor replace the republic.

    The generals of the 19thC worshipped and copied Napoleon as a genius general and sought decisive battles as a result but they were also students of Frederick and Caeser. They also had access to the material and manpower benefits of the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions which freed up the materials and manpower to waste huge numbers of lives and the logistic infrastructure to move men quickly and supply them.


    1. I think that the point Lynn is trying to make is that Clausewitz defined what it was to be military from the 1830's to the first world war, and that was rather dictated by his own experience of warfare in the Prussian armies opposing Napoleon.

      Napoleon went for big wins. So that set the agenda for the next century or so.

      I think the point about Marlbrough is a good one, except that in the terms described, the battles were not, of themselves, decisive in winning the war. France managed to scrape together the resources to survive, and Marlbrough was banned from fighting battles; so who actually won anything?

      I guess Lynn is using a very wide paintbrush to make his case, and it doesn't stand up to detailed history (he does admit as much in the book), but the point he is trying to make is that, however much we might like to think that technology determines warfare, there are other factors as well, part of which is the discourse on war in a given culture and society.

    2. Napoleon had an advantage only a few of the other "great captains" (sic) had in that he had political as well as military control of one of the nation in Europe so could take advantage of the victories he won and could disguise and minimize his failures. When finally faced with the sort of overwhelming power that Frederick faced, he didn't fare as well.

      Clausewitz, or interpretations and mis-interpretations of him still have a strong influence. It is certainly common to over rate technology's influence on war. Weapons technology effects the details of tactics but not the over arching principles which have remained fairly constant over recorded time at least.

      One certainly can not exclude the effect of social and philosophic influences on generals and armies, nor exclude economic and technical factors. If one looks behind the language and detail though Clausewitz's principles are is not all that different from SunTzu's.

    3. It almost seems as if a great captain with political and military control is not something that the world can really deal with. Thinking back to what I remember of Paul Kennedy's 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers' there was something about coalitions forming against the perceived enemy (Hapsburg Spain, Louis XIV, etc), and the side with the last dollar wins.

      Clausewitz does rather dominate thinking about war, and Sun Tzu is not far behind. Do they dominate thinking about wagaming, though? I suspect they might.

      We live in a society dominated by technology (including computers), and scientific approaches. That means things we can count or calculate. Technology works in calculable ways (it had better) and so it is, I suppose, inevitable that we look at it while trying to understand warfare.

      I think it is a corrective to argue that it isn't so, although it doesn't help us to create playable models of these other aspects.

    4. Good question about the influence on wargaming, I need to think about that. Much of the work of writers/military philosophers like Clauswitz are really aimed at a higher level of war than we see in most miniature games but they seem likely to have influence.

      I suspect though that fascination with technology combined with the socio-philosophical beliefs of the designers, and the need to attend to generic game/marketing design aspects, tend to over power attention to theories of principles of war.

      Worth examining.

    5. Well, you could argue that Clausewitz believes in decisive battles, and so do wargamers (as well as some military planners, etc), so Clausewitz has his influence.

      I'm not sure it would be provable, however, as I suspect the influence (if any) is indirect - Clausewitz influencing historians, who influence wargamers and rule writers.

      I'm sure we could find a book or two about wargaming which quotes Clausewitz, but not sure that would prove anything, but it might be indicative.

    6. I think rather that wargamers prefer indecisive battles so that there will be another next week. If they won the war they would wish nothing more than to go back and start again, like in Eddison's Worm Ouroboros.

      More often Clauswitz's observation that in war even the simplest things are difficult gets translated into "in war everything is random".

      Freddy's thoughts on battles from his Instructions:

      "Battles determine the fate of nations. It is necessary that actions should be decisive, either to free ourselves from the inconveniencies of a state of warfare, to place our enemy in that unpleasant situation, or to settle a quarrel which otherwise perhaps would never be finished."

    7. I think wargamers like frequent battles but want to win them. Except for solo gamers, perhaps...

      Anyway, it would be nice to think that Fred's thoughts bear some relationship to reality, but it all looks a little clear cut. Did many of his battles actually turn out to be that decisive?

      Are we just back to 'what is decisive again?

      Were the quarrels settled, or simply swamped by the French Revolution, or given up by exhausted treasuries or war weary polities?

      And anyway, Fred's remarks do seem to be a bit from the general's point of view. I'm not sure his men would necessarily agree that battle was such a good thing.

      Clausewitz (On War XI Continuation)

      WHATEVER shape the conduct of war may take in particular cases, and whatever we may also have to admit in the sequel as necessary respecting it: we have only to refer to the conception of war to be convinced of what follows:

      1. The destruction of the enemy's military force, is the leading principle of war, and for the whole chapter of positive action the direct way to the aim.

      2. This destruction of the enemy's force, must be principally effected by means of battle.

      3. Only great and general actions can produce great results.

      4. The results will be greatest when combats unite themselves in one great battle.

      5. It is only in a great general action that the general-in-chief commands in person, and it is in the nature of things, that he should place most confidence in himself.

      From these truths a double law follows, the parts of which mutually support each other; namely, that the destruction of the enemy's military force is to be sought for principally by great battles, and their results; and that the chief object of great battles must be the destruction of the enemy's military force.

      No doubt the annihilation-principle is to be found more or less in other means—granted there are instances in which through favourable circumstances in a minor combat, the destruction of the enemy's forces has been disproportionately great (Maxen), and on the other hand in a general action, the taking or holding a single post may be predominant in importance as an object—but as a general rule it remains a paramount truth, that general actions are only fought with a view to the destruction of the enemy's army, and that this destruction can only be effected by a great battle.

      He seems to be arguing in a circle a bit here, but certainly in the line of 'decisive battles'.

    8. I think one might make a distinction between clearly won and having political consequences. The question of intent or whether or not aims were achieved. It is not my understanding that Clausewitz favoured battles for themselves but rather as the most effective means to an end. If we look at Freddy, in his first war his aim was to seize Silesia, a rich province, from his neighbor and incoporate it into his kingdom to strengthen its economy and increase his resources of manpower. He made alliances then struck and in a short war crushed the enemy in 2 battles, and then made them an offer which made it in their interest to give him the province and reduce the number of enemies. Didn't exactly endear him to his erstwhile allies.

      In the 7YW, after his instructions to the Gneral, he would have been quite happy not to fight, it was essentially 3 countries each bigger with more money and men that decided to eliminate he and his country. 7 years later peace was signed and Prussia was slightly stronger and now a dominent player in European politics. A peace that essentially lasted till the Revolution. Even then the Prussians barely intervened with vague aims and after the non-battle at Valmy backed out. Their later crushing defeat at the hands of Napoleon was decisive militarily but Prussia survived and a few years later was stronger than ever and still controlled Silesia.

    9. Sorry about replying to myself but part of that didn't come out right. Prussia was economically and miitarily exhausted by the 7YW but so were the rest. The difference was that no result was a decisive win for her (vs extinction) and left her in a stronger position once recovered.

    10. So we seem to have different levels of decisiveness - the battle, the campaign and the war?

      If war is the extension of politics by other means (as Clausewitz i widely quoted to have said) then war must react back on politics at some level. I think it does, potentially at all levels. A battle, being a devastating and dramatic event, can have political implications, but I suppose this happens less at that level than a war.

      I'm not an expert, but it might be fairer to say that the British "won" the SYW. Prussia survived, but the first British Empire flourished briefly?

    11. That all seems fair. The fighting on the continent was of little long term consequence but two battles that the British sought and worked hard to arrange brought empire, Quebec and Quiberon Bay.

      It also seems to me that it is at the campaign and war level that culture and philosophy have their biggest impact. Look at Rome faced by Hannibal. Time and again they raised armies, sought battle and were defeated, by rights the next step was to surrender but instead they waged a sort of guerilla war while sending armies elsewhere to beat less competent Generals until he was forced to leave. Their beliefs did not encompass surrender of the republic. I'm not sure the beliefs were as important at the tactical level as similar tactics were used by other Italians and were then copied by others.

      On the other hand, the Dutch in the early 18thC treated war as a sort of profit and loss business venture with armies as capital that they were loathe to risk and lose. The tactics of their infantry were the same as their allies who saw war differently.

    12. I think that seems reasonable. The officers on the ground and their commanders often liked to see themselves as up with the latest fashions, and philosophy and culture were right there as fashions - consider the ball before Waterloo and the salon society of the Ancien Regime.

      I suppose that we cannot be sure what the ordinary troops (legionaries or Dutch musketeers) really thought, or thought about. Were they fighting for money, for country or their mates in the same platoon? Or some complex of all of the above?

      Interesting point about the Dutch. They are a people almost self-consciously in a Golden Age, driven by commerce. Something else to ponder.

  2. I don't know - I think that you can quote plenty of examples of pre-18th century armies actively seeking battle to disprove Lynn's conclusions. A couple of obvious ones:
    The objective of English commanders in the 100YW was chevauchee, basically a large scale raid, but the French certainly sought battle. The Black Prince was prepared to negotiate before Poitiers but the French were eager to fight a 'proper' battle.
    Prince Rupert successfully outmanoeuvred the allies to raise the siege of York, then came out to fight a completely unnecessary battle at Marston Moor.

    Completely off subject - a book recommendation for you, David. An Imperial possession, Britain in the Roman Empire by DAvid Mattingly. Don't know if you've encountered this one. Not quite so anti-Roman as the Russell and Laycock book we were discussing a short while ago (which I've now managed to read) but it does examine some of the less well worn aspects of Roman Britain.

    1. I think that you are right, but few of the battles in pre-Napolonics were necessarily decisive. Poitiers might have been (so Crecy, but Agincourt was not), and of course the question arises as to why the French were so eager to fight. If they had won, it would not have stopped the war...

      Marston Moor, as it happened, was not decisive either, in the sense the Austerlitz was. Even if Rupert had won, it seems to me fairly unlikely that the Royalists would have gone on to win the war; Essex would certainly have returned from wandering westwards, and Rupert's forces would have dispersed in various directions.

      Thank you for the recommendation; I've heard of it but not read it. I'll add it to my ever lengthening 'to read' list.

    2. I thought the point was SEEKING a decisive battle - whether they actually got one is another thing.

      I have a vague recollection of reading (Sumption, possibly?)that Phil de Valois had to seek a decisive battle at Crecy because he had already baulked at a couple of opportunities and his army would not have stomached another refusal. They would never have mustered for him again.

    3. I guess the question is 'what does "decisive" mean?'

      Poitiers was decisive, because capturing the French king meant there was no option but to negotiate a (from the French point of view) losing peace. Crecy needed further fighting to get anywhere; I guess it could be argued that it was tactically decisive but not strategically.

      Similarly, Agincourt was tactically decisive, but needed another campaign before there was a result (and even then, it didn't last long).

      As I recall Sumption, there had been a proto-Crecy some years before, but Philip had not gone for battle because he didn't really need to to force Edward back (short of money and fractious allies).

      But how about that the Crecy thing came about through the demands of chivalry. 'This chap has marched through our lands, lets give him a beating!' although good lordship is up there as well. If that is so, doesn't the military discourse (in this case chivalry) win?

      As for armies refusing the muster, it happened to the Scots after 1542. Solway Firth was such a debacle that the Lords refused to cross into England again (although they did muster to lose at Pinkie, of course; mind you, you could argue that they won the war). A powerful baronry tends to cause unlucky or bad king generals problems, I guess.

    4. Well, aye, and James V was both.
      Mind you, putting a hated favourite in charge of an army which includes a powerful barony has to be a recipe for disaster - the nobles at Solway Moss hated Oliver St Clair more than the enemy.

      I think that's a subject for another blog, by the way - define a decisive victory. Should Solway Moss qualify?

    5. Hmm; is a single battle ever decisive? Is a campaign ever decisive?

      Was World War One a decisive victory, given that World War Two followed within 20 years or so?

      Perhaps the decisiveness of the victory depends on the time frame you look at it from.

      Or, in the case of Solway, how embarrassing does the loss have to be if it is to be counted as decisive?

      I do feel a post coming on, yes.