Saturday, 30 January 2016

Urban Warfare

I do apologise for the title. It is misleading. I am not going to start waxing lyrical about fighting in built up areas, I am afraid. It is another book review, or musing, this time the author is someone called Urban. Hence the title.

The book in question is Matchlocks to Flintlocks: Warfare in Europe and Beyond 1500 – 1700, by William Urban (2011: London, Frontline). I want to like this book, I really do.  And it has indeed grown on me, but I am a bit ambiguous about it, and unclear as to what it is trying to achieve.

I think there are two themes to the book. The first is to discuss mercenaries during the time period. This is fine but, as Urban admits, defining exactly what a mercenary is, at any period of history, is a bit tricky. Most soldiers, after all, fight for money and without money most armies disintegrate. Money is necessary to war. This does not make Roman legionaries or World War One conscripts into mercenaries.

Urban’s point seems to be that the nature of the mercenary (or even just the soldier) changed during the period. From being a sword who could choose to whom to hire it, by the end of the seventeenth century the mercenary would normally be in the pay of a national army, units of which might be rented out to other powers for political, diplomatic or even religious reasons. So a good number of the Hapsburg forces fighting the Turk after the 1680’s were Protestant Germans. Similarly, the alliance against Louis XIV was a fairly stable one of Protestant German states who hired their forces to the likes of Marlborough and Eugene. The point here is that, I suppose, they would not have fought for the French, no matter how much they were offered (although they might have opted for neutrality).

A related issue is to do with the military entrepreneur. People with a fair bit of money and a military bend could raise forces, organise them, and lead entire armies into battle on behalf of an employer. The peak of this seems to have been in the Thirty Years War, with generals like Mansfield, Tilley and, at the pinnacle, Wallenstein. The problem, of course, was that such generals did have a tendency to take policy, not just strategy, into their own hands. In such circumstance the only way of proceeding for the state was sacking the general, or assassination. No wonder, really, that rulers preferred to keep the generals on a shorter, more dependent leash.

The second point that Urban seems to be trying to make is that the European advantage, which was clearly emerging by 1700, was not strictly a technological advantage in warfare. While the technology had changed and improved (from matchlocks to flintlocks, as the title affirms), the major improvement in European warfare was in organisation. Logistically, European armies were properly supplied by the end of the period, and in this they managed to be the equals of the Ottomans. Given a better unity of purpose, and that the western powers were not too distracted by the French, the Turkish conquests of the Balkans were slowly rolled back.

In a similar vein, the Turks did have reasonable weapons, but, eventually, the Western armies worked out ways of using them better. The advantage was not in the technology per se, but in slightly better ways of using it, such as volley fire by disciplined ranks. Eastern European warfare, as practiced by Polish, Russian and Ottoman nobles, was more about chaps on horses performing feats of daring-do. Mucking about on foot with a musket was for plebs. It is notable that Russia managed to recruit suitable infantry, while Poland and the Turks did not, or at least, not consistently enough to obtain victory on the battlefield.

What then is not to like about the book?

Firstly, there are some non-sequiturs. Early on in the book Urban comments that the Pope of the day could flash the cash. The next sentence starts ‘But the pope was not the only one with serious financial problems…’  I might be paraphrasing slightly, as I cannot find the offending passage, but it gave me pause for wondering whether a decent editor might not have helped. There are other instances of similar sorts of back-flips, which a decent sort of close reading might have removed.

Another issue are the descriptions of battles. Urban spends much more time on the sack of Rome than he does on Pavia. Which was the more important? I suppose it depends on what context you are looking at the events from, but from a military point of view, I would imagine Pavia is a bit higher on your agenda. Of course, in terms of politics or religion that might not be the case. On the other hand, it does seem a little unlikely that Charles V’s army was rabidly Protestant in the mid-1520’s, to the extent of wanting to sack Rome on religious grounds. Of course, in keeping with most history books, there are no maps and just a few plates of no particular interest or unusual-ness.

Overall, it is an interesting book. If I treat it as a pointer to the debates about the gunpowder and the military revolution I think it is a useful guide. Urban, at least, does offer pointers to the major works in the field, such as Geoffrey Parker’s ‘The Military Revolution’ and some other works, the more recent of which I confess I have not read. In this light, as semi-popular or popular history, Urban’s book is a good contribution and hopefully will get amateur historians and wargamers alike engaging with some of the important literature on the subject of early modern warfare and state formation. On the other hand, I am not sure that it offers enough to wargamers, in particular, to wean them off writers such as Oman, who, while their historiography is out of date, at least tell us how many musketeers were present at Pavia.


  1. Must history books, regardless of subject, always have an aim in mind? Is this an academic, or a popular history book?

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke

    1. Ah, it sounds like the latter. Even so. Can't a history book simply tell a good story without attempting anything?

      Heinz-Ulrich von B.

    2. I don't think that books have to an aim, or a single aim in mind. However, I think that some degree of interpretation is inevitable. The difference is whether you are writing the narrative of events (with implicit interpretation) or writing about the interpretation (i.e. doing historiography) with the events as background and evidence. I think Urban tries to do a bit of both, and I'm as little unclear as to whether he succeeds.