Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Nine Years War

As threatened, or possibly promised, this is a bit more of a review type thing of

O'Neill, J., The Nine Years War 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Dublin: Four Courts, 2017).

I have already ruminated on the first chapter, the introduction, and why military history is regarded, at best, as an irrelevance and, at worst, with some hostility by the historical academy. This is just something that, as wargamers, amateur military historians or whatever we just have to live with. It must be a little harder if you are actually an academic military historian.

The bulk of the book is concerned with developing a narrative and explanation of the Nine Years War, or Tyrone rebellion. Quite a lot of this is a narrative of the wars, with some analysis thrown in along the way. For example, Tyrone’s strategy is both narrated and explained. Instead of seeking the glory of combat in battle (as, say, Essex did), he sought to win the war. This included misdirecting the English armies as to where he was going to strike. A minor attack was put in, the English sent a relief or punitive expedition, and Tyrone struck elsewhere with his main force. It took the English a significant amount of time to get their heads around this.

O’Neill suggests that this intellectual tardiness by the English high command was due to the fact that Tyrone was fighting a very different kind of war. Instead of a rebellion, to try to cast off the foreign yoke, obtain better conditions or settle grievances, Tyrone was trying to unite Ireland and change sovereignty from Elizabeth of England to Phillip of Spain. Therefore he needed the support of a wider section of Irish society than previous rebellions had even imagined.

As with earlier conflicts on the European scene, a lot of the subsequent action revolved around ‘good lordship’, that is, the ability of the over-lord to protect his minions. If it was shown that the English could not protect their allied Irish lords, then those lords were likely, by ‘choice’ or coercion, to defect to Tyrone. By 1599, due to a fair bit of English ineptitude, Tyrone’s strategy and cunning, and a bit of support from Spain and Scottish merchants selling gunpowder, Tyrone had control of more or less all of Ireland. English rule, or even presence, seemed to be hanging by a thread.

From Tyrone’s point of view, of course, it all went horribly wrong. By 1603 he had lost, and he was forced to submit to Elizabeth (or, fortunately for him, he in fact submitted to James, who he had never technically rebelled against. How did this happen?

The answer seems to lie in two or three factors. Firstly, English logistical might was deployed against Tyrone. England is simply a bigger country with a bigger population. Ireland was already showing the strain of a lengthy war and consequent taxation. When the English government decided to deploy more resources, the Irish had little left to answer with.

Secondly, Mountjoy was a very good viceroy of Ireland and used Irish deception strategy against them. Further, he also used English naval superiority to firstly, interdict the supply of arms and powder from Scotland and Spain, and secondly to mount seaborne operations against Tyrone’s heartlands in Ulster. Up to that point, Ulster had been a fairly secure base from which Tyrone could operate. While in previous years the English had considered and planned operations by sea, it was only in 1600 that they got around to it. Tyrone had to divert resources to defend his own lands, something which in previous years he had forced to English to do.

The third factor was Spanish support. This was often promised and even organised but had not arrived in significant quantities. While contact with Spain, initially through shipwrecked officers from Armada ships in 1588 had assisted in Tyrone’s rebellion and given modern training to Irish troops, subsequent support had been rather in dribs and drabs – gunpowder, arms, bishops and diplomacy, plus a few military officers. In 1601 the Spanish landed at Kinsale in some force and were besieged by the English. As we know, Tyrone’s relieving army was defeated, the Spanish surrendered and Tyrone’s victorious mystique was shattered.

O’Neill considers the war in a broader context. Firstly, he notes that it was not much more ferocious than comparable European wars. The main point of reference is the Dutch revolt; after all, the Dutch were attempting to changing monarch as well, although they did not have a strong a candidate for the new monarch as Tyrone.  That war was one of small-scale actions, ambushes and raiding, as well. The damage caused and civilian casualties were comparable. O’Neill detects little in the way of religious or ethnic hatred in the Tyrone wars.

Secondly, O’Neill considers that Tyrone had militarily revolutionised to Irish troops by 1593. One or two initial actions, admittedly, involved traditional gallowglass and kern troops, but O’Neill considers that this was deception by Tyrone, to conceal how modernised his main army in fact was. Tyrone’s army was a shot heavy pike and shot army of the period, although, with reference to the enemy and terrain, there were some differences.

The main difference between the English and Irish was in terms of pike. The English used pike conventionally, and an armoured strike force. The Irish used pike defensively, in a rather looser order, to counter the English cavalry. Most of the fighting by the Irish was done by shot, skirmishing in small groups; keeping up what I suppose could be called a heavy harassing fire on English troop concentrations.

Irish horse do not seem to have been ‘modernised’, for rather unclear reasons, possibly related to their more noble status and Tyrone’s proportionately lower influence over them. They adopted pistols but were still not a match for their English counterparts. The only troops Tyrone really feared was the English demi-lancer. Hence the deployment of Irish pike.


How would I summarise this? It is a good book, and I recommend anyone interested to read it. However, be warned: for me, it took more or less everything I thought I knew about the Tyrone rebellion and turned it on its head. And now I have to find some loose order pike to create by Irish army….

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Command of the Ocean

There are, perhaps, three villains of the second volume of Rodger’s naval history of Britain:

Rodger, N. A. M., The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, 2004).

The first of these is Napoleon Bonaparte, the second is Lord Howe and the third, perhaps surprisingly given the date range of the book, is Henry VIII.

To start in the middle with Lord Howe is probably the easiest. Howe practically destroyed the functioning of the British naval bases and supply system. For all his abilities as an admiral, he was convinced that there was extensive corruption in the naval logistics and supply system. Anywhere in early modern Europe, if you looked for corruption, you could usually find it. Howe, of course, was no exception. For example, Rodger explains how Howe demanded a certain quality of timber from suppliers and rejected shipments that did not reach that level. This was unfair, as, of course, timber comes from trees and trees grow naturally. Thus a certain quality of timber cannot be guaranteed – there is always going to be some variation. Nevertheless, Howe thought this was corrupt and rejected ‘substandard’ timber, with the result that contractors refused to supply and the naval dockyard’s careful garnering and storage of timber of repairs and shipbuilding was disrupted. It took a while to rebuild the system, during the Napoleonic wars and, as a result, the Royal Navy was always in a bit of a hand-to-mouth existence with respect to shipbuilding and repair.

Britain’s naval superiority was assured by 1815, of course. The national myth-making assumes that, in truth, naval superiority was assured by 1700 at the latest. There was a ‘tradition of victory’, after all, and ‘Rule Britannia’ was composed in 1740. Rodger, however, notes that Arne probably meant it to be aspirational. After all, Bonnie Prince Charlie was able to land in Scotland in 1745, which does not indicate a particularly secure command of the ocean. If the French had been particularly interested, they could probably have defeated Hanoverian Britain and restored the Stuarts. This, however, was not to be.

The story of how Britain did come to rule the waves is, therefore, a lot more interesting and varied than popular history would have it. The true heroes are the naval administrators, from Pepys onwards, who laid the foundations for and maintained the operations of the dockyard and supply systems. The ultimate key to British naval supremacy was to be found in the ability to keep ships at sea for long periods, to repair them quickly, even when not in home waters, and, strategically, to maintain a squadron in the Western Approaches to the Channel.

This last point was not always recognised by politicians, but it was really essential to eighteenth century naval strategy. It could only happen, of course, because the logistical bases of the navy, particularly at Plymouth, had been built up, by the heroic administrators are farsighted admirals. The Western Approaches squadron could protect British trade both to and from the Americas, Africa and India and also, when needs must, intercept other country’s trade and attack their trade protection squadrons.

At this point, a key difference between the Royal Navy and their French and Spanish equivalents comes into play. Royal Navy captains and admirals were expected to be aggressive and attack. French and Spanish navies, strategically, were to protect trade and were, therefore, trained and ordered to be more defensive. They protected convoys. Royal Navy ships attacked the protectors of convoys and anyone who might intercept British trade. Rodgers notes that no British naval captains were court-martialled for being over aggressive against the odds, while a number were for not pressing home attacks. Incidentally, this also accounts for the much-repeated assertion that French ships fired at rigging while the British fired at the hull. The French approach was entirely logical – if you prevent the enemy from sailing at any speed by shooting away their sails, the convoy can escape.

The British did have various technical advantages over their enemies, such as copper-bottomed ships which made them faster and needing less maintenance (which could, in fact, strain the ship’s structure) but the real advantage was in the professional logistical and support structure which Howe so nearly wrecked. That he did not, and that the Royal Navy managed to recover, even in wartime, is a tribute to the resilience of the system as a whole.

The next villain is Napoleon. Rodger blames him, probably quite rightly, for bleeding France and the rest of Europe dry and thus leaving the seas to Britain. The French and Spanish navies could have taken on the Royal Navy and might have won. However, there were no resources and few trained sailors for them to do so. The infrastructure was not available. Further, Napoleon never seems to have understood how navies work and seems to have ordered naval squadrons around as he did army corps, with exact timetables and concentrations. Given the state of naval technology and the nature of seas, this was never going to, and did not, work. Towards the end, even though the French were building warships, they were (even if they had been launched) almost certainly not going to challenge the Royal Navy after 1805.

Rodgers notes that there was no assertion of the sovereignty of the seas by Britain in the post-Napoleon treaties. It was not required. Everyone could see that Britain, by 1815, did rule the waves. No-one needed to mention it; it was not disputed. Mostly, it was Napoleon’s fault.

Finally, we come to the third villain, Henry VIII. How come he gets the blame? Before him, Britain had a navy much like anyone else’s – brought into being when needed for the monarch’s wars. With Henry’s (sort of) assertion of Protestantism, Britain was left facing a hostile Channel coast. I have noted before that part of Elizabeth I’s strategy was to secure a friendly power in the Channel ports, and she managed that. But with France and Spain Roman Catholic and Catholicism resurgent across Europe, England, and then Britain, needed a navy in being. And that meant starting (admittedly rather haphazardly) the navel infrastructure which led to naval supremacy.


Without Henry VIII, therefore, Britain would not have had to professionalise naval administration and there would have been no command of the ocean, because it would not have been needed. Therefore, if anyone comes at you with the old canard that religion is not important alongside other factors in history, such as economics or technological factors, just point them to the development of the Royal Navy and Rodger’s book.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Drums and Trumpets

One book, they say, (or at least, I do) leads to another. Now, I am quietly reading, as a further extension to my ‘Wars of the Counter-Reformation’ “project” (scare quotes are required, I think; at present, I am basing some ancient Spanish infantry)

O'Neill, J., The Nine Years War 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Dublin: Four Courts, 2017).

Now, this was not a cheap book (it was a gift; I don’t usually blow the book budget all at once) but it does raise some interesting questions, even though I have only read the introduction.

Firstly, O’Neill notes that one aspect of why there is no overall account of the Nine Year’s War (so named, even though it lasted rather longer) is that the works of Hays-McCoy and Falls, in particular, have said all that needs to be said on the martial aspect.  He notes that these accounts are mostly over sixty years old. The fact that they are recently republished  (1990 for my copy of Hays-McCoy’s ‘Irish Battles’, 1996 for Falls’ ‘Elizabeth’s Irish Wars’; this counts are ‘recent’ for most historical publication – I mean publication of history) suggests there is nothing much else available.

There is a fair bit of more specific stuff, but no overall revision of the military history or narrative of the war. Further, unless O’Neill had intervened, I am led to suppose (admittedly by the author himself) that no overall military narrative would have been prepared. Military history is only tenuously acceptable in the academy. Most military history is regarded as ‘old style’ drums and trumpets – accounts of campaigns and battles – which might sell large quantities but which skimp rather on the analysis and contextualisation of the war, battles, campaigns and so on.

O’Neill’s second point, therefore, is that military history needs to look beyond the wars and the outcomes of battles to that larger context. Drums and trumpets history tends to stop, at least, with the peace. It rarely puts the violence of a war into the context of the violence of a society. To choose a modern, unfortunate, issue, is the propensity of the United States in recent decades to go to war a reflection of the violence that appears to be inherent in that modern society? I am not intending to discuss or answer the question; it is one possibly to be tackled by examining attitudes to lethal weapons both within and outwith that particular state and its military system.

Certainly, some people who I have read suggest that society in the United States suffers from what Walter Wink called ‘the myth of redemptive violence’. He cited the Popeye cartoons as examples. The trajectory of the narrative is that Popeye is duffed up by Pluto, Olive Oyl is kidnapped, but Popeye saves the day by eating spinach and becoming super-powerful so that he can out-duff up Pluto, rescue Olive and win the day. Wink notes somewhere, I think, that the history of the two world wars could be summed up in a Popeye cartoon, at least from the US point of view.

As a second witness, I heard Stanley Hauerwas give a lecture in which he asserted that the US Civil War came to an end in 1917 when the US joined World War One. Confederate flags in Southern churches, he claimed, were replaced by the Stars and Stripes. As a Texan, he argued that this was because Texans like to kill people and had not had much chance since the end of the Civil War but now did as paid agents of government.

As I say, not being from the United States I am certainly not qualified to comment on wither assertion, except to suggest that they might, firstly, lend some credence to an affirmative answer to the original question and, secondly, they might also suggest reasons as to why military history is not popular in the academy, while being fairly popular outside it.

The problem is that so many drums and trumpets publications are of dubious quality anyway. O’Neill notes (p. 16) that circumspection is warranted. Popular publications do lionize particular leaders (Alexander III of Macedon springs to mind – someone commented here that he was certainly ‘great’ because he conquered the known world; his victims might disagree), and, in a comment I rather like, some popular literature ‘sought to hypnotize their readers with military hardware pornography’.

Academic history, therefore, quarantines the actual execution of war. Indeed, I did an Open University history course a few years ago (before they put the prices up to lunatic levels and scared off people like me) which stated that the Treaty of Troyes was more important than the battle of Agincourt. The implication was that Troyes merited serious historical study while Agincourt did not. But, I thought, without Agincourt, there would have been no Troyes. Who wins battles does actually matter to history, however much we might try to brush over campaigns, battles and violence.

O’Neill concedes that traditional military history, of the drum and trumpet kind, has probably had its day. There is only so much you can get from an account of troop movements, decisions by generals and detailing battles. Lack of higher level analysis reduces military history to historical voyeurism. Historical voyeurism of this nature is, of course, related to the pornography of violence rife in our societies and, also it seems to me, Wink’s myth of redemptive violence. Military history which concludes with victory misses out the most troublesome part of victory – winning the peace. The examples are too numerous for me to give any.

As wargamers, of course, this tends to leave us with a particular set of texts which we use for our military history background to wargames. While often the narratives are sound, the interpretations and, possibly worse, the unstated assumptions of the original authors give us, as readers, a level of bias which is appropriate to the age of writing, perhaps, but not so much for today.


The out of date material is, however, all that we have, except for endless rewriting of those original authors. Yet there are lessons which history can learn, about both itself and processes within history from military history. Warfare did (and does) transform societies. Winning and losing battles and wars matters to those societies engaged in them. Armies are cross-sections of the societies that produce them. As with many things, the devil is in the detail, and the details are the decisions, manoeuvers and battles that were engaged in.