Saturday, 20 October 2018

Reading Military History

As something of a follow up to the ‘what is military history?’ post, I have been reading some of my older military history books. As a wargamer of global pretensions in the early modern world, I have a few, albeit not the most up to date, on my shelf. The first one I came across is

Black, J., ed. European Warfare 1453 - 1815 (London: Macmillan, 1999)

This is a book of edited essays which look at various aspects of military history (not drums and trumpets stuff) across Europe. It is a bit of patchwork of a book, as such edited academic volumes are, having a set of discussions of historical periods, then a few more specific areas, covering Ottoman, naval, Russian, Baltic and Gaelic warfare. Rather than trying to discuss the lot, I thought I would focus on just one. I might do some more at a later date, but part of the problem is that I can read essays much faster than I can write about them.

I suppose, if one were to survey the historiography of early modern warfare, the reader would find two paradigms to deal with. The first is the well-known (at least, I know about it and have talked about it) ‘military revolution’ and the second is the concept of ‘gunpowder empires’. The military revolution was proposed formally by Roberts in 1956, and suggested that the period 1560 – 1660 formed a period of great military change in tactics, strategy and army size, which required changes in administration and an increase in state power. This has not gone uncontested, and Parker modified it to suggest that the spread of the bastion style fortress was earlier and more indicative of change, as more sophisticated artillery fortresses required larger armies to besiege them. That, of course, has not gone uncontested and so the historiographical wheel continues to roll.

Gunpowder empires, as a second concept, refers mainly to the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman states. I am not totally sure of the ground here, but the idea seems to be that the advent of practical firearms, both artillery and handheld, enabled these states to conquer large areas and hold them against less sophisticated (or, perhaps, simply less gunpowder weapon integrated) armies. The case in point seems to be the defeat by the Ottomans of the Mamelukes in 1516-7; the Mamelukes did not think much of gunpowder, the Ottomans did. The Ottomans won; therefore gunpowder is important to the Ottoman expansion. Again, this sort of historical concept is open to as much dispute as it settles.

Once we have got our heads around these ideas, we can start to ponder the actual essays in the book. The first one is
Arnold, T. F., 'War in Sixteenth Century Europe: Revolution and Renaissance', in Black, J. (ed.), European Warfare 1453 - 1815 (London: Macmillan, 1999), 23-44.

Arnold argues that essentially, the era from the Crusades to the fall of Constantinople and beyond was that of non-European domination of European militaries. In 1480 the Ottomans took Otranto in southern Italy; in 1529 they stood at the gates of Vienna having smashed the kingdom of Hungary three years earlier, so long regarded as the shield of Europe. From this perspective the historical fact that the Ottomans did not penetrate any further needs some explanation.

Arnold argues that the explanation revolves around the increasing European capacity for defensive warfare, and that is a function of developments in fortifications, particularly bastion fortresses. At Corfu (1537), Malta (1565) and elsewhere, sophisticated fortresses on geometric designs were created. Fortifications slow offensives down. Arnold notes that the Ottoman siege of Szigeth in Hungary (1566) wasted the entire campaigning season for the victory of capturing a relatively minor fortress, let alone having to deal with the death of Suleiman.

At sea too the Ottomans and their allies dominated. It was they who could land troops in Italy or the Balearics. It was only gradually that the Western powers, in particular, Spain, gained the upper hand with more heavily armed galleys. Arnold does not, I think, note it, but the advent of the heavily armed Mediterranean galley also pushed northern European ship designers in working out how to counter them with sailing ships and hence, eventually, to the broadside line of battleship.

Once Ottoman campaigns were, more or less, contained to sieges of modern fortified positions and raids, there were few if any pitched battles between European and Ottoman forces in the sixteenth century. The Christians lost the two pitched battles Arnold mentions, Alcazarquivir (1578) and Mezokeresztes (1596). Numbers still told, but European infantry tactics were the future, he suggests, and led directly to the victories of the battle of the Pyramids (1798) and Omdurman (1898).

The latter point is probably a bit of a stretch, at least it is for me, but the basic point is sound. In a siege situation with a modern bastion fortress, the numerical advantage of the Ottomans can be cancelled out. At Mohacs, the Hungarians were outnumbered, although how heavily is unclear. The same was true at Alcazarquivir and Mezokeresztes. Given that quantity has a quality all its own, taking refuge behind modern defences seems to have been the most sensible plan.

Arnold argues that the edge that Europe gradually gained over the Ottomans was because of three factors, and it was not purely technological. He suggests that the difference emerged because Europeans thought differently about using gunpowder weapons in warfare. European he argues, found gunpowder weapons culturally awkward but aesthetically exciting and tried to assimilate them. Secondly, Europe faces grave military crises both internally with endless wars and externally with the Ottoman threat. Thirdly the Renaissance demanded re-thinking of more or less everything, including warfare, by the culturally elite.

We know that rulers, in general, liked their artillery parks and nobles liked their firearms. Politics, including the French invasion of Italy in 1494 triggered an extensive series of wars and changes in warfare. The new military architecture and disciplined infantry both emerged from the ruins of Italy. The printing revolution ensured that the new understandings of warfare were quickly disseminated around Europe.

The Renaissance also promulgated a wider understanding of classical warfare. It is no accident that the reforms in the Dutch army of the 1590’s were inspired by Aelian. Ancient warfare could be co-opted into the wars of survival of Christian Europe. As Arnold notes, European rulers might use their armies against each other, but never quite forgot the ultimate foe was the sultan.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It's good to visit your erudite blog again. One thing I have gained in my military career is a distrust of contemporary talk of military revolutions. In the 1990s, American advances in computer and satellite networks, guided weapons and surveillance systems, and command and control capabilities, led to talk of a Revolution in Military Affairs which I duly studied and absorbed as a young officer. Following the destruction of Iraq's conventional military in the first Gulf War, our adversaries came up with a range of tactics which we now call asymmetric warfare, so that an F18 over Afghanistan flies helplessly looking for someone to ban while small groups of Taliban fighters gradually wear down western militaries and their hapless local allies. Some revolution. I suspect that measuring the shape and extent of revolutions will remain the province of historians and their students, including yourself.
    Cheers, MP

    1. Good to have you back, Michael.

      I have a nasty suspicion that ideas like 'military revolutions' actually act to make us a bit intellectually lazy. It sounds like such a good and sweeping, overarching concept that it must be right, and so we don't question it as much as we should. It becomes part of our language, our underlying set of intellectual tools, such that any step change in process, particularly I suspect technology, becomes a revolution and hence unquestioned.

      Until, of course, we come across someone who simply doesn't play to our rules, who won't stand still long enough to be blasted apart by firepower, for example.

      Geoffrey Parker remarked, perhaps rather sardonically, that a review of his Military revolution in an Islamic fundamentalists journal (Crescent) observed 'The lessons for Muslims of today are obvious. To ensure freedom from and victory against the adversaries [the West] military adaptation and innovation are imperative.'

      Further, of course, a revolution is usually only known in retrospect, and there are issues about whether a change that too 100 years or more can really be classed as a revolution. but that is where most debates end: squabbles about definitions...