In many, if not most, areas of intellectual life, it is worth returning to the sources, at least so far as is possible, to see what the original protagonists actually said, rather than what they are reported as saying. Thus, one of the tenets of twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology has been ressourcement, the idea of a ‘return to the sources’. In that case, it meant a re-reading of the sources of theology – Scripture, patristic writers and other theologians – a deeper and richer engagement with the past, not the just past as represented by ‘secondary’ sources.
Often, when such engagement is undertaken, odd results, or at least unexpected outcomes can occur. The source is found not to have said what is usually claimed, or at least, not exactly. People, even professional researchers who ought to know better, can often rely on hearsay. Often this is in peripheral matters, at least to the thrust of the argument, but such things can be picked up and propagated. I suppose that one example would be the Bayeux tapestry and the ensuing story about arrows, kings and eyes. Incorrect original assumptions can lead to a whole tangle of historiography which can be really difficult to unravel.
Therefore, having started a ponder on the idea of a military revolution, I suppose it is a bit incumbent on me to pursue the idea back to the source, or at least one of the sources. Fortunately, in this age of relatively cheap publishing and the internet, that is not such a hard task. Having tracked down the origins of the idea, it is then possible to see what has been done with it and the validity of the interpretations as well as the validity of the original statement. In the case of the military revolution, the idea (in modern historiography, at least) came from an inaugural lecture delivered in 1956:
Roberts, M., 'The Military Revolution 1560-1660', in Rogers, C. J. (ed.), The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Westview, 1995), 13-35.
Roger’s book manages to collect together a large number of interesting writings on the military revolution in the time frame of interest, including pro- and anti- views and a lot of historical nuancing. It should also be pointed out that Roberts was not entirely original in his idea – Oman, apparently, in the second volume of his medieval art of war books, observed that there was a military revolution in the sixteenth century.
Be that as it may, Roberts’ thesis was that there was a change in warfare between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries and that this occurred through the offices of two people, Prince Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Maurice started it, Roberts argued, by introducing standing units with a uniform drill, maintaining them throughout the year so they could drill, reducing the size of infantry units to handier battalions from the massive and unwieldy tercios of his Spanish foes and increasing the firepower of such units. As warfare in the Low Countries was mainly positional, there was a massive increase in the size of armies as many more infantry were needed to hold positions and to lay siege to enemy held locations.
These changes, Roberts suggests, were taken up by Gustavus Adolphus in the earlier part of the seventeenth century and fused with the Swedish experience of war against Poland, where cavalry was decisive and charged at the gallop. Prior to this, western cavalry, especially the German pistol armed reiter, was a rather lack-lustre fellow who trotted up to the enemy and fired a pistol or two at him before retiring to reload. The Swedes re-instated cavalry charging with their sword in hand and reserving pistols for close combat.
The Swedish way of war was then propagated throughout Protestant Europe via the wars in Germany where Swedish allies and mercenaries learnt the advantage of the system. It was eventually picked up by the French and led to their stunning victory over the Habsburgs at the end of the Thirty Years War, leaving Sweden and France as the victors. All this was due to the military revolution.
Well, maybe, and maybe not. There are a number of broad issues with the idea, as well as disputes of detail which I will leave aside for the moment. The first thing to note, however, is that the idea became quite widely accepted in the historiography of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, quite quickly. It took around twenty years for a serious challenge to emerge to it. As I mentioned in a comment the other week, it is an attractive idea and means that we have to do less thinking and, perhaps, less grubbing around in archives. We can wave our big idea and get on with other stuff.
At the heart of the matter, as again I think I mentioned, is the idea of a revolution. Look again at Roberts’ title. Can something lasting one hundred years really be classed as a revolution? Normally, revolutions are quite quick – the English, French and American revolutions lasted a matter of years, and were, in fact, transfers of political power. The military revolution was not of this nature. Military power stayed, more or less, with those powers that already had it in Europe. The French might have had a few wobbles, but they were internal political-religious problems. The Spanish encountered the problems of imperial overstretch but were still, in fact, capable of fighting the military revolution-ed French forces to a halt. The Swedes expanded and contracted. The English became a mid-sized power.
None of this was precisely a revolution. Even within the military sphere, there were other things going on – the spread of gunpowder fortresses, the changes in weaponry, and so on. Those things beloved of wargamers and wargame rule writers, such as the differences between Swedish, Dutch and Spanish infantry deployments actually seem (to me at least) to have made little difference on the European battlefield.
Parker, the first critic of the idea of the military revolution, suggested that its biggest impact was beyond Europe. In Europe, the differences tended to cancel out. In the wider world, Europe came to dominate, having been a fairly minor global player before the sixteenth century. Maybe military revolutions work when cultures clash.