Saturday 22 June 2013

Military Enlightenment

One of the best bits of graffiti I ever heard about appeared, briefly, on the wall of the Ministry of Defence in London: “Military Intelligence is a Contradiction in Terms”. It was whitewashed over very quickly, apparently.

It has to be said, however, that the intellectual climate of the world often does impact on the military view of things. For example, take a look at this painting of the Battle of Fontenoy:

There are a lot of things that could be said about this, but mostly I want to concentrate on two things, which John Lynn observes in ‘Battle’ (Westview, 2004).

Firstly, have a very close look at the action in the background. Does anything strike you as odd?

Despite the smoke, shooting, cavalry charging in and so on, no casualties are depicted. None at all. This is a battle without blood.

Secondly, have a look at the formations in the background. They are all perfect linear shapes. So much so that this is called the age of linear warfare.

It is all so scientific, so rational. So reasonable. So…enlightened. And this is Lynn’s point. The military discourse during this period was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment itself was heavily influenced by the invention of modern science in the late seventeenth century. Culture itself began to believe that everything, from God to the trajectory of cannon balls, was predictable rationally.

For example, this was the heyday of Deism, the idea that the universe was clockwork, and the deity had simply wound the clock up and left it to run. This is not exactly orthodox Christian belief, but it did allow many thinkers, who would otherwise have been thought to be atheists, to get away with carrying on thinking their thoughts.

Lynn’s argument is that the Enlightenment also had influence on military thinking. This arose, partially, from the engineer Vauban, who could, it is claimed, predict the whole timetable of a siege from the opening of the trenches to the fall of the citadel. The whole siege worked like clockwork, and maybe you are now starting to see the influence of rationalism and Newtonian mechanics on warfare.

If this approach works for sieges, why could it not work for battles? After all, a battle is only really a messy siege, a siege without convenient lines and trenches and artillery batteries. Even, from one point of view, a battle is simply a siege without a necessarily clear end. And so we come back to the painting of Fontenoy above. Nice clear lines, and scientific approach to battle and none of that horrid blood and gore and randomness which gives battles such a bad name.

Another point that Lynn makes is that battles were rather frowned upon. We may make much of them, but that is possibly because we are military romantics, by which I mean we think about military activity under the influence of romanticism. One of the hall marks of romanticism in a military sense is the quest for a decisive battle that puts an end to the war, a sort of Napoleonic and Clauswitz-ian view of the military world.

I have argued before, I know (and been argued against) that battles are not that decisive through most of our history. Certainly, the leading generals of the Enlightenment period (by which I mean the late seventeenth century up to the French Revolution) did not really actively seek battles. In ‘Marlborough as Military Commander’ (Military Book Society, London, 1973) David Chandler lists ten battles at which the Duke was present (not all of them at which he was in command, e.g. Sedgefield) and twenty-nine sieges. While Marlborough could be described as a master of battle, he did not actually engage in many.

Lynn observes that neither Saxe nor Frederick of Prussia really sought battle, either. Saxe was a bit like Marlborough; he fought a battle if he judged it to be advantageous. Frederick fought a lot of battles, but they were not really decisive, in that they did not knock his opponents out of the war, they simply delayed the assault on Prussia proper, while other aspects of alliance politics and campaigning took their course.

Finally, Lynn also observes that fashion must have been a bind to the ordinary soldier. He questions how much easier the deep folded cuffs of the eighteenth century soldier made loading a smoothbore musket, and concludes that it must have been an encumbrance. He also notes that the seventeenth century wide brimmed hat at least gave some cover from rain and sun, and questions the tricorne’s utility for doing the same. The folded up from brim cannot have helped protecting the wearer from the elements. The ordinary soldier of the eighteenth century was, on this view, a fashion victim.

How does this affect us as wargamers?

Well, firstly, I do think that we have to take account of Lynn’s ideas. We talk about linear warfare, but in terms of the Enlightenment, it actually means something, a distinct world-view that does affect how battles were fought.  War and culture interact with and reflect each other. In terms of writing wargame rules and painting soldiers, we need to be aware of the cultural and intellectual background of the period.

And that, perhaps, is the final point, one which I have made a number of times before. There is no such thing as an all-encompassing wagame period. The temptation is to lump all warfare from the demise of the pike on the battlefield to the advent of the machine gun into one period, call it ‘horse and musket’. This is, of course, technological determinism. We seem to believe that two weapon systems, the flintlock musket and the cavalryman, determine the way warfare happens for a couple of hundred years.

However, I hope I have managed to suggest that this is not so. What counts in addition, possibly in fact more importantly than the technology, is the discourse of war. By this I mean ideas of what a war was about at the time. If your thought runs in lines and Newtonian mechanics, then you land up with linear warfare. If it does not, then you get something else, albeit with the same technology.


  1. For me, the question is not whether culture has an effect on warfare but whether it trumps or even eclipses physics and human nature or whether it only colours them and effects how we describe our experiences.

    Vauban is a good example. He did not predict battles because they are a matter of men, maneuver and morale, an art not a science and he was an engineer. Generals through out history have avoided engaging in battles that weren’t stacked in their favour unless forced to fight by superior generalship or political imperative. Battles are chancy things and even up matches tended to either have disastrous consequences or ineffectual wasting of scarce resources of men and material. The reasons they give publicly for seeking to avoid useless or dangerous battles might reflect their philosophy but I suspect both Marlborough and Fredericton would agree with Sun Tzu and Vegetius that a campaign won without a battle is better than the most glorious but bloody victory in the field.

    Vauban, as an engineer, and dealt with matters such as the effect of a 24 pound shot on rammed earth depending on the velocity and angle of impact. He wasn’t really predicting how long a siege would last, he was predicting how long it would take to create a practical breach based on fortress design, the opposing forces and established best practices, assuming no outside interference. Like linear warfare, this was not a philosophic whimsy dreamt up by someone on a summer’s night but a fine tuning of proven techniques developed over 300 years of trial and error using the new gunpowder technologies. In both cases the basics were already appearing on the battlefield when the enlightenment began to develop. Vauban learned his craft in war, improved and fine tuned it and proved it in the crucible of war. The cultural/philosophic angle to sieges in Vauban’s time was that if no outside forces intervened then an enlightened defender would concede the inevitable and surrender once the breach was made.

    If the defender was not so enlightened, whether fanatic Napoleonic Spaniards fighting for independence or mutinous Sepoys in India, then the attacker would have to assault the breach and bloody street fighting would ensue, usually with the same end result but with more bloodshed. Philisophical views could not stop the effect of properly directed siege guns on walls nor replace the engineering knowledge that directed how the approaches should be conducted and the batteries sighted. The same techniques once developed after centuries of study and practice, honed by masters like Vauban remained valid until rifled artillery made them obsolete even if only 1 European engineer was employed to direct a siege by non-Europeans against non Europeans. The cultural difference was the point at which the loser accepted that he was beaten. In wargame terms, the siege is carried on using the same techniques, the guns have the same effect, but the victory conditions change.

    (btw I have been enjoying the discussions but please let me know if I am being too persistent or annoying. I would not wish for you to think of me as a human IED lying in ambush on your blog) -Ross

    1. Not persistent or annoying at all; I prefer people to engage and argue with me, rather than set myself up as a know it all internet guru...

      Anyway, I don;t think I'd argue that warfare is limited by geography, physics and (for gunpowder) chemistry. However, I do think that they way warfare is fought depends on some other, human factors as well.

      For example, no-one made generals have their troops standing in straight lines and shooting at each other. They could, equally well, have laid down.

      But why stand up? Partly it was for control, partly because the men were regarded as too unreliable but partly, because there was an idea around of courage and facing danger like a 'man'; perhaps this could be regarded as a vestige of chivalry.

      That last point is, of course, the discourse of warfare of the period, and it was heavily influenced by the culture of the time. Similarly, the straight line behavior was also influenced by Enlightenment views of the universe and nature being one big machine.

      As you say, in other cultures the views were different. And, I think, the views of westerners fighting there were different too. There was a lot of orientalism around (and often still is) when looking at these wars.

      So I do think that culture more than colours our descriptions of battles, it influences approach to them; but it is not the only factor, just one that is harder to pin down than the geography of physics of warfare.

    2. Thanks for another stimulating post.

      I wouldn't agree with you that straight lines were influenced by the Enlightenment. I think linear warfare evolved slightly earlier. Lines got thinner as rates of fire increased from matchlock to flintlock, the emergence of the socket bayonet and later with the iron ramrod.

      I'm not saying culture has no effect. But I think the timing is slightly out in this case. Thin(nish) lines (3/4/5 ranks) were de rigeur before the Enlightenment really built up a head of steam in any practical sense.

      The point about tricornes is an interesting one. I always thought the tricorne was a military innovation copied by civilians. Some argued it was easier to load a musket with the hat brim turned up.

      As for cuffs .....well they got smaller as the 18th century wore on. Possibly out of parsimony or possibly because smaller cuffs made it easier to load a musket (and later supposedly in imitation of the Prussians). Maybe that was Enlightened.

      For my money foot soldiers stood up because at some point ground had to be taken and held. Ultimately that rested on the threat of the bayonet - fire power alone wasn't sufficent to clear ground in the way that can be achieved with 21st century weapons (especially if the other buggers were laying down too!). And close order ranks were necessary to prevent foot being cut up by cavalry.

    3. Thank you for the comments.

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'The Enlightenment', so a nice juicy argument lands up becoming about a definition.

      However, for these purposes, I think the Thirty Years War is pre-Enlightenment, but the Nine Years War is in. We could argue about the rest, but I think it would create more heat than, um, Enlightenment.

      I think the idea of soldiers being fashion victims is an amusing one, although I'm not expert enough in any sort of fashion to be able to tell. It does, however, suggest that the way soldiers were, say, equipped may not be as utilitarian as we might expect.

      One of the odd things about 18th C warfare are the lines of soldiers waiting to be shot at. There are arguments about being able to fire cohesively, and control being kept. But another is that the opposition has to provide a decent target. Skirmishing is frowned upon.

      From a non-eighteenth century point of view, it needs explanation, and the explanation can't simply be modern utility. sometimes it almost looks like a conspiracy from the officer classes.

    4. By " any practical sense" I mean when Enlightenment ideas began to be put into practice. Intellectually you could (stretch a point and)say the E began as far back as Descartes, or that it started 1650(ish). But it took a long time for these ideas to start to affect policy, let alone real lives.

      So we're talking what 1740 with the ascent of Frederick II in Prussia. Later in Denmark, Portugal, Austria. I think we can set aside England, which trod an altogether more pragmatic "muck and brass" path as far as E was concerned.

      And just because an authority declares X shall be the policy it doesn't mean X is actually carried out. State structures at the time were notoriusly weak and there was pushback, delay and obfuscation from entrenched interests. Often as soon as the monarch/minister died/resigned the policy was dropped or reversed.

      I simply don't see much influence from the E on military practice until much later than the mid-18thC. Sure there were slow burners - empirical research into ballistics, the birth of chemistry and ultimately wider education. But we're really talking the 19th C when this makes a difference, by when we're told the cultural fashion was less about rationality and more about feeling.

      I'm not so sure lines of soldiers waiting to be shot at is the odd thing about the 18th C either when you get down to it. You can find the same thing in the 1860s and 1870s. By then skirmishing had been tried and tested thoroughly and had it been effective on its own at concluding matters even the most conservative, slow to catch on old buffers would have adopted it as the primary method of winning battles.

      For every example like the British first volley at Fontenoy, there is an example of completely ineffective close-order musketry (e.g. the French Irish regiment at Malplaquet that caused a handfful of casualties at 40 yards). Loading a flintlock prone made the whole process slower and, before the firepower advances of the 19thC, skirmishers were very vulnerable to cavalry.

      That's not to say social mindsets din't have a role to play in battlecraft or military life more widely.

      As for fashion victims. Just look at the hussar phenomenon. Sure we can all agree light cavalry performed a useful role, but did they really all need to be dressed in imitation of Hungarian traditional dress? Pelisses slung over the shoulder?!

    5. The Enlightenment, much like 'pike and shot' in wargaming terms, is a badly defined concept, really. But I think we can see instances of the 'scientific approach' - Descartes, Newton, Locke) in action in society before 1740, although, of course, it is very difficult to be precise about examples, as opposed to what would have happened anyway.

      The discourse of war in society is often idealized anyway. There is a painting (or print) from 1914 of a soldier dead at the foot of a cross; he looks like he is asleep and bears no visible wound. Now there is some idealization of the nature of warfare.

      In terms of states and push back, then it is interesting that France had perhaps the weakest state and most push back, but was also a hotbed of the Enlightenment with Voltaire and the Dictionary. I suppose this shows the difference between the elite and the population, graphically demonstrated later by the Terror.

      One of Lynn's more interesting asides is that of the Guards at Fontenoy. If the military procedure at the time was not to fire the first volley as it broke up the advance with men stopping to reload, clear fouled pans and so on, then the invitation to fire first was to invite the French to make a tactical mistake.

      If this is so, it also explains the actions of the British at Bunker Hill...

      And, of course, modern parade dress is a hang over of the 18th and 19th century fashion victim culture. I often wonder what the lifeguards in Horseguards Parade really think of what they are wearing.

  2. I was reminded of this recent article:

    1. Thank you for that, an interesting article, particularly the suggestion that we view the past (ACW in this case) through the present, so the ACW is viewed through the ambivalence of contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  3. Coming back to your original comments about the painting. I wouldn't draw too much inference from the way the artist depicted battle. That might show what the artists thought but it wasn't necessarily what was in the minds of military leaders, much less what actually happened.

    Paintings from the period are notorious for the stylised way they depicted military matters. You would be hard pushed to recognise that painting was of Fontenoy. The perspective in battle scenes is often wrong - commanders and their staffs are often portayed in the foreground with the battle raging behind them making it appear they were out on the flank. Events from different stages could be shown in the same panoramic picture making the single "still" more of a cartoon.

    Portraits of military worthies typically showed the subject wearing armour into the mid-18th century, but you wouldn't take that as evidence of what they actually wore in battle.

    I think where the Enlightenment did take hold in military affairs occurred significantly later and was more organisational than tactical. The sort of things I'm thinking of are the establishment of military academies, the erosion of captains' and colonels' roles as military entrepreneurs, centralised sourcing of remounts and centralised recruitment drives.

    1. I think the point of the painting is not that it is at all accurate (it isn't), but of what it does not represent. It shows an idealised battle in which no-one seems to be getting killed, which is part of the cultural discourse of the time.

      To take another example, all sides in September 1914 had a public rhetoric that it would 'all be over by Christmas', and would be a simple, chivalric and heroic war. The harsh realist of artillery and machine gun battles forced a change in that discourse - a few hundred yards of blood stained mud became a successful outcome.

      Now, of course, that is reality impacting on the discourse, but the discourse also affected reality, in, for example, the French "believing" in the power of the bayonet, even up to Verdun.

  4. It is idealised and it doesn't show the messy side of battle. But the point I was trying to make was that whilst it might represent a segment of cultural discourse, I don't think there's any evidence that it represents military cultural discourse. I've seen more comments by soldiers from that period saying warfare is a lot messier and prone to entropy than I have comments claiming it can be reduced to rational, scientific principles. My gut reaction (not having read Lynn) is that he's reading back into history a notion of "Enlightenment" and finding "evidence" that fits his hypothesis.

    I'm not saying culture doesn't influence warfare (I'm firmly in the camp that believes it does). To counter the apparent French belief in cold steel, we had the German belief in planning, preparation and training in fire power and movement. Equally, cultural, also prone to fall apart on contact with reality. But thanks to training and (arguably) better doctrine (what became known as "Auftragstaktik"), the German military culture produced better results. You could say the culture was better aligned with the technology. And ultimately the "culture" bends to the technology or the society collapses.

    1. I suspect that Lynn's point is not specifically about the military discourse, but about the discourse in society more widely. Of course a soldier (or even general) who was there would criticize the picture for being idealized, although the painter would probably respond that his clients did not want blood and gore on their walls.

      And, of course, other paintings of Fontenoy in fact show dead soldiers. But the strand is there: I don't think Lynn has proved his case that it was dominant, but it is a part of the prevailing (elite) culture.

      The cold steel against training sort of thing is something that is dominant in some military traditions. The idea that you can stick a gun with a bayonet in someones hand and he automatically becomes full of elan is not borne out by much history, but firepower and movement, as you correctly say, also falls apart in, say, the Bocage.

      I'm not sure that culture automatically bends to technology; it seems a little deterministic, especially given that the culture creates the technology. I think that the technology can cause unexpected changes which culture has to accommodate (banning technology rarely works), but a lot of the time culture merely evolves a bit to deal with it. Even the advent of the Internet has not caused a massive change in culture; it has caused some shifts, and created jobs and opportunities (and companies) that did not exist before, but then so did railways. But I'm straying really off topic here.

      Of course (to return to armies & culture), the British tradition of small, professional volunteer armies comes from a different context, and culture to the Germans and French. Any volunteers for separating the 'policing an empire' strand from the 'no standing armies' thread of British political history?

  5. I suppose you can't really separate out culture from technology. The two are intertwined. When I say "bends" I mean "adapts", and when I say "culture" I mean "military doctrine" as you hinted happened around Verdun. Had the French military (both top down and bottom up) not adapted to the new realities presented by technology we could well have seen the 3rd Republic disappear under the strain 20 odd years before it did.

    As for t'internet - like Mao said of the French Revolution, "it's too early to tell yet".

    1. Yes, with culture and technology separation is very difficult, but I suspect that we err mainly on the technology side, it being easier to make models of.

      I suspect most rule writers (or even wargamers) would find modelling the differences between a British 2 pounder gun and a German Pak 38 (or whatever, my knowledge of WW2 is very small) easier than modelling the differences in doctrine.

      But then I think you get into arguments about whether the German state from its formation (say 1871) to the outbreak of WW2 was intrinsically culturally 'militaristic'. I'm not sure I want to go there, at least!

  6. Been busy so so to respond though I see someone else has touched on it.

    Firstly, gentlemen may have professed admiration for standing up but I wouldn't put much stock in it. These gentlemen burrowed by badgers in the face of fire.Even in field battles almost every battle in the first 1/2 of the 18thC has one side occupying and fortifying towns and digging redoubts on the battlefield to anchor their lines.

    Armies in the early 18thC entrenched at every turn, often moving from entrenched camp to entrenched camp. This combined with economic imperatives is the real reason for the decline in numbers of battles. With the agricultural revolution barely under way and the industrial one not yet started, manpower for the army was limited and strictly voluntary, no conscriptions and a drain of agricultrual manpower. Equipping one was expensive while transport of food and supplies was much more difficult before metalled roads and canal systems. Where troops at the end of the century carried 40 rounds for their muskets, generals struggled to give their troops 1/2 that. 12 rounds was still not uncommon. Not enough for prolonged indecisive skirmishing.

    Having been given command of such an expensive thing, any general who wasted it without result was at the end of his career. Hence the reluctance to throw men at entrenched enemies or march them off without food and ammo in an attempt to out flank. It took generals with political as well as military authority such as Eugene and Marleborough to show that superior genius, superior moral courage and political leverage could allow an army to spend money to supply a march and take risks in leaving entrenchments and take heavy casualties assaulting entrenched enemies and that the offensive mindset could over come the defensive one albeit at a horrible cost in men and money on both sides.

    As for lying down, youre right, no one made generals have their troops stand up. They did so because lying down in dispersed formation was the old way of doing things, used in the early 16thC and still used on the fringes by mountaineers and the like proved incapable of getting a decisive result on a battlefield. It didn't become really practical until breechloaders became economically viable.

    1. I did wonder, in passing, how much the entrenchment of C 18 armies was due to the resurgence of interest in classical antiquity, where the Romans built marching camps. But I doubt if a link could be made.

      But the upshot of all this is to make the generals, and their political masters, wary of fighting battle. On the other hand, sieges were fairly costly affairs, even if they could be better 'calculated'.

      I suspect that, by the standards of the Thirty Years War, early C18 armies were well supplied and battle shy. I wonder if one of the consequences of that was a more careful mind set as well.