Saturday 27 October 2018

The Original Military Revolution

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.

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.

Saturday 13 October 2018

Why I Wargame Early Modern

I have, in the past, been slightly curmudgeonly about wargaming both World War One and World War Two. I have also griped about colonial games where the native is mowed down by machine guns. I am not sure I have done so, but I could also grumble about Napoleonic games, mostly because of the impossibility of painting some of the uniforms and the vast numbers of figures needed to make a viable wargame. I might also be able to swipe at the eighteenth century, with their interchangeable forces except for the coat colours. Not only that, but I could dismiss medieval wargaming as too difficult because of painting heraldry and, anyway, battles were settled by the charge of a few knights mowing down the commoners, so it was all a bit pointless.

Now, all I am left with is the ancients period and early modern wargaming. These, of course, are my own personal favourites, and so stand above all criticism, at least by me. And, if your blood pressure is rising (or has risen) because I have denigrated your favourite period, then I do know that all the above comments about the different periods (and ones I have not mentioned) can and should be nuanced. On the other hand, some might be offended that I have not mentioned their own period. Life and people can be odd like that.

Anyway, as the last few posts might have convinced you, I have returned to the ‘early modern’ period. The period name is interesting in itself. It used to be called ‘renaissance’, but then it was pointed out that the Renaissance happened, at best, in the early part of the period and that, in fact, there were several renaissances in Europe. Another name might be thought to be ‘pike and shot’ but the problem there is that the pike was a distinctly European weapon, at least in this period. So the rather ugly term ‘early modern’ was invented or at least came about. It isn’t my fault.

The name ‘early modern’ of course indicates itself a transition from whatever happened before to something recognisably ‘modern’, whatever that means. The early modern period exists largely because it is neither medieval nor modern, although even counting the French Revolution as modern is stretching things a little.

There is a degree of flexibility at the boundaries of the period as well. Lots of people count it as being from 1485 to 1713, but that is a peculiarly British (English?) point of view, running from Bosworth to the end of the War of Spanish Succession. Other views point to 1492 as a start date, when Columbus detected the Americas and the French invaded Italy with lots of cannons. Again, that is a peculiarly Euro-centric view. After all, the native Americans had been merrily waging war on each other for generations prior to being discovered, and, for themselves, did not need discovering at all.

A slightly more viable start date might be 1453, with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. This is at least an even on a slightly wider canvas; on the other hand, it did not make much material difference to warfare, although it did to the cultural and intellectual life of Europe. Scholars fleeing the siege brought with the Greek texts of various sorts which, between them, gave a fillip to academic life, philosophy and (you could argue) started the trends that led to the Reformations.

The end date is equally contested. 1660 has been mooted, but that is due to the Restoration in Britain. 1688 is another Anglo-centric date. I have mentioned 1713, and a few use 1750 (which seems a little arbitrary; I suspect it is just for neatness). 1721 is, of course, the end of the Northern Wars, while 1792 is the French Revolution. There are arguments as to whether the Revolution marks a discontinuity in warfare or a development thereof. Another mooted date is 1815, and the final defeat of Napoleon and a new legal order in Europe.

All of these dates can be defended and equally contested. I am not going to enter into the endless and rather pointless debates that can ensue. As the Estimable Mrs P observes ‘I thought it was a hobby. My own limits to the period are from 1500-ish to 1700-ish, with a bit of wriggle room at each end. How is that for being decisive?

Anyway, the question of the post is why this period, whatever it is? I suppose there are many answers to that question. A choice like that is not made easily, suddenly and is often more whimsy than anything else. A reason was Stuart Asquith’s articles in Battle / Military Modelling on ECW battles. Another was my gradual realisation that there was quite a lot more to that period than Charles I and Cromwell bashing away at each other, including the surprise of my history teacher that I had even heard of the Thirty Years War. And then later (and still ongoing) realisations as to the connectivity of things in the period.

One of the attractions I find of the early modern period is the general weirdness of it all. It is recognisably the world we live in, except the ideas we live with are somewhat half-formed. It is also a period where, for example, Stone Age societies (or at least, technologies) can battle it out with firearms, with a chance of winning. In fact, you can throw pretty well any sort of troops on the table, except, I suppose tanks and similar, and find a society and culture that used them. Elephants? Check. Rockets? Check. Submarines? The idea was around, as, in fact, so was that of tanks, of course. I dare say that similar things can be argued for other periods; I am not trying to suggest that my period has a monopoly on either weirdness or half-baked technology, but it is an interesting time.

 Finally, I suspect that the era is under-represented in wargaming terms. I have lost count of the number of Napoleonic, World War Two and One and even ancients wargames I have seen at shows or in the blogosphere. Not so many (although not none) in this period. And apart from in my list of armies to rebase, I have not seen some of the interesting match ups that there are in the period. Ming versus Manchu, anyone?

Saturday 6 October 2018

World Wargaming

Now, do not panic. I have not suddenly taken a dive into World War Two, World War One, or even the Seven Years War. The latter is often touted as the ‘first world war’, even though historians of the seventeenth century (if not the sixteenth) would claim that the Hispano-Dutch War was a world war, especially after the Portuguese possessions became Spanish after 1580. The Dutch, after all, launched attacks in South America and the Far East. Phillip II sort of by accident, landed up with an empire upon which the sun did not set, hundreds of years before the British thought of it. And the Dutch were a maritime nation at war with it.

Anyway, before I digress too much further, I am not thinking about world wars in the conventional sense, but about the rise of what is called ‘world history’. This is mentioned in Morillo’s book which I reviewed here a bit ago. On closer examination, I noticed that a few of the works on my shelf corresponded with the idea (most notably Geoffrey Parker’s tome  Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013), which I reviewed here a bit ago. The basic synopsis is ‘brilliant but depressing.’).

The point is that, as those of you who have been paying attention to my meanderings here might have noticed, I have returned to my old soldiers, and hence to wargaming on a world stage. I have no intention of trying a re-run of my Internet-based campaign game of global scope, 1618-Something, but nevertheless, there are interesting possibilities. But one thing that has occurred to me is the possible relationships between world history and wargaming.

One of the key aspects of world history, so far as I can judge, is the possibility of comparisons between two different areas of the world. There are, of course, inevitable differences between assorted bits of the world, but there are also a sufficient number of parallels to make comparison possibly instructive. A case in point (with due apologies to those without access to an academic library) is this:

Morillo, S., 'Guns and Government: A Comparative Study of Europe and Japan', Journal of World History 6, no. 1 (1995), 75-106.

I will not, for the moment at least, go into the details of Morillo’s argument in the paper, but the point, so far as I am concerned, is that a comparison between Europe of the sixteenth century and Japan of roughly the same era is not only possible but instructive. The argument, in brief, is that the ‘military revolution’ (scare quotes seem to be appropriate) was not dependent on the introduction of gunpowder. That can be dated precisely to 1543 in Japan, and Morillo argues that (looked at in the right scale) Japan was already promoting stronger states (it was not a single state; like Europe rather than France) before gunpowder arrived, so the increase in state power, the size of armies and revenues are not dependent, as some forms of the military revolution argument go, on having weapons that go bang.

I am not a sufficient historian to be able to critique Morillo’s argument, although I dare say that it is not totally watertight. I could see, for example, that it could be argued that Japan at least had a history of being a state, while the different bits of Europe did not. This might have made state formation ideologically easier. On the other hand, the idea of ‘chivalry’ (to apply a western term to the Samurai code) had not died in either Europe or Japan, although warfare, pragmatically, ignored it.

The point here is that, possibly, wargaming has something to contribute here. Phil Sabin, as most wargamers probably know, has been tirelessly promoting the idea of a wargame as a set of models which can be tested against known outcomes. If you do not know about this, then try Sabin, P., Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), or Sabin, P., Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Continuum, 2012). I am pondering whether wargaming might be able to contribute to the sort of comparative study that Morillo presents.

Obviously, I am not daft enough to suggest that the comparison is easy or that a simple-minded ‘Samurai army against French Ordonnance’ matchup would shed any light at all on anything very much. But some of the detail might be interesting. Morillo suggests that, really, in battle, the difference between bows and muskets was not that great. I have seen this suggested elsewhere – for example in the endless debates in Elizabethan military literature about the merits of the longbow. If they were, in fact, interchangeable, then exchanging them (or going all one way or the other) should make little or no difference to the outcomes of battles.

If this is the case, then the reason for both Japanese and European armies adopting massed musketry must lie elsewhere. I do not think there is any proof, but the suspicion lies around the relative ease of training musketeers as opposed to archers. One relies on chemical energy, the other on muscle power, after all. Thus we could model a relationship between bow and musket along the lines of the fraction of available manpower which could be utilised for each weapon; not all available males of service age would be fit to draw a bow, while more could use a firearm.

Naturally, this would rely on a validated model for warfare in the countries, and periods, in question. I doubt if we have one of those and, to be brutally honest, my view of the hobby wargame world at the moment is that rules are moving further away from modelling real battles rather than nearer. This is not, before anyone starts jumping up and down, a particular criticism of any rules sets or styles thereof, just an observation that the fun element is getting more conspicuous than, perhaps, it has been in the past (not that the rules are in fact less ‘accurate’ than older sets, but that the models used are less explicit).

Still, it would be an interesting thought experiment. Would a Samurai army armed with bows be able to take on one armed with firearms? How many more troops would the latter have to deploy to obtain a victory? Simulations of this, in a validated ruleset (if such a one could be obtained), might (and only might; there is a lot of prejudice against doing this sort of thing), contribute something to our historiographical knowledge of the period.