Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Mughal Empire at War

My loyal reader will have noted recently an emphasis on interest in South Asia, the Indian sub-continent and points allied to it. You might also recall a certain confusion arising from reading Gommon’s book and pondering the role of horse archer in the region. Complexity adds to complexity as we discover that, really, there is very little written about military history in South Asia, at least before the colonial period.

This book:

de la Garza, A., The Mughal Empire at War: Barbur, Akbar and the Indian Military Revolution 1500 - 1605 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017)

Is a recent addition to my library and is a most useful tome in trying to work out what might be going on in the period. De La Garza’s point is that military history in South Asia has missed out the whole ‘drums and trumpets’ bit of historiography which underpins much of the more recent work on the subject in the west. In short, there is no Oman or Delbruk for India. Recent work on the military in South Asia, therefore, focusses on more war and society type studies and entirely misses out the purposes for which armies were constituted in the first place. There are few, if any, studies of battles before the rise of the East India Company in the eighteenth century.

De La Garza’s work, therefore, is to try to unpack a little about the battles the earlier Mughals fought, how they evolved, and something of the tactics that were used. As such, it constitutes an extremely useful book for a wargamer, discussing all those messy and unpleasant bits of warfare (like battles, wounds, firepower and so on) which contemporary military historians tend to shy away from. He even has sketch maps of battle tactics and how various counter-strategies were used and themselves countered.

The basic point to be drawn from the book is that the Indian battlefield was a fire-heavy environment. Initially, this firepower was provided by Central Asian horse archers; the early Mughals kept close links with places like Samarkand and considered themselves, essentially, Mongol tribal leaders. However, Barbur, in the early sixteenth century, recognised the importance of gunpowder and proceeded to integrate it into his battle tactics. The problem was, of course, how to do so in an already fluid and firepower rich battle environment.

Barbur seems to have acquired his ideas from Ottoman sources, either directly or indirectly. This was the ‘Roman method’, of battle. The infantry, as in Ottoman battles, were deployed in a wagon laager or field fortification, together with the artillery. The light horse screened this and provided fast-moving, hard-hitting wings, supported by the heavy cavalry (which itself could deliver a fair bit of firepower, being bow armed). An interesting sideline on this, which I did not know, is that the wagons in the laager were deployed facing the enemy, with the infantry behind. Thus, I suppose, any charging cavalry were the length of the wagon and the traces away from the vulnerable infantry. You would need a very long lance indeed to do any damage at that range.

De La Garza makes the point that, from some points of view, crossbows and muskets are more useful than longbows. Both the former can be aimed without the expenditure of energy, and so can be used by infantry lurking in cover or behind field fortifications. The Mongols, he says, hated crossbows. Indian infantry, as with their East Asian counterparts, appear to have liked to aim at specific enemies. Not for them is the massed firing into massed bodies of troops favoured in the Western world. De La Garza also notes that crossbows and muskets could be used by relatively untrained troops, whereas horse archery needed huge quantities of skill and practice, and longbows also needed much more training. Musketry, therefore, was cheaper to assemble in large quantities and, in general, packed a bigger punch than longbow archery and, particularly, horse archers.

We have then an emerging picture of a Mughal army with a central infantry core of muskets and other firepower, such as camel guns, rockets and artillery. The wings were of horse archers, and the whole usually assumed the strategic offensive, while necessarily maintaining the tactical defensive. To this arrangement the initial Indian armies had no reply, relying on a central charge of heavy cavalry which was stopped and then outflanked by Barbur’s army. However, the opposition soon adapted, which led to the defeat of the Mughals by trickery (usually) by Sher Shah Suri; the two armies created fortified camps and waited to see who would starve or whose nerve broke first. It was only dynastic misfortune which handed India back to the Mughals.

Given all this, and the adaption of gunpowder into Indian armies, why was this military revolution only partially followed through, and why did it ultimately fail in the eighteenth century against Western-trained forces? There is no single answer to this. Possibly the Mughals lost access to warhorses and trained horse archers from Central Asia; certainly there was a decline in horse archers with the more widespread adoption of gunpowder in those parts. Partially, De La Garza suggests, the Mughal empire was a victim of its own success. It simply became too big to need to innovate One of the points both De La Garza and Gommons make is that the Mughals dominated to military manpower market in South Asia and sucked into their armies most of the easily available soldiers. Thus, little in the way of rivals could emerge.

Finally, De La Garza suggests, the Mughals were set on the road to destruction by Aurungzeb, the last of the ‘great’ Mughals. He seems to have rather overthrown the basis of the empire in toleration and allowing talent to be rewarded, as well as getting bogged down in an interminable war in the south of India, while the regional rulers in the north quietly started to go their own way. Thus, by the time the Europeans arrived in force the market in military manpower was open and regional politics allowed the British in.

This is, as I noted, a real book of history, but with a special meaning for wargamers and is highly recommended. I dare say I will be reconstituting my Indian forces in response to it.

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