The New Armies of the 1700s

The flintlock musket was the outward symbol of the new armies that were appearing in western Europe in the late 1600s; the weapon was expensive, but it was safer and more convenient than the old matchlock—it also allowed soldiers to stand closer together and thereby pour a heavier fire on opposing troops; it was also more easily fitted with the bayonet, which was soon considered the queen of battle.

Another symbol was the new uniform. Though the colour was far from uniform yet, the trend was toward outfitting the soldiers with identical shirts and pants, a stiff frock coat, heavy boots, and mitred hats. The hats made the soldiers seem taller, and they certainly required them to stand straighter—which made them more imposing to any enemy, and the improved posture gave them more self-confidence. Certainly they were better prepared for fighting in cold and wet weather, and when it was too hot, the frocks could be piled onto carts to be carried to the evening campsite, along with the knapsacks that soldiers carried until immediately before combat.

There were also more impressive fortresses, stout structures made of brick and stone, with successive lines of defence and well-protected cannon that could sweep each killing zone. Each fortress had barracks for soldiers and supply bunkers in case of siege or orders to outfit troops hurrying into the field. No commander in his right mind would order an immediate assault on such a place, and few wanted to leave his army half-unemployed and subject to disease and discontent while starving the defenders out. Still, since it was impossible to ignore fortresses, every campaign could easily end in a murderous assault on the most weakened part of the defences, a storm that might end in piles of dead and wounded attackers or the slaughter of defenders who were unable to escape or surrender.

Siege tactics were universally understood, so that once trench lines and tunnels had reached a point from which an assault was possible, any trained observer could judge whether or not the fortress could be defended successfully. At that time the defending commander would have to decide whether to sacrifice valuable soldiers in vain or to surrender the place and march away ‘with honours’. The attacking commander similarly wanted to avoid losing men, and an essentially intact fortress was more useful than one which had been heavily damaged in pitched battle.

Improvements in artillery were obvious—better gun carriages, mortars for sieges, and heavy cannon for battering static defences. The largest of these weapons still adorn military museums in Europe and the Americas, and are found at many of the historic sites maintained for visitors and school children. Field artillery tended to be melted down and the metal reused.

Roads, bridges and canals were better, too. Though many were constructed to facilitate military operations, civilians did not hesitate to use them as well. Trees planted on the south side of roads allowed for travel in the shade, and public wells kept men and beasts from dehydrating. As transport costs went down, general prosperity went up. Government officials and economists realised that this commerce could be converted into tax monies that would subsidise royal expenses—the military, palaces and mistresses.

There was also an equally significant change underway that Kenneth Chase described in Firearms, a Global History—a greater emphasis on discipline and drill. Earlier, few commanders had the time or money to train recruits fully—permanent forces were needed for road work, building fortifications, and guard duty; and when an army was needed, regular troops were supplemented by recruits and hurried to the battlefield with minimum additional drill. Training too often involved firing expensive gunpowder, exhausting horses, wearing out uniforms, and disrupting the peasantry. Therefore, as Robert Citino in The German Way of War and Christopher Clark in Iron Kingdom note, field exercises were rare. Even Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern (1620-88), the Prussian ruler known the Great Elector, was too budget-conscious to send his magnificently trained soldiers out to practise in the rain and mud.

There was also a new emphasis on developing a professional officer class. The most highly born nobles had always insisted on being given commands equal to those of their ancestors; even when still junior officers they were allowed to wear the most magnificent uniforms, prance on the best mounts available, and take their pick of the prettiest girls. Those who commanded regiments also received royal subsidies that allowed them to maintain their expensive lifestyles, even though this came at the cost of regimental preparedness; and kings looked the other way because they were dependent on the goodwill of the aristocracy. Often young nobles demonstrated great courage; however, they could be the despair of generals who wanted their orders obeyed, not merely followed when proud subordinates found them convenient and did not seem to be an affront to their status. Nobles tended to think for themselves on those occasions they chose to think, but they had a tendency to forget what they were supposed to think. Hence, when an opportunity presented itself for some damn-fool act of bravery, they did it. Self-control was rare. Moreover, it was not easy for them to identify with the soldiers—social classes did not mingle, partly because common soldiers tended to be, well, common; and partly because familiarity might breed contempt, making the soldiers doubt the officers’ ability. Still, nobles made the better officers than equally well-trained men from the gentry or commercial classes because they had grown up expecting to give orders and to be obeyed, and soldiers generally accepted that as the natural order of the world.

Leading the way in by-passing the upper nobility and mercenaries was Prussia, a state whose rulers had never been reluctant to hire foreign officers and integrate them into the minor nobility. The Great Elector had employed the minor aristocracy known as Junkers as officers and administrators, giving them little choice in the matter—no more than he did the apple-sellers in Berlin to choose whether to knit or not while waiting for customers. Work, work, work was his answer to the region’s lack of natural resources, just as hurry, hurry, hurry made the army formidable on the march and in the attack.

If middle-class youths or minor nobility in Germany or Russia had the potential to be good officers, this meant a potential lessened reliance on foreign mercenaries with military experience. There had always been an aura of suspicion about foreigners who were often both arrogant and ambitious, who did not speak the local language well and who did not understand the nuances of social conventions. This provided opportunities for young men such as Napoleon Bonaparte to receive the training they would then put to use after the noble officers fled France rather than risk a shave from the national razor—the guillotine.

Multinational Austria remained the most welcoming to foreigners, followed by the minor states in Italy where the rulers were often foreigners themselves, and Russia, where the boyars thought that every new idea was foolishness if not heresy.

Paralleling these trends was a growing awareness in all classes that everyone belonged to a nation rather than merely being subjects of a distant ruler. Historians tend to associate this process with the French Revolution, which made many Italians, Spaniards and Germans believe that they, too, were members of great nations. Oddly, in a sense, this awareness of national identity was appearing at the same time that a new international culture was spreading across Europe. As summarised in Matchlocks to Flintlocks, ‘As France came to replace Spain as the dominant nation in Western Europe, the French language and French customs spread rapidly into the neighbouring states. To hold one’s head up in polite society meant having it full of French ideas.’

This Lingua Franca made it easier for ideas to circulate. Some innovations in military theory and practice were widely accepted; some ideas, especially those connected with experimental science, were both exciting and safe; others, those associated with what we call the Enlightenment, had mixed receptions—traditionalists were outraged, while the younger set laughed at the humour without necessarily adopting the underlying philosophy. Life at the upper levels of society became less serious, even frivolous, to an extent unimagined before. Religion became formalised—with intellectuals and leaders of society making withering comments about institutionalised ignorance and superstition, the foolishness of the unwashed masses and ignorant country folk who still took miracles seriously, hypocritical priests and pedantic schoolmasters. Yet, when plagues raged through a kingdom, everyone prayed fervently and later raised monuments to God and His saints for ending the suffering. Superstition and credulity thus mixed easily with sophistication and cynicism.

To the extent that the Enlightenment meant abandoning old methods in favour of new ones to resolve practical problems, it had a profound impact on the military arts. First, there was the introduction of an effective supply system to replace foraging for food and fodder. Providing cooks and brewers assured that all units were fed, avoided dispersing soldiers every afternoon to look for food and fodder, and made it more certain that everyone would be present when roll was called the next morning. It also made the peasantry much happier, since there were fewer thefts and rapes; and villages which were not pillaged could be more effectively given lists of supplies to be delivered (or else).

John Lynn, in Women, Armies and Warfare, noted that this resulted in the almost total disappearance of camp followers. This made it possible for armies to become larger, since the resources once needed to feed and shelter women and children could support additional soldiers. Also, the sexual license that probably drew some men into military service was no longer present, making it easier to avoid quarrels over women and women’s quarrels with other women. Wives and whores (cohabiting women) gave way to prostitutes, a somewhat easier class to discipline.

Officers began to look upon their commands as a way to make money—charging soldiers for uniforms, medical care, retirement benefits and other costs that often ate up much of their slender incomes. Soldiers no longer found desertion easy, and while recruits were often still technically volunteers, in practice communities were expected to provide their quotas.

Regimental Histories

We have good information about the organisation of armies in this era, but less about the individual units. For example, were ordinary soldiers taking increased responsibility to deal with comrades who slacked duties and avoided exposure to danger? This seemed to be the case to the extent that earlier even prisoners-of-war could be forced into the ranks to fight against their former comrades. But no longer—unlike mercenaries of yore, recent captives took every opportunity to get back to their comrades. As the influence of cliques of thugs diminished, pride in being a member of an elite unit—or even an average one—seems to have increased.

This was a new experience. By the ancient practice of accepting recruits from wherever a unit passed, or even compelling young men to enlist, most regiments had once been composed of a wide variety of nationalities. Even in the Swedish army—often regarded as the best in the period 1630-1715—only elite companies were composed of native Swedes; the rest of any regiment could be Poles or Germans or other locally recruited youths. Now the tendency was to recruit units from only a few regions, a practice that resulted in more homogeneity and greater unit cohesion.

This presented the Austrian monarchs with a serious problem. How could they make their multinational army as loyal to the dynasty as competing monarchs were able to do by combining love of country with respect for the ruler? Since it was difficult to assure unit cohesion when soldiers might not even be able to speak to one another, they needed a common language of command. Only German qualified.

Prince Eugene, himself an Italian reared at the French court, discouraged the enlistment of Italians. It was not a question of courage or competence, but of commitment—Italians tended to see through the foolishness of military life and, worse, they had little enthusiasm for the Hapsburgs. Eugene wanted German soldiers, but he was quite willing to enlist Bohemians, with their rich military tradition, because most Czechs knew a bit of German and were Catholic. German as the language of command also made it easier to work with allies from the Holy Roman Empire. Pressure to make Hungarians equal came much later.

There was also the matter of morale. After 1730 the Austrian army was beaten too often to go into battle with much confidence. It had been very different earlier, when Prince Eugene commanded victorious armies, but after the wars with Louis XIV ended and his successful siege of Belgrade in 1717, he retired to a pleasant life in Vienna (his Belvedere palace overlooking the city and his impressive Stadtpalais inside the walls) to collect art and books. The luxury of his later private life contrasted strongly with his austere practices as field commander. His reforms of the army had been rigorously practical. Dressing soldiers in grey frocks made it easy to see which units were his and which were the enemy’s, even when thick white smoke obscured the battlefield, and the thickness of the frocks limited injury from spent projectiles; and since most soldiers reacted to incoming fire as if they were walking into heavy rain, concentrating on keeping their high hats from falling off prevented them from ducking their heads, a pose that was often followed by a panicked flight to the rear.

The Austrian army as a whole was weak, but some regiments were effective. This suggests that a study of armies at the regimental level might tell us much about the changes that were occurring in the 1700s. A good example of what can be learned is from the previously-mentioned Deutschmeister Regiment of the Hapsburg army.

The long-time grandmaster of the Teutonic Order, 1694–1732, Franz Ludwig, had little to do with the regiment beyond persuading his brothers to allow recruiters to raise troops in their lands in the Palatinate and Neuburg, but that was an important concession, because other, equally staunch Roman Catholic rulers would not have allowed recruiters to speak with their subjects. With the outbreak of war with France in the War of the Spanish Succession Franz Ludwig’s two regiments of foot and a regiment of dragoons were withdraw from the Croatian and Hungarian frontiers, returning only in 1717 for the campaign that captured the great fortress at Belgrade, far to the south where the Danube makes its turn east toward the Black Sea.

The Deutschmeister regiment eventually came under the command of Charles Alexander of Lorraine (1712-80), one of the most important field marshals of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). Everyone knew that he was competent but not brilliant.

Charles Alexander was not a lucky general, but no Austrian general did any better against Frederick the Great and Maurice de Saxe; he lost four times to the former and once to the latter, but he always reformed his army quickly and limited the territorial losses. He could be considered successful in one sense, in that Austrian soldiers who had given up the fight quickly between 1740 and 1746 in the First Silesian War had become warriors by 1756, when the second war with Prussia began. Austrian regiments then fought with such determination that the Prussians hardly recognised them.

This may have had little to do with Charles Alexander, and more to do with the greater popularity of Empress Maria Theresa and a new determination not to be humiliated again. In any case, Charles Alexander’s position at the head of the army was secure. Maria Theresa was reluctant to give command to anyone outside the royal family, and even though he had only been married to her sister briefly, her only alternative was her husband, Charles Alexander’s brother, who had no military talent at all. The empress’s policy of concentrating power in the hands of the imperial family meant that there was little chance for another Eugene of Savoy to rise to greatness.

The office of grandmaster was a sinecure, to provide Charles Alexander incomes after he retired from imperial service, but it was also logical, since the new Deutschmeister Regiment had earned great fame under his command. This was officially the 4th regiment of the household troops, but its costs were covered by the Teutonic Order.

The Deutschmeister regiment was a well-dressed outfit. Standard gear for all infantry regiments included low-rimmed black felt hat with white brocade trim and regimental insignia, but the Deutschmeister soldiers were distinguished from other units by their pearl white overcoats with sky blue lapels and white buttons; they wore white neckbands, white shirts, white socks, white leggings (black in bad weather), black shoes, red leather cartridge case decorated with an eagle, backpack, flintlock, bayonet and sheath. Officers wore the same outfit—no gold or silver, and brocade permitted only when off-duty. They carried swords, daggers and pistols. Drummers and fifers dressed in red coats with blue shirts. The cavalry unit was also #4, the Archduke Max cuirassiers, with a proud heritage going back to the Thirty Years War; it was shot to pieces at the battle of Grocka in 1739, and during the Seven Years War was commanded by Johann Baptist Serbelloni (1696-1778), who was a member of the Knights of Malta and whose notoriously bad German was matched by his slowness in getting into the thick of the fight.

The regiment was ever more associated with the monarchy and less to the military order from which it sprang. Modern efforts to associate the Teutonic Order with Nazism run up against the fact that Hitler hated the Hapsburgs and nobles in general; he also hated the Roman Catholic Church, filling his earliest concentration camps with priests who objected to euthanasia; he mistrusted professional army officers, who repeatedly plotted to overthrow him; and his plans for National Socialism meant the creation of a new society that had no room for these artefacts of a culture that he declared were useless and dangerous.

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