The eclipse of military enterprise?

SYW- France: French Foreign Infantry Regiments during the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740s, by Eugène Leliepvre. 1. Royal Ecossais Officer 1745-46. 2. Royal Ecossais Fusilier. 3. Royal Ecossais Officer with Standard. 4. Clare’s Regt, Fusilier. 5. Royal Corse, Fusilier. 6. Royal Italien.

French; Seven Years War; foreign troops serving in colonies. 1.Royal Barrois Regt, fusilier, Haiti,1762-3. Volontaires-Etrangers, fusilier, New France, 1757-58 & Lally’s regiment, fusiliers and Colour, India 1758-61

It might thus seem that the persistence and evolving character of private involvement in the organization and waging of warfare was a foregone conclusion, sealed by increasing emphasis on the financial and organizational priorities of the fiscal-military state. Yet from the later eighteenth century military enterprise all but disappears in Europe for a couple of centuries. It is this that makes the argument for the durability and effectiveness of military enterprise and the ‘business of war’ a necessary corrective and challenge to assumptions about a more ‘natural’ direction for state–military relations. How should the apparent anomaly of the rise of armed forces that were fully financed and organized by state administrators be explained? If the fiscal-military state was built on the opportunities and benefits that private involvement in warfare offered, why should these have been abandoned?

The age of Louis XIV unleashed a growth in armies and navies which was never subsequently retrenched. This hugely increased the expense of European warfare on both land and sea. Initially, as we have seen, the financial and organizational burden of such unparalleled military forces offered advantages to military enterprisers: there had never been more foreign mercenaries in French service than in the last two wars of Louis XIV’s reign, even if they represented a smaller proportion of the total army; more than ever, rulers needed to encourage the financial support of their militarized elites in their attempts to square the circle of paying for war. Yet this military inflation was accompanied through the eighteenth century by another development: a gradual but inexorable increase in the killing-power of battlefield weaponry. If sieges and battles like Lille and Malplaquet (1708/9) had raised the potential ‘butcher’s bill’ for close-quarter engagements to unprecedented and horrific levels, by the time of the Seven Years War (1756–63) this had been institutionalized as the normal consequence of large-scale battles or set-piece sieges. When close-range musket fire against tight-packed lines or columns of troops was combined with the considerably more deadly impact of an ‘immense profusion’ of mobile, better-deployed and, perhaps most significantly, medium-weight artillery, the stakes even for a victorious army in battle were raised to unsustainable levels. In T. C. W. Blanning’s words, the Seven Years War was effectively over by 1760, as ‘all the combatants in the continental war were suffering from exhaustion. By the close of the following campaign they resembled boxers who had fought themselves to a standstill . . .’ What made this unsustainable was not this level of casualties as a percentage of population or even of potential army size, but the definitive shift over the previous century to a style of warfare which was waged on the basis of highly trained infantry, subjected to many years of military discipline in order to perform elaborate fire-drills and tactical manoeuvres with mechanical precision. This was not the only way to fight wars in the eighteenth century, but a huge investment had been made by European states in organizing and waging war on these principles.

The resulting paradox was a style of positional warfare that if carried on to the battlefield was guaranteed to inflict massive casualties on at least one of the opposing armies, and if they were equally well drilled and disciplined, on both. At the same time there was a general recognition that the trained soldier was a precious commodity: in the words of the Maréchal de Saxe: ‘it is better to put off an attack for several days than to expose oneself to losing rashly a single grenadier: he has been twenty years in the making’. The obvious response was to try to avoid the kind of encounters that would lead to the mass slaughter of highly trained soldiers: hence one part of the typical arguments for the relatively ‘civilized’ nature of eighteenth-century warfare. Provided that all sides were prepared to play the game of manoeuvre and territorial control/denial rather than combat, using armies to seek diplomatic advantage rather than attritional victories, the system could be sustained. Indeed huge changes in the political map of Europe could be brought about by the threat rather than the reality of military action. But when the stakes were raised and powers made the decision to wage war through direct engagement in battle and siege, their rivals had little choice but to do the same.

The Seven Years War brought this system close to collapse. By 1760 almost the entire stock of pre-war Prussian officers and soldiers had been killed or disabled in a succession of victories and defeats whose one common character was their terrifying cost in the lives of servicemen. Unsurprisingly, military theorists were brought to question many of the assumptions about the way in which soldiers were recruited and trained; the elaborate process of drill and disciplining which required years if not decades to produce a professional soldier was incompatible with the first, steely glint of industrialized warfare, in which cheaply produced iron cannon and more accurate and reliable muskets could be mass produced and deployed ever-more easily and cheaply. One response, discussed in theory long before the French Revolution turned it into a practical response to waging war, was the army composed of the citizens in arms, whether serving as eager, ideologically committed volunteers, or as conscripts who would need ideological induction as much as traditional military training. Belief that the élan of soldiers swayed by a strong sense of country or political conviction could produce battlefield qualities that would compensate for the drill and discipline of trained professionals was a bold assumption. Underpinning it was the more cynical calculation that such troops could be raised in vastly larger numbers, could sustain huge casualties and be replaced with others more easily and quickly than traditional armies could replace their exhaustively trained professionals. Even if the qualities of professional soldiers were superior, they would simply be swept aside by the waves of semi-trained, patriotic enthusiasts who could be unleashed by the ‘nation in arms’. The logic is similar to that of Machiavelli and his fellow humanists, who had espoused the benefits of a militia in which a virtuous citizenry would inevitably prove superior to venal mercenaries. In both cases the incompatibility of these ideas with military enterprise is self-evident.

All of this could have remained on the drawing board. Guibert, who started as an enthusiastic exponent of a national militia, ideologically motivated and aiming to concentrate overwhelming numbers against an enemy, abandoned these ideas in his later writings, unconvinced that these could replace the qualities and discipline of trained soldiers. Nor were the first trials of the levée en masse a clear validation for the principles of the citizen army. Many historians of late eighteenth-century warfare would concede that had the duke of Brunswick possessed an extra 10,000 healthy troops on the field of Valmy in 1792, a different and altogether less dramatic picture of change and continuity in European warfare might have emerged. Events did, however, validate the national, citizen army, whether in France, Prussia or eventually across the entire Continent. Regardless of their initial military quality, the capacity of the French Revolutionary state to deploy ideology and coercion to put 700,000 conscripts in the field by 1794 irrevocably altered the nature of European warfare. This shift marked the real end of military enterprise. Once the state regarded war as the duty of all citizens, it was inconceivable that it could make additional use of hired mercenaries, that it could outsource the organization and recruitment of troops, or even that it could rely on private enterprise for the provisioning and supply of troops. By 1793 the French state had abandoned contracting for the production and transport of military supplies, and had guillotined several contractors as counter-revolutionaries. Military service was now defined as a sacred duty to the state, and in return the maintenance and well-being of the citizen-soldier could only be organized and provided by the state. All that might remain in the hands of private interests was the manufacturing and production of armaments in cases where the state did not choose to assume direct control of these or where, in wartime, continuous demand exceeded the capacity of state-run facilities to supply military needs.

The contingent outcome of military events in north-west Continental Europe in the early 1790s could thus explain the disappearance of systems of military enterprise that had hitherto proved a capable and adaptable element of war-waging. But were there longer-term issues about the privatization of military force that also require consideration? Was it simply a straightforward consequence of the development of mass conscription and the political claims and reciprocal obligations implied by building loyalty to the nation-state, or were there other issues relating to the use of private military contractors in warfare waged by and for the state?


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