State Armed Forces – Later Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In early 1645 Field Marshal Lennard Torstensson led a Swedish army of 9,000 cavalry, 6,000 infantry, and 60 cannon against a Habsburg-Imperial army of 10,000 cavalry, 5,000 infantry, and 26 cannon commanded by Melchior von Hatzfeld. Both armies were com posed of regiments commanded by international colonel-proprietors, who had used their funds or credit to raise and maintain military units. Many of the soldiers in both armies had been in service for ten years or more. The colonel-proprietors and generals in both armies regarded the recruitment of their experienced veterans as a long-term investment, and both were supported in their enterprises by an international network of private credit facilities, munitions manufacturers, food suppliers, and transport contractors. In both cases this elaborate structure was funded through control of the financial resources of entire territories, largely extracted and administered by the military high command. the armies clashed at Jankow in Bohemia, and the Imperial forces, though superior in cavalry, were held and eventually defeated by the Swedes, in part thanks to their artillery.

At the battle of Prague in May 1756, Frederick II of Prussia also faced an Austrian Habsburg army. In this case the Prussians fielded 65,000 troops and 214 cannon against Austrian forces of 62,000 and 177 cannon. While both armies contained mercenary units, the bulk of the forces were raised under the authority of the state. Prussia’s rulers had adopted conscription early in the eighteenth century, as had the Austrian Habsburgs following the military disasters of the 1730s and 1740s. The state had assumed direct responsibility for the training, upkeep, and support of the armies, and in both the officers now served less as entrepreneurs, more as employees of the state. As at Jankow the result was a defeat for the Austrians, but the battle was extraordinarily costly, a pyrrhic victory for the Prussians, who suffered even heavier casualties than their opponents.

These two battles might be used as case studies to demonstrate the evolution of armed forces in the long century separating the end of the Thirty Years War from the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s; they frame a style of warfare and of military force which may readily be identified with the dynastic states of the Ancien Régime. Yet while it is true that changes in scale, organization, technology, and tactics certainly took place both within land forces and at sea over this long century, it is important to avoid both oversimplifying the causes and exaggerating the extent of change. Above all, this period was not simply a story of the rise of modern forces controlled by the state overcoming a backward and ineffectual semi private military system whose origins stretched back to the condottieri of renaissance Italy. The fierce and protracted fighting at Jankow provides a characteristic demonstration of the military qualities of privatized military forces, while the broader conduct of the 1645 campaign revealed operational skills of a high order. This effectiveness reflected the organizational and operational priorities of the military enterprisers themselves: small, high-quality, and extremely mobile campaigning armies-hence the very large proportions of cavalry- sustained on a broad base of territorial occupation and tax extraction, whose operations were carefully linked to an assessment of logistical and other support systems funded by these war taxes or `contributions’. The same was true of navies, shaped by a combination of private and public initiatives in which a number of the largest warships were built and maintained by the ruler at direct charge to the state, but many more ships were built by subjects at their own cost and risk, commanded by captains whose main contribution to the war effort would be privateering activity, loosely integrated into collective naval operations. Such systems delivered impressive military results; they were also well-adapted to the needs and character of the early modern state. Military organization reflected a relationship between relatively weak central state power and the willingness of elites within and outside of particular societies to mobilize resources to provide military force on behalf of those states. It offered substantial incentives-financial, political, and social-to those members of the elites prepared to involve themselves in military activity, and who could mobilize resources considerably more effectively than rulers and their limited state administrations.

That said, the coming of peace at Münster and Osnabrück in 1648, then finally a settlement between France and Spain in 1659, did mark a turning point, and the emergence of a set of organizational and political compromises that defined the distinctive character of Ancien Régime armed forces. It was not, in general, that military enterprise was considered to have been a failure, but rulers nonetheless turned self-consciously back towards an ideal of direct control and maintenance of their armed forces. Tis was partly a matter of ideology: the ruler’s self-projection as a roi de guerre, whose sovereignty was explicitly linked to personal control of his armed forces and the waging of war, made military enterprise appear an undermining of that sovereign authority. Moreover, while necessity in time of war could justify the collection of heavy taxes by the military itself, with the coming of peace it was less disruptive for the state and its agents to resume tax collection, especially as many rulers came out of the Thirty Years War with a clearer awareness of the taxable potential of their subjects. In France in the 1660s, despite the return of peace and a modest retrenchment of the main land tax, overall tax levels were kept at wartime levels.

Initially the objective of establishing military force under the direct control of the ruler, paid for from tax revenues collected and distributed by his administration, seemed attainable. The military reforms of Louis XIV’s France in the decade after 1660 provide the paradigm for this reassertion of state control. More effective management of state finances and tax collection-considerably easier in a period of external peace and internal order-provided the basis on which a permanent army of around 55,000 troops could be created and funded, and allowed for the development of a virtually new navy and its support facilities. The army, in particular, was characterized by a much more intrusive administration under the aegis of the war ministers Michel Le Tellier and his son, the Marquis de Louvois. Codified regulations that were actually enforced, reasonable standards of discipline, especially with regard to civilian populations, and an insistence on external oversight of recruitment quality, equipment, and drill, all transformed the army into what was widely seen as an adjunct of royal authority and sovereignty. Such military initiatives were not merely the prerogative of the major powers: a similar bid to maintain and increase tax levels to sustain the army of Brandenburg Prussia had created a peacetime army of 14,000 men under the direct control of the Elector by 1667.

This ideal of armies which were closely linked to the direct financial resources of the state, and of a manageable scale where central administration-a Bureau de la guerre or a Kriegskommissariat-could exercise a high degree of control and supervision over troop and officer recruitment, provisioning, discipline, and deployment, was a realistic target for the Ancien Régime state. Moreover, the forces that could be fielded through such direct systems of control and support were not necessarily limited to the comparatively small bodies assembled in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War; these were frequently envisaged as a nucleus of larger forces that would be raised in wartime, whether through recruitment at home or foreign mercenaries. The growth of state administration, both in numbers of personnel and the range of their activities and procedures, is an all-but universal phenomenon of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, to some extent, is a steady increase in the burden of taxes that rulers could impose on their-usually unprivileged-subjects. Hemmed in by dependence on parliamentary grants for extraordinary tax revenues, even Charles II and James II of England were able to use their direct control over the growing and better-administered revenues from customs and excise to fund a standing army which grew from 15,000 in 1670 to something over 30,000 men in late 1688. So post-1650, rulers could in theory look to maintaining and controlling armies and navies that were compatible with their growing share of state resources and the developing range and sophistication of their administrations.

However, this was not how the armies of the Ancien Régime developed in practice. What occurred instead was a process in which the demands of armies and navies, and especially their costs, outstripped the capacity of the state to meet them. It was not, in most cases, a consciously-sought development, and its impact was largely counterproductive in terms of the effectiveness of armed forces. As so often in military history, the waging of war was driven forward by its own dynamic; once the self-regulatory and self-limiting style of entrepreneurial warfare had been abandoned, the road was opened to a type of armed force and style of combat which overwhelmed the resources of the state and led to military stagnation and a variety of political and social tensions through the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

One factor in this transformation was military technology. The gradual introduction from the 1680s of muskets equipped with a cheap but reliable flintlock mechanism replaced the older weapons in which the charge in the musket’s breech was ignited by applying a piece of lighted, slow-burning match. Virtually simultaneous with this was the development of the ring-bayonet, providing the musketeer with both an offensive and defensive weapon. The traditional infantry elite, the pikemen, whose solid presence had both served to protect reloading and vulnerable musketeers from the shock of cavalry or charging infantry, and had themselves proved a formidable offensive arm, were almost entirely phased out by the early eighteenth century. Although a standardized, flintlock- and bayonet-armed infantry may be thought to usher in an era of warfare dominated by the massed firepower of infantry, in fact musketry remained grossly ineffective: poor production qualities, limited range, and minimal accuracy were com pounded by a rate of fire that by the standards of industrialized warfare remained cripplingly slow even in the best-drilled units. In fact, firepower did transform the battlefield, but it was developments in artillery which were the key. Tough the basic technology of the muzzle-loaded field gun remained unchanged through this period, better casting, lighter barrels and carriages, more mobility, and standardization led to a huge increase in the numbers of artillery deployed on the battlefield: perhaps most significant, these improvements led to the proliferation of more mobile medium-weight guns, the nine- to twelve-pound field pieces which dominated the battlefields of Europe until the mid-nineteenth century. From the Thirty Years War with a couple of dozen guns on either side, though to an engagement like Malplaquet (1709) with 100 Allied guns against 60 French, to Torgau (1760) where 360 Austrian field guns were deployed against 320 Prussian, the role of the artillery was ever more central to the battlefield and the siege. Massive concentrations of artillery fire, equipped with a fearsome range of anti-personnel missiles, blasted infantry and cavalry formations alike.

These changes had some paradoxical consequences for tactics and deployment on the battlefield. The effectiveness of artillery led to a further increase in the numbers of gun crews and officers, but an obvious response to this greater lethality was an attempt to get larger forces, principally more infantry, onto the battlefield. Yet the infantry massed on the battlefield were not merely subject to slaughter by opposing artillery; the thinning out of the infantry line, which by the mid-eighteenth century was three rows deep and whose only defence after a handful of musket rounds was the bayonet, also made them much more vulnerable to cavalry. As many astute commanders recognized, the battle-winning arm, given that the artillery could not exploit the advantages that its firepower created, remained the cavalry. Yet cavalry as a proportion of armies declined steadily in the century from 1660 to 1760, from around one-third to around one-quarter of the total combatants. Military logic might have suggested a great increase in the proportions of cavalry, especially light forces of the sort that had been typical of eastern European warfare for centuries, but military budgets ensured that the cavalry remained underdeveloped.

The proliferation of artillery also had a drastic impact on siege warfare, seen since the late sixteenth century as the most typical form of combat, and another reason why the battlefield advantages brought by more cavalry could be downplayed. After decades in which artillery-resistant fortifications had proved an intractable challenge to besieging armies, the numbers of guns that could be assembled for a siege in the later wars of Louis XIV finally tipped the balance in favour of the offensive. Sieges of major fortified places in the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth century had been won through a haphazard, lengthy, and expensive process of blockade, the defeat of enemy relief forces and occasionally either mining or direct assault, rather than by artillery barrage and breach. This was superseded by methodical prescriptions for conducting a siege by parallel trenches dug progressively closer to the fortifications, and protected from the defenders’ fire by zig-zag communication lines. Using these trenches to move artillery further forward, the fortifications and their defenders would be progressively ground into surrender. The only response was that pioneered by the French fortification-genius Marshal Vauban, whose pré carré provided a massive proliferation of state-of-the-art fortifications in a deep defensive barrier stretching along the French frontiers. Individual fortresses could be taken, but as the commanders of the Allied armies, Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy, were to discover in their campaigns after 1708, the time and cost required to take out a sufficient block of such fortified places reduced their invasion of France to a slow, attritional frontier struggle. On the defensive (down)side, the costs of building and then of garrisoning and maintaining such fortification systems was immense. Moreover, experiences such as Maurice de Saxe’s campaign in the Austrian Netherlands in the 1740s cast doubt even on these massive fortress systems as a means to ensure defensive security. The strongest fortifications were unlikely to hold out if it was clear to the fortress commanders that there was no supporting army in the field capable of driving off the besieging forces.

Artillery had the capacity to transform battlefields and sieges into more lethal spaces than hitherto, but one part of this capacity would reflect the rigorous training of artillery crews in maneuvering guns, and above all in loading, firing, and reloading them as rap idly as possible. Tis drew upon a much broader seam of organizational and, to an extent, social change: such effective fire would be best achieved, it was considered, by the imposition of a mechanical sequence of procedures on the gunners, learnt by rote and taught by rigorous practice and discipline. And to an even larger extent this would be the requirement for the infantry. If the musket/bayonet combination was to approach its (limited) maximum potential as a battlefield technology, then rates of fire needed to be optimized, as did the way in which firepower was deployed through a unit of soldiers, and the way that the unit was to maneuver to defend itself or to exploit changing battle field circumstances. The means to achieve this was through drill. Formal drill became the raison d’etre of infantry training, imposed uniformly on cohesive groups of soldiers from the day of recruitment throughout their military careers. For drill to achieve mechanically disciplined, rapidly responsive, and cohesive infantry, more than a few weeks in a training camp were needed. The Marquis de Chamlay commented that whereas it was possible to have good cavalry troopers within a year of their enlistment, it took a minimum of five to six years to produce infantry who could deploy disciplined fire without losing cohesion.

Three consequences stemmed from the development of drill. First, the time and expense involved was too great to allow the soldiers to go back into civilian life after a few years of service. Volunteers, as in France, Britain, and some of the German states, were contracted and compelled to stay in service sometimes for decades. Where conscription was introduced, adult male populations might benefit from relatively enlightened systems such as the Prussian, or the Swedish Indelningsverk, whereby after initial training the men were kept militarily effective by regular drill camps but otherwise allowed to pursue their civilian lives. Elsewhere they could be subject to more brutal demands, as in Peter the Great’s Russia, where a proportion of the servants and tenants of the landowning class were simply conscripted for life. Conscription in its various forms became a characteristic of the Ancien Régime state; by the 1690s even France started to use the compulsory local service of provincial militias as a `feeder-system’ for the regular army. A second consequence was that the very long service required of conscripts and volunteers made soldiers more prone to desert. In consequence, military authorities sought to keep soldiers under close supervision. Typically, segregation from the civilian population was adopted as the most effective means to oversee enlisted soldiers, and when feasible this led to their confinement in purpose-built barracks. Both these factors contributed to a third: service as a common soldier lost any remaining social standing. While in the Thirty Years War veterans had seen themselves, and had been treated, as the equivalent of skilled workers, the Ancien Régime soldiers, often separated from the civil population and subordinated to a harsh military code, were relegated to the lowest status. A vicious circle developed in which low social esteem made recruitment more difficult, and encouraged the NCOs and officers to treat their men with even more brutal discipline and greater contempt.

Yet the transformation most evident in Ancien Régime armed forces was that of numbers and scale. Even the most exaggerated assertions about the size of armies raised in the century before 1650-most of which have no foundation in army rolls or muster details, and all of which ignore fluctuations between and within campaigns-are still dwarfed by the scale of the war effort sustained by armies and navies from the 1690s onwards.

To some extent the technological and consequent organizational change indicated above could account for an upward pressure on the scale of armed forces, and perhaps especially the size of forces concentrated on the battlefield. But it would not of itself have generated the growth in military establishments on the scale seen in the decades from the 1680s to the eighteenth century. The great increases in this period were not primarily driven by military factors and their implications, but were a consequence of the conduct of international politics. Louis XIV’s inept and threatening diplomacy throughout the 1680s drew France inexorably towards a war against a coalition of every other major west-central European power. Holding her own against this alliance after 1688 required an unparalleled military effort. France’s enemies responded with a scale of mobilization which would collectively match and surpass the 340,000 soldiers and 150,000 tonnes of naval force that France managed to throw into the struggle. Military expansion moved eastwards in the mid-eighteenth century, where the triangular contest between Prussia, Austria, and Russia in the decades after 1740 had the same effect on army growth. Frederick II inherited an army of 80,000 in 1740, but the wars over Silesia pushed this up to 200,000. Austrian military expansion following the disasters of the 1740s was no less impressive, while exploitation of lifetime conscription ensured that Russia overtook all other European states in military manpower. The final driver of military-this time naval-expansion was European colonial and trade rivalry and warfare, and above all the determination of the British to maintain oceanic naval supremacy over any other European power. The Royal Navy, which reached a peak of 196,000 tonnes in 1700, underwent progressive increases through the 1750s when the total rose through 276,000 tonnes up to 473,000 tonnes by 1790. This increase in the size of British naval force was not surpassed by any other European power, but the attempt to build forces that were at least comparable stimulated naval growth throughout the eighteenth century. Whether this reflected the ambition of combined French and Spanish Bourbon fleets to challenge the British in the Atlantic, or concerned the exercise of naval power by Russia and the Scandinavian powers in the Baltic, the net effect was a steady growth in the size of naval forces, and for most states this naval growth moved in step with demands for massive land forces.

Yet European powers in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries proved able to sustain these increases; states did not collapse under the burden of maintaining armed forces. It is not easy to explain this in terms of rising prosperity, demographic, or economic growth. For in west-central Europe the biggest military increases coincided with a long period of economic stagnation from 1650 to 1720/30. In this later seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Britain and the United Provinces were exceptional in achieving broad-based economic growth. France and the German or Italian states saw ever-more troops and revenues being extracted from peoples barely able to meet these demands. In contrast, it was certainly the case that from the 1730s European rulers began to benefit from economic and demographic growth. Economic progress fostered technological improvement and cheaper production of military goods such as reliable cast-iron cannon for both navies and land armies. A mid-century transformation of agriculture allowed more efficient land-use, which had effects on military operations through a steady growth in the populations which provided army and navy personnel. But the largest military expansion had occurred before these advantages came into play, in states whose economies remained depressed and limited.

Because the huge growth in military force achieved by rulers like Louis XIV, Charles XI of Sweden, Frederick-Wilhelm I of Prussia could not be attributed to expanding economic and demographic potential, a traditional and now easily-derided response was to shroud the process in a mysterious and frequently circular set of assertions about the personal power and capability of `absolutist’ monarchs. A slightly more plausible interpretation argued that this military growth was the result of growing bureaucratic and governmental effectiveness. Better-assessed taxes collected under the threat of military coercion allowed further tax increases, which in turn made possible further growth in the armed forces. Armed forces and central authority are assumed to grow in a single, internally-cohesive process. It is indisputable that the character of Ancien Régime armies would have been very different without the developing administrative competence and greater coercive power of the states concerned. The Austrian military reforms of the 1740s were the result of military experience working within an increasingly effective administration, while Frederick II’s comments on the differences between Prussia and (unreformed) Austria stress the importance of administrative capacity: `I have seen small states able to maintain themselves against the greatest monarchies, when these states possessed industry and great order in their affairs. I find that large empires, fertile in abuses, are full of confusion and only are sustained by their vast resources, and the intrinsic weight of the body.’

Nevertheless, improvements in administration, better accountability, and more efficient collection and use of tax revenues would not alone have allowed Louis XIV in the early 1690s to support an army of 340,000 men and a navy of at least 30,000 sailors, any more than in 1740 would it have allowed Frederick William I of Prussia to maintain a standing army of 80,000 troops. Substantial elements of the costs of war were still met by extorting war taxes from occupied lands and from foreign subsidies such as those provided by Britain to Frederick William I. Both helped to maintain larger forces than could have been supported from native resources, but for the most part they were factors that operated only in wartime. And as the Swedes discovered to their cost in the aftermath of 1648, supporting troops at the cost of neighbouring states or through subsidies from powerful, self-interested paymasters, could involve a heavy political and military price.


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