Warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries II

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Warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries II
The Battle of Barfleur, 29 May 1692 by Richard Paton, painted 18th century.

The battle-fleets with masses of ships and great weights of cannon dominate our vision of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century naval warfare just as mass infantry formations are central to our view of land warfare. But there was an equivalent to the light troops of the armies of this period. The great ships were clumsy, relatively slow, and could only undertake long journeys with great difficulty and careful preparation. In 1693 an Anglo-Dutch fleet, allied against Louis XIV of France, was ordered to escort through the Channel a convoy of merchant ships from both countries bound for Smyrna. The allies had recently won a substantial fleet action over the French at Barfleur-sur-Hogue in 1692, and this may have inspired the governments to order the departure of this convoy at short order. The great battle fleet, however, was short of provisions and accompanied its charges only beyond Brest. The French ambushed the convoy off Cape St Vincent, capturing or sinking ninety-two ships in a disaster which cost more than the total losses of the Great Fire of London in 1666. By the late 1690s the French realised that they could not match the building programmes of their Anglo-Dutch enemies and so could not challenge them in fleet actions. Instead they resorted to the guerre de course, war against commerce, which, as the Smyrna incident shows, could be highly effective. Privateer captains fitted out their ships at their own expense, though with government aid. Prizes, captured ships and cargoes, were divided between the state and the privateer captains. This stimulated the British to build cruisers, later called frigates, fast light ships which could take on privateers.

Seen from the twenty-first century, warfare in the
eighteenth century often appears stately, almost ritualistic. Armies in their
colourful uniforms were relatively small and moved slowly, often bogged down in
sieges of places now regarded as unimportant. Wars were waged for the ‘balance
of power in Europe’; this has often seemed a very abstract notion, and one
appropriately served by limited war. But Louis XIV’s ambitions to seize the Low
Countries and expand the frontiers of France were very threatening to the real
interests of many states which banded together in coalitions against her. The
result was a whole series of wars. The War of Devolution (1667–8), the Dutch
War (1672–8), the War of the Reunions (1683–4) and the Nine Years War (1688–97)
were succeeded by the War of the Spanish Succession. At times the fighting was
very intense: at Landen in 1693 there were 23,000 casualties which compares
with Malplaquet whose butcher’s bill of 33,000 shocked Europe in 1709.

The stakes were high. In the case of the Dutch War, Louis
clearly intended to extinguish Holland, which had frustrated his ambitions in
the War of Devolution. There was fighting in the West Indies and such was the
internal pressure in France that revolts broke out in Brittany and amongst the
Protestant Huguenots, which the Dutch sought to encourage. Louis’s seizure of
Philippsburg in 1688 prompted a Dutch coup in alliance with English opposition
forces which overthrew Louis’s friend and ally, the Catholic James II of
England (1685–8), and replaced him with the Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange
(1672–1702). In the resultant war there was fighting in the Netherlands,
Germany, Ireland, Spain, Italy, the Mediterranean, Canada and South America.
And civilian populations suffered badly. Year by year the French established
armies in western Germany, and while ‘contributions’ were less brutal than
ravaging, this may not have been evident to the suffering peasantry. In 1672–3
the French adopted a scorched earth policy to force the Dutch to surrender, and
in 1674 and 1688–89 they devastated the Rhine Palatinate to deny its resources
to the enemy. The warfare of the early eighteenth century was slow-moving, but
it was as destructive as warfare always is. Louis annexed substantial territory
in what had been the Spanish Netherlands and ‘rounded out’ the frontier elsewhere,
building modern fortresses to protect his gains. His success rested on
sustained warfare, a grinding attrition over long periods of time, made
possible by the growing wealth of the French monarchy.

Louis’s wars culminated in the War of the Spanish Succession
which was brought on by the death without heir of Charles II (1665–1701) of
Spain. His empire extended to most of Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, the
Americas and the Philippines. As a Hapsburg he was a member of the family which
ruled Austria, but he was also closely related to the French Bourbons. He
wanted his lands to pass intact to a single heir, and chose Louis XIV’s
grandson, Philip of Anjou. Although the will stipulated against it, this
bequest raised the prospect of an eventual union of the crowns of Spain and
France, and the creation of a gigantic superpower which would dominate the
whole continent. Louis did nothing to dispel this fear, precipitating a great
general war. Philip was accepted in Spain and Louis enjoyed the support of
Bavaria and some other minor German powers like Cologne which resented Hapsburg
domination. The duke of Savoy protected his Italian frontier against the
Austrians. Louis even encouraged Ferenc Rákóczi to lead a Hungarian uprising
against the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I (1658–1705) was at the
heart of the alliance against France and he drew in his wake most of the German
principalities. In 1701 he persuaded the Elector of Prussia to join by granting
him the title ‘King in Prussia’, while England and Holland were major allies.

This war exemplified early eighteenth-century warfare in
that it was dominated by fortifications. Large numbers of the soldiers on both
sides were absorbed in defending these strong-points. At heart they were
massively developed and strengthened versions of the trace italienne, mounting
huge numbers of heavy guns. Louis XIV’s great engineer, the marquis de Vauban,
is chiefly remembered for his skill in designing some of the most modern of
these along the French frontier. But his great contribution to war was the
systematisation of siege. At Maastricht in 1673 he surrounded the city with
zigzag lines from which trenches moved in to create yet more lines from which
the walls could be bombarded or assaulted. As long as the besieger prepared
well and fed his army, and could prevent relief, sieges now proceeded with
mathematical precision. If the garrison was determined the process was bloody.
Lille held out against Marlborough for four months before surrendering on
terms, having inflicted 14,000 casualties on his army. Assault was terrifying,
as a young officer remembered how he had stormed one of the breaches made by
the artillery:

I went up the ladder and when about halfway up I called
out ‘Here is the 94th!’ I was glad to see the men begin to mount … I believe
there were not many of our regiment up before me – at least I was up before the
commander of my company. I lost him at the heap of slain caused by the

The line of confrontation between France and the coalition
lay through the Netherlands and down the Rhine, the most heavily fortified zone
in Europe. On the upper Rhine the imperial forces created the lines of
Stollhofen, penning in the French around Strasbourg, lest they use this as a
jumping-off point to attack south Germany and Austria. There were sieges and
battles, but they all failed to achieve decisive results. Then there was a
sudden flurry of spectacular movement. In 1703 the French general Villars
attacked Landau in the Stollhofen lines very late in the season, catching the
allies off guard, and subsequently defeated their poorly commanded relief
effort at Speyerbach. In conjunction with Max Emanuel of Bavaria, Villars
seized Ulm and Augsburg and threatened Vienna whose forces were distracted by
the Rákóczi revolt in Hungary and reduced by the needs of the fighting in
Italy. Villars imposed heavy ‘contributions’ on the German countryside to
supply his army, defraying 42 per cent of his costs, including 128,000 livres
in ransoms. Max Emanuel demanded a substantial slice of the ‘contributions’ and
their disagreements stymied further progress. Ultimately the French general was
replaced by Marsin.

Austria was clearly at risk and the English commander,
Marlborough, took 20,000 men and feinted towards the Moselle. On 19 May he
abruptly marched south, collecting allied forces en route and arriving at
Launsheim close to Ulm on 22 June. The crude rate of march of 7.5 miles per day
was not especially impressive and the average distance of 13 miles covered on
days of actual march corresponded to what ancient and medieval armies had
normally managed. What was impressive was that the force arrived in good shape
to fight, because Marlborough contracted with his agents, the brothers Medina,
to purchase food and threatened the ‘friendly’ rulers of the territories
through which he was passing with dire consequences if they did not help him.
By the standards of the age this was a lightning march made possible by careful
preparation, but the demands of speed meant that Marlborough had relatively few
guns. He therefore had to storm Donauwörth to obtain a bridge across the
Danube, suffering 5,000 casualties in the process and lacked artillery to
attack a fortress like Ulm. In fact he proceeded to ravage Bavaria in a brutal
effort to drive Max Emanuel out of the war. In response, Louis XIV dispatched
Marshal Tallard with a formidable French army, but although they made good
speed they were exhausted by the effort and harassed badly by German peasants
enraged by their ravaging.

On 12 August the allied and French armies faced one another
across the little river Nebel on the north bank of the Danube. Each army had
roughly 56,000 men, though the French possessed ninety guns to the allies’
sixty. The French thought a clash unlikely, with good reason. Battle was
chancy, the allied army was far from its bases and the key fortresses in the
area were all held by the Franco-Bavarians. Defeat, therefore, would have been
disastrous. This misreading of allied intentions probably explains why the
French and their allies deployed so badly, with Tallard’s purely French forces
around Blenheim near to the Danube on his right, and Marsin and the Elector far
to the left. Oberglau marked the junction of what were effectively two armies
barely linked together. Marlborough made a great thrust at the centre of the
enemy line. Some 14,000 Franco-Bavarian troops surrendered and perhaps as many
as 20,000 were killed or wounded. The allies suffered 13,000 losses. Such
losses are a testimony to the effectiveness of close-range musketry and massed

Blenheim was a decisive victory which ended the threat to
Vienna and brought all Germany over to the allies, but essentially it only
nullified a temporary French advantage, and the whole Franco-Spanish defensive
system along the Rhine and into Flanders remained. Marlborough was soon
re-immersed in attacking fortifications in Flanders where the French easily
held their own. In 1706, however, when Louis changed his strategy and ordered
his armies onto the offensive, Marlborough won a great victory at Ramillies and
scooped up a number of towns and cities, but was bogged down till September by
the formidable fortress of Dendermonde. In Italy, after initial French gains,
Prince Eugene relieved the siege of Turin and crushed the French army, forcing
evacuation of the Po plain, while the Catalan rebels against Philip of Spain
held out and an allied army threatened from Portugal. But nothing had broken
the French will to fight on and the coming years failed to produce any decisive
result, although Marlborough won a stunning victory at Oudenarde on 11 July
1708 which led to the capitulation of Lille after a long siege in December. In
1709 Marlborough scored another great victory, at Malplaquet, but at a cost of
enormous losses in the face of an able defence by Villars whose army suffered
much fewer losses and retired in good order. With military momentum lost,
political initiatives then took centre stage and by 1713 peace left Spain in
Bourbon hands and France virtually undiminished.

Louis XIV, despite losing many major battles, won the War of
the Spanish Succession, essentially because he was defending the status quo
established at its start. The warfare of this period resembled that of the
Hundred Years War in that it was a long-drawn-out contest of wills, spurred on
by occasional victories. In the absence of any means to destroy an enemy,
victory was a mirage. On land it could only be purchased by casualties which
exhausted the victor, and the defeated could repair to his fortifications. At
sea it was difficult to achieve a decisive result because fleets depended on
the wind and could as easily fly from battle as close for it. As a result war
slid into compromise, but it was the compromise of exhaustion, not of intent.

Our eye is taken by spectacular events like Blenheim and the
savage warfare in Flanders, but the sheer scale and intensity of the fighting
were staggering. In France there were persistent Protestant revolts, and the
famine of 1709–10 there caused terrible unrest and brought offensive actions to
a halt. In England, Louis tried to foment civil war in order to restore the
Stuart monarchy. Hungary rose against its Hapsburg rulers with French
encouragement, while Catalonia made a bid for independence from the Spanish
crown. Italy was ravaged by the clash of French and Austrians, and Portugal
wavered between France and the allies. Navies fought at sea and there was war
in the colonies. And appalling damage was inflicted. An estimated 235,000–400,000
seem to have died in fighting during the War of the Spanish Succession; that
does not take into account deaths by sickness, or civilian casualties direct
and indirect. On Louis’s death in 1715 it was revealed that the French state
owed 2.5 million livres. In no real sense was this limited war, except,
perhaps, for the British who, safe behind their navy, picked up colonies and
guarantees which profited them for the future.

European warfare in the eighteenth century was certainly not
just a formal parade-ground affair, and it was not static because war was
frequent and soldiers and political leaders reflected carefully on their ideas
and experiences. The Emperor of Austria, Charles VI (1711–40), had only a
daughter, Maria Theresa (1740–80), and the law provided that a woman could not
succeed to the throne. Charles persuaded the European powers to agree to her
succession by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, but when he actually died on 20
October 1740 most of the signatories reneged. Frederick the Great of Prussia
had inherited a standing army of 83,000 which could be mobilised quickly. On 16
December 1740 he invaded the rich province of Silesia which he had long
coveted; by the New Year he held most of it. This precipitated the War of
Austrian Succession (1740–48), in which Prussia, France and Spain allied
against Austria, Holland and Britain. This gave rise to the Anglo-French
conflicts of ‘King George’s War’ in North America and the First Carnatic War in
India. The settlement of 1748 confirmed Frederick’s possession of Silesia and
all Europe recognised the rise of a new military power based on the best
infantry in the continent.

Frederick the Great is the dominating figure in the military
history of the mid-eighteenth century. Yet in his first experience of battle,
at Mollwitz on 10 April 1741, he fled the field when things appeared to be
going badly. All was saved by his senior officers, and above all by the
discipline of the Prussian infantry. In the words of an Austrian officer
captured in the battle: ‘It did not appear to be infantry that was marching
towards them, but moving walls.‘ The price was high – the Prussians lost 4,850
men – some 300 more than the Austrians. Frederick was truly a child of the
Enlightenment, the great intellectual current then sweeping Europe which
recognised ‘reason’ as the great source of power and authority. Accordingly, in
his General Principles of War published in 1753, he tried to systematise what
he had learned. He understood the limitations of contemporary infantry volley
fire. The king’s preference was for skilful manoeuvre and fast and relentless
movement which he thought would overwhelm his enemies. He insisted on infantry
advancing in very close order with muskets on the shoulder until the very last
moment. At his insistence Prussian troops adopted cadenced marching to keep
them in step and he developed very complex drills to bring his forces quickly
from line of march into line of battle. In battle the enemy would be softened
up by artillery preparation and infantry were equipped with light 3-pounder infantry
cannon to pave the way for the assault, but it was shock and cold steel which
would destroy the enemy, and troops were urged not to hesitate but to press on
until victory was complete. His cavalry were also drilled to close order and
expected to charge home. He had plenty of opportunity to test these ideas in
the wars that lay ahead.

Austria feared Prussia as a dangerous adversary in Germany
and formed an alliance with France and Russia whose rulers had ambitions to
acquire Poland which Frederick was certain to contest. English rivalry with
France in North America was becoming acute. The French claimed the Mississippi,
precipitating fighting in Ohio in 1754, and this was followed by their
construction of forts in western Pennsylvania. For this reason the English
backed Prussia in the Seven Years War of 1756–63. The Austrian commanders had
recognised Frederick’s fondness for rapid movement and direct assault with cold
steel. At Lobositz on 1 October 1756 Frederick attacked an Austrian army in
broken country where their Croatian irregulars inflicted heavy casualties
before his infantry drove the Austrians into an orderly retreat. In the
following year at Prague on 6 May Frederick threw his Prussians against a
strongly entrenched Austrian army and suffered 14,000 Prussian dead. At Kolin
on 18 June he again attacked the Austrians in a prepared position. His infantry
were harassed by the Croatians, disrupting their assault on the Austrians who
won an important victory, forcing Frederick to retreat from Prague. In each
case the Austrians deployed their firepower against Frederick’s well-known
predilection for frontal assault. But at Leuthen on 5 December 1757 Frederick
engaged on much more open ground, manoeuvring quickly to strike the enemy where
least expected, but his infantry now relied far more on firepower to win a
famous victory and he concentrated his artillery, hitherto somewhat ignored,
against the Austrian infantry.

Frederick conceived of horse-artillery – light cannon and
their caissons of shot harnessed to strong horse-teams, with the gunners riding
alongside – as a means of weakening enemy infantry who were an obstacle to the
fast and aggressive movement which he wanted from his cavalry. At the siege of
Schweidnitz in June 1762 he deployed his cannon carefully, with the very latest
howitzers firing explosive shells. His infantry then worked their way into the
Austrian positions using the ground skilfully. He was always impatient of
engineers, partly because in the open spaces of Central Europe fortresses were
much less common than in the west. But at Bunzelwitz in 1761, faced with an
overwhelming challenge from Austrian and Russian armies, Frederick was happy to
resort to a well-fortified camp. Both Frederick and his enemies learned from
experience. As more powers engaged, war grew in scale and became more intense.
At Zorndorf in August 1758 Frederick checked the Russian invasion of his lands,
but at a cost of 12,000 casualties – the enemy endured 18,000. Armies were
increasing in size and Frederick always suffered from a manpower shortage. By
1777 his army was not far short of 200,000, over double the number he had
inherited in 1740.

The intense warfare of the eighteenth century produced a new
emphasis on the training of officers. Prussia established the Berlin Cadet
Corps in 1717 for officer training. The French School of Engineers was founded
at Mezières in 1749, and the following year a similar institution for the
artillery appeared. The École Royale Militaire, where Napoleon would be
educated, was founded in Paris in 1750. In Austria the Wiener Neustadt Military
Academy served the same function while the Russian Cadet Corps had been founded
in 1731, and subsequently a number of specialist academies were created. In
England the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich opened in 1741. This all owed
something to the Enlightenment which was to influence Frederick the Great’s
General Principles of War, but the practical needs of war really drove the
trend: calculating artillery fire and siege-works, the difficulties of
controlling large armies, now regularly of the order of 60,000. War was
becoming increasingly complex and educating officers was therefore vital.

The rise of a more educated officer corps raised the
intellectual level of debate on war. France had done badly during the Seven
Years War, losing her overseas empire to Britain, and seeing her army defeated
by the Prussians at Rossbach on 5 November 1757. As a result, a series of
reforms was introduced and vigorous discussion was encouraged. Entry to the officer
corps was restricted to nobles; they were very numerous in France and many of
them were poor, so this measure helped to bind them to the crown. The abolition
of purchase of commissions offered them better prospects of promotion. The
staff, responsible for the organisation of war, was strengthened. French
commanders debated the value of attack in column, which was quicker than
deploying into line and easier to control. Their distinguished soldier and
military theorist, Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, comte de Guibert (1743–90),
advocated rapid movement and suggested avoiding siege by masking fortresses. He
thought that supply trains could be lightened and more emphasis placed on
living off the country in the interests of speed.

On the battlefield Guibert favoured experimentation with
light troops, even equipping some with rifles which had greater range and
accuracy than muskets so that they could harass the enemy line and pick off
officers. His greatest innovation, implemented after 1766, was to develop a system
whereby troops could deploy quickly for battle as they marched towards the
enemy. In addition he recommended that on the offensive a line of skirmishers
should be thrown forward to prepare the way for an ordre mixte with formations
attacking in column (usually battalions split into company columns) or in line,
as circumstances suggested. Such thinking about tactics and organisation was by
no means confined to the French. The British lined their men up in a double
rank and fired by platoon, thus a battalion delivered rolling fire across its
front from the moment the enemy came into range. During the later stages of the
Seven Years War, as armies became bigger and more difficult to control, the
Austrians seem to have experimented with very large sub-units of all arms led
by senior officers which could march and fight independently, but when
necessary combine on the battlefield.

Traditionally, because artillery was expensive, guns were
made 12 feet long so that if used in fortresses the muzzle would project and
the blast would not damage the masonry. This, of course, made them very heavy
and clumsy in the field. Frederick the Great’s horse-artillery were shorter and
had lighter bronze guns whose gunners rode into action to break up enemy
formations. In 1776 Gribeauval became French inspector of artillery; he
demanded that a regular corps of gunners be instituted, and he standardised
calibres. Under his aegis, an infrastructure of state-owned arsenals was
developed with their own boring machines. Hitherto cannon had been cast around
a clay core which was cut out when the metal had cooled. This produced erratic
bores, so that cannonballs could not be made to fit tightly. Boring made
calibres much more consistent so that ammunition could be standardised. Under
the Gribeauval system there was a sharp distinction between the lighter bronze
guns for field use and heavier weapons for fortress and siege.

Although European thinking was dominated by the full frontal
collision of regular infantry masses hardened to the ordeal of battle and siege
by discipline, Europeans knew very well what they called ‘little war’ (petite
guerre), a name which embraced anything outside the mainstream. The
Austro–Ottoman frontier saw constant raiding, and the ‘Croats’ and Hussars who
waged it were starting to contribute to the more fluid tactics evident in
Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. In all major campaigns
light forces of cavalry and infantry skirmished; this was the inevitable
accompaniment of ravaging and levying ‘contributions.’ In addition, regular
armies maintained light forces whose task was to harass the enemy. In 1745 at
Fontenoy Marshal de Saxe employed sharpshooters who did great harm to the
attacking British and allied forces. During the colonial wars in the dense
forests and wastes of North America, both the British and the French employed
native tribes to harass their enemies. Famously, a Franco-Indian force ambushed
and killed the British General Braddock at the battle of the Monongahela in
1755. In the forest-steppe the Russians advanced by raiding, desisting only
when the small native tribes agreed to pay tribute and obey them. Gradually a
thin network of forts established Russian dominion over a vast area, but the
conquest was very much driven by local initiatives, though supplied with modern
weapons and backed, on an occasional basis, by Russian troops. Massacre and the
threat of massacre were the methods of both sides, but it was the growth of the
Russian population which drove the expansion, until they met Chinese
imperialism advancing from the other end of Asia.

In the eighteenth century popular insurgency, people’s war,
was uncommon in Europe. However, there is a myth that the American
Revolutionary War was won by patriots rallying to their militias in a people’s
war. This was certainly a broadly based rebellion against British rule. In 1776
the thirteen British colonies in North America revolted against the crown.
Notable amongst their many grievances was discontent at taxation levied by
London to cover some of the costs of protecting the colonies and the anger of
the colonial elite at London’s decision to halt westward colonisation beyond
the Appalachian Mountains. Open rebellion began in 1776, but became serious
when the Americans isolated Burgoyne’s small army at Saratoga in 1777,
provoking France, Spain and Holland to intervene. Thus a colonial dispute
became a worldwide war. But far from finding colonials anxious to rally to
their cause, the Revolutionary leaders had great difficulty in recruiting troops
at all. Washington had few illusions about the colonial militias. Indeed, he
would probably have agreed with Clausewitz: ‘Insurgent actions are similar in
character to all others fought by second-rate troops: they start out full of
vigor and enthusiasm but there is little level-headedness and tenacity in the
long-run.‘ His Continental Army of regulars was never really able to fight the
British on equal terms, but as long as it existed it gave hope to convinced
supporters, rallied the doubtful and served to threaten the hostile. But in the
Carolinas campaign of 1780–81 irregular warfare was decisive.

The British, with their increasing distractions elsewhere in
the world, could only deploy quite a small army, which made the reconquest of
the huge area of the colonies very difficult. One way in which they multiplied
the effectiveness of their troops was to use their command of the sea. In 1780
they seized the ports of Savannah and Charleston, and their commander,
Cornwallis, shipped in troops and supplies with which to rally the loyalists of
the Carolinas and thence to penetrate Virginia. At Camden, on 16 August 1780,
he defeated General Gates whose regulars fought well but were deserted by the
local militia. However, the British threw away the fruits of victory by
scattering their forces to rally the loyalists, and the new American commander,
Nathanael Greene, with inferior forces, was happy to engage in guerrilla
warfare which became more and more savage, polarising support. When Cornwallis
tried to advance northwards, Greene’s irregulars harassed the British in
support of his few regulars. They fought delaying actions which ultimately made
the British advance impossible to sustain.

There were clear signs that the new developments in Europe
were changing the balance of power hitherto so favourable to the steppe
empires. Nomad warfare, based on speed and light weaponry, did not foster the
development of gunpowder weapons. However, the peoples who created the steppe
empires had always shown remarkable adaptability. Ottoman armies in the
sixteenth century established a real lead in weapons and organisation over
their western neighbours, while the Manchu eagerly took up gunpowder in their
conquest of China. India produced magnificent firearms. There was no inherent
reason why these great empires should not respond to the European challenge.
That they failed was due to the chance factor that from the second half of the
eighteenth century, for very different reasons, all of them were going into
political decline.

1711 – Peter on the Pruth

The Ottoman standing army was formidable: by 1670 there were
about 50,000 janissaries, 14,000 regular cavalry and 8,000 men in the artillery
corps. The system of supply was far in advance of any army in Europe. But the
Ottomans were challenged by Austria in the Danube valley and the Balkans, by
Persia in the east and by Russia on the southern steppe. Their decisive
weakness was the decline of the janissaries. By the end of the sixteenth
century they had become a praetorian guard, and they overthrew the sultan Osman
II (1617–22) when he proposed to replace them. By the eighteenth century they
were becoming demilitarised. To save on cost the Ottomans permitted janissaries
to undertake civilian work, which gradually dominated their lives. An
increasingly small percentage of them were ever mobilised for war, but they
were all tax-exempt in respect of their ‘military’ status. As a result the
janissaries became political soldiers whose only military value was ceremonial,
but their integration into the political factions at the court made it
impossible to destroy them or to reduce their privileges even though their
nominal numbers were increasing. Some janissaries were permitted to acquire
military lands (timars) in the provinces to where they and other gentry increasingly
diverted funds from the central government. The decay of the janissaries forced
the sultans to raise new infantry and cavalry regiments, but because of the
reduction in central income and the burden of paying the janissaries, the new
troops did not form a standing force, so that increasingly the empire was
dependent on raw and half-trained soldiery. The artillery corps also suffered
from under-investment so that it was unable to modernise. These disturbing
trends took some time to become apparent and so great was the Ottoman lead in
military organisation that in 1711 they routed Peter the Great’s army at the
Pruth, and as late as 1739 recovered Belgrade from the Austrians and threw back
a Russian advance towards the Black Sea, forcing them to abandon their new
Black Sea fleet and its bases.

But the decay of the janissaries and the under-investment in
artillery weakened the Ottoman army, while the Russians and the Austrians were
learning from the European wars. In 1770 a Russian army of about 40,000 destroyed
over 100,000 Ottomans at the battle of Kartal and the ensuing treaty of Küçük
Kaynarca ratified the Russian advance to the Black Sea and the permanent
subjugation of the Tatars. By 1791 Austria controlled Belgrade and the Russians
were in Bucharest. As a result, in 1792 the Sultan devised his ‘New Order’
(Nizam-i), bringing in French soldiers to train new regiments on the European
model. The janissary opposition was supported by popular dislike of new taxes
to pay for the military reforms and by provincial resentments which sparked
local revolts. By 1797, however, the French held the Ionian islands and in 1798
Napoleon invaded Egypt, curtailing efforts at military reform. England and
France then proceeded to dispute control of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean
with little reference to its nominal ruler at Constantinople. Such was the
price of ‘asymmetry’, failure to keep up with the European arms race.

In India the Mughals, another steppe power, declined sharply
after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. He had rejected the policy of tolerance
towards the Hindu majority, and the strength of Islamic fundamentalism
embittered tensions at the courts of his successors who were in any case much
less capable men, creating widespread discontent. In 1739 Nadir Shah of Persia
sacked Delhi with an immense slaughter and in 1756 Ahmad Shah Abdali of
Afghanistan repeated the performance. Within India there were plenty of
possible successor states, notably the Maratha Confederacy, the Sikh
Confederacy and Bengal which had long enjoyed good government under a line of
independent nawabs (governors); in the south, Mysore had great potential.
Amongst the European trading companies the British were the most powerful with
outposts at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. They were, however, rivalled by the
French with stations at Chandannagar and Pondicherry, while the Portuguese and
Dutch also had enclaves. All these companies had private armies backed up by
fleets, but a strong power could have played them off against one another. What
was lacking was just such a powerful local authority, and after the Seven Years
War the British were much stronger than the French. Marathas, and Sikhs, could
be militarily dangerous, but they were never really united and were quite
distinct from Muslim Mysore. The British, by contrast, displayed a solidarity
which impressed locals.

And they had a powerful motive for intervention. The East
India Company had very high costs which often exceeded income. As Mughal power
declined, the acquisition of jagirs, assignments of district revenues, was
becoming a major and highly profitable business. So grabbing the right to
collect taxes was an obvious path to riches. In 1756 the Nawab of Bengal
quarrelled with the British and seized Calcutta: many of his British prisoners,
including women and children, were imprisoned in a badly overcrowded dungeon
and perished in what became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The British
under Clive quickly reconquered Calcutta, and then at Plassey on 23 June 1757
their army of 3,000 faced the Nawab with 50,000. Clive bribed many of the
Nawab’s supporters so that the army melted away, enabling the Company to
appoint a puppet ruler. Of Clive’s troops, over 2,000 were local soldiers or
sepoys and only about 1,000, including the gunners, were Europeans. At Buxar in
1764 a Company army of 7,000 with less than 1,000 British, triumphed over
30,000 enemies because, according to their commander, Hector Munro, they had
‘regular discipline and strict obedience to orders’. By 1773 the British had
taken over as rulers of Bengal and a number of other small states. This was not
a merely military triumph; many of the local notables favoured the stability of
British rule, but the recruitment of the local soldiery, and their training in
modern methods of war, was the prerequisite for success.

The Indian powers were keenly aware of the need to develop
comparable discipline and methods, and as a result the British suffered many
setbacks in their path to empire. It took four wars lasting until 1804 to subdue
Mysore, while the three Maratha wars ended only in 1818. The Sikhs under Ranjit
Singh created a powerful empire of the Punjab centred on Lahore. Their army was
trained and officered by experienced French soldiers and equipped with modern
artillery which hitherto had largely been a British monopoly. Succession
disputes on Ranjit’s death in 1839 opened the way for British intervention, but
it was only after two costly wars that the Sikhs were finally annexed in 1849.
The British domination of India owed much to skilful diplomacy, which resulted
in a network of princely states whose rulers agreed to collaborate. The
merchants of the Indian cities came to see the Company as a force for
stability. The multiplicity of states in eighteenth-century India had created a
great market for soldiers, and the Company could offer well-paid and successful
service, in effect cornering the market, to create a powerful sepoy army.
British dominance rested on victory brought about by successful military
methods. The surging armies of light cavalry which had so often been the key to
victory in the northern plains were replaced by disciplined lines of infantry
supported by artillery and smaller cavalry units. The European way of war had
clearly displaced that of the steppe people. The native powers, despite their
different culture, espoused these new methods enthusiastically, but Indian
political units proved to be fissiparous and no single one of them was quite
strong enough quite consistently enough to survive. This was not a case of
‘asymmetry’ in the military sense, but of political weakness.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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