The Infrastructure of War

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The Infrastructure of War

The impact of gunpowder on warfare made itself felt in the field of tactics above all. Its effect on organization, logistics, intelligence, command and control, and on strategy itself, was much less, and for the most part indirect. To understand the technological reality underlying the evolution of warfare in these fields, it is necessary to turn mainly to nonmilitary technology.

The invention of gunpowder is commonly regarded as a revolutionary event in world history, and indeed this has been the prevailing interpretation since Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century described it as such. Since warfare for millenia had in fact been all but identical with combat, it is easy to understand how such a point of view came about; we suggest, however, that it has now become out-of-date and therefore something of an obstacle to true comprehension. Once the old-fashioned identification of warfare with combat is abolished, a very different perspective emerges. Battle is seen as one of the principal means employed by war, but not its end-all.

We have seen how organization constituted perhaps the weakest single link in medieval warfare, and how this weakness rested at least in part on technological factors such as the absence of cheap writing material and the subsequent decline of literacy. The fact that armies were organized on the basis of personal ties rather than on bureaucratic principles undoubtedly does much to explain the chaotic nature of warfare—and of much else besides—during the early Middle Ages before the year 1000. From that point onward, however, there was evident an unmistakable reversal of the trend. As town life, commerce, and a cash economy slowly expanded, military-feudal service was replaced more and more by money-payment, known as scutagium or shield money, which could be used to obtain mercenaries. This in turn implied a growing use of written records, receipts, rosters, etc. The proliferation of written documentation was greatly helped by the arrival of paper from the east, an event which seems to have occurred at almost the same time as the introduction of gunpowder, which may indeed have been related to it. Paper in turn opened the way towards the experiments with movable type and printing which were finally crowned with success in 1453. Between 1500 and 1850, though the techniques of printing did not develop very much, its productivity rose three or fourfold. The spread of printing was critical to the rise of military bureaucracies and of modern armed forces. Equally important was the invention in Italy of double-entry bookkeeping and the replacement of Roman by Arabic numerals. Arabic numerals in turn led to the discovery of logarithms by William Napier, and of the decimal system for recording fractions by Simon Stevin. Significantly, Stevin was one of the outstanding military engineers of his age. He wrote a handbook on artillery and served as tutor to the Prince of Orange.

Though we cannot attribute the explosive growth that occurred in the size of armies to these inventions and discoveries alone, this growth would certainly not have been possible without them; as is so often the case, technological developments formed a necessary cause but not a sufficient one. During the second half of the sixteenth century, the Spanish, French, and Austrian monarchies were each able to mobilize upwards of 100,000 men at home and abroad. At the height of the Thirty Years War, Gustavus Adolphus in Germany is said to have had a total of 200,000 men under his command. At one time during the War of the Spanish Succession, France had approximately 400,000 men under arms, while the armies of Habsburg Austria were not much smaller. Though methods of enlistment and conditions of service varied considerably from one country to the next, virtually all of these men were paid soldiers. Though most of these troops might be sent home when the war came to its end, all armies now contained a hard and constantly growing core of long-serving regulars. The most powerful eighteenth-century states were easily capable of maintaining 100,000 or so men under arms at all times. These men had to be administered, paid, fed, clothed, armed, housed, and cared for by the establishment of pensions, hospitals, orphanages, and the like. These problems were compounded by the fact that during most of each year the forces were not concentrated at a single place but scattered in garrison towns, thus presenting the central military administration with the problem of maintaining uniformity. This was a task at which they were on the whole successful, and one which surely could not even have been attempted had the technical equipment at hand been limited to that available during the Middle Ages.

As an improved technological infrastructure permitted the size of armed forces to grow, the number of troops that could be concentrated at any single point and made to do battle also tended to increase. Towards the middle of the seventeenth century a battle with 30,000 to 40,000 men taking part on each side would be considered very large, but within a hundred years such battles had become commonplace. Some engagements were much larger, as when 90,000 Frenchmen fought 110,000 Allies (British, Dutch, and Germans) at Malplaquet in 1709, or when a total of 130,000 troops clashed at Fontenoy in 1743. Towards the very end of this period, the levée en masse, or national mobilization, was adopted in France and was soon imitated by other countries. Though its introduction was not primarily a question of technology, it did require a suitable technological base to make it possible. The levée en masse enabled Napoleon to keep under arms upwards of a million men at one time, with his opponents following closely. As a result, battles in which both sides together numbered 150,000 became commonplace; the largest ones could involve 250,000 (Wagram, 1809; Borodino, 1812) or even 460,000 (Leipzig, 1813). By that time the sheer force of numbers had begun to transform the entire basis of strategy.

As printing and improved administrative techniques developed to the point that they permitted such forces to be mobilized and maintained, strategic control and staff work were also gradually transformed. Though they liked to pose in military garb and often assumed nominal command during important events, most rulers during this period no longer took the field, let alone fought with weapon in hand. Instead, they spent the war years safely ensconced in their palaces, many of which bore appropriate names such as Karlsruhe (Charles’ Rest) or Sans Souci (Free of Care). From there, they sought to control operations through the machinery provided by the newly established ministries of war, relying on the gradually evolving royal mail systems for communication. War being a sporadic activity, these systems were originally established on a temporary basis. It was only in the eighteenth century that they began to compete with the older and better established commercial networks. Even as late as 1815, news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo first reached London via a private homing-pigeon service operated by the House of Rothschild.

Though communication networks were far more comprehensive and systematic than anything known to the Middle Ages, the technological means at hand did not allow the speed with which messages were transmitted to be increased by much. Though there may have been some improvement in roads—which, during the eighteenth century, for the first time began to approach the quality of the old Roman roads—carriages were still carriages, and horses, horses. Consequently, commanders who were waging war at a distance of perhaps several hundred kilometers from their capital were bound hand and foot by detailed letters of instruction. Most politico-military information probably traveled at from 60 to 90 kilometers a day, so that the French commander in Germany during the Seven Years War would have to wait two weeks to get an answer to any letter he sent to Versailles. Thus the peculiarly hesitant, slow, and convoluted nature of military operations between the age of Condé in the middle of the seventeenth century, and that of the Duke of Brunswick a hundred years later, is in part explained. As Schlieffen put it very well, these commanders were not really authorized to make war at all. Rather, it was their task to occupy a province, or besiege a town, after which they were to pause and wait for further instructions. Thus, the universal employment of written messages to control strategy worked as a brake on operations, by no means the last time a technology or technique acted in this way.

During this period, administration and staff work were clearly separated from each other for the first time. Not only did eighteenth-century armies very often carry around their own portable printing presses which were used for disseminating information, but some staff work came to be done with the aid of standardized printed forms. Perhaps the earliest of these were the various documents needed to keep track of the enlistment, pay, transfers, promotion, and discharge of personnel, as well as the entire apparatus of military law and military justice. Approximating staff work proper more closely, there were the ordres de battaille, états de situation, enemy reports, and so forth, all of which tended to assume a more regular and formal character. Without printing, eighteenth-century armies would not have been able to exist. Also essential were the desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and similar equipment, that they carried along on a campaign.

Though printing and writing helped shape staff work, on the battlefield itself their role continued to be very limited—a fact that in the eyes of some people comprised one of the attractions of a military career. Sometimes a written or printed general order was issued before the beginning of an engagement. Once the fighting was under way, however, command and control were exercised mainly by oral means, combined with all the traditional acoustical and visual methods of communication. Whether it was a general or the ruler himself who was in charge, commanders gradually ceased to fight in person, though this does not mean that they were always out of harm’s way. The normal position of the commander increasingly tended to become a hill situated some way to the rear and overlooking the field, and this position might be changed once or twice during the engagement.

Though the invention of the telescope helped commanders to retain some form of control over fronts that were now often 5 or 6 km long, the early modern period saw no further technological advances in the fields of tactical intelligence, command, control, and communication. Some organizational improvements did take place towards the end of the seventeenth century, when specialized and fully militarized groups of guides and ADCs and adjutant generals were created and employed on a variety of tasks. Where these groups were institutionalized and properly organized and trained, they could carry vast military benefits. However, perfection in this regard only came during the nineteenth century, and even Napoleon was not yet above entrusting the most important messages to miscellaneous locally-recruited personnel.

Just as the technology of communication was all but stagnant, progress in the field of transport was also slow, a factor which continued to impose serious limitations on the movements of armies. The most advanced energy sources of the time were represented by the windmill and the waterwheel. During the high Middle Ages both had come into widespread use, but both were altogether unsuitable for employment in the field. Although there were some marginal improvements in the form of better carriages, armies going on campaign were still dependent on the shoulders of men and the straining muscles of animals except where water transport was available. Though the proportion of cavalry was everywhere on the decline, horses were needed to drag the artillery and its ammunition, as well as the truly astounding amounts of baggage which eighteenth-century armies considered necessary for survival. As a result, horses were not only altogether indispensable but extremely numerous. The poor roads and the dependence on horses continued to put severe constraints on the seasons in which armies could operate and the places where they could go. Only a few states, such as France or Prussia, were sufficiently well-organized to set up fodder-magazines, which enabled them to spring a surprise—the term, of course, is significant—on an opponent by opening a campaign earlier than had been expected.

What applied to horses also applied to the men. Only a small fraction of the needs of an army could be supplied from base. In the absence of refrigeration, most foodstuffs had to be gathered on the spot in repetitive, frequently well-organized operations every four days or so. Consequently the need for food constituted a very serious obstacle to operational and strategic mobility. The problem of local supply was rendered even more difficult since the armies of the period were made up, to quote the Duke of Wellington, of “the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.” So bad was the problem of desertion that the troops could not be permitted to forage on their own, but had to do so en bloc and under guard. The French revolutionary armies were, at least during the early years, less afflicted by this problem, and Napoleon seems to have been the first commander to set up a properly organized military requisitioning service. As a result, his troops were able to march somewhat faster and farther than most others, a most important advantage that goes some way to explain their success.

European commanders during the Middle Ages had been accustomed to plan their operations without maps of any sort, large-scale strategic maps being seldom required for the type of campaign in which they engaged. We simply have no idea how wide-ranging conquerors such as Tamerlaine and Ghengis Khan managed in this respect. The maps issued to Spanish commanders during the second half of the sixteenth century were, as previously noted, nothing more than rough hand-drawn sketches. The first maps bearing a “modern” character, in the sense of attempting to give a true two-dimensional representation of an entire province, were apparently produced in Lombardy towards the end of the fifteenth century. With the advent of the printing press the world finally had a technical instrument that permitted maps to be reproduced accurately; therefore the impact of printing on cartography was if anything even greater than its contribution to military administration.

Also, the creation of a cartographic infrastructure for strategy was helped by a revival of interest in town planning that took place during the Renaissance. The planned construction of whole urban complexes, which had been familiar to the ancient world, required the rediscovery and introduction of surveying instruments and techniques, and it did not take long before both were applied to military purposes as well. Triangulation was invented by the Dutchman Snellius around 1617, and first used by him to determine the exact distance between the towns of Alkmaar and Bergen-op-Zoom. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps were, accordingly, fully capable of showing the relative location of towns, roads, rivers, and natural obstacles of every kind. They also gave distances, which were often marked not only in miles but also in hours of travel, an interesting reminder of the itineraries from which they originated. On the other hand, they were still not provided with contour lines, and therefore unable to present terrain in plastic form.

These maps represented reasonably good instruments of strategy, but often they did not go far enough. Particularly at the beginning of the period, maps still retained a traditional decorative function—the same quality that nowadays causes many of them to be treasured as works of art. This frequently was allowed to interfere with accuracy and usefulness. One late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century map represents the Low Countries in the form of a stylized lion, tail and all. Scale also presented a problem, since during the eighteenth century there were fifteen different kinds of mile in use in Germany alone.

In addition, surveying over small distances is much easier than over long ones, with the result that most of the available maps covered specific towns and regions rather than entire countries. The first attempt to map such a country by means of triangulation rather than by guesswork was made by Giovanni Maraldi and Jacques Cassini during the 1740s. The country they surveyed was France, and their work was only completed on the eve of the Revolution. Even after triangulation had come into use, coverage both of individual states and of Europe as a whole tended to be spotty. Comprehensive sets of standardized maps drawn to a single scale were much sought after, difficult to obtain and, when obtained, jealously guarded. When F. W. Schettan’s topographical atlas of Prussia and her neighbors was completed in 1780, it immediately disappeared into the state archives.

Finally, the reproduction of maps remained a slow and expensive process. Even when maps of a certain region were available, the number of copies might not be sufficient. For example, when Frederick the Great invaded Silesia in 1740 he was compelled to rely on captured Austrian maps. Sixty years later Napoleon’s marshals often marched into the unknown, entirely dependent for orientation on locally-recruited companies of guides and on their own self-confidence. Another indication of the relative scarcity of reliable and up-to-date military-geographical information was the fact that sketching constituted an important art. It continued to be taught to officers right down to the end of the nineteenth century, when photography finally took over.

The collection of the type of statistical information that is vital for the planning and conduct of war made some progress between 1500 and 1830. In France, which led the way, such personalities as Sully, minister of war to Henry IV, Colbert, minister of finance to Louis XIV, and Fénelon, tutor to Louis XV, preoccupied themselves with the problem. The registration by the Church of all births and burials had been made mandatory in 1597, but it was only after 1736 that the information assembled by such means had to be recorded in duplicate with one copy surrendered to the representatives of the government. Even so, progress was slow. Correctly assuming that a census was nothing but a prelude to new taxation, the population down to the very end of the eighteenth century habitually resisted an actual count, with the result that demographic statistics even of small countries could vary by as much as 50 percent. When Necker, minister of finance to Louis XVI, wanted to know the number of France’s citizens as a means towards estimating the crown’s revenues, he was reduced to averaging the number of births during the period 176772 and multiplying the result by 25.5, or 24.75, or whatever other guesstimate was available on their proportion in the general population. A proper statistical office charged with the preparation of regular statistical reports was established by the Revolution, which entrusted it to a great scientist, Lavoisier. It was from this office that the remaining countries took their cue, mostly between 1810 and 1830.

Though the technical development of mechanical timekeepers during the period is comparatively well-documented, almost nothing has been done to investigate the extent to which they were used and how they affected general habits of thought, let alone military habits of thought. The earliest devices of this kind made their appearance in Europe almost simultaneously with gunpowder. Like firearms, timepieces represented machines properly speaking and indeed were destined to serve as models of a cosmos which, from the time of Newton, came to be understood as a gigantic machine with God acting as the spring. During the first two or three centuries, mechanical clocks were too cumbersome and unreliable for field service, with the result that military timekeeping remained essentially unchanged. Good portable clocks and watches that were at least half-way accurate were available for sale from the beginning of the seventeenth century, and the best late-eighteenth-century watches were almost as good as the average modern watch before the age of quartz.

Technical characteristics, however, are meaningless in themselves. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington did not see fit to note the hour at which he sent or received letters, and indeed throughout his military correspondence there are surprisingly few references to the clock. The marshals and generals of the Grande Armée were certainly rich enough to afford watches, yet in message upon angry message the Emperor himself had to remind them of the need to put not only the hour of dispatch but also the date and place on the letterhead. Napoleon himself frequently formulated his orders in terms of the clock (“General A’s division will leave at such and such an hour, followed at half an hour’s interval by the one commanded by B”) but on other occasions ordered battles to start au point du jour (“at the crack of dawn”). Then, too, there is the fact that before the advent of railways and telegraphs, the clocks of different places were not necessarily synchronized but often showed local time. Throughout the period under consideration, and indeed down to the very end of the nineteenth century, this meant that the hour in province Y might well differ from that in province Z, making nationwide strategic coordination that much more difficult, or else indicating—which is perhaps the more likely explanation—that such coordination was rarely practiced.

Another sphere in which technological developments were minimal was that of military intelligence. From time immemorial, armies had been dependent on books, diplomats, and travelers for long-range strategic information about the enemy and the environment. Tactical information was obtained by means of personal observation, or else with the aid of scouts, prisoners, deserters, local inhabitants, and spies. The latter were typically soldiers, dressed up in a variety of disguises—for example, that of a farmhand. The spies would then go to the enemy camp accompanying a bona fide visitor, such as a peasant out to sell his wares. The peasant’s loyalty was in turn guaranteed by taking his wife hostage. All information, except for that originating in a commander’s personal observation, traveled at a speed similar to the movement of the forces themselves. In this they differed sharply from modern forces, who have technical means capable of transmitting intelligence at the speed of light. On the other hand, communication between a commander and his sources of information was normally direct. Since intelligence departments only made their appearance toward the end of the eighteenth century, a multiplicity of organizational echelons did not interpose themselves between a commander and his sources of information, so little time was wasted.

To draw the threads of the argument together, the armies of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were numerically much stronger than their predecessors. Such size would not of course have been possible except for the much-improved administrative techniques that had gradually become available since the Renaissance. At the same time, however, the technical means of transmitting information, on which command, control, communication, and intelligence depended, had not undergone any corresponding improvement. To cope with this dilemma, armies distinguished between the tactical and the strategic levels. On the tactical level, a solution was sought and found in terms of careful organization—it was from the sixteenth century onward that companies, battalions and regiments made their appearance—and in the imposition of a ferocious discipline such as enabled Frederick the Great to say that soldiers ought to fear their officers more than they fear the enemy.

On the strategic level, generals being notoriously more difficult to discipline than privates, an answer proved less easy to discover. Beginning around 1760, however, the French in Germany took the lead in experiments aimed at dividing armies into self-contained, permanent strategic units. Such units had not been seen in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire or—considering that the legion was pre-eminently an administrative organization—ever. Each such unit was made up of a properly balanced combination of all arms, and each was provided with its own headquarters and system of communications to make independent operations possible for a limited time. First the division, and then the corps, appeared on the scene, and with them the first general staffs to coordinate the movements of the army as a whole.

Thus, the combination of large numbers with weak communications technology compelled commanders to search for new organizational forms, which in turn would not have been possible without corresponding changes in doctrine and training. Once all these elements had been put in place and thoroughly assimilated, the effect on strategy was revolutionary, indeed explosive. For the first time in history, armies on campaign stopped marching about in single massive blocks, or else in detachments that spent most of their time waiting for each other. Increasingly out-of-date was the age-old contrast between those detachments and an army’s main forces. More and more often armies were made to actually consist of their detachments. As the term corps d’armée already implies, the individual corps each constituted a miniature army, complete in every part. They moved along on their own, often at 24 or even 48 hours’ distance from central headquarters.

Operating with their forces dispersed on such a scale, commanders found that the number of strategic combinations open to them had increased tremendously. Instead of simply facing each other’s main forces head on and either offering battle or declining it, generals could now assign each army corps a different task forming part of an overall plan. Thus one corps could be used to mount a diversion and distract the enemy’s attention; a second, to outflank him on one side, while a third outflanked him on the other; a fourth, to prevent reinforcements from arriving on the scene; and a fifth, to form a general reserve. The real trick, of course, consisted not only of coordinating the corps in their different roles, but also of altering those roles at a moment’s notice in accordance with the latest intelligence. While none of this was fundamentally new, previously it could be done only on a tactical scale, say at a maximum distance of 5-10 kilometers. Under Napoleon, maneuvers taking up 25, 50, or even 100 kilometers of space became routine.

At the same time, the set-piece battle entered a decline. One reason was that commanders were unable to exercise continuous strategic control over their much-enlarged and widely dispersed forces; another was that engagements could get under way much faster, since each corps deployed on its own rather than all together. Since the corps operated independently and away from each other, a clear center of gravity was often lacking, and it became much more difficult for intelligence to determine the enemy’s true intentions. Consequently the percentage of encounter battles tended to grow after 1790. More and more often hostile corps on detached missions blundered into each other without any orders from, or indeed without the knowledge of, central headquarters. Under such circumstances, even the best plans laid down by the commander-in-chief were no longer enough. Instead, and supposing everything else to be equal, the side whose generals displayed the greatest enterprise and marched towards the sound of the guns possessed an advantage and tended to win the contest. Thus, closing the gap between numbers and the technical means available to coordinate them on campaign demanded both a supreme brain at the top and flexibility at the bottom. During much of the Napoleonic period this combination was available to the Grande Armée and enabled it to overrun most of Europe. Towards the end, however, a certain decline on both sides of the equation seems to have taken place, and this played an important role in enabling France’s enemies to catch up.

Yet a third important effect of the new organization—and hence indirectly of technological factors—upon strategy was the decline of siege warfare. Though existing literature tends to exaggerate the importance of gunpowder, the properly designed and defended enceinte was able to hold its own for centuries in the teeth of the worst that firearms and artillery could do. Towards the very end of the eighteenth century, this situation changed. Though the relationship between the technical capabilities of fortifications and cannon had not undergone any fundamental shift, the entire question was being rendered increasingly irrelevant. This was because, given their newly acquired size and the way in which they now operated, armies under most circumstances became capable of overcoming fortresses simply by masking and bypassing them. As Napoleon’s career vividly illustrates, and as he himself remarked on one occasion, sieges of the traditional type became not so much easier to mount as for the most part superfluous. Though they did not entirely disappear, they declined in relative number, as did the role that they played in strategy.

Although each of the above developments separately may be regarded as revolutionary, together their impact was even greater than the sum of their parts. Not only the conduct of strategy, but its very meaning was changed. Well into the eighteenth century, battle and warfare were all but identical. This was because, paradoxically, in another sense they were entirely separate, war apart from battle being almost indistinguishable from a somewhat violent form of tourism accompanied by large-scale robbery. Not long after the end of the Seven Years War, however, campaigning at last began to take on a more pronounced military character. To paraphrase one of Napoleon’s most celebrated boasts, the soldier’s legs became an instrument for making war rather than simply a means for bringing them to the place where battle would take place. In the future, at any given moment during a campaign, one part or another of an army would be likely to be engaged in actual fighting. Fighting was thus continuous, instead of being limited to isolated encounters with a clear beginning and an equally clear end. The great battles of the Napoleonic period—Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino, and Waterloo—were destined to be among the last of their kind. Increasingly during the nineteenth century, battles were to last for days and then for weeks or months. They did not take place at or near individual places, but spread until they covered entire regions, countries and even continents. Compared with any previous period that one selects, this was a revolutionary development indeed, and one which is truly paradigmatic in that, much as it owed to technological factors, it cannot be explained in terms of hardware alone.

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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