The history of the [Spanish] Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. Part II


BATTLE OF ROCROI, 19 MAY 1643 Following successful cavalry charges by Isembourg on the Spanish right and Conde on the French right, the latter won the battle by keeping his horsemen in check, riding across the rear of the Spanish infantry, and attacking Isembourg’s cavalry from behind. Once the Spanish horse had been defeated, Conde’s artillery opened gaps in the Spanish tercios that were exploited by his horsemen. Rocroi, the last tercio, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau

By Fernando González de León

In a sense, the history of the Army of Flanders parallels that of the Spanish empire. Both were aggregations of disparate and opposing elements that during the “crisis of the seventeenth century” faced increasing fragmentation along social and national lines. Both were subjected to the reforms of an ambitious minister intent on welding the separate units into a cohesive and efficient whole. From its inception the whole enterprise was handicapped by the stubborn resistance of established interests, in the monarchy as a whole and in its military machine in particular. As John Elliott points out, unlike Richelieu, who had the advantage of a fresh start, “Olivares was always trying to make an old system work. He found the machinery hopelessly slow, and was driven to despair by its prevarications and delays.” The stress created by his policies precipitated a crisis in both structures and relegated them to a process of slow disintegration, loss of status and defeat but ultimate survival. However, despite his failure to improve the high command, Olivares should be credited with having correctly identified most of its flaws. His successors were equally or even more unsuccessful, but much less active and perceptive.

The Count-Duke’s worst error in command organization was his failure to detect the links between two problems that he clearly but separately observed and tried to solve: structural disunity and falta de cabezas. Apparently Olivares never realized that internal conflicts prevented the Army of Flanders from taking advantage of the expertise of its officers. Creative tactical leadership could not have much influence in a decision-making structure fragmented by disputes and cumbersome consultative procedures. Although the fall in the levels of seniority and experience in the general staff was certainly a major cause of falta de cabezas, adverse organizational conditions also precluded the emergence of a dominant leader able to implement any single design or plan in the field of logistics, strategy or tactics. This may go a long way towards accounting for the absence of a great General after Spinola, and would certainly explain the army’s failure to profit from the advice of recognized master tacticians like Turenne and Condé.

The absence of a dominant commander contributed to the Army of Flanders’ failure to take the lead in military modernization in the seventeenth century. Tactical reforms were usually applied by strong Generals such as the Duke of Alba, Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Oliver Cromwell. Without firm and concentrated authority, tactical improvements were difficult if not impossible to apply, especially in an army so far from its political seat of power. Although the Army of Flanders did undergo some of the transformations associated with the new warfare of the early modern era (such as an increase in the number of units, a decrease in the average size of such units, a greater role for cavalry and technical experts, etc.), its structural problems prevented it from integrating these changes into a coherent functional system. Instead of helping, these potential improvements actually aggravated the army’s internal divisions and proved to be instruments of defeat. During the last two decades of the war the Army of Flanders appeared unable to coordinate its major components to win battles or contested sieges. The stress that such engagements placed on its increasingly disjointed structure provoked disasters such as Rocroi.

Nevertheless, despite these clearly harmful consequences, the persistence of internal conflicts and the absence of a strong General was not, from a royal perspective, a completely negative phenomenon. Tactical reform and structural unity demanded intensive training, uniformity of action and rigid discipline, and in the early seventeenth century central governments were often not powerful enough to enforce such reforms which were thus left up to particular commanders to enact. This often resulted in professional armies led by vigorous leaders who used their troops as instruments of their personal political ambitions. Such was the case in the Dutch Republic with Maurice of Nassau and William II, in England with Oliver Cromwell, in the Holy Roman Empire with Wallenstein, and in France with Condé and other rebels. The emergence of a General of this type was possible in the tercios of Flanders, the seventeenth century army farthest removed from its political center. Royal suspicion and fear of insubordination and rebellion was always acutely present and “Secret Instructions” were issued to prominent members of the general staff containing orders to report acts of disobedience by a Captain General, as well as authorization and ways to remove him. Maverick commanders like don Juan José de Austria, who overstepped their authority were immediately reprimanded and did not last long in the Spanish Netherlands. Fortunately for the King of Spain such cases were extremely rare. Structural disunity may have prevented the rise of a Spanish Cromwell or Wallenstein and the closest the King ever came to losing control of his army was in 1576 when following the death of Requesens Sancho Dávila and his cabos led the tercios to the sack of Antwerp. Normally though, the Army of Flanders’ divided high command appealed constantly to the monarch to arbitrate its disputes and Philip IV retained absolute authority over an army less efficient but probably more subservient than its Dutch, French and English counterparts.

In addition, the fragmentation of the army into branches, nations and factions probably contributed to its signal resiliency after defeat. Like a machine designed to break apart on impact to prevent worse damage to its components, the Army of Flanders disintegrated under the intense stress of battle but was never permanently disabled. In Rocroi the cavalry deserted the infantry and fled the field, yet two weeks later Melo could count on an army of sixteen thousand soldiers, many of them cavalry men who, in proverbial style, had lived to fight another day. Their action, however ignominious, certainly kept the number of casualties down (eight thousand dead in an army of twenty-six thousand) and in seven months the Army of Flanders was back at its normal strength of seventy-seven thousand troops, a recovery that despite being mainly quantitative and not qualitative, would have been impossible had the entire army clung together under French bombardment in Rocroi. Similar recoveries took place after Lens in 1648 and Arras in 1654. Under these circumstances, the enemy found it difficult to inflict a decisive, “Napoleonic” defeat on the tercios of Flanders. Should we be surprised that the war lasted eighty years?