The army of the Catholic Liga and the Bavarian army

Maximilian I von Wittelsbach parading through his troops after the Battle of Melnik, AD 1619

If neither the Danes nor the Dutch made use of what could properly be seen as military enterprisers, developments in the Liga/Bavarian army led to a very different relationship between state power and private capital and organization.

The army of the League of Catholic German states (the Liga) had been formed in 1610 through the direct initiative of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, whose duchy also provided the majority of the troops and funding. This imported into the army Maximilian’s characteristic concern with direct control and accountability, which he was as anxious to apply to an expensive army as he had been to the financial and legal institutions of his duchy. In this concern he was abetted by his close working relationship with his lieutenant general, Jean T’Serclaes de Tilly. Tilly shared decision-making about all aspects of military policy with Maximilian in person, and with the duke’s senior military commissioners, who stood at the head of an elaborate pyramid of administrators, which reached down to the level of the individual regiments and handled issues connected with food and munitions supply and aspects of civil-military discipline. In the early 1620s the resources of Maximilian’s Bavaria and the wealthy Rhineland territories that made up the other key Liga states were sufficient to meet a high proportion of the costs of the army via self-imposed military taxes.

It might seem then that the Liga army was a straightforward precursor of the state-financed, state-directed military force, in which both officers and men were paid employees of the ruler and his state administration, where control and accountability was maintained by salaried state officials on commission, and the commanding officer himself was a willing servant of a ruler who considered that all major military decisions should fall under his purview. But underlying all of this, the essential character of the Bavarian army remained that of a force composed of enterpriser-colonels. Although they might be vetted for their Catholic credentials, and although Maximilian took a strong personal interest in the military capacities of his senior officers, the terms of the Bestallung, or recruitment contract, are recognizably those made with military enterprisers. The parallels with the Bavarian military system are not those of a modern, state-run army, but more closely those of the contemporary Venetian armies and galley fleets, based on hired mercenaries and contracted service, but supervised by state officials – the proveditore – and with a substantial element of state oversight and control over military policy-making and execution. The colonel in the Liga army received full discretion to appoint junior officers, allowing these officers in turn to recruit as they saw fit to produce good-quality recruits, a process which could well include paying above the specified recruitment sums to attract better soldiers. The colonel also held full administrative and judicial rights over his men, and had responsibility for the provision of their weapons, equipment, clothing and, in the case of cavalry, horses, much of which he would recover from their subsequent wages. Above all, although it was masked by the military successes and the relatively easy access to funds from various forms of taxes and contributions in the 1620s, the enterpriser-colonel was still entering into a financial agreement with Maximilian and the Liga in which he would, if required, advance his own capital to raise more troops, to maintain his existing forces or to meet other shortfalls.

What the Liga achieved in the financially ‘good years’ of the 1620s was control over the growth of military enterprise and the extent to which capital could be invested in the army. This was seen most clearly in the decision that none of the colonels in the Liga army should be allowed to acquire command of more than a single regiment. Such a stipulation could not be more different from the case with the armies of Wallenstein or the Swedes, where multiple contracting was the norm and colonels regularly invested in units whose actual command was placed in the hands of the lieutenant colonel. The Liga army did not wholly forbid multiple proprietorship: the cavalry general Jan de Werth, for example, held three regiments. The restriction was more concerned with the practicalities of military administration, with preventing the development of powerful interests and too much financial exposure amongst the senior officers. In a similar spirit, the Liga army stipulated at ten the maximum number of companies in a regiment. Both these policies had the same basic aims: to ensure that the colonels were present in person with the army and controlled their units directly, and that the force that they commanded and might need to finance was of a manageable size – both adminstratively and financially. The weekly salary for a colonel in the army of the Liga in 1629 was 62 talers (approximately 85 florins), while in the same period Wallenstein’s colonels were receiving 400 florins a week, rising to 500.

There were certainly opportunities for the Bavarian colonels to recover some of their investment and to meet the costs of making their units up to strength; even in the difficult winter of 1632/3, the ordinance for winter-quartering accorded the Bavarian colonels billeted on Liga territories 400 florins per month.50 Most of this was intended to assist with the recruitment and reconstruction of the regiments, but doubtless allowed the colonels some element of reimbursement for previous expenditure.

This financial structure based on moderate but regular pay was subject to slippage, above all as the Bavarian and other Liga territories suffered the blows of invasion, devastation and occupation by the Swedes in 1631–4 and again later in the war. But the major army reforms following on the Peace of Prague (1635), which abolished the Catholic Liga army but permitted the Bavarians to retain an independent army under the overall authority of the Emperor, reiterated the principles of restricted investment and a strong administrative-supervisory presence with the army. The advantages of this may have been less apparent in the campaigns of the late 1620s and early 1630s when the armies of Wallenstein, the combined forces of Christian of Denmark and the armies of Gustavus Adolphus were briefly pushing totals of troops under arms into the hundreds of thousands, but in the longer run the Liga/Bavarian model of a small and high-quality army was to prove the optimal solution to the challenges of waging the Thirty Years War, with its logistical constraints and the need to promote sustainability of financial commitments both at the level of exactions from territory and populations and from the military enterprisers themselves.

Over the period 1635 to 1648 by far the largest proportion of the financing of the army came from agreed military contributions levied by local authorities on the Bavarian and Swabian Circles. This was not a system that depended on conquest, occupation and near-confiscatory contribution demands to meet its own military costs. Between 1635 and 1648 the contributions and other local taxes levied across the two Kreise amounted to 11.7 million florins, a huge amount by the standards of pre-war taxation, but spread out across relatively prosperous territories and imposed over fifteen years, it was a sustainable burden. State-sanctioned financial support, coupled with an administrative presence within the armies, permitted the maintenance of the Bavarian system of ‘restricted enterprise’, encouraging the colonels to invest in their units, but at a sustainable level compared with the central sources of funding. This had a particularly significant consequence in maintaining the long-term existence of a significant number of Bavarian regiments.56 While the Bavarian army was not unique in its capacity to maintain a strong core of experienced career soldiers under arms, it was certainly one of the most successful of the armies of the Thirty Years War in this respect. Contemporaries largely agreed that the numbers and quality of veteran soldiers were the key to military effectiveness, and it was unsurprising to them that the Bavarian army, despite its small numbers, had an impressive military reputation.

The limits of military enterprise

The Liga/Bavarian army, with its state-funded and ultimately state-directed military organization which nonetheless recognized distinct financial and organizational benefits in encouraging regimental proprietorship and regulated private interest, is an important model in the evolution of early modern military institutions. However, its emergence depended on the particular circumstances of leadership from the ruler of the one financially robust major state in the Holy Roman Empire, on substantial financial support from other relatively wealthy fellow members of the Catholic Liga, and a political context which for the most part allowed the Liga army more initiative and latitude in deciding on its military commitments and the military scale of its responses than other powers in the war. Other states were in less favourable positions, and the temptation to establish a very different balance between the public and private elements of their military organization was correspondingly greater. The two obvious belligerents pursuing an expansionist approach to the involvement of military enterprise in their war effort were the Habsburg Imperial army and the Swedish forces operating in Germany.




Origin: Wehrkreis VI

Composition: 1944: Pz. Gr. Rgt. 60, Pz. Gr. Rgt. 156, Pz. Rgt. 16, Pz. Aufkl. Abt. 116, Pz. Art. Rgt. 146. Pz. Jag. Abt. 228, HFlakart. Abt. 281, Pi. Btl. 675, Nachr. Abt. 228, Kdr. Pz. Div. Nachsch. Tr. 66.

Commanders: Oberst Gerhard Müller (28. III.-30. IV. 1944, m. d. F. b.), Gen. Lt. Gerhard Graf von Schwerin (1. V.-13. IX. 1944), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Siegfried von Waldenburg (14. IX. 1944-V. 1945).

116. Pz. Div. was raised in France on 28 March 1944 from the remnants of 16. Pz. Gr. Div. and 179. Res. Pz. Div.

The division was stationed north of the Seine River when the Allies landed. But it was not committed until the end of July. According to the written testimony of its commander, Count von Schwerin, it was being held in reserve for the “20 July plotters” and that is why it was not thrown into the battle of Normandy although quite close to the front. It finally moved into the combat zone at the end of July. In August, it counter- attacked in the Mortain sector but failed in its attempt to cut off the Americans. It was caught in the Falaise pocket and only managed to break out by suffering heavy casualties.

In mid-September, the division fought in the Aix-la- Chapelle region. It was around this time that its commanding officer, General von Schwerin, was relieved of his command for ordering the division to evacuate the town of Aix. In September-October 1944, it was part of I. SS-Pz. K. (7. Armee). It was repatriated to re-form in the Düsseldorf area. It joined Pz. Brig. 108 but, owing to shortages, the number of tanks per company was restricted to 14. Its strength was increased to 11,500 men. In November, it left for the Cologne area, then was engaged in the Ardennes as part of 5. Pz. Armee. It sustained heavy losses during that offensive. In January 1945, it retreated to Cleves, and fought in Holland, making a vain attempt to halt the advancing British and Canadian troops (February 1945). 116. Pz. Div. ended the war in the Ruhr pocket where it was wiped out.

In its one-year existence, 116. Pz. Div. produced 13 Knights of the Iron Cross.


An interview with Genmaj Rudolf von Gersdorff – C of S, 7 Army Genmaj Siegfried von Waldenburg – Cmdr 116 Pz Div 1.

Q : What was the mission of 116 Pz Div when it was committed in the Vossenack – Schmidt area?

A : (Waldenburg) The immediate task was to halt your attack and then counterattack with the mission of clearing the American penetration. (Gersdorff) At Army level, we felt that the effort should divide itself in two phases. First, we wanted to cut off and destroy your troops southeast of the Kall, using principally 89 Inf Div. and the tank regiment of 116 Pz Div. Secondly, by using the reminder of 116 Pz Div., we hoped to drive you off the heights at Vossenack and eventually re-establish the front in the woods west of Germeter. For us, it was advantageous to fix the battle line in the forest as it limited the use of your air power and your tanks.

1. Q : Was our attack a surprise in timing and / or direction? A : (Gersdorff) We knew, generally, that an attack was forming. Our agents in Roetgen reported the presence of numerous reserves and artillery observation planes, but we did not know the specific date. We believed the main thrust would be headed northeast through Huertgen onto Dueren. At the same time, we believed you would send a force through Schmidt and go for the Dams. The tremendous artillery preparation, of course, showed your hand and we know the attack was on. (Interviewers’ Note: See Gersdorff’s account of “Kriegsspial of Model.”)

1. Q : (Interviewers’ Note: The account of 116 Pz Div’s action is contained in ML – 1039) When your reconnaissance battalion drove from Mestringer Muehle, did 89 Inf Div launch an attack from the south to join them?

A : (Waldenburg) I believe so. Our elements did make contact, but 89 Inf Div was very weak at the time and no strong link was formed. A patrol from my reconnaissance battalion, consisting of an officer and 4 or 5 with a radio, made its way to this point of woods south of Vossenack (Ed: coordinates 0232). From here, they could easily observe movement from Germeter to Vossenack and adjust artillery fire.

1. Q : Our troops in Vossenack, having been shelled almost continually for four days, were unnerved by the quiet on the morning of 6 Nov 44. Was the absence of an artillery preparation a planned tactic?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. We hoped to gain surprise.

1. Q : Did your troops find stiff resistance from our forces in Vossenack?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. There was hand – to – hand combat. We did get many prisoners, but the farther we went, the more resistance stiffened. During the attack, we smoked the Germeter area. Finally, when your armour and reinforcements arrived, we could not get beyond the church.

1. Q : Did you plan to renew the attack on 7 Nov 44?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. As a matter of fact, I believe the artillery preparation for our attack caught your troops as they were getting ready to attack us. Your troops (Interviewers’ Note: 146 Engr C. Bn) that retook Vossenack with those tanks did an excellent job.

1. Q : After we had repulsed your second effort to take Vossenack on 7 Nov 44, we brought up an infantry battalion to replace the engineers. The relief was made hurriedly and the infantry, on 8 Nov 44, was not ready for action. Did you plan another attack for that day?

A : (Waldenburg) Unfortunately, you didn’t notify me of this situation. No, our troops were very tired and had suffered heavy casualties.

A : (Gersdorff) You must remember this Vossenack fight was considered the second phase of our action, so most of our concern was across the Kall; then too, we could not move tanks up to Vossenack.

A : (Waldenburg) I tried to build a road from Huertgen through the woods towards Vossenack, but it was not suitable. A couple of assault guns got through, but the heavier, bigger tanks became stuck in the mud.

1. Q : At this time, we committed a new regiment (Interviewers’ Note: 12 Inf Regt of 4 Inf Div (US)) in the woods above Germeter. They were to attack towards Huertgen. Was this area under your control? A : (Waldenburg) Initially, my zone was south and east of there, but on 6 or 7 Nov 44, this area also became my responsibility. On 10 Nov 44, while you were attacking west to clip off the Weisser Weh salient, I launched an attack. Following a heavy artillery preparation, elements of both 156 and 60 Pz Gren Regts, followed by some engineers, were committed and cut off your troops. They passed through the engineer battalions who were holding the line.

Q : On 13 Nov 44, after two unsuccessful efforts to improve the situation of the isolated force, we made a withdrawal. Not a shot was fired. Were you aware of this?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. We got a report on what you were doing, but the local commanders said the woods were so thick and the debris so prohibitive that they could not stop you.

1. Q : Having failed to cut off the Wiesser Weh salient at its base, we finally began on 14 Nov 44 to attack directly up it. How strongly was it defended at that time?

A : (Waldenburg) We merely maintained patrols behind the wire obstacles and mine fields. All this time I was making daily requests to be relieved from this sector. It was not suitable for the employment of a panzer division.

A : (Gersdorff) We also wanted to withdraw the unit so that it could be refitted for the Ardennes Offensive, but we had no one to fill the hole. Finally, we managed to relieve a battalion at a time. The Division Artillery stayed on an extra three or four days so that you would not notice a slackening in the fire and realize what we had done.

1. Q : On what date did your troops leave the Vossenack area?

A : (Ed: probably answered by Waldenburg.) Approximately 13 Nov 44.

1. Q : What do you estimate as your casualties in the battle for Schmidt and Vossenack and in the fighting between Germeter and Huertgen and between Huertgen and Kleinhau?

A : (Waldenburg) Without data of any kind, it is, unfortunately, impossible for me to give a detailed description of the looses suffered by the Division in the fighting in the Huertgen Forest and at Schmidt. The casualties in personnel, especially of officers and non-commissioned officers, were heavy. The two panzer grenadier regiments were particularly hard hit and the reconnaissance battalion to a lesser degree. The panzer regiment, as far as I remember, suffered only small losses in the Schmidt area, with only three or four tanks being put out of action. The artillery had hardly any casualties or any losses in material. The antiaircraft battalion lost two guns through air attacks. Even though the losses in personnel of the Division could be made up on the whole by fresh replacements before the Ardennes Offensive, the casualties in officers and non-commissioned officers and enlisted men with battle experience could no longer be replaced. This lack of experienced personnel made itself felt considerably in the Ardennes campaign. Weapons lost or put out of action generally could be completely replaced. The motor vehicle situation, however, had further deteriorated and the Division moved into the Ardennes Offensive with only about 60% of the vehicles it should have had.

1. Q : How seriously did your engagement in the Huertgen Forest affect your efficiency and strength for the Ardennes Offensive?

A : The loss of experienced leaders and battle – hardened veterans was certainly felt. Our losses in material were replenished, except in trucks. In that category, we went into the Ardennes at only 60% of our T/O strength. Source: Foreign Military Studies – Ethint -56 (Headquarters United States Army Europe – 15 Dec 1945)

The Rise of Professionalism I

Attack of Prussian Infantry, 4 June 1745, by Carl Röchling

From the dawn of recorded history, military organization has assumed many different forms. All of these were ultimately rooted in political, social, and economic structures, but all of them were also partly the product of the technology in use. Little can be learned from archeological evidence about early armed forces. To argue backward from the military organization of primitive tribes which still exist or which existed until recently, however, one can conclude that the first war-making societies probably did not recognize the distinction between civilians and soldiers, let alone professional soldiers. With them it would be more correct to speak of warriors, who were simply adult members of the tribe. Very often the only way to gain recognition as an adult was to assume the role of a warrior, sometimes symbolically but often enough literally by killing an enemy, as among some North-American Indian tribes. As is indicated by the Greek word stratos, which means host, under such conditions armies—in the sense of specialized war-making organizations standing apart from society as a whole—did not exist. Rather, it would be more correct to say that, when hostilities threatened or broke out, the entire tribe was put on a war footing and fought on the basis of the same organization as governed its day-today life.

Naturally, tribal organizations could only survive so long as the military technology in use met a very specific set of requirements. It had to be cheap, or else it would be beyond the reach of every member of the tribe. It had to be simple to make, or else the difficulty of its manufacture would give rise to a specialized class of artisans which might then be able to translate its skills into economic and political power. Either the weapons had to be very simple to use or else they could not be specialized for war; where these conditions were not met, their use would presuppose specialized military training and hence the rise of a warrior class sufficiently well-off economically to be able to take time out for that training. As a result of all these requirements, the weapons employed by tribal societies for war were normally much the same as those employed for games, sport, hunting, and certain types of magical-religious ceremonies. Indeed, those activities themselves were often not clearly differentiated from each other and from war.

We do not know just where and when weapons first reached a stage of development in which they could no longer easily be purchased, or manufactured, or used, by every male member of the tribe. Probably the change did not occur quickly in all places at once. In any case, tribal organization was not compatible with settled life, or perhaps things developed the other way around and it was technological advances which caused the nomadic way of life to be abandoned. The earliest urban civilizations known to us, those of Egypt, Sumer, India, and China, had already reached a stage of development where weapons were not available to the whole population but concentrated in the hands of certain groups.

The organization of these military groups varied greatly from time to time and from place to place. Sometimes, as in the Greek polis and Republican Rome, the system was tymocratic or money-based. A census was held and the citizens were divided into classes according to the amount of property that they owned. Those above a certain minimum were obliged to acquire the arms appropriate to their class, spend a certain amount of time training with them, and fight when necessary. At other times and places, political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of a central government which issued arms—manufactured either in its own shops or by contractors—and hired troops. In some cases the forces at the government’s disposal might be permanent, in which case it is possible to speak of standing armies. In others they were raised only in emergencies, so that the term mercenaries would be more appropriate.

In many cases different types of military organization existed side by side, not merely at different places but within the same civilization, society, and state. Indeed one might argue that the period before 1500 A.D. was characterized precisely by the fact that even quite primitive tribal structures that were centered around the bow remained not only viable but perfectly competitive, as the establishment of the vast Mongol Empire during the thirteenth century shows. The various forms did not necessarily exist in isolation but often gave rise to combinations. The nature of these combinations was not based on the weapons and technology in use, but was most certainly affected by them.

To focus on military professionalism, in one sense it represents a very ancient system indeed. By the time of Christ, if not long before, standing armies had already been maintained by governments in the Far and Middle East, and also in the Mediterranean area. These armies consisted of men who looked on war as their trade and expected regular payment for their services. A good example is the Roman Imperial Army, which survived in recognizable form for several centuries. During the first century B.C., between the time of Marius and that of Augustus, its personnel was transformed into regulars who regarded war as their trade and who soldiered as a living. Not only did these troops develop a strong corporate identity and esprit de corps, but advancement within the army was at least partly by merit. Nevertheless, Roman professionalism was so different from that in our time that the very use of the term may be misleading. Whereas today it is the officers above all who consider themselves military professionals and are so regarded by society at large, in Imperial Rome the situation was just the opposite. There, professionalism was limited to the rank and file and to the centurions, the latter corresponding approximately to the present day NCO. Above the rank of primipilus, or senior legionary NCO, appointments did not go by professional merit but were restricted to members of certain well-defined socio-economic classes, the equites and senators. To them the suggestion that they soldiered for a living would have come as an insult, even if (or particularly when) it was true. Under the Roman army system it was thus the base which contained the expertise, whereas the top consisted, in principle at any rate, of amateurs and political appointees. This is not quite what we would expect in a professional force today.

Feudalism, the foundation of numerous societies during ancient and medieval times, was another very important form of military organization. As a military system, feudalism arose where weapons were not concentrated in the hands of a central government, but were nevertheless so expensive or else so difficult to make and employ that their use was confined to a narrow, normally hereditary, class. The nature of the weapons themselves varied very greatly. In some places it was the chariot, in others the horseand-composite-bow combination, in others still the horse combined with expensive iron armor that formed the military-technological basis of a warrior aristocracy. As a look at many times and places—India during the second millenium B.C., Homeric Greece, Mamluk Egypt, medieval Europe, and Samurai Japan—shows, feudalism as a form of military organization was compatible with any of these weapons. There can be no question of strict technological determinism here. Indeed, all but identical weapons were often used by troops whose military system of organization did not follow feudal principles. These considerations notwithstanding, feudal military organization, like any other, clearly does rest upon certain technological foundations. Take those foundations away, and feudalism itself will crumble into dust, though only someone untouched by the least historical sense would expect the process to be simple, or smooth, or painless.

Where feudalism reigns, the establishment of a military organization properly speaking poses special problems. Feudal warriors derive their status in life largely from their ownership of certain expensive weapons which are difficult to use and require much training. Hence, they are apt to regard themselves as the equals of all other warriors equipped in the same manner. Armies made up of such warriors will tend to be impermanent, organizationally unarticulated, and difficult to discipline. Furthermore, they are likely to attempt to turn war itself into a ritual, designed less with “utilitarian” considerations in mind than to preserve their own special status against outsiders. In such societies war itself will often be regarded as the exclusive domain of a single class. People who do not belong may be forbidden to carry weapons altogether, as was the case in Japan under Tokugawa rule. Also, fights between them and the aristocracy (and among themselves) will not count as war but merely as police work, hunting, sport, or entertainment.

Such being the nature of feudalism in general, and of European feudalism during the Middle Ages in particular, its incompatibility with military professionalism will be readily understood, Though kings and great lords frequently did maintain permanent bodies of retainers, these were bound to them by personal ties—either as relatives or as servants—and could not be described as professional soldiers. To feudal knights, on the other hand, war represented not so much a profession as a vocation. They practiced it not in order to earn a salary, but because it was the manifest destiny of the class to which they belonged. Though the training of knights began from the moment they could stay in the saddle, the goal and outcome of this training was less professional expertise as presently understood than an entire way of life. Since there were no permanent units, they could not serve as the basis of a corporate identity, nor did esprit de corps arise except on an ad hoc basis. There were no officers in our sense of the word, or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that the forces consisted exclusively of them. An ordered system of ranks and promotions did not exist. Selection for command was by socio-political status, so that commanders tended to be simply better-sired men than their followers.

Against this rather unpromising background, the rise of military professionalism in early modern Europe was the outcome of many factors, some of them technological and others not. They included the growing power of kings and of centralized states, the tendency to substitute wages or salaries for feudal service, and, from the fifteenth century on, the persistent attempts of great lords to develop the retainers of their households into the nuclei of standing armies. Among the numerous technological factors involved, perhaps the most important were the invention of paper, printing, and related techniques for the storage and dissemination of information. These innovations helped increase the size of armed forces and improve their administration. Ultimately, they also permitted a revolution in military education.

War has always been, and in some ways still remains, a practical affair above all. Therefore, the need for theory was slow to gain recognition, and indeed is by no means universally accepted even today. In many different societies, and at many different times and places, the training received by warriors remained rudimentary for centuries after the instruction of other experts—doctors, lawyers, or priests—had been formalized and entrusted to specialized schools. Specialists in violence—the anachronism is deliberate—were not educated as other professionals were. Though virtually all societies that engaged in armed conflict recognized the need to acclimatize novices to war, and often appointed specialized personnel to supervise the process, in virtually every historical army this acclimatization was limited to instruction in the basics, i.e., physical hardening and weapons drill. Beyond this, specialized training for the higher posts did not exist. Preparation for them, to the extent that it was considered necessary at all, depended primarily on serving a kind of practical apprenticeship either in the units themselves or on what passed for staffs. The scarcity and cost of textbooks was one of the factors that contributed to this situation. Though textbooks did of course exist, and though some are even known to have been written (and sometimes read) by commanders of every epoch, before 1500 their circulation had been too small to permit the education of the majority of officers to be based on them.

During the early modern period, this state of affairs no longer applied. Books on military affairs were by no means the last to come off the printing presses. By the end of the sixteenth century it was possible to read, either in the original or in translation or both, modern editions of Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Caesar, Livius, Onasander, Polynaeus, Frontinus, and Vegetius, as well as printed versions of the Byzantine military classics which were brought to the West after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Simultaneously there arose a vast military and naval literature written in the modern European languages, initially Italian but later also German, French, Dutch, Spanish, English, and Swedish. Side by side with books, military periodicals gradually appeared. By the late eighteenth century, these were well on their way to turning into specialized vehicles for expressing views and exchanging ideas on war. Beginning with siege warfare, the most technical subject of all, the idea began to catch on that war was not merely a practical pursuit but also rested on a substantial theoretical basis. This theoretical basis became the concern of professionals, or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that a professional was increasingly defined not simply as one who cut throats for a living but as somebody who had studied and mastered the theoretical foundations. It would be ridiculous as well as unhistorical to attribute these developments solely to technological factors. Still, for military book-knowledge to be possible and to count for something there must be books, and whether there are books in sufficient numbers and priced sufficiently low depends as much on technology as on anything else.

While printing was contributing to the rise of military professionalism in this way, other technologies were pressing in the same direction. In the fourteenth century, the free companies appeared. These were bands of skilled warriors who rented themselves out to the highest bidder. Often they specialized in some particular weapon, notably the crossbow, which while not regarded as fit for a gentleman nevertheless required some skill to operate. Since these characteristics applied equally well to the first firearms, it was only natural that the troops who used them should be organized in a similar manner. This was all the more true because firearms, particularly cannon, were difficult to make and to use. Often the same personnel was employed on both tasks, and indeed artillerymen very soon came to constitute a kind of international guild with their own patron saint and jealously guarded professional secrets. As time went on and prejudices against the use of the new arms diminished, this personnel tended to be integrated into the structure of armies, thereby becoming regulars like any others. Indeed a turning point was reached when, during the third decade of the sixteenth century, the use of firearms in the attack or defense of fortresses came to be regarded as an honorable and even commendable form of war for which one could be awarded the highest decorations. The net result of the successive technological inventions was to increase the demand for skill. Though skill is not the same as professionalism, where the technology in question was too complex and too expensive to be owned by individuals, professionalism inevitably grew out of increased skills.

The Rise of Professionalism II

Détachement du régiment de Picardie, vers 1680
Rousselot Lucien (1900-1992)

The role played by ordnance, particularly heavy ordnance, in promoting military professionalism is brought out in yet another way. Guns required powder and ammunition, classes of supplies that could neither be gathered in the fields nor plucked from trees. Consequently, nothing was more natural than to make artillerymen responsible for supply, maintenance, and transport. Hand-in-hand with transport went engineering, particularly fortification and the construction of pontoons for crossing rivers. From these activities, engineers—the very word stems from the medieval war engine, hence is of military origin—spread into related activities such as building roads and constructing bridges. All these were skilled activities. Not infrequently they demanded very considerable mathematical knowledge, which could only be acquired from the mouth of experts instructing people who themselves wanted to become experts. No wonder, therefore, that it was precisely the artillery and the engineering branches of armed forces which were among the first to acquire a professional outlook. During the period under consideration, the importance of these branches grew and grew. As it did so, their outlook, based on knowledge and skill, clashed head-on with the traditional aristocratic approach which was rooted in breeding, honor, and social status. What was more, war itself was brought down from the high pedestal on which it had been put by feudal civilization. Increasingly, as technology and professionalization advanced, war tended to shed its supposedly ennobling characteristics and turn into a mere tool of policy, regrettable but sometimes necessary.

As one would suspect, the same factors that tied military technology to the rise of professionalism also applied to nonmilitary technology as used in war. Often, indeed, the two were inseparable, and frequently the same personnel were involved. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the same men—one cannot find a title sufficiently wide to embrace all the various skills that they possessed or claimed to possess—who built windmills and lathes and pumps and waterwheels also erected fortifications and designed engines of war. An interesting, if little-known, case in point is that of Antoine Andreossy, who for many years served as Napoleon’s chief of artillery and as such was responsible not only for the guns themselves but also for the various activities outlined in the previous paragraph. Andreossy, a professional engineer himself, was descended from a family of such engineers. Among them was an Andreossy who, during the reign of Louis XIV, had served as de facto constructor-in-chief of the Canal du Midi, which was the largest single engineering project undertaken in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.

If increasingly complex technology helped military professionalism develop on land, a fortiori this was true at sea. As Plato pointed out in The Republic, since technology is vital at sea not only for efficient work but for sheer survival, a captain’s knowledge and competence count for everything. In fifteenth-century Venice, naval officers along with clerks and, for some reason, barbers, were among the most literate groups in the population. Later, those vast, complicated, wind-driven machines, the eighteenth-century men-of-war, required tremendous amounts of skill and science to operate, let alone to fight successfully. Naval warfare now covered much of the globe and frequently involved very extensive voyages. These could not be carried out except on the basis of professionally-acquired mathematical and navigational techniques. To cope with these demands, naval officers became distinguished from civilian sailors and acquired an identity of their own. The French and British navies in particular served as nurseries for an intellectual elite of a new type. Among the members of this elite, it was expert knowledge that counted. As time went on and different technologies leapfrogged each other in their successive advances, shifts occurred in the relative status of the technicians aboard. Until the middle of the seventeenth century it was the gunners who commanded the highest wages, but subsequently primacy shifted to the deck officers whose task was to sail the ship while coordinating and integrating the work of everybody else.

With complex technology demanding high skills, and at the same time helping make available textbooks to teach those skills, military training was gradually turned into a formal affair comprising courses and examinations. The first modern military schools were established in sixteenth-century Spain and taught the art of gunnery. Later the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the founding of cadet schools and officer schools and, after 1763, military academies for staff officers. Even a brief list of these schools would include the Écoles Militaires at Paris, Mézières, and St. Petersburg; the equivalent institutions at Berlin, Munich, Wiener Neustadt, and Woolwich, all of which specialized in the production of junior officers; the naval colleges of Dartmouth, Toulon, Le Havre, and Brest; and junior academies such as at Potsdam and Brienne le Château, the latter primarily a school for artillery specialists where Napoleon received his initial training. Towards the very end of the period we are dealing with here, two of the most celebrated institutions offering military instruction opened their doors, the Berlin Kriegsakademie and West Point. Of these, the Kriegsakademie owed everything to the desire to raise professional standards, whereas West Point was an engineering school first and foremost, and to some extent has retained that character down to the present day.

During the early modern age the growth of technology in general, and of military technology in particular, acted as a spur to the rise of military professionalism, though it did not constitute its sole cause. The process was neither smooth nor easy. One need only recall the reluctance of Louis XIV to make Vauban, a commoner whose military-professional credentials were as good as those of any other man, into a maréchal de France to realize how far this was from being the case. Throughout the eighteenth century, and much of the nineteenth, the most important armed forces failed to adopt a system under which officers and commanders would be appointed and dismissed solely by their professional merit. Everywhere, social standing and seniority continued to play a large role, though a case might be made to show that the seniority system itself tended to foster a corporate identity and hence a professional outlook among the officer corps. During the early years of the Revolution in France, and in most countries during the Restoration that followed, appointments went not to professionals but to men considered politically reliable by those in power, a system which has by no means disappeared even in the most advanced twentieth-century armies. Naturally, different countries have at different times adopted different attitudes towards professionalism, some regarding it with favor, others opposing it, others still resigning themselves to it.

In the long run, the technologically generated thrust towards military professionalism proved irresistible. Gathering momentum, it turned into one of the cardinal phenomena of warfare not only during the period before 1830 but also in the one succeeding it. The process by which the officer corps of the most advanced countries adapted itself to the new situation worked simultaneously from the bottom up and from the top down. At one end of the scale, officers who were technical specialists—like those responsible for army ordnance, or in charge of the army’s health—demanded, and gradually obtained, status and privileges similar to those of the rest, a good example being the rivalry between “sailors” and “engine men” that divided the British Navy during the second half of the nineteenth century. At the other end, high-ranking commanders from the age of Moltke on were gradually transformed from fighters into military experts whose precise function is perhaps best called the management of violence. Regardless of the position that they took in the hierarchy, more and more officers found themselves unable to function except on the basis of specialized education and expert training in such fields as engineering and business administration. This trend culminated in the second half of the twentieth century when, in West and East alike, perhaps the majority of commanders actually became almost identical with engineers and managers.

The historical development of the rank and file has been somewhat different. Medieval armies had neither file nor rank in our sense of these terms. Sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century common soldiers were mercenaries who served for the duration and, though often quite well trained, possessed an outlook that made them all but indistinguishable from a horde of ruffians. The growing importance of firearms, however, made strict discipline absolutely necessary. Beginning around the time of Gustavus Adolphus and Cromwell, one army after another came to consist of personnel who, since they served for long periods and were regularly paid, could be subjected to strict control. Eighteenth-century soldiers were, in one sense, professionals. Though their skills were not exactly admired by society at large, they did serve for a living (even if the choice of a living was often forced) and on a long-term basis which made thorough training possible. Towards the end of the period there appeared clear signs that the NCO corps of various countries were developing professional attitudes in the modern sense of the word.

With the French Revolution, the drive towards professionalism among the rank and file was interrupted, and some would say reversed. The reason was the institution of the levée-en-masse in 1793, a development which every other country was soon compelled to follow. During the next century and a half, and in spite of post-1815 attempts to put the clock back, other ranks even in the best armies—often, particularly in the best armies—neither could be described as professional soldiers nor regarded themselves as such. A hard core of NCOs, who nevertheless did not normally expect to spend a lifetime in the service, was surrounded by a popular militia, made up of short term conscripts who received intensive training and were then transferred into the various classes of reserves. Mobilization, itself made possible by a series of important technological innovations, enabled these nonprofessional warriors to be recalled to the colors at a moment’s notice.

Thus, the move toward professionalism in the rank and file was delayed by the introduction of short-term universal conscription. Its goal was precisely to enable countries to wage war without turning all their manpower into professionals, and in this they were successful for a while. However, after 1945 a variety of ideological, political, social, and economic factors joined forces against conscription. When these were combined with the pressures brought to bear by a highly sophisticated military technology, the outcome was inevitable. In country after country, short-term service came to be regarded as incompatible with the long period of training required by many modern weapons and military equipment. The conscript army was either abandoned altogether or replaced by a mixed-force structure. A typical example is the German Bundeswehr, 40 percent of which consists of conscripts doing rather simple jobs, and 60 percent of regulars performing the “real” work requiring training and skill.

However, even the armed forces of countries such as the Soviet Union and Israel, which for various reasons held on to the idea of a nation in arms, saw themselves compelled to man such technical services as the navy and air force with a much higher percentage of professionals. The rationale is that professionals are the only people capable of dealing with the complexities involved. At the very least, a professional force will prevent the waste involved in using the extremely expensive machines used by these services for continuous retraining. Elsewhere, the idea that professionalism is the key to warfare has gained hold to such an extent that common soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently graded as specialists rather than privates, corporals, etc. The military in many less-developed countries have been forced to take the same road, even though the technology at their disposal is often much less sophisticated. To be taken at all seriously, it is necessary to adopt at least the semblance of “professional” norms.

Just because a more or less consistent trend towards greater military professionalism has existed for about five centuries, and because this trend was closely linked to the advance of war technology, it does not necessarily follow that the two will continue to march in step indefinitely. In particular, two factors appear noteworthy. First, it has recently been suggested that the latest technological developments diminish rather than increase the demand for military-professional skills on the part of the rank and file. They do this by automating some functions previously reserved for humans, and by transferring much of the work previously involved in repair and maintenance to civilian specialists. Second, since much modern military equipment is simple to use, at present the highest training may be required not for those who drive tanks or operate guns, but for those who specialize in close-in fighting on foot.

Finally, a skill-oriented professional attitude, like anything else, has its price, particularly when it is pursued for its own sake and regardless of everything else. It may undermine the kind of authority and loyalty that are vital to the functioning of any armed force. Given that war remains the province of hardship and fear, of suffering and pain and death, it is dangerous to overemphasize the mastering of technological skills as opposed to maintaining the eternal qualities of the warrior. The combination of professionalism and technology may also result in narrow-minded specialization more suited to a debating society than to an organization whose task it is to cope with, and indeed live in, the dangerous and uncertain environment of war. The price of professionalism may exceed its benefits, and this quite regardless of the nature and quality of the technology at our disposal. Judging by the inability of the Americans to win in Vietnam, and of the Soviets and Israelis to overcome irregular forces in Afghanistan and Lebanon, could it be that this point has already been reached?

A New Burgundian Combined-Arms Synthesis versus Swiss Heavy Infantry









CAPTAIN OF SWISS (1) HALBERDERS (2), (3) and (4) (5) Banner of the Canton of Bern. (6) Banner of the Duke of Lorraine. (7) and (8) Zurich banners. (9) Banner of the canton of Uri.

The dukes of Burgundy were students of the art of war. They were the first to add gunpowder artillery units to a regular army, and the first to appoint salaried nobles as artillery officers (most nobles preferred to serve in the cavalry, the traditional arm of aristocracy). They were also the first to concentrate cannon in batteries, rather than disperse them evenly across a battle front. In a series of military reforms from 1468 to 1473, the Burgundian army was remade, partly on the French model but also making use of a unique four-man lance as its core unit. Subsequently, Burgundy fought with France (1474–1477), then with the Swiss (1474–1477), in the hope of becoming a full kingdom and one of the emerging Great Powers of Europe, stretching from Lorraine to Milan. Instead, the Swiss destroyed the Burgundian army and killed Charles the Bold.

The reputation of the Swiss tactical system was further enhanced in campaigns against the duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (r. 1465–1477). Charles had operated with impunity against the French crown following his defeat of King Louis XI of France (r. 1461–1483) at Monthlhéry in 1465. After Charles’s follow-on victories at Liège (1466) and Brustem (1467), he turned his attention to the Swiss on his eastern front. Here, the growing Swiss Confederation provided the military opposition to his plans. In order to weaken the Swiss, the duke of Burgundy planned to divide and conquer, cutting a path through the alpine alliance with the most modern army he could assemble.

To meet this objective, Charles fielded a well-financed combined-arms army of 30,000 men, consisting of Burgundian heavy cavalry, Flemish heavy infantry pikemen, Italian light infantry crossbowmen, German arquebusiers and mounted light infantry English longbowmen. Traditionally, Burgundian armies were small, with mercenaries making up at least 30 per cent of any force. But Charles’s grand ambitions required a larger fighting force, and beginning in the early 1470s, the duke strove to create permanent troops in mixed units (companies) of heavy cavalry, heavy infantry and light infantry archers, crossbowmen and handgunners, supported by the most modern artillery available.

Gunpowder technologies appeared on the battlefields of western Europe some time in the middle of the thirteenth century. Gunpowder was first utilized as a weapon by the Chinese prior to 1000 ce, where it was made into bombs and rockets. The likely conduit of diffusion from China was through Islamic lands to Byzantium or to Spain, then north of the Pyrenees to western Europe. References to gunpowder weaponry were included in armouries in Lille, Lucca, Aachen, London and Siena in the late 1330s and 1340s, and it appeared at the sieges of Tournai in 1340 and Calais in 1346–1347, and perhaps even at the battle of Crécy in 1346.

The first cannon made in Europe, in the early fourteenth century, were vase-shaped tubes which fired huge darts like those shot from the old Roman ballistae. Over time the darts gave way to round stone or metal projectiles and the barrels evolved into a straight tube. But over the next 150 years gunpowder weaponry underwent a spectacular evolutionary process as guns became less frequently forged and more frequently cast, increasing both reliability and durability. These improvements also allowed gunsmiths to make their weapons both much larger and much smaller, with the largest guns being capable of destroying medieval castle and city walls, and the smallest weapons eventually being handheld by a new breed of light infantryman, the medieval handgunner. Though poor construction and an elementary firing mechanism made early small arms an unreliable weapon system in the late medieval period, the light infantry handgunner would increasingly play a role on the battlefield next to archers and crossbowmen in the final wars of the period.

As gun barrels became longer and the art and science of casting iron improved, specialized siege artillery called bombards began to have a devastating effect on medieval fortifications. These early cannon were expensive to build and operate, and difficult to transport, and to be effective they needed to be just yards away from the target wall. Once in place, bombards fired stone shot weighing as much as 900 pounds, breaching walls and reducing towers almost at will. In 1409 the duke of Burgundy purchased two bombards that could hurl stones weighing between 700 and 900 pounds. The ‘Dulle Griet’ or ‘Great Bombard of Ghent’ was a forged iron cannon over 16 feet long with a 25 inch calibre. It could fire a stone shot weighing more than 750 pounds. These cumbersome weapons could be aimed in one of five ways – by placing a fixed mount on terrain at the desired angle; by mounting the cannon on a fixed axle to provide its aim; by using the terrain and axle together to aim the weapon; by using a rock or wall to adjust the aiming angle; and finally, by adding a calibrated aiming mechanism to the mount to change the angle of attack.

But changes in the fifteenth century improved the range and impact power of siege artillery. In the early 1400s a process called ‘corning’ began to be used when making gunpowder, mixing brandy, vinegar or even human urine into the black powder to form it into tiny pellets. Air flowed between the pellets allowing the powder to burn much faster and more evenly, greatly increasing the power of gunpowder weapons. By 1450 siege artillery further improved when stone shot was replaced by cast-iron balls, which had less ‘windage’ (space between projectile and the interior of the bore) and therefore attained greater muzzle velocity and impact energy. During this time, cannon were made in all different bore sizes, with little or no standardization until the late fifteenth century.

Initially, gunpowder weapons had more of an impact on sieges than they did on the battlefield. But with the adoption of smaller field artillery in the fifteenth century, medieval commanders had at their disposal another kind of missile platform to menace enemy formations. These guns began to appear more frequently on the battlefield, including many battles under survey here: at Agincourt in 1415, at Grandson and Murten in 1476, and at Nancy in 1477. But medieval field artillery still suffered from being too large and unwieldy to move easily on the battlefield, and therefore often became ineffective after the initial stages of the battle.

True field artillery did not make its sudden and dramatic appearance until the final decade of the fifteenth century, when the French invaded Italy. Here, these new guns, mounting new and lighter cast-bronze cannon on two-wheeled carriages pulled by horses, gave the French unprecedented tactical mobility against enemy formations and entrenched artillery positions. But France’s artillery supremacy on the battlefield was soon reversed by dramatic Spanish improvements in infantry small arms and tactics. As a result, field artillery declined in importance in the sixteenth century, except in the attack and defence of fortifications and in naval warfare.

To assist in the transition from a medieval to a modern army, Duke Charles published three detailed military instructions or ordinances every year from 1471 to 1473, standardizing the use of uniforms, armour and weapons for each man, and grouping them under conductors in companies with a designated hierarchy of numbered banners. By 1473 these Compagnies d’ordonnance numbered 900 men, based on a nine-man lance of heavy cavalry made up into four squadrons, with each squadron supported by 25 men-at-arms, 25 light horse, 25 valets and 75 mounted light infantry archers, further supported by contingents of 25 crossbowmen, 25 pikemen and 25 handgunners, all on foot. Unable to achieve these numbers with recruitment, Charles continued to employ foreign mercenaries.

After conquering Lorraine, Duke Charles marched into Alsace and took the surrender of the city of Grandson in February 1476. His execution of the garrison there solidified Swiss opposition, and on 2 March a relief army of 10,000 men arrived to block the Burgundian invasion. Recognizing he outnumbered the Swiss army three to one, Charles planned a defensive engagement, one that would capitalize on the confederation’s aggressive way of fighting. After launching two heavy cavalry charges into the unyielding Swiss ranks, the duke prepared for the inevitable, a Swiss heavy infantry counter-attack into his own centre. Employing a tactic similar to those used at Marathon and Cannae, Charles ordered his centre to pull back in the hopes of crushing the advancing Swiss squares in a double envelopment. But despite superior numbers, the Burgundian duke’s men lost their nerve and the planned retreat of the centre became a rout. Pressing forward with murderous efficiency, the Swiss mowed down the rear of the fleeing army, killing 300 invaders, and captured the Burgundian camp and over 400 artillery pieces. Swiss casualties were 200 men.

Despite the rout at Grandson, Charles quickly re-formed his army and resumed his invasion of confederate territory. It took several months to piece together his artillery train, but with this completed, Charles moved his army and on 9 June laid siege to the walled city of Murten, recently reinforced by a garrison of 500 Bernese men and, ironically, the majority of the captured Burgundian artillery. Over the next week, the captured artillery had a devastating effect on the Burgundian assaults, but on 17 June, Charles ordered his heavy bombards to be brought forward, and the besiegers successfully breached the southern walls. But even an eight-hour infantry assault against the damaged walls could not overwhelm the Swiss defenders, and on 19 June, Charles halted the attacks and turned his attention to the east, where a large Swiss army was expected to emerge in relief of Murten.

Charles the Bold ordered his troops to prepare for the defensive, and construct a ditch and palisade entrenchment known as the Grünhag, manned by light infantry and artillery. He intended to use his bowmen, handgunners and field artillery to create a killing field, then exploit the chaos with his flanking cavalry. But 21 June passed without the arrival of the Swiss, forcing Charles to stand down his army. Finally, on 22 June, a large Swiss relief force of 25,000 men exploded out of the woods and into the undermanned Burgundian defences. At the time of the Swiss arrival, only 2,000 light infantry manned the Burgundian centre, with 1,200 heavy cavalry in support. The rest of the duke of Burgundy’s troops were eating in the camp some distance away.

Advancing from the north-east through the Birchenwald forest, the Swiss army was concealed until it was only a mile away from the Burgundian lines. The Swiss attacked from a column of three battle squares, supported by a vanguard of 5,000 light infantry skirmishers, protected by a contingent of 1,200 heavy cavalry on the left. Behind the van, 12,000 Swiss heavy infantry made up the centre square, followed by another 7,000 heavy infantry in the rear. The three Swiss squares marched in echelon, with the centre and rear squares set back and to the left of the vanguard.

Behind the Grünhag, the Burgundian men-at-arms (including mercenary English longbowmen) were ready for the impending attack, and the first wave of the Swiss vanguard suffered heavy casualties from concentrated crossbow, longbow and light artillery fire. For a moment, the momentum of the initial Swiss assault was checked, but shrewd manoeuvring by part of the Swiss vanguard allowed the attackers to bypass the earthworks and turn the enemy’s flank. With the Grünhag in friendly hands, the centre and rear squares surged westwards to cut off any Burgundian retreat to the south.

Meanwhile on the Swiss left flank, the 1,200 allied heavy cavalry scattered the Burgundian horse, then galloped on to attack the now fleeing Burgundian centre. There was no escape route for Charles’s new model army, and the Swiss, pledging no quarter, took no prisoners. A timely sortie by the Swiss garrison in Murten aggravated the Burgundian situation, striking the broken army in the rear. In the ensuing massacre, the duke lost 12,000 men, cut down or drowned in nearby Lake Murten. Swiss casualties were light, only 410 men. The Burgundians also lost their artillery park, with the Swiss profiting by the acquisition of another 200 guns.

Charles the Bold’s third and final battle against the Swiss took place at Nancy in January 1477. Driven out of Switzerland in the autumn of 1476, the duke took up a strong defensive position behind a shallow stream south of the city of Nancy, the capital of Lorraine, once again blocking the likely angle of attack with his artillery. But his army was by now only around 12,000 men. The sudden appearance of the main Swiss force of 20,000 from the woods took the Burgundians by surprise, with the van circling to the left and attacking the Burgundian flank. In a co-ordinated strike, the Swiss fell on Charles’s troops, wielding their pikes and halberds. Attacked on two sides by overwhelming numbers, 7,000 Burgundians were killed, including Charles himself, his head split open by a halberd stroke. In less than a year, the Swiss defeated three Burgundian armies. The battle of Nancy ended the power of Burgundy forever, allowing Charles’s other nemesis, King Louis XI of France, to finally incorporate the duchy and its innovative military institutions into his kingdom.

Despite a relatively balanced combined-arms tactical system, the Burgundian duke’s new model army was unable to ‘match the discipline of the Swiss or cope with the élan of their assaults’. Charles’s failure stemmed from taking on the best heavy infantry in Europe. Swiss militia armies were large and quickly mustered, but they could not stay in the field for long. Charles’s aggressive strategy of seeking battle brought his armies into conflict with a motivated enemy fighting to protect its homeland. Nevertheless, his combination of horse, foot and artillery was to become a model for European armies for centuries to come.

After the death of Charles the Bold at Nancy in 1477, the Swiss acquired a reputation for invincibility that lasted until the battle of Marignano in 1515. They created a heavy infantry weapon system that could do more than passively resist cavalry charges or engage in sieges. Disciplined and relatively well articulated, the Swiss battle square was capable of offensive manoeuvre and all-round defence. And like English light infantry longbowmen, Swiss heavy infantry found themselves a wanted commodity on the battlefields of Europe, with Swiss mercenaries soon employed as mercenaries in armies all over the continent. Impressed with the success of the Swiss battle square in the wars against Burgundy, Louis XI added 6,000 Swiss mercenaries armed with halberd and pike to his own army in 1479, and in 1497 a cadre of 100 Swiss elite were officially organized as the French king’s personal bodyguard, the Garde des Cent Suisses. In Italy the Swiss hired themselves out to Italian mercenary commanders or condottieri (from the Italian term condotta, the contract negotiated between Italian city-states and military entrepreneurs). Moreover, this innovation in heavy infantry bred imitation, and other nations developed their own pikemen modelled on the Swiss. The Germans had the most success with their Landsknechts, who also fought abroad as mercenaries.

By the close of the medieval period, the Swiss method of fighting would be diffused to all of western Europe. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), writing in the early 1520s, found that all infantry imitated the Swiss. By the middle of the sixteenth century, French, Spanish, German and Italian armies used what has been described as the Swiss way of warfare, even if they adopted the Swiss phalanx in modified form. Pikemen, increasingly supported by light infantry handgunners, remained a persistent tactical entity on European battlefields well into the early modern period.

Iphicrates’ Reforms

Iphicrates was born towards the end of the fifth century into a poor and rather obscure Athenian family. Despite his lowly background he rose to a position of command in Athens, fighting in a number of campaigns including the Corinthian War and the Social War, he also spent time in Persian service after the Peace of Antalcidas. Diodorus places his peltast reforms after 374, following his Persian sojourn, using his experiences prior to that date to develop this new type of soldier.93 The exact dating of the reforms is not relevant here, but their nature certainly is, as it was this type of soldier that constituted the bulk of Alexander’s mercenary forces. I have also tried to argue earlier that Alexander’s heavy infantry were essentially a version of Iphicratean peltasts, being equipped as they were with a small shield and very little body armour.

The primary sources of information that we have for the peltast reforms of Iphicrates are Diodorus and Nepos, both of whose accounts are very similar. According to them the most significant changes were as follows:

Iphicrates replaced the large (shield) of the Greeks by the light pelte, which had the advantage that it protected the body while allowing the wearer more freedom of movement; the soldiers who had formerly carried the [large hoplite shield] and who were called hoplites, were henceforth called peltasts after the name of their new shields; their new spears were half as long again or even twice as long as the old ones, the new swords were also double in length, In addition Iphicrates introduced light and easily untied footwear, and the bronze harness was replaced by a linen covering, which although it was lighter, still protected the body.

Diodorus regards these changes as having been introduced into the existing hoplite troops and in the process discounts the possibility of already existing peltast-style light infantry. Diodorus’ failure to realize the existence of peltast troops before Iphicrates is indeed very striking. In this omission Diodorus shows his serious lack of understanding of the military situation of the day. Modern commentators have frequently been struck with the absurdity of this, and have taken up an opposite attitude. For them the change was a trivial one and consisted chiefly in the standardizing of the existing, but rather haphazard, peltast equipment. This argument, however, simply will not do. It assumes that the light-armed skirmishers of earlier narratives were equipped in the same manner that Diodorus describes. This simply cannot be the case; light-armed skirmishers would not have carried a sword and spear twice the length of those carried by hoplites. Earlier narratives also tell of peltasts actually throwing their spears. If Iphicrates was standardizing that which already existed then why did he not provide his troops with these throwing spears? We are surely not to believe that they carried these as well. Some other explanation must be sought.

Was Iphicrates actually inventing a new type of peltast, one with specific and specialized equipment? The other extreme view is that Iphicratean peltasts were in no way different from Thracian peltasts. On this interpretation, Iphicrates’ reforms were of little significance, as troops of exactly the same type existed already in Thrace. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extreme positions. There was probably no uniformity of peltast equipment before Iphicrates, some using primarily throwing spears, some longer spears, still others using swords of various sizes. The size of the shield probably varied too. I suspect therefore that Iphicrates studied the light infantry of his day and based his reforms around choosing from the various groups the equipment that best suited the type of soldier that he was trying to create. We may see Iphicrates therefore not as creating something entirely new, or as standardizing that which already existed, but as refining the equipment and tactics of the peltasts of his day.

Mercenaries had not been a significant part of the military forces of the city-states in the fifth century. There was, on the one hand, very little fiscal means to support such troops, and, on the other, a generally held belief that it was a citizen’s duty to take up arms and defend his polis as need arose. Any Greek mercenaries that did exist were generally employed in Persia or Egypt. Mercenaries were also employed in Sicily in significant numbers from an early date. By 481 it seems possible that Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, maintained an army that included as many as 15,000 mercenaries. They presumably constituted a significant part of the army that won the decisive victory over the Carthaginians at Himera. The most significant event that sparked a major increase in the employment of mercenary troops on mainland Greece was the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnesian states were the first to employ mercenaries in great numbers. These mercenaries were initially not light-armed troops but hoplites from Arcadia. Athens was slow to hire such troops, largely because of the geographical difficulty in reaching them, but by the end of the war mercenaries of all kinds were finding employment on both sides. The reasons for this change lay in the nature of the war itself. The war was prolonged and almost continuous and there were few large-scale set piece battles fought; most engagements were on a small scale and fought by troops who were relatively lightly equipped and very mobile. Mercenaries were simply better at this kind of combat than heavily armoured hoplites. The hiring of mercenaries was made possible now, and less so earlier, by the relative prosperity of the warring states as compared to earlier in the fifth century.

The end of the Peloponnesian War did not see an ending of the employment of mercenaries in Greece. The peace itself led to a large number of men who had become accustomed to earning their living as hired soldiers suddenly becoming unemployed. This would generally have a destabilizing effect upon any society, but they would not have stayed unemployed for long. The political situation in Greece in the fourth century meant that there were always potential paymasters. Their other great sphere of employment, Persia, was also undergoing change. The central authority of the Persian Empire had begun to weaken. The local governors and satraps grew more independent and ambitious. Their position needed military support, and they found it most readily in Greek mercenaries. It had long been recognized that mercenaries formed a more secure power base for tyrants, rather than citizen soldiers whose loyalty was more open to question if a usurper came along. Greek mercenary infantry in Persian service continually proved themselves more capable than anything that the native Persians were able to achieve, so the great king himself was also forced to hire his own contingents to keep pace with his potentially disloyal satraps. We see this to be true during the reign of Alexander too: the only quality infantry that Darius had at his disposal were the Greek mercenaries. Initially 20,000 strong at the Granicus, they had been reduced to perhaps only 2,000 by the time of Gaugamela. This was because of successive losses at the Granicus and Issus, but probably due to desertion too as it became apparent that Alexander was a more attractive paymaster. The League of Corinth had specifically outlawed a Greek taking up arms against another Greek; this decree had meant little at the outset of the campaign when Persia looked like a good bet for victory. At the time of the battle of Gaugamela in 331, however, Darius found it almost impossible to hire more Greek hoplite mercenaries. This was partly because he was no longer an attractive employer, partly because of the distance from Greece, and partly because Alexander was hiring them in increasing numbers, thus reducing the available pool.


The Spartan King Agesilaus died at the age of 84 on the way home from Egypt. There seems to have been something unhappily circular in the defence economy over which he presided: mercenary expeditions raised money by which the Spartan state was enabled to hire more mercenaries. However, it may be pleaded that Agesilaus was in fact trading military expertise for manpower.

Agesilaus’ death marks the end of an epoch in Greek history. His skilful operations had to some extent concealed the serious decline in the fighting potential of the Spartan citizen army. The development of new forms of warfare had been in itself an admission that the supremacy of the Spartan hoplite phalanx was at ‘an end. Since the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan army had been substantially remodelled; this in itself reflected a decline in numbers of the fully-enfranchised citizens who formed the backbone of the heavy infantry. The decline could in some degree be paralleled by population decline in other Greek states, but apart from all general tendencies Spartan military strength had also been seriously affected by the losses suffered in a devastating earthquake which occurred as far back as 465 BC – before the Peloponnesian War had even begun.

The Spartan army in the fourth century consisted of six battalions (morai). Each of these was under the command of a polemarch and, according to contemporary historians, consisted of 400 or perhaps 600 men. Both citizens and non-citizens served in it. Within the mora, there was subdivision into smaller units, as previously with the lochos. During the Corinthian War, a Spartan mora, after escorting a contingent of allied troops back to the Peloponnese, was intercepted in the Isthmus and routed with crippling losses by the Athenian commander Iphicrates. In numerical terms, casualties of 250 out of a total strength of 600 men, which on this occasion the unit contained, were extremely serious. The strategy and tactics of Iphicrates were even more significant; his victory was gained against hoplites by the use of lightarmed troops. The Spartan debacle, which occurred outside Corinth, can be paralleled by others in Greek military history, where (as at Amphipolis in the Peloponnesian War) incautious troops marching close under enemy walls exposed themselves to a sally from the city gates.

The action, however, was still more reminiscent of Sphacteria. The Spartans were overwhelmed by missiles and never allowed to come to grips. At Sphacteria, Spartan lack of foresight, combined with some bad luck, had produced the fatal situation, but Iphicrates was the deliberate architect of his own victory, which vindicated to the full his new strategic and tactical concepts of light-armed warfare. Indeed, there is a third reason for regarding Iphicrates’ success on this occasion as historically significant: the troops he commanded were mercenaries and their victory was gained against a predominantly citizen force.


Butler’s Rangers. They were Loyalist forces recruited in 1777, during the Revolutionary War, by the fugitive Mohawk Valley Tory, Major John Butler. The men were mostly Loyalist elements from around Niagara, New York. The Rangers were both feared and despised along the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers, fighting with the British alongside Joseph Brant in the Wyoming and Cherry Valley Massacres, in 1798.

John Butler had only about three hundred Rangers to oppose the mighty Sullivan-Clinton force because his Indian allies, preferring retreat to annihilation, offered little resistance to any of the three armies. Brant and Walter Butler set up an ambush to slow down Sullivan. But, outmaneuvered, the ambushers fled northward to Niagara as the troops swept through the Iroquois country, burning villages and crops, sometimes avenging past atrocities with a few of their own. Some soldiers scalped Indians they had killed. An officer told of finding two dead Indians whose bodies he then had skinned “from their hips down for boot legs … one pair for the Major the other for my-self.” Civilian Rebels joined the troops one day, locked an old Indian woman and a boy in a cabin, and set it afire.

After one of the few armed encounters, surviving Indians went off with two captured Continentals. Comrades later found their bodies: “The Indians … tied them up & whipped them prodigiously, pulled out their finger and toe nails, cut out their tongues, stuck spears and darts through them & set the Leuts [lieutenant’s] head on a log with the mouth open: we could not find the other head.”

As part of the Sullivan expedition, a detachment marched from Fort Stanwix and crossed Oneida Lake to raze the principal settlement of the Onondaga, who had not taken either the Tory or Rebel side. Leaders of the Oneida, allies of the Patriots, begged the Continentals not to attack the Onondaga, stressing their neutrality. But expedition officers dismissed the claim. The Continentals reported slaying twelve Onondaga, destroying about fifty log houses, burning “a large quantity of Corn and Beans,” and killing “a number of fine horses & every other kind of Stock we found.” The attack turned the Onandaga into foes of the Patriots.

Sullivan went about as far north as Genesee, New York. His expedition produced devastation as methodical as Washington had ordered. In a report to Congress, Sullivan said that “every creek and River has been traced” and “not a single town left” in the Iroquois country. His men had wiped out at least forty villages and, by Sullivan’s “moderate computation,” had destroyed at least 160,000 bushels of corn. In one large village soldiers cut down fifteen hundred peach trees.

Indian families, fleeing before the soldiers and carrying few belongings, sought refuge at the British base at Niagara, more than one hundred miles beyond Genesee. Thousands became homeless people seeking help. By the time the first of them reached Niagara, the chill of autumn was in the air, a prelude to the most severe winter in memory. The Butlers and other Loyalists built huts around the fort for the more than five thousand Indians gathered there. Food was scarce, and hunters risked freezing to death when they sought game. Hunger, cold, and disease killed an unknown number of the Indian refugees—perhaps hundreds.

Originally Washington had hoped that the western force sent up the Allegheny River valley would link up with the Sullivan-Clinton expedition in a great sweep that would subdue the entire Iroquois Nation. But, fearing that he would be overextending his forces, Washington changed his mind and left the western commander to venture on his own. The Allegheny Valley expedition, which did not lose a man, reported extensive destruction, burning down thirty-five houses, including some large enough to shelter three or four families, and putting the torch to fifteen hundred acres of corn. The western Indians also fled toward Niagara. In their flight, they left behind packets of trade pelts and other valuables, which the invaders seized as booty.

The western campaign turned that frontier into a cauldron of competing foes. Virginia and Pennsylvania argued over where their boundary should be drawn. Settlers, thinking the frontier had been freed of the Indian menace, began heading westward. Among them were Tories escaping persecution and seeking the protection of territory around British-held Detroit. Patriots feared that Tories would seize lead mines, vital to Rebel ammunition production, on the western Virginia frontier. A Virginia militia force swooped down on a Loyalist settlement near the mines and reported, “Shot one, Hanged one, and whipt several.” The Virginia House of Delegates confiscated the Loyalists’ land and lauded the militiamen for “suppressing a late conspiracy and insurrection on the frontiers of this State.” Skirmishes between western Tories and Rebels would continue through the war.

The Sullivan-Clinton expedition inspired small hit-and-run vengeance raids that began soon after the new year. Then, in May 1780, Sir John Johnson mobilized a force of more than five hundred men, made up of Indians and companies of his own King’s Royal Regiment. Loyalist boatmen took the raiders down Lake Champlain to a landing below Crown Point, where they went ashore to begin an overland trek. One detachment went directly with Johnson to his birthplace, Johnstown, New York. At Johnson Hall his men dug up two barrels of family silver plate that he had buried before his flight to Canada in 1776. The treasure, carefully inventoried, went into Loyalist knapsacks for the return trip.

A second detachment struck settlements south of the town, burning 120 houses, barns, and mills. They killed or wounded several men who were considered special enemies or were simply defending their homes. Some Tories were also killed and scalped by mistake in a frenzy of looting and burning. At sunset, on a hill in one settlement, lost dogs from smoldering homes joined the dogs of missing masters, and the forsaken pack howled deep into the night.

Rebel militiamen and Continentals belatedly responded to the raid. Johnson eluded them, even though he was burdened by his silver plate and a couple of dozen prisoners. He had also rounded up 143 Loyalist men, women, and children who had been living fearfully in Rebel territory. Pursuers finally got on Johnson’s trail as his fiery nineteen-day invasion was ending. When Johnson, his men, and their guests boarded bateaux for their return voyage, the pursuers were right behind. But they had neither the boats nor provisions to continue their pursuit.

The Johnson raid raised Loyalist morale in the borderland, deprived the Continental Army of food, and aided recruitment. With their families safe at Niagara, many of the Tory men Johnson had rescued signed up for the King’s Royal Regiment, completing the muster of one battalion and starting a second.

Sir Frederick Haldimand, Guy Carleton’s successor as “Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over our Province of Quebec in America,” believed that, in the wake of Burgoyne’s stunning defeat, a new invasion of Canada was likely. He saw the Rebel settlements of the frontier as a potential staging area for a strike across the border.60 To diminish that threat—and stop the flow of grain to the Continental Army—he ordered attacks on the people and crops of the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys.

Haldimand, born in Switzerland in 1718, became an officer in the Prussian army at the age of twenty-two. On the eve of the French and Indian War, as a soldier of fortune, he joined the Royal Americans, who included deserters from, or veterans of, European armies, along with Swiss and German settlers of Pennsylvania. After distinguished service in the war, he remained in the army and in America, assuming commands in posts from Massachusetts to Florida. His varied postings and familiarity with American ways made him one of Britain’s most experienced North American officials.

Under his direction, Sir John Johnson assembled a main force of nearly one thousand men, including about 180 British Army Regulars, twenty-five Hessians; 150 Rangers, under Col. John Butler; about two hundred men of the King’s Royal Regiment; many Tories in independent companies; and about 580 Indians. Haldimand rounded up an additional 970 men for diversionary raids near Saratoga and down the Richelieu River route to the Hudson River.

Scouts went out to alert Tories along the routes, assuring them that they would be escorted to Canada and resettled in safety if they believed they had endangered themselves by aiding the invaders. A scout from the King’s Royal Regiment, sent specifically to seek out Loyalists who might join the invasion, was caught, tried as a spy, andhanged, as was a Continental Army deserter who was caught recruiting Tories.

Men took down their muskets and went off to join the side of their choice, leaving wives and children behind. A Mohawk Valley man wrote about his father, who left his farm to join Butler’s Rangers: “It was a momentous struggle, a frightful warfare… . The farms were left to the care of the women, who seldom ate the bread of Idleness… . They spun, they wove, they knit, prepared their own flax, made their own homespun gowns, the children’s dresses, they churned, made cheese, and performed all the various duties of domestic and social life … my father’s mind was at ease about the affairs of the Farm.”

Three forts defended the verdant Schoharie Valley, Johnson’s first objective. The Lower Fort, as it was called, had as its core a stone Dutch Reformed church. Surrounding it was a stockade encompassing about an acre of land dotted with small huts. The fort’s powder was stored beneath the pulpit, and in the belfry was a platform for lookouts and rifle marksmen. Outside one of the two corner blockhouses was a tavern. The Upper Fort was about fifteen miles south, near the village of Schoharie; the Middle Fort was just below Mid-dleburg.

On October 16 Johnson’s expedition camped near the Upper Fort, which was built around a farmhouse and barn, its stockade surrounding about two and a half acres. The next morning a soldier outside the fort spotted the Loyalist force and ran to give warning. A signal gun boomed. Hearing it, Johnson ordered the destruction to commence. Flames and smoke began rising from barns and deserted houses. Cattle and pigs lay dying, their cries and their blood drawing dogs and vultures.

The invaders broke into houses, took what they wanted, and torched them. Some people stayed to defend their homes, which in this prosperous farmland were framed and painted wooden buildings, not log cabins. The raiders moved on quickly, heading for the Middle Fort through a day that was growing gray under wind-whipped sleet and snow. Johnson set up two small cannons that began firing at the fort as his Rangers and Indians cautiously approached it. After a whilethe firing stopped, and men in the fort saw a white flag appear in the enemy ranks. The flag bearer began walking forward, flanked by an officer in the green coat of Butler’s Rangers and a fifer playing “Yankee Doodle,” still a mocking tune to the ears of a Rebel.

The commander of the Middle Fort, a Continental in charge of militiamen accustomed to having their own officers, ordered the gates opened to the flag of truce. Timothy Murphy, a militiaman, defied the order. He was a sharpshooter, one of Morgan’s riflemen in the Battle of Saratoga. Now he shot at the flag party—to warn them off, not to hit them. He told his stunned commander that he believed that the white flag was a ruse to allow the officer to assess the fort’s garrison. If the Ranger did enter, he would see how few defenders there were. The flag party turned back, then came forward two more times, and each time Murphy fired a warning shot. Murphy’s defiance undermined the authority of the Continental officer, who threatened a court-martial but finally turned over command of the fort to a militia colonel.

Johnson decided to march on, bypassing the fort to continue destroying every Rebel farm in his path—while sparing Tory property. After another bivouac in the Schoharie Valley, he headed for the Mohawk Valley, pursued by frustrated and outnumbered Rebel militiamen only able to “hange on their Rear.” As soon as Johnson left, outraged Rebels burned the untouched Tory farms, completing the absolute destruction of the valley’s crops and livestock. Tories fled northward, joining Johnson’s followers.

At the Mohawk River the raiders split into two detachments to loot and raze along both sides of the river, camping for the night near the town of Root. On the morning of October 19 the main force crossed the Mohawk and headed for the German village of Stone Arabia, the center of an area settled by immigrants from a part of Germany known as the Palatinate. At nearby Fort Paris, Col. John Brown mustered about three hundred men, including a few Oneida Indians, and, astride his small black horse, led them toward Johnson’s force. Brown was killed in an ambush. His men fled, leaving behind the fallen to be scalped.

Johnson’s “Destructionists,” as raiders were sometimes called, kept on swooping down on farms. Among his men were settlers who had lived in these houses, built these barns, tilled these fields. But now they were Tories on a mission, and to them, somehow, this rich valley had become an alien land. A farmer, hidden in the woods with his family, watched his own farm vanish in flames. He saw the Indian Tories move on, swinging firebrands over their head until they blazed, then touching them to barns full of grain. After the Indians left, the farmer found seven hogs dead in their pen, killed by a pitchfork taken from what had been a barn. And so it went, farm after farm.

British soldiers in the attack force sometimes guarded prisoners to protect them from the Indians, whose behavior was unpredictable. At one farm Indians took a woman and her seven children out of their house, then loaded them and armfuls of loot into a horse-drawn wagon. Around that time Johnson was told that Continentals and militiamen were on their way from Albany and Schenectady. He released the woman and her children, except for her fourteen-year-old son, presumably kidnapped to become a future Ranger.

About nine hundred Rebels, most of them militiamen, caught up with the raiders toward the end of day. In a twilight skirmish Johnson tried to set up a battle line but failed to hold off a Rebel charge. Men of Johnson’s own regiment were driven back—” running promiscuously through and over one another” in the dark, a Tory said. As the Johnson Destructionists settled for the night near the battlefield, the Rebels’ commander inexplicably ordered his men to camp about three miles away. He planned to strike the next morning. By then Johnson and his force were well on the way toward Canada.

The diversionary raids were as successful as the main raid. Maj. Christopher Carleton, a nephew of Sir Guy Carleton, headed a force of nearly one thousand Regulars, Indians, and Tories down the Champlain Valley into the upper Hudson River valley. Carleton was knowledgeable about Indian culture, had had himself tattooed, and attimes wore a ring through his nose. He had taken an Indian mistress before marrying the sister of his uncle’s wife. He knew the frontier wilderness trails as well as an Indian. He was an inspiring leader in a stealthy campaign that called for night marches and fireless camps.

Early in the three-week expedition, near the southern shore of Lake George, a King’s Ranger spotted about fifty Rebel soldiers leaving Fort George. A mixed force of Rangers, Indians, and Regulars surrounded the men and swiftly killed twenty-seven. Eight men were captured. The rest escaped into the woods. The fort surrendered. After looting and burning it, the raiders marched on, their prisoners carrying the Indians’ plunder. By the loose rules of raiding, Indians, male and female, were given looting rights, some becoming quite discerning. One settler told of an Indian who stole plates from a dark house. Once outside, he discovered they were pewter, not silver, and disdainfully threw them away.

A party of militiamen was sent to the area later to bury the dead. “We found twenty-two slaughtered and mangled men,” one of them remembered. “All had their skulls knocked in, their throats cut and their scalps taken. Their clothes were mostly stripped off… . The fighting had been mostly with clubbed muskets, and the fragments of these, split and shivered, were laying around with the bodies.”

A diversionary raid aimed at Schenectady, led by a former merchant in that town, shifted to the village of Ballston after militiamen mobilized on the route ahead. In Ballston, Indians broke into cabins and killed two men. Tory officers intervened, feeling that the Indians were turning too violent. In one cabin, an officer grabbed an Indian’s upraised arm, protecting an unarmed man defending his family. After the usual burning and looting, the Indians, Rangers, and Tory followers headed back to Canada with a string of prisoners.

Carleton’s men burned down a second Rebel fort and captured 148 Rebel soldiers, a large loss in a frontier of sparse garrisons. The raiders destroyed thirty-eight houses, thirty-three barns, six saw mills, and a grist mill. They estimated that they had torched fifteen hundred tons of hay. A detachment of Indians burned down thirty-two houses and their barns.81 Such inventories of desolation continued, year after year, raid after raid. At least twenty-nine raids struck towns in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys in 1781 alone.

Col. Marinus Willett, a Continental Army hero, writing to Washington from Fort Herkimer in the German Flats in July 1781, estimated that one-third of the people on the New York frontier had been killed or carried off, one-third had fled the frontier but remained Patriots, and “one third deserted to the enemy.” Postwar records show that about 380 women became widows and some two thousand children lost their fathers. About seven hundred buildings had been burned and 150,000 bushels of wheat destroyed. Some twelve thousand farms had been abandoned. There is no reliable estimate of how many prisoners were taken. Some were exchanged; some did not return until a year or more after the war. Many died. Others, lured by offers of free land, became Tories and remained in Canada.

“I am really at a loss to know how to feed the troops,” the senior Continental Army colonel in New York wrote to Governor George Clinton, General Clinton’s brother, in September 1780. Two months later, reacting to the continuing loss of grain and flour from “the country which has been laid waste,” Washington told Governor Clinton that “we shall be obliged to bring flour from the southward.”

To the west, in the wild Ohio Country, under orders from Lord Germain in London, bands of Tories and Indians raided settlements on the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers and in the area that would become Kentucky. Germain, saying “it is The Kings command,” had instructed an obscure colonial official to “assemble as many of the Indians of his district as he conveniently can, and placing proper Persons at their Head, to … restrain them from committing violence on the well affected and inoffensive Inhabitants, employ them in making a Diversion and exciting an alarm upon the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania.”

The official was Henry Hamilton, an Ireland-born veteran of the French and Indian War, who in 1775 had been made lieutenant governor and superintendent of Indian affairs at Fort Detroit (site of today’s Detroit). Hamilton was one of five lieutenant governors appointed to manage the Province of Quebec, whose boundaries had been extended by the Quebec Act of 1774 to include an immense expanse of land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Germain also authorized Hamilton to raise Tory regiments and offer each recruit the postwar promise of two hundred acres of land. With his Tories and Indians, Germain wrote, Hamilton might be able “to extend his operations so as to divide the attention of the Rebels, and oblige them to collect a considerable Force to oppose him.” Following Germain’s orders, Hamilton sent Tory-Indian raiders into a territory that Britain had prohibited its colonists from settling. But, defying the Crown, colonists had settled there. Their disobedience had marked them as Rebels, though there were enough Tories among them for Hamilton to find recruits.

White men had been paying bounties for enemies’ scalps since the French and Indian War. But Rebels on the frontier singled Hamilton out as the “Hair Buyer,” a label that found its way into numerous narratives. Hamilton himself routinely mentioned scalps in his reports. Early in 1778, for example, he wrote to Governor Carleton, saying that his Indians had “brought in seventy-three prisoners alive, twenty of which they presented to me, and one hundred and twenty-nine scalps.” Later that year Hamilton told Carleton’s successor, Frederick Haldimand, that “since last May the Indians in this district have taken thirty-four prisoners, seventeen of which they delivered up, and eighty-one scalps, several prisoners taken and adopted [by Indians] not reckoned in this number.” Neither letter mentions bounties for the scalps.

One of Hamilton’s operatives was Simon Girty, who had been captured by French-commanded Indians as a child in 1756 and raised by Senecas. He was freed after eight years and married a young woman who had been a captive of the Delaware tribe. Girty became an officer in a Pennsylvania militia and an Indian interpreter at Fort Pitt. When the Revolution began, by one story, Girty was confined to the fort as a suspected Tory; by another, he defected because he was disgusted with American treatment of Indians. Whatever the reason, he endedup in Detroit and became not only a captain and interpreter in the British Indian Department but also the most notorious Tory on the western frontier. Like Hamilton, Girty would get a label: “White Savage.” His infamy was based on his witnessing but not trying to stop the heinous torture of a Patriot—” they scalped him alive and then laid hot ashes upon his head, after which they roasted him by a slow fire.”

Virginia governor Patrick Henry feared that Hamilton’s raids would drive settlers out of the territory and give the British control over the western frontier. One of the frontier leaders was Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark, a lanky, red-haired militia officer from the first region west of the Allegheny Mountains settled by American pioneers (later Kentucky). In 1778, with Henry’s support, Clark and his force of frontiersmen headed over the mountains to capture the bases from which the raiders struck. He also wanted to establish American claims to a territory nearly as large as the thirteen colonies.

Clark easily took three British outposts. But the most important—Fort Sackville in what would become Vincennes, Indiana—was retaken by Hamilton and a mixed force of Indians, Tory militia, and Regulars.95 Hamilton decided to wait until spring to attack Clark and roll back the frontier to east of the mountains. Clark surprised him by leading about 175 men to the fort, through seventeen winter days of snow and icy streams. At Vincennes his men captured five Indians carrying American scalps. To terrify Hamilton’s men Clark bound the captives and tomahawked them in full view of the garrison. Hamilton surrendered the fort and was taken to Williamsburg, where Governor Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry’s successor, called him a “butcher of men, women and children,” put him in irons, and treated him as a criminal, not a prisoner of war. After eighteen months, through the intervention of Washington, he was finally freed in a prisoner exchange.

From New York to the Ohio country, the Indian-Tory raids on frontier settlements continued, becoming a war unto itself. To the west, in March 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen swooped down on the missionary village of Gnadenhutten. The Delaware Indians there, converted to Christianity, were suspected of being Loyalists. The militiamen rounded up the unarmed Indians and killed sixty-two adults and thirty-four children by smashing their skulls with mallets. Two boys escaped and spread word of the massacre. In an act of vengeance three months later, Delaware braves tortured a captive militia officer who had nothing to do with the raid and then burned him at the stake. After the Revolution ended, Fort Detroit in the west, like Fort Niagara in the east, remained a British garrison and a Tory haven. But George Rogers Clark’s thrust beyond the mountains did establish an American claim on territory that would become Kentucky and West Virginia. And in 1803 President Jefferson looked farther westward, asking Congress for approval of an expedition that would travel to the Pacific. As one of it leaders, Jefferson would pick William Clark, George Rogers Clark’s younger brother.

* In 1761 Crown Point was a British fort on the west side of Lake Champlain, evacuated by the French in 1759 after the British captured Ticonderoga.


Augustus was so alarmed that for several consecutive months he did not cut his beard or hair, and sometimes he bashed his head in the corridors, crying out, ‘Quinctilius Varus – bring the legions back!’

Augustus reacts to the catastrophic news that three legions under the command of Varus had been wiped out by the Germans.

The Second Punic War nearly saw Hannibal and his Carthaginians wipe out the Roman forces. The legendary defeats at Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC) haunted Roman memory. But they were not the only times Rome came near to complete destruction at the hands of an enemy on the battlefield.

Although there are innumerable tales of Roman military bravery, like that of Caesar’s centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, there are instances where Roman troops fell short of what was expected of them in the heat of battle. Some did not want to fight, particularly if they knew that the enemy was especially challenging. Others fought valiantly, but if they were defeated and lived to tell the tale they were treated by their countrymen as shameful failures. The stories recount some of Rome’s darkest days, and depict some of its most humiliated soldiers.


The great Republican general Scipio Africanus had no time for ill-prepared commanding officers. One of his sayings was that bleating ‘in war the words “I had not expected [that]”’ disgraced whoever said them. Scipio firmly believed that any military campaign should only be conducted after exhaustive preparations and planning had been undertaken. One of the reasons he said this was because of some of the disasters under his predecessors’ leadership earlier in the Second Punic War. He added that one should only ever fight a battle with an enemy if an opportunity had arisen, or out of necessity.

A series of major defeats in the Second Punic War nearly destroyed Rome, yet the city’s ability to learn from catastrophes and come back fighting was absolutely fundamental to the development of the Roman army, its military skills and leadership. In 217 BC the Carthaginian general Hannibal was loose in Italy, roaming and laying waste at will, with the firm intention of provoking the Romans into action. He succeeded. The consul Gaius Flaminius was so outraged he ignored advice to wait for his fellow consul, Servilius Geminus, to arrive with his army. Flaminius completely misunderstood the depth of the threat as he marched along in the vicinity of Lake Trasimene early on the morning of 21 June. Believing Hannibal was some way off, he was horrified to find his army had been stopped by Hannibal’s African and Spanish troops. Hannibal had stationed them there with the express intention of blocking Flaminius’ men and trapping them between the lake and the mountains.

Flaminius had rushed straight into a trap. Livy claimed that Flaminius displayed admirable coolness under the circumstances and tried to rally the soldiers by telling them only their ‘brave exertions’ could save them. It made no difference to the outcome. The Romans saw the Africans and Spaniards before they realized there was an ambush waiting for them. They were also caught out by the morning mist they were marching through. Hannibal had sent his other troops up on to the high ground overlooking the road. Stationed above the mist, they could send visual signals to each other to coordinate the attack. The Romans had no idea where Hannibal’s men were until they heard the shouting but could not see anything; in the ‘din and confusion’ the centurions and tribunes were unable to issue any orders.

The Romans were attacked on all sides. They were still in marching formation and had had no chance to reorganize into battle order. According to Polybius, Flaminius was in a state of ‘the utmost dismay and dejection’ and had exhibited ‘a total lack of judgement’. When an Insubrian horseman called Ducarius recognized Flaminius as the general who had attacked Insubrian territory in 223 BC, he charged forward and killed him.

The fighting was not even over. Troops at the rear of the Roman column were pushed into the lake, where Hannibal’s cavalry killed them or they drowned. Only 6,000 Roman troops managed to escape and fight their way to higher ground, where they could see how disastrous the battle had been. They tried to hold out in a nearby village but were encircled by Hannibal and captured. Critically, the whole scenario had prevented the Roman army from operating in disciplined battle formation. ‘It was no ordered battle’, said Livy. Every man fought for himself in a frenzy that lasted three hours, apparently ignoring even an earthquake which coincided with the mayhem.

It was a ‘disaster memorable as few others have been in Roman history’, and it was impossible to pretend to the Roman people that it had been anything else. In fact it was almost the first time the general population had ever been told about a defeat. In the end a mere 10,000 Romans managed to struggle back to Rome in dribs and drabs. Meanwhile, 4,000 Roman cavalry under the command of Gaius Centenius which diverted to help out at Trasimene rode right into Hannibal’s hands and were lost too, half being killed and the other half captured.

To a beleaguered Rome the situation seemed catastrophic, but the senators kept their cool and spent days discussing what to do. The critical lessons were not to let a commanding officer act unilaterally, and not to allow an army to become trapped. The Roman army’s greatest skill was organization and discipline. Both had broken down at Trasimene, and one of the reasons was its reliance on recently raised and untrained recruits. The results were disastrous losses and Hannibal’s freedom to continue to roam Italy at will.

The solution, it was decided, was to confront Hannibal in overwhelming numbers and to make sure the men were fully trained and confident. Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro were elected as the consuls for 216 BC and placed in charge of the military preparations, Paullus dealing with recruitment and training. When Hannibal seized the town of Cannae, helping himself to Roman stores there, the scene was set for a major showdown. The Romans organized themselves into an exceptionally large army. Eight legions were formed, double the normal number. Each legion was also enlarged to 5,000 with 300 cavalry attached, adding a further 2,400 men to the 40,000-odd infantry. Another 40,000 allied infantry were raised, along with around 5,000 allied cavalry. The Roman army of 216 BC now numbered nearly 90,000 men, an extraordinary number for the time.

Unfortunately, the two consuls put their egos first and disagreed about what to do. Camped 5 miles (8 km) from the Carthaginians, Paullus wanted to avoid fighting there because the land was open and it would give Hannibal’s cavalry the opportunity to attack with impunity. That was what Hannibal himself wanted, said Livy, because ‘in a cavalry action . . . he was invincible’. Varro, who was much less experienced, did not concur. It was, noted Polybius, ‘the most dangerous situation which could happen’. The normal practice was for the consuls to take overall command on alternate days, which would not matter if they were cooperating. But they were not, and they adopted different tactics in an enthusiastic display of incompetence. Varro took advantage of his prerogative the next day to order the men to break camp and advance. Hannibal, who must have been stunned at his good fortune, capitalized on the unexpected opportunity and attacked, but the Romans managed to fight back and hold off the Carthaginians until night fell. The following day Paullus took over and told the army to pitch camp by the river Aufidus, but decided to split his force, ordering one-third to guard a ford over a mile away on the opposite bank so it could protect foraging parties.

What followed was a series of inconclusive encounters, the news leaving the people in Rome half mad with nerves. On 2 August Varro once more took overall command. He led the army over the river without even bothering to tell Paullus and placed them in battle formation, egged on by the troops who were desperate to fight. The main body in the middle was the infantry under the command of Geminus Servilius, with Roman cavalry on the right and allied cavalry on the left. Hannibal brought his 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry out to face the Romans in a similar configuration. The only significant difference was that he ordered his centre forward to create a ‘crescent-shaped bulge’ so that they could start the battle. He had also ensured that the Romans were facing into the sun and the dust, whipped up by the wind that was common there.

The fighting only became truly vicious when the cavalry met each other on the Roman right, beside the river. The area was so small that they dismounted in the congestion and started fighting hand to hand. The Roman cavalry gave way, many being killed; Varro was one of those who fled, along with 70 surviving Roman cavalry, adding ignominy to his stupidity in the lead-up to the battle. The Roman infantry made much better headway against Hannibal’s Celts, but they had inevitably advanced into a trap. It was precisely what Hannibal had planned all along. His African troops, arranged on either side of the Celts, enveloped the Romans. Meanwhile the allied cavalry on the Roman left fell back; Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal was able to leave them and support the Africans in the heart of the infantry battle.

In the melee Paullus tried to rally the troops but lost his horse. A tribune called Gnaeus Lentulus rode up and offered his own horse, he said, to the ‘only man without guilt in the disaster of this day’. It would save him and allow him to avoid the shame of a consul’s death. Paullus declined, telling him to go to Rome and warn the Senate to fortify the city, and leave him to die among his soldiers. At that moment Paullus was killed in a rain of enemy missiles and Lentulus escaped. Gradually the Carthaginians whittled down the Roman army by working inwards from the outside, systematically killing the Romans as they went.

Hannibal captured 10,000 Roman infantry, all of whom had been left by Paullus in the camp as a reserve. About 3,000 more fled from the battlefield, as did 300 allied cavalry. Polybius was appalled at how Varro managed to escape too, commenting that his flight from the battlefield only matched the disaster of his tenure of office. The rest, numbering allegedly about 70,000, were believed dead. In contrast, Hannibal lost about 5,700 men in total – less than 10 per cent of the Roman losses. These at least were the figures recorded by Polybius. Livy suggested something more like 50,000. Like all such details they were rounded and probably exaggerated to some degree. Nonetheless, it is clear the battle was a catastrophe for Rome and a relatively cheap victory for Hannibal. Livy described the Roman army as having been ‘annihilated in a massacre’, the terrible news being passed from house to house in the city. The lesson was a hard one for Rome. The decisive factor had been Hannibal’s cavalry, proving that it was better to have fewer infantry than the enemy and more cavalry.

A few days later another Roman army was wiped out by Celts in Gallia Cisalpina. The only thing that could be said in the Romans’ favour was that when the news of these hair-raising disasters reached Rome, the Senate held its nerve. As Polybius noted, ‘through the special virtues and their ability to keep their heads’, the Romans were eventually able to fight back. Their ultimate victory in a war they were to win a decade later would leave them ‘masters of the whole world’.

The events of 216 BC remained in Roman consciousness long afterwards. Cannae was remembered as an occasion ‘when the survival of the Republic hung on the loyalty of our allies’. By imperial times a story had grown up that Varro had suffered such a terrible defeat at Trasimene because he had insulted Juno. As aedile in charge of the games he had installed an exceptionally good-looking young male actor in Jupiter’s carriage to hold the necessary religious accessories. It was a clear allusion to Jupiter’s cup bearer Ganymede, with whom Jupiter had fallen in love. Therefore, it was alleged, Juno had been infuriated by Varro’s insensitivity and had made sure he was defeated. When the tale was recalled in later years sacrifices had to be made to make amends for Varro’s contempt for Juno’s sensibilities. The point is not whether the story was true or not, or even whether the Romans believed it, but rather the notion that battles or campaigns were susceptible to the whims of deities in response to the actions of men.

The eventual Roman victory in the Second Punic War was won at astronomical cost. Trasimene and Cannae reinforced the Roman sense of destiny that they had prevailed and overcome enormous adversity. The nature of the evidence we have tells us little or nothing about the individual soldiers involved. They are absent from the record. What we do know is that in the longer run the families they left behind were often dispossessed of their land by the greedy Roman aristocracy. Even the survivors all too often came home to find their peasant farms had been stolen and absorbed into vast senatorial estates run by slaves, leading to a political crisis in 133 BC. It was the ensuing crisis in the Roman Republic that began slowly to pave the way for the age of the emperors and the establishment of a professional standing army.

The surviving Roman forces from Cannae who made their way back to Rome were not thought worthy of compassion. In Roman eyes they had failed ignominiously. It would have been far better had they died in battle. Instead they were punished by being sent to Sicily and forced to live as if they were still on campaign for as long as the Second Punic War lasted. In 212 BC the remnants of the army defeated at Cannae appealed to the general commanding in Sicily, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to take their concerns to the Senate. In their letter they found an oblique way of implying that the fault for the defeat clearly lay with their leaders and reminded him that the officers had proceeded to pursue normal careers, some even becoming provincial governors. They drew attention to the lenient treatment meted out to other defeated Roman armies and begged for the chance to overturn their disgrace. Marcellus agreed to send the letter on to the Senate, but the appeal was rejected.

In 205 BC Scipio, who was assembling a new army in Sicily to mount an invasion of Africa to destroy Carthage, took a different view. The soldiers themselves believed that under Scipio they could redeem themselves:

Those who were left of the soldiers who had fought at Cannae felt convinced that under Scipio, and no other general, they would be enabled, by exerting themselves in the cause of the state, to put an end to their ignominious service. Scipio was far from feeling contempt for that description of soldiers, inasmuch as he knew that the defeat sustained at Cannae was not attributable to their cowardice, and that there were no soldiers in the Roman army who had served so long, or were so experienced not only in the various kinds of battles, but in assaulting towns also. The legions which had fought at Cannae were the V and VI. After declaring that he would take these with him into Africa, he inspected them man by man. Leaving those whom he considered unfit for service, he substituted for them those whom he had brought from Sicily, filling up those legions so that each might contain 6,200 infantry and 300 cavalry.

The Cannae survivors had finally exonerated themselves, but it had been a long time coming.


The slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BC presented Rome’s army with an unprecedented challenge, and it came about because of the grievances of a man who had once fought for Rome. The Thracian Spartacus had reputedly once been a soldier in the Roman army – glossed over in the famous motion picture about his life. Having somehow been enslaved, he was eventually sold for gladiatorial training at the school run by the lanista Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. Spartacus’ military training as well as his intelligence stood him in good stead when, according to Appian, he decided to lead a rebellion by overcoming the training school guards. Plutarch’s version has 200 gladiators planning to escape, with 78 managing to do so and subsequently electing Spartacus as leader. (Given the chaos there must have been at the time, it is hardly surprising the accounts do not tally precisely, not only at this point but also throughout.) Spartacus and his band of rebels headed for the slopes of Vesuvius, having been joined as they went by runaway slaves and even some free peasants. Any loot or booty gathered along the way was shared out equally, an egalitarian gesture which soon encouraged many others to join them.

A slave rebellion was something that terrified the Romans. Two major revolts had erupted in Sicily in 135 BC and 104 BC and had proved extremely dangerous and difficult to crush. There were so many slaves that there was a real risk they would realize that by working together they could easily overcome their masters. Despite that, no one in Rome appreciated quite how dangerous Spartacus’ rebellion was. Arrogance and complacency set the Romans on the route to another military disaster. A couple of scratch forces rather than proper armies were thrown together and sent after the rebels, who beat them off easily. Spartacus’ army was now thought to number 70,000, and thanks to his experience he was able to oversee the manufacture of weapons and military training. Only then did the Senate dispatch a proper consular army of two legions.

To begin with they successfully defeated a force of 30,000 fighting under another gladiator leader called Crixus, who was among 20,000 men killed. Spartacus decided to lead his slave army north through Italy but was cut off by one of the consuls, while the other blocked his retreat. Since the consular army cannot have numbered more than about 10–12,000 men, however, splitting them was a bad move. Spartacus attacked the two halves of the Roman army in separate engagements and defeated both with a force that had now grown to 120,000, the consuls fleeing in separate directions. Plutarch adds that Spartacus headed on towards Gaul, defeating Cassius, the governor of Gallia Cisalpina, and an army of 10,000. Spartacus ordered the execution of 300 Roman prisoners as a sacrifice in honour of Crixus. Next he marched on Rome, killing all his remaining prisoners and his pack animals so that he could advance as fast as possible. By now the consuls had regrouped and together tried to block Spartacus. He defeated them again.

The fact that a trained Roman army was being overcome time after time by a slave contingent led by a former slave who had once fought for the Romans himself was a devastating and terrifying humiliation for the Roman military. Spartacus was also smart enough to understand that his force, for all its size, lacked the equipment and training to take Rome. Instead he captured the city of Thurii, where he only allowed merchants to bring in iron and brass so his men could manufacture more arms. Another victory over a Roman army followed.