Corpo di Spedizione Italiano and Units after 1943

Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia)

As Europe’s first fascist dictator, it was inevitable that Mussolini would commit troops to the “anti-Bolshevik crusade”. However, up to June 1941, World War II had gone badly for Il Duce. He had nothing to show in comparison with Hitler’s territorial gains. In May 1940, Mussolini’s frustration was further heightened when the German armies drove the British forces off the continent and brought France to her knees. It now seemed certain that Germany would win the war. Desperate to share in the spoils of war, Mussolini announced on 10 June 1940 to an enormous crowd gathered in the Piazza Venezia that Italy was at war with Britain and France. Unfortunately, Il Duce was caught in what his Foreign Minister Ciano ironically called “an outbreak of peace” which left Mussolini in a state of limbo. His ego and thirst for power drove him subsequently to invade the Balkans. The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940, only to be militarily humiliated by the Greeks. However, fascist honour was restored by the German Blitzkrieg in the Balkans in April 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia were quickly conquered, and a British expeditionary force was expelled from the mainland. It found refuge on Crete, which was then taken by a German airborne assault in May. This was followed by Turkey signing a formal treaty with Berlin that granted the Germans passage through the Dardanelles.

These factors convinced Mussolini of the Führer’s invincibility and that the impending German attack on the Soviet Union would be an unqualified success. He was convinced he would gain the prestige that he longed for, and Italy would share in the spoils of war. He thus joined the war against Russia and committed a force of 60,000 men to the struggle, known as the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia). This force comprised three divisions: Pasubio and Torino, which were 1938-type binary divisions (two infantry regiments and an artillery regiment each plus support services), and the 3rd Mobile Division Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta. The latter had two mounted cavalry regiments, a Bersaglieri cycle regiment, a light tank group with obsolete L-3s, an artillery regiment and service units. Later, he sent the 63rd Assault Legion Tagliamento to represent his fascist Blackshirts.

The CSI on the Eastern Front

In July 1941, the supposedly motorized CSI followed the German Army through the Ukraine, mainly on foot. Morale was high at the prospect of an easy campaign, and the Germans were impressed with their Italian allies. Unfortunately, this initial euphoria soon disappeared. Inadequate leadership, armour and transport, plus shortages of artillery and anti-tank weapons, revealed the corps to be ill-equipped for the fighting it was to encounter. Undeterred, in March 1942, Mussolini sent II Corps comprising the Sforzesca, Ravenna and Cosseria Infantry Divisions, together with the élite Alpine Corps comprising the Vicenza Infantry and Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions. Further Blackshirt units were also sent, formed into the 3 Gennaio and 23 Marzo Groups to reinforce the CSI, now designated XXXV Corps. This force of 227,000 men became the Italian Eighth Army. In August 1942, it was guarding the Don Front north of Stalingrad with German liaison officers and formations attached to ensure its reliability. Although a Russian attack had been expected, the Italians were unable to resist the massive armoured thrust that was hurled against them on 11 December 1942. II and XXXV Corps crumbled almost immediately, leaving the Alpine Corps stranded and resulting in a huge gap in the Don defences. The lack of anti-tank guns and medium tanks was keenly felt in this rout. The Italians were left to fend for themselves during their retreat, in which they were harassed continually by the Red Army. In January 1943, the survivors regrouped in the Ukraine but the Italian Eighth Army had ceased to exist. The disillusioned Germans sent the survivors back to Italy.

The Fall of Mussolini

Once in Italy, the survivors bitterly blamed both Mussolini and Hitler for the suffering they had endured. This, in part, influenced the events that were to follow in Italy when, on 25 July 1943, Mussolini was voted out of office by his own Fascist Grand Council and subsequently placed under arrest. On 8 September, Italy officially quit the war. After the fall of the fascist regime, the liberated areas of the country turned to the Allies. On 12 September, Mussolini was rescued from captivity on Gran Sasso by a German commando unit under the leadership of Otto Skorzeny and then evacuated to Germany. Later, in the town of Salo on the shores of Lake Garda, Il Duce set up a puppet fascist state, the so-called Italian Social Republic or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Republic of Salo. The official foundation of the armed forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) was on 28 October 1943.

A virtual civil war had broken out in Italy after Mussolini’s deposition and Italy’s exit from the Axis camp. Some of the Italian forces actively resisted the Germans and were defeated and made prisoner; others deserted to swell the ranks of the resistance; and a few remained loyal to fascism. The Germans were anxious to utilize the pro-fascist elements in the struggle against the now greatly augmented resistance. Above all, they were determined to keep open the vital lines of communication between Austria and northern Italy. Mussolini’s republic cannot be considered anything but a puppet state of the greater German Reich. Four infantry divisions were formed and trained in Germany: the Italia, Littorio, San Marco and Monterosa Divisions. These and other units were under German control. For example, a unit that was formed in France after the fall of Mussolini from two battalions of the Blackshirt militia wore Italian Army uniforms with the Wehrmacht eagle and swastika above the left breast pocket and as a cap badge. It returned to Italy in October 1943 to fight the partisans and later the Allies at Anzio. It was granted the title, 1st Battaglione 9 Settembre, by Mussolini in August 1944. In October 1944, it was attached to the German Brandenburg Division and, as part of this unit, fought against the Red Army on the Eastern Front from October 1944 to January 1945, when it was brought back to Italy to take part once again in anti-partisan fighting.

The Germans also raised a unit composed of Bersaglieri personnel. Before the RSI was proclaimed, this formation was called the Voluntary Battalion of the Waffen-SS. It should not be confused with the 29th Grenadier Division of the Italian SS, which appeared later and was formed by more than 15,000 Italian recruits who joined the Waffen-SS.

From September 1943 to the end of February 1944, a separate SS battalion was being formed at the SS Heidelager Training Centre at Debica, Poland. Major Fortunato, a former Bersaglieri officer who had served in Russia, was tasked in the selection of new recruits loyal to the Germans. Most of the volunteers came from the Italian 31st Tank Battalion of the Lombardia Division and the élite alpine Julia Division.

The formation, which had 20 officers and 571 men, was referred to as the SS Battalion Debica. For the most part, these troops were considered as Waffen-SS men; and by early March 1944, the men of the SS Battalion Debica had been kitted out in German paratrooper uniforms.

On 21 March 1944, the SS Battalion Debica was deployed to carry out anti-partisan operations around the Pellice Valley, southwest of Turin. On 12 April, the SS Battalion Debica was incorporated into SS Battle Group Diebitsch. However, it was not deployed to the Anzio frontlines. During April and May, the battalion fought around Nocera Umbra, Assisi and San Severino Marche against Italian partisans, suffering 50 casualties. New volunteers were able to keep the battalion’s strength at 500 men and 20 officers.

In early June 1944, SS Battalion Debica, now subordinated to the German I Parachute Corps, was in action to the north of Rome along the Tyrrhenian coast. It suffered heavy losses while fighting American tank units in this area and against partisans behind the German lines. The 200 or so survivors were then dispersed among small battle groups. On 16 June, the SS Battalion Debica was ordered to Florence to help guard the defensive positions of the Gothic Line under Army Group von Zangen. Because the battalion was understrength, it was sent to Pinerolo for refitting. By August, the battalion was back to full strength and ordered to take part in Operation Nightingale against partisan strongpoints in the Chisone and Susa Valleys. On 7 September the SS Battalion Debica became part of the new Waffen Grenadier Brigade der SS (Italian nr. 1), being converted into the new 59th Waffen-SS Reconnaissance Battalion.

Fourteen captured Italian Carro Armato P 40 tanks were supplied to the newly formed division, 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger, in July 1944, but they proved unreliable.

The 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger was a mixed German Volksdeutsche and pro-fascist Italian formation. To combat Tito’s partisans in the Carso and Julian Alps, the SS Karstwehr Company had been formed in the summer of 1942, initially to combat partisans in the Karst alpine regions bordering Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Out of this special anti-partisan mountain combat company grew a division (after Mussolini’s removal made Himmler decide that the Karstwehr Battalion should be strengthened with locally recruited Volksdeutsche from the South Tyrol, and subsequently by Italian fascist “loyalists”). A divisional headquarters was set up in the town of Moggio in the province of Udine. The division consisted of two mountain infantry regiments and one mountain artillery regiment. Apart from one brief encounter with the British in the latter stages of the war, all the actions fought by this unit were against the partisans. General Paul Hausser, a Waffen-SS corps commander, referred to the non-German part of the division as, “a mixture of Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians”. The division began to fall apart in the closing weeks of the war, with only the German component fighting on to the end. The remnants surrendered to the British 6th Armoured Division in Austria at the beginning of May 1945.

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Late 19th Century Infantry Firepower

A French officer, Colonel Ardant du Picq, more than most, perceived that the high rates of fire and long range of modern weapons meant that close-order battle was no longer possible:

Ancient combat was fought in groups close together, within a small space, in open ground, in full view of one another, without the deafening noise of present-day arms. Men in formation marched into an action that took place on the spot and did not carry them thousands of feet away from the starting point. The surveillance of the leaders was easy, individual weakness was immediately checked. General consternation alone caused flight.

Today fighting is done over immense spaces, along thinly drawn out lines broken every instant by the accidents and obstacles of terrain. From the time the action begins, as soon as there are rifle shots, the men spread out as skirmishers, or, lost in the inevitable disorder of rapid march, escape the supervision of their commanding officers. A considerable number conceal themselves, they get away from the engagement and diminish by just so much the material and moral effect and confidence of the brave ones who remain. This can bring about defeat.

He drew the conclusion that the old ways of the close-order battle must be replaced, arguing that

Combat requires today, in order to give the best results, a moral cohesion, a unity more binding than at any other time. It is as true as it is clear, that, if one does not wish bonds to break, one must make them elastic in order to strengthen them.

His tactical conclusion was that infantry should fight in open order in which they could maximise the effectiveness of their weapons and take shelter from enemy fire:

Riflemen placed at greater intervals, will be less bewildered, will see more clearly, will be better watched (which may seem strange to you), and will consequently deliver a better fire than formerly.

He had seen men under fire, understood their actions, and argued that their instinct to seek shelter from the firestorm was right, but that it needed to be controlled and organised:

Why does the Frenchman of today, in singular contrast to the [ancient] Gaul, scatter under fire? His natural intelligence, his instinct under the pressure of danger causes him to deploy. His method must be adopted … we must adopt the soldier’s method and try to put some order into it.

Du Picq, who was killed in 1870 at the very start of the Franco-Prussian War, offered a brilliant analysis of the problems posed by the new firepower. But European powers found their way to a solution to the problem via hard experience, particularly in the wars of German unification which pitted Prussia against Austria (1866) and France (1870–1). In 1815 Germany had become a confederation of thirty-nine individual states and cities, dominated by Prussia in the north and Austria in the south. The year 1848 raised the prospect of a full union of the German people, and while Austria and Prussia united against the spectre of liberalism, they became rivals for leadership in Germany. The subsequent tensions were inevitably of deep concern to France whose rulers feared a strong state on their eastern frontier. Under Bismarck, Prussian Minister-President after 1862, Prussia played the national card. In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria broke into war.

The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.

In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.

Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Sadowa/Königgrätz on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Sadowa. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines. At Sadowa the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘

Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:

Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.

He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Sadowa the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.

This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Sadowa the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Sadowa was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.

The rise of Prussia threatened the France of Napoleon III. The nephew of the great Napoleon had taken advantage of the turbulence of the Second Republic to seize power and declare the Second Empire in 1852. He stood, above all, for the dominance of France in European affairs. The Prussian victory in l866 was therefore a blow to the very foundations of the regime, and all parties in French public life thereafter regarded war with Prussia as inevitable. This focused attention on the French army, a long-term conscript body very like the Austrian but with far more fighting experience. However, it lacked a reserve force, while French officers and NCOs enjoyed low pay and status and suffered a constipated promotion system. There was a General Staff, but its officers formed a tiny elite who had little to do with the army as a whole. At all levels there was an absence of initiative, partly because Napoleon, though lacking real military grasp, cultivated the ‘Napoleonic myth’ of the heroic and omnipotent leader.

In reaction to Sadowa the French adopted a new breech-loading rifle, the chassepot. This had an excellent breech mechanism which doubled both the rate of fire and, at 1,200 metres, the effective range of the Dreyse. Remarkably the mitrailleuse, a crude machine-gun, was developed, but it was surrounded by such tight security that the troops were never able to integrate it into their tactics. Because these weapons were costly, the smooth-bore Napoleon cannon of 1859 remained the dominant artillery piece. In 1868 legislation was passed to create a reserve whose members would ultimately pass into a territorial militia, the garde mobile. But Napoleon was unpopular, the Legislative Assembly obstructed the law and so the system was barely operating by 1871.

The French decided that tactically the new weapons favoured the defensive, so they grouped soldiers in large solid units to produce massive firepower, denying any flexibility to local commanders and laying units open to the risk of being outflanked; indeed, the French system was highly centralised and dependent on the will and capacity of the emperor. Even worse, despite bellicose intentions and pronouncements, no real plans were made for war against Prussia. This negated the key advantage of a standing army, that it could strike first before an enemy dependent on conscription could gather his forces. Moreover, the French army was very dispersed. Its troops were used for internal security, so units were spread out and not allowed to serve in their areas of origin.

When war came in 1871 the French planned to mobilise and concentrate their armies on the frontier at Metz and Strasbourg, but Staff planning was hopeless. Choked roads and railways and poor attention to logistics turned this process into a nightmare. At the end of July, when Napoleon arrived at Metz to assume command, barely 100,000 of 150,000 troops had arrived, and only 40,000 of 100,000 had reached Strasbourg. The reserve system worked so slowly that there was no support for the regulars, while the garde mobile was wholly untrained, unequipped and, in places, openly disloyal. Supplies of bread and other essentials failed, while there was indiscipline and even explicit grumbling against the regime. But perhaps the key factor in spreading demoralisation was that in the absence of plans Napoleon was vacillating.

The French had originally projected a thrust into the sensitive junction between north and south Germany. Then the notion of a defensive stance to repel a Prussian attack came to the fore. The hope of Austrian intervention, perhaps supported by the south German states who loathed Prussia, led to the establishment of strong forces at Strasbourg. This force, under Marshal Maurice MacMahon, was rather cut off by the Vosges mountains from Napoleon’s main force around Metz. It was unclear to Napoleon’s senior commanders which, if any, of these options, none of which had been properly thought through and planned, was to be taken. Such hesitancy quickly communicated itself to the soldiers, for armies are highly sensitive to this kind of doubt. Here, then, was an army without a strategy, led by a vacillating ruler tormented by painful illness but keenly aware that his regime needed military success.

By contrast, the Prussians were devout believers in speed and their planning enabled Moltke to deliver three armies to the frontier where French inaction permitted them to organise themselves at leisure. They were backed up by a steady flow of reserves, so that Prussian forces quickly outnumbered the French. The process of concentration was by no means perfect, and moving troops and supplies away from the railhead caused congestion. For both armies the frontier with its hills and rivers posed considerable problems. Moltke directed his superior forces to converge on the French. Since Sadowa he had systematised tactics so that the standard attack force was now the 250-man company. Moreover, Moltke had noted the heavy losses inflicted upon his infantry by Austrian artillery, and had bought Krupp rifled guns. There was uncertainty about how best to deploy these, but they were mostly brought up close to the front to support the infantry. Late on in the Sadowa battle the Austrians had launched a charge of their heavy cavalry to cover their retreat, but it was cut to pieces by rifle fire. As a consequence the Prussian cavalry was now trained very thoroughly for an active role in reconnaissance which it discharged very effectively.

The first encounter of the war, at Wissembourg on 4 August 1870, set the pattern. The Crown Prince of Prussia with 60,000 men and 144 guns bumped into a single division of 8,000 French with twelve guns, well entrenched and sheltered by the buildings of the town. Frontal attacks against intense fire from the chassepots of the well-entrenched French infantry cost the Prussians dearly. However, Prussian artillery moved up to blast the French positions; the few and outranged French guns could make no reply. This enabled the Prussian infantry to work around the French flanks and to force a retreat. But against a single division, the Prussians suffered 1,500 casualties, almost as many as against a vast Austrian army at Sadowa, though they inflicted 2,000. Ultimately they were victorious in five major battles. The failure of French command is all too evident, in that even on the one occasion they were not outnumbered, they still failed to win.

It cannot be said that the generalship on either side was of a very high standard. At Gravelotte on 18 August 30,000 Prussians attacked rows of trenches rising to St Privat: they advanced in what was virtually an eighteenth-century formation, a thin skirmish line succeeded by half-battalions backed up in a third line by massed battalions. Too many senior officers were just plain old-fashioned or distrusted the new methods of Auftragstaktik, which Moltke had applied at Sadowa. Within minutes of launching their assault they had lost 5,000 men. Gradually small units under junior officers fanned out, extending and thinning the line of attack, while twenty-six field artillery batteries bombarded the French positions which were seized at a cost of 8,000 casualties. Some 70 per cent of German casualties were caused by rifle fire, but about the same proportion of French casualties were inflicted by explosive shell. The French never really adapted their tactics to the aggressive Prussian artillery attack. Their commanders were hamstrung by tight central control and reluctant to take any initiative which at times could have snatched victory. At Mars-la-Tour on 18 August General Cissey saw an opportunity to destroy the Prussians and ordered his men into columns of attack but they refused, reflecting their distrust of the high command which had failed to develop sensible methods of attack.

The Prussians isolated Napoleon III and his army in Metz, then arrived before Paris on 19 September where Napoleon had been overthrown and Gambetta had formed a new French Government of National Defence which refused to surrender. As a result the city was bombarded and after the capitulation of Metz on 29 October, a close siege was set. Large numbers of French reservists had never reached the active front. Concentrated on the Loire, they threatened the Prussian army there, and even managed to reconquer Orléans on 10 November. But ultimately Paris starved and on 28 January 1871 an armistice was agreed which led to peace. The new Republic tried to wage a people’s war by calling every man to arms, and the Prussians suffered some casualties from a motley assortment of francs-tireurs, civilians, deserters and irregulars, who sniped at the invaders. But the French people saw no point in continuing a lost war, and refused to support it, so a guerrilla war never developed.

The Franco-Prussian War effected a dramatic change in the balance of power in Europe, symbolised by the proclamation at Versailles of the German Empire on 18 January 1871. The new Reich now became the dominant European power. This was apparently a triumph for the professionalism of the Prussian army and its aggressive tactics. On the face of it a well-trained European army had shown twice within five years that it could bring war to a rapid and successful conclusion. The role of the General Staff had been vital and as a result it was widely copied. But the logistical problems of the German army in 1866 and 1871 had been quite substantial and soldiers had often ended up foraging, with evil results for the countryside at their mercy. But these wars were fought close to bases on a continent with good communications and over short periods of time.

The New Armies of the 1700s

The flintlock musket was the outward symbol of the new armies that were appearing in western Europe in the late 1600s; the weapon was expensive, but it was safer and more convenient than the old matchlock—it also allowed soldiers to stand closer together and thereby pour a heavier fire on opposing troops; it was also more easily fitted with the bayonet, which was soon considered the queen of battle.

Another symbol was the new uniform. Though the colour was far from uniform yet, the trend was toward outfitting the soldiers with identical shirts and pants, a stiff frock coat, heavy boots, and mitred hats. The hats made the soldiers seem taller, and they certainly required them to stand straighter—which made them more imposing to any enemy, and the improved posture gave them more self-confidence. Certainly they were better prepared for fighting in cold and wet weather, and when it was too hot, the frocks could be piled onto carts to be carried to the evening campsite, along with the knapsacks that soldiers carried until immediately before combat.

There were also more impressive fortresses, stout structures made of brick and stone, with successive lines of defence and well-protected cannon that could sweep each killing zone. Each fortress had barracks for soldiers and supply bunkers in case of siege or orders to outfit troops hurrying into the field. No commander in his right mind would order an immediate assault on such a place, and few wanted to leave his army half-unemployed and subject to disease and discontent while starving the defenders out. Still, since it was impossible to ignore fortresses, every campaign could easily end in a murderous assault on the most weakened part of the defences, a storm that might end in piles of dead and wounded attackers or the slaughter of defenders who were unable to escape or surrender.

Siege tactics were universally understood, so that once trench lines and tunnels had reached a point from which an assault was possible, any trained observer could judge whether or not the fortress could be defended successfully. At that time the defending commander would have to decide whether to sacrifice valuable soldiers in vain or to surrender the place and march away ‘with honours’. The attacking commander similarly wanted to avoid losing men, and an essentially intact fortress was more useful than one which had been heavily damaged in pitched battle.

Improvements in artillery were obvious—better gun carriages, mortars for sieges, and heavy cannon for battering static defences. The largest of these weapons still adorn military museums in Europe and the Americas, and are found at many of the historic sites maintained for visitors and school children. Field artillery tended to be melted down and the metal reused.

Roads, bridges and canals were better, too. Though many were constructed to facilitate military operations, civilians did not hesitate to use them as well. Trees planted on the south side of roads allowed for travel in the shade, and public wells kept men and beasts from dehydrating. As transport costs went down, general prosperity went up. Government officials and economists realised that this commerce could be converted into tax monies that would subsidise royal expenses—the military, palaces and mistresses.

There was also an equally significant change underway that Kenneth Chase described in Firearms, a Global History—a greater emphasis on discipline and drill. Earlier, few commanders had the time or money to train recruits fully—permanent forces were needed for road work, building fortifications, and guard duty; and when an army was needed, regular troops were supplemented by recruits and hurried to the battlefield with minimum additional drill. Training too often involved firing expensive gunpowder, exhausting horses, wearing out uniforms, and disrupting the peasantry. Therefore, as Robert Citino in The German Way of War and Christopher Clark in Iron Kingdom note, field exercises were rare. Even Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern (1620-88), the Prussian ruler known the Great Elector, was too budget-conscious to send his magnificently trained soldiers out to practise in the rain and mud.

There was also a new emphasis on developing a professional officer class. The most highly born nobles had always insisted on being given commands equal to those of their ancestors; even when still junior officers they were allowed to wear the most magnificent uniforms, prance on the best mounts available, and take their pick of the prettiest girls. Those who commanded regiments also received royal subsidies that allowed them to maintain their expensive lifestyles, even though this came at the cost of regimental preparedness; and kings looked the other way because they were dependent on the goodwill of the aristocracy. Often young nobles demonstrated great courage; however, they could be the despair of generals who wanted their orders obeyed, not merely followed when proud subordinates found them convenient and did not seem to be an affront to their status. Nobles tended to think for themselves on those occasions they chose to think, but they had a tendency to forget what they were supposed to think. Hence, when an opportunity presented itself for some damn-fool act of bravery, they did it. Self-control was rare. Moreover, it was not easy for them to identify with the soldiers—social classes did not mingle, partly because common soldiers tended to be, well, common; and partly because familiarity might breed contempt, making the soldiers doubt the officers’ ability. Still, nobles made the better officers than equally well-trained men from the gentry or commercial classes because they had grown up expecting to give orders and to be obeyed, and soldiers generally accepted that as the natural order of the world.

Leading the way in by-passing the upper nobility and mercenaries was Prussia, a state whose rulers had never been reluctant to hire foreign officers and integrate them into the minor nobility. The Great Elector had employed the minor aristocracy known as Junkers as officers and administrators, giving them little choice in the matter—no more than he did the apple-sellers in Berlin to choose whether to knit or not while waiting for customers. Work, work, work was his answer to the region’s lack of natural resources, just as hurry, hurry, hurry made the army formidable on the march and in the attack.

If middle-class youths or minor nobility in Germany or Russia had the potential to be good officers, this meant a potential lessened reliance on foreign mercenaries with military experience. There had always been an aura of suspicion about foreigners who were often both arrogant and ambitious, who did not speak the local language well and who did not understand the nuances of social conventions. This provided opportunities for young men such as Napoleon Bonaparte to receive the training they would then put to use after the noble officers fled France rather than risk a shave from the national razor—the guillotine.

Multinational Austria remained the most welcoming to foreigners, followed by the minor states in Italy where the rulers were often foreigners themselves, and Russia, where the boyars thought that every new idea was foolishness if not heresy.

Paralleling these trends was a growing awareness in all classes that everyone belonged to a nation rather than merely being subjects of a distant ruler. Historians tend to associate this process with the French Revolution, which made many Italians, Spaniards and Germans believe that they, too, were members of great nations. Oddly, in a sense, this awareness of national identity was appearing at the same time that a new international culture was spreading across Europe. As summarised in Matchlocks to Flintlocks, ‘As France came to replace Spain as the dominant nation in Western Europe, the French language and French customs spread rapidly into the neighbouring states. To hold one’s head up in polite society meant having it full of French ideas.’

This Lingua Franca made it easier for ideas to circulate. Some innovations in military theory and practice were widely accepted; some ideas, especially those connected with experimental science, were both exciting and safe; others, those associated with what we call the Enlightenment, had mixed receptions—traditionalists were outraged, while the younger set laughed at the humour without necessarily adopting the underlying philosophy. Life at the upper levels of society became less serious, even frivolous, to an extent unimagined before. Religion became formalised—with intellectuals and leaders of society making withering comments about institutionalised ignorance and superstition, the foolishness of the unwashed masses and ignorant country folk who still took miracles seriously, hypocritical priests and pedantic schoolmasters. Yet, when plagues raged through a kingdom, everyone prayed fervently and later raised monuments to God and His saints for ending the suffering. Superstition and credulity thus mixed easily with sophistication and cynicism.

To the extent that the Enlightenment meant abandoning old methods in favour of new ones to resolve practical problems, it had a profound impact on the military arts. First, there was the introduction of an effective supply system to replace foraging for food and fodder. Providing cooks and brewers assured that all units were fed, avoided dispersing soldiers every afternoon to look for food and fodder, and made it more certain that everyone would be present when roll was called the next morning. It also made the peasantry much happier, since there were fewer thefts and rapes; and villages which were not pillaged could be more effectively given lists of supplies to be delivered (or else).

John Lynn, in Women, Armies and Warfare, noted that this resulted in the almost total disappearance of camp followers. This made it possible for armies to become larger, since the resources once needed to feed and shelter women and children could support additional soldiers. Also, the sexual license that probably drew some men into military service was no longer present, making it easier to avoid quarrels over women and women’s quarrels with other women. Wives and whores (cohabiting women) gave way to prostitutes, a somewhat easier class to discipline.

Officers began to look upon their commands as a way to make money—charging soldiers for uniforms, medical care, retirement benefits and other costs that often ate up much of their slender incomes. Soldiers no longer found desertion easy, and while recruits were often still technically volunteers, in practice communities were expected to provide their quotas.

Regimental Histories

We have good information about the organisation of armies in this era, but less about the individual units. For example, were ordinary soldiers taking increased responsibility to deal with comrades who slacked duties and avoided exposure to danger? This seemed to be the case to the extent that earlier even prisoners-of-war could be forced into the ranks to fight against their former comrades. But no longer—unlike mercenaries of yore, recent captives took every opportunity to get back to their comrades. As the influence of cliques of thugs diminished, pride in being a member of an elite unit—or even an average one—seems to have increased.

This was a new experience. By the ancient practice of accepting recruits from wherever a unit passed, or even compelling young men to enlist, most regiments had once been composed of a wide variety of nationalities. Even in the Swedish army—often regarded as the best in the period 1630-1715—only elite companies were composed of native Swedes; the rest of any regiment could be Poles or Germans or other locally recruited youths. Now the tendency was to recruit units from only a few regions, a practice that resulted in more homogeneity and greater unit cohesion.

This presented the Austrian monarchs with a serious problem. How could they make their multinational army as loyal to the dynasty as competing monarchs were able to do by combining love of country with respect for the ruler? Since it was difficult to assure unit cohesion when soldiers might not even be able to speak to one another, they needed a common language of command. Only German qualified.

Prince Eugene, himself an Italian reared at the French court, discouraged the enlistment of Italians. It was not a question of courage or competence, but of commitment—Italians tended to see through the foolishness of military life and, worse, they had little enthusiasm for the Hapsburgs. Eugene wanted German soldiers, but he was quite willing to enlist Bohemians, with their rich military tradition, because most Czechs knew a bit of German and were Catholic. German as the language of command also made it easier to work with allies from the Holy Roman Empire. Pressure to make Hungarians equal came much later.

There was also the matter of morale. After 1730 the Austrian army was beaten too often to go into battle with much confidence. It had been very different earlier, when Prince Eugene commanded victorious armies, but after the wars with Louis XIV ended and his successful siege of Belgrade in 1717, he retired to a pleasant life in Vienna (his Belvedere palace overlooking the city and his impressive Stadtpalais inside the walls) to collect art and books. The luxury of his later private life contrasted strongly with his austere practices as field commander. His reforms of the army had been rigorously practical. Dressing soldiers in grey frocks made it easy to see which units were his and which were the enemy’s, even when thick white smoke obscured the battlefield, and the thickness of the frocks limited injury from spent projectiles; and since most soldiers reacted to incoming fire as if they were walking into heavy rain, concentrating on keeping their high hats from falling off prevented them from ducking their heads, a pose that was often followed by a panicked flight to the rear.

The Austrian army as a whole was weak, but some regiments were effective. This suggests that a study of armies at the regimental level might tell us much about the changes that were occurring in the 1700s. A good example of what can be learned is from the previously-mentioned Deutschmeister Regiment of the Hapsburg army.

The long-time grandmaster of the Teutonic Order, 1694–1732, Franz Ludwig, had little to do with the regiment beyond persuading his brothers to allow recruiters to raise troops in their lands in the Palatinate and Neuburg, but that was an important concession, because other, equally staunch Roman Catholic rulers would not have allowed recruiters to speak with their subjects. With the outbreak of war with France in the War of the Spanish Succession Franz Ludwig’s two regiments of foot and a regiment of dragoons were withdraw from the Croatian and Hungarian frontiers, returning only in 1717 for the campaign that captured the great fortress at Belgrade, far to the south where the Danube makes its turn east toward the Black Sea.

The Deutschmeister regiment eventually came under the command of Charles Alexander of Lorraine (1712-80), one of the most important field marshals of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). Everyone knew that he was competent but not brilliant.

Charles Alexander was not a lucky general, but no Austrian general did any better against Frederick the Great and Maurice de Saxe; he lost four times to the former and once to the latter, but he always reformed his army quickly and limited the territorial losses. He could be considered successful in one sense, in that Austrian soldiers who had given up the fight quickly between 1740 and 1746 in the First Silesian War had become warriors by 1756, when the second war with Prussia began. Austrian regiments then fought with such determination that the Prussians hardly recognised them.

This may have had little to do with Charles Alexander, and more to do with the greater popularity of Empress Maria Theresa and a new determination not to be humiliated again. In any case, Charles Alexander’s position at the head of the army was secure. Maria Theresa was reluctant to give command to anyone outside the royal family, and even though he had only been married to her sister briefly, her only alternative was her husband, Charles Alexander’s brother, who had no military talent at all. The empress’s policy of concentrating power in the hands of the imperial family meant that there was little chance for another Eugene of Savoy to rise to greatness.

The office of grandmaster was a sinecure, to provide Charles Alexander incomes after he retired from imperial service, but it was also logical, since the new Deutschmeister Regiment had earned great fame under his command. This was officially the 4th regiment of the household troops, but its costs were covered by the Teutonic Order.

The Deutschmeister regiment was a well-dressed outfit. Standard gear for all infantry regiments included low-rimmed black felt hat with white brocade trim and regimental insignia, but the Deutschmeister soldiers were distinguished from other units by their pearl white overcoats with sky blue lapels and white buttons; they wore white neckbands, white shirts, white socks, white leggings (black in bad weather), black shoes, red leather cartridge case decorated with an eagle, backpack, flintlock, bayonet and sheath. Officers wore the same outfit—no gold or silver, and brocade permitted only when off-duty. They carried swords, daggers and pistols. Drummers and fifers dressed in red coats with blue shirts. The cavalry unit was also #4, the Archduke Max cuirassiers, with a proud heritage going back to the Thirty Years War; it was shot to pieces at the battle of Grocka in 1739, and during the Seven Years War was commanded by Johann Baptist Serbelloni (1696-1778), who was a member of the Knights of Malta and whose notoriously bad German was matched by his slowness in getting into the thick of the fight.

The regiment was ever more associated with the monarchy and less to the military order from which it sprang. Modern efforts to associate the Teutonic Order with Nazism run up against the fact that Hitler hated the Hapsburgs and nobles in general; he also hated the Roman Catholic Church, filling his earliest concentration camps with priests who objected to euthanasia; he mistrusted professional army officers, who repeatedly plotted to overthrow him; and his plans for National Socialism meant the creation of a new society that had no room for these artefacts of a culture that he declared were useless and dangerous.

Swiss in French Service

The Swiss connection to the French king that had begun in the fifteenth century grew even closer under Louis XIV; he employed them not only as regiments in the army, but also as his household guard. There were two units protecting the king, the Cent Suisses (literally the 100 Swiss), who were his bodyguards, together with the Gardes du Corps, of French birth; the Gardes Suisses, together with the Gardes Françaises, were responsible for guarding the palaces. There were also eleven Swiss regiments which served valiantly in every war, adapting to the technological changes swiftly—dropping the traditional Swiss pike for the musket and bayonet even though this meant accommodating themselves to a minor role in the larger armies of the 18th century.

Swiss regiments were often employed where Frenchmen were reluctant to serve. For example, they helped garrison the fortress of Louisbourg on the God-forsaken coast of Nova Scotia. This was a location beloved of fishermen, who could dry their catch on the rocky shores, but no one else. Even before the siege by American colonial troops in 1745, the garrison was mutinous, but it fought well enough that if reinforcements had been able to arrive by sea, the fortress would not have fallen. It was, after all, the French Gibraltar in the Americas; and it was recovered in the peace treaty!

The Swiss Guards could probably have thwarted the most violent excesses of the French Revolution if King Louis XVI had been willing to approve the timely use of force against the mobs raging through Paris and other cities. However, the gentle king was reluctant to allow the army to fire on Frenchmen. In retrospect, the outcome seems inevitable: on July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob, believing that a counter-revolution was underway, marched on the Bastille, once the east gate of the city, but later converted into a seldom-used prison. Its military function had long since disappeared except as a gunpowder depot and housing for some eighty invalid soldiers. The prisoners, it turned out, were not victims of royal anger, but a handful of common criminals, religious dissidents and prominent malcontents; moreover, it could hold only about fifty inmates.

The Bastille’s evil reputation as a prison spoke more to popular dislike of royal absolutism than actual mistreatment—visitors were frequent, card games were allowed and there was even a billiard table. The food may have been more plentiful than tasty, but notables incarcerated there had fared well. Confinement itself, the isolation from the lively world outside, that was what made the Bastille feared; that and the knowledge that the king could imprison anyone for any length of time, without any judicial process (the infamous lettres de cachet)—the fact that this rarely occurred does not seem to have bothered anyone, certainly not to anyone who had ever heard the Marquis de Sade shouting down from the tower walks that the governor was intent on massacring all the prisoners. It was taken apparently as a matter of course that a governor would allow such behaviour; as was well-known, the Old Regime was not very well organised.

The Parisians’ march on the Bastille was merely the culmination of a process that had begun days before. As Simon Schama described the events in Citizens, crowds celebrating the removal of the unpopular minister, Necker, had got out of control. The first attempt by the authorities to disperse the mob in the centre of Paris had failed, the cavalrymen retreating to the Tuileries—at that time joined to the Louvre to make one vast palace. The crowd then grew in size and began looting shops selling guns, swords and knifes, then bakeries, and finally tearing holes in the wall surrounding the city in hopes of attracting tax-free food from the country. It was at this moment, Schama says, that Paris was lost to the monarchy.

Still, it did not look hopeless to contemporaries. Although the king was informed that the French troops could not be relied upon, his German and Swiss units might be. This estimate was soon outdated—80,000 citizens marched on the Invalides, the military hospital and arsenal across the Seine. There they seized 30,000 muskets and the powder that had not been sent to the Bastille. The foreign troops encamped only a few hundred yards away made no move to stop them.

The government, at last realising that the Parisian mob was dangerous, dispatched Swiss troops to hold the key points in the city. Thirty-two went to the Bastille, a number that could have held the fortress until help arrived, if the government had been willing to do so. A crowd of about a thousand gathered in front of the Bastille, warning the commander that they intended to arm themselves from the weapons stored there and that he might as well surrender.

The commander, Bernard-René de Launay (1740-89), had been born in the Bastille when his father had commanded the garrison there. His force—if it could be called that—consisted of about eighty aged veterans, some invalids. The Swiss reinforcements would be sufficient as long as the mob lacked artillery. Therefore, he refused to open the magazines as the leaders of the mob demanded.

The ensuing chaos was witnessed in part by Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as the American ambassador. He described the storming of the Bastille, remarking that there were so many different stories of the event that none of them could be believed. What is clear is that the ropes to the drawbridge were cut during the negotiations. That allowed the mob to stream across. When someone began firing, the confusion turned into a battle royal, that is, royalist troops versus Parisians who were becoming republicans. Though the rioters managed to break into the courtyard, they made little further headway against the handful of Swiss troops until a unit of the Gardes Françaises arrived with two cannon. This elite unit had been plagued by desertions for months; now, in the critical moment, it went over completely to the people. The garrison, already out of water and realising that no rescue was coming, then reconsidered its situation and surrendered. As the troops tried to march away, however, the mob fell on them, lynching the commander and several soldiers. Most of the Swiss Guards, having taken off their uniforms, were mistaken for prisoners and ‘liberated’.

Few realised that the Bastille was already on a list of fortresses to be demolished, to be converted into a public park. As the Parisians tore down the impressive building and carried away its bricks for private use, Louis XVI travelled from Versailles to Paris, with a tricolour ribbon on his chest to indicate his adherence to the revolutionary cause. Only a few months later a mob of women protesting the cost of bread (an event that should have been expected, considering the disorders in the countryside) made the royal family prisoners.

In June 1791 the king made an attempt to flee the country, to join counter-revolutionaries in the Holy Roman Empire. At a checkpoint near the border, however, he stuck his head out of the carriage window to ask what the delay was about. Since his profile was on every coin in France, he was easily recognised. As the armies of Prussia and Austria, supported by troops raised by exiled officers, pressed into northeastern France, the National Assembly became persuaded that unless the king and the remaining nobles and royal officials were dealt with, the Revolution would fail. However, the king was still protected by his bodyguard and the Revolutionary Army was at the frontiers.

By August 1792 the situation of the king was critical. Armed volunteers from around France were streaming toward Paris, singing La Marseillaise and looking for royalists to murder. One group ran in with the Irish regiment commanded by Theobald Dillon (1745-92), the last of the line of exiles to serve the French king; the Irish mistook the militia for Austrian troops supposed to be hurrying to rescue Louis XVI’s queen, who was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. Dillon became separated from his men, was captured, then murdered and mutilated. Word of this atrocity spread to all the foreign troops, especially to the Swiss, who were now Louis XVI’s last hope.

On August 10, 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, the foremost royal residence in Paris. The palace was defended by 900 red-coated Swiss troops, but running out of ammunition, the best they could do was to delay the mob sufficiently until the royal family escaped. As the immense building was consumed by flames, the defenders who managed to stagger outside were massacred. Over six hundred died; about two hundred perished in prison or were later executed.

In retrospect, we can see that the Swiss mercenaries had not expected to be slaughtered in the brutal manner that soon became normal for ‘the terror’. It was, as Schama remarked, the logical consummation of the revolution that had begun in 1789; bloodshed was not a by-product of the revolution, but provided the energy that moved it forward. Soon afterwards the National Assembly dismissed all Swiss troops and sent them home. The king was thenceforth helpless. Louis XVI thus lost his head twice—once in making poor decisions, the second time to the guillotine.

Gustavus Adolphus’ Reforms

Swedish Infantry

Gustavus Adolphus, a key reformer of armed forces in the 17th century, was crowned king of Sweden at age 17. His country was poor and sparsely populated, but already the ambitious young “Lion of Midnight” (that is, of the North) intended to enrich it with new lands and looted wealth. The only way to do that was by war, so he set out to reform the army. He soon proved to be a superb reformer and administrator within Sweden, and later emerged as an even more able strategist and general in Germany. Over his first decade as king, he transformed the army into a national force and built up the navy to protect his supply route to Poland and Germany. As Gustavus modernized the weapons, drill and fighting techniques of the Swedish army, he also professionalized it, by shifting recruitment away from a traditional levy of ill-trained peasants raised locally to create a national army of well-trained regulars secured for long-term service by conscription. He took the best Dutch innovations out of the waterlogged, compact and canalized environment of the Netherlands to maximize their revolutionary potential on the broad battle plains of Poland and Germany, where a war of maneuver was more likely to lead to field battles and more able to achieve success. Like Maurits and other Dutch reformers, he newly emphasized drill and infantry discipline, centered on learning volley and double-volley fire. In disposition for battle he deployed by brigades, freeing his troops from the old infantry blocks, reorganizing into flexible and more linear formations. Thinning was achieved at some defensive cost, as lines exposed flanks when moving in ways that a pike square of 50 × 50 or so ranks and files did not. The trade-off was worth it: all this cleared the way for Sweden’s ascent into the ranks of the Great Powers, to intervention in the Thirty Years’ War for Swedish gain and the Protestant cause.

Before he left for Germany, Gustavus also experimented with shortening and thinning the extremely heavy barrels of his cumbersome Murbräcker (“wall-breaker”) large-caliber siege guns. Murbräcker barrels were often inscribed with boasts of their special prowess in knocking down fortifications, praise for their royal owners or religious pieties that dominated Swedish (and German) service. Gustavus was not impressed. He trimmed barrel length to reduce haul-weight, as well as the number of horses or oxen and wagons of fodder needed to move his siege guns. He also cast innovative small-caliber cannon called “leather guns.” These were cast from iron, but lined with brass or copper and reinforced with alloy. Barrels were bound with wire and rope splints, then wrapped in canvas secured by wooden rings. Hard leather was nailed to the exterior. They weighed about 600 pounds, making them highly mobile as well as cheap. They became famous, but were not a true success. All-iron casting proved superior in the end, leading even Gustavus to prefer small regementsstycke (“regimental guns”) that then became standard. By around 1640, leather guns were retired by Sweden in favor of all-iron cannon, and only used after that by mercenaries returning to fight in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (or English Civil Wars) in Scotland and Ireland. His less famous but more successful regimental guns were standardized one-and-a-half- and three-pounders. Although cast all in iron, they were light enough to be pulled by one or two horses, using a two-wheeled carriage that allowed off-road maneuvers before battle and repositioning of the artillery during battle, something no other army could then achieve. These excellent small cannon also had rates of fire exceeding the top rates of good musketeers. They gave Swedish armies more maneuverable firepower in battle than any other army of the time.

Gustavus understood the role of shock in combat, of delivering a stunning, smashing attack directly and bluntly into an enemy with the weight and force of a whole military unit. He maximized it by double-volley fire by infantry, hard charges by cavalry, and a range of big guns as well as small leather guns and regimental pieces. His light guns were supported by less mobile heavies standardized at 6-, 12- and 24-pound calibers. He also standardized charges and shot for each caliber. Powder was bagged in measured sacks, improving reload times, rate of fire and repeat-fire accuracy. Cannon traveled with the siege train hauled by large teams of draught animals, or moved by barge, the army marching down a river’s shore alongside the floating guns just as Maurits of Nassau had moved his big guns in Flanders. Other generals left their largest guns to follow their armies in cumbersome land-bound siege trains, intending to use them to batter forts or city walls. Their oversized and immobile cannon could be positioned just once in a field fight, at the start of a battle. Most enemy cannon were too big to reposition as the Swedes shifted out of the line of fire, leaving the big enemy guns uselessly misplaced while repositioning their own lighter field pieces. Gustavus made sure his light guns moved with his infantry and cavalry, always ready for deployment. In battle, he positioned the small-caliber regimental guns ahead of the infantry, moving them as his foot soldiers moved, uniquely able to shift position to cover a suddenly exposed flank, or sometimes to spring a trap with a battery deliberately hidden by a cavalry or infantry screen.

Gustavus adopted wheel-lock muskets that were much smaller and lighter than the heavy-caliber Spanish musket, a matchlock that required two men or a forked rest to fire. He greatly increased the proportion of musketeers to pikers in the ranks, enhancing infantry punching power. He even shortened pikes to 11 feet from the more common 18 to 21 feet, making his last pikers as light and maneuverable as the musketeers they protected from enemy horse. Three or four brigades formed a flexible, articulated, extended battle line. Each brigade subdivided into three squadrons of about 500 each, providing even more flexibility and chance to maneuver. Whenever flanked, Swedish infantry quickly articulated to bring musket volleys to bear from a newly right-angled line, along with easily repositioned one-and-a-half- or three-pounder guns. Reducing firing ranks to six and using double-volleys meant that all interior and back ranks had clear fields of fire, while each brigade was confident that half its number always stood ready with muskets loaded. Putting the regimental guns forward added killing range and firepower in mobile attack and defense.

Gustavus modeled his cavalry on superb Polish horse units, characteristic of Eastern European warfare but largely unknown in Western Europe. He stripped armor from men and mounts alike, fielding lighter horses and hussar-like cavalrymen dressed in hard leather and simple cloth. He replaced with sabers and lances the wheel-lock pistols used to such little effect in the tactic called caracole. That was a wheel-lock pistol-and-cavalry tactic prevalent in Western Europe in the 16th century, especially among German cavalry (Ritter). It had some use against units of pikers alone, but almost none against musketeers protected by pikers. The caracole abandoned the physical and psychological shock effect of the horse charge with lance or saber in favor of riding in short columns at a trot, one by one or two by two, up to a pike-and-musket hedge, discharging pistols (each rider carried a brace), then whirling away to reload at a safe distance before returning to fire weapons a second or third time. Since pistols had a range barely past ten feet, if that, and the average pike was 18–24 feet before Gustavus’ reforms, human nature encouraged shooting from outside effective range. The caracole thus presented great danger to attacking cavalry but offered little offensive punch against musket infantry. Trouble mounted, or rather dismounted rather violently, when aggressive infantry with hooked pikes or halberds attacked, or a musket volley hurtled lead at too carefully approaching horsemen.

Gustavus wanted shock restored, so horses in the Swedish cavalry were retrained to canter and gallop rather than caracole trot toward the enemy, while their riders were told to pull sabers and use lances, to reinstate the fearful cavalry charge of old. He thereby returned to the horse arm its ancient role in providing shock, but did it by favoring light cavalry speed over heavy cavalry mass. This reform took advantage of the widely noted Swedish martial ferocity and his cavalry’s desire to pursue a defeated enemy. The advantage was immense as long as other cavalry still deployed in overly dainty and ineffectual long columns to perform the caracole, only to be easily dispersed. In battle, his horse always deployed on the wings, where its first obligation was to block enemy cavalry from taking offensive action. Only secondly was it to exploit gaps or exposed flanks and any opportunity to attack created by the superior firepower of his hard-punching infantry, firing double volleys, and his mobile artillery occupying the flexible center of his line of battle.

Gustavus stressed pre-battle preparation and deliberation, but also an eager offensive spirit that sought to carry war to the enemy. He was among the first to employ recognizably modern techniques of combined arms by coordinating attacks by mutually supporting infantry, artillery and cavalry units. Similarly, he pioneered fire-and-movement tactics, while reviving the ancient principle of concentration of force at a chosen point of local superiority. The weight (and shock) of a Swedish attack came from the infantry and field artillery. Batteries of little guns peppered an enemy square or line with canister at intimate ranges, punching bloody gaps in opposing ranks. Then infantry closed to maximize the effect of their double musket volleys. After firing two or three salvoes at most, front ranks charged with short pikes level and muskets reversed and used as clubs. Through all this, three back ranks (countermarched into place) always stood ready to exploit a breakthrough or pivot to defend their brigade’s flanks, or to counterattack if arrayed for defense. Always the cavalry hovered, light and able and lethal. Skilled Swedish armies could do terrible violence to more staid and conservative enemies. It was awful and brilliant all at once.

When Gustavus was done remaking and reforming the Swedish army, it was one of the finest and most deadly of the era: well-drilled and disciplined, infused with a conjoined spirit of martial patriotism and fervent Protestantism, and uniquely able to shift from offense to defense with a battle speed and efficiency unmatched by any other force in Europe. He tested its mettle, and his generalship, in Poland. In 1627, he attacked Danzig. At Dirschau (August 17–18), then in Pomerania but today called Tczew and in Poland, he was seriously wounded in the neck and arm but won the field. This was one of several times where the young king led from the front. He was nearly killed, and was defeated as well, at Stuhm (Sztum) on June 27, 1629, in what is today northern Poland. Gustavus withdrew to recover from his wounds, prepare fixed defenses and reconsider the campaign. The wily éminence rouge in Paris, Cardinal Richelieu, took advantage of the lull to arrange the Truce of Altmark with Poland’s Sigismund III, who agreed to renounce his claim to the Swedish throne. It was 1630, and Gustavus was at last ready to enter the war in Germany, which was going badly for the Protestant princes. His alliance with France gave him yet more incentive: a subsidy of 400,000 thalers annually and a powerful ally on the other side of the Holy Roman Empire. Protestants across Germany and Europe begged him to be their champion. As did Cardinal Richelieu, although he was pursuing secular and monarchical raison d’état for France in open opposition to Catholic Habsburg power in Vienna and Madrid.

Gustavus appeared to be a sincere Lutheran, leading troops in singing hymns as they marched into battle and ordering prayers said twice daily by the whole army under the supervision of pastors he assigned to each brigade. Accepting Richelieu’s mediation of his old dispute with Poland so that he could move into Germany instead, Gustavus took his Swedish version of a 17th-century new model army into the Thirty Years’ War, singing Lutheran hymns along the way. His Nordic blend of piety, drill and black-powder aggression would give his armies unusual discipline and cohesion in combat. Napoleon later compared him to Alexander the Great, naming Gustavus as one of the first of the modern great captains. The comparison seems exaggerated, even if, like Alexander, he would be cut off in the flower of his military prowess, killed leading a wild battle charge in Germany in 1632.

He landed at Peenemünde in July 1630, with just 14,000 men. He had 80 field guns to go along with larger siege cannon. The ratio of nearly 10 artillery pieces per 1,000 men in his army compared to just one cannon per 1,000 men for the Imperials. Despite his reforms, he could only rely on about 10,000 fresh Swedish recruits each year, so around the hard national army core of well-trained Swedes he wrapped mercenaries as he proceeded into Germany. With a smaller war chest than his Imperial foes, he needed even more to make war pay for itself by battening and billeting his army on other people’s estates and cities. He moved deliberately, gathering intelligence, conserving combat power, growing his forces, knowing he did not have strength enough to force the issue all at once. All the same, as the inherently weaker side, Gustavus kept the option of an aggressive battle in his pocket, ready to take it out if opportunity presented.

So began the Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years’ War that was to change its course, turning it away from the Catholic-Habsburg victory that loomed in 1630 toward the confessional stalemate and negotiated secular peace of 1648. Gustavus’ spectacular success in the two years that followed, lasting until his death at Lützen in 1632, arose less from any battlefield tactical genius than from intense advance preparation of the army and from his acute sense of weaknesses in the enemy’s psychology and politics. He exploited flaws he saw in his enemies positions, but not always or even mainly by hard action driven by a coup d’oeil, that quality some great generals have of seeing immediately to the essence of a how a fight will develop, based perhaps on an innate ability to read terrain and position and the balance of available forces. He had that natural commander’s gift, but he waged campaigns more by way of threat and daring maneuvers and long marches. He repeatedly got his army behind the main enemy force, causing Habsburg generals to rush back to defend some important holding or damp down the emperor’s fright in Vienna. It was a variation of old-style war by maneuver by the mercenaries, but always with a sting of battle at the ready should the enemy flag or challenge. Like all superior generals he was flexible in tactics and operations rather than committed to a system, with an eye always on the strategic goal. He would fight battles if needed, but preferred to achieve gains by marching against the enemy’s supplies whenever possible. He used armies to threaten Habsburg political and prestige interests as much as he threatened their hired soldiers and stiff artillery fortresses. He saw battle and maneuver as closely related, not as opposing strategic choices, all one or all the other.

In search of food and fodder Gustavus moved beyond Pomerania, which was already eaten out. He followed the rivers of northern Germany, subjugating and garrisoning towns, securing rearward lines of supply and contributions and putting a territorial buffer between Sweden and its enemies. Then he settled in for the winter, recruiting and training tens of thousands of German (and Scots and Irish and other) mercenaries in his reformed—rather than Reformation—way of war. Winter increased his strength but exacerbated logistics, forcing him onto the road with the spring thaw of 1631. He marched into Brandenburg to feed his army and force its elector to join the war. He ambled south, taking the fortress of Cüstrin (Kostrzyn nad Odrą), then westward to Berlin to reduce the fortress at Spandau. That secured the confluences of the major navigable rivers of north Germany, which he needed in order to shift guns and supplies by barge toward the southern Habsburg heartlands. On April 13, he stormed Frankfurt an der Oder, smashing eight Imperial regiments and slaughtering a third of its 6,400-man garrison in reprisal for earlier Catholic atrocities. With his army shrunken by wounds and illness and the needs of spread-out occupation and resupply, he could not reach or relieve Magdeburg, a major Protestant center under siege by a large Catholic-Habsburg army. Without Gustavus to protect it, Magdeburg’s walls were breached and its population put to the sword, starting on May 20, 1631. Some 20,000 died in a guerre mortelle revenge for resistance, killed by Imperial troops and the allied Army of the Catholic League, led by General Johann Tserclaes, Count von Tilly.

Magdeburg was the worst atrocity of the Thirty Years’ War and became the benchmark for all later 17th-century atrocities, echoing across Europe for decades; the city remained largely a ruin until 1720. At the time, the sack of Magdeburg strengthened Gustavus by raising levels of fear and resolve among Protestants everywhere: pamphleteers kept printing presses rolling with lurid tales and fine etchings of horror. Meanwhile, Gustavus cleared Pomerania of Imperial armies and garrisons, then marched into Saxony, forcing it into the war. Now he was ready to meet Tilly and the Army of the Catholic League in battle. Between July 22 and 28, 1631, he waited for the Catholic League army, blocking the road north at Werben with 16,000 entrenched Swedes. Tilly blundered into the position and attacked with his heavy tercios, twice in six days. Repulsed by firepower from double volleys and regimental guns, Tilly left over 6,000 dead in front of the fieldworks at Werben. He withdrew into Saxony on the twin mission of eating out Gustavus’ new but always reluctant ally and to bind his own army’s wounds while feeding his men with Protestant grain, sheep and wine.

Vercingetorix’s Army I

‘In Gaul there are factions not only in all the states, and in all the cantons and their divisions, but almost in each family, and of these factions those are the leaders who are considered according to their judgment to possess the greatest influence, upon whose will and determination the management of all affairs and measures depends. And that seems to have been instituted in ancient times with this view, that no one of the common people should be in want of support against one more powerful; for none [of those leaders] suffers his party to be oppressed and defrauded, and if he do otherwise, he has no influence among his party. This same policy exists throughout the whole of Gaul; for all the states are divided into two factions.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 11]

When we try to understand the form of Vercingetorix’s army, we are faced with a number of problems. Documentary records provide some descriptions, but not even Caesar describes Vercingetorix’s army in detail. On the whole, the information sources for Gallic society and warfare are problematic: they mainly come from ancient authors who rarely provide us with the type of perspective we require to place the Gauls correctly in context. Often the sources themselves are not first-hand, being repetitions of other authors or uncritical retellings of travellers’ stories. However, Caesar’s Gallic War, along with other ancient sources, provides us with some useful descriptions of the Gallic peoples, although we must be wary of accepting his descriptions in too unquestioning a manner.

Caesar had his own reasons for writing his works: they promoted his image and presented Roman actions positively. In addition, Caesar gained much of his information on the battlefield or in the political arena – hardly the place to discover the nuances of a nation’s culture. And so, like other authors before him, he resorted to using previous works to fill in the gaps of his experience. The physical appearance of ‘Celts’ given by Caesar matches authors such as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Pliny. These all focus on the remarkable aspects of the Celtic appearance that were unusual to Mediterranean eyes: fair skin, hair and blue eyes. The descriptions of Gauls are often derived from those peoples closest to Roman provinces and show little of the range and complexity of the Celtic societies further away. By portraying the Gauls as ‘barbarians’, the Romans could focus attention on certain Gallic attributes for their own purposes, sometimes to contrast how well the Romans behaved, sometimes to show how badly. There was a certain contradiction in this, as the Romans sometimes ridiculed behaviour in the Gauls that the Romans themselves engaged in.

‘These [nobles], when there is occasion and any war occurs (which before Caesar’s arrival was for the most part wont to happen every year …), are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources have the greatest number of vassals and dependants about them. They acknowledge this sort of influence and power only.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 15]

Vercingetorix’s army was based on the ad hoc accumulation of willing participants organized along tribal lines, in contrast to the Roman army’s formal standing armies with strict military structures. One way to understand how Vercingetorix’s army functioned, therefore, is to understand the structure of wider Gallic society. A problem when attempting to reconstruct Vercingetorix’s army in this context is the fact that Gallic society had little homogeneity. At the time of Caesar’s invasion, Gallic culture was still rooted in prehistoric religious and tribal customs, which differed from tribe to tribe. The role of the ‘king’ is a good example. It sometimes commingled the role of leader with that of high priest. In many tribes, however, attempts were made to keep these two roles separate. Religion still played a dominant role in Gallic life and priests took the role of wise arbitrators seriously, attempting to balance military and civilian leadership by halting the unrestrained power of either. By Caesar’s invasion, kingship in some tribes was starting to be replaced by elected positions, much like the process that had happened previously in classical Mediterranean civilizations. The Aedui (whose capital at Bibracte was used as the focal point of the Alesia Campaign) seem to have been one of the most advanced along this process, although many other tribes were also developing similar mechanisms. At the time of the Alesia Campaign the Aedui had developed a constitution and had an elected magistrate called a vergobret, who functioned in the role of king. Separate from this civilian magistracy there was also a growing military magistracy. In charge of these was a military chieftain – a role that separated the military and political functions of the leaders, thus preventing the concentration of power in a single person’s hands. A larger group formed solely from the nobility of the villages formed a ‘senate’ that would decide the grander fate of the tribe as a whole, such as whether it went to war or the election of magistrates. Nobles tended to come from kin groups with a long history of noble or renowned ancestors and marriage between these noble families helped maintain their status. Vercingetorix’s attempt to unify Gaul was therefore seen by some Gauls as an attempt to circumvent the new structures and revive a system of hereditary kings that would place him foremost.

‘the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 13]

Although social divisions were clearly demarcated, the struggle for power within these groups was inevitable. Even within noble families, members would compete with each other for support in order to gain supremacy. However, Gallic clientage was where the real social power was held and this was based on how many supporters an individual could accumulate. This system enabled wealthy chieftains to extend their control over large numbers of followers with little regard to social standing, tribal boundaries or definitions. Honour was a major feature of this relationship and this meant commoners had to be protected by their leaders. If they failed, they lost their honour and also their clients. This was a mutually beneficial system whereby wealthy individuals would protect their ‘clients’ and, in return, would be supported by them. Caesar makes note of this system, describing it as an ancient Gallic custom, but it was also very similar to Roman practice. So long as a leader could guarantee support and protection to his clients he would be maintained as leader. These social distinctions exhibited in the political system were apparent in the military system. At Alesia, the tribal leaders used this relationship to gather bands of warriors, calling upon those who owed them allegiance.

The Gallic tribes, like all ‘Celtic’ peoples, had a society based on warrior ideals. War was not only seen as destructive, but also productive. The necessary hierarchies required for military combat reinforced the social ties and structures they were formed from. In order to fight, a Gaul had to have achieved puberty and be wealthy enough to own his own arms. This mechanism guaranteed that each warrior had a stake in the successful outcome of the battle. At the top of the social pyramid was the military chieftain, a post that was annually elected and maintained only a controlling position over the ‘armed council’ that decided matters of warfare. These were made up of the nobility, who held the most prestigious place in battle, due in part to their ability to furnish themselves with both horse and complete panoply of the best quality armour. At the bottom were various levels of commoners who were mainly consigned to the ranks of the infantry, although they were not confined to that status – the possibility was always open to them to improve their position. In times of social upheaval it was not unknown for commoners to be a central part of societal transformation. Commoners retained their rights as freemen, whether they were well off and landed or part of the underclass. On the other hand, slaves were non-citizens with no rights. Often either captured or bought outsiders, their role was servile. Although their position could be changed and their lowly status was not always passed on to their offspring, only in extremis were slaves allowed to fight.

At the outset of hostilities the council called together an assembly of all the warriors, usually at a central place in the tribal region. During the Alesia Campaign, the hill fort at Bibracte was used as the focal centre, not only for the Aedui tribe, but also for the whole of the rebellious tribes of Gaul. With all of the available warriors armed and drawn together, the armed council could assess the state of readiness of the army.

These events could also be an opportunity for intertribal competition through the display of prowess and equipment, showing their readiness and willingness for war. Weapons were not only used for war but also could signify an individual’s status within society. The type of weapon a warrior had and how elaborate or decorated it was influenced how others interacted with him.

‘The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they … who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of another man the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 16]

Before battle it was not uncommon for rites and rituals to be performed and augurs to divine the fate of the battle. The Gauls had a range of gods forming an organized system of belief, depending on tribal preference. Many of the Gallic gods were directly associated with sky gods, the war god being one of the greatest. Usually the war god also had a male and female appearance and these often had positive and negative characteristics, which manifested as constructive or destructive traits. By the Roman invasion of 58BC, the Roman and Gallic gods were very similar in general terms, showing something of their shared Indo-European origins. After the assimilation of Gaul into the Roman Empire, these shared origins led to the relatively easy incorporation of the Gallic gods within the Roman pantheon.

‘Mars presides over wars. To him when they have determined to engage in battle, they commonly vow those things they shall take in war. When they have conquered, they sacrifice whatever captured animals may have survived the conflict, and collect the other things into one place. In many states you may see piles of these things heaped up in their consecrated spots; nor does it often happen that any one, disregarding the sanctity of the case, dares either to secrete in his house things captured, or take away those deposited; and the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 17]

Particularly common war gods were Teuates, Esus and Taranis; these gods usually had a physical manifestation, particularly on the battlefield.

War gods also tended to be bloodthirsty and some writers suggest that they were only appeased with human sacrifice. Examples of such sacrifices were the drowning of a man in a tub to appease Teuates, hanging a man from a tree and pulling him to pieces to encourage Esus and encasing several people in a hollow tree and burning them to satisfy Taranis. Rites attributed to war gods often focused on the ritual deposition of war booty and sacrifice of captives.

‘According to their natural cruelty, they are impious in the worship of their gods; for malefactors, after that they have been kept close prisoners five years together, they impale upon stakes, in honour to the gods, and then, with many other victims, upon a vast pile of wood, they offer them up as a burnt sacrifice to their deities. In like manner they use their captives also, as sacrifices to the gods. Some of them cut the throats, burn, or otherwise destroy both men and beasts that they have taken in time of war.’

[Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, II]

Russian Army of Ivan the Terrible

A policy change introduced at this time was of major importance in the evolution of the relationship between the Tsar, the landowning class and the armed forces. For most of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries the main fighting force had been composed of cavalry, largely based on the princely appanages with little centralized organization. By the mid-sixteenth century these princely private armies were to be found only, if at all, in the appanages of Lithuanian origin, such as those of the Bel’skys and Mstislavskys, and in the retinues of the Russian ‘service’ princes of the Upper Oka, such as the Odoevskys and the Vorotynskys.

The development of a Russian army dependent on the grand prince alone began in the reign of Ivan III, who had already extended the grand prince’s control over the armed forces where he had been successful in absorbing a principality and destroying its separate identity. Princes and boyars, when not acting as governors and local commandants, were usually absorbed as commanders and senior officers in grand princely regiments, in accordance with the ranking laid down by the code of precedence, or mestnichestvo. The general run of service gentry, originally of mixed social origins, was gradually sorted out into those who served the grand prince directly, as members of his dvor, received estates in service tenure (pomest’ia), and were merged into the dvoriane or future service gentry, and those who had served local princes and boyars and who continued to carry out their service as pomeshchiki on a provincial basis. Lower-ranking cavalry officers were thus attached to provincial towns, resided on their estates and were summoned when required by the grand prince, bringing their servants with them. Both these groups received lands on a service tenure which in the early days of the system could not be sold or pledged, but could be passed on the death of the holder to a son or son-in-law fit to perform service. The service to be given was strictly calculated in terms of the amount and quality of land.

The system of pomest’ia was devised to enable cavalrymen to serve when called upon, and was to remain the basic way of paying for the cavalry army until the reign of Peter the Great. The Pomestnyi Prikaz, or Estates Office which administered the recruitment and the provision of land to the mounted cavalry, was founded in 1475. Further distribution of lands as pomest’ia took place under Vasily III and Ivan IV from a variety of sources. The estate was not regarded as the private property of the pomeshchik; it provided a fixed income for his maintenance and his equipment, and he was not expected to concern himself with its exploitation. He was not therefore a landowner in the Western sense of the word, but a land user entitled to a certain income from the land. It was thus quite distinct from the votchina or the patrimonial estate which formed the basis of the wealth of the aristocracy and the service gentry, which many pomeshchiki owned in addition to the land granted by the government.

The first major initiative in the remodelling of the armed forces taken in Ivan IV’s reign occurred in 1550. The Tsar’s dvor numbered some three thousand all told, and a specific group of one thousand cavalrymen, divided into three categories, was now provided with pomest’ia in the central provinces to enable them to lodge in Moscow and provide all their supplies from lands relatively near to the capital. They were to be available for immediate service as required, serving on a rota. The estates they were allotted were provided mainly from the Tsar’s own lands or from lands of free peasants around Moscow.46 Aleksei Adashev was one of these cavalrymen.

A corps of infantry equipped with firearms was also formed by Ivan, pishchal’niki, or ‘harquebuzzers’, as Jerome Horsey, a later English visitor, called them, who had already been used in 1480 in the nonexistent battle of the Ugra and who were replaced in 1550 by musketeers or strel’tsy, also on foot. These, together with Ivan’s chosen one thousand cavalry corps, formed his personal guard, ‘the forerunners of Peter I’ s guards regiments’, presumably to protect him against the sort of rioting which had so frightened him in 1547. The strel’tsy were to be part of the military scene until the reign of Peter the Great. Their function was not to fight with cold steel or pikes in hand-to-hand combat, but to use firepower. Their numbers fluctuated and probably reached some twenty thousand by the end of the sixteenth century. They were, unlike the cavalry levy, a permanent uniformed corps. Unlike the Ottoman janissaries they were free men; they received salaries in money and goods according to rank, but also maintained themselves and their families partly by artisan production and small-scale trading activities. Their officers belonged to the gentry and were allotted pomest’ia as well as salaries. The whole corps came under the authority of a new Streletskii Prikaz.

Artillery was also extensively and effectively used in Russia, and Ivan may have taken a personal interest in the manufacture of guns – from Russian-produced iron ore – and their utilization by his army. Each regiment was allocated a certain number of guns in the 1550s. Ivan took 150 heavy and medium pieces of artillery to Kazan’ with him in 1552, and in this respect Russia was not inferior to her Western enemies, though supplies of gunpowder and lead had to be imported and could therefore be subject to enemy blockade on land.

The origin of the idea of this corps of strel’tsy has been much debated in Russia. Clearly Russia needed more modern weaponry, namely firearms and heavy artillery, for her wars against Poland, Sweden and in Livonia, rather than cavalry armed with bows and arrows. Contemporaries and many military specialists have speculated on whether the new formations were borrowed from the Ottomans through the writings of a certain Ivan Semonovich Peresvetov, which may perhaps have been known to Ivan IV. For a long time Peresvetov’s very existence was in doubt and he was thought to be an assumed name or a collective personality. Not until the beginning of the twentieth century was his existence actually established. In the 1950s he was unfortunately treated as one of the powerful humanist thinkers of sixteenth-century Europe, comparable to Machiavelli or Bodin. A revision of his human and intellectual qualities has not yet been undertaken, nor is it certain that all his alleged writings can be attributed to him; thus his influence still needs to be questioned.

Born and bred in Lithuania, conditioned by life in this borderland, divided between Polish Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, offering his sword as a Polish cavalryman now to the Hungarian Jan Zapolya, a vassal of the Ottomans, now to the Habsburg King of Bohemia, now to the voevoda Peter IV Raresh of Moldavia, Peresvetov was a fairly senior officer serving with six or seven horses and the corresponding number of grooms and servants. Evidently resentful at his failure to make good in service, and distrusting boyars and their ilk, he attempted to enter Russian service in 1538, during the regency of Elena. He may have been attracted to Russian service by his connexion with Peter of Moldavia, whose wife was Elena’s cousin by marriage. He tried to interest the Russian court in a model shield ‘in the Macedonian manner’ which he had invented, and was taken up by the boyar M. Iu’rev Zakhar’in, the uncle of the future Tsaritsa Anastasia, and provided with a workshop and a pomest’ie. Unfortunately for Peresvetov, Zakhar’in died, he lost his patron, and all interest in his patent shield evaporated.

Peresvetov continued in increasingly impoverished circumstances for some ten years, after which all traces of him vanish. This was not surprising since he had no connexions in Russia with any of the boyar clans, or even with the gentry, who tended also to be united by fairly close local associations. Reduced in his own eyes to poverty, in 1549, at the time of the gathering of the so-called ‘assembly of reconciliation’, he personally submitted a petition, together with a number of other written works, to Tsar Ivan, accusing the ‘great’ of having despoiled him of his land, leaving him naked and destitute, without even a horse. Peresvetov’s not unjustified hope of achieving more in Russia, where a simple horseman could now count on some support as a pomeshchik, was not to be fulfilled, and as a man he disappears from sight. But the various writings attributed to him survived in a number of manuscript copies of the early seventeenth century and have led to a belated acceptance of his existence as a man and his importance as a ‘spokesman’ of the gentry or the holders of pomest’ia, as against the rich and powerful, in the sixteenth century.

It is this interpretation of the ‘class’ role of Peresvetov, considered to have been insufficiently appreciated by pre-revolutionary historians, which has contributed to his great importance in Soviet historiography. The relevant texts attributed to Peresvetov are ‘On the conquest of Tsar’grad by the godless Tsar Magmet Amuratov, son of the Turkish Tsar’, ‘The Tale of Magmet Saltan’, and ‘The Great Petition’, which contains Peresvetov’s account of the five months he spent in the service of Peter IV Raresh, his only Orthodox patron. Mehmet II’s victory over the last Paleologus emperor, Constantine, was in great part attributed by Peresvetov to the selfishness, cowardice and incapacity of the ‘great’ men surrounding the Emperor and his failure to support the more lowly men-at-arms. (‘The rich never think of fighting, they think of peacefulness and gentleness and rest.’) He argued in favour of a centrally recruited, controlled and paid army, like the Turkish janissaries, but he also argued that free men fight better than slaves, and the Russian cavalry was free, while the janissaries were slaves as were all the civil employees of the Ottoman court. In Russia the kholopy or bondsmen of various kinds in the armed forces were at this time mainly employed either in the transport of food, fodder and munitions, or in labouring on engineering projects.

Another great virtue of the Ottoman system in Peresvetov’s eyes was its concentration on pravda rather than vera – truth or justice, rather than faith. This makes one wonder whether the long years in foreign parts, before he came to Russia, had somewhat dented the purity of Peresvetov’s Orthodox faith. The sense of the Russian word ‘pravda’ is impossible to convey in English, where in dictionaries the emphasis is almost always on the notion of truth, whereas in Russian the notion of justice or righteousness is fundamental. The most articulate expression of Peresvetov’s ideas (if they were his ideas) comes in his version of the tale of Prince Peter IV of Moldavia, where the Prince praises Mehmet the Conqueror for having restored justice to Constantinople, and explains that ‘God does not love faith, but pravda or justice’. Through his Son he left us the gospel of truth (pravda), loving the Christian faith above all other faiths, and showed us the path to heaven. But the Greeks, though they honoured the gospel, listened to others and did not carry out the will of the Lord and fell into heresy (i.e. the decision to unite with Rome, taken at the Council of Ferrara/Florence).

But Peresvetov was primarily concerned with the practical problems of governing a warlike society. He favoured the institution of a professional army (like the Ottoman janissaries), but free, government by state employees, and the bridling of the high nobility. It is difficult to see in him the spokesman of the gentry, he seems rather to place his faith in a state ruling by ‘groza’, terror or awe. Mehmed was again quoted as an example, for when he discovered that his judges were being dishonest he had them flayed alive, saying:

if their flesh grows back again their crime will be forgiven. And he ordered their skins to be stretched out and ordered them to be stuffed with cotton and ordered them to be affixed with an iron nail in places of judgment and ordered it to be written on the skins: without such terrors, justice and sovereignty cannot be introduced.

Mehmed was also praised for being dread, or terrible, in fact ‘grozen’: ‘If a tsar is mild and peace-loving in his realm, his realm will become impoverished and his glory will diminish. If a tsar is dread and wise, his realm will expand and his name will be famous in all lands.’ ‘A kingdom without terror [groza] is like a horse without a bridle.’ Peresvetov’s admiration for the efficiency of Ottoman rule is by no means unique at that time, when it was very much a lieu commun in that part of Europe which had had dealings with the Porte.

To be ‘dread’ Ivan did not need any advice from Peresvetov, and there is not in fact any evidence that Ivan IV ever read anything written by Peresvetov; and if the idea of creating the corps of musketeers came from outside Russia, a more convincing source is in fact Moldavia, where voevoda Peter Raresh had introduced a corps of musketeers who were not slaves like the janissaries, but free like the strel’tsy, and with which of course Peresvetov would have been familiar. It seems, therefore, unlikely that Peresvetov exercised any influence on Ivan’s policy in the 1550s as a spokesman for the gentry.