Book: “Fighting for the French Foreign Legion”


Like the 7th Cavalry, the Waffen SS or the Special Air Service the French Foreign Legion is one of those iconic (be that through fame or infamy) military units that most students of military history know something about. This book by Alex Lochrie (its subtitle – “memoirs of a Scottish Legionnaire” – make it clear from the outset his origins!) is not a long read at only one hundred and seventy pages. But it is a fascinating one.

The author had what can only be described as a chequered history before joining the Legion at the grand old age of 38. He was in advertising, joined two separate Scottish police forces (moonlighting at one point as a commercial pilot), became a down and out and attempted suicide! He then journeyed to Paris and joined not just one of world’s best and most well known fighting forces, but went on to become part of an elite within this elite – the 2eme Regiment Etranger Parachutiste (2eme REP); the Legion’s paratroopers! He worked his way up to Caporal Chef and was decorated for bravery.

Over a series of nineteen chapters the author takes us through his early jobs, his joining and induction in the Legion and his training and operational deployments over a decade long career from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. So we have various deployments to Tchad in Africa (as part of France’s military commitments to its ex-colonies); to Saudi Arabia/Iraq as part of the first Gulf War and, in the final (and longest) part of the book, to his 6 months in Sarajevo as part of the UN peace keeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These deployments are interspersed with re-collections of tough commando training (reminiscent of SAS style training), exercises with US forces and a move over to an intelligence gathering role (at a time when digital technology was part of a new frontier in this field of military operations).

As someone who during the early nineties had all the misery of the Balkan tragedy beamed regularly into his house it was the author’s description of his tour in Sarajevo that left the biggest impression on me. For those that have studied this conflict the tale is a familiar one; a seemingly spineless UN, highly restrictive rules of engagement, barbarism by all the main indigenous participants and misery and starvation for those trapped by the fighting. 2eme REP’s mission was to hold the International Airport to allow relief flights. Despite their blue helmets and UN status they were shot at and shelled throughout the tour. However being the Legion they didn’t take this lying down, despite those pesky rules of engagement. Some effective deployment of counter snipers with Tac50 Sniper rifles (“The Big Mac” – delivered in guitar cases so nobody could spot these non-defensive weapons) combined with a highly efficient and innovative way of mapping sniper positions ended the airport’s status as a shooting gallery. Also when shelling by the Serbians became too persistent and too close for comfort the French commander fetched in his 120mm mortars from home base and threatened to reduce the local Serbian HQ to rubble if one more round fell on the airport. The Legion’s reputation built up over months of patient diplomacy backed by the threat that only armed legionnaires can bring meant that the shelling stopped!

The whole book is well observed and very crisply written. As the author says his book is not meant to be an advertisement for the Foreign Legion, but he does a damned good job of making it look like a good life if you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk! On many occasions he compares the attitude and approach of the Legion with other units from the French armed forces and finds the latter wanting on nearly every occasion. The Legion follows the “any idiot principle” (although the author doesn’t call it this). So any idiot can be uncomfortable, too cold, too hot, not have decent cooking or recreation facilities. Whether in the deserts of Tchad or the harsh conditions of a Balkans winter the Legion makes sure that as far as possible its base areas are comfortable, well supplied and well fed. Always through their own efforts and resourcefulness.

The book is something of a historical document covering a period of around twenty five years ago-the Legion has moved on since then – but as a view of a period when the geo-political map of the world was being re-drawn it is a highly insightful one (especially given it is from the narrow perspective of a single military unit).

The book finishes with the end of the author’s career and some of his comments on how the Legion treated ex-Legionnaires in difficulties (which appears to be extremely well), makes one question the treatment of soldiers in the UK on their release from the British Army (I am in no position to comment on other nations) following their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t be giving the game away to say the author’s story ends well; this is no embittered memoir from someone who has been hard done by. This is the tale of a well-motivated soldier from an elite unit who has, overall, had a very good experience of military life.

The book is supported by a number of black and white photographs showing various aspects of the author’s career and interests. This kind of thing is de rigueur for this kind of book and always add something to text.

I am not particularly interested in the Foreign Legion as a subject, regular readers of these occasional reviews will know my military interests lie elsewhere; however, I have to say this was an excellent read and something of a page turner. So if the Legion is your thing then you will love this book. If you are interested in modern day soldiering then I think this will also be for you. There wasn’t a lot here for wargamers in terms of scenarios etc (the author’s career did not involve a great deal of direct kinetic action) but elements of the Sarajevo tour could provide some ideas.

“Fighting for the French Foreign Legion” available now in paperback from Pen & Sword Books, normal price £12.99/$19.95 (ISBN 9781783376155)

Book Review: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World.

Exciting re-creation of the epic mid-16th-century struggle between the encroaching Ottoman Empire and the beleaguered Christian Europeans.
Crowley picks up where he left off in 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (2005). After the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror and his army of Turks, the author writes, it was only a matter of time before Mehmet’s great-grandson Suleiman set out to achieve his own ambition to become “Padishah of the White Sea”—the Mediterranean. From the 1520s on, Suleiman and later his son Selim II clashed repeatedly with Charles V and then Philip II of Spain in a battle for holy ascendancy that stretched from Rhodes to Tunis, Cyprus to Lepanto. Suleiman unleashed his murderous corsairs, led by the Barbarossa brothers, to wreak havoc on the Barbary Coast (North Africa), while Charles employed the astute services of the valiant Genoese sea commander Andrea Doria. Radiating from Madrid and Istanbul across Europe, the engines of imperial power collided catastrophically in 1565 on the rugged island of Malta, a launch pad for the crusading Knights of Saint John headed by the zealous Jean Parisot de La Valette. Here Crowley lingers with chillingly detailed precision, depicting the armada of Turkish galleys bearing down on the island. Seventy-year-old La Valette and his 6,000 or so fighting men hastily prepared for defense against an Ottoman force exceeding 20,000. The Knights and the rest of Europe were convinced that this was the final redoubt, “the glorious last-ditch stand against impossible odds, massacre, martyrdom, and death.” What ensued was a four-month bloodbath, with the Christians routing the Turks and checking their advance into the White Sea.
A masterly narrative that captures the religious fervor, brutality and mayhem of this intensive contest for the “center of the world.”

Book Review: The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript.

Pamela O. Long, David McGee, Alan M. Stahl, eds. The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Vol. 1, 732 pp.; Vol. 2, 732 pp.; Vol. 3, 384 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-262-13503-0; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-262-19590-4; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-262-12308-2.

Reviewed by Veronica Della Dora
Published on H-HistGeog (March, 2010)
Commissioned by Robert J. Mayhew

A Rediscovered Venetian Mariner’s Notebook
Michael of Rhodes is certainly not the most popular of fifteenth-century writers. A Greek émigré who moved to Venice in 1401 as a humble oarsman, fought several sea battles, and managed to advance to the highest ranks in the Venetian navy, “only with difficulty could [he] be considered an intellectual” (vol. 3, p. 101). Yet the manuscript this “adoptive hero” of the Serenissima started to compose in 1434 (probably as a way to advance in his career) represents a true treasure of information for early Renaissance scholars and, more generally, for historians of early modern science and technology. A 241-folio quarto manuscript, the “Book of Michael of Rhodes” includes treatises and practical exercises in commercial mathematics, a beautifully illuminated section on astrology, extended notes on time reckoning, and a rare portolan, Greek prayers transliterated in Latin characters, officers’ rules, and nothing less than the world’s first extant treatise on shipbuilding. The manuscript, which is being published for the first time, marries medieval encyclopaedism with early fifteenth-century technical knowledge, late Byzantine religious beliefs with Venetian culture, and science and art with everyday practice. Its varied, if not eclectic, character is enough to make Michael’s manuscript a unique object of study.

The history of the manuscript is itself interesting. It is a saga no less compelling than the adventurous life of its author. Parts of Michael’s book were known in seventeenth-century Italy, but since then the manuscript had been deemed lost, until it “miraculously” surfaced in 1966 at a Sothebys auction. Purchased privately, it once again vanished from the scene, until it suddenly reappeared on auction almost forty years later. Conscious of its historical value, this time the new owner not only gave scholars full access to the manuscript but also allowed its integral reproduction–hence this MIT facsimile edition.

The Book of Michael of Rhodes is a lovely three-volume hardcover set. The first volume is a faithfully reproduced facsimile of the actual manuscript and other original documents related to the life of Michael (including his and his wife’s wills). All the folia (comprising a vast number of blank ones) are entirely reproduced in color on glossy paper in the same size as the original, making visible different types of ink, margin lines, water stains, and the various marks of time. The quality of the reprint makes it possible to read the original text and fully appreciate the wonderful illuminations in their brilliant colors. The second volume contains the transcription of the manuscript faced by the English translation on the left page, in order to facilitate comparison and assist readers unfamiliar with medieval Venetian. The text is complemented by comprehensive indexes of Venetian general and proper names and of their respective translations, which makes the volume easier to navigate. The third volume comprises studies of the manuscript by nine international experts in different aspects of the early Renaissance, including a paleographer, a mathematician, an art historian specializing in medieval astrological imagery, a historian of Venetian cartography, historians of science and medicine, and an expert in medieval ship construction.

A companion to the facsimile edition, this last volume is meant to investigate and contextualize the figure of Michael of Rhodes and different aspects of his work and make the manuscript “more comprehensible and accessible” to scholars and the general public (vol. 3, p. ix). Pamela O. Long’s detailed introductory chapter certainly fulfills both goals. Here, the coeditor effectively sets the manuscript and its author within the broader context of nautical writing and the Venetian maritime world. Long lucidly presents key aspects of Michael’s life and career and links them to main historical and cultural events, such as famous battles he fought and, more notably, the Council of Ferrara-Florence of 1438, to which Michael’s ship escorted the Byzantine imperial convoy. Details from accounts of other mariners and travellers who journeyed on the convoy are used to shed light on Michael’s experience and immerse the reader in a fifteenth-century mariner’s world. The last part of the chapter links the contents of the manuscript to the hybrid cultural context in which Michael operated. It sheds further light on cultural and religious aspects of the Rhodian officer’s life and discusses various questions presented by the manuscript and further tackled by other contributors in the following chapters. In this sense, Long’s introduction nicely sets up the scene for the following more specialized studies. I personally found this chapter carefully researched and annotated, yet at the same time accessible, compelling, easy to read, and full of illuminating insights, parallels, and links with other Renaissance figures, ranging from obscure late Byzantine travellers to famed Italian humanists, such as Nicholas of Cusa.

Unlike Long’s introduction, most of the following chapters are unlikely to sustain the continued attention of the “general public.” The casual reader will probably feel overwhelmed by the degree of detail provided in Alan M. Stahl’s meticulous biography of Michael of Rhodes (currently, the most complete source of information about this author), by parts of Raffaella Franci’s accurate study of the mathematics in the manuscript, or by the technicalities of shipbuilding detailed in David McGee and Mauro Bondioli’s chapters, and so on. By contrast, specialized scholars will find all these contributions reliable sources of precious information.

Historical geographers and map historians will find Piero Falchetta’s chapter on the manuscript’s portolan of particular interest. The portolan contains instructions for the coastal navigation of Atlantic Europe, the Gulf of Salonika, and the Adriatic–coasts Michael had more or less extensively sailed. Having contextualized Michael’s portolan within a much broader (yet rather understudied) tradition of periploi (ancient Greek and Byzantine lists of ports, villages, and cities as encountered during a coastal journey), Falchetta shows how Michael’s portolan had been copied from another source (like most of the rest of the manuscript). He also shows how the portolan contains a number of technical errors, which go beyond mere transcription and would have made the portolan totally impractical, if not deceitful, for navigational purposes. Falchetta concludes that the utility of the portolan was symbolic, rather than practical. It was the possession of certain “work instruments” (such as the portolan and other sections of the manuscript), rather than their actual content, that “certified the nautical experience of their proprietors, as the proof of the fact that they could have access through their libro (book) to specific knowledge” (vol. 3, p. 205). In other words, Michael’s manuscript was less of a practical aid than an object used to instruct and impress potential patrons and employers who were not necessarily familiar with the art of navigation and its technicalities.

As the other studies in the volume show, this thesis seems to be confirmed by other parts of the manuscript. For example, the place of mathematics in Michael’s manuscript, Franci suggests, often appears to be more “recreational” than practical (in the literal sense). Copied from contemporary abbaci (or school textbooks), problems, exercises, and much of Michael’s mathematical writing have nothing to do with his own personal needs as a sailor (vol. 3, p. 145). Similarly, the manuscript’s section on the zodiac, Dieter Blume shows, contains some basic astrological mistakes, whereas the treatise on shipbuilding, we read in chapters 7 and 8, was not all Michael’s work. Here, Michael once again reveals his importance as a collator and transmitter, rather than as an authority on the matter (it is worth noting that did not himself build ships).

Overall, the companion volume offers valuable insights into maritime practices and technologies and Venetian commerce, as well as into a variety of aspects of popular knowledge and culture in the broader world of the fifteenth-century Mediterranean: from religious piety to popular medicine and astronomy. Besides providing the reader with detailed commentaries on different aspects of the manuscript, the studies also shed light on its overall purposes, both collectively and individually. While this gives the companion volume coherence and encourages nonspecialist academic readers to venture beyond their area of expertise, it also (and perhaps inevitably) generates a number of repetitions and slight overlaps throughout the volume. To a certain degree, each chapter could read as a self-contained essay directed to a specific category of specialists.

The price of the set does certainly justice to its publishing standard and the quality of the writing (both in terms of translation and research). Beyond the sheer delight of a high-quality facsimile, the book is a pleasure to read simply for its rigorous accuracy and careful detail. The editors’ work has been truly commendable. Long, McGee, and Stahl certainly succeeded in “fixing” the contents of this extraordinary unedited manuscript for posterity, preventing them from getting lost a third time. May The Book of Michael of Rhodes serve as an inspiration and example for publishers, private collectors, and scholars.

Book: Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1800.

Diogo Ramada Curto, Francisco Bethencourt, eds. Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xx + 536 pp. $36.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-60891-6.
Reviewed by Catia Antunes
Published on H-Atlantic (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Jordana Dym

Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1600
This collection of essays is a handbook for the English-speaking world interested in the Portuguese expansion overseas, in which Francisco Bethencourt and Diogo Ramada Curto set an agenda for a new set of approaches to the study of the Portuguese expansion. First, they wish to provide a global and comparative perspective of the Portuguese expansion. Second, they want to break with the traditional notion that the Portuguese empire should be studied according to different geographical areas. They give precedence to the exchange of peoples, goods, and cultural values throughout and between the different areas of the empire. Third, the editors refuse to bind their book to a clear short- or medium-term chronology. They call for a study of long-term developments and effects of the Portuguese presence throughout the world. Fourth, Bethencourt and Curto look beyond the political borders imposed by  Portuguese settlements overseas, as well as the relationships established between local and regional powers and the royal administration ad hoc. Finally, both editors refuse to make use of the history of the Portuguese empire as a political manifesto, as has happened in the past. Hence, they suggest the revision of most of the traditional historiography and the construction of new models of analysis that may liberate the history of the Portuguese expansion from its past political constraints.
In order to achieve these goals, Bethencourt and Curto organized this volume in three different parts. The first part of the book focuses on the economy of the Portuguese empire, where the traditional view of imperial economic cycles is replaced by a focus on the circulation of products, the build-up of financial networks, and the development of markets, resulting in the creation of distinct colonial societies within a single imperial framework. This part of the book shows that although there was a direct link between the economic needs of the kingdom of Portugal and the economic cycles throughout the empire, it seems that from an early stage, the empire was able to follow its own economic development, acquiring a certain amount of disentanglement from the kingdom. The Portuguese empire allowed for the coexistence of cycles of agricultural production, mercantile exchange between the colonies and the kingdom, and a certain degree of intracolonial trade. It is in the Atlantic where this combination is clearest.
The metropolis seems to have profited from the empire. If in the beginning of the fifteenth century the forts in the north of Africa were a financial liability, by 1506, the empire was already contributing about 60 percent of the crown’s income. In the beginning of the nineteenth century that had been reduced to about 27 percent, mainly through the collection of custom duties. The income provided by the empire to the crown came from the direct exploitation of royal monopolies, the direct participation in trade, and the direct and indirect taxation of commerce and mining. One distinctive feature of the Portuguese kingdom was that it never became a “fiscal state.” Portugal remained an “entrepreneurial domain state,” mostly interested in the income provided by agricultural and mining production, characteristics of the Atlantic system.
If the benefits of empire seem obvious, the costs are analyzed at two levels. The ordinary costs were often covered by the benefits and therefore we can generally speak of a positive balance. However, the costs of empire were truly felt through the system of extraordinary expenses. Those were mainly provoked by factors external to the empire itself, as was the case of the costs of warfare or political instability. These extraordinary expenses engendered significant deficits, contributing to the general increase of the public debt.
The second part of the book is dedicated to the understanding of the institutions behind the Portuguese empire. Instead of stressing solely the role of the state, this particular set of articles shows how the state, church, local, regional, and other institutions coexisted in the same framework, competing for both political leverage and economic power. The policy of settlement in the empire is an example of a local institution whose multiculturalism was the basis of an idea of empire, perceived differently in Europe and overseas.
The idea of locality as being the key to institutional power-sharing presupposes what Bethencourt has called a “nebula of power,” defined as an attempt to maintain a balance of power between local, regional, and central institutions, all of which competed to control the imperial system. This almost decentralization of interests in the empire promoted the development of an idea of metropolitan centralization on the part of the crown. Therefore, this “nebula of power” provoked a clear seizure between the crown and the “imperial state,” being the latter in charge of social control, monopoly of violence and regulation of social conflicts.
The coexistence of a centralized royal ideal of empire and an actual decentralized “imperial state,” subject to adaptation and assimilation of institutions ad hoc, shows the flexibility of the Portuguese institutional framework to act in a decentralized manner. Although territorial settlements and political institutions were of great importance in keeping the Portuguese colonial empire together, the church played a significant institutional role in promoting the idea of a diverse, but global empire through four mechanisms: the Padroado Régio, the military orders, the Inquisition and the confraternities.
The third part of the book covers several cultural developments initiated or influenced by the Portuguese expansion. These include the development of the Portuguese language, art, and literary production as means of contact and the transactions among different cultural forms inside the empire and between these and the kingdom.
The idea of a “nebula of power” introduced by Bethencourt is brought up again by Curto when he emphasizes the levels of local, regional, and metropolitan cultural contributions to a concept of empire. Arguing perhaps in favor of a “cultural nebula,” the third part emphasizes the complex transactions between cultural diversity, the practices of tradition, and the means of political action, all of them identifiable through the use of the Portuguese language, different art forms, and technological development. Nonetheless, the editors claim the need for new research into the development and formation of different political or cultural identities throughout the Portuguese empire.
This volume of essays ends with a chapter by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose main goal is to place the Portuguese expansion in a global context. According to Fernández-Armesto, Portugal’s contribution to global history was that a small kingdom set the example for others to follow, making an undeniable contribution to the construction of an Atlantic world by being the first European country to put in motion the environmental changes provoked by the general European expansion overseas.
Overall, this is a well-balanced book, whose articles fulfill the goals set in the introduction. Its value goes beyond the general information it provides about Portuguese expansion, offering excellent insight and an innovative framework for further research on this theme. This book is particularly successful when explaining the construction of concepts and ideas of empire, giving voice to metropolitan institutions and actors as well as to ad hoc communities, institutions, and societies. However, the collection fails to adequately situate of Portuguese expansion in the general debate about world history, globalization, and the “rise of the West.”
Although the articles by Schwartz, Pedreira, Alencastro, Bethencourt, and Curto provide an outstanding basis for further explorations in that direction, Fernández-Armesto’s article fails to explain how a reasonably balanced empire, controlled by a small country, was unable to take part in the wealth and prosperity distribution process common to other European empires that succeeded in creating enough socioeconomic and cultural leverage to initiate an industrial revolution and by doing so contribute to the “rise of the West” and a significant acceleration of the process of globalization. The lack of a structural theoretical framework to make such an assessment leaves unexplained the relative economic and industrial retardation of both metropolis and empire as well as Portugal’s possible contribution to a transition to modernity in early modern Europe.

BOOK REVIEW: Europe’s American Revolution


Published by (February, 2008)

Simon P. Newman, ed. _Europe’s American Revolution_. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. xvii + 201 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4039-8997-0.

Reviewed for H-Diplo by Gerard Hugues, Department of English, University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France

Revolutionary Reverberations

The volume entitled _Europe’s American Revolution_ puts together the proceedings of a workshop at the conference of the European Association for American Studies held in Prague in April 2004. Scholars from European countries confronted their views and discussed the impact of the American Revolution on Europe’s political thought and experience.

The object was both ambitious and promising, since the participants refused to stick to old received values and questioned and measured the influence of the events of 1776 and 1787 on European soil. As recalled by Simon P. Newman in his introduction, Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first to celebrate the American experiment and extol the model of exceptionalism set by the newborn nation. At the outset is the apparent paradox of a groundbreaking event fought by people of European descent who chose to break with European traditions. Hence, a widely endorsed view of the Revolution is that it was a supranational event paving the way to other similar uprisings that took place on the European continent. It is precisely this construction of the Revolutionary War and its subsequent developments that this book challenges.

The Glaswegians, for instance, unexpectedly turned their backs on the social and economic turmoil in the New World, because it jeopardized their interests within a then powerful and affluent empire. Brad Jones provides a detailed and well-documented account of their reaction, against the backdrop of a thriving Atlantic trade badly hurt by the insurgents’ misdemeanor. To combat this trend, the Scots developed a “patriotic imperial nationalism,” fully and aptly analyzed by Jones, as a way to secure vested interests in the status quo (p. 2). This economic motive is further related to a religious concern following the French decision to enter the war alongside the Continentals. At that point, the Scots chose the side of British Protestantism against French Catholicism, thereby taking a distance with the values of the American Revolution that definitely failed to attract the sympathy of Glaswegians.

Similarly, Spaniards did not turn out to be first-hour admirers of the Revolutionary War. Spain had its own interests to defend in America that were specific to the old Catholic empire, and Anthony McFarlane’s essay opens with a comparative study of New Spain and the British colonies, giving the latter a clear advantage in terms of economic and social development. Spain, under the circumstances, had several options, and it might have saved its own empire overseas had it secured an alliance with the French to capitalize on the difficulties of the British crown.

Despite solid reasons to side with the American rebels, first to protect its own possessions and then to emulate the superior model set by the British colonists, Spain missed the opportunity offered to her. This failure to seal an alliance with the French was, according to McFarlane, fatal to the Spanish presence and influence in the New World, while the values of the Enlightenment carried by the Revolution never seeped into Spanish society, so that the impact of the Revolution was virtually nonexistent.

The case of France is examined by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, who deliberately chooses to analyze the issue from a historiographical angle. A longstanding tradition among French historians has been to analyze the French and American revolutions as two intimately connected events (e.g., Jacques Godechot, Andre Kaspi, and Claude Fohlen).

Rossignol, particularly, emphasizes the originality of Elise Marienstras’s approach, which integrated the contribution of radical historians, while “the French academic world remained impervious to these new interpretations of the American Revolution” (p. 53). Rossignol, then, examines with great accuracy the historiographical trend leading from the instrumentalization of the American Revolution to its virtual exclusion. She embarks on a bold, but risky, survey of “the complex history of the French Revolution in French historiography” from 1800 until 1989, to conclude that a new perspective might be offered to researchers, within the concept of the Atlantic world lately defined by American and British historians, to renew the analysis (p. 60).

The way the British saw the American Revolution was deeply influenced by Sir Denis Brogan (1900-74), whose views are fully analyzed by Newman, who stresses the contribution of Brogan to the development of American studies in post-World War II years. The universal value of the American Revolution was then celebrated as the study of American history became “an act of faith among British academics” (p. 82). Newman depicts the disenchantment of British historians before the Bush administration’s assault on American liberties, embodied by the Patriot Act and the systematic betrayal of the founding documents. His conclusion may sound overly pessimistic, but it certainly opens a fruitful debate about whether the “American Century” is over.

Csaba Levai gives a refreshing and original comparative study of Hungary within the Habsburg Empire and the colonies within the British Empire, with striking similarities between the two experiences, like the necessity of self-government or the issue of taxation. Levai convincingly demonstrates how much Hungarian patriots were influenced by American revolutionaries and how their common goals culminated with the drafting of the Hungarian declaration of independence of 1848 in a process that emulated the events of 1776. The rest of the essay is devoted to the changing perceptions of the American Revolution both in Hungary and Poland, from the nineteenth century to the fall of the Communist regimes, and it concludes that its star is now waning among the younger generations accustomed to democracy and pluralism.

In Germany, the impact of the American Revolution was also very limited, according to Thomas Clark, who develops his argument on solid evidence provided by a thorough knowledge of German constitutional thought. He argues that the events of 1776 and 1787 had little influence on German constitutionalism as the monarchical principle remained central to German liberalism. The most relevant concept, and one that deserves further analysis, is probably the distrust of the people shared by American federalists and German constitutionalists. The volume closes with Joseph Mullin’s careful study of John Taylor of Caroline’s “radical” options placed in the perspective of the modern debate on the European construction, followed by an essay by Andrew Pepper about the lack of interest of Hollywood for the American Revolution.

In conclusion, this is a rich volume teeming with rejuvenated views of the American Revolution and new insights into the concept of “American exceptionalism” that, by and large, seems to have lost most of its past luster.

Book Review: The Limits of Loyalty: Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances, and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy.

Laurence Cole, Daniel L. Unowsky, eds. The Limits of Loyalty: Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances, and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy. Austrian and Habsburg Studies. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007. viii + 246 pp. ISBN 978-1-84545-202-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84545-202-5.

Reviewed by Ian Armour (Department of Humanities, Grant MacEwan College, Edmonton)
Published on H-German (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher

The Case for Inertia?

One of the more welcome aspects of reviewing online is the freedom to devote appropriate space to an edited collection such as this. All too often the variety of the research on offer, and the genuine sense of a colloquium going on in what is frequently the record of an academic conference, get lost sight of in the need to summarize it all in a mere five hundred words or so. This seems particularly true of the present volume. Its nine contributions, together with the characteristically insightful afterword by R. J. W. Evans, are all excellent, thought-provoking reflections on the extent to which the Habsburg monarchy in its last half-century of existence, in particular during the reign of its last monarch but one, Francis Joseph, was capable of eliciting loyalty from its subjects. As the editors and several contributors point out, discussions of this question, and of the monarchy’s general viability as a state, have been dominated ever since its 1918 collapse by the famous distinction drawn by Hungarian émigré political scientist Oscar Jászi, in The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (1929), between “centrifugal” and “centripetal” forces. In an age of rising and increasingly irreconcilable nationalisms, Jászi argued, the traditionally centripetal elements of dynasty, church, bureaucracy, and army proved too weak to counter these centrifugal tendencies. Although Jászi was too acute a student of the monarchy to ignore the crucial importance of the First World War in facilitating the triumph of the centrifugal forces, the tendency ever since has been to see the monarchy as an institution living on borrowed time, beset by near-terminal challenges both within and without.

Of late, however, a countervailing tendency in historical scholarship has focused on the centripetal forces and highlighted how much staying power and real cohesion the monarchy had. This tendency is not so much a misplaced nostalgia for the monarchy as a more rational, humane alternative to the squabbling, internally riven successor states, let alone a sentimentalization centered on the “venerable” Francis Joseph of the sort still visible in the tackier tourist boutiques of present-day Vienna, but rather a commendable reaction to the implicit, if usually unstated, determinism in the original Jászi premise. In the hands of popularizers and, it has to be said, one’s own undergraduates, Jászi’s distinction between forces of dissolution and forces of cohesion tends to degenerate into an inevitabilist scenario: because the monarchy was a dynastic state, and absolutist in aspiration if not always in practice, it was bound to founder on the rocks of popular sovereignty and mass politics; because it was a multinational state, it was bound to fall apart. This travesty of historical reality, it should be stressed, was never the interpretation of the monarchy’s earliest analysts and critics, such as Jászi or, before him, R. W. Seton-Watson and Henry Wickham Steed. Such pioneers of critical Habsburg studies, many of whom began their work while the monarchy was still alive and kicking, started from a position of wishing the monarchy well, and hoped that it would set its house in order for the sake of international stability as well as natural justice. The fall of the monarchy was always, to its more discerning critics and subsequent historians, contingent upon the mistakes of its leaders, the determination of its enemies, the catastrophe of the First World War, and the unprecedented strains placed upon the state by the duration and nature of that war. Yet Habsburg studies ever since, as Cole and Unowsky complain, have nevertheless been focused mainly on why the monarchy collapsed, rather than “what held it together for so long” (p. 2).

The particular focus of the present volume is the dynasty itself. How did Francis Joseph’s kaleidoscopically different subjects see him and the institution he represented? How, if at all, did the monarchy project itself into the hearts and minds of individuals, from the Bukovina to Trentino, and with what results? In particular, is it possible to talk of what the late Péter Hanák called “parallel realities,” of a monarchy where individuals acknowledged some sort of loyalty to the dynasty and the idea of the Gesamtmonarchie, while at the same time demonstrating their allegiance to the “imagined community” of their own nationality?

After a useful introduction by the editors, which highlights the relative paucity of scholarly work on centripetal factors, the nine main contributions do not manage to cover all geographical or national areas of the late monarchy in addressing this question, but then that was clearly never the intention. Instead, each focuses on a particular aspect of how, or whether, dynastic loyalty was generated, among a particular stratum of the population. The results represent a fascinating cross-section of opinion on the monarchy across the state.

Ernst Bruckmüller goes straight to the heart of how loyalty might literally be inculcated, by looking at the teaching of history and geography in the monarchy’s school system. Following the example of Charles Jelavich, whose South Slav Nationalisms (1992) charted the same subjects for both the monarchy and Serbia in the couple of generations before 1914, Bruckmüller concentrates on primary school textbooks, while comparing them with the teaching of history at secondary level. This comparison exposes the fundamental paradox of education present in this multinational state ever since Maria Theresa’s ordinances of the 1770s: in order to achieve a minimum standard of literacy, primary schooling, at least, had to start in the native language of the subject–whatever that language was. The surprising thing about Bruckmüller’s findings is that, especially after the advent of constitutional rule in 1867, primary school textbooks managed to accommodate material that not only stressed the history of the dynastic state and the subject’s obligation of loyalty to it, but also the national myths and history of particular peoples as well. In some cases, certain periods and topics were glossed over or entirely omitted. For instance, most of the seventeenth century was absent from Czech-language primers, and much of the nineteenth century from Italian ones. On the whole, however, “national culture and state patriotism could be simultaneously inculcated in schoolchildren” at this level (p. 21). The teaching of history in secondary textbooks, by contrast, was a thornier matter, clearly seen as more liable to politicization. The content of textbooks was more rigorously censored, and the material on offer was more consciously aimed at stressing loyalty to the state, while downplaying national and cultural consciousness.

Laurence Cole investigates the growth and role of veterans’ organizations in Cisleithania after 1870. As one of the pillars of the dynastic state, the army was an ideal vehicle for teaching loyalty, even more so after the introduction of universal conscription in 1868. The army’s role as an integrative institution, as Cole is at pains to stress, can still be argued, especially given the potential for controversy over the language of command; nevertheless, the military service to which the majority of the monarchy’s male subjects were exposed probably did more to create a sense of commonality as subjects than any other factor. The interesting thing about veterans’ organizations, however, is that they were entirely voluntary, even if the state undoubtedly encouraged their formation and monitored their activities. And as more and more men passed out of their three-year service and entered the reserves, the increasing number of such associations (some 2,250 by 1912) testified to the genuine popularity of this form of social activity. The original and abiding purpose of the associations was one of mutual insurance, to provide help for indigent or ill veterans, and to cover the cost of funerals. The associations rapidly took on a social function, however, following which veterans could don uniforms, march in parades and religious processions, and provide visible symbols of loyalty to the state on official occasions. Cole provides a striking case study of how this process worked in the largely Italian-populated Trentino, among subjects whose shared nationality with Italy, it might be thought, would make participation in veterans’ associations less likely. Not a bit of it. Italian-speaking veterans, perhaps encouraged by the loyalism of the Catholic Church, proved just as capable as other Habsburg subjects of exhibiting an Austrian patriotism. Cole suggests that this might have been a class issue: the majority of veterans, after all, came from a relatively humble social stratum, whereas it was the urban middle classes of the Trentino that were most responsive to Italian nationalism and irredentism.

Nancy M. Wingfield’s contribution focuses on the “after-life” of Emperor Joseph II, and the differing adaptations of his memory by various groups of the monarchy’s subjects. As the symbol of would-be enlightened absolutism, and in particular the modernized, centralized, and bureaucratic state, Joseph was revered in his own time and ever after by the peasantry, who identified him as their “liberator” and well-wisher, and by Jews, who remembered his toleration edicts. In the nineteenth century this image of the “imperial humanitarian” (p. 66) was gradually (mis)appropriated, for instance in March 1848, when revolutionaries rallied around the equestrian statue of Joseph in the Hofburg in their demand for the lifting of censorship. Later that year, Joseph’s will was cited as justification for completing peasant emancipation, and the young Archduke Francis adopted the title of Francis Joseph on becoming emperor in December, in a conscious attempt to portray himself as a “reforming” monarch. As Wingfield astutely comments, the neo-absolutist regime’s most “Josephist” trait was its centralizing authoritarianism. Later still, in the constitutional period, Austrian German liberals appealed to the enlightened Josephist tradition in their defense of education, but they also increasingly stressed the Germanizing tendencies of Joseph’s reign in their own struggles with the Czechs and other non-German nationalities. After the Liberals’ fall from power in 1879, they increasingly exalted Joseph as the mascot of German culture and dominance, while clerical conservatives of all nationalities saw him as the epitome of godless secularism. By the turn of the century Joseph had become the poster child of German nationalists, who bizarrely “were able to turn an imperial figure against the dynasty” (p. 81).

Hugh LeCaine Agnew, in one of the best articles in the book, traces the problematic relationship between Francis Joseph and his Czech subjects who, throughout the emperor’s reign, made repeated protestations of loyalty, but always without the desired result of some form of autonomy for the Bohemian crownlands comparable to that of Hungary’s after the Ausgleich. Despite several tantalizing affirmations of his readiness to recognize Bohemian state rights by being formally crowned king of Bohemia, and despite his willingness to govern with Czech support in the Reichsrath after 1879, Francis Joseph never in the end abandoned the basic deal made with the Hungarians. The result was that Czech loyalism, as opposed to passive acceptance of the status quo, became increasingly perfunctory in the last decades of the reign, even if this fell a long way short of active disloyalty. Instead of the monarch himself, Agnew observes, the Crown of St. Wenceslas became the public symbol of Czech loyalty, and was thereby transformed into a national symbol.

Daniel L. Unowsky conducts the bold experiment of comparing Polish with Ruthenian reactions to imperial visits to Galicia between 1851 and 1880. Polish attitudes towards the monarchy were split into two, if not three, factions. The conservative noble elite appreciated that Poles in Austria’s share of the partitions had a considerably better lot than their compatriots under Russian and Prussian rule, especially after the ad hoc arrangement after 1867, according to which Poles enjoyed something like autonomy, and hence dominance, within Galicia, in return for their acceptance of Habsburg rule. Polish nobles who had sympathized with and even participated in previous revolts against Russian rule and the emergent middle-class democrats of Galicia tended to evince more overtly nationalist sympathies. These factions clashed in 1880 over how enthusiastically to greet Francis Joseph on his visit, as well as whether, if at all, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising of 1830. In the same year (1880), Galicia’s Ruthenian community, by contrast, was firmly shut out of the centenary commemoration of Joseph II’s emancipation edicts by the Polish conservatives in charge of organizing the official ceremonies. Not daunted in the least, Ruthenes held their own celebrations, and indeed made common cause with their allies in the Austrian Reichsrath, the German Liberals, in ostentatiously honoring the emperor’s memory. Public events and anniversaries, in short, could demonstrate division and friction as well as loyalty.

Alice Freifeld provides a study of the empress Elisabeth’s image in Hungary, in what she terms an early example of “celebrity monarchism” (p. 138). This article is in some respects the least impressive of the collection, not because of any lack of scholarship or erudition, but because of the rather strained interpretation placed upon the sources. Certainly Freifeld makes a convincing case for Elisabeth’s genuine popularity among Hungarians, as a result of her perceived humanizing influence on Francis Joseph and her explicit identification with the Hungarian noble elite and Hungarian language and culture. She is on much shakier ground, however, in claiming Elisabeth’s supposedly crucial intervention in the forging of the Ausgleich of 1867, an interpretation for which Freifeld adduces no further evidence than a generalized quote from Oscar Jászi. The article is not helped by its hyperbolic language, of which the description of Elisabeth as “the mater dolorosa of liberal monarchism” (p. 153) is among the more restrained examples; and given Elisabeth’s palpable indifference to public life in her later years, including the Hungarian side of it, identifying her as an icon of Hungary’s own “martyrdom” in the twentieth century seems fanciful in the extreme.

Sarah A. Kent utilizes a single royal visit to Zagreb, in 1895, to draw out some of the ambiguities and cross-currents attendant upon loyalism in Croatia. Francis Joseph’s presence in Zagreb became the occasion for a demonstration by Croatian nationalist students, among them the later Peasant Party leader, Stjepan Radić, against Hungarian domination, in the course of which the Hungarian flag was set alight. Although the perpetrators of this minor outrage were duly sentenced to short prison terms, their demonstration was explicitly loyalist in tone. The students marched in their uniforms as a “corporative” body to the main square, cried out “Long live the Croatian King”–that is, Francis Joseph–and evoked the name of Ban Josip Jelačić, famous for his loyalty to the Habsburgs, instead of Hungary, in 1848-49. Their protest, in their eyes, was a legalistic one against the use of the Hungarian flag on Croatian soil during the royal visit, but more generally against the inadequate autonomy granted Croatia by Hungary in the Nagodba of 1868. According to Kent, much of the Croatian public made clear that it shared these views, and the unstated implication, for the dynasty, was that Croatians’ loyalty to the dynasty, in these circumstances, “had its limits” (p. 173).

In one of the most interesting pieces included, Alon Rachamimov examines the writings of the hitherto unknown (to me, at least) Hebrew writer Avigdor Hameiri (1890-1970), born Avigdor Feuerstein in the Carpatho-Rus area of Royal Hungary. Hameiri was not only one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew as a literary language, and a well-regarded journalist and poet (in Hebrew and Hungarian) of the avant-garde in pre-1914 Budapest, but the author of two autobiographical novels and a whole raft of short stories and poetry chronicling his experiences as a soldier in the First World War. The novels in particular, Ha-Shigaon ha-gadol (The Great Madness; 1929) and Be-Gehenom shel mata (Hell on Earth; 1932), sound as if they deserve a wider audience, not least because they illustrate the conflicting loyalties and dilemmas of identity so acutely. Clearly, Rachamimov concludes, Jews in the Habsburg monarchy deserved their reputation for being among its most loyal subjects, since they owed their emancipation and favorable position to the relative liberalism of the late Habsburg state. Yet Jews like Hameiri were also, despite demonstrable bravery and sacrifices at the front, deemed incapable of true patriotism, or identification with any particular nation, by their fellow subjects. The whole piece demonstrates neatly the difficulty not only of assigning a clear “identity” to someone whose experience was so varied, but also of the distinction Rachamimov seeks to make between “loyalty to the state” and the much more contingent “identification with the state” (p. 180).

In the penultimate essay, Christiane Wolf undertakes a useful comparison of the Habsburg monarchy with Britain and Germany in this period, in particular of the way in which the institution of monarchy, once subject to constitutional restraints, acted as an integrative factor. In the cases of Britain and Germany, if for very different reasons, the person of the monarch became something like a national symbol. Queen Victoria and her successors, while evolving into politically neutral figures, acquired iconic status as emblems of both the “nation” (however that was conceived in the United Kingdom of the time) and the larger empire. William II, by contrast, though retaining far greater powers constitutionally, and despite his divisive attitude towards large numbers of his subjects, such as Poles, Social Democrats, Catholics, and Jews, also became intimately associated with the national idea, through his vocal advocacy of a German navy and German Weltpolitik. For Francis Joseph, of course, this identification with any one national idea was an impossibility. Paradoxically, in Wolf’s view, the concession of constitutional rule in 1867 made it easier for the emperor-king to pose as above the fray, and although this “depoliticization of the emperor” (p. 200) did not ultimately alleviate the monarchy’s chronic nationality conflicts, it did, in Wolf’s opinion, make the monarch “a focal point for an emotional connection to the state” (p. 201).

Finally, the afterword by Evans is not only a deft round-up of the arguments summarized above, but also an engaging piece of devil’s advocacy, in that it reminds us literally of the limits of loyalty in this peculiar institution. As Evans puts it, there can be no doubt that, in much of the literature until recently, “royalism … has been underestimated” (p. 225). The majority of virtually all the monarchy’s peoples, no matter their social stratum, were not only capable of loyalty to the monarch and the idea of the monarchy, but positively displayed it, not least by dying in hundreds of thousands during the final cataclysm. Only the hammer blows of war made the previously inconceivable conceivable. So, it is certainly time that the balance between the study of centrifugal forces and that of centripetal ones was redressed in favor of the latter. On the other hand, each of the contributions to this volume shows how subjects’ loyalty was often conditional as well as limited. Czechs, Poles, South Slavs, Magyars, even Germans, repeatedly made clear that they expected the dynasty to come down on their particular side of this or that dispute; without that backing, alienation and even disaffection were all the more likely. In this context, as Evans gently points out, the pretence that the monarch was somehow above the fray, belonging to no one cause, was just that–a fiction. In reality Francis Joseph was, by definition, intimately involved in the management of his empire, not just in the traditional realms of foreign policy and the armed forces, but in the affairs of every province. It could not be otherwise, since for the Habsburgs “their continued involvement in government was essential for the running of the Monarchy” (p. 228). Involvement meant taking sides, or at the very least disappointing one side or the other, so that the further the politicization and nationalization of the monarchy’s peoples went, the more the monarchy was bound to disappoint everybody. To be perfectly sure of alienating no one, and committing no foreign policy disasters, the monarchy would have been better advised to have divested itself of all effective power, as in Britain, and to have opted for a policy of quieta non movere. That way, possibly, the residual inertia governing the lives of its people might have kept them “loyal,” at least after a fashion.

This volume is a splendid addition to the invaluable Austrian and Habsburg Studies series. Each of its contributors has approached his or her subject in a novel way, and the result is a collection that obliges the reader to look at things with a fresh eye.

Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the 16th Century, by John Francis Guilmartin

Strategic Insights, Volume III, Issue 3 (March 2004)

Reviewed by Daniel Moran

Strategic Insights is a monthly electronic journal produced by the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of NPS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

For a PDF version of this article, click, here.

Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the 16th Century. By John Francis Guilmartin. Rev ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003. ISBN 1059114-347-0. Maps. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp 352. $32.95.

For most of the five millennia that separate Pharaonic Egypt from the Age of Discovery, maritime warfare in European waters was dominated by rowed ships known as galleys. Viking longships, Aegean polyremes, Roman pentaconters, Byzantine dromonds, Norman snakes, and English barges are all representative of the type, sharing long, shallow, light-weight hulls, and a low freeboard pierced by one or more banks of oars. Galleys usually carried a single mast with a square-rigged sail, to spare the rowers on longer voyages, and mounted a variety of weapons – bow rams, “Greek fire,” ballistae, and so on; though their principal armament consisted of the personal weapons of the men on board. Tactically, the decisive stroke in a clash of galleys was combat between the respective ships’ companies, which engaged each other in roughly the same fashion as soldiers on land. In ancient and early medieval times galleys were employed for trade as well as war, but improvements in the design of sailing ships gradually imposed a division of labor: beamy, slab-sided, lightly-manned merchantmen, powered by the wind, could carry a worthwhile cargo great distances at low unit cost, while the all-azimuth tactical mobility and short-range, on-demand speed of the oared galley made it the natural choice for fighting.

Beginning sometime after 1300, galleys were replaced by sailing warships armed with broadside-mounted cannon. It is scarcely possible to overstate the significance of this change. By combining the striking power of massed artillery with the sea-keeping qualities and logistical capacity of cargo ships, the sailing man-of-war eroded a tactical consensus stretching back to antiquity. It also became the means by which European overseas empires were created. Those empires lived off of transoceanic trade, which trade alone could provide the financial and material basis for a strong sailing navy. The workings of this virtuous circle lay at the heart of what Alfred Thayer Mahan called “sea power.” Its central requirement, in military terms, was a fleet capable of preserving access to the sea for one’s own commerce, while denying access to adversaries. The best means of exercising such control, Mahan concluded, was to defeat the enemy’s fleet in pitched battle, a principle for which he claimed to find historical vindication in the global ascendancy of Great Britain during the previous three centuries.

The strategic possibilities of the broadside man-of-war were not immediately apparent. Its development was full of the false starts and dead ends that are typical of any comparably profound technological innovation. Nevertheless, the slowness with which such ships displaced the galley in the Mediterranean has always called for special explanation, as Mahan himself recognized, though he was unable to supply one. Sailing warships came to predominate in European waters, and then to project European power around the world, because they provided the only platform capable of mounting large numbers of heavy guns. Yet for two centuries following the development of effective artillery, galleys remained the primary fighting ships in the Mediterranean, despite their limited ability to employ the best weapon then available.

John Guilmartin’s classic study Gunpowder and Galleys is an effort to solve this mystery. It was first published in lamentably small numbers by Cambridge University Press in 1974, and has now been reprinted by the Naval Institute, thus earning the thanks of all the graduate students who have rummaged through used book stores looking for it these past thirty years. Guilmartin rejects the idea that traditionalism or mere institutional conservatism could explain the prolonged divergence of Mediterranean navies from emerging practice elsewhere in Europe. He proposes instead to analyze galley warfare not as a vestige of earlier times, but as a “system of armed conflict at sea” (21) that was, in many respects, better suited to Mediterranean conditions than available alternatives. In systemic terms galleys continued to make sense, despite the fact that, viewed abstractly and in isolation, they appear to be no match for the broadside warship.

Maritime warfare in the Mediterranean was fundamentally amphibious. Galleys could not “control” the sea in Mahanian terms, because their narrow hulls could not carry the food and water necessary to sustain their large compliment of rowers, archers, and soldiers for more than a couple of weeks. Nor were galleys suited to the protection or raiding of commerce. Galleys could not escort commercial vessels moving day and night under sail, and as the latter grew larger and better armed they became unpromising targets as well. Even a few guns, when combined with a high freeboard and a reasonably numerous crew, could make a merchantman prohibitively difficult to board from a low-lying galley.

Because the victory of one galley fleet over another could not be exploited by means of blockade — the ultimate pay-off for successful fleet actions in the Age of Sail — such combats were not sought in the Mediterranean, where the main object of war at sea was not the enemy’s ships, but the bases from which they operated. Those bases defined the effective range of galley fleets and, by extension, the range of a state’s economic and political influence. Gaining and maintaining control of them was rarely a mission for naval forces alone. Guilmartin is reluctant to use the expression “naval warfare” to describe the war of galleys, and rightly so, given the intimacy of the interaction that prevailed between sea and shore.

The physical environment of the tideless, sandy-rimmed Mediterranean created tactical possibilities unknown in the Atlantic, the North Sea, or the Baltic, where rock-bound coasts and treacherous currents afforded fewer opportunities for such cooperation. Sailing warships gained quicker ascendancy in northern Europe not just because they were more capable tactically, but also, and primarily, because their stronger and more capacious hulls offered a better chance of surviving the fearsome effects of wind and weather, if only by allowing a ship to stand off from the land for however long it might take for danger to pass. This sort of capability meant little in the Mediterranean, particularly if it required the employment of deep-draft ships that could not operate exceedingly close to shore. Much of what Guilmartin has to say on this score may seem irretrievably exotic: it was not unusual, for instance, for a galley fleet to avoid defeat by deliberately grounding stern-first on a friendly beach, thus transforming itself into an extemporaneous coastal fort. Yet conditions in the sixteenth century Mediterranean can also seem disconcertingly familiar: the whole region, after all, was conceived by those who fought there as one vast littoral, in which the object of naval operations was to project power from sea to shore by means of what would today be called a joint task force.

Guilmartin’s central concern is to analyze the impact of gunpowder weapons on this system of war. Of these the most important were cannon, which galleys were quick to employ to the extent they could, by mounting sometimes quite large artillery in their bows. Such guns were supposed to be fired at point blank range, as an aid to boarding. Fleet tactics were calculated to amplify the resulting shock. A well-ordered galley fleet advanced, like a land army, in line abreast, so as to concentrate the fire of its guns (a consideration that also explains the practice of stern-first defensive grounding, with all guns pointing out to sea). Individual ships could then employ their oars to maneuver at the last second, in order to bring their ordinance to bear most effectively against their targets. Repeated long range bombardment was deemed pointless, since a rowed galley could cross the effective range of existing guns in less time than it took to reload them.

The bow-mounted artillery of Mediterranean galleys is just the sort of half-hearted adaptation to technological change that casual observers are inclined to dismiss as a failure of insight, a characteristic refusal by a privileged and blinkered elite to see the true logic of a revolutionary system, and to accept that the old ways had to be thrown out root and branch. As Guilmartin demonstrates, however, the faltering application of artillery to naval war in the Mediterranean had less to do with a lack of understanding than with limited resources and competing strategic commitments. In the sixteenth century large guns were not industrial commodities, but expensive products of skilled craftsmen employing rare materials, which required similarly rare know-how to operate effectively. The slow adaptation of the broadside sailing ship in the Mediterranean, in Guilmartin’s analysis, was driven above all by a shortage of adequate guns and proficient gunners: artillery experts were usually slaughtered if captured alive, a perverse but unmistakable sign of how highly their knowledge was valued.

In addition, two of the major contestants on the water, Spain and the Ottoman Empire, were also continental powers, whose leaders were inclined to reserve the best of whatever guns they had for their armies. It was perfectly possible for a galley mounting a meager handful of bow cannon to be transporting a half-dozen more powerful guns, useless to itself, in the form of a siege train to support a land campaign. Technological adaptation in the Mediterranean was thus shaped by a wide range of economic and social forces, as well as by timeless problems of resource allocation common to all military organizations. Given a limited number of guns and gunners, the question was ultimately whether tactical proficiency was better served by employing them in a small number of powerful ships designed to stand off from the land, or in a larger number of smaller and more maneuverable vessels designed to operate against the shore. This is, to say the least, a familiar puzzle, and no easier to solve today than it was five hundred years ago.

The difficulties of Mediterranean sailors were worsened by the fact that, while they may have operated in a closed sea, they were not alone in the world. The so-called “price revolution” that swept across Europe as a consequence of the influx of precious metals from the New World added an inexorable, inflationary pressure to the already thorny trade-offs required by new technology. In the broadest terms galleys could employ cannon only if their hulls became larger and more robust, and their crews correspondingly more numerous. By the 1570s, as Guilmartin demonstrates, their designs were approaching the limits of what human muscle could propel through the water. By then, however, it was not just the guns, but the muscle, that was becoming prohibitively expensive: the price of the humble ship’s biscuit — the fuel by which galleys moved — tripled over the course of the sixteenth century, a change that was not match by any corresponding expansion of the Mediterranean economy. If the future belonged to the broadside warships of the Atlantic world, it was chiefly because they created the economic conditions by which their ultimately superior fighting qualities could be sustained. By the end of the sixteenth century it was possible for a bold sailor like Francis Drake to take a small but heavily armed sailing ship around the world, and return with a cargo of specie and spices worth twice the annual income of the English crown. No such possibilities existed in the Mediterranean, and it was this, above all, that doomed the system of war that had prevailed there for so long.

John Guilmartin’s study of this complex transformation is the best available account of the technical and tactical issues involved, and an exemplary demonstration of what it means to fully contextualize technological change. It deserves a wide readership among a new generation of students of naval warfare.