The World War II Battlefield

Bare with him. There is a point at the end.

In May 1939 Adolf Hitler attended a demonstration of Waffen SS battle tactics. The Führer was keen to see how the Waffen SS was using assault groups of infantry together with field artillery and how effective this was in a battlefield scenario.

For the demonstration the Waffen SS Regiment Deutschland was to attack an enemy outpost and drive the defenders back to their main defensive positions. Once this happened the supporting field artillery was to open up on the enemy positions, at which point the assault troops would break through the barbed wire defences with bangalore torpedoes to capture their objective.

Twenty minutes after the exercise was due to start Hitler asked when it was going to begin. He was told that it had in fact been under way for the previous twenty minutes. Hitler then became aware that he could see brief glimpses of Waffen SS soldiers moving quickly from cover to cover. Needless to say the exercise with the field guns went exactly according to plan and was a complete success. As a result Hitler ordered artillery to be added to the Waffen SS formations.

Eight months later, in January 1940, Winston Churchill visited the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment, in its positions on the Belgian frontier. Although not yet Prime Minister he was at that point First Lord of the Admiralty and already heavily involved in developing wartime strategy. The Royal Norfolks had been spending much of their time digging trenches, an activity which would have been familiar to any old soldier from World War I, as part of a defensive line called the Gort Line, after General Lord Gort who commanded the British Expeditionary Force.

When Churchill arrived he was accompanied by three senior generals and a clutch of staff officers. He was shown round A Company’s positions by Captain Peter Barclay, the company commander. Barclay had acquired a small dog which had come across from the other side of the Belgian border and which he used to hunt rats and rabbits. As they were walking along inspecting the positions the party came to a pile of wooden bundles. The dog immediately started barking, having sensed a rabbit, and Churchill was interested. He asked Barclay if they might have a little sport. Barclay replied that that he would need three officers on top of the pile of wooden bundles to jump up and down to get the rabbit out. Churchill promptly ordered the three generals on to the pile where he directed their jumps to make sure they were all jumping at the same time to get the rabbit to bolt. There was some embarrassment as the generals bounced up and down while their aides-de-camp looked on. But they were all delighted when the rabbit shot out and was chased by the dog, which duly caught it.

The difference in approach between the German and British Armies had started at the end of World War I. And what was interesting was the way in which the German Army used its defeat to its advantage whereas the British Army learned very little from its victory.

The victory of the Allied armies over the old German Army in 1918 was more than just a simple defeat for Germany because the German people had believed sincerely that victory would be theirs. Because of their implicit faith in their army it was all the more traumatic for them that it was their army which had failed them. The Armistice had dealt another blow as the Treaty of Versailles restricted the post-war German Army to 100,000 men, including no more than 4,000 officers.

For General Hans von Seeckt, appointed Chief of the German Army Command in 1921, the situation must have appeared a gloomy one. But, crucially for the German Army, he was not infected with the trench warfare mentality which afflicted the British Army for so long. Seeckt had served on the Eastern Front in World War I and refused to believe that Der Stellungskrieg, trench warfare, was the future. His experiences had taught him that the use of fire and movement under the control of good leadership, was the way forward. For Seeckt mobility meant machines, armour, artillery, infantry, all mechanised and mobile and working together. In 1921, while the British Army was fighting an uprising in Ireland, the German Army was conducting its first exercises with motorised units.

Between the wars the German Army devoted much time to exercises in the field. All units took part and used blank ammunition to fire their weapons at the enemy. This is an important point because already the German soldier was being conditioned for service on the battlefield in World War II where, as we shall see, the type of training was to have a profound effect on the course of battle.

With constant training and refinement the German Army was ready in principle, if not in men and machines, for the Blitzkrieg by the time Hitler came to power in 1933. And it was Hitler’s enthusiasm for the Panzer and for the concept of Bewegungskrieg or mobile war which led to the creation of the first Panzer divisions in 1935.5

Of course the British Army had not been idle during the interwar period. But the British themselves were sick of war and by the 1930s the general feeling was that another war was best avoided at all costs. And there were other priorities. There were the colonies to police. There were social obligations too – while the Germans were practising endlessly on exercise with armour and infantry, British cavalry officers were busy on the polo field. The notion that they should give this up in favour of more soldiering in tanks and other armoured vehicles was, of course, quite out of the question.

Despite these limitations the British Army did make progress. In 1926 and 1927, Lord Milne, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, allowed the Army to experiment with armour. And some regiments did make the changeover in the inter-war period. One example of this was the Rifle Brigade. This was a regiment which had started out as sharpshooters in the early 1800s but whose riflemen had served in the trenches as ordinary infantry in World War I and which moved to being a motorised regiment in the late 1930s. It was to use Bren carriers with anti-tank guns in the desert to great effect.

All of this gives us clues as to why the Germans were better prepared for World War II than the British. And it is the Allied generals who take the blame for the early success of the German Army. Most historians will point to bad leadership by the British and French generals and their staffs as the reason why 1940 was such a disaster for the Allies. After all General Erich von Manstein’s master strategy for the Blitzkrieg went exactly according to plan and the French, British, Belgian and Dutch Armies were crushed by a numerically inferior German force.

But there was something else which contributed to the downfall of the British Expeditionary Force. And that something else has been overlooked by modern historians just as it was by the British Army itself before the war. Yet it was a key factor in the way the whole of World War II was fought and it tells us why some British units were far more effective than others.

The simple fact was that British soldiers were not very good at killing.

In 1947 a United States Army general called S. L. A. ‘Slam’ Marshall surprised the military world by writing his classic book Men Against Fire. The book detailed Marshall’s observations on the battles of World War II which he had studied in his role as a US Army military historian – a task which he had undertaken by travelling all over the battlefields of Europe and the Far East where he talked to soldiers in the immediate aftermath of battle.

Marshall’s central theory was simple, ‘We found that on an average not more than 15 per cent of the men had actually fired at the enemy positions or personnel with rifles, carbines, grenades, bazookas, BARs, or machine guns during the course of an entire engagement. Even allowing for the dead and wounded and assuming that in their numbers there would be the same proportion of active firers as among the living the figure did not rise above 20 to 25 per cent of the total for any action.’

The idea that in battle only a quarter of soldiers were actually prepared to kill was a surprising one. However, Marshall was not alone. During the Sicily campaign in 1943 Lieutenant-Colonel Lionel Wigram of the British School of Infantry had observed that only a quarter of the men in a typical British platoon could be relied upon in battle.

Therefore Marshall’s conclusions would seem to be solidly based. But the new edition of Marshall’s book contains an introduction by Russell Glenn in which he outlines problems with Marshall’s methodology. In the late 1980s Dr Roger Spiller of the US Army Command and the General Staff Command started to investigate Marshall’s work. He reviewed Marshall’s notes and his letters and he talked to one of Marshall’s fellow combat historians, John Westover, who could not remember Marshall asking soldiers if they had fired or not. Spiller therefore came to the conclusion that Marshall’s theory about the numbers of soldiers firing at the enemy was not based upon solid evidence.

Marshall’s legacy received another blow from Marshall’s grandson who quoted one of Marshall’s friends as saying that Marshall had invented the 15–25 per cent proportion on the basis that these were what he believed, rather than knew, were the accurate figures.

After this the academics weighed in with their own debunking of the ‘Marshall myth’. In 1999 the Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, Joanna Bourke, wrote An Intimate History of Killing in which she dismisses Marshall as someone who ‘did not interview as many men as he said he did and not one of the men he interviewed remembered being asked whether or not he fired his weapon.’ She goes on to suggest that documentary evidence from soldiers themselves, mainly in the form of letters home from the front in World War I which describe in gory detail the pleasures of killing, meant that soldiers loved killing, ‘Warfare was as much about the business of sacrificing others as it was about being sacrificed. For many men and women this was what made it a “lovely war”.’

At the same time Niall Ferguson, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, was writing The Pity of War18 in which he takes a fresh look at World War I. He too makes the case that soldiers enjoyed killing and quotes personal accounts from World War I to support this theory. He concludes by saying that, ‘men fought because they did not mind fighting.’

However, at the same time as these two historians were researching their books a former US paratrooper, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, was writing a book called On Killing. Grossman is not only a former soldier, he is also a psychologist and Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University and in this book he comes down firmly on the side of Marshall.

Both Grossman and Spiller point to the fact that it is only Marshall’s methods which have been discredited and that there is still merit in considering whether his conclusions were right. Spiller notes also that Marshall did indeed visit the battlefields immediately after the battles of World War II and that he was a good observer of the human being under fire, despite his lack of accuracy as a historian.

Grossman points to a large body of historical literature and study which supports Marshall’s findings that, in any battle, most soldiers will not be firing at the enemy, instead they will be running errands, loading weapons and generally supporting the minority who are fighting. He goes on to state,

There is ample indication of the existence of the resistance to killing and that it appears to have existed at least since the black gunpowder era. This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man.

The question – are human beings natural killers? – is one which has also preoccupied professions other than military historians. According to evolutionary psychologists such as David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, the answer to this question is a simple yes. In his book The Murderer Next Door he states,

According to the theory I’ve developed, nearly all the many kinds of murder – from crimes of passion to the methodically planned contract kill – can be explained by the twists and turns of a harsh evolutionary logic. Killing is surely ruthless but it is also most often not the result of either psychosis or cultural conditioning. Murder is the product of the evolutionary pressures our species confronted and adapted to.

This idea that evolution has forced humans into becoming killers because of the benefits of killing other people in the great competition of life is taken to its logical conclusion by Buss who suggests, after reviewing hundreds of case files of murderers in the USA that, ‘Murderers are waiting, they are watching, they are all around us.’

However Buss’s theories are flatly rejected by anthropologists who are moving our understanding on by taking a fresh look at the fossil record and the behaviour of other primates. Robert Sussman, Professor of Physical Anthropology at Washington University (St Louis), states,

If murder statistics vary from place to place, one simple evolutionary, biological, universal explanation cannot be correct, when so many cultural ones are so much better. There is no evidence whatsoever from the fossil record or from primate behaviour to support this type of adaptationists’ scenario.

Sussman’s book Man The Hunted, written with fellow anthropologist Donna Hart from the University of Missouri – St Louis, shows where the evolutionary psychologists are mistaken,

We humans are not slaughter-prone assassins by nature. We often act badly, maliciously, cruelly but that is by choice and not by our status as bipedal primates. We can state this because our closest relatives use cooperation and friendship as the most expedient method for gaining what they need and want. Yes, just like humans, chimpanzees occasionally act brutally wacky – usually because of stress, resource shortages or unknown factors that evict them from their comfort zone. Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly why we humans get crazed?

Whatever the arguments about Marshall’s methods, on looking at Marshall’s work in some detail it quickly becomes apparent from his combat notes30 that he was indeed interviewing combat soldiers in the aftermath of battle, sometimes as part of a group and sometimes alone. Although his notes do not record the issue of non-firers it does seem likely that Marshall could easily have asked the question without recording it formally, although whether the questioning was in any way scientific is another matter entirely.

This view is consistent with the recollections of First Lieutenant Frank J. Brennan Jr who accompanied Marshall on similar post-combat interviews during the Korean War. After this war Marshall stated that the ratio of fire had improved so that more than half the infantrymen were now active firers. In a recent interview with historian John Whiteclay Chambers, Brennan recalled that Marshall asked a lot of open questions and that he did ask about firing but without pushing the issue. Crucially, however, Brennan recalled Marshall making only occasional notes during these interviews.

Having interviewed Brennan, Chambers concludes that Marshall’s ratio of fire figure for World War II, ‘appears to have been based at best on chance rather than scientific sampling, and at worst on sheer speculation’. Chambers also concludes that Marshall was writing as a journalist rather than as a historian when he came up with his 25 per cent because, ‘He believed that he needed a dramatic statistic to give added weight to his argument. The controversial figure was probably a guess.’ Chambers’s final thought is that, even if more of Marshall’s field notebooks are found and they contain more interviews like those with Brennan, They probably will not contain the kind of data necessary to substantiate the controversial assertions of Men Against Fire.’

Since Marshall is no longer alive the best people to ask about his theory that only a minority of soldiers were firing at the enemy are those who fought in World War II. The results are surprising. Many think that there might have been something in what he said. Those who do not agree with Marshall at all are the ones who would be best classified as being in Marshall’s 15–25 per cent of active firing soldiers. A typical response comes from Henry Taylor, ex-7th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade,

If you ask me if any of our blokes had a problem with shooting Ted [Tedeschi, Italian for German, used in soldiers’ slang], then I can only say that everyone I knew would shoot to hit him. If you did not and that Ted went on to kill a mate, you would have that on your mind.

Some of these ‘active firers’ asked how it was that so many were killed if not many were firing but Marshall’s supporters point to the fact that artillery accounted for large numbers of casualties in World War II and that artillery battles are conducted at enough of a distance for the firers not to be so obviously troubled by their consciences. This argument is helped by the fact that the artillery is held to have been the most effective arm of the British Army in World War II.

Some veterans also mentioned the power of emotion. A soldier who might not be taking an active part in the battle might lose control if his best mate were killed next to him and the enemy soldiers who shot him then tried to surrender. The most dangerous time for any surrendering soldiers was the period immediately after they showed themselves as surrendering. And of course when soldiers knew about enemy atrocities, as was the case in the war in the Far East in particular, there was an additional incentive to kill the enemy.

What about the opposite viewpoint? – the idea championed by Joanna Bourke in particular, that men enjoyed killing. The suggestion that most men enjoyed battle met with universal rejection, even from those best classed as the active firers. Certainly in talking to the veterans and reading their accounts of World War II, it is very difficult to find stories about the joy of killing. Of course many of them look back on the war as a time when they enjoyed the comradeship and the shared danger, but killing, no.

Of course there were individual participants in World War II for whom the term blood lust would not be inappropriate. Men such as Anders Lassen VC of the Special Boat Service of whom it was said, ‘If he had the opportunity he’d kill someone with a knife rather than shoot.’ So such men do exist; it is simply that they appear to be either less common in World War II than in World War I or that fewer of them wrote about it in World War II. So why is there this body of literature, particularly from World War I and the Vietnam War, in which soldiers talk of the joy of slaughter?

For Britain World War I was a different kind of war to World War II. The country entered World War I in a burst of enthusiasm; men joined up fired by a desire to see the Germans put firmly in their place. Perhaps some of them, responding to the public mood, wrote of their experiences in terms which they felt would be welcomed at home rather than to reflect the reality of what they actually saw. Historians always need to be wary of personal accounts which talk up the achievements of the author. The more medals a veteran has, the less likely he is to blow his own trumpet. And if you read Lyn MacDonald’s books on World War I or Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War there is little there to support the idea that men took pleasure in slaughter.

Peter Hart, the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum for over twenty years, recalled that he had come across only one man he could remember who took any real pleasure in remembering the men he had killed in all his long experience of interviewing veterans. He went on to say that,

Most men regarded it as an unpleasant part of the job to be carried out as dispassionately as possible. Many seem to have consciously or unconsciously suppressed the details of the fighting. It was only in letters home, diaries or in slightly vainglorious memoirs that men were occasionally to be found boasting of their killing exploits. Here it appeared there was often the intent of impressing the intended audience and indeed an element of fantasy could creep in – a very real element of ‘giving them what they want’ – that would provide fodder for the shallow thesis of the future. Such macho posturing was not found in dispassionate oral history interviews where the soldiers’ real feelings usually emerged.

Vietnam was a different war again. By using the methods outlined later in this chapter the US Army had managed to make its soldiers far more effective at killing than their fathers had been during World War II and their grandfathers during World War I.

Logically too some of Marshall’s arguments make sense. After all peacetime society, both before World War II and since, demands that its citizens live peaceful lives. Killing someone in any civilised society usually attracts severe punishment. It is perhaps therefore little wonder that men found it hard to kill.

Given that there is probably some truth in Marshall’s assertion that not all World War II soldiers were firing at the enemy the only question which arises is the extent of this phenomenon. Was Marshall right in suggesting that only 15–25 per cent were firing their weapons at the enemy? Was it as simple as Marshall made out? Did soldiers either shoot to kill or not shoot at all?

There is some evidence to suggest that there was another group of soldiers between the firers and the non-firers, a group not recognised by either Marshall or Bourke and a group whose size cannot be quantified. This group of soldiers did fire their weapons but only in the general direction of the enemy – in other words they fired but did not fire to kill, or they did not know that they had killed. This theory is certainly consistent with British and American fire policies whereby they fought with lots of fire to cover an advance.

Consider this example:

Rifleman Joseph Belzar, 7th Rifle Brigade, Monte Malbe, Italy, 1944

I saw the long grass of the field below parting and I followed the movement of the German observer as he moved towards our position to lie motionless at the edge of the field. He was obviously observing our positions less than 100 yards away; I don’t believe he realised how close we were. I drew my rifle forward prior to taking aim but was too late as he scuttled back to his mortar position. In retrospect I am glad I was too late in firing. At that distance I would not have missed and now, looking back over fifty years later, I should hate to have had the recollection of looking down on a person for whose death I had been solely responsible. Generally in any battle situation there is collective action and one could never be sure whose bullet had found the target.

Given that the situation on the battlefield may not have been quite as straightforward as Marshall made out it is also worth remembering that, apart from the ordinary infantry there were also many Special Forces units formed during World War II. Chief among these were the Commandos whose special training regime produced soldiers second to none and who were close to the 100 per cent of active firers.

But there was something else. Some of these Commandos also said that Marshall might have had a point when it came to the ordinary infantry units they belonged to prior to joining the Commandos but their training as Commandos had been so effective that they became ‘proper’ soldiers. According to David Cowie, who served with the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry in France in 1940 and who subsequently joined No. 4 Commando,

It [1940] was an absolute mess from start to finish, not because of the men but bloody bad officers and a complete lack of knowledge about the German Army … There was a complete lack of any training and I believe Marshall was right … The Commandos trained me to be a real soldier.

So what was so special about the Commandos? The answer is that they worked out what made soldiers kill long before today’s armies and before even Marshall came up with his theory about ratios of fire. And to understand the Commandos we need to understand what changed after World War II and how it is that soldiers of both the US and British Armies are now approaching a 100 per cent firing rate.

Colonel Grossman’s research is particularly valuable because he has identified exactly what it is in modern training which produces soldiers who can kill.

When we look back at the training of most World War II soldiers it is clear that it fell into three categories. Firstly there was drill, drill and more drill. The idea was that soldiers would respond immediately to orders and that drill conditioned them to instant obedience. Secondly there was weapons training which consisted of firing rifles on the ranges against bullseye circular targets. Thirdly there was fieldcraft, the necessary skills needed to move around the battlefield.

Compare this to the training given to the modern soldier as identified by Grossman. Modern soldiers do learn drill, fieldcraft and they obviously have weapons training. But now there are three additional factors: desensitisation, conditioning and denial.

Desensitisation is all about getting soldiers used to the idea of violence and killing through attitudes and language. Some old soldiers from World War II have been upset they are when they see modern British Army or Commando training on the television. Whereas these old soldiers were used to a degree of respect and tolerance from their NCOs, today’s recruits face a constant barrage of the language of violence including bawling out and bullying.

Conditioning is arguably the most important single factor in producing a soldier capable of killing. Instead of aiming at inanimate targets on a range, today’s soldier fires at lifelike pop-up targets which fall over when hit. They do this day in and day out until the whole process is automatic. According to Grossman this is based, either by accident or by design, on what is known as operant conditioning as identified by the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner. The stimulus is the human-shaped target popping up, the response is to fire the weapon, the reward is seeing the target go down. Do it often enough in training and in battle it becomes automatic.

Not sure? Consider the following:

Private Dick Fiddament, 2nd Royal Norfolks, 1939

It’s one thing to fire at a target made of paper and wood and it’s another thing to deliberately fire at something you know is like you – flesh and blood and bone, who has a family, probably married with young children, a mother and a father.

Private Michael Asher, 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, 1972

It was our first day on the ranges and we were letting rip at ‘figure elevens’: pictures of little yellow men who charged at you with gigantic bayonets and menacing snarls. Whang! Whang! Whang! The targets went down … we doubled forward to check the targets. Six bullets smack through the target’s midriff. ‘You zapped him, soldier,’ the corporal said… We handled the weapons for hours every day, repeating the rituals over and over again until they became instinctive… Familiarity was what our training was about. Handling your weapon had to become so instinctive that you could kill automatically.

One of the benefits of this type of conditioning for modern armies is that, because not every response produces a result or reward, it is hard to undo the conditioning. In other words, when a modern soldier misses a target or the enemy soldier, instead of giving up he carries on until he hits the next one and gains the reward. A similar idea is used by breakfast cereal companies in getting us to eat more of their products – have you ever had a bowl of muesli with a few elusive bits of strawberry in it? You keep eating to find the next piece of strawberry.

Another part of conditioning is the battle drill. Although criticised by some historians49 the World War II Commandos introduced their own and found that it was a useful way for soldiers to react instinctively when a set event occurred, for example the moment when a unit comes under fire. Modern armies make extensive use of battle drills.

The third element identified by Grossman is denial. The idea is that by continually rehearsing the act of killing the modern soldier is able to believe that, when it comes to the real thing, he is not killing a human being but simply another target. Modern armies do not talk about killing enemy soldiers, they talk about engaging enemy targets.

Although the modern British and US Armies make much use of these methods neither was the first to discover them. The Commandos and other Special Forces already used some, if not all of these methods to produce supremely effective killers in World War II.

Elsewhere other perceptive individuals also realised their value. In 1944 Denis Edwards had already seen action at Pegasus Bridge and was a very good sniper even though his training was entirely conventional.

Private Denis Edwards, Airborne Sniper, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

15th July 1944 – my 20th birthday

At midday I went out on a lone sniping trip and the moment I got into one of our ‘hides’ I realised why things had been so quiet yesterday. The Jerries had been doing a change around and this was obviously a new lot who were wandering around in the open and without a care in the world. It was a reasonably clear day and they presented excellent targets. I contemplated making a fast trip back to our lines and getting out a couple of other snipers but just as the thought passed through my mind a big fat German stopped right in the middle of a wide gap in the opposite hedgerow. The target was just too good to miss and I let fly and the fat man leapt into the air and fell forwards, flat upon his face and still out in the open.

19th July 1944

We [Edwards and a fellow (unnamed) sniper] went out to the sniper hides before dawn. We both spotted a German standing in a gap and yawning his head off. We let fly together and put him back to sleep. Then we peppered away along the enemy hedgerow in the hope of making them think that we were mounting a dawn attack. We may not have hit any more but I guess that we must have caused a fair bit of panic.

We stayed for some while and had just decided to return to our lines to get some breakfast when I spotted a German who must have had the same idea in mind. He flitted past two gaps in his hedgerow and I selected the widest gap in front of him and the moment he appeared I let fly. I think I hit him, but how badly I could not be sure as he hit the ground almost immediately and was lost from sight.

22nd July 1944

Went out sniping first thing and soon realised that a new lot had moved in across the way. Having been ‘hit’ by us several times in the past and well aware of the dangers, yesterday there was not a German to be seen. Today they were strolling casually around in the open without a worry in the world. It seemed odd to me that the outgoing lot did not advise their incoming comrades of the danger from British snipers but it would seem they never did.

A big fat German ambled leisurely into one of the biggest gaps in the hedgerow and casually raised a pair of binoculars to his face and slowly scanned our hedgerow. Equally leisurely I raised my rifle, took careful aim, gently squeezed the trigger and fired. Fat man crashed backwards and made no further movement.

25th July 1944

Was issued with a brand new sniper rifle straight from ordnance, wrapped in greaseproof paper and covered in a thick layer of grease. I spent a lot of the day taking the rifle apart and cleaning it.

27th July 1944

Mid-morning I scrounged a couple of old biscuit tins, went into a nearby field, propped the cans against a shell-scarred post, lay down about 150 yards away, fixed the telescopic sights to my new rifle and began firing away. Unfortunately the tins kept jumping around so it was impossible to correct the sights. What I really needed was a few obliging Jerries. My chance came when at lunchtime I was allowed to go out to one of the sniper hedgerows and a German kindly presented enough of himself in a small gap, just long enough for me to take aim and fire. Judging by the way that he disappeared backwards I was satisfied that the new rifle was correctly zeroed. Like a kid with a new toy I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around in no man’s land looking for likely targets but none appeared so I guess the first hit must have been good and that the rest of them were keeping down.

Several friends and acquaintances – particularly amongst the generation born after the war ended, who have read this manuscript, have asked me the question, ‘What did it feel like when, as a sniper, you looked through your telescopic sights, had a German in view and squeezed the trigger of your rifle knowing that you were taking another human life?’ I have thought about this since and the answer is that as a trained soldier fighting in a war where you killed, or could just as easily be killed yourself, you did not regard the enemy as human beings – they were simply targets to be hit and I had no different feelings about hitting these targets as I did of hitting the targets on the rifle range. The only difference was that the targets on the rifle range could not fire back but the ones we met in action could. Thus there was more satisfaction in hitting live targets since it meant one less enemy to fight in the future. One less to kill or wound my comrades.

Denis Edwards also points out that the Commandos and other Special Forces were full of volunteers whereas the rest of the Army was full of conscripts, many of whom had little appetite for war. This is a very important point, one overlooked by some historians. Joanna Bourke dismisses the Commandos as units whose status she says was, ‘based largely on very effective self-promotion’. She also refers to a 1941 report which found that, ‘A large proportion of men arriving at training centres had not been aware they were volunteering for the Special Service and promptly asked to be returned to their unit.’ The fact is that the Commandos gained their deserved reputation from their operations, and their ability to reject volunteers at any stage during training was key to their success as highly effective soldiers.

Denis Edwards’s point about conscripts is also valid today. The modern British and US Armies rely on volunteers, recruited at an age when they are susceptible to the type of training outlined above. Any who are unsuitable do not make it as soldiers and this helps ensure that all soldiers are firers. A conscript army may not be entirely useless but many of its soldiers are.

So what happens if you put an army trained in modern techniques against one trained the World War II way? The answer is that a small modern army can wreak havoc on a much larger force. Colonel Grossman points to Richard Holmes’s research into the Falklands War as a prime example of this as explaining how the British Army won a famous victory over the Argentines who were trained in the traditional ways.

So far we have talked about the British soldier of World War II. But what of the German soldier? As has already been mentioned German soldiers spent more time on exercise and used blank ammunition on exercise. This meant they were probably more conditioned and better prepared for battle than the British. But the problem of inactive firers also troubled the German Army. Günther K. Koschorrek fought on the Eastern Front and noted the following of one of his comrades,

Grommel can’t aim and pull the trigger. Even when he is forced to shoot, he closes his eyes as he pulls the trigger, so he can’t see where he is shooting. Yet he was one of the best shots in the training camp.

But the Germans did have their conditioned killers, many of them to be found in the Waffen SS, crucially an all-volunteer force. Waffen SS training contained all the elements necessary to produce soldiers who were not only ready but also willing to kill. For example members of the Waffen SS Division Totenkopf spent 1330–1730 hours each day on battle training and weapons practice and 1900–2000 hours each evening listening to lectures which included Nazi politicising. Crucially the weapons training included shooting at various targets which were either partial or full body shapes.

And, just to make sure they were thoroughly brainwashed, as well as all of this the soldiers of the Totenkopf Division spent some time on guard duty at the headquarters of the Totenkopf branch of the Algemeine SS at Dachau concentration camp.

This is a book about the reality of fighting at close quarters in World War II. However, we have already seen how it is possible for academics to fall into the trap of painting a picture of the battlefield which is somewhat at odds with the experience of those who were actually there.

Therefore this book will visit the battlefields of World War II and tell the story of some of the actions which were fought in order to see how they support the ideas outlined in this chapter. And in doing so the book will also describe some of the weapons and tactics which were used and which played a part in defeat or victory. Clearly the whole war would be outside the scope of a single book. So for each theatre one or two individual actions have been chosen to illustrate what it was like to fight there.

Bomber Command – Origins and Doctrine

Only 15 Fairey Hendons were built, serving with 38 and 115 Squadrons between November 1936 and January 1939. Before the famous early wartime trio of medium and heavy bombers (classified as such by the standards of the time) were to appear – the Whitley, Wellington and Hampden – an assortment of monoplanes appeared, most of which were destined to enter limited production and service. If they served no better purpose, they certainly subsidized the growth and training of both the RAF and the aircraft industry. To these should be added the Fairey Hendon monoplane, whose origins lay in a 1927 Specification but which was eventually rewarded by a token consolation order in the mid-1930s.

During the Second World War Bomber Command flew around 390,000 sorties for the loss of 8,953 aircraft on operational missions; that number does not include another almost 1,400 that crashed in the UK whilst airborne on an operational mission. The cost in aircrew lives was over 47,000, to which must be added those killed in accidents or training – a further 8,000 plus; it is generally accepted that the total of lives lost is around 55,000. What did the six years of the bombing offensive achieve? Supporters and critics were active at the time and in the 60 years since the end of the war the argument has raged even more fiercely. As with all history the benefits of hindsight and access to previously classified documentary sources has to be balanced by the researcher’s removal in time and context from the period under study. To understand truly decisions, policies, actions and attitudes is all but impossible.

It seems appropriate to open this overview with a few words from the most famous of Bomber Command’s leaders, Sir Arthur Harris: ‘There are no words with which I can do justice to the aircrew under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period.’ These words from Bomber Command’s wartime leader, Air Marshal Arthur T. Harris are a fitting tribute to the sacrifice made by the Command in six years of war. Only one force on the Allied side was continuously involved with active operations against the German homeland – RAF Bomber Command. The day the war started a Blenheim of 139 Squadron flew a reconnaissance sortie to locate German shipping and for the next six years the Command took the war to the enemy, at first with limited effect but from 1942 with increasing resources and greater accuracy, and with an ever greater impact.

Strategic bombing theory was developed in the latter years of the First World War and was a combination of the German raids on England and the Allied, especially Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force, bombing campaign, although this was only just starting to get into its stride when the Armistice was signed in November 1918. Despite the fact that strategic bombing had not really been evaluated in the First World War it became a central tenet of air power theory in the post-war period. In part this was because it was the one independent decisive (potentially) role that the air forces could perform. For the RAF this was enshrined as the Trenchard Doctrine: ‘the nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end … to win it will be necessary to pursue a relentless offensive by bombing the enemy’s country, destroying his sources of supply of aircraft and engines, and breaking the morale of his people.’ This doctrine of a war winning bomber force remained the focus of doctrine with the major air forces throughout the 1920s. In May 1928 Trenchard, whose views still carried great weight, circulated a forceful memo to counter: ‘an unwillingness on the part of the other Services to accept the contention of the Air Staff that in future wars air attacks would most certainly be carried out against the vital centres of commerce and of the manufacture of munitions of war of every sort no matter where these centres were located.’ He stated that the RAF doctrine was to ‘break down the enemy means of resistance by attacks on objectives selected as most likely to achieve this end’ it being better to attack munitions at source (the factory) than on the battlefield – this would become a well-rehearsed argument by Bomber Command throughout the Second World War. It would, he believed, have greater effect for less effort, and would include dissuading workers from working in the factories. ‘The Hague Convention allows for military targets, including production centres. What is illegitimate, as being contrary to the dictates of humanity, is the indiscriminate bombing of a city for the sole purpose of terrorising the civilian population.’ Bomber Command would later take great care to stress the military significance of its city targets, whilst the German propaganda machine would refer to the Terrorflieger. The other Chiefs of Staff in their respective memos were not convinced, and also expressed concern over being bombed in return; it must be remembered that this was a period when the independence of the RAF, in part budget-driven, was under threat and the arguments, as such tri-Service ‘debates’ usually are, was writ large with vested interest.

The debates were largely hypothetical at the time as the RAF’s bomber strength in the early 1930s was pitiful with five night- and six day-bomber squadrons, all with slow biplanes with very limited bomb loads, hardly the material with which to deliver an aerial bombardment of any significance.

Although the stagnation of the 1920s, which in military terms had been a dismal decade for all of Britain’s armed forces, had started to change in the early 1930s both doctrine and equipment were outdated and with little immediate prospect of improvement. In terms of aircraft there was a glimmer of hope with the issue of Specification B.9/32 for a ‘twin-engined medium bomber of good performance and long range’, although the requirement for a 720 mile range and 1,000 lb bomb load was not particularly inspiring! Two of Bomber Command’s early stalwarts – the Wellington and the Hampden – were a result of this Specification. The following year saw Britain wake up to the realities of a changing Europe. A Foreign Office appraisal of 1933 stated that Germany ‘… controlled by a frenzied nationalism and resolved to assert her rights to full equality, will proceed to the building of formidable armaments on land and especially in the air.’ The Government suggested that the Services draw up expansion plans; the Defence Requirements Committee sat from November 1933 to February 1934 and in its report gave priority to the establishment by the RAF of a Home Defence force (including bombers) strong enough to counter any attack. Expansion Scheme A was announced in July 1934 to provide the basis for a deterrent force and a training establishment on which future expansion could be based; under this scheme the RAF would be ready for war in eight years (1942). The old One-Power standard, which had seen planning based on France as the ‘enemy’ had to shift to reflect the reality of the growth of German power and belligerence. It was all very well to talk of an offensive bomber force capable of attacking targets in the Ruhr and Rhineland districts of Germany, the two main industrial areas, but quite another to make it a reality (even on paper). The initial solution was one of numbers over capability; create the squadrons even though the equipment might not be right as better aircraft could follow in due course. This was a mixture of financial constraint and lack of suitable aircraft; the latter would continue to plague the Command into the middle years of the war. As an indication, it cost £245,000 to acquire twelve Hawker Hart light bombers and £83,000 to operate them; in comparison it cost £375,000 to acquire ten Vickers Virginia heavy bombers and £139,000 a year to operate them. The financial aspect became a secondary consideration with Expansion Scheme C (May 1935) stating that: ‘Financial considerations were to be secondary to the attainment of the earliest possible security.’ In July the Air Staff confirmed the strategic doctrine: ‘Provided a sufficient weight of air attack could be brought to bear on the Rhineland-Ruhr-Saar area, Germany’s armament industry would be paralysed, which would in turn preclude her from maintaining an army in the field.’

The bomber force was organised into regional commands, such as the Wessex Bombing Area, and all were part of the Home Defence organisation, fitting neatly with the bombing offensive being seen as ‘attack as the best means of defence.’

By the time that Bomber Command formed on 14 July 1936, Expansion Scheme F (dated February 1936) was on the table. This called for a bomber force of 68 squadrons, with 990 aircraft, and was scheduled for completion by March 1939. Like the previous Schemes, and those that followed over the next two years, it was overly optimistic. Paper squadrons don’t fight wars and when Expansion Scheme H called for 1,659 bombers in ninety squadrons it was obvious even to the optimists that it was unrealistic, even though it was not scheduled for completion until 1943. For the first Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Sir John Steel, aircraft were only one of the problems to be faced; of equal importance was personnel – aircrew and ground crew – as well as equipment, including bombs, and airfields. Lack of suitable weapons was to prove a major embarrassment to Bomber Command in the early part of the war and the problem could be traced back to a 1932 Air Staff decision that there would be no requirement for a bomb heavier than 500 lb and that the 250 lb bomb would be the standard weapon. The need for airfields further north to cater for Germany as the main target led to Expansion Period airfields from Norfolk to Yorkshire, with the latter county, along with Lincolnshire, becoming the heartland of Bomber Command. This expansion did not really start until 1935, with old First World War sites being looked at as part of a major search for airfield sites. The basic requirement was for a large patch of level ground for a grass airfield, the current bombers requiring little in the way of prepared surfaces, along with support facilities such as hangars, technical, administration and domestic buildings.

The impressive C-Type hangar became typical of bomber airfields of this period, although the exact facilities varied between locations. The provision of aircrew, and training in general is covered in a separate chapter. By the mid 1930s aircraft manufacturers who had been finding it hard to survive official disinterest in the 1920s were being called on to produce large numbers of new aircraft and it is remarkable that they were able to respond as well as they did. A great deal of criticism has been levelled by some commentators on the poor quality of equipment with which the RAF entered the war, an argument that could equally be aimed at the likes of tanks and other military equipment, but it takes time to design, develop and produce advanced items such as aircraft. It was only in 1935 that a medium/heavy bomber philosophy was adopted, based on the bomb lift of the proposed new types, and there was much debate on the subject at Air Staff and Government level. However, on the outbreak of war the Command was still substantially composed of light bombers and it would be 1943 before it lost the last of these. Indeed it was only in 1936 that two of the Command’s most advanced types – both light bombers, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim, entered service. Perhaps the most significant decision was the issue of Specification B. 12/36 for a four-engined bomber of 250 mph cruise, 1,500 mile range and 4,000 lb bomb load. It was also to have the latest navigation equipment, plus power-operated gun turrets, including a four-gun rear turret. This was starting to sound like a real strategic bomber – but the war would be well underway before the products of this Specification were ready for service. In the meantime, the expansion plans had to go ahead with whatever was to hand. Continued examination of overall air doctrine and assessment of the enemy air strength and employment, including tactical and strategic air operations in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, led to a revision in the expansion plan. In October 1938, Expansion Plan M was approved, which envisaged a strength of eighty-two bomber squadrons (1,360 aircraft) by April 1941, and with renewed focus on defensive requirements by increasing the number of fighter squadrons. Meanwhile, doctrine was being turned into reality and the Joint Planning Committee (JPC), with its eyes firmly fixed on offensive bombing, envisaged a three-phase campaign:

Countering the all-out German air offensive by attacking Luftwaffe installations.

2. Countering the German land offensive by attacking ground forces.

3. A war-winning air offensive against German industry and transport.

The JPC also stated that: ‘the offensive employment of our own and Allied bombers is the only measure which could affect the issue during the first weeks of the war. The three classes of objective are:

1. Demoralise the German people, by methods similar to those we foresee the Germans themselves using against us, [so that] their Government might be forced to desist from this type of attack.

2. Discover and attack some target, the security of which was regarded by Germany as vital to her survival during the limited period within which she hoped to gain a decision over us, [so that] she would be forced to divert her air attacks to our own aerodromes and maintenance organisation.

3. Inflict direct casualties upon the German bombing aircraft, either in the air or on the ground, or upon their maintenance organisation; the intensity of German attacks would be directly and quickly affected.

The overall philosophy was translated into ‘Planning for a War with Germany’ and in late 1936 the Air Targets Intelligence sub-committee developed the Western Air (WA) plans and these became the focus for Bomber Command’s strategic planning. On 13 December 1937 the Command was instructed to commence detailed planning for WA1 (German Air Force), WA4 (German Army concentration areas and lines of communication) and WA5 (manufacturing centres), with planning to be complete by 1 April 1938. It was a massive task and was carried out with incomplete information on the targets and an over-optimistic appreciation of bombing capability. A Bomber Command appraisal of the list suggested that only the third was realistic as the others comprised targets of an inappropriate nature for offensive strategic bombers, a stance that would be taken by bomber leaders, especially Arthur Harris, at various times throughout the war.

The WA Plans underwent a number of modifications over the next few months but by mid 1938 had settled down as:

WA1        German Air Force organisation and associated industries.

WA2        Reconnaissance of Home Waters and East Atlantic, in co-operation with the Royal Navy.

WA3        Convoy protection in Home Waters and East Atlantic.

WA4        German Army concentration areas and lines of communication.

WA5        Manufacturing Resources; WA5(a) Ruhr, WA5(b) Inland waterways, Ruhr, Baltic, North Sea ports, WA5(c) Outside of Ruhr.

WA6        Stores, especially oil.

WA7        Counter-offensive in co-operation with Royal Navy in defence of sea-borne trade.

WA8        Night attacks.

WA9        Kiel Canal and associated waterways.

WA10      Shipping and facilities, especially the Baltic.

WA11      Forests and crops.

WA12      German fleet in harbour or at sea.

WA13      Administrative centres, especially Berlin.

An indication of the optimism of the bomber theorists was a suggestion that an offensive against the Ruhr, especially the coking plants and power stations, would, ‘Prevent Germany waging war on a large scale in less than three months.’ This outcome could be achieved with 3,000 sorties, at a cost of 176 bombers, by knocking out twenty-six coking plants and nineteen power stations. With hindsight of the first years of the war this level of optimism seems incredulous!

Whilst plans were being prepared, the Command was undergoing a major reorganisation as aircraft types and roles were concentrated into individual Groups and units moved to more appropriate airfields within the new structure. The progress made in the two years since the Command was formed was incredible and those who criticise Bomber Command’s performance in the first years of the war fail to recognise just how much had been achieved in such a short period. Despite the optimism expressed above, Ludlow-Hewitt (C-in-C since September 1937) clearly stated that his Command was: ‘Entirely unprepared for war, unable to operate except in fair weather and extremely vulnerable in the air and on the ground.’ These words proved to be far more prophetic. However, the military always has to play with the cards it has and Bomber Command was to enter the war with a far from ideal hand. The arrival of the Wellington, the first squadron equipping in late 1938, was one positive indication but by the outbreak of war there were only six operational squadrons with this type. It could have been worse; Bomber Command may have gone to war in September 1938 when the Munich Crisis took Europe to the brink of war. Most parties knew that the Allied ‘sell-out’ provided only a respite and that war with Germany was inevitable; for the RAF the extra year was crucial.

WWI: Technology, Logistics, and Tactics – An Overview I

The history of the two sides’ strategies from 1915 to spring 1917 was one of frustration and failure. To explain why, it is necessary to re-examine how the battles were fought: how the troops and their equipment were deployed, and what weapons were available. An impasse at the level of tactics drove the two sides towards more ruthless strategies: the Allies towards escalating doses of attrition and the Germans towards Verdun and unrestricted submarine warfare. But this was not a static equilibrium, and both attackers and defenders were increasing their tactical sophistication and the number and power of the weapons at their disposal. Developments were in progress that after 1917 would break the stalemate. The emphasis here will be first on the conditions of defence and attack in the west, and then on a consideration of how far these conditions also held good elsewhere.

The Western Front has been likened to the outworks of the Roman Empire and the Iron Curtain that bisected Cold War Europe, but really it was without historical parallel. The trenches at the siege of Petersburg, in the closing stages of the American Civil War, were fifty-three miles long; but both they and those round Mukden in the Russo-Japanese War were eventually outflanked. In contrast the Western Front extended for some 475 miles and could not be outflanked, short of violating Dutch or Swiss neutrality, or by an Allied landing in Flanders. From the end of 1914 until 1918 it moved, with the exception of Germany’s voluntary withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, barely more than five miles in either direction. It was also the most decisive and intractable front, where more troops and guns were concentrated than in any other theatre, and the graveyard not only of Falkenhayn’s grand design at Verdun but also of successive Allied initiatives in Champagne, on the Somme, and on the Chemin des Dames.

The ultimate defence was the infantry: German, French, and British Empire soldiers all displaying a stubbornness and resilience that many Russian and Austro-Hungarian units lacked. As all three armies showed comparable determination in attacking, however, the morale variable mattered less than on other fronts or in later periods of the war. The Western Front was distinctive not only for the troops’ fighting qualities but also for their numbers. The French and German armies were several times their size in 1870, and a huge British army later joined them. Each side mustered some 5,000 troops per mile of front, enough to garrison it thickly and to hold counter-attack forces in reserve. It helped that the more rugged and forested southernmost hundred miles was less suitable for large-scale operations and saw little fighting apart from a series of French attacks in the Vosges mountains in 1915. Even between Verdun and Ypres many sectors were quiet and never saw great battles. The most active sectors were in Flanders and on the two flanks of the Noyon bulge in Artois and Champagne. Although the high force-to-space ratio was an essential reason for the Western Front’s immobility, however, it must be considered in conjunction with the field fortifications and their supporting infrastructure, the weapons used to hold them, and defensive tactics.

The Germans took the initiative in creating the trench system. Trenches might be claustrophobic, verminous, smelly, wet, and cold, but they offered the best protection available against blast and bullets, and they saved lives. Most of the armies suffered their heaviest proportionate losses during the mobile campaigning of the first weeks of war. Digging in gave Germany a glacis for its western border while consolidating its grip on France and almost all of Belgium, either to keep in perpetuity or to trade in. It released forces to attack elsewhere, at Ypres in autumn 1914 or later in Poland and Serbia, and OHL endorsed it as a lesser evil that would at least halt the Allies’ advance.

In January 1915 Falkenhayn directed that the line must be so organized that a small force could hold it for a long time against superior numbers. A strong first position must be the backbone of resistance, to be held at all costs and at once retaken if any part of it were captured. Linked to it by communication trenches should be a second line, to shelter the garrison when the first was bombarded. Further lines to the rear should be beyond the range of enemy field guns. Falkenhayn wanted to lessen casualties by keeping the front-line cover thin, but if the main garrison were too far back the advanced guard would be more likely to surrender and the artillery could not protect them. Some of his commanders opposed a second line in principle, as making the defence of the first less stubborn. In the light of experience OHL nevertheless ordered in May that a reserve line must be built 2–3,000 yards behind the first along the entire front: a colossal undertaking that was completed by the end of the year. The Germans had the advantage of being able to select higher and drier ground, with good digging and above the water table, which lent itself to artillery observation. The great battles in Champagne, on the Somme, and at Arras therefore consisted of Allied attacks uphill against defences that by 1916–17 were up to 4–5,000 yards in depth, against the 1,000 yards characteristic of British ones. Those on the Somme, which followed Falkenhayn’s prescriptions closely, lay behind two belts of barbed wire, each three to five feet high and thirty yards deep. The ‘front line’ actually comprised three trenches 150 to 200 yards apart, the first for sentry groups, the second for the main garrison, and the third for support troops. The Germans’ forward trenches (like British ones) were not straight but set in every ten yards or so in a ‘traverse’, or dog-leg, that protected troops against shell blasts or enfilading fire if the enemy captured a portion of the line. They built deeper dug-outs: six to nine feet down in 1915 and twenty-five to thirty feet on the Somme. A thousand yards behind the first position lay an intermediate line of machine-gun strongpoints; and behind that communication trenches led to the reserve position (the ‘second line’ of Falkenhayn’s memorandum), as heavily wired as the first and out of range of the Allied artillery, which would therefore need to be moved up to support an assault on it. Another 3,000 yards back lay the third position, added after the experience of September 1915, when the French had reached the German second line. Telephone cables laid six or more feet deep linked the artillery in the rear with the front trench. On the Somme the British did not capture most of the third line until late September.

‘No man’s land’ between the front lines might be as narrow as five to ten yards or as wide as 1,000, but it averaged 100 to 400 yards. Beyond it, when the Germans attacked, they encountered trench systems less solid and elaborate than their own, though still adequate. The Belgians held the sector stretching fifteen miles inland from the coast, and the British zone ran south of them for twenty to twenty-five miles at the end of 1914 but over 100 by the start of 1917. None the less, until the Americans arrived the French guarded at least three-quarters of the Allied line. In January 1915 Joffre directed his troops to divide their front between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ sectors. Strongpoints in the former would cover the latter, which would be heavily wired but guarded only by sentries. Shellproof shelters behind the strong-points should accommodate counter-attack companies, and a second line would be dug two miles behind. The entire complex should be garrisoned thinly to economize on manpower and save casualties. In the forested Vosges, and even in the tangled woods around Verdun, there were separate blockhouses rather than a continuous defence. The British approach lay somewhere between that of the French and the Germans. Their front was more thickly garrisoned than most of the French one, and they could yield less ground without surrendering their lateral railways or being driven into the sea. Normally they had three parallel positions: the front, support, and reserve lines. The first line was built up with sandbagged breastworks as well as being dug into the earth: in waterlogged areas the ‘trenches’ might be mainly above ground. The first line comprised the fire and the command trenches, some twenty yards apart. In the fire trench small forward units occupied the ‘bays’ between the traverses; the command trench contained strongpoints, dug-outs, and latrines. Communication trenches ran to the support trench, 70 to 100 yards behind, which had more wire and deeper dug-outs; another 4–500 yards back lay the reserve trench, with yet more strongpoints and dug-outs; and behind that, the artillery. In practice the system was far less orderly than laid down in regulations, or than in the mock-up created in Kensington Gardens for the London public. In active sectors trenches were continually blown up by mining and bombardment and the approach to the front became a labyrinth of craters and impasses, to whose complexities newcomers needed seasoned guides.

In their way the trenches were an imposing engineering achievement, the more so if account is taken of the immense infrastructure behind them. It comprised hospitals, barracks, training camps, ammunition dumps, artillery parks, and telephone networks, as well as military roads and canals, but pre-eminently it meant railways. The Western Front lay in one of the most densely tracked parts of Europe, and both sides added hundreds more miles of standard- and narrow-gauge line. In 1914 the Germans took the trunk railway running from Metz to Lille (and onwards east of Ypres towards the sea); the fighting stabilized between it and the main lines running behind the Allied front from Nancy via Paris to Amiens. In the British sector two transverse lines extended northwards from Amiens to Hazebrouck and Dunkirk, and a third, to Arras, was added after the Somme. Both sides pre-positioned support forces near vulnerable portions of their fronts, but the railways enabled larger reinforcements. By day two at Neuve Chapelle the German number of defenders had risen from 4,000 to 20,000; the French ran in 832 reinforcement trains to Verdun in the first three weeks of that battle; and in the first week of the Somme Germany moved up ten divisions in 494 trains. Beyond the railheads both sides depended heavily on horses and ultimately men to convey supplies to their artillery and the front lines, but the railways gave the defender a crucial advantage in funnelling in reinforcements before the attackers could consolidate and expand their footholds.

In addition to the railway network, Western Front defenders benefited from the panoply of innovations ushered in by the nineteenth-century revolution in military technology. In trained hands a breech-loading magazine rifle could fire up to fifteen rounds a minute, at a range of half a mile. Using smokeless powder and firing in a prone position, riflemen were almost invisible, and the kinetic energy of a rotating high-velocity bullet gave it an impact against bones and tissue out of all proportion to its size. But machine-guns and field artillery were the mass killers. European armies all had versions of the Maxim gun, and were equipped with light as well as heavy machine-guns as the war progressed. A heavy machine-gun typically weighed 40–60kg, even without its carriage and ammunition belts, and needed three to six men to operate it; light machine-guns (such as the British Lewis gun and the German MG 08/15) weighed 9–14kg, and were more suitable as offensive weapons, as a man could – with difficulty – carry one. In August 1914 a standard German infantry regiment comprised twelve companies of riflemen and only one of machine-gunners (with six weapons), but in 1915 six more machine-guns were added and in 1916 the same again, raising the proportion of machine-guns to rifles from 1:12 to 1:4. By 1917 the ratio in many divisions was 1:2. One heavy machine-gun could fire up to sixty rounds a minute, equivalent to as many as forty riflemen. Its range was greater, and it could ‘beat’ (i.e., fill with flying lead) an ellipse 2,500 yards long and 500 yards wide. As long as its attendants fed in belts of bullets and topped it up with cooling fluid it could continue its lethal traverses, one at Loos firing 12,500 rounds in an afternoon. At Neuve Chapelle two machine-gun posts held up the British until reinforcements arrived; and two guns halted the French at Neuville St-Vaast on the first day of the May 1915 attack. On the second day at Loos German machine-gunners inflicted thousands of casualties on novice BEF divisions for almost no loss to themselves. On 1 July 1916, however, many British casualties were caused by artillery rather than machine-guns. Both sides kept field guns targeted on no man’s land and the opposing first line so that they could respond at once with ‘SOS fire’ if the sentries sent up flares. By September 1915 in Champagne the Germans had perfected the art of siting their field guns on ‘reverse slopes’, so that as the Allies came over a crest and advanced downhill they were in full view from the German artillery, which the slope had kept invisible from the Allied gunners. At Verdun French artillery west of the Meuse disrupted Falkenhayn’s attack plan, while on the Chemin des Dames German guns wreaked havoc on Nivelle’s tanks. In this period of the war the combination of trenches, railways, rifles, machine-guns, and artillery was too strong for attacking forces to overwhelm.

The principal weapon available to the attackers was bombardment. Both GHQ and GQG altered their tactical doctrine during 1915 to stress its vital role in destroying enemy positions before the infantry could occupy them. It has been calculated that shellfire caused 58 per cent of the war’s military dead. Yet the artillery was a blunt instrument. The quick-firing field gun’s flat trajectory made it of little use against entrenchments, especially as in 1914 most field gun shells were not high explosive but shrapnel, scattering fragments that mowed down infantry in the open but lacked the blast effect needed against earthworks. In any case the Allies were short of shells of any description by the first winter of the war. For precisely such reasons the Germans could protect themselves against the French 75mm cannon by digging in. Moreover, French divisions were not equipped like German ones with light field howitzers (whose curved trajectory was much more appropriate against trenches), the whole army possessing only seventy-eight 105mm howitzers in June 1915. Their stock of heavy artillery was small, outdated, and kept under GQG’s central control. Matters did improve. In Champagne in September 1915 the French attacked with 1,100 heavy guns, compared with 400 in Artois in May, and after a bombardment lasting not four hours but several days. Similarly, before the Somme the British had in total more than twice as many guns as at Loos, and four times the number of howitzers. But it was still not enough, and not simply because the German defences grew ever more sophisticated. High explosive shells needed a heavy metal casing to stop them disintegrating: the explosives themselves accounted for only 900 tons of the 12,000 tons of munitions fired before the Somme. Even so, many shells failed to detonate or did so in their own guns. Also, artillery fire was highly inaccurate. In the open campaigning of 1914, guns could operate as in previous wars by ‘direct fire’: the crew could see their target and fire ranging shots until they hit it. But in such conditions they too might be visible, and on the quick-firing battlefield visibility was hazardous. In trench warfare ‘indirect fire’ from a concealed position against an invisible target became the norm. In a procedure known as ‘registering’ the gunners adjusted the range, barrel elevation, and explosive charge on advice from a forward observation officer (FOO), ideally telephoning from the front line, or from an observer in an aircraft reporting by wireless. Registering was slow and gave the enemy warning, while the FOO might be blinded by rain or smoke or his telephone line might be severed (and in a battle it often was, making communication dependent on carrier pigeons or runners). The Germans could tap into British telephone conversations within a one-mile radius, though in 1915–16 the British developed more secure communication methods such as the ‘Fullerphone’ and the ‘power buzzer’. Even when a gun had found its target, varying wind speeds and atmospheric temperatures and pressures could alter the fall of the shell, as could wear and tear to the barrel. For all these reasons, artillery preparation repeatedly yielded disappointing results. On the first day at Verdun an unprecedentedly intense German bombardment failed to annihilate a sketchy but cleverly dispersed French defence. When the assault troops advanced they came under heavy fire. On the Somme the British fired over 1.5 million shells in five days but on most of the front neither cut the Germans’ wire, nor smashed their dug-outs, nor silenced their guns. British commanders operated by guesswork and failed to calculate (in fact grossly underestimated) the bombardment needed to destroy the enemy front line. They arrived at the correct formula almost by accident at Neuve Chapelle, where they stealthily concentrated almost all the BEF’s artillery against a single-line defence, but they did not match this density of shells until Arras two years later. Such quantities were needed against just the first position, however, that it was not feasible to destroy the entire depth of enemy trenches, and by attempting to do so Haig on the Somme and Nivelle on the Chemin des Dames ensured their artillery would be ineffective. Moreover, as the Somme battle developed the Germans left their trenches during barrage and dispersed into the surrounding shellholes, creating such an extended target that no bombardment could destroy it. Enlarging and prolonging the bombardment in the hope of blasting through a passage by weight of explosive and metal was a fruitless quest.

Reliance on artillery preparation also contributed to tactical inflexibility, and made surprise virtually unattainable. Preparing a Western Front offensive was akin to a major civil engineering project. The British used 21,000 black South Africans in labour battalions in Europe: by the end of the war they made up 25 per cent of the labour force on the Western Front.

The French imported labourers from China and Vietnam. But the soldiers themselves did most of the work, and an integral part of the trench experience was hard and unremitting manual effort. Preparations on the Somme began in December 1915 in a poorly accessible region that lacked housing, roads, and railways, and even surface water because of the chalky terrain. By July 1916 the British had dumped forward 2.96 million artillery rounds, laid 70,000 miles of telephone cable (7,000 at a depth of more than six feet), and built fifty-five miles of standard gauge railway for a battle expected to require 128 trains a day. The French were at work for two months before the September 1915 offensive and the April 1917 attack – though in the latter case they needed more time than Nivelle’s impatience allowed them because the proposed location’s drawbacks included very poor transport links. Among the reasons why Falkenhayn persisted at Verdun, Haig on the Somme, and Nivelle on the Chemin des Dames was the scale of the preliminary investment in each battleground and the delay and expense entailed in preparing fresh attacks elsewhere.

Given the limitations of heavy artillery it was unsurprising that both sides sought alternative solutions, mobilizing their scientific and industrial communities for the purpose. To begin with the Germans were not only better trained and equipped than their opponents for trench construction but also better provided with assault weapons. Hand grenades were standard issue in the German army in 1914, as were light mortars. The Mills bomb, which became the main British grenade, caused many accidents when first introduced, and only in 1916 did a safer version follow. The Stokes mortar, designed at private initiative and ordered by Lloyd George as minister of munitions, was similarly in general service only from 1916. The Germans also introduced the flamethrower, first employed on the Western Front in February 1915. Virtually all the flamethrowers in the German army were brought to bear against the fortresses and blockhouses at Verdun, but they were used less frequently in the later stages of the battle as they had only a short range and their operators presented easy targets. The British on the Somme also employed flamethrowers, but despite the horrific injuries and panic they could generate, they were more spectacular than effective. All these weapons, however, were more suited to raids or to clearing enemy trenches than helping troops cross no man’s land in an offensive. Three other technologies promised more in this latter respect. The first was tunnelling under the enemy trenches to lay mines, which began in the winter of 1914–15 and was mainly a feature of the Anglo-German front. Mines were exploded on the first day of the Somme, although by being detonated ten minutes before zero hour they gave warning of the assault. Mining was an even slower and a more hazardous activity than preparation with heavy artillery, though if kept secret it could bring the benefit of surprise. It was unsuited, however, to be more than a supplementary attacking device.

The remaining two developments – poison gas and tanks – were much more important in the course of the war. Both were designed to overcome the trench stalemate. The British had experimented with gas before the war and the French fired projectiles from rifles and may have used gas grenades in the winter of 1914–15, but the substances concerned were irritant rather than lethal. Although there are plausible grounds for saying the Allies would have used gas if Germany had not, the Germans are rightly saddled with the opprobrium attached to introducing it, which was to be one of the war crime charges levelled against them at the peace conference. After trying out tear gas against the Russians, on the afternoon of 22 April 1915 they commenced the second battle of Ypres by releasing the cloud of chlorine that began the massive chemical warfare that distinguished the First World War from preceding and from most subsequent armed conflicts. In all, 124,208 tons of gas were used during the war, half of this quantity by Germany. The quantity quadrupled from 1915 to 1916, doubled in 1917, and doubled again in 1918. By 1918 the technology employed about 75,000 civilians in large and dangerous manufacturing operations, as well as thousands of specialized troops. It claimed perhaps half a million casualties on the Western Front (including 25,000 fatalities), in addition to 10,000 in Italy and a large but unrecorded number in Russia. But gas warfare was a microcosm of the conflict as a whole in its combination of escalation with stalemate. The best chance of its becoming a breakthrough technology was when it was first used, but if a moment of opportunity existed here, it was, as usual, lost.

Germany much exceeded Britain and France in its manufacturing and research capacity in chemicals and until the end of the war it mass-produced toxic gases faster and more efficiently. Falkenhayn saw gas as a tactical tool that might facilitate the decisive result he craved in the west and compensate for shortages of shells. The Germans satisfied themselves that they could reconcile their actions with a pedantic reading of the 1899 Hague Convention, and Falkenhayn’s technical adviser, Fritz Haber, told him early retaliation was unlikely. Most of the army commanders were hostile, fearing that if the Allies did reciprocate Germany would be disadvantaged by the prevailing westerly winds over France and Flanders. The commander in the Ypres salient was willing to try, but it became evident that gas had major shortcomings. To save shells it was decided to deliver the chlorine from almost 6,000 pre-positioned cylinders, which were bulky to transport and difficult to conceal (although the Allies ignored the intelligence warnings), as well as being liable to leak and therefore extremely unpopular with the troops. Success depended on a favourable wind, which took weeks to materialize. OHL therefore did not expect spectacular results, but envisaged a limited operation that would disrupt the Allies’ spring offensives, distract attention from Germany’s troop movements to Russia, and (by capturing Pilckem Ridge), make the Ypres salient indefensible. In the event, when the gas cloud was released at 5 p.m. against Algerians who mostly panicked and fled it opened an 8,000-yard-wide breach north of Ypres, but the Germans had few reserves on hand and the troops they sent forward had no masks. The Allies used the night to close the gap, and a second release, against Canadians two days later, had less impact. By June primitive respirators had been issued en masse to the Allied armies, and in September the French used gas in Champagne and the British at Loos. Haig had high hopes for it and was confident it would enable him to break the German line despite his continuing shortage of shells, but on the morning of the attack at Loos the air was still and although the chlorine cloud helped in some sectors it gassed more of his own men than the enemy.

After Loos there was little likelihood or expectation on either side that gas would be a war-winning weapon, although both continued to use it (the Germans against the Russians during the summer campaign in Poland in 1915 and on the Western Front a dozen times more down to August 1916). On balance it aided attack over defence. Although both sides introduced better respirators (notably the British Small Box Respirator or SBR) they also introduced more poisonous gases and new methods of delivering them. Phosgene, six times more toxic than chlorine, was brought in by the French at Verdun, fired in shells and therefore less dependent on the wind; the Germans used diophosgene or ‘Green Cross’ shells before their culminating attack there on 23 June (though they ended the bombardment too soon and French masks were reasonably effective against it). On the first day at Arras the British fired great quantities of phosgene from a new mortar-like device, the Livens projector. The projector was much easier to set up than the cylinders had been, and the Germans greatly feared it because it gave almost no warning. In general the Allies were gaining the edge in the gas war until in July 1917 the Germans attacked the British with mustard gas, opening a major new phase. Although both sides pointed out, with some justice, that gas caused less terrible injuries and fewer fatalities than did high explosive, it continued to evoke peculiar horror, and made conditions for the front-line soldiers even more difficult. Once the gas shell replaced the cylinders its use became much more widespread. Yet it remained an ancillary, harassing weapon that at Second Ypres, Verdun, and Arras facilitated temporary successes but produced no radical results.

WWI: Technology, Logistics, and Tactics – An Overview II

Such results were even less likely from tanks, which the British used on the Somme in September 1916 and at Arras, and the French in the Nivelle offensive. Tanks were initiated independently in Britain and France, the Germans making no move until they saw the Allied weapons in action. In France the visionary behind them was Colonel J. E. Estienne, who secured an audience with Joffre in 1915 and was authorized to work in conjunction with the Schneider armaments firm. However, it was in Britain that the first combat-ready tank, the Mark I, was built by Foster & Co., a Lincoln agricultural machinery company, under the aegis of the Landships Committee at the Admiralty, which Churchill had set up and funded. Churchill in turn had been fired by a memorandum that Hankey had submitted to the cabinet after meeting Estienne’s British equivalent, Lt.-Colonel Ernest Swinton. Both Swinton and Estienne had seen the Holt tractor, an American vehicle with caterpillar tracks, and both viewed it as a model for a trench-crossing device. And if Joffre’s backing was crucial to Estienne, Swinton (who headed a new Tank Detachment created in February 1916) enjoyed Haig’s enthusiastic support once the latter heard about the project. Indeed, Swinton found the enthusiasm excessive: he would have preferred to wait until a mass attack could be unleashed without warning. All the same, neither Haig’s use of tanks on the Somme nor his use of gas at Loos suggest that he was blindly resistant to new technologies.

Tanks achieved little at this stage not because of obstruction by the military establishment but because they were far from being the weapons of 1939–45. Even if deployed en masse, they could not have restored open warfare. The basic problem was that they were underpowered. The British Mark I to Mark V tanks weighed approximately thirty tons and had engines of up to 100 horsepower; the Shermans and T-34s of the Second World War were of similar weights but had engines of 430 and 500 horsepower respectively. The Mark I had a top speed of three to four miles per hour, and a maximum of eight hours’ endurance. It was lightly armed, with machine-guns or two small cannon. It was difficult to drive, hot and full of carbon monoxide fumes, an easy target for artillery, and highly susceptible to breakdown. Despite its weight, the Germans’ new armour-piercing bullets could penetrate it. It could not negotiate the ruined Somme woods and was vulnerable in villages. Nor could it climb steep slopes and extricate itself from shellholes. Of forty-nine machines fit for duty on 15 September 1916, thirteen failed to reach the start line. The preparatory barrage left ‘lanes’ along which they could travel over undisturbed ground, but because so many failed to move forward the supporting infantry walked into intact German machine-guns. However, three reached and helped to capture Flers, one mile from the start, and two carried on to the next village before German guns halted them. On day one at Arras sixty were available but again many broke down before the start of the offensive, to which they contributed little. On day two eleven tanks had been detailed to support an Australian attack on the village of Bullecourt, but they failed completely and an unsupported infantry assault was repulsed with 3,000 casualties, creating a legacy of bitterness against the British high command and tank crews. On the Chemin des Dames the heavy French Schneider models suffered even more severely from breakdown, their fuel tanks were located where they were easily ignited, and German gunfire set many ablaze. The state-built St-Chamond machines presented even easier targets. The tanks’ debut was patchy, to put it mildly. They seemed best suited to small-scale infantry support, crushing wire, silencing machine-gun posts, boosting the Allied troops’ morale, and unnerving their opponents. These accomplishments were enough to convince GHQ that hundreds more should be ordered, while the French responded to the Chemin des Dames débâcle by pinning their faith on lighter Renault two-man vehicles. During the central period of the war, however, neither tanks nor gas could restore mobility.

This being the case, the best prospect remained with the infantry and artillery, and better co-ordination between them. Another new technology – that of aircraft – was mainly important precisely for improving artillery effectiveness, both through direct observation (used by the British as early as the September 1914 battle of the Aisne) and especially through aerial photography, which was practised from spring 1915. In 1914 aircraft had had a prominent reconnaissance function – a French plane had observed von Kluck’s First Army turning east of Paris and German planes had monitored Russian movements before Tannenberg – but this became less crucial once the fronts stabilized. An independent ground attack role was only just beginning, essentially planes had monitored Russian movements before Tannenberg – but this became less crucial once the fronts stabilized. An independent ground attack role was only just beginning, essentially because the aircraft were underpowered for carrying heavy payloads, although German aircraft dropped bombs in the opening phase at Verdun while British ones bombed five enemy trains during the battle of Loos and strafed German troops and dropped fifty tons of bombs during the Somme. Finally, a strategic bombing role was also in its infancy, and it began not with aircraft but with the German navy’s Zeppelin airships, which lay unused because of the High Seas Fleet’s inactivity. Initially raiding near the British east coast, they first hit London in May 1915, killing 127 people and injuring 352 during the year. Typically they arrived on fine, moonless nights, and although the British soon learned how to detect their movements by intercepting their wireless messages, at first there was no means of destroying them. In 1916 they ranged more widely, reached the Midlands and Scotland, and forced widespread blackouts. From September 1916 onwards, however, the defenders got the measure of the problem, locating the airships by eavesdropping on their radio messages and then shooting down several with anti-aircraft artillery and with fighter aircraft firing new explosive ammunition. From 1917 Gotha bombers replaced the airships as the main air weapon against Britain. The Zeppelins set a precedent for new forms of attack on civilians and reinforced the British public’s sense that its enemies were beyond the pale, but their damage to the Allied war effort was slight.

Assistance to the artillery was therefore the crucial role of the new arm. By 1915 British aircraft were carrying radio and evolving special codes to communicate with their gunners and monitor the effects of their fire, but the task of direct observation was mainly accomplished by tethered balloons, linked by telephone cables to their batteries. The balloons, however, were obvious targets for enemy fighters, and soon aerial combats swirled round them. Aircraft defended the balloonists, and carried out photographic reconnaissance themselves. In general the advantage in these operations lay with the Allies, and especially with the French, who had far more planes and pilots than Britain or Russia in 1914 and owned the world’s biggest aircraft industry. The British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) lagged behind France and Germany for the first two years. Yet at first there was barely an air war in the literal sense, as neither side’s aircraft had machine-guns mounted, and many more casualties resulted from accidents than from enemy action. Most aircraft had ‘pusher’ engines situated behind the pilot, even though these provided less power and manoeuvrability than a ‘tractor’ propeller at the front, the problem with the latter being that a fixed machine-gun might damage the blades. In spring 1915, however, the French aviator Roland Garros equipped his aircraft with a machine-gun that fired through the propeller, which had blades fitted with plates to deflect any bullets that hit them. The Germans downed and captured his machine, and the Fokker firm used the information derived from it to pioneer a synchronization device, enabling them to fit a forward-facing machine-gun that fired through the propeller of a new single-engined monoplane without hitting the blades. For several months in the winter and spring of 1915–16 the ‘Fokker scourge’ gave the Germans the edge, though more because of the intimidation created by their monopoly of the new technology than because many Allied aircraft were shot down. By concentrating their airpower round Verdun the Germans partially concealed their preparations for the battle, and they enjoyed control of the skies in the first weeks of action. But by May they had lost it, the Allies capturing a Fokker plane as well as devising their own synchronization system and introducing new models with ‘pushing’ propellers that did not need such equipment and yet still outperformed German aircraft. In the opening phases of the Somme, the RFC commander, Hugh Trenchard, shared with Haig a commitment to a ‘relentless and incessant offensive’, and to driving the Germans out of their airspace, even if this meant neglecting the defence of British spotter aircraft and accepting punishing casualties among his crews. Beginning the battle with 426 pilots, the RFC lost 308 killed, wounded, and missing, and a further 268 were sent home, to be replaced by cursorily trained novices whose life expectancy by the autumn was barely one month. By September, however, a new generation of German Albatros D.III fighters was helping to redress the balance once again, and in the ‘bloody week’ of April 1917 the German ‘circuses’ or fighter groups inflicted unprecedented losses on the RFC at Arras and commanded the sky over the Chemin des Dames, virtually halting French photographic reconnaissance and balloon observation. Only in May and June, with the arrival of a further generation of aircraft, including the British S.E.5 and Sopwith Pup and the French Spad, did the Allies regain the edge. In the skies as on the ground, therefore, the initiative passed backwards and forwards, yet ultimately air combat was still marginal. Crushing air superiority helped the British very little on 1 July 1916, and its loss did not prevent much greater success on the first day at Arras, even if at other times (the first phase at Verdun, the last stage on the Somme, the Chemin des Dames) the Germans’ air superiority reinforced their effectiveness on the ground.

Aerial observation and photography contributed, however, to a less glamorous but more significant trend towards greater artillery effectiveness. By 1917 the French and British had more and heavier guns firing larger numbers of more reliable shells, and a greater proportion of high explosive rather than shrapnel. They were also achieving improved accuracy. One manifestation was ‘map shooting’: the ability to hit a map co-ordinate without giving prior warning to the enemy and disclosing one’s own position by registering. This became easier once the BEF had prepared new large-scale maps of the entire British front, and was linked to a second development, which was improved counter-battery fire, the British using new techniques such as flash-spotting and sound-ranging to catch up with the French expertise in detecting enemy guns. These were highly skilled techniques, and it took months or even years for men from civilian life to learn them. The third was the creeping barrage, which was first attempted at Loos and become general in the later stages on the Somme. Infantry followed as closely as possible behind a barrage that advanced as little as twenty yards ahead of them, its purpose being less to destroy than to neutralize the enemy defences by forcing the Germans to take cover until the attackers were almost upon them, denying them the moments after the barrage lifted when they could take up firing positions on the parapet. Its effects were even greater when combined (from Arras onwards) with new ‘106’ fuses that detonated the shells when they hit the soil rather than after burying themselves, thus causing much more damage to barbed wire. In the Allied attacks of 1917–especially later in the year – more of the German artillery was silenced beforehand and the attacking infantry were better protected.

To some extent also, the infantry’s own conduct when attacking had altered. The notorious waves sent walking forward on the first day of the Somme were atypical by this stage in the war. The Germans began in 1915 to experiment with surprise attacks and raids by prototype units for their later stormtroop forces: specially trained and equipped squads moving independently and using flamethrowers, trench mortars, light machine-guns, and grenades. On day one at Verdun pioneer units with wirecutters and explosives cut the French wire, flamethrowers were turned on the strong-points, and although the main assault came in a wave it followed behind a creeping barrage. When Ludendorff took over at OHL he demanded an assault squad in each army, and issued new instructions on assault tactics. On the French side, Pétain used aerial photography as early as May 1915 to assist his gunners before attacking Vimy ridge, and trained his infantry to advance as soon as the barrage lifted. The French amended their tactical doctrine after the 1915 offensives and Verdun, and at the start of the Somme their infantry dashed forward in small groups that gave each other covering fire to distract the defence. Nivelle’s Verdun counter-attacks followed a similar model, and the French created their own special assault formations, the grenadiers d’ élite, in January 1917. These new practices foreshadowed a transformation in doctrine. The French captain André Laffargue’s pamphlet on ‘The Attack in Trench Warfare’, written in the light of his experiences in the Artois offensive of May 1915, has attracted much attention from historians as a pioneering statement of the need for infiltration tactics, though it was neither completely innovative nor the sole source of the doctrinal changes. None the less, it was used as a French army manual and by 1916 had been translated into English and German, influencing both Nivelle and OHL. Even the British, whose commanders appear to have followed their unimaginative tactics on 1 July 1916 because they doubted the New Armies had the skill, experience, or cohesion to behave more independently, reconsidered in the light of the Somme and issued new guidelines early in 1917. In short, Verdun and the Somme were a learning process, although no combination of tactics without massive material superiority was likely to spare attacking forces from slow and difficult progress at high cost.

A final reason for the tactical stalemate was that the defenders too were on a learning curve. Falkenhayn’s insistence on holding the first line was increasingly criticized in OHL’s Operations Section in 1915–16, its officers foreseeing that as Allied artillery improved, the cost of garrisoning it would rise. Both sides suffered at Verdun from concentrating men in the forward trenches, and in the early stages on the Somme the Germans suffered again. As the battle developed they mounted a more dispersed defence, which Fritz von Lossberg, the Second Army’s chief of staff, encouraged by devolving tactical decisions to battalion commanders, recognizing that messages from divisional headquarters took eight to ten hours to reach them. After Hinden-burg and Ludendorff closed down operations at Verdun, fresh troops and guns became available while the Germans challenged Allied air superiority, thus succeeding after September 1916 (assisted by the weather) in bringing the Anglo-French advance virtually to a halt and repulsing offensives with counter-attacks. In response to the greater weight of enemy artillery they evolved a more flexible system of defence, despite the misgivings of many of their own commanders. Ludendorff wished to fight a more economical defensive battle in the west and had a more open mind than Falkenhayn about how to do it. As well as approving in September 1916 the construction of what became the Hindenburg Line he asked his staff to prepare a new text on defensive doctrine, which was issued – not without criticism – in December 1916. Its authors advocated a thin forward line that would lure the attackers into an extended battle zone where they would be fired on from all sides before being repulsed by counter-attacks from fresh troops stationed beyond artillery range in the rear, and in April 1917 the front lines were indeed less densely garrisoned than in July 1916. At Arras the German Sixth Army was surprised with its counter-attack divisions fifteen miles distant when the British attacked at 5.30 on a snowy April morning, their barrage having lifted earlier than the defenders had anticipated. On the Chemin des Dames, in contrast, where the Germans knew exactly what to expect, they held the front line thinly, and the French infantry who got beyond the first defences found themselves ringed by fire from concrete machine-gun posts. If Arras demonstrated how the methods and technology of attack had moved on, the Chemin des Dames underlined that the defence had evolved too, and still retained the overall advantage.

How far can this analysis be extended to other theatres? The Gallipoli peninsula was a tiny battlefront in which the force-to-space ratios were even greater than in Western Europe. As it had no railways both sides were supplied by sea, the British and French from Mudros and the Turks from Constantinople across the Sea of Marmara. The Allies were less well endowed with munitions and supplies of all kinds than on the Western Front, they had minimal air support, and they lost their backing from naval guns when the U-boat threat prompted the Admiralty to withdraw its battleships. None the less they attempted to fight up more precipitous hills than any in France against a determined enemy equipped with modern rifles and machine-guns. Once the Central Powers could transport heavy artillery by rail to Constantinople the Allies had little alternative to disengagement. In general terms high force-to-space ratios and the firepower revolution operated similarly at Gallipoli and in France.

The same applied to the Italian front, where by 1916 1.5 million Italian troops faced perhaps half that number of Austrians. Although the Austro-Italian border was some 375 miles long, its two active sectors – the Isonzo and the Trentino – formed only a small portion of the whole, the Isonzo front being some sixty miles long. Hence the force-to-space ratios were again high. Along most of the border the Alps rose like a wall from the north Italian plain, effectively inhibiting the attackers. Conditions here were far worse even than in France: trenches had to be blasted out of the rock with explosives, or cut into the sides of glaciers. Thousands of soldiers froze to death, were asphyxiated at high altitudes, or were buried by avalanches. In the Isonzo sector a narrow gap existed between the Julian Alps and the limestone plateau known as the Carso, but the river Isonzo itself formed a barrier and the Austrians established fortified positions parallel to it. Stalemate set in almost immediately on the Isonzo and persisted down to 1917, while the 1916 Austrian attack in the Trentino, though gaining more ground (and in more mountainous terrain) than the Italians on the Isonzo, had been contained even before Brusilov’s offensive distracted Conrad. In 1915 the Austrians were relatively more outnumbered than the Germans in France, but they had the benefit of topography – arid and rocky plateaux rising to the east of a fast-flowing watercourse – and they had been improving their railway infrastructure for years. The Italians were less well supplied with heavy guns and munitions than the French and British, and the Austrians outnumbered them in machine-guns. Halting the attacks proved unexpectedly easily. According to a French observer the Italian artillery, dispersed along too wide a front, simply failed to destroy the Austrian guns and trenches and the high command seemed not to know how much preparation was needed. A year later the position was similar: because the Italians’ artillery failed to destroy the Austrian second-line defences and was poor at counter-battery fire, their infantry ran into accurate defensive barrages and counter-attacks. They took more prisoners and gained more territory than in 1915, but were still only crawling forward. Although Cadorna increased the troops and guns at his disposal as the war progressed, his army seems to have learned little from the Western Front, experimenting with the creeping barrage only in spring 1917, and reforming its infantry tactics very slowly. Yet the Austrians themselves were too weak to attack, and the endurance of the ordinary Italian soldier should not be underestimated. Until the Germans arrived in autumn 1917 neither side could break the impasse.

If at Gallipoli and on the Italian front the tactical dynamics of the fighting resembled those in France and Belgium, elsewhere this was less true. The force-to-space ratios in the Middle East and Africa were infinitely lower and the logistical circumstances vastly different. The initial problem might be in locating the enemy, rather than reconnoitring across no man’s land. The Caucasus front, an unknown theatre with extremes of climate and terrain, is difficult to compare with anything in Europe, though the mountain warfare of the Carpathians and the Trentino may offer analogies. On the other hand attacking forces were frustrated by entrenched defenders with rifles and machine-guns at Tanga in November 1914, at Ctesiphon a year later, and when the British relieving force failed to break through the Turkish siege positions round Kut. When Murray attacked Gaza in spring 1917, he launched tank attacks against barbed wire and trench defences, though the Turks left an open flank to the interior, which the British would later exploit. Despite the vastly different operational circumstances outside Europe, Western Front tactical conditions still tended to develop wherever modern weapons and high force-to-space ratios coexisted.

The Eastern and Balkan Fronts fell into a category midway between France, Flanders, the Isonzo, and Gallipoli on the one hand, and Mesopotamia and Africa on the other. Measuring some 1,060 miles at the start of 1915, the Eastern Front was more than twice the length of the Western, though the Russian retreat shortened it to about 620 miles before the Romanian campaign extended it by more than another 250. As the armies fighting there were significantly smaller than in the west, the force-to-space ratios were lower. In the winter of 1915–16 the western Allies were deploying 2,134 men per kilometre of front, but Russia only 1,200. Germany garrisoned with one-and-a-half divisions in the east a sector in which it would have deployed five in France or Belgium, while Austria-Hungary manned its Italian front six times more densely than its Russian one. Machine-gun and artillery densities were also lower in the east and no man’s land was wider. Sometimes livestock grazed between the armies. With less risk of bombardment, trench systems were thinner, with more men bunched in the front line and smaller mobile reserves. Yet the east also had fewer railways, making it slower to move up reinforcements. All these factors made breakthrough easier, and both the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow and Brusilov at Lutsk achieved it, if in significantly differing circumstances. At Gorlice the Russians had stationed their field artillery in earthwork bastions on low hills, from which they commanded the intervening trenches. The sector was strong by Eastern Front standards, though not by Western ones (its barbed wire was rudimentary). The Germans’ bombardment was the biggest yet seen in the east, but their artillery superiority was less than France and Britain enjoyed in 1915 or on the Somme and their infantry tactics were not innovative. The assault forces moved up during the previous night and trenches had been dug towards the Russian positions, but on the day the troops advanced in thick skirmishing lines (supported by aerial strafing) and took considerable casualties from rifles and machine-guns. They were fortunate that in most of the sector resistance collapsed quickly, the Russians surrendering or being hastily pulled back because their generals feared encirclement. By 1916, in contrast, the Austrians opposite Brusilov had constructed three fortified lines, each of three trenches, with machine-gun nests, deep dug-outs, and extensive wire, though his aerial reconnaissance established they had few reserves. Brusilov’s men achieved surprise by digging trenches up to the enemy lines and unleashing a rapid bombardment, followed by an assault with specially selected and trained units. In other words the defensive positions were more elaborate and the attacking tactics more sophisticated than a year before.68 Along a shorter and more static front than in 1915, conditions here too increasingly approximated to the Western Front norm. The obstacles to mobility increased on other fronts even while the armies in the west fumbled towards solutions to them. Essential though considerations of tactics, technology, and logistics are in explaining the course of the war, however, if treated in isolation they are insufficient. After Brusilov’s triumph the later Russian attacks against the Germans round Kovno, though delivered on a narrow front and with heavier barrages, were unavailing. The Eastern Front still differed from the Western in one major respect. The British, French, and German armies were not equally effective, and the Germans tended consistently to inflict higher casualties than they suffered.69 But all three were comparable until 1917 in their willingness to persist in action even when taking very heavy casualties. In contrast Brusilov overwhelmed prepared positions that neither side would have abandoned so easily in the west, and the Germans broke through at Gorlice with far less firepower and tactical skill than they would have needed in France. Many Austro-Hungarian units were as inferior in cohesion, morale, and equipment to the Russians as the latter tended to be to the Germans. Developments in arms production were fundamental, too, in accounting for the contrasts between the theatres and the general pattern of the fighting. The quality and quantity of military manpower and the successes and failures of the war economies must now be brought into the equation.

Le Tellier(s)

Michel Le Tellier, l (1603–1685)

François Le Tellier, (1641–1691)

Michel Le Tellier, l (1603–1685)

Appointed “Intendant to the Army of Italy” by Louis XIII (September 6, 1640), Le Tellier developed a system of standardized supply that ultimately included extensive use of magazines. This innovation was further advanced and completed by his son and successor, the marquis de Louvois (François Le Tellier). The idea of maintaining reserves of food, cloth, and fodder for transport horses and cavalry mounts, and dry powder and shot, was an old one. But primitive levels of bureaucracy in early modern states meant that most armies through the end of the Thirty Years’ War were forced to rely on an admixture of plunder and plunder’s handmaiden, contribution, for supply. No European army had its own transport corps before the mid-century mark. Instead, leased civilian wagons and teamsters, or requisitioned wagons on the march-with or without compensation-were standard. Le Tellier changed much of this by imposing tight contracts on merchants, insisting that they actually maintain at the ready all wagons and draft animals leased to the Army, even during the winter months when little to no campaigning was underway. Appointed secretary of war a month before Louis XIII died, under Jules Mazarin Le Tellier set about fundamental reform of French military supply and transportation. For the first time, a systematic study of the matériel requirements of the French Army was made. This led to reforms that much reduced corruption by contracted sutlers and royal officials, who were long used to padding their accounts with bills for phantom supplies and services. Reform included standardization of food, armaments, uniforms, and equipment provided to the troops. Le Tellier even regulated the number of carts and teams allowed officers, strictly according to rank, of course.

Le Tellier then drafted standardized contracts issued to sutlers, through which he could better estimate and control expenses. To further reduce wastage and corruption, contracted goods were no longer delivered directly to colonels of regiments. Instead, they were dropped at central depots under control of royal agents (“général de vivres”). Transport was arranged through major sutlers given special powers to draft wagons and teams, as well as laborers, millwrights, cooks, and bakers. Le Tellier set aside a reserve of government-owned wagons and horses, which carried the first few days’ worth of supplies whenever the Army moved into the field. Beginning in 1643, he set up a series of magazines along the usual routes used by the Army when it moved out of its base area toward the Rhine; that is, at Metz, Nancy, and Pont-a-Mousson. The next year he built a fodder magazine for the cavalry during the siege of Dunkirk. In 1648 he set up more magazines at Arras and Dunkirk for use whenever the Army besieged Ypres, which was often. Le Tellier thus ensured that soldiers received working equipment and regular pay, as well as food, clothing, and shelter. He improved the magazine system during Turenne’s 1658 campaign of sieges against Dunkirk, Brégues, Oudenaarde, and Ypres. These innovations altered the conduct of logistics in early modern warfare and set the standard for the next 150 years. Yet, in Le Tellier’s lifetime, these changes had but a modest effect on specific campaigns. Real progress toward a permanent magazine system was made by his son during the wars of Louis XIV.

Suggested Reading: Louis André, Michel le Tellier et l’organisation de l’armée monarchique (1906).

marquis de Louvois, (1641–1691)

Né François Le Tellier. Successor to his father, Michel Le Tellier, as principal military and strategic adviser to Louis XIV. He was the main transformer of the French Army into an instrument of royal authority and foreign policy. In part, he accomplished this by helping his father and Louis establish the Régiment du Roi in 1663 as a model for all French infantry regiments. He also founded the Royal-Artillerie in 1673 as a professional and concentrated artillery arm. These reforms had influence on military developments far beyond France.

Following a pattern set by his father, with whom he understudied from 1662 to 1670, Louvois lobbied hard for bullying wars as the main basis of French foreign policy. He did so not least as a means of creating opportunities to concentrate more power and wealth in his own hands. He was centrally involved in reorganization of the French Army away from private regiments and mercenaries to a more professional officer corps and to regular units raised from the king’s subjects. He exercised such strict control over officers, however, that tactical and operational mediocrity was often the result. In logistics he found a calling, notably fully developing the magazine system left in rudimentary form by his father. Among Louvois’ more important innovations was to introduce portable ovens to bake bread during halt days while a French army was on the move. At the onset of the Dutch War (1672-1678), Louvois accumulated in forward magazines enough grain to provide the advancing armies with 200,000 rations per day for up to six months-an unheard of achievement in European warfare since the fall of Rome. This effort is widely regarded by historians as his finest. It ensured Louis XIV early military success that would not be replicated in later, longer wars fought without Louvois at his side. For this material accomplishment, regardless of Louvois’ many and deep moral flaws, he is properly regarded by historians as the first great civilian “minister of war.”

Louis XIV drilled himself as a form of childhood play, and continued to play at war as a man, and then as king. He believed that discipline, rather than bloody mayhem, was what won battles and insisted on constant drill, at least twice per week, even for garrison units. His regiments drilled through the winter and during the rare summers when they were not in the field. Early in his reign, Michel Le Tellier and Louvois helped Louis found a special regiment, the Régiment du Roi (1663), to model and demonstrate proper drill to the rest of the French Army. This regiment, and then all French drill, was overseen from 1667 by inspectors-general.

One of Louvois’ most crucial reforms was to institute musketry drill, upon discovering that many French infantrymen, especially peasant conscripts, went into battle not knowing how to load or discharge their main weapon. The French emphasis on drill thereafter grew so fierce that the intendant responsible for drill in the French Army, Colonel Jean Martinet, original colonel of the Régiment du Roi, became so infamous for fussy, even merciless insistence on the smallest detail of uniform discipline and drill that his name entered the universal military lexicon as a pejorative for inflexible drill instructors.

As for his moral failings, they were many and great. For instance, during Turenne’s march through the Palatinate in 1674, Louvois demanded that the harshest methods be used against German villagers who resisted by any means, or who refused to pay contributions. During the War of the Reunions (1683-1684), he again displayed a penchant for personal cruelty and brutality in punishing villagers. He once ordered fully 20 villages be bombarded and burned in retaliation for the loss of two French barns. Although he was patron to Vauban, the two disagreed about whether to use bombardment as an alternative to siege warfare. John A. Lynn, the leading modern historian of the French Army, maintains that Louvois took a savage approach to war and that, for him, bombardment of towns with mortars during the 1680s “became something of a blood lust.” Nor did his none-too-gentle master in Versailles voice any objection. In 1688 Louvois began to raise new provincial militia to supplement the regular regiments. These were gainfully employed when Louis started the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) that fall. Louvois planned the 1688-1689 devastation of the Palatinate (1688-1689) on a map, reveling yet again in the destruction of German towns and cities, and even individual chateaux. His death on July 16, 1691, removed from inner policy circles a baleful and brutish influence on Louis XIV, a monarch who needed little encouragement to indulge his own vices and a pronounced preference for war over diplomacy.

Warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries I

By the middle of the seventeenth century it was becoming obvious that, as far as Europe was concerned, a new world economic order had come into being. The conquest of the Americas and the exploitation of their resources created a trading zone across the Atlantic and stimulated economic and commercial growth. The great sailing ships with their heavy broadsides of cannon had reached beyond Islam, so that the new wealth derived from the Americas could be traded for the traditional commodities of the East – silks, jewellery, spices, fine pottery and, later, porcelain. The Mediterranean was no longer the centre of the European world. England set up the Honourable East India Company in 1600, Holland sponsored the United East Indies Company and France quickly followed. Islamic merchants had long monopolised the trade in West African slaves, and they continued to be important. However, Europeans now competed for this human trade to feed labour into the sugar industries of the West Indies and South America, and the plantations of the Carolinas, generating enormous profits. Industrial growth and new inventions multiplied, while improved agricultural techniques enhanced food supply dramatically. By the end of the seventeenth century steam engines were in use in England, and in 1712 the efficient Newcomen model was introduced.

Not all of this was peculiarly European. The Ottomans encouraged their own traders. Chinese products were sought after the world over, while both they and the Indians had trading companies to match anything in Europe. But in some of the states of Western Europe the intensification of economic production, mercantile, industrial and agricultural, was remarkable. This prosperity extended to states which were not directly involved in the Atlantic trade: Scandinavia, for example, supplied France, Holland and England with timber for their growing fleets while Germany traded intensely with the lands of the Atlantic littoral. Peter the Great (1682–1725) imitated western development in order to modernise the economy of Russia. This new wealth enabled relatively small states to create military power to rival great empires.

The European expansion was as violent and competitive as that of other empires. The ruthlessness that in the ancient world produced the smoking ruins of cities and the enslavement of entire populations now applied itself to the exploitation of the native peoples of the Caribbean and North and South America. Successful trading nations tried to exclude others by force from the benefits of ‘their’ trade or tried to take over their trade. The Portuguese had been the first to break into the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, but they were elbowed aside by the Dutch and later the French and English, all of whom were firmly established in the area by the late seventeenth century. Spain and Portugal seized the New World in the sixteenth century, but despite their resistance Holland, France and England had forced their way into the Caribbean by the end of the seventeenth century. In North America, England and France profited from the divisions of the native tribes to establish colonies and then fought one another for supremacy. But as long as the empires of the Ottomans, the Mughals and the Qing remained strong, the European predators were peripheral in Asia.

The overseas ambitions of some European states complicated the intense rivalries of a deeply divided continent which focused on a shifting galaxy of powers. In the seventeenth century Austria, France, England, Holland, Spain, Poland, Sweden and Prussia were all important. In the eighteenth century Russia under Peter the Great established an autocratic bureaucracy to make Russia into a great military power, displacing Sweden in northern Europe. By the mid-century Spain, Holland and Sweden occupied secondary positions while at its end Poland had ceased to exist altogether, partitioned by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The new wealth had significant political and military consequences. Holland was a merchant republic and her entire policy was dedicated to the interests of trade. The commercial skill of the Dutch created a new means of war finance which enabled a very small country to defy bigger powers like France, while continuing to expand abroad. Holland had a population of less than two million in 1700, but it supported the double burden of a great fleet to protect its trade and an army to hold its frontiers. Like any other state it was driven to borrow, but Dutch merchants understood the need to guarantee payment in order to safeguard future credit, and out of this they developed deficit finance. In England landed aristocrats dominated political affairs, but they recognised the value of its growing mercantile and colonial power. England copied Dutch financial methods with the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the institution of the National Debt, a kind of permanent state deficit which paid a fairly low rate of interest to lenders who were confident of their income. This provided a highly flexible instrument for war finance, because borrowing could be stepped up at need and the costs spread over long periods.

France was an aristocratic state whose leaders saw the need to foster economic development, but without ever acquiring real understanding of how it worked, and this was crucially important for war finance. France failed to develop deficit financing because aristocratic participation and quiescence in the state were much more important in a crisis than satisfying creditors. In this way the needs of 260,000 tax-exempt nobles dominated a population of 19 million. War threw the finances of Louis XIV (1643–1715) into crisis and this influenced military activity. In 1695 Louis wrote to Catinat, his commander in Italy:

the only difficulty that presents itself for pursuing offensive war is the considerable sum of money it requires … and after having examined the state of my finances … I have, despite myself, been obliged to resolve to pursue only defensive war during the coming year.

Denain, July 1712; defeat ended Austrian and Dutch hopes of a breakthrough in Northern France

After 1709 during the War of Spanish Succession (1701–14) the French suspended virtually all offensives to save money. More subtly, throughout this long war much French activity was limited to occupying land outside France, upon which they then levied ‘contributions’ offsetting as much as 25 per cent of military costs. In 1789 war finance precipitated the French Revolution.

The effect of new groups sharing in power or, in the case of some traditional monarchies, being catered for by those in power, was to extend the sense of belonging to the state and having a vested interest in its military success. We speak of ‘France’ as if it were a monolith, but communications were poor and the reach of government machinery limited, so for many the state was very remote, and some subjects did not even speak French. Further, the military and those who served in it had always been the instruments of the elite, and soldiers were usually separate from the mass of the population and often entirely foreign. The great achievement of the major European regimes between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was to create standing armies, establishing a state monopoly on violence. Such ‘nationalised’ armies were, if not popular, at least bearable and even at times a matter of pride.

The new armies sprang from the security needs of monarchs. The mercenary armies of the early seventeenth century were dangerously independent. The Swedish model of the ‘state commission army’, a standing force recruited from native peoples and tied to state authority by an articulated command structure, showed the way ahead. Instead of being intermediaries, aristocrats could be drawn into service as officers dependent on royal patronage, while those who remained defiant could be intimidated. These fundamental political developments underpinned the new regular armies. The French monarchy set the pace. It was a dynastic state, but it had always been centralised, so that the creation of a military bureaucracy to control and support its new model army was practicable. The key figures were the intendants who supervised military administration and travelled with the armies, controlling all aspects of military infrastructure. There were limits to what the state could do and the intendants had to supervise the private contractors, munitionnaires, who provided food and dealt with others such as those who managed the artillery.

Monarchs had to compromise with the practices of the old armies. Captains and colonels continued to profit from ‘their’ companies and regiments so it was necessary to ensure that they were supplying uniforms, or cash allowances in lieu, for the troops. There was undoubtedly much peculation: soldiers were convinced suppliers cheated on both quantity and quality, while there was an obvious temptation for officers to claim to have more men than were actually in the ranks. By modern standards this was a complex and messy system of support, but it was an enormous improvement on what had gone before. Soldiers seem to have been relatively well fed and this motivated them to fight. Monarchs replaced civilian contractors with specialist corps of gunners, engineers and pioneers who were vital in sieges and in the preparation of camps and bridges. Across Western Europe, in response to the needs of trade and industry, roads were improved and bridges were built, thus speeding the movement of troops. Improved supply and well-organised support had tactical and even strategic implications. Under Louis XIV French armies built up stockpiles of food and equipment over the winter in frontier fortresses, enabling them to take the field earlier than their enemies. Gradually European armies were catching up with the Ottomans.

The most obvious military consequence of the new wealth was an increase in the number and size of forces. Every petty German ruler now had his miniature army. Under Louis XIV France was a superpower with a peacetime army of 150,000, expanded to 279,000 during the Dutch War of 1672–8 and reaching a peak of 420,000 in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Austrian regular force in 1699 stood at 59,000 but under the pressure of war had reached 135,000 by 1705: in 1761 it numbered over 200,000 and by the French Revolution about 300,000. Under the Great Elector in the late seventeenth century, the Prussian army numbered 30,000, rising to 40,000 under his immediate successors, but Frederick the Great (1740–86) had an army of 83,000 at the start of his reign. These are paper figures, but the scale of battles reflects the overall rise: at Breitenfeld in 1631, 40,000 Swedes confronted the same number of imperial troops; at Neerwinden (Landen) in 1693, 80,000 French fought 50,000 Dutch; at Malplaquet, Marlborough’s 86,000 defeated 75,000 French.

Armies were still reduced in peacetime, but only on a partial basis: the half-pay officer kicking his heels and hoping for a war which would recall him to the colours is a cliché of eighteenth-century literature. Ordinary soldiers were still paid off in large numbers as quickly as possible, and some of those retained acted as part-time farmers. However, it is very impressive that France could afford a peacetime establishment of 150,000. Of course such numbers never came together in a single force. Many were needed to garrison fortresses and protect roads. But the chief limitation on numbers in armies was different.

Logistics imposed a limit on the size of individual armies. Away from its base, no army could carry all the supplies it needed so ‘contributions’ were vital. This was increasingly a bureaucratic and orderly process because pillage threatened the discipline upon which all armies depended, and ravaging could drive peasant populations from the land and even convert them into guerrillas. ‘Contributions’ left the countryside stable, if impoverished. Moreover, armies usually offered credit payment, and generally this produced some compensation in the end. It is difficult to see how else armies could have been supplied with food. Ammunition and guns had to be transported, and officers were permitted to bring lavish amounts of baggage, as befitted their aristocratic status. To carry more than a few days’ supplies of food on top of this would have compromised an army’s mobility. Forage for horses was so bulky that under almost any circumstances it had to be found locally. On the move an army could feed itself, at least in the prosperous farming communities of Western Europe, though extorting ‘contributions’ took time and effort, so it was usual to pause to stockpile food in magazines which could then supply the army for the first part of its next advance. An army besieging could not forage, so lines of communication had to be established and guarded. A major siege was labour-intensive and armies were relatively small, so that it would demand all the efforts of a realm for a fighting season, but it was the only way to secure conquest. For example, at the siege of Lille, August to 22 October 1708, Marlborough needed 3,000 horses to drag a siege-train of 80 heavy cannon and 20 mortars, escorted by 2,500 cavalry and 5,000 foot. Half his army was retained to keep open lines of communication.

On the 1st August 1759, the 37th Foot fought at The Battle of Minden, during the Seven Years’ War.

The pattern of European war which emerged by the end of the seventeenth century and which would endure well into the nineteenth was remarkably like that which had dominated warfare since ancient times: infantry stood in close order and engaged their enemy at very close quarters when, unless one side gave way, the fight with edged weapons became decisive. This at first seems rather surprising after four centuries of gunpowder weapons. However, it was based on the possibilities and limitations of the 6-foot-long, 11-pound smoothbore flintlock musket with its lug bayonet. This was very inaccurate because the ball was smaller in diameter than the bore and so bounced, producing an erratic flight. At 150 metres, in ideal conditions, a carefully aimed weapon would hit a target equivalent to three men six foot tall only five times out of ten shots. But conditions were rarely ideal in the frightening surge of battle, so that soldiers preferred to fire as close as 50 metres. Loading was so slow that a surviving attacker could charge across this distance long before a soldier could prepare his weapon for a second shot, and, of course, a man on horseback could do this even more quickly. The individual infantryman was, therefore, very vulnerable, and needed the shelter of his comrades with their ‘porcupine’ of bayonets. But at 50 metres volley-fire could inflict appalling casualties on a close-packed enemy. Linear formations two or three ranks deep could bring most fire to bear upon an approaching enemy, so that units formed themselves into line as a prelude to battle, which is why we still speak of ‘infantry of the line’.

In attack, infantry formations were usually preceded by light-3 pounder cannon firing canister, a can of small shot which burst as it emerged from the muzzle, spreading a dense and lethal spray effective up to 400 yards. The infantry fired as close to the enemy as possible before charging in with the bayonet. The consequences of such close-quarter encounters could be ghastly. At Malplaquet in 1709 Marlborough with an army of 86,000 attacked 75,000 French: casualties were 21,000 and 12,000 respectively. To deliver volley-fire like this demanded close control. The characteristic unit of the infantry in this age was the regiment of around 2,000–3,000 men, broken down into battalions, ranging in numbers from 500 to 1,000, which formed the basic tactical unit. These were subdivided into companies of about 200 controlled by officers, with sections under the command of NCOs. Discipline was the key to making men stand and fight – the blast of a close-quarter volley could decimate a battalion. It was widely observed that the unit which fired last usually won any encounter. At the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 a French officer called to his English opposite number: ‘Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers!’ The assumption underlying this invitation was that his own men were so regimented that they would absorb the shock and casualties of a volley, and then be in a position to deliver their own – all because they were so tightly disciplined. And beyond the volley lay the encounter with edged weapons.

Maurice de Saxe (1696–1750) was a progressive and experienced soldier of German birth who had fought in the armies of Austria, Russia and France, in the last rising to the rank of marshal. He thought that in the clash of battalions, the last to fire would be the victor, and urged attacking units to endure defending fire, to deliver their own volley at point-blank range, and to charge in with the bayonet. To the end of his life he believed that pikemen had their place on the battlefield. In this he was not alone. In 1702 a British soldier of Marlborough’s army complained that

My size made me a pikeman against my will, though indeed I liked that service, and thought it the most becoming and manly of all. There was an encouragement [to induce a brisk and smart motion in charging] of half a crown to everyone that should break a pike in that motion, and I had the good fortune to break two before I left the regiment.

Frederick the Great of Prussia was dismissive of firepower and urged his infantry to move swiftly to close quarters. There was plenty of pragmatic evidence that man-to-man battle at close quarters, or at least its prospect, was the ultimate physical and psychological weapon which broke defenders. In 1745 ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the Stuart pretender to the English throne, won an extraordinary success at the battle of Prestonpans when his Highland swordsmen overran English regulars who were unnerved by their wild charge. As late as the battle of Busaco in 1809, an ensign with the British Guards reported the repulse of a French attack: ‘In the centre where at last the enemy made his grand push, we charged when he was within 100 yards, and our fire was reserved until they were flying.‘

Infantry were the backbone of eighteenth-century armies, but cavalry usually accounted for about 30 per cent of fighting men, a rather higher percentage than in the Middle Ages when ratios of 1:5 were common. They became increasingly specialised. Light cavalry were used for reconnaissance, to screen the movements of troops and in the business of plundering enemy territory. Heavy cavalry, often still equipped with the breastplate, hovered close to the infantry battalions, ready to use their speed to charge home if gaps opened in the enemy line. At Landen in July 1693 it was a cavalry charge which brought the French victory. In 1745 at Hohenfriedberg a chance charge by the Bayreuth dragoons saved the day for the Prussian army which was hard pressed by the Austrians. Cavalry regiments varied in size but quite normally numbered about 1,000 horsemen, divided into ten companies which were combined into squadrons.

Discipline was the means by which European armies overcame the limitations of their gunpowder weapons and maximised their power. In the eighteenth century armies still fought in phalanxes, but they enjoyed the enhanced killing range of gunpowder weapons which acted as a kind of longsword. But this could only be successful if it was accompanied by sensible organisation and enforced, and this is why corps of officers became vital. France had a numerous petty and often impoverished aristocracy whose cultural inheritance was contempt for labour and even trade. For such young men, commissions in the forces offered what they considered an honourable way of making a living. Pay was not good and often irregular, but officers were provided with servants from the other ranks and enjoyed considerable status in society. Moreover, if a man was promoted to company commander he could expect to make money, taking a cut from the administration of supplies and even charging for promotions. In the messes of regiments these young officers cultivated a warrior ethic centred around the notion of honour and its consequence – the duel. Rising young soldiers became clients of great men at court through whose influence they might hope to buy commissions and become colonels, with far greater hopes of profit from control of a whole regiment. Such patrons often inserted men of birth into these positions, and their wealth supported the troops, thus offsetting some of the crown’s costs.

Austrian and Prussian cuirassiers at the Battle of Lobositz on 1st October 1756

By contrast, the Hapsburg monarchy was a personal union of diverse and separate lands centred on Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, whose rulers had established a claim to the throne of the loose agglomeration of Germanic principalities, lordships and free cities known as the Holy Roman Empire. It did not form a coherent and centralised state like France, but a dynastic dominion, and in each of its lands the Estates, essentially representative of the nobility and Church, were anxious to preserve their own privileges. Service in the regular army never enjoyed great cachet amongst the nobles of the Hapsburg lands, especially those of Austria and Bohemia, partly because they could enjoy careers in local administration under the Estates, which they dominated.

However, the higher nobility controlled all senior commands because they could purchase commissions, and especially colonelcies, for their younger sons, and thus had an enormous advantage in the promotion race. But the lower-level officers were mainly commoners, often drawn from the peoples of the Ottoman frontier for whom war was a way of life. Moreover, Austria was prepared to recruit from all over Europe, as exemplified by its most famous soldier, Prince Eugene (1663–1736), born in Paris and rejected by the French army before moving on to the Hapsburgs. Even in the late eighteenth century foreigners sometimes raised entire regiments for the monarchy. The result was a less homogeneous and coherent officer corps than the French.

The Hohenzollern dynasty of Prussia, like the Hapsburgs, had scattered lands. East Prussia was separated by Polish territory from the family inheritance of Brandenburg, while Cleves and Julich lay far to the west on the Rhine. Frederick the Great Elector (1740–88) was conscious of being surrounded by hostile neighbours. He decided that he needed a standing army to fight off potential challenges and to grasp swiftly any opportunities for expansion which might present themselves. He therefore took steps to centralise government and, because his lands lacked great aristocrats, broke the power of local assemblies and drew in the aristocracy by making them officers. The despotism of Peter the Great similarly drove Russian aristocrats into the army.

The other ranks were filled by the poorest and least educated of the European population, inducted by a number of mechanisms. Service in the French army was voluntary, often stimulated by recruitment bonuses. But this was inadequate for the major expansion during the War of the Spanish Succession, so Louis XIV reinforced his standing army by resurrecting the ancient right of the king to call all free men to arms, creating a reserve force drawn from unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 40 selected by lot. In practice, middle-class people and substantial peasants could easily get exemptions, so most soldiers came from among the poorest in society. During this war the system provided about half the levies to Louis’s armies. It was, however, very unpopular, so in more normal times the state tempted volunteers by offering recruitment bonuses. The legal maximum of 60 livres was often exceeded and might, in time of war, reach 500 livres, five or six times an annual agricultural wage. But armies were rarely homogeneous. The French royal guard was Swiss, and many regiments recruited heavily from the German principalities.

Prussia, after the reforms of 1733, had a very systematic form of conscription. The whole realm was divided into districts rated by the number of hearths in each. Every regiment drew its soldiers from the district in which it was based, and each company recruited from an allocated subdivision or canton. In principle, every able-bodied man was eligible but conscription on such a scale would have bankrupted the state. As a result, the system was very selective. Exemptions were granted to the economically active and important; in short, the middle class. Since the system was supervised by landlords, in practice they decided which of the peasants were called to war.

The Prussian cantonal model produced highly disciplined soldiers whose service life was spent in groups who had known one another from birth, under the supervision of officers drawn from the landlord families who ruled their families in civilian life. Once they were trained, soldiers were often sent home to support themselves on the land, so relieving the state of the costs of their upkeep. Soldiers enjoyed enhanced status in the community for which they could sometimes speak, and this mitigated the harshness of the system and inculcated a degree of pride in it. This integration of home and service life created a highly disciplined force. But Prussia had a small population, and in time of war recruited soldiers from all over Germany and Central Europe. In 1729 Hanover came near to war with Prussia over the activities of aggressive recruiting officers. More than a third of the Prussian army were foreigners, though such men were retained only as long as war lasted, then dismissed to save money. Prisoners of war were routinely incorporated into victorious armies. In 1760–61 the Prussians were so desperate for men that they inducted prisoners at the point of capture. The regiments of the Russian army were conscripted, theoretically for life, from amongst the serfs. In practice landlords oversaw this process and the result was, as elsewhere, an arbitrary form of selective conscription.

The training of soldiers, necessarily in view of the poor quality and unwillingness of many of those inducted, focused on discipline. The tactics of the age required soldiers to march in column and then, when battle threatened, to deploy into line, a relatively complex manoeuvre. The business of loading and firing in frightening and distracting conditions was dinned into men, and they learned to respond to sudden changes in orders coming from their officers. Drill conditioned soldiers to perform their functions and to obey their commanders. Discipline mattered much more than skill: few infantrymen would have fired more than five live shots from their muskets before going into action. Draconian punishments were the order of the day. Frederick the Great ordered that NCOs should kill any man who turned in flight. Flogging continued in the British army throughout the nineteenth century, and ‘Field Punishment No. 1’ by which men were shackled to a wheel, into the twentieth. Even so, all armies suffered from appalling levels of desertion, which was in fact so prevalent that it was generally treated very mildly.

Infantry of the line, backed up by cavalry and artillery, were at the core of eighteenth-century armies, but it must not be thought that military development was everywhere the same even within Europe. Russia converted its army to a western model in order to fight the Swedes and others, but on the Black Sea steppe, where it confronted the Crimean Tatars, the Ottomans and other Mongol successor states, cavalry, especially the Don Cossacks, remained very important, supported by military settlements along the frontier. Similar methods underpinned the Russian expansion beyond the Urals and across Siberia, because they were well suited to the task of driving outward the frontiers in the forest-steppe. In Austria the Ottoman frontier was held by fortresses supported by military settlements. Mounted raiding was a way of life for both sides, and as a result Austrian cavalry was good, both on the battlefield and in harassing, and indeed the European vogue for hussars was copied from the huszár, a particular kind of Hungarian light cavalry. Frederick the Great of Prussia came to dread the ‘Croatians’, the generic name for Christians settled along the Ottoman border by the Hapsburgs. They made excellent light infantry who, in broken countryside, could inflict major damage on their enemies. During the eighteenth century skirmishing forces like these became increasingly important.

The British military structure was another variant. British elites were deeply suspicious of a large standing army because they feared the monarchy might use it to deprive them of their privileges and liberties. Accordingly they preferred to pay continental powers, like Austria, to fight against France, whose imperial ambitions conflicted with British interests all over the globe. But others were not always willing to fight Britain’s battles, and recipients tended to take the money and use it for their own ends, so that it became important to put armies in the field to influence events. The British filled their ranks with mercenaries, and Hanover, where their royal family originated, was a useful recruiting base. During the American Revolution men were raised from neighbouring lands in Germany; these ‘Hessians’ were much reviled by the American insurgents, but they were good soldiers. The purely British army was made up of volunteers, but the term voluntary is a relative one, and contemporaries had few illusions about the methods of recruiting officers, as satirised in Farquhar’s famous play, The Recruiting Officer (1706). Moreover, impressing men from the jails was not uncommon. The duke of Wellington was essentially correct, though perhaps harsh, when he described the British army: ‘People talk of their enlistment from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink.‘ British officers were recruited from the younger sons of the nobility and from the gentry; great aristocrats preferred other careers. But officers had to purchase their commissions or find a patron wealthy enough to do so, maintaining a certain social exclusivity. It is notable that most of the military figures of the eighteenth century came from the gentry or impoverished noble families.

British military expenditure focused on its fleet. The rise of the big-gun ship in the sixteenth century meant that temporary use of converted merchantmen was not viable. So, just as standing armies were becoming fashionable across Europe, permanent directly controlled fleets came into being. The ship-of-the-line, which would dominate warfare until the mid-nineteenth century, was a multi-decked wooden box constructed in such a way as to carry the maximum number of cannon while retaining manoeuvrability. By the late eighteenth century, the two-deck ‘74’, named for the number of guns, was the staple of the line of battle. By sailing in line and delivering their broadsides, fleets of this kind could drive an enemy from the seas, exposing his commerce to attack and isolated outposts and colonies to annexation. In many ways the ships-of-the-line and the infantry of the line were parallels, units designed to work together to deliver savage close-range volley-fire against their enemies. And after the cannonade boarding parties armed with edged weapons were vital to seize enemy ships. Lighter ships had their uses, preying upon or protecting trade, but naval domination depended on the ships-of-the-line.

The British, because of their geographic location, quickly appreciated the connection between commerce, industry and naval supremacy, and grasped the notion that force could exclude rivals from these important sources of wealth. An elaborate structure mobilised and sustained maritime power. The Board of Admiralty coordinated the work of many specialist boards like the Navy Board which was primarily in charge of dockyards, the Board of Victualling, the Ordnance Board and the Commission of Sick and Wounded. The fleet was hideously expensive. In 1664 parliament voted £2.5 million for the Dutch War, the largest single tax before the eighteenth century, but even so by 1666 the Admiralty had spent £3,200,516. This debt, and the lack of success, persuaded Charles II (1649–85) to negotiate for peace and to lay up the fleet, but before negotiations were finished the Dutch admiral, De Witt, made a great raid on the Medway ports, burning a number of ships-of-the-line and towing away the flagship, the Royal Charles. This disaster triggered a parliamentary inquiry, but essentially cemented the consensus of support in parliament which continued to vote money for the fleet.

HMS “Royal George” (3), 100-guns first rate ship of the line launch at Woolwich in 1756

Between 1688 and 1715 the number of cruisers designed to protect commerce rose from eight to sixty-six and ships-of-the-line from 100 to 131. At a time when most armies had only one cannon per 500 men, the greatest of these ships carried eighty. The 3,000 oaks needed for a man-of-war had to come from inland forests, and road transport more than doubled costs. Masts were imported from New England, spars and pitch from the Baltic and hemp from far overseas. When the French wars prevented the import of the best sails from Brittany, a competition, eventually successful, was held to provide substitutes of good quality. To accommodate and service such ships, stone docks had to be built and protected with great forts. The new Plymouth Yard, completed in 1700, cost £67,000 and by 1711 the royal dockyards were employing 6,488 officers and men. The navy was by far the greatest single enterprise in the British Isles.

Manning was a major problem because in peacetime many ships were mothballed and men paid off – there were limits to the peacetime navy just as there were to peacetime armies. Ships were relatively complex weapons systems and navigation was a delicate art, so that officers had to be educated. For the younger sons of petty gentry and bourgeoisie the navy offered good training and an honourable career, but one that, unlike the army, did not involve heavy investment in the purchase of a commission. And unlike the Church, the law and the academic life, a long and expensive education and a predisposition to scholarly activity were not required. For families, the prospect of unloading a young son at the age of 12 to be a petty officer was attractive. Moreover, such was the demand for special skills that non-commissioned officers and merchant sailors could earn commissions. The distinguished explorer Captain James Cook (1728–79), a farm manager’s son, served on Whitby coal ships before entering the Royal Navy in 1755 and, indeed, his famous ship, the Endeavour, was a converted collier. Officers were usually paid in arrears but with reasonable regularity, and the commander of a major ship-of-the-line could expect 20 shillings per day. Prize money from captured enemy shipping offered prospects of real wealth. In 1758 Captain Elliot took a French privateer, receiving £2,000 as his share. As against this, periods of half-pay were common when ships were decommissioned after wars.

But recruiting the ‘other ranks’ was a major problem, because ships ran on human expertise which took time to develop: native skills had always been a brake on military development. In peace, demand for manpower was fairly stable and time could be taken to train, but when war came ships had to be commissioned and men found quickly. The obvious source was the merchant marine, but in time of war this competed with the navy for trained seamen. There was a limit to what the government could afford to pay. As a consequence, conscription was introduced in the form of the ‘press-gang’ which operated in the streets of ports or at sea by boarding. Its prey was not just anybody – the law allowed ‘pressing’ only of sailors and the navy wanted skilled men. In a sense ‘the press’ was a tax on the huge success of British shipping which had been promoted by legislation such as the Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1663. Manning the navy was a perennial problem, but so it was for the main enemies, France and Holland. A substantial navy was bound to be expensive. In the second half of the seventeenth century France poured enormous resources into building a fleet. French ships in the eighteenth century were highly regarded and often used as models by the British, but their fine design gave relatively few additional advantages compared with the brute English drive to build and keep at sea numerous warships.

Warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries II

The Battle of Barfleur, 29 May 1692 by Richard Paton, painted 18th century.

The battle-fleets with masses of ships and great weights of cannon dominate our vision of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century naval warfare just as mass infantry formations are central to our view of land warfare. But there was an equivalent to the light troops of the armies of this period. The great ships were clumsy, relatively slow, and could only undertake long journeys with great difficulty and careful preparation. In 1693 an Anglo-Dutch fleet, allied against Louis XIV of France, was ordered to escort through the Channel a convoy of merchant ships from both countries bound for Smyrna. The allies had recently won a substantial fleet action over the French at Barfleur-sur-Hogue in 1692, and this may have inspired the governments to order the departure of this convoy at short order. The great battle fleet, however, was short of provisions and accompanied its charges only beyond Brest. The French ambushed the convoy off Cape St Vincent, capturing or sinking ninety-two ships in a disaster which cost more than the total losses of the Great Fire of London in 1666. By the late 1690s the French realised that they could not match the building programmes of their Anglo-Dutch enemies and so could not challenge them in fleet actions. Instead they resorted to the guerre de course, war against commerce, which, as the Smyrna incident shows, could be highly effective. Privateer captains fitted out their ships at their own expense, though with government aid. Prizes, captured ships and cargoes, were divided between the state and the privateer captains. This stimulated the British to build cruisers, later called frigates, fast light ships which could take on privateers.

Seen from the twenty-first century, warfare in the eighteenth century often appears stately, almost ritualistic. Armies in their colourful uniforms were relatively small and moved slowly, often bogged down in sieges of places now regarded as unimportant. Wars were waged for the ‘balance of power in Europe’; this has often seemed a very abstract notion, and one appropriately served by limited war. But Louis XIV’s ambitions to seize the Low Countries and expand the frontiers of France were very threatening to the real interests of many states which banded together in coalitions against her. The result was a whole series of wars. The War of Devolution (1667–8), the Dutch War (1672–8), the War of the Reunions (1683–4) and the Nine Years War (1688–97) were succeeded by the War of the Spanish Succession. At times the fighting was very intense: at Landen in 1693 there were 23,000 casualties which compares with Malplaquet whose butcher’s bill of 33,000 shocked Europe in 1709.

The stakes were high. In the case of the Dutch War, Louis clearly intended to extinguish Holland, which had frustrated his ambitions in the War of Devolution. There was fighting in the West Indies and such was the internal pressure in France that revolts broke out in Brittany and amongst the Protestant Huguenots, which the Dutch sought to encourage. Louis’s seizure of Philippsburg in 1688 prompted a Dutch coup in alliance with English opposition forces which overthrew Louis’s friend and ally, the Catholic James II of England (1685–8), and replaced him with the Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange (1672–1702). In the resultant war there was fighting in the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Italy, the Mediterranean, Canada and South America. And civilian populations suffered badly. Year by year the French established armies in western Germany, and while ‘contributions’ were less brutal than ravaging, this may not have been evident to the suffering peasantry. In 1672–3 the French adopted a scorched earth policy to force the Dutch to surrender, and in 1674 and 1688–89 they devastated the Rhine Palatinate to deny its resources to the enemy. The warfare of the early eighteenth century was slow-moving, but it was as destructive as warfare always is. Louis annexed substantial territory in what had been the Spanish Netherlands and ‘rounded out’ the frontier elsewhere, building modern fortresses to protect his gains. His success rested on sustained warfare, a grinding attrition over long periods of time, made possible by the growing wealth of the French monarchy.

Louis’s wars culminated in the War of the Spanish Succession which was brought on by the death without heir of Charles II (1665–1701) of Spain. His empire extended to most of Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, the Americas and the Philippines. As a Hapsburg he was a member of the family which ruled Austria, but he was also closely related to the French Bourbons. He wanted his lands to pass intact to a single heir, and chose Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip of Anjou. Although the will stipulated against it, this bequest raised the prospect of an eventual union of the crowns of Spain and France, and the creation of a gigantic superpower which would dominate the whole continent. Louis did nothing to dispel this fear, precipitating a great general war. Philip was accepted in Spain and Louis enjoyed the support of Bavaria and some other minor German powers like Cologne which resented Hapsburg domination. The duke of Savoy protected his Italian frontier against the Austrians. Louis even encouraged Ferenc Rákóczi to lead a Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I (1658–1705) was at the heart of the alliance against France and he drew in his wake most of the German principalities. In 1701 he persuaded the Elector of Prussia to join by granting him the title ‘King in Prussia’, while England and Holland were major allies.

This war exemplified early eighteenth-century warfare in that it was dominated by fortifications. Large numbers of the soldiers on both sides were absorbed in defending these strong-points. At heart they were massively developed and strengthened versions of the trace italienne, mounting huge numbers of heavy guns. Louis XIV’s great engineer, the marquis de Vauban, is chiefly remembered for his skill in designing some of the most modern of these along the French frontier. But his great contribution to war was the systematisation of siege. At Maastricht in 1673 he surrounded the city with zigzag lines from which trenches moved in to create yet more lines from which the walls could be bombarded or assaulted. As long as the besieger prepared well and fed his army, and could prevent relief, sieges now proceeded with mathematical precision. If the garrison was determined the process was bloody. Lille held out against Marlborough for four months before surrendering on terms, having inflicted 14,000 casualties on his army. Assault was terrifying, as a young officer remembered how he had stormed one of the breaches made by the artillery:

I went up the ladder and when about halfway up I called out ‘Here is the 94th!’ I was glad to see the men begin to mount … I believe there were not many of our regiment up before me – at least I was up before the commander of my company. I lost him at the heap of slain caused by the grape-shot.

The line of confrontation between France and the coalition lay through the Netherlands and down the Rhine, the most heavily fortified zone in Europe. On the upper Rhine the imperial forces created the lines of Stollhofen, penning in the French around Strasbourg, lest they use this as a jumping-off point to attack south Germany and Austria. There were sieges and battles, but they all failed to achieve decisive results. Then there was a sudden flurry of spectacular movement. In 1703 the French general Villars attacked Landau in the Stollhofen lines very late in the season, catching the allies off guard, and subsequently defeated their poorly commanded relief effort at Speyerbach. In conjunction with Max Emanuel of Bavaria, Villars seized Ulm and Augsburg and threatened Vienna whose forces were distracted by the Rákóczi revolt in Hungary and reduced by the needs of the fighting in Italy. Villars imposed heavy ‘contributions’ on the German countryside to supply his army, defraying 42 per cent of his costs, including 128,000 livres in ransoms. Max Emanuel demanded a substantial slice of the ‘contributions’ and their disagreements stymied further progress. Ultimately the French general was replaced by Marsin.

Austria was clearly at risk and the English commander, Marlborough, took 20,000 men and feinted towards the Moselle. On 19 May he abruptly marched south, collecting allied forces en route and arriving at Launsheim close to Ulm on 22 June. The crude rate of march of 7.5 miles per day was not especially impressive and the average distance of 13 miles covered on days of actual march corresponded to what ancient and medieval armies had normally managed. What was impressive was that the force arrived in good shape to fight, because Marlborough contracted with his agents, the brothers Medina, to purchase food and threatened the ‘friendly’ rulers of the territories through which he was passing with dire consequences if they did not help him. By the standards of the age this was a lightning march made possible by careful preparation, but the demands of speed meant that Marlborough had relatively few guns. He therefore had to storm Donauwörth to obtain a bridge across the Danube, suffering 5,000 casualties in the process and lacked artillery to attack a fortress like Ulm. In fact he proceeded to ravage Bavaria in a brutal effort to drive Max Emanuel out of the war. In response, Louis XIV dispatched Marshal Tallard with a formidable French army, but although they made good speed they were exhausted by the effort and harassed badly by German peasants enraged by their ravaging.

On 12 August the allied and French armies faced one another across the little river Nebel on the north bank of the Danube. Each army had roughly 56,000 men, though the French possessed ninety guns to the allies’ sixty. The French thought a clash unlikely, with good reason. Battle was chancy, the allied army was far from its bases and the key fortresses in the area were all held by the Franco-Bavarians. Defeat, therefore, would have been disastrous. This misreading of allied intentions probably explains why the French and their allies deployed so badly, with Tallard’s purely French forces around Blenheim near to the Danube on his right, and Marsin and the Elector far to the left. Oberglau marked the junction of what were effectively two armies barely linked together. Marlborough made a great thrust at the centre of the enemy line. Some 14,000 Franco-Bavarian troops surrendered and perhaps as many as 20,000 were killed or wounded. The allies suffered 13,000 losses. Such losses are a testimony to the effectiveness of close-range musketry and massed bayonets.

Blenheim was a decisive victory which ended the threat to Vienna and brought all Germany over to the allies, but essentially it only nullified a temporary French advantage, and the whole Franco-Spanish defensive system along the Rhine and into Flanders remained. Marlborough was soon re-immersed in attacking fortifications in Flanders where the French easily held their own. In 1706, however, when Louis changed his strategy and ordered his armies onto the offensive, Marlborough won a great victory at Ramillies and scooped up a number of towns and cities, but was bogged down till September by the formidable fortress of Dendermonde. In Italy, after initial French gains, Prince Eugene relieved the siege of Turin and crushed the French army, forcing evacuation of the Po plain, while the Catalan rebels against Philip of Spain held out and an allied army threatened from Portugal. But nothing had broken the French will to fight on and the coming years failed to produce any decisive result, although Marlborough won a stunning victory at Oudenarde on 11 July 1708 which led to the capitulation of Lille after a long siege in December. In 1709 Marlborough scored another great victory, at Malplaquet, but at a cost of enormous losses in the face of an able defence by Villars whose army suffered much fewer losses and retired in good order. With military momentum lost, political initiatives then took centre stage and by 1713 peace left Spain in Bourbon hands and France virtually undiminished.

Louis XIV, despite losing many major battles, won the War of the Spanish Succession, essentially because he was defending the status quo established at its start. The warfare of this period resembled that of the Hundred Years War in that it was a long-drawn-out contest of wills, spurred on by occasional victories. In the absence of any means to destroy an enemy, victory was a mirage. On land it could only be purchased by casualties which exhausted the victor, and the defeated could repair to his fortifications. At sea it was difficult to achieve a decisive result because fleets depended on the wind and could as easily fly from battle as close for it. As a result war slid into compromise, but it was the compromise of exhaustion, not of intent.

Our eye is taken by spectacular events like Blenheim and the savage warfare in Flanders, but the sheer scale and intensity of the fighting were staggering. In France there were persistent Protestant revolts, and the famine of 1709–10 there caused terrible unrest and brought offensive actions to a halt. In England, Louis tried to foment civil war in order to restore the Stuart monarchy. Hungary rose against its Hapsburg rulers with French encouragement, while Catalonia made a bid for independence from the Spanish crown. Italy was ravaged by the clash of French and Austrians, and Portugal wavered between France and the allies. Navies fought at sea and there was war in the colonies. And appalling damage was inflicted. An estimated 235,000–400,000 seem to have died in fighting during the War of the Spanish Succession; that does not take into account deaths by sickness, or civilian casualties direct and indirect. On Louis’s death in 1715 it was revealed that the French state owed 2.5 million livres. In no real sense was this limited war, except, perhaps, for the British who, safe behind their navy, picked up colonies and guarantees which profited them for the future.

European warfare in the eighteenth century was certainly not just a formal parade-ground affair, and it was not static because war was frequent and soldiers and political leaders reflected carefully on their ideas and experiences. The Emperor of Austria, Charles VI (1711–40), had only a daughter, Maria Theresa (1740–80), and the law provided that a woman could not succeed to the throne. Charles persuaded the European powers to agree to her succession by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, but when he actually died on 20 October 1740 most of the signatories reneged. Frederick the Great of Prussia had inherited a standing army of 83,000 which could be mobilised quickly. On 16 December 1740 he invaded the rich province of Silesia which he had long coveted; by the New Year he held most of it. This precipitated the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), in which Prussia, France and Spain allied against Austria, Holland and Britain. This gave rise to the Anglo-French conflicts of ‘King George’s War’ in North America and the First Carnatic War in India. The settlement of 1748 confirmed Frederick’s possession of Silesia and all Europe recognised the rise of a new military power based on the best infantry in the continent.

Frederick the Great is the dominating figure in the military history of the mid-eighteenth century. Yet in his first experience of battle, at Mollwitz on 10 April 1741, he fled the field when things appeared to be going badly. All was saved by his senior officers, and above all by the discipline of the Prussian infantry. In the words of an Austrian officer captured in the battle: ‘It did not appear to be infantry that was marching towards them, but moving walls.‘ The price was high – the Prussians lost 4,850 men – some 300 more than the Austrians. Frederick was truly a child of the Enlightenment, the great intellectual current then sweeping Europe which recognised ‘reason’ as the great source of power and authority. Accordingly, in his General Principles of War published in 1753, he tried to systematise what he had learned. He understood the limitations of contemporary infantry volley fire. The king’s preference was for skilful manoeuvre and fast and relentless movement which he thought would overwhelm his enemies. He insisted on infantry advancing in very close order with muskets on the shoulder until the very last moment. At his insistence Prussian troops adopted cadenced marching to keep them in step and he developed very complex drills to bring his forces quickly from line of march into line of battle. In battle the enemy would be softened up by artillery preparation and infantry were equipped with light 3-pounder infantry cannon to pave the way for the assault, but it was shock and cold steel which would destroy the enemy, and troops were urged not to hesitate but to press on until victory was complete. His cavalry were also drilled to close order and expected to charge home. He had plenty of opportunity to test these ideas in the wars that lay ahead.

Austria feared Prussia as a dangerous adversary in Germany and formed an alliance with France and Russia whose rulers had ambitions to acquire Poland which Frederick was certain to contest. English rivalry with France in North America was becoming acute. The French claimed the Mississippi, precipitating fighting in Ohio in 1754, and this was followed by their construction of forts in western Pennsylvania. For this reason the English backed Prussia in the Seven Years War of 1756–63. The Austrian commanders had recognised Frederick’s fondness for rapid movement and direct assault with cold steel. At Lobositz on 1 October 1756 Frederick attacked an Austrian army in broken country where their Croatian irregulars inflicted heavy casualties before his infantry drove the Austrians into an orderly retreat. In the following year at Prague on 6 May Frederick threw his Prussians against a strongly entrenched Austrian army and suffered 14,000 Prussian dead. At Kolin on 18 June he again attacked the Austrians in a prepared position. His infantry were harassed by the Croatians, disrupting their assault on the Austrians who won an important victory, forcing Frederick to retreat from Prague. In each case the Austrians deployed their firepower against Frederick’s well-known predilection for frontal assault. But at Leuthen on 5 December 1757 Frederick engaged on much more open ground, manoeuvring quickly to strike the enemy where least expected, but his infantry now relied far more on firepower to win a famous victory and he concentrated his artillery, hitherto somewhat ignored, against the Austrian infantry.

Frederick conceived of horse-artillery – light cannon and their caissons of shot harnessed to strong horse-teams, with the gunners riding alongside – as a means of weakening enemy infantry who were an obstacle to the fast and aggressive movement which he wanted from his cavalry. At the siege of Schweidnitz in June 1762 he deployed his cannon carefully, with the very latest howitzers firing explosive shells. His infantry then worked their way into the Austrian positions using the ground skilfully. He was always impatient of engineers, partly because in the open spaces of Central Europe fortresses were much less common than in the west. But at Bunzelwitz in 1761, faced with an overwhelming challenge from Austrian and Russian armies, Frederick was happy to resort to a well-fortified camp. Both Frederick and his enemies learned from experience. As more powers engaged, war grew in scale and became more intense. At Zorndorf in August 1758 Frederick checked the Russian invasion of his lands, but at a cost of 12,000 casualties – the enemy endured 18,000. Armies were increasing in size and Frederick always suffered from a manpower shortage. By 1777 his army was not far short of 200,000, over double the number he had inherited in 1740.

The intense warfare of the eighteenth century produced a new emphasis on the training of officers. Prussia established the Berlin Cadet Corps in 1717 for officer training. The French School of Engineers was founded at Mezières in 1749, and the following year a similar institution for the artillery appeared. The École Royale Militaire, where Napoleon would be educated, was founded in Paris in 1750. In Austria the Wiener Neustadt Military Academy served the same function while the Russian Cadet Corps had been founded in 1731, and subsequently a number of specialist academies were created. In England the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich opened in 1741. This all owed something to the Enlightenment which was to influence Frederick the Great’s General Principles of War, but the practical needs of war really drove the trend: calculating artillery fire and siege-works, the difficulties of controlling large armies, now regularly of the order of 60,000. War was becoming increasingly complex and educating officers was therefore vital.

The rise of a more educated officer corps raised the intellectual level of debate on war. France had done badly during the Seven Years War, losing her overseas empire to Britain, and seeing her army defeated by the Prussians at Rossbach on 5 November 1757. As a result, a series of reforms was introduced and vigorous discussion was encouraged. Entry to the officer corps was restricted to nobles; they were very numerous in France and many of them were poor, so this measure helped to bind them to the crown. The abolition of purchase of commissions offered them better prospects of promotion. The staff, responsible for the organisation of war, was strengthened. French commanders debated the value of attack in column, which was quicker than deploying into line and easier to control. Their distinguished soldier and military theorist, Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, comte de Guibert (1743–90), advocated rapid movement and suggested avoiding siege by masking fortresses. He thought that supply trains could be lightened and more emphasis placed on living off the country in the interests of speed.

On the battlefield Guibert favoured experimentation with light troops, even equipping some with rifles which had greater range and accuracy than muskets so that they could harass the enemy line and pick off officers. His greatest innovation, implemented after 1766, was to develop a system whereby troops could deploy quickly for battle as they marched towards the enemy. In addition he recommended that on the offensive a line of skirmishers should be thrown forward to prepare the way for an ordre mixte with formations attacking in column (usually battalions split into company columns) or in line, as circumstances suggested. Such thinking about tactics and organisation was by no means confined to the French. The British lined their men up in a double rank and fired by platoon, thus a battalion delivered rolling fire across its front from the moment the enemy came into range. During the later stages of the Seven Years War, as armies became bigger and more difficult to control, the Austrians seem to have experimented with very large sub-units of all arms led by senior officers which could march and fight independently, but when necessary combine on the battlefield.

Traditionally, because artillery was expensive, guns were made 12 feet long so that if used in fortresses the muzzle would project and the blast would not damage the masonry. This, of course, made them very heavy and clumsy in the field. Frederick the Great’s horse-artillery were shorter and had lighter bronze guns whose gunners rode into action to break up enemy formations. In 1776 Gribeauval became French inspector of artillery; he demanded that a regular corps of gunners be instituted, and he standardised calibres. Under his aegis, an infrastructure of state-owned arsenals was developed with their own boring machines. Hitherto cannon had been cast around a clay core which was cut out when the metal had cooled. This produced erratic bores, so that cannonballs could not be made to fit tightly. Boring made calibres much more consistent so that ammunition could be standardised. Under the Gribeauval system there was a sharp distinction between the lighter bronze guns for field use and heavier weapons for fortress and siege.

Although European thinking was dominated by the full frontal collision of regular infantry masses hardened to the ordeal of battle and siege by discipline, Europeans knew very well what they called ‘little war’ (petite guerre), a name which embraced anything outside the mainstream. The Austro–Ottoman frontier saw constant raiding, and the ‘Croats’ and Hussars who waged it were starting to contribute to the more fluid tactics evident in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. In all major campaigns light forces of cavalry and infantry skirmished; this was the inevitable accompaniment of ravaging and levying ‘contributions.’ In addition, regular armies maintained light forces whose task was to harass the enemy. In 1745 at Fontenoy Marshal de Saxe employed sharpshooters who did great harm to the attacking British and allied forces. During the colonial wars in the dense forests and wastes of North America, both the British and the French employed native tribes to harass their enemies. Famously, a Franco-Indian force ambushed and killed the British General Braddock at the battle of the Monongahela in 1755. In the forest-steppe the Russians advanced by raiding, desisting only when the small native tribes agreed to pay tribute and obey them. Gradually a thin network of forts established Russian dominion over a vast area, but the conquest was very much driven by local initiatives, though supplied with modern weapons and backed, on an occasional basis, by Russian troops. Massacre and the threat of massacre were the methods of both sides, but it was the growth of the Russian population which drove the expansion, until they met Chinese imperialism advancing from the other end of Asia.

In the eighteenth century popular insurgency, people’s war, was uncommon in Europe. However, there is a myth that the American Revolutionary War was won by patriots rallying to their militias in a people’s war. This was certainly a broadly based rebellion against British rule. In 1776 the thirteen British colonies in North America revolted against the crown. Notable amongst their many grievances was discontent at taxation levied by London to cover some of the costs of protecting the colonies and the anger of the colonial elite at London’s decision to halt westward colonisation beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Open rebellion began in 1776, but became serious when the Americans isolated Burgoyne’s small army at Saratoga in 1777, provoking France, Spain and Holland to intervene. Thus a colonial dispute became a worldwide war. But far from finding colonials anxious to rally to their cause, the Revolutionary leaders had great difficulty in recruiting troops at all. Washington had few illusions about the colonial militias. Indeed, he would probably have agreed with Clausewitz: ‘Insurgent actions are similar in character to all others fought by second-rate troops: they start out full of vigor and enthusiasm but there is little level-headedness and tenacity in the long-run.‘ His Continental Army of regulars was never really able to fight the British on equal terms, but as long as it existed it gave hope to convinced supporters, rallied the doubtful and served to threaten the hostile. But in the Carolinas campaign of 1780–81 irregular warfare was decisive.

The British, with their increasing distractions elsewhere in the world, could only deploy quite a small army, which made the reconquest of the huge area of the colonies very difficult. One way in which they multiplied the effectiveness of their troops was to use their command of the sea. In 1780 they seized the ports of Savannah and Charleston, and their commander, Cornwallis, shipped in troops and supplies with which to rally the loyalists of the Carolinas and thence to penetrate Virginia. At Camden, on 16 August 1780, he defeated General Gates whose regulars fought well but were deserted by the local militia. However, the British threw away the fruits of victory by scattering their forces to rally the loyalists, and the new American commander, Nathanael Greene, with inferior forces, was happy to engage in guerrilla warfare which became more and more savage, polarising support. When Cornwallis tried to advance northwards, Greene’s irregulars harassed the British in support of his few regulars. They fought delaying actions which ultimately made the British advance impossible to sustain.

There were clear signs that the new developments in Europe were changing the balance of power hitherto so favourable to the steppe empires. Nomad warfare, based on speed and light weaponry, did not foster the development of gunpowder weapons. However, the peoples who created the steppe empires had always shown remarkable adaptability. Ottoman armies in the sixteenth century established a real lead in weapons and organisation over their western neighbours, while the Manchu eagerly took up gunpowder in their conquest of China. India produced magnificent firearms. There was no inherent reason why these great empires should not respond to the European challenge. That they failed was due to the chance factor that from the second half of the eighteenth century, for very different reasons, all of them were going into political decline.

1711 – Peter on the Pruth

The Ottoman standing army was formidable: by 1670 there were about 50,000 janissaries, 14,000 regular cavalry and 8,000 men in the artillery corps. The system of supply was far in advance of any army in Europe. But the Ottomans were challenged by Austria in the Danube valley and the Balkans, by Persia in the east and by Russia on the southern steppe. Their decisive weakness was the decline of the janissaries. By the end of the sixteenth century they had become a praetorian guard, and they overthrew the sultan Osman II (1617–22) when he proposed to replace them. By the eighteenth century they were becoming demilitarised. To save on cost the Ottomans permitted janissaries to undertake civilian work, which gradually dominated their lives. An increasingly small percentage of them were ever mobilised for war, but they were all tax-exempt in respect of their ‘military’ status. As a result the janissaries became political soldiers whose only military value was ceremonial, but their integration into the political factions at the court made it impossible to destroy them or to reduce their privileges even though their nominal numbers were increasing. Some janissaries were permitted to acquire military lands (timars) in the provinces to where they and other gentry increasingly diverted funds from the central government. The decay of the janissaries forced the sultans to raise new infantry and cavalry regiments, but because of the reduction in central income and the burden of paying the janissaries, the new troops did not form a standing force, so that increasingly the empire was dependent on raw and half-trained soldiery. The artillery corps also suffered from under-investment so that it was unable to modernise. These disturbing trends took some time to become apparent and so great was the Ottoman lead in military organisation that in 1711 they routed Peter the Great’s army at the Pruth, and as late as 1739 recovered Belgrade from the Austrians and threw back a Russian advance towards the Black Sea, forcing them to abandon their new Black Sea fleet and its bases.

But the decay of the janissaries and the under-investment in artillery weakened the Ottoman army, while the Russians and the Austrians were learning from the European wars. In 1770 a Russian army of about 40,000 destroyed over 100,000 Ottomans at the battle of Kartal and the ensuing treaty of Küçük Kaynarca ratified the Russian advance to the Black Sea and the permanent subjugation of the Tatars. By 1791 Austria controlled Belgrade and the Russians were in Bucharest. As a result, in 1792 the Sultan devised his ‘New Order’ (Nizam-i), bringing in French soldiers to train new regiments on the European model. The janissary opposition was supported by popular dislike of new taxes to pay for the military reforms and by provincial resentments which sparked local revolts. By 1797, however, the French held the Ionian islands and in 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt, curtailing efforts at military reform. England and France then proceeded to dispute control of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean with little reference to its nominal ruler at Constantinople. Such was the price of ‘asymmetry’, failure to keep up with the European arms race.

In India the Mughals, another steppe power, declined sharply after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. He had rejected the policy of tolerance towards the Hindu majority, and the strength of Islamic fundamentalism embittered tensions at the courts of his successors who were in any case much less capable men, creating widespread discontent. In 1739 Nadir Shah of Persia sacked Delhi with an immense slaughter and in 1756 Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan repeated the performance. Within India there were plenty of possible successor states, notably the Maratha Confederacy, the Sikh Confederacy and Bengal which had long enjoyed good government under a line of independent nawabs (governors); in the south, Mysore had great potential. Amongst the European trading companies the British were the most powerful with outposts at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. They were, however, rivalled by the French with stations at Chandannagar and Pondicherry, while the Portuguese and Dutch also had enclaves. All these companies had private armies backed up by fleets, but a strong power could have played them off against one another. What was lacking was just such a powerful local authority, and after the Seven Years War the British were much stronger than the French. Marathas, and Sikhs, could be militarily dangerous, but they were never really united and were quite distinct from Muslim Mysore. The British, by contrast, displayed a solidarity which impressed locals.

And they had a powerful motive for intervention. The East India Company had very high costs which often exceeded income. As Mughal power declined, the acquisition of jagirs, assignments of district revenues, was becoming a major and highly profitable business. So grabbing the right to collect taxes was an obvious path to riches. In 1756 the Nawab of Bengal quarrelled with the British and seized Calcutta: many of his British prisoners, including women and children, were imprisoned in a badly overcrowded dungeon and perished in what became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The British under Clive quickly reconquered Calcutta, and then at Plassey on 23 June 1757 their army of 3,000 faced the Nawab with 50,000. Clive bribed many of the Nawab’s supporters so that the army melted away, enabling the Company to appoint a puppet ruler. Of Clive’s troops, over 2,000 were local soldiers or sepoys and only about 1,000, including the gunners, were Europeans. At Buxar in 1764 a Company army of 7,000 with less than 1,000 British, triumphed over 30,000 enemies because, according to their commander, Hector Munro, they had ‘regular discipline and strict obedience to orders’. By 1773 the British had taken over as rulers of Bengal and a number of other small states. This was not a merely military triumph; many of the local notables favoured the stability of British rule, but the recruitment of the local soldiery, and their training in modern methods of war, was the prerequisite for success.

The Indian powers were keenly aware of the need to develop comparable discipline and methods, and as a result the British suffered many setbacks in their path to empire. It took four wars lasting until 1804 to subdue Mysore, while the three Maratha wars ended only in 1818. The Sikhs under Ranjit Singh created a powerful empire of the Punjab centred on Lahore. Their army was trained and officered by experienced French soldiers and equipped with modern artillery which hitherto had largely been a British monopoly. Succession disputes on Ranjit’s death in 1839 opened the way for British intervention, but it was only after two costly wars that the Sikhs were finally annexed in 1849. The British domination of India owed much to skilful diplomacy, which resulted in a network of princely states whose rulers agreed to collaborate. The merchants of the Indian cities came to see the Company as a force for stability. The multiplicity of states in eighteenth-century India had created a great market for soldiers, and the Company could offer well-paid and successful service, in effect cornering the market, to create a powerful sepoy army. British dominance rested on victory brought about by successful military methods. The surging armies of light cavalry which had so often been the key to victory in the northern plains were replaced by disciplined lines of infantry supported by artillery and smaller cavalry units. The European way of war had clearly displaced that of the steppe people. The native powers, despite their different culture, espoused these new methods enthusiastically, but Indian political units proved to be fissiparous and no single one of them was quite strong enough quite consistently enough to survive. This was not a case of ‘asymmetry’ in the military sense, but of political weakness.

The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior I

The Peloponnesian War ended in 404 and closed out the fifth century with a surprise attack. Lysander, the Spartan, tricked the Athenians at Aegospotami, by attacking their vessels at a regular hour and then calling off his fleet. Once this had become an established procedure, the Athenians dropped their guard after the Spartans dispersed. Then, when most of the Athenians had scattered according to their usual pattern, he returned, attacked and slew the rest, and captured all their vessels. The fourth century was thus ushered in with the defeat of the Athenian Empire and a Spartan hegemony that took its place and lasted until the Battle of Leuctra in 371. Sparta found itself engulfed in the so-called Corinthian war from 395 until 387 against a coalition of four allied states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos, which were initially backed by Persia. Then the Boeotian or Theban war broke out in 378 as the result of a revolt in Thebes against Sparta; the war would last six years.

There was obviously no shortage of warfare in the fourth century, and all sides continued to fight with hoplites, but the conditions of military life were slowly changing. Gone was the era of short military campaigns that took place only during the summer after the harvest. Cities were now attacked by night, fighting took place year-round, and atrocities were committed against civilians. The prolongation of campaigns and a change in tactics set the stage for the professionalisation of Greek armies. Whereas hoplite warfare had not necessarily called for very elaborate training, the use of missiles and the tactics of staging ambushes required training at a higher technical level. When light-armed troops were utilised everything depended upon movement. Rapid changes of position, sudden strikes, speedy retreats and ambushes were all operations that needed to be carefully prepared with accurate intelligence. Because such operations had to be well directed and executed with speed and determination, it could mean training one’s own troops or hiring well-trained mercenaries.

The change from militiamen to paid fighters meant a change from amateurs to professional soldiers. Foreign mercenaries were expensive and could not usually be hired in large numbers, but citizens could be recruited and trained to perform the same specialised functions provided by foreign, light-armed mercenaries. Athens’ overseas expeditions in the fourth century were all carried out by mercenaries.

Light-Armed Troops and Peltasts

An increasingly important role was played by light-armed troops in the fourth century, and they became a significant factor in the conduct and the outcome of battles. Although hoplites mattered most in set battle on a large scale, war on land now had a place for other arms and other methods than those of the hoplite phalanx. Smaller tactical units gave a new manoeuvrability that had been impossible in traditional hoplite lines. These new troops became effective in gaining tactical advantage, usually through a sudden, surprise assault. Small striking forces became especially important in fifth-column operations.

There were several types of light troops, the most common being archers, slingers and peltast-javelin men.8 The peltasts became the most effective of the light-armed troops. Peltasts were a sort of mean between the extremes of heavy and light-armed men. They had all the mobility of light-armed troops, and yet sufficient offensive and defensive armour to cope, with a fair amount of success, with small bodies of hoplite troops (i.e. those not in set-piece battles). Using peltasts would increase the ability of Greek armies to stage surprise attacks and ambushes. The name peltast comes from the fact that they were armed with a pelte (Thracian shield). In place of a dagger, they might also carry a kind of scimitar, a curved sabre known as a machaira, which could be used to deal slashing blows. Peltasts were not much help in stopping a hoplite force head on; their main use was to protect the flanks of an advancing hoplite army against attacks from the light-armed troops of the enemy. The majority of Greek states had an organised body of light-armed troops. Athens was an exception until this was changed by commanders such as Iphicrates and Chabrias.

Although their weapons might seem simple, these light troops were specialist soldiers. Their way of fighting entailed a higher degree of specialisation than the relatively straightforward, spear-and-shield techniques of hoplites fighting in formation. The accurate use of missile weapons was a skill acquired and maintained only by regular and constant practice. For this reason, light-armed troops tended to be professionals. At first, they were foreign mercenaries recruited in Thrace, Crete and Rhodes; later, they were natives recruited locally from city-states. Athens was the first to transform some of the poorer citizens into light troops.

The Athenian general Iphicrates is credited by two ancient sources – Diodorus and Cornelius Nepos – with reforming the equipment of his hoplites. These military reforms have long been the subject of scholarly debate, but what is clear is that they were much better equipped to stage ambushes. Iphicrates did away with the large hoplite shield – the aspis – and replaced it with the smaller pelta. He also lengthened the sword (xiphous) and the spear (doratos). Of course, there were peltasts in use long before this time in other regions of Greece, but now the reform was coming to Athens.

The defeat of the Athenian hoplites by light-armed cavalry and peltasts at Spartolus, the successful defence by Acarnanian slingers of Stratus against Peloponnesian hoplites, or the destruction of Ambraciot hoplites by Amphilochian light-armed, not only reinforced the lessons learned from the experience in Aetolia and Sphacteria but also carried them still further. From the last phases of the Peloponnesian war and, continuing into the fourth century, armies began to contain significantly higher numbers of specialised troops than Classical ones had fielded. This included the growth of a corps of archers, the addition of light-armed troops, the rise of mercenary troops recruited largely from abroad, and the development of cavalry.

Generalisations about mercenary service can be misleading. It is commonly assumed that mercenary soldiers did not become a significant factor of Greek social and political history before the fourth century. In fact, however, Greek mercenary soldiers had been serving in armies of southeast Mediterranean powers since the Archaic Age. The reasons for soldiers becoming mercenaries and their terms of service vary. In Crete, for example, one would cite demographic developments and military traditions as well as socio-economic crisis. Another accusation that dogged military operations was that the systematic use of mercenaries encouraged a selfish inertness at home, a dangerous licentiousness in the free companies abroad, and that it diverted the energies of the ablest citizens from patriotic objects to the baser pursuit of plunder and military fame. The fact is, however, that soldiers did not take up this line of work because it was so lucrative. Service in places such as Persia and Egypt might be lucrative, but service in Greece proper was not. Soldiers in the fourth century accepted military service knowing that there was no money in it for them unless they looted, stole or won booty.

Hoplite Armour and Hamippoi

Another military innovation that occurred in the fourth century was the lightening of the hoplite panoply. Some hoplites were still sporting extensive metal armour in the mid-fourth century, but the overall trend of the Classical period seems to have been a progressive lightening of hoplite armour. This made hoplites more mobile and thus better able to cope with the challenges of difficult terrain, enemy skirmishers and ambushes. Lighter panoplies were also cheaper. Konrad Kinzel suggests that this enabled more citizens to equip themselves as hoplites and enjoy the attendant political status that went with this type of fighting. But were these troops really hoplites any more? Nick Sekunda also describes the shift in the use of armour plate in the late fifth century. He seems to think that armour all but disappeared as the Spartans were depicted wearing only a pilos helmet and tunic, no cuirass, greaves, etc. and Boeotian hoplites were all but naked. Does this indicate a change in battlefield tactics? The availability of materials? And were these soldiers still considered ‘hoplites’, i.e. heavy infantry? It certainly contributed to them being more mobile and able to counter attacks by light-armed soldiers.

Another military innovation of the fourth century was the introduction of hamippoi, a type of light-infantry corps that ran behind cavalrymen. The hamippoi were trained to fight alongside the cavalrymen. They would go into battle holding on to the tails and manes of the cavalry horses. Hamippoi were particularly useful in a straight cavalry fight, where they would hack at the enemy horsemen. One of their signature manoeuvres was to slip underneath the enemy horse and rip its belly open with a dagger. This certainly suggests that service in the hamippoi was not for the faint-hearted. In his pamphlet On the Duties of the Hipparch, Xenophon recommends that the Athenians raise a corps of such men from among the exiles and other foreigners in Athens, who had special reason to be bitter against the enemy. Xenophon saw their value as being able to deliver a surprise as he points out that they could be hidden among and behind taller mounted troops.

Hamippoi were first mentioned serving in the forces of the Syracusan tyrant Gelon, where his 2,000 cavalry were accompanied by an equal number of hippodromoi psiloi or psiloi who run alongside the cavalry. Hamippoi are found in the Boeotian army during the Peloponnesian war. When the Spartan army was reorganised some time after the Battle of Mantinea in 418, the 600 skiritai were not folded into the ranks of the morai but were converted into the hamippoi and fought alongside the 600 cavalry.

In short, as the fifth century progressed into the fourth, the trend was to lighten the armour of the hoplites and add soldiers from the lower classes, who could perform various new duties that required greater speed and manoeuvrability. This made ambushing more difficult and less likely if each side had mobile troops that could improvise.

The Generals in the Fourth Century

The need to develop specialised, light-armed troops encouraged the rise of professional generalship in the fourth century. The proper handling of such troops required something more than amateur leadership. Fourth-century generals had to recruit different types of soldiers, who used different types of weapons and tactics. W. K. Pritchett dedicates a chapter of the second volume of his comprehensive work, The Greek State at War, to this new breed of general. Their careers were made possible by the changing political and military circumstances, and new operating conditions dictated some new fighting techniques. The military commanders in the late fifth and early fourth centuries had to conduct military operations more and more independently, relying on their own skill and talent. They developed increasingly strong ties with their army rather than just their polis. The independence of fourth-century commanders was a function of long-term service abroad and of operating independently of their home authorities. How much freedom they enjoyed in the field can probably never be precisely determined, but those who were elected or appointed to office by the larger city-states seem to have discharged their functions with as much loyalty as similar officials in the fifth century.

Another motivation for the increased use of novel techniques and stratagems was that fourth-century military forces were sent out without being provided with money. The generals were expected to raise funds by plunder, by contributions from allies or even by foreign service. They and their troops seem to have had unlimited permission to plunder the enemy’s country. In the fifth century, mercenaries had been dismissed when the state lacked funds, but conditions had greatly changed in the fourth century. A great number of the stratagems that are collected in Polyaenus and assigned to Athenian generals of the fourth century have to do with the raising of money to pay their troops. Six of the stratagems preserved in Polyaenus on Jason of Pherae, for example, deal with means for securing funds.

Even with these new troops, staging an ambush was no easier to accomplish in the fourth century than it was in the fifth. Naturally, it was best done with soldiers who were trained by their leaders in the skills needed for such operations. This is where the light-armed troops, especially peltasts, excelled. Light-armed troops, unlike hoplites, were trained to be highly responsive and flexible. They had to be able to close with the enemy and kill quickly. Light infantrymen could be used to destroy the enemy on his own ground, make the best of initiative, stealth and surprise, infiltration, ambush and night operations. Iphicrates trained his light-armed troops by staging fake ambushes, fake assaults, fake panics and fake desertions so his men would be ready if the real thing happened. Light infantrymen were not tacticians; they could not respond mechanically to a set of conditions on a battlefield with a pre-determined action like a phalanx. Whoever led the ambush had to know how to use initiative, understand intent, take independent action, analyse the field of operations, collect intelligence and make rapid decisions. Initiative meant bold action and often involved risks. Initiative by the tactical leader may have been independent of what higher commanders wanted done to the enemy. The men such leaders worked with were soldiers trained to fend for themselves through hardship and risk in hostile, uncompromising terrain. Such operations built a greater degree of teamwork and skill than other types of infantry formations as a result of the stress put on adaptability, close-combat skills and independent action.

Fourth-Century Ambush

Greek literature in the fourth century contains much more information on ambush than its fifth-century counterpart. Even didactic works such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, while wholly removed from the context of real events, give lessons about commanding a Greek army. The ambush against the forces of Gadatas42 is a classic use of clandestine communications and the laying of an ambush among a cluster of small villages. We can also see a classic deception operation, where soldiers are arrayed along with the baggage train and the women to make their force seem larger than it is. Any enemy attack would have to make a wider circuit around them and thereby thin out their own lines.

We cannot always be sure of the dates or even the historicity of certain stratagems, but they all seem to describe generic situations that crop up again and again. One of the most common ways to stage an ambush, for example, was to attack an army on the march. Polyaenus gives an undated example of the detection of such an ambush. While leading his army, Tissamenus saw many birds flying above a particular place, but not settling on the ground, and he concluded that they shrank from settling because they feared men lying in ambush. After investigating the spot, he attacked and cut down the Ionians who were waiting in ambush. This is a much repeated story, with several Roman commanders using the same tactic.

Another piece of good advice was to be ready for an ambush whether you were expecting one or not. Polyaenus tells a story about Arxilaidas the Laconian who, around 370/69, was about to travel a suspicious road with his army. Pretending he had advance intelligence which he did not, he ordered them to advance prepared for battle because the enemy lay in ambush. But by chance a large ambush was discovered. He attacked first and easily killed all those in ambush, outsmarting them by his advance preparations.

Playing on the known habits of barbarian tribes was another common practice. Polyaenus relates several stratagems used by Clerachus against the Thracians, which presumably date from a time just prior to his entering the service of Cyrus. All illustrate the frequency of Thracian nocturnal attacks. This practice, according to Polyaenus, enabled Clearchus the Spartan to set an ambush for one of the local Thracian tribes, the Thrynians. He withdrew a little distance with a number of soldiers, and ordered them to hit their shields, as was the Thracian habit, putting all the Greeks in camp on alert. When the Thracians attacked, they expected to find everything in camp peaceful and quiet, but the Greeks were ready for them and they were beaten off with severe losses. When the Thracians sent envoys to negotiate a peace, Clearchus had the bodies of a few dead Thracians cut up and strung from trees. When the envoys asked about the meaning of the spectacle, they were told that a meal for Clearchus was being prepared! Such antics as these caused people to question the ethical aspects of Clearchus’ conduct, but his military qualities are beyond dispute. He displayed great military insight in critical situations and this meant using whatever tactics worked.

The instances of surprise attacks, night marches and ambushes gathered in this chapter show how common ambushes had become in Greek warfare. This included not only light-armed troops but also hoplites being used for manoeuvres off the regular battlefield. Against hoplites, the function of peltasts was so often harassment, and the night was the most advantageous time. Isocrates equated peltasts with pirates.

Pursuing a fleeing army was a tactic that also became more common because of the mobility of light-armed troops. Plutarch tells us that the Spartans thought it ignoble for the Greeks to kill men who were fleeing, and adds that this policy made enemies more inclined to run away than fight. The practical reason for doing this, however, was not a lack of morality but rather a tactic to avoid the kind of thing that happened after the Battle of Haliartus in 395. The Thebans pursued the Spartans into the hills, where the Spartans immediately turned on them and attacked back with javelins and stones. They killed more than 200 Thebans. Practicality played a bigger part in Greek military policy than moralising.

The shock over the effectiveness of these new soldiers and their new tactics became apparent when a detachment of peltasts won a brilliant victory over Spartan soldiers at Lechaeum in 394. The commanders Callias and Iphicrates, looking down from the walls of Corinth, could see an approaching mora of Spartan soldiers. The Spartans were not numerous and were not accompanied by any light-armed or cavalry. The Athenans commanders determined that it would be safe to stage an ambush with their own peltasts. They could aim their javelins at the Spartans’ unshielded side when they passed. Callias stationed his hoplites in the ambush not far from the city walls, while Iphicrates led the peltasts in an attack, knowing if they lost they could retreat more quickly. The Spartan commander ordered a group of the youngest soldiers to pursue the assailants, but when they did so they caught no one, since they were hoplites pursuing peltasts at a distance of a javelin’s cast. Besides, Iphicrates had given orders to the peltasts to retire before the hoplites got near them. Then, when the Spartans were returning from their pursuit, out of formation because each man had pursued as swiftly as he could, Iphicrates’ troops turned around and not only did those in front again hurl javelins at the Spartans but others on the flank also ran and attacked them on their unprotected side.

Having lost many of their best men, with their returning cavalry’s support, the Spartans again attempted to pursue the peltasts. Yet when the peltasts gave way, the cavalry bungled the attack by not pursuing the enemy at full speed but, rather, kept an even pace with the hoplites in both their attack and their retreat. Finally, not knowing what to do, the Spartans gathered together on a small hill about two stades distant from the sea and about sixteen or seventeen stades from Lechaeum. When the Spartans in Lechaeum realised what was happening, they got into boats and sailed alongside the shore until they were opposite the hill. The men on the hill were now at a loss as to what to do; they were suffering dreadfully, and dying, while unable to harm the enemy in any way, and in addition they now saw the Athenian hoplites coming at them. At this point they gave way and fled, some throwing themselves into the sea, while a few made it to safety to Lechaeum with the cavalry. The total dead from all the skirmishes and the flight was enormous; the Spartans had lost half their number in a skirmish with Iphicrates’ peltasts.

Iphicrates, the ambusher, had to beware of ambushes himself. Polyaenus reports that the Spartan harmost (military governor) set an ambush that caught Iphicrates off-guard while he was marching towards the city of Sicyon in 391. Iphicrates immediately retreated by a different, short, trackless route. He selected his strongest troops, fell on the ambushers suddenly and killed them all. He admitted that he made a mistake by not reconnoitring the area, but he exploited his prompt suspicion of an ambush well by quickly attacking the ambushers.

Iphicrates won several successes in the Corinthian war, such as the recapture of Sidous, Krommyon and Oinoe from the Spartans. Several scholars have seen the similarities in the tactics used by Iphicrates’ peltasts and those that the Aetolians had used against Demosthenes, or that Demosthenes in turn used against the Spartans on Sphacteria. The success of Iphicrates was a suggestive sign of the future which might be in store for the professional peltast. The fact that they could defeat the Spartans boosted their ego and was a blow against Spartan prestige. As Parke describes it:

This success of the peltasts … was sufficient to make Iphicrates’ name forever as a general. Moreover it conferred on this type of light-armed troops a reputation for deadliness in battle which they had never before enjoyed in popular estimation. To this new esteem may be attributed the frequent appearance of peltasts in all armies, especially in the Athenian, during the next half-century. Henceforth, they become the typical form of light-armed troops and superseded the less-clearly specified, earlier varieties.

Ambushing, at what some commentators consider ‘inappropriate times’, now became a habit. Of course, what other time than ‘inappropriate’ could an ambush be? Several surprise attacks are attributed to Iphicrates by Frontinus. In one, Iphicrates attacked a Spartan camp at an hour when both armies were accustomed to forage for food and wood.

Another ambush on which Xenophon provides fairly detailed information took place in 388 in the Hellespontine region. The Spartans sent Anaxibius to Abydos as harmost (military governor) to relieve Dercylidas. He immediately took the offensive against the Athenians and their allies. The Athenians feared Anaxibius would find a way to weaken their position, and sent Iphicrates with eight ships and 1,200 peltasts to the Hellespont. First the two commanders just sent raiding parties against each other, using irregulars. Then Iphicrates crossed over by night to the most deserted portion of the territory of Abydos, and set an ambush in the mountains. He ordered his fleet to sail northwards along the Chersonese in order to deceive Anaxibius into believing they had left the area. Anaxibius suspected nothing and marched back to Abydos, but made his march in a rather careless fashion. Iphicrates’ men in the ambush waited until the vanguard of hoplites from Abydos had reached the plain, and at the moment when the rearguard consisting of Anaxibius’ Spartans started coming down from the mountains they sprang the ambush and rushed to attack the rearguard. Anaxibius’ army formed a very long and narrow column and it was practically impossible for his other troops to hasten uphill to the aid of the rearguard. He stayed where he was and fought to the death with twelve other Spartans. The rest of the Spartans fell in flight. Only 150 hoplites from the vanguard still managed to get away but only because they had been in the front of the column and were nearer to Abydos. This makes the probable percentage of losses in the middle of the column somewhere between that of the totally destroyed rearguard and the twenty-five per cent of the vanguard. Iphicrates went back to the Chersonese with a successful operation behind him. This carefully planned ambush, and indeed Iphicrates’ victory, have been compared to a successful guerrilla operation. With the defeat and death of Anaxibius, the danger for Athens of Sparta getting supremacy in the Hellespont was over. Iphicrates continued to operate against the Spartans in these parts until the Peace of Antalcidas, after which he entered the service of the Thracian kings. When Iphicrates left for the Hellespont in 388, Chabrias succeeded him as commander of the peltasts in Corinth. Because he had served under Thrasyboulus in the Hellespontine region, he was probably trained in the use of peltasts.