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.

The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior II

Route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand.

Xenophon and the Anabasis

The Greeks also came to realise that hoplite warfare, although well adapted to the peculiar circumstances of fighting within their own country, was not capable by itself of facing circumstances of warfare outside Greece, or even in the lesser-known parts of Greece itself. One of the few mercenary armies about whose composition we have exact information is Xenophon’s Ten Thousand. Xenophon’s Anabasis provides an unparalleled wealth of information on Greek mercenary service overseas in the fourth century, and how mixed continents of Greek hoplites and peltasts worked together. The tactics and fighting methods of the peltasts in the service of Athens and Sparta differed in no way from those of the peltasts on the march of the Ten Thousand.

The Peloponnesian war had produced large numbers of exiles who were forced to hire out as mercenaries, and ten thousand such soldiers found themselves recruited by Cyrus in his bid for the throne of his brother Artaxerxes. Many of Cyrus’ troops had a background in non-traditional combat. Non-hoplites including peltasts, archers, slingers and cavalry made up almost a fifth of Xenophon’s army. Xenophon’s men developed a great proficiency at night marching, and the light-armed enabled them to set up ambushes and pursue a fleeing enemy. On the defensive side, the use of light-armed and peltasts allowed Xenophon’s army to safeguard its routes and protect against ambushes set for them.

Because Xenophon and his men were travelling through unknown territory, one use of ambush was to capture intelligence assets: ‘When the enemy was giving us trouble, we set an ambush. It allowed us for one thing to catch our breath, but besides, we killed a number of them, and we took special pains to get some prisoners for this very purpose – of being able to employ them as guides, men who knew the country.’

We see the intelligence gathering structure of the Ten Thousand very clearly in Xenophon’s Anabasis. After having quartered their troops in local villages, Democrates of Temnus was sent with a body of troops during the night to the mountains. The Greeks had heard that late-arriving stragglers had seen fires, suggesting a Persian presence. Democrates was sent because he had the reputation of having made accurate reports in many similar situations. Intelligence gatherers need to be brave, able to act alone without panicking and be accurate in their assessments. Indeed, Democrates is described as being able to discern what ‘facts were facts’ and what ‘fictions were fictions’.

When Democrates returned, he reported that he had not seen fires, but rather he had captured an intelligence asset – a man with a Persian bow and quiver, and a battle axe of the sort that Amazons carry. When this man was interrogated about where he came from, he replied that he was a Persian and was on his way to the camp of Tiribazus to get provisions. They asked him for information about the size of Tiribazus’ force and for what purpose it had been gathered. The prisoner replied that Tiribazus had his own forces plus Chalybian and Taochian mercenaries, and that he himself had made his preparations with the idea of taking a position at the next mountain pass, which had the only road through which the Greeks could be attacked. Once the generals heard this information, they decided to bring their troops together in one camp. They left a garrison behind under the command of Sophaenetus the Stymphalian and set out at once using the captured asset as a guide. As soon as they crossed the mountains, the peltasts pushed ahead of the hoplites and charged the enemy camp. The Persians were taken by surprise and simply fled. Some were killed, and twenty horsemen were captured as was Tiribazus’ tent with its silver-footed couches, drinking cups and his staff. Once the hoplites heard what had happened, they thought it better to go back to their own camp before it could be set upon by the Persians. They sounded the recall trumpet and went home.

We also see this type of operation when light troops set an ambush and captured ‘some of the stealing rascals who are following us’. From these fellows they learned about passages through the mountains. Knowing the geography was of crucial importance since attacking the Greeks in ravines or when crossing over bridges was a common Persian tactic.

Xenophon planned an operation that depended on taking the enemy by surprise. The mercenaries were faced with an enemy holding a mountain pass. Since the bulk of the mountain was apparently undefended, Xenophon suggested a night attack on an unoccupied section of it as a diversionary tactic. He goes on to say that in his opinion such a tactic would be perfectly feasible, since they would be neither overseen nor overheard.

When faced again with the difficulty that a pass was occupied, this time by the Chalybians, the Greeks mounted a night operation. Xenophon proposed that the mountain tops dominating the pass should be occupied by a separate detachment, which they did at night using hoplites and light-armed. The following day when the Chalybians marched up the road to the pass, the Greeks on the mountain top attacked them by surprise. Most of the Chalybians were blocking the road, but part of them turned to fight the Greeks higher up. The Greek hoplites and light-armed defeated their adversaries and gave chase. Meanwhile, the peltasts, who acted as shock troops, rushed towards the Chalybians in the pass. Normally in this type of ambush, hand-to-hand fighting would ensue, but when the Chalybians saw that their men in the mountains had been defeated they fled, leaving the pass free for the Greeks.

Not only was setting ambushes useful, but the mere faking of an ambush could be effective. As the Greek army descended to Trapezus, a Greek city in Colchian territory on the Black Sea, they were afraid of being pursued by the tribe of the Drilai. They pretended to set an ambush. Ten Cretan archers, commanded by a Mysian, attracted the attention of the enemy by flashing bronze peltai in the sun. The Drilai, thinking this was an ambush, kept at a safe distance. When the Greek army had gotten far enough away, the Mysian received the signal to run with his men at full speed to join them. Although the Mysian himself was wounded running down the road, his companions, who had sought cover in the wood bordering the road, carried him with them. The Cretan archers kept shooting at the enemy from a safe distance and thus reached the safety of the Greek camp.

After a voyage along the coast, the Greeks arrived at Heraclea, a Greek city on the border with Bithynia. Here the army split up. The Arcadians sailed straight to the Greek port of Calpe, disembarked at night and advanced against some Bithynian villages about thirty stadia inland. The Thracian Bithynians were completely taken by surprise and a large number of people were captured along with their cattle. It should be noted that these raids were done by hoplites with Thracian peltasts on the defensive.

While the Greeks were crossing to Europe, they enlisted with Seuthes, king of the Odrysian Thracians. Seuthes had been operating in the territory of the Thynians with a comparatively small army consisting of peltasts and horsemen. He feared a night attack from them, but with the Greek mercenaries he felt he could launch a surprise attack on them instead. At Xenophon’s request, the hoplites marched at the head during the night, followed by the peltasts. Seuthes brought up the rear with his horsemen, instead of riding in front. At daybreak, Seuthes and his horsemen rode out ahead to reconnoitre; he wanted to stop any wayfarers from warning the villagers. The rest of the Greeks waited, and followed the tracks of his horses. Since they found no footsteps in the snow on the mountains, they assumed they were not being tracked. Seuthes launched his surprise attack on the villages over the mountains. The initial surprise attack was successful. The Thynians, however, after being driven from their village, returned at night and attacked the Greeks. They threw javelins inside the houses, tried to break off the points of the Greeks’ spears with clubs, and set the wooden houses on fire. At dawn, the reassembled troops of Seuthes and Xenophon advanced back to the mountains. As the Thynians begged for mercy, it was left to Xenophon to decide whether or not he wished to take revenge on the Thynians for their night attack.

On a number of occasions the decision was made to capture a position by craft rather than by a pitched battle. Xenophon records a jocular exchange where the Spartans are accused of being trained as thieves from childhood, and they in turn accused the Athenians of being thieves of public funds. If the comparison of military trickery to stealing reveals any moral qualms on the part of officers of the Ten Thousand about using such tactics, it never prevented them from using them.

Most of the rules of ambush and surprise remained the same in the fourth century. Weather could still thwart even the best night operation. Such was the case in a night operation planned by Thrasyboulus in 403. He set out with seventy followers from Thebes and occupied the fort at Phyle, a fortress with a commanding position. The Thirty Tyrants set out from Athens to retake the fort, bringing with them 3,000 hoplites and the cavalry. The weather was fine when they set out, but heavy snow fall fell during the night. Thrasyboulos saw it as a direct intervention of the gods on his behalf. The subsequent Athenian retreat was impeded by the snow, and descending from their rocky fortress the exiles inflicted further losses on their opponents, and they captured a large part of the baggage.

Night Marches and Assaults

Night marches and surprise attacks continued to be common in the fourth century. Indeed, it was said that once the Arcadians decided to march somewhere, nothing could prevent them – not nightfall nor storms, nor distance nor even mountains. In 390, an important military event occurred when Iphicrates invaded the territory of Phlius. He set an ambush while plundering the territory with a few followers. The men from the city came out against him in an unguarded way, but he killed so many of them that the Phliasians, who had previously rejected having Spartans within their walls, sent for the Spartans and put the city and the citadel under their protection. Thus a previously democratic Phlius that had displayed both political and military dissidence towards Sparta in the late 390s now remained loyal to Sparta for the rest of the Corinthian war.

In 378, the Thebans, afraid that they would be the only ones at war with Sparta, hatched a plot. Pelopidas set up an ambush as a deception in order to deceive the Spartans into attacking the Athenians. He and Gorgias chose Sphodrias, a Spartan, who was a good soldier but had weak judgement and was full of senseless ambition. They sent to him one of their friends who was a merchant with money, and planted the idea that he should seize Piraeus, attacking it unexpectedly when the Athenians were off their guard. It was set up as a night attack. Sphodrias was persuaded, took his soldiers and invaded Attica by night. Sphodrias underestimated the distance and by dawn found he was only at Eleusis. There, the hearts of his soldiers failed them and his design was exposed. Plutarch says they saw light streaming from certain sanctuaries at Eleusis and were filled with ‘shuddering fear’. Having lost the advantage of surprise, they turned back and abandoning the attack ravaged the countryside a little, then retired ingloriously to Thespiae. This once again illustrates the necessity of using brave men for night missions.

Surprise can be deadly even when it is not planned. In 378, both the Athenians and the Spartans were operating with a contingent of peltasts in their service. The Spartan Cleombrotus marched with his troops to Plataea, taking a different route from the one through Eleutherae, which the Athenian Chabrias was guarding with his peltasts. In the Cithaeron mountains, Cleombrotus’ vanguard, made up of peltasts, came upon a contingent of 150 of Chabrias’ peltasts. The latter were taken completely by surprise and nearly all of them were killed.

Using peltasts is not a silver bullet, nor does it give one a monopoly over the use of surprise. Once a surprise attack is used, your enemies copy your tactics. In the spring of 376, Cleombrotus marched again with an army to Boeotia. Once again his peltasts went ahead to occupy the tops of the Cithaeron mountains overlooking the road. This time, however, the area had already been occupied by the Thebans and the Athenians, who were more alert than Chabrias’ peltasts had been two years before. When Cleombrotus’ peltasts reached the top of the mountains and were at close quarters with the enemy, the latter emerged from the ambush and killed about forty fleeing peltasts. Because of this disaster, Cleombrotus believed it was impossible to enter Boeotia, and therefore turned back without having effected his purpose.

Aeneas Tacticus reports a particularly deadly ambush in 376, in which failure to learn from one set of ambushes caused another set. The Triballi, a tribe from the area of mid-Danubian Thrace, made an inroad into the country of the Abderites and set ambushes, then started raiding the country around the city. The Abderites held them in contempt because of previous successful operations against them and made a hasty attack from the city with great force and eagerness. But the Triballi drew them into the ambushes. On that particular occasion, it is said that more men perished in a shorter time than had ever been the case, at least from a single city of similar size. The others, not having learned of the destruction of their compatriots who went out first, rushed to the rescue, cheering each other on, but fell into the same ambushes until the city was bereft of men.

Xenophon reports a night march with a double layer of secrecy in 371, during the truce brokered by Jason of Pherae after the Battle of Leuctra. When news had been brought of the truce between Sparta and Thebes, the polemarchs announced to their men that they should all be packed up after dinner because they intended to set out during the night in order to ascend Mt Cithaeron at dawn. Right after the men finished dinner, however, and before they could take any rest, the polemarch ordered them to set out, and as soon as it was dusk they led them away, taking the road through Creusis, because they were relying more on secrecy than on the truce. They proceeded with very great difficulty because they were withdrawing at night, in fear, and by a hard road, but arrived at Aegosthena in the territory of Megara.

In 370, relations between Orchomenus and Mantineia were strained. Sparta supported Orchomenus and dispatched Polytropus as general to Arcadia with 1,000 citizen hoplites and 500 Argive and Boeotian refugees. Agesilaus waited for Polytropus to join him with his mercenaries. The Arcadians marched against them and Polytropus fought off the attackers but perished in the fight. Diodorus estimated the number dead at 200. If horsemen from Phlius had not arrived just in time to stop the Mantineans from pursuing them, many of the mercenaries would also have been killed. Agesilaus thought the mercenaries would not join him now that they had been defeated, so he marched on Mantinea without them. Armies were sometimes easily surprised even by their own allies. A few days later, after a night movement, the horsemen from Phlius and the mercenaries who had slipped past Mantinea appeared in the Spartan camp early in the morning, causing great confusion at first because the Spartans thought they were the enemy.

In 370, the Thebans invaded Laconia. They crossed the Eurotas river by Amyclae and after four days the Thebans and Eleians advanced in full force along with the cavalry from the Phocians, Thessalians and Locrians who were serving in this expedition. Although the Spartan cavalry formed against them, they were very few in number. To help counter this imbalance, however, the Spartans had set an ambush with about 300 of the younger hoplites, which they hid in the Temple of the Sons of Tyndareus (The Dioscuri). When the Spartan cavalry charged, these men too sprang their attack and forced the enemy back. Eventually, the Thebans decided not to make another assault on the city, so departed on the road to Helos and then Gytheium, where the Spartans had their dockyards. The ambush gave the Spartans enough of an edge to achieve their objective of saving the city.

Night operations became a necessity in 366 during the Theban invasion of Phlius. The Phliasians survived by buying supplies from the Corinthians. But they had to provide a military escort for those who had to pass through enemy lines to get the supplies. While Chares was in Phlius, they asked him to convey their non-combatants (proxenoi) into Pellene. Having left the men at Pellene, they then went to the market, made their purchases and loaded up as many of the animals as they could, and departed by night trying in this way to avoid ambush by the enemy. Xenophon praises their endurance and patience, and admires them for pulling off this dangerous night operation to bring supplies to their hard-pressed city.

Another night attack in 362 is related by several ancient historians. Two groups of Arcadians came to blows, each side sent for outside help. The Tegeans called in the Thebans under Epaminondas, and the Mantineans sought help from both Athens and Sparta. Epaminondas was advancing with his army not far from Mantinea when he learned from local inhabitants that the entire Spartan force was plundering the territory of Tegea. Supposing that Sparta was stripped of soldiers, Epaminondas planned a night attack and set out towards the city. He ordered his troops to take their supper at an early hour, and a little after nightfall led them out straight to Sparta.

The Spartan king Agesilaus, however, anticipating the cunning of Epaminondas (Diodorus) or being informed by a deserter (Polybius), made preparations for a defence. He sent out some Cretan runners and got word to the men he had left behind that the Boeotians would shortly appear in Sparta to sack the city. They should not fear because he himself would come as quickly as possible with his army to bring aid to them. According to Diodorus, Epaminondas set out at night and took the city (Sparta) at daybreak. Polybius says he took the city by surprise. Epaminondas was disappointed in his hope, but after breakfasting on the banks of the Eurotas and refreshing his troops after their hard march he continued on to Mantinea, which would be left without defenders because the Spartans had run home to defend their city. He once again organised a night march and reached Mantinea about midday and found it undefended.

This is an interesting story because Diodorus and Polybius have Epaminondas shown attacking at night. This is in contrast to Polyaenus, where Epaminondas is portrayed as cultivating a reputation for never attacking before sunrise. It is thus difficult to appraise the historical value of the stratagem, because the only attested example in the historians of Epaminondas’ activity by night in the Peloponnesus is his march to Sparta.

Assaults and Escapes from Walled Cities

Assaults and escapes from walled cities were already an important part of warfare at the end of the Peloponnesian war. There are numerous examples of deceptions and tricks, in particular in the assaults on cities, where peltasts were used to great advantage. Much activity, therefore, was expended in the fourth century assaulting cities, or gaining access by stealth.

Storming towns at night was often a successful tactic. In 408, King Agis of Sparta was in Decelea with his army when he learned that the best Athenian troops were engaged in an expedition with Alcibiades. He led his army on a moonless night to Athens with 28,000 infantry, one-half of whom were picked hoplites and the rest were light-armed troops. There were also attached to his army some 1,200 cavalry, of whom the Boeotians furnished 900 and the rest had been sent with him by the Peloponnesians. As he drew near the city, he came upon the outposts before they were aware of him and easily dispersed them because they were taken by surprise. He slew a few and pursued the rest within the walls.

In 405, Diodorus claims Dionysius of Syracuse covered a distance of 400 stades and arrived at the gates of Achradine in the middle of the night with 100 cavalry and 600 infantry. Finding the gate closed, he piled upon it reeds brought from the marshes and burned the gates. His troops entered the town and captured the cavalry trying to defend the city. They were gathered in the marketplace, surrounded and cut down. Then Dionysius rode through the city slaughtering anyone who resisted.

Later in 404, Dionysius of Syracuse treated with humanity the exiles who returned, wishing to encourage the rest to return to their native land too. To the Campanians, he awarded the gifts that were due and then dispatched them from the city, having regard to their fickleness. These made their way to Entella and persuaded the men of the city to receive them as fellow inhabitants, then they fell upon them at night, slew the men of military age, married the wives of the men with whom they had broken faith and possessed themselves of the city.

From the same book of Diodorus we have an example of gates being opened by treachery in 395 at Heraclea. Medius, the lord of Larissa in Thessaly, was at war with Lycophron, tyrant of Pherae. After getting reinforcements of Boeotians and Argives, Medius seized Pharsalus where there was a garrison of Spartans; he sold the inhabitants as booty. After this, the Boeotians and Argives parted company with Medius. They seized Heraclea in Trachis, and on being let in at night within the walls by sympathisers they put to the sword the Spartans whom they seized, but they allowed the other Peloponnesian allies to leave with their possessions, no doubt in an attempt to weaken the Spartan alliance.

Plutarch, in his Life of Pelopidas, reports a plot from 379 when Thebes was garrisoned by the Spartans, to open city gates and stage a surprise attack. The Theban exiles took twelve men disguised as hunters, in short cloaks and leading hunting dogs. They entered the city at different points during the day. The weather changed to wind and snow. They made their way to the house of Charon, where they were changing into their armour when a messenger came from the polemarchs summoning Charon. At first, they thought they had been discovered. While the storm continued, a messenger from the Athenians brought a letter with details of the plot to Archias (the polemarch?). Instead of reading it, Archias, who was drunk, put it under his pillow and went to sleep. When the time came for the attack, the exiles went out in two bands, one under Pelopidas and one under Charon. They broke into various houses and killed leaders, raided shops for arms and at the break of day had control of the city without ever having engaged the 1,500-man garrison. Even Plutarch says that it was not easy to name a case where such a small number of men, so destitute, have overcome enemies so numerous and powerful. The subsequent political change was momentous. This is a clear of example of ambush as a force multiplier.

Mercenary service in Sicily found its high point under tyrants such as Dionysius of Syracuse. We see him using them during the siege of the Siceli at Tauromenium. Dionysius took advantage of the winter storms when the area about the acropolis was filled with snow. He discovered that the Siceli were careless in their guard of the acropolis because of its strength and the unusual height of the wall, so he advanced on a moonless and stormy night against the highest sectors. After many difficulties, both because of the obstacles offered by the crags and because of the great depth of the snow, he occupied one peak, although his face was frosted and his vision impaired by the cold. Still he was able to break through to the other side and lead his army into the city. The attempt, however, still did not work. The Siceli stormed out against him and pushed out the troops of Dionysius. Dionysius himself was struck on the corselet in the flight, sent scrambling and barely escaped being taken alive. Since the Siceli pressed upon them from superior ground, more than 600 of Dionysius’ troops were slain and most of them lost their complete armour, while Dionysius himself saved only his corselet. After this disorder, the Acragantini and Messenians banished the partisans of Dionysius, asserted their freedom and renounced their alliance with the tyrant.

Diodorus reports that in 397, when Dionysius was besieging the Motyans, he made it a practice to sound the trumpet towards evening for the recall of his troops and break off the siege. So once he had accustomed the Motyans to this practice, the combatants on both sides retired as usual. He dispatched Archylus of Thurii with the élite troops, who waited until nightfall then placed ladders against the fallen houses. Using these to mount the walls, they seized an advantageous spot, where they admitted Dionysius’ troops. When the Motyans realised what was taking place, they rushed with all eagerness to the rescue, but they were too late. They fought fiercely but, in the end, the Sicilian Greeks wore down their opponents by the weight of their numbers.

In Rhegium in 393, the Carthaginians fled into the city after a loss of more than 800 men, while Dionysius withdrew for the time being to Syracuse; but after a few days he manned 100 triremes and set out against the Rhegians. Arriving unexpectedly by night before the city, he put fire to the gates and set ladders against the walls.

At Corinth in 392, Praxitas, the commander of a Spartan mora garrisoned at Sicyon, entered the long walls that connected Corinth to its port at Lechaeum, through a gate opened by the two Corinthian defectors, and he established a palisaded camp as they waited for reinforcements. On the second day, the Argives arrived in full strength along with the mercenaries under Iphicrates. Although outnumbered, the Spartans fought bravely, and then followed their victory with the taking of Lechaeum.

From Egypt in 362/1 we have the story of a night escape from a city. Having lost many men in their attack on the walls, the Egyptians then began to surround the city with a wall and a ditch, shutting in Agesilaus and his men. As the work was rapidly nearing completion by reason of the large number of workers, and the provisions in the city were exhausted, Tachos despaired of his safety, but Agesilaus, encouraging the men and attacking the enemy at night, unexpectedly succeeded in bringing all the men out safely.

Similarly, Diodorus reports an attack on the walls of Syracuse in 356/5. Nypsius, the commander of the mercenaries, wishing to renew the battle and retrieve the defeat with his army, which had been marshalled, during the night unexpectedly attacked the wall that had been constructed. And, finding that the guards had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor, he placed the ladders that had been constructed in case they were needed against the wall. The bravest of the mercenaries climbed on the wall with these, slaughtered the guards and opened the gates.

Another unsuccessful assault on a siege wall occurred in 357/6. Dionysius plied his mercenaries with strong wine and sent them on a dash against the siege wall around the acropolis. The attack was unexpected, and the barbarians, with great boldness and loud tumult, began to tear down the cross-wall and attack the Syracusans, so that no one dared to stand on the defensive, except the mercenaries of Dion, who first noticed the disturbance and came to the rescue.

Warfare in the Fourth Century

Despite the anecdotal form of many of our sources, we can see that warfare had changed in the fourth century. As G. T. Griffith pointed out many decades ago, it is not easy to imagine a time when soldiers were not a special class of men who made fighting their profession. The Greeks of the fifth century had no need for professional soldiers. The payment of a wage to fighting men ran contrary to the ideology of the citizen-soldier, i.e. hoplites. They were recruited from a class of men who could arm themselves and fight at their own expense. When Greek cities went to war, every man did what he could. As wars increased in number and intensity, however, the professionalisation of warfare followed. Thucydides writes that before the Peloponnesian war the Athenians devoted their bodies to their country. Later, patriotic enthusiasm would decrease and fighting was left to professional soldiers who received wages.

The use of public finance to pay soldiers transformed warfare by making it possible to mobilise more manpower for longer periods of time and so wage war on land and at sea with an intensity and persistence that had not been feasible in earlier generations. Military service became less and less remunerative especially because of the steep increase in the cost of living in the fourth century. From then on, wages had to be complemented with booty.

Athens had used mercenaries during the greater part of the fourth century and used them more freely than any other Greek city-state. Yet the Greeks were conscious of the incompatibility of their autonomy and the presence of foreign troops in a polis.

The rise of Hellenistic monarchies, combined with a large supply of mercenary soldiers available, meant that professionals and the techniques of war that they could bring with them would be many and varied. Battle became much more costly as the spirit of competition gave way to the desire for complete destruction. Wars were now made up of raids, commando attacks and guerrilla warfare whose heroes were peltasts and these techniques came to rival open combat.

There were always those who waxed poetic about the ‘fair and open battle’ of the past. Xenophon, in the Cyropaedia, has a character urge an attack upon a small and vulnerable group of enemy soldiers. Cyrus overruled him and said it would be better to wait for them all to assemble. If less than half of them are defeated, they will say the Greeks attacked because they feared to face the great mass of the enemy. If they do not feel defeated, there will be another battle. But is this really the Greek attitude towards fair play in war or a just nostalgic remembrance of times past when hoplite armies gathered their full forces on a plain, almost as if by appointment? Or, one might ask, what happened when the Greeks were faced with opponents who did not recognise the ‘rules of the game’? As the Athenians expanded their empire overseas, they found themselves fighting more frequently, in unfamiliar terrain as longer conflicts replaced seasonal and occasional clashes. Professionalism spurred on by the increase in scale, occurrence and duration of conflicts rendered operations more technical. Diversity of terrain favoured a new emphasis on cavalry and light infantry. It became necessary to co-ordinate different types of armed contingents and this made battles more complex than the head-on collisions of phalanxes. Mercenaries with professional skills, often recruited from non-Greeks, supplemented or replaced citizen levies. Generals did not just lead a charge; they had to out-think as well as out-fight the enemy.

Using light-armed troops and mercenaries for ambush was one of the strategies the Greeks adopted. As Griffith points out: ‘The mercenaries of the fourth century became standardised to a type, the type evolved by Iphicrates, i.e. the Iphicratean peltast.’ He believed they became so widespread that actual Thracians were driven from the market. There appears to be no mention by ancient authors of Thracian peltasts in the seventy years before Alexander. Griffith suggests that their disappearance was due to the improved Greek peltast.

Thus, when new circumstances arose, they demanded new experiments from the inventiveness of the Greeks. The Greeks had learned to make an efficient army suitable for service in other lands. Hoplites had to be supported by good light-armed troops and, if possible, by cavalry. The first half of the fourth century developed the military art along these lines, and the Greek hoplite force, in conjunction with these new groups using the tactics of surprise, speed and ambush, became one of the most effective military forces.

Fourth-century authors speak of deception, surprise and ambush constantly. It is clear from the works of Aeneas Tacticus that ambush was always considered a dangerous possibility. Aeneas assumes that ambushes will be a danger, and he recommends that defenders set their own ambushes. He tells a cautionary tale about how some officials used the citizens’ desire to ambush the enemy to bring in mercenaries and take over the city. He even recommends that defenders attack the invaders when they are drunk or when they are preparing dinner. He gives examples of disinformation leaked successfully to the enemy and anecdotes about tricks used to capture cities. He gives detailed instructions on how an army should sally from a town when enemy troops were in the surrounding area. He instructs that hoplites should leave town in separate formations in marching order since, if unordered groups leave in succession, there was a danger that each group would fall into an enemy ambush. Aeneas recommends that to avoid ambushes the available horsemen and light-armed precede the hoplites in order to reconnoitre and occupy the dominating positions in the area, so that the hoplites can be informed of the enemy’s movements in good time and hence avoid unexpected disasters.

Xenophon gives exactly the same advice about troop order. Both Aeneas and Xenophon were generals with extensive field experience. They were basing their advice on practice. It is not difficult to find examples. We see this when Agesilaus’ horsemen, during his campaign in Asia Minor, were riding to a hill in order to survey the terrain and they unexpectedly came upon Persian horsemen. With the order by which the horsemen and peltasts marched ahead followed by the hoplites, it is obvious that the peltasts and horsemen were always the first to engage with the enemy. Another example of this marching order can be seen in Xenophon’s Anabasis. His troops are in the territory of the Thracian enemies; in front of them are the Bithynians. He sends horsemen ahead and orders the peltasts to the hill tops and ridges. The practice at the end of the fifth century seems to have been the same as the fourth century, when Aeneas Tacticus was writing (c.360–350). Xenophon and Aeneas Tacticus have so much in common that classicist David Whitehead plausibly suggests that the two men knew each other and spoke together. The Greeks in Xenophon’s day considered deceiving enemies normal behaviour. Certainly, surprise attacks and ambush came under this heading. The Greeks were still using animal metaphors for ambush as they had in the Iliad. When Xenophon talks about men who deceive the enemy, he compares it to using decoy birds to lure birds into an ambush.

Fourth-century commanders such as Agesilaus became admired by later writers. Most of Frontinus’ examples are Roman, but among the Greeks he mentions one Spartan figure prominently. Of the twenty-one stratagems he cites, nine are attributed to Agesilaus. Polyaenus goes even further. For him Agesilaus was the central character and his thirty-three exempla extend over his entire career as a general.

Scholars like to point out that light-armed troops did not play a decisive part in any battle on Greek soil, except in two cases during the Peloponnesian war where hoplites were caught on ground unsuited to their formation and their tactics. This misses the point, however, that having light-armed troops made it easier to set up ambushes, spring surprise attacks at night or dawn and fall upon hoplites when they least expected it and were ill-prepared. The fact that hoplites themselves were lightening their armour suggests that they saw the changing conditions of warfare as the fifth century progressed.

Whatever sneering may have been done against light-armed troops before or during the Peloponnesian war, it soon became clear to commanders of Greek armies serving abroad in the fourth century that they could not reply solely upon heavily armed hoplite troops. Hoplites need the support of effective bodies of men whose armour rendered them more mobile. The demand for various types of light-armed soldiers had become greater as the Peloponnesian war progressed, and in the fourth century this need got greater as Greeks fought overseas against native troops skilled in these ways of fighting. Archers, javelin men, slingers and, above all, peltasts were found to be necessary. The predominance of a solely hoplite army was gone. The fourth-century Greek army had been remade as a co-operative effort by trained hoplites, peltasts and cavalry, many of them mercenaries and all obedient to a general.

G. B. Grundy was correct when he warned against reading into the fourth century a wholescale racial decay, physical and intellectual, and perhaps we might add moral because of the types of warfare used. Many writers believe the fourth century saw a ‘change in the ethos of warfare’, i.e. a moral decay. What we are seeing rather are military changes that reflect the reality of warfare in an age of overseas warfare, increased professionalism in the armies, the development of new fighting techniques, the development of a new leadership and the ability of the Greeks to divorce themselves from the hoplite paradigm. These were all brought changes to Greek warfare, but we can discuss them without suggesting that their world had become degenerate.

The idea that cleverness in warfare is ‘a luxury’ may be an opinion held by armchair historians, but not by generals in the field. Such attitudes are often attributed to great commanders such as Agesilaus and Alexander, but the fact remains that these commanders were expert military tricksters. Moralisers could continue to claim that victory by guile was no victory at all, but when an ambush killed all its targets the dead were very much defeated. A pass taken, information gained, an enemy surprised and defeated were all good things for both the general and the men in the field.

Platoon Fire

Contrary to our expectations, there was quite a lot of tactical variation during the first half of the 18th century. The problem is that most memoirs and battle accounts are very terse, providing the barest minimum about tactical level detail. One has to literally look through thousands of pages of period histories to find the occasional interesting tidbits, such as the such and such regiment fired by platoon, or re-doubled its files and attacked (i. e., increased its normal depth four times thus forming what would later be called a “column of attack).

The practice of Platoon fire dates back to Maurice of Nassau and the early 17th Century, it is a method whereby the battalion can maintain a continuous fire across its entire front. There are certainly records of the Imperialist troops using the practice against the Turks in the 1680’s. This therefore does not mean Platoon fire was restricted to battalions deployed in 3 ranks. Platoon Fire does not get mentioned in English Language Drill books until Bland in the 1720’s although I am aware from contemporary memoirs that it was practiced in various forms long before that date.

It would seem that the later 17th and early 18th Century armies adopted various approaches to the use of Platoon Fire and this was very much dependent on the situation. Whether firing from a static position or by introduction or extroduction the practice was very flexible in its use. While this practice seem to deter the Turk from charging home it did not have the same effect on either the French or Swedes (whose doctrine was Arm Blanc). In addition, close range fire by all nations was still volley by rank or ranks prior to charging home.

In effect the rate of fire was increased by widespread use of the Fusil and reduction in ranks of the infantry. Infantry effectiveness and cohesion was mainly affected by manpower … some battalions will perform better than others simply because they have more men.

In effect Platoon fire seems to have not inflicted any more casualties overall than any other method of firing. Increase casualties seems more related to weaponry and manpower.

Fire Combat – Malburian Pertod and Seven Years War

It will be noted that wooden ramrods were used by most troops as late as the War of the Austrian Succession, first being abandoned in favor of metal ones by the Prussians. Wooden ramrods have the effect of slowing down the firing of infantry, and I believe that fire was generally much better controlled and more deliberate during the Marlburian period than during the Seven Years’ War and after. Generally speaking, during the later period, all accounts indicate that after a controlled volley or two, troops started firing as quickly as they could, in a “rolling fire.” If we read the famous account of the exchange between the two Irish regiments at Malplaquet – the one in Allied pay, and the other French – we find that the Anglo-Irish fired a series of controlled volleys, while advancing by platoons. This sort of “advancing fire” is only possible if you have control over individual volleys, which makes a good deal more sense if the slower rate of fire is mandated by the use of slower wooden ramrods.

Much has been written about infantry fire drill, but it is not safe to assume that the “fire by platoon” system pioneered by the Anglo-Dutch and Prussians during the Marlburian period was generally adopted by all other nations, even during the period of the Seven Years’ War. If you look closely at what happens to infantry firing by ranks – especially with metal ramrods – you will quickly understand why the French fired their muskets and then went in with the bayonet: they would simply be shot to pieces by an enemy using an organized platoon fire. However, the “cold steel” doctrine stayed with the French well after the Marlburian period, and the same is true of the Austrian army. Arguably, there was much less standardization in these armies than there was in the smaller, more centralized forces of their opponents. It is also true that French platoon-fire systems were not as effective as those of the British, at least during those years leading up to the Seven Years’ War.

If I were to characterize the differences between platoon fire and fire by rank, I would accord the following major benefits to the platoon fire system:

•            Greater arc of fire, by a matter of some 10 degrees or so

•            Greater fire control: the Marlburian system allowed for either three or four firings

•            The ability to reload while other platoons are firing, thus allowing a steady stream of fire, so long as only one “firing” was discharged at once (not possible when each rank fires and then reloads, as the fellows in front block the firing of those in back when they stand to reload).

If we examine the platoon systems used during the Marlburian period, we find that there were a greater number of platoons, and that greater control was exercised over them, than during the Seven Years’ War. Typically, by the end of the Seven Years’ War, even the Prussians used only volley fire by the entire battalion, followed by a reliance on rapid fire at will (“rolling fire”). While there were certainly cases where four separate firings were maintained, two was more typical, and one was the norm. I believe that what we are seeing here is the fact that (a) controlled fire was less important than the sheer speed allowed using metal ramrods, once the first devastating volley had been delivered; and (b) lower troop quality and levels of training – and less practice with live fire – meant that there was no way to achieve a level of fire control such as was the norm during the Marlburian period. Armies such as the Austrians and the French typically had less live-fire exercise, and less overall training, than the British and the Prussians.

Infantry using platoon fire required the three ranks to be ‘locked’ when firing, but I think the lack of cadence during the War of Spanish Succession meant they moved with a greater gap between the ranks (not files) than their Seven Years’ War counterparts.

What this boils down to is that during the Seven Years’ War period, it is unlikely that we would see the same emphasis on fire control that characterized the earlier period. Firefights become more deadly, because more lead is flying around, and troops get more easily out of control once rolling fire starts, but even in better-trained armies such as the British the controlled fire of the Marlburian period is probably inappropriate.

The primary sources I am drawing on are Chandler’s “Warfare in the Age of Marlborough,” Brent Nostworthy’s “Anatomy of Victory,” Christopher Duffy’s excellent books, and various other articles and books, by Pat Condray among others.

British Infantry Firepower

18th Century – New Technology

Spanish Tercio

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, disciplined pike-armed infantry had become the backbone of Europe’s increasingly professional armies. At the same time, firearms had become lighter and convenient enough to be used by infantry in battle. Such handheld firearms could inflict heavy casualties upon pike-armed forces arrayed for battle but suffered from the very serious shortcoming that the harquebusiers were vulnerable while performing the slow and complicated steps involved in reloading their weapons. Under El Gran Capitan, the Spanish commander Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1453-1515), Spanish forces began to combine blocks of pike men with blocks of harquebusiers. Such formations, called tercios, were successful combined-arms units. The harquebusiers deployed outside the pike square and fired into the enemy lines. If the enemy charged, the harquebusiers could retreat into the pike formation for protection. Thus a tercio combined continuous fire with the shock power of the pike. The devastating potential of these tactics was demonstrated at the Battle of Cerignola (1503). A French force of cavalry and Swiss mercenaries attacked Fernandez de Cordoba’s Spanish forces deployed behind a ditch. The fire of the harquebusiers was so severe that the French formations broke apart, whereupon Fernandez de Cordoba’s pikemen charged. The disordered French were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties. These tactics put a premium on the pikes and handguns but reduced the need for cutting weapons such as halberds and glaives.

Tercio. “Third.” The name derived from the tripartite division common to early modern infantry squares, especially the main infantry unit in the 5th-16th-century Spanish system. Tercios started at 3,000 men, but heavy tercios could have up to 6,000 men each, formed into 50 to 60 ranks with 80 men to a file. They were super-heavy units of armored and tactically disciplined pikemen, supported by arquebusiers and lesser numbers of heavy musketeers on the corners. To contemporary observers they appeared as “iron cornfields” which won through shock and sheer mass rather than clever maneuver. Others saw in the tercio a “walking citadel” whose corner guards of clustered arquebusiers gave it the appearance of a mobile castle with four turrets, especially after the reforms introduced by Gonzalo di Cordoba from 1500. He wanted the tercios to better contend with the Swiss so he added more pikes at the front but also many more gunmen to replace the older reliance on polearms. These formations might have only 1,200 men. The new tercio was still heavy and ponderous on the move, but it was a more flexible unit with much greater firepower that could dig in for defense or advance to destroy the enemy’s main force as circumstances suggested. This reform first paid off at Cerignola (1503). At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.

Battle of Cerignola, (April 21, 1503)

Spain’s “Gran Capitan” Gonzalo di Co’rdoba had been beaten by a Franco-Swiss army at Seminara in 1495. To counter Swiss tactics, at Cerignola he dug a ditch in front of his line. This broke up the cadence of the Swiss pikers, exposing them to murderous Spanish arquebus fire. Once the enemy lines grew ragged Co’rdoba sent his tercios forward. These were newly reformed units with added pikes and more arquebusiers, which gave the Swiss a taste of their own famous “push of pike.” The Spanish infantry drove the Franco-Swiss troops backward and downslope, while Spanish cavalry pursued and cut down individual soldiers as they ran. The French artillery train was captured. Naples fell to Co’rdoba on May 13. While the pike remained an integral part of the Spanish tercio, it was the arquebus and musket that gave the formation its power at Cerignola. The battle was the beginning of the end for Swiss infantry dominance.

Battle of La Bicocca, (April 27, 1522).

During the Italian Wars (1494-1559) Francis I assembled an army of 25,000, including thousands of Swiss mercenaries, and marched to take back Milan which he had earlier lost to Charles V. Waiting to meet him with 20,000 Spanish and Italian troops, supported by German mercenaries, was Marchese di Pescara. The Habsburgs were positioned behind a sunken road and were well dug in. Their musketeers stood in four ranks partially concealed by heavy hedges and unusually, with pikemen to the rear. The Swiss in French employ charged with their usual ferocious abandon only to see a third of their number fall to the massed Habsburg gunmen. Each rank fired in turn, then retired, a countermarch tactic developed to maximize the fire effect of the new “Spanish musket.” That heavier weapon had been used in a siege at Parma in 1521 but this was its first test in a field battle. It was devastating: 3,000 Swiss fell dead or wounded inside 30 minutes. No more would the Swiss used outdated pike and halberd tactics in the face of opposing firearms. Henceforth, the Spanish tercio was admired as the best infantry formation in Europe, ahead of the suddenly outdated Swiss square. Francis withdrew toward Venice, his ally.

Los Tercios y el Ejército Español 1525 – 1704

Tiger Stalking

Rafał Zalewski

Allied tank crews had every reason to fear the Tiger; its 88mm gun was capable of chewing up every single opponent it faced. From a 30 degree angle it could pierce the front glacis plate of an American M4 Sherman at a range of between 1,800m and 2,100m, the British Churchill IV’s between 1,100m and 1,700m, the Soviet T-34’s between 800 and 1,400m and the Soviet IS-2’s between 100m and 300m. Clearly taking on the Tiger with a Sherman or a T-34 was not a pleasant experience.

Allied tank guns required tankers to close to two-thirds to half the Tiger’s range before they could engage. Neither the M4 Sherman’s 75mm gun nor the T-34’s 76.2mm gun could penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armour at any range. However the T-34 with the 85mm gun could tackle it between 200 and 500m and the IS-2 with its 122mm gun between 500 and 1,500m. Likewise the Soviet 100mm tank gun and the 152mm howitzer could take on the Tiger out to ranges of 1,000m. This meant that as the war progressed, the Soviets were increasingly able to keep the Tiger at arm’s length.

The American 76mm gun, using certain types of armour-piercing shell, could penetrate a Tiger’s armour at just over 500m. Only the later M36 Gun Motor Carriage and M26 heavy tank armed with the 90mm gun proved capable of knocking out the Tiger at long range. Much more successful was the British 17-pounder anti-tank gun that could tackle the Tiger out to 1,000m. As a towed antitank gun, this weapon was in short supply; equally, British armour armed with it – the Sherman Firefly, Challenger, Comet, Achilles and Archer – were too few in number and too lightly armoured. The Sherman Firefly was the only Allied tank committed to the D-Day landings that could take on the Tiger and Panther on anything like equal terms.

The 17-pounder was by far the best anti-tank gun possessed by the British Army towards the end of the Second World War and was a real tank-killer capable of penetrating up to 231 mm armour at 1,000 metres, and as a result it was employed in a variety of guises. The British Army went to war in 1939 with wholly inadequate anti-tank guns, principally the 2-pounder (40mm) developed in the mid-1930s and the 6-pounder (57mm) developed in the late 1930s, though the latter did not enter production until 1941 because the War office insisted on replacing those 2-pounders lost in France. These weapons were quickly outgunned by the German 50mm and 75mm guns.

By early 1942 prototypes of a 3in (76mm) weapon firing a 17lb shot were in hand and by May 1942 the 17-pounder gun was introduced. Hurriedly fitted to 25-pounder field gun carriages, as the split trail carriage was not ready, about a hundred were rushed to the Mediterranean to counter the appearance of the German Tiger tank the following year By mid-1944 the 17-pounder had become the mainstay of the anti-tank regiments of the British and Canadian armies.

It had been hoped as early as 1942 to use the Bishop (a 25-pounder selfpropelled gun based on the Valentine chassis) as a mounting for the new 17-pounder but this was not possible and instead the British Army ended up with the rear-facing Archer variant. While it was far from perfect, 665 examples of the latter were constructed from 1944 to 1945. An experimental self-propelled wheeled mounting was designed by Nicholas Straussler for the gun in 1943. This used a motive unit based on Bedford QL lorry components, but it was not taken up because it was felt it left the crew too exposed when in combat.

The Challenger cruiser tank was also armed with the 17-pounder and 200 of these were ordered and saw action in northwest Europe. Probably the most famous 17- pounder anti-tank gun mounting was the Sherman Firefly VC, which was developed to make up for the slow pace of the Challenger By June 1944 it was the only Allied tank capable of taking on the German Panther and Tiger Similarly, the British Comet was armed with a shortened version of the 17-pounder but the 77mm gun did not have the penetrating power of the latter.

The Soviets were well prepared, as Red Army veteran Mansur Abdulin recorded in his memoirs:

`We knew all the technical characteristics of Tigers, Panthers, Ferdinands and other enemy tanks and self-propelled guns. Our gunners received new anti-tank weapons. We also became acquainted with new self-propelled 152mm guns. . We veterans explained to the greenhorns the particular weaknesses .’.

The T-34/85 was deployed in conjunction with an 85mm self-propelled gun mounted on the T-34 chassis and known as the SU-85. This heavily armoured assault gun appeared in the battles in Ukraine in 1944 and was subsequently replaced by the SU- 100 mounting a more powerful 100mm M 1944 field gun.

The Russians introduced only one new tank, the IS (also known as JS) or Iosef Stalin, although in truth this was not an entirely new design, rather a redesigned KV Although classed as a heavy tank, it was actually roughly the same weight as the Panther medium tank. The IS-1 or IS-85 (after the calibre of its gun) was developed alongside the KV-85 and entered service in September 1943. The IS was initially equipped with an 85mm gun, then a 100mm gun, and finally a 122mm gun, enabling Soviet tank crews to engage any German tank type at extremely long ranges. The IS-2 went into production in late 1943; only 102 were produced in that year, but in 1944 Soviet factories churned out 2,250. The up-gunned IS-2 first saw action in the Ukraine in early 1944, `claiming’ forty-one Tigers and Elefants for the loss of only eight tanks. While the panzers could knock out the IS-2, they had no real answer to its 122mm armament, which easily outgunned them.

It has been calculated that in total eighteen units equipped with Tiger Is and Tiger IIs accounted for 9,850 kills, for the loss of 1,715 tanks. The kill-to-loss ratio, although varying quite widely from unit to unit, averaged almost 6:1. This clearly made a nonsense of the Allies’ preferred 3:1 ratio when taking on a Tiger. Despite Allied tankers’ fear of the Tiger, they soon learned that it was vulnerable on the flanks and at close range. The only way to neutralise a Tiger was to stalk it and attack from close range.

The Soviets greatly respected the Tiger, but were quick to develop ways of overcoming its capabilities, often at great personal cost. Soviet tankers had to close down the 1,000m range of the 88mm gun as quickly as possible, and this meant a nerve-wracking charge towards the frontal armour of a Tiger in a desperate bid to close with it before being hit. If there were enough T-34s, then the Tiger was at risk of being swamped no matter how many enemy tanks it knocked out, especially if it did not withdraw quickly enough.

At Kursk General Rotmistrov recalled, `Our tanks were destroying the Tigers at close range . We knew their vulnerable spots, so our tank crews were firing at their sides. The shells fired from very short distances tore large holes in the armour of the Tigers.’ In describing the battle of Kursk, the Soviet official History graphically recorded:

The battlefield seemed too small for the hundreds of armoured machines. Groups of tanks moved over the steppe, taking cover behind isolated groves and orchards. The detonations of the guns merged into a continuous menacing growl.

The tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army cut into the Nazi development at full speed. This attack was so fast that the enemy did not have time to prepare to meet it, and the leading ranks of the Soviet tanks passed right through the enemy’s entire first echelon, destroying his leading units and sub-units. The Tigers, deprived in close combat of the advantages which their powerful gun and thick armour conferred, were successfully shot-up by T-34s at close range. Immense numbers of tanks were mixed up all over the battlefield, and there was neither time nor space to disengage and reform the ranks. Shells fired at short range penetrated both the front and side armour of the tanks. While this was going on, there were frequent explosions as ammunition blew up, while tank turrets, blown off by the force of the explosions, were thrown dozens of yards away from the twisted machines.

Recounting the bitter fighting between the Soviet 181 st Tank Brigade and the 1 st SS Panzer Division, the Official History observes that the Soviet tankers showed incredible bravery and sacrifice:

The 2nd Battalion of the 181st Brigade, 18th Tanks Corps, attacking along the left bank of the Psel, clashed with a group of Tigers [led by Michael Wittmann], which met the Soviet tanks with fire from the halt . Several Tigers opened fire on Skripkin’s tank simultaneously. One enemy shell punctured the side, another wounded the commander. The driver-mechanic and radio operator dragged him out of the tank and hid him in a shell hole. But one of the Tigers was heading straight for them. The driver mechanic, Alexander Nikolayev, jumped back into his damaged and burning tank, started the engine and rushed headlong at the enemy. It was as if a ball of fire careered over the battlefield. The Tigers stopped, hesitated, began to turn away. But it was too late. At full speed the burning KV [tank] smashed into the German tank. The explosion shook the earth. This ramming so shook the Nazis that they began a hasty withdrawal.

At Prokhorovka Soviet troops even resorted to using two grenades and a Molotov cocktail in a bundle dubbed `a bottle of Champagne for a hangover!’ to take out Tigers. Veteran Mansur Abdulin remembers how one comrade, Kostia Martynov, desperate to claim a Tiger, dug a trench some 30 metres away out in no-man’s-land:

We see Kostia jump out of his trench and throw the bundle of explosives underneath the caterpillar of the tank. It seems to us that Kostia has plenty of time to take cover before the blast. Then comes the powerful defeating explosion. The Tiger loses its track and twitches, trying to resume its forward movement. But having only one caterpillar, it turns and collapses on its side. Our boys bring some fresh `Champagne’ bottles and soon the Tiger is in flames.

The engagement cost the Germans two Tigers and Kostia his life.

While Allied tank crews were learning how to stalk the Tiger, it often pounced first. Colonel Henry E. Gardiner, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, US 1st Armored Division, had the unpleasant experience of being surprised by a Tiger in Tunisia. Fighting in an M3 Grant, he had just knocked out a panzer when he recalled:

Just at that point we were hit hard by what later proved to be 88mm fire from a Tiger tank that I had not seen. The M3 had a crew of seven. The driver and gunner were killed, the assistant driver badly wounded and I got some shrapnel in my left arm. The other three men escaped without injury. . I was evacuated to a British tent field hospital near Bone where most of the shrapnel was removed from my arm and after a week I rejoined my battalion.

In the close-quarter tank battles fought among Normandy’s hedgerows in the summer of 1944 British tank crews were under no illusions about their vulnerability to the Tiger’s 88mm gun. Even if the crew survived a hit, they were likely to be machine-gunned as they baled out and into the nearest ditch. The Tiger I sealed its reputation in Normandy at the engagement at Villers-Bocage, though Allied tank crews were already afraid of it. Colin Thomson, an armoured car driver-operator with the 11th Hussars, recalled:

My troop penetrated . as far as Cahagnes where . we saw a large concentration of enemy armour moving towards Villers-Bocage. Round the corner of a narrow lane came a German 8-wheel armoured car . Our lead car gunner let go. The Jerry vehicle went up in a cloud of smoke.

We heard another vehicle . `Please God, it’s not a Tiger!’ someone said. It turned out to be a huge self-propelled gun which we hit with everything we had, destroying it and its crew.

The 8th Hussars to the north advanced to help, but were engaged by four Tigers; they suffered heavy losses and were driven off, Colin Thomson observed, `By the time we reached the outskirts reports spoke of extremely hard fighting there. We began to work up north and north-west and also to the south where, at Tracy-Bocage, the troops came under fire from 88mms.’

Michael Wittmann, while attacking Villers-Bocage a second time with two Tigers and a Panzer IV, drove straight into a British ambush. `When the Tigers were about 1,000 yards away and were broadside to us I told 3 Troop and my gunner to fire,’ recalled Lieutenant Bill Cotton. `The Firefly

[with a 17-pounder gun]

did the damage, but the 75s helped and must have taken a track off one, which started to circle out of control.’

A towed anti-tank gun hit Wittmann’s tank, and the following Tiger was caught by Sergeant Bobby Bramall’s Firefly; Corporal Horne’s Cromwell missed the target, and the Panzer IV had almost got past the second Tiger when Horne drove out behind the German and blasted him. A third Tiger entered the town but was also caught by B Squadron a few dozen yards from the main street at the crossroads of the rue Jeanne Bacon and rue Emile Samson.

The Tigers were quick to react. `They shot back at us, and knocked the Firefly out, as its commander was hit in the head,’ said Lieutenant Cotton. `However at the end of a very few minutes there were three “killed” Tigers.’ The crews escaped because too few British infantry remained to take them prisoner Later Cotton, armed with an umbrella, and with Bramall carrying blankets and petrol, walked in the pouring rain to the panzers and set fire to them to prevent recovery – something the Germans were very adept at:

At about 1700 hours on the 13th, while the Tigers were regrouping, the British withdrew to Tracy-Bocage, 2 miles to the west, having lost twenty-five tanks and twenty-eight armoured fighting vehicles. B Squadron was ordered to time its withdrawal to coincide with a covering barrage that would be laid down on the town. Stan Lockwood had just driven his Firefly across the town square when it stalled. Fortunately Sergeant Bill Moore in the following tank jumped down under small arms fire and attached a tow cable to Lockwood’s tank, towing him out just before the bombardment began.

Second Lieutenant Stuart Hill recalled his regiment, the Nottinghamshire Sherwood rangers Yeomanry, equipped with Sherman tanks, tangling with the Tiger in Normandy on 26 June 1944:

As they cleared Fontenay, they were suddenly confronted by an enormous tank coming round the bend in front. It was hard to know who was more surprised, but John [Semken, commanding A Squadron] shrieked, `Fire, it’s a Hun’, and they loosed off about ten rounds into the smoke. As this cleared away, it was observed that the crew were baling out as small flames came from inside the tank. It was a Tiger of 12th SS Panzer, the first Tiger to be captured in Normandy, and it made an impressive sight at close quarters as both its size and the thickness of its armour became apparent. Although the range had been only 60 yards, not one Sherman shell had penetrated that armour. The fire in the Tiger, we discovered, had instead been caused by a shot hitting the side of the driver’s observation visor and showering white-hot splinters into the tank. The driver screamed that he had been hit and the commander obligingly ordered his crew out.

A Squadron claimed a Tiger, a Panther and thirteen Panzer IVs. The following day B Squadron pushed on to Rauray. resuming his account, Stuart Hill recalled, `By midday Rauray had been cleared and in it were found about eight German tanks, all damaged to some extent, and one of them a Tiger, which seemed to be in perfect working order. We tried to incorporate it into our ranks, but unfortunately the High Command wanted it to be taken back to England.’

Hill had a close shave involving a Tiger on 2 August: The column halted to allow the sappers to come up and clear the mines, when suddenly a Tiger tank emerged from cover and moved to the high ground overlooking the road. It opened fire at about 2,000 yards and hit a tank further back in the column. With both ends of the road now blocked, we were bottled up and the Tiger was out of our range.

I shouted: `Gunner, traverse right. Steady on Tiger. Smoke. 1,750 yards. Fire when ready.’ Our shot landed just in front of the Tiger and the smoke soon obscured it from view. We fired again, this time just to the left of the tank, aiming to keep plenty of smoke between us and it. Other tank commanders did the same, while the air officer accompanying us called up four Typhoon fighter-bombers off the cab-rank to fire their rockets at the Tiger. We fired some red smoke to identify the target, and then the planes came in, very low and with a tremendous roar. The second plane scored a direct hit and, when the smoke cleared, we could see the Tiger lying on its side minus its turret and with no sign of any survivors.

Ultimately it took guts and nerves of steel to kill a Tiger at close quarters, as Hill observed: `Sergeant George Dring, that inveterate destroyer of tanks, stalked a Tiger on foot and then directed his own tank to kill it. Two other Tigers, heavily bogged down in wet ground, were captured intact.’

The Tiger finally met its match on 26 February 1945 when the American M26 Pershing tank went into action with the US 3rd Armored Division. The first encounter did not go well for the Americans, who were guarding a roadblock. A Tiger lurking behind a building just 100 yards away got off three shots. The first 88mm round burst into the Pershing’s turret through the co-axial machine gun port, killing the gunner and the loader. The following shot caught the muzzle break of the 90mm gun, setting off the round in the chamber. The third shot glanced off the right side of the turret and tore off the upper cupola hatch, which had been left open. Ironically, the Tiger then tried to beat a hasty retreat, only to become entangled in a pile of debris and the crew fled. Shortly afterwards Sergeant Nick Mashlonik recalled stalking a Tiger:

Our first exposure to the enemy with the new M26 was very fruitful. We were hit hard by the Germans from Elsdorf. The enemy appeared to have much armour as we received a lot of direct fire and this kept us pinned down. Our casualties kept mounting and the Commanding Officer of our company asked me if I thought I could knock the Tiger out that was almost destroying us. The Company Commander and I did some investigating, by crawling out to a position where we could see from ground level a sight to behold.

The German Tiger was slightly dug in and this meant it would be more difficult to destroy. I decided that I could take this Tiger with my 90mm.

Our M26 was in defilade position, more or less hidden in a little valley. I detailed my driver Cade and gunner Gormick to accompany me on this mission. I would be gunner and have Gormick load. I instructed both of them that once we had fired three shots – two armour piercing and one HE [High Explosive] point detonating – we would immediately back up so as not to expose ourselves too long on the top of the hill.

Just as we started our tank and moved very slowly forward (creeping), I noticed that the German Tiger was moving out of the position and exposed his belly to us. I immediately put a shell into its belly and knocked it off. The second shot was fired at his track and knocked his right track off. The third shot was fired at his turret with HE point detonating and destroyed the escaping crew.

The Tiger was the first of the heavy tanks; although it stole a march on the Allies, it was never produced in sufficient numbers. Nazi Germany was already facing defeat by the time the American Pershing and Soviet Joseph Stalin heavy tanks appeared. British attempts at producing a tank with sufficient firepower in the shape of the Archer, Challenger, Comet and Firefly were little more than inadequate stopgaps.

The Soviet Response

The initial Soviet response to the Tiger I was to order the restart of production of the 57mm ZiS-2 anti-tank gun. Production of this model had been halted in 1941 in favour of smaller and cheaper alternatives. The ZiS-2 which had better armour penetration than the 76mm F-34 tank gun which was then in use by most Red Army tanks, but it too proved to be all but inadequate when faced with the Tiger I.

A ZiS-2 firing APCR rounds could usually be relied upon to penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armour. A small number of T-34s were fitted with a tank version of the ZiS-2, but the drawback was that as an anti-tank weapon the ZiS-2 could not fire a strong high-explosive round, thus making it an unsatisfactory tank gun. The Russians had no inhibitions about following the German lead and accordingly the 85mm 52-K anti-aircraft gun was modified for tank use. This gun was initially incorporated into the SU-85 self-propelled gun which was based on a T-34 chassis and saw action from August 1943. By the spring of 1944, the T-34/85 appeared, this up-gunned T-34 matched the SU-85’s firepower, but had the additional advantage of mounting the gun with a much better HE firing capability in a revolving turret. The redundant SU-85 was replaced by the SU-100, mounting a 100mm D-10 tank gun which could penetrate 185mm of vertical armour plate at 1,000m, and was therefore able to defeat the Tiger’s frontal armour at normal combat ranges.

In May 1943, the Red Army deployed the SU-152, replaced in 1944 by the ISU-152. These self-propelled guns both mounted the large, 152mm howitzer-gun. The SU-152 was intended to be a close-support gun for use against German fortifications rather than armour; but, both it and the later ISU-152 were found to be very effective against German heavy tanks, and were nicknamed Zveroboy which is commonly rendered as “beast killer” or “animal hunter”. The 152mm armour-piercing shells weighed over 45 kilograms (99lb) and could penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armour from 1,000 metres. Even the high-explosive rounds were powerful enough to cause significant damage to a tank. However, the size and weight of the ammunition meant both vehicles had a low rate of fire and each could carry only 20 rounds.

The Two Extremes

The Tiger I enjoyed some spectacular triumphs on the battlefield, but it also endured its fair share of ignominious setbacks. These two contrasting combat reports demonstrate the two extremes of the Tiger I experience.

On 21st April 1943, a Tiger I of the 504th German heavy tank battalion, with turret number 131, was captured after being knocked out on a hill called Djebel Djaffa in Tunisia. A round from a Churchill tank of the British 48th Royal Tank Regiment hit the Tiger’s gun barrel and ricocheted into its turret ring. The round jammed the turret traverse mechanism and wounded the commander. Although the vehicle was still in a driveable condition the crew flew into a panic and bailed out. The complete tank was captured by the British. The tank was repaired and displayed in Tunisia before being sent to England for a thorough inspection.

In complete contrast to the dismal performance of Tiger 131 the Tiger I commanded by Franz Staudegger enjoyed an amazing string of successes. On 7th July 1943, this single Tiger tank commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Franz Staudegger from the 2nd Platoon, 13th Panzer Company, 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler engaged a group of about 50 T-34s around Psyolknee in the southern sector of the German thrust into the Soviet salient known as the Battle of Kursk. Staudegger used all his ammunition and claimed the destruction of 22 Soviet tanks, forcing the rest to retreat. For this amazing feat of arms he was understandably awarded the Knight’s Cross.

The British Response

In contrast to the laissez-faire attitude of the Americans, who correctly assumed that there would never be enough Tigers in the field to present a potent threat, the more experienced British had observed the gradual increase in German AFV armour and firepower since 1940 and had anticipated the need for more powerful anti-tank guns. As a result of the lessons learned in France work on the Ordnance QF 17 pounder had begun in late 1940 and in 1942 100 early-production guns were rushed to North Africa to help counter the new Tiger threat. So great was the haste that they were sent before proper carriages had been designed and constructed, and the guns had to be mounted in the carriages designed for 25-pounder howitzers.

Hasty efforts were also made to get Cruiser tanks armed with 17 pounder guns into operation as soon as possible. The A30 Challenger was already at the prototype stage in 1942 and was pressed into service, but this tank was poorly protected, having a front hull thickness of only 64mm. It was unreliable, and was fielded in only limited numbers – only around 200 were ever built although crews liked it for its high speed. The Sherman Firefly, armed with the 17-pounder, was a notable success even though it was only intended to be a stopgap design. Fireflies were successfully used against Tigers. In one famous engagement, a single Firefly destroyed three Tigers in 12 minutes with five shots and as a result of the superior Allied product capability over 2,000 Fireflies were built during the war. Five different 17-pounder-armed British tanks and self-propelled guns saw combat during the war. These were the A30 Challenger, the A34 Comet, the Sherman Firefly, the 17-pounder SP Achilles and the 17-pounder SP Archer.

Rafał Zalewski

Early Reichswehr Mobile Force Doctrine

Ernst Volckheim (11 April 1898 – 1 September 1962) was one of the founders of armored and mechanized warfare. A German officer in the First and Second World War, Volkheim rose to the rank of colonel, during World War II in the German Army. Little known outside of professional military and historical circles, Volkheim is considered the foremost military academic influence on German tank war proponent, Heinz Guderian, because both Volkheim’s teaching as well as his 1924 professional military articles place him as one of the very earliest theorists of armored warfare and the use of German armored formations including independent tank corps.

An aristocrat and a Prussian Guardsman, General Hans von Seeckt fit none of the stereotypes associated with either. Educated at a civilian Gymnasium rather than a cadet school, he had traveled widely in Europe, visited India and Egypt, and was well read in contemporary English literature. During the war he had established a reputation as one of the army’s most brilliant staff officers. Having made most of that reputation on the Eastern Front, he was untarnished by the collapse of the Western Front, and a logical successor to national hero Paul von Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff in the summer of 1918. In March 1920 he became head of the army high command in the newly established Weimar Republic.

Seeckt disliked slogans; he disliked nostalgia; he rejected the argument, widespread among veterans, that the “front experience,” with its emphasis on egalitarian comradeship and heroic vitalism that was celebrated by author-veterans like Ernst Jünger and Kurt Hesse, should shape the emerging Reichswehr. Instead he called for a return to the principle of pursuing quick, decisive victories. That in turn meant challenging the concept of mass that had permeated military thinking since the Napoleonic Wars. Mass, Seeckt argued, “becomes immobile. It cannot win victories. It can only crush by sheer weight.”

Seeckt’s critique in part involved making the best of necessity. The Treaty of Versailles had specified the structure of the Reichswehr in detail: a force of 100,000, with enlisted men committed to twelve years of service and officers to twenty-five. It was forbidden tanks, aircraft, and any artillery above three inches in caliber. As a final presumed nail in the coffin of German aggression, the Reichswehr’s organization was fixed at seven infantry and three cavalry divisions: a throwback to the days of Frederick the Great. Whatever might have been the theoretical hopes that the newly configured Reichswehr would be the first step in general European disarmament—when, presumably, the extra cavalry would give tone to holiday parades—Germany’s actual military position in the west was hopeless in any conventional context. In the East, against Poland and Czechoslovakia, some prospects existed of at least buying time for the diplomats to seek a miracle. Seeckt’s Reichswehr, however, faced at least a double, arguably a triple, bind. It could not afford to challenge the Versailles Treaty openly. It badly needed force multipliers. But to seek those multipliers by supporting clandestine paramilitary organizations depending on politicized zeal was to risk destabilizing a state that, though unsatisfactory in principle, was Germany’s best chance to avoid collapsing into permanent civil war.

Seeckt’s response was to develop an army capable of “fighting outnumbered and winning.” Among the most common misinterpretations of his work is that it was intended to provide cadres for a future national mobilization. Almost from the beginning the Reichswehr developed plans for eventual expansion. These plans, however, were based on enlarging and enhancing the existing force, not submerging it in an army prepared to fight the Great War over again. The manuals issued in the early 1920s, in particular the 1921 field service regulations titled Fuehrung und Gefecht der Verbundeten Waffen (Leadership and Employment of Combined Arms) emphasized the importance of the offensive. The Reichswehr, Seeckt insisted, must dictate the conditions of battle by taking the initiative. It was on the offensive that the superiority of troops and commanders achieved the greatest relative effect. The leader’s responsibility was above all to maintain pace and tempo. He must make decisions with minimal information. Boldness was his first rule; flexibility his second. Doctrine and training alike emphasized encounter battles: two forces meeting unexpectedly and engaging in what amounted to a melee—a melee in which training and flexibility had a chance to compensate for numerical and material inferiority. Even large-scale attacks were envisaged as a series of local combats involving companies, squads and platoons finding weak spots, creating opportunities, cooperating ad hoc to exploit success.

General-audience writings like Friedrich von Taysen’s 1921 essay on mobile war also stressed what was rapidly becoming a new—or rediscovered—orthodoxy. Machines, Taysen declared, were useless unless animated by human energy and will, when they could contribute to the rapid flanking and enveloping maneuvers that alone promised decision in war. Two years later he restated the importance of fighting spirit and warned against allowing infantry to become addicted to armor support.

Taysen’s soaring perorations on “Germanic limitlessness” and “living will” were a far cry from Seeckt’s practical approach. They nevertheless shared a common subtext: the centrality of mobility in both the figurative and the literal senses. The Reichswehr had to be able to think faster and move faster than its enemies at every stage and in every phase. Paradoxically, the banning of cutting-edge technology facilitated cultivating those qualities by removing the temptations of materially focused faddism. Elsewhere in Europe, J. F. C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell-Hart depicted fully mechanized armies with no more regard for terrain than warships had for the oceans they traversed. Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard predicted future wars decided by fleets of bombers. French generals prepared for the “managed battle” structured by firepower and controlled by radio. The Red Army shifted from an initial emphasis on proletarian morale to a focus on synergy between mechanization and mass as ideologically appropriate for a revolutionary state.

In sober reality, not until the end of the 1920s would the technology of the internal combustion engine develop the qualities of speed and reliability beyond the embryonic stages that restricted armored vehicles to a supporting role. Aircraft as well were limited in their direct, sustained contributions to a ground offensive. Wire-and-strut, fabric-covered planes with fragile engines, even the specialized ground-attack versions developed by the Germans, were terribly vulnerable to even random ground fire. Artillery, despite the sophisticated fire-control methods of 1918, was a weapon of mass destruction. In that context the Reichswehr cultivated its garden, emphasizing human skills—a pattern facilitated because much of the process of maintaining effectiveness involved preventing long-service personnel from stagnating as a consequence of too many years spent doing the same things in the same places with the same people.

The cavalry in particular emerged from its wartime shell. The treaty-prescribed order of battle gave it an enhanced role faute de mieux. The mounted arm was forced to take itself seriously in the tasks of securing German frontiers and preserving German sovereignty. Further incentive was provided by tables of organization, internal organizations that authorized one cavalry officer for two of his infantry counterparts. There were fewer opportunities to withdraw into nostalgic isolation—everyone had to pull his professional weight. As early as spring 1919, a series of articles in Militär-Wochenblatt, the army’s leading professional journal, dealt with the army’s projected reconstruction and included two articles on cavalry. Maximilian von Poseck, the arm’s Inspector-General, argued that in the east, large mounted units had been effective for both reconnaissance and combat, and mobile war was likely to be more typical of future conflict than the high-tech stalemate of the Western Front.

The Reichswehr’s cavalry cannot be described as taking an enthusiastic lead in Germany’s military mechanization. Its regimental officers initially included a high percentage of men who had spent their active service in staffs or on dismounted service, and who were now anxious to get back to “real cavalry soldiering.” In the early 1920s Seeckt consistently and scathingly criticized the mounted arm’s tactical sluggishness, its poor horsemanship, and its inaccurate shooting, both dismounted and on horseback. Too much training was devoted to riding in formation—a skill worse than useless in the field, where dispersion was required. Horses did not immediately become “battle taxis.” Lances were not abolished until 1927—a year earlier, let it be noted, than in Britain. Neither, however, did the cavalry drag its collective feet, or pursue horse-powered dead ends with the energy of their European and American counterparts. After 1928, through judicious juggling of internal resources, each Reichswehr cavalry regiment included a “Special Equipment Squadron” with eight heavy machine guns and, eventually, two light mortars and two light cannon—a significant buildup of firepower, achieved without doing more than slightly bending treaty requirements.

The cavalry also benefited from the absence of institutional rivals. There was no air force to attract forward thinkers and free spirits. Germany had no tank corps, no embryonic armored force, to challenge the horse soldiers’ position and encourage the narrow branch-of-service loyalties that absorbed so much energy on the mechanization question in France, Britain, and the United States. Instead, German cavalrymen were likely to find motor vehicles appealing precisely because they were deprived of them.

German and German-language military literature of the 1920s projected the development of a genuine combined arms formation. While details varied, the core would be three horse-mounted brigades—a total of six regiments, each with a machine-gun squadron. These would cooperate with an infantry battalion carried in trucks, a cyclist battalion, and an independent machine-gun battalion, also motorized. Fire support would be provided by a battalion each of horse-drawn and motorized artillery. With a detachment of around a dozen armored cars, a twelve-plane observation squadron, an antiaircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and signal, medical, and supply services, this theoretical formation combined mobility, firepower, and sustainability to a greater degree than any of its forerunners or counterparts anywhere in Europe.

In the delaying missions that were generally recognized as probable in a future war’s initial stages, the division could keep an enemy off balance by its flexibility, with its brigades controlling combinations of other units in the pattern of the combat commands of a US armored division in World War II. Offensively the division could operate independently on an enemy’s flank, and behind the kind of rigid front line projected throughout Europe by French- influenced doctrines, disrupting movement by hit-and-run strikes or, in more favorable circumstances, developing and exploiting opportunities for deeper penetration.

Though their concepts could be tested temporarily in maneuvers, these divisions were impossible to create under the original provisions of Versailles. The initial direct impulses for motorization and mechanization instead came from a source no one would have been likely to predict. The Versailles Treaty allocated each infantry division a Kraftfahrabteilung, or motor battalion. As this organization developed it was not the orthodox supply formation most probably envisaged by the Allied officials who structured the Reichswehr, but rather a general pool of motor transport. The hundred-odd men of a motor company had access to two dozen heavy trucks and eleven smaller ones, six passenger cars, four buses, seventeen motorcycles, and two tractors. Treaty interpretation even allowed each battalion a complement of five wheeled armored personnel carriers. These Gepanzerter Mannschaftstransportwagen resembled those used by the civil police, without the twin machine-gun turrets, and could carry a rifle squad apiece. With that kind of vehicle pool on call, it was a small wonder that as early as 1924, units conducted on their own small-scale experiments with organizing motorcycle formations, and provided dummy tanks for maneuvers. The motor battalions were also responsible for the Reichswehr’s antitank training—a logical assignment since they controlled the only vehicles able to provide hands-on instruction.

The motor transport battalions’ practical support for operational motorization was not necessarily a straw in the Reichswehr’s institutional wind. A front-loaded, offensively minded Prussian/German army had traditionally regarded logistics as unworthy of a real soldier’s attention. Under the Kaiser, train battalions had been a dumping ground and a dead end for the dipsomaniac, the scandal-ridden, the lazy, and the plain stupid—the last stage before court-martial or dismissal.

In January 1918, as part of the preparation for the great offensive, Ludendorff ’s headquarters issued the Guide for the Employment of Armored Vehicle Assault Units. It described their main mission as supporting the infantry by destroying obstacles, neutralizing fire bases and machine-gun positions, and defeating counterattacks. Because tanks by themselves could not hold ground, the document emphasized the closest possible cooperation with infantry. Tank crews were expected to participate directly in the fighting, either by dismounting and acting as assault troops, or by setting up machine-gun positions to help consolidate gains. In fact the tanks and infantry had, for practical purposes, no opportunity to train together—a problem exacerbated by the continued assignment of tank units to the motor transport service. In action, the tanks’ tendency to seek open ground and easy going clashed fundamentally with the infantry’s doctrine of seeking vulnerable spots. Nothing happened to change the infantry’s collective mind that tanks were most effective against inexperienced or demoralized opponents.

The widespread and successful Allied use of tanks in the war’s final months made a few believers. In the first months after the armistice, before the Republic’s military structure was finally determined, critics suggested the German army had seriously underestimated the tanks’ value. After Versailles made the question moot in practical terms, theoretical interest continued.

Much of this was conventional, repeating wartime arguments that tanks were most effective in creating confusion and panic, in the pattern of antiquity’s war elephants. Positive theory on the use of tanks closely followed contemporary French concepts in projecting a first wave of heavy tanks acting more or less independently, followed by a second wave of lighter vehicles maintaining close contact with the infantry. But in contrast to the French, who saw tanks as the backbone of an attack, the Reichswehr’s infantry training manual of 1921 warned against the infantry laming its offensive spirit by becoming too dependent on armor.

These positions were in good part shaped by the tanks’ existing technical limitations. In particular they were considered too slow and too unreliable to play a central role in the fast-paced offensive operations central to Reichswehr tactics. At the same time, German military thinkers and writers, Seeckt included, recognized that even with their current shortcomings, tanks had a future. The trailblazer here was Ernst Volckheim. He had been a tank officer during the war, and afterward returned to his parent branch. In 1923 he was assigned to the Reichswehr’s Inspectorate for Motor Troops. That same year he published an operational history of German tanks, affirming armor’s continuing technological development and its corresponding importance in any future war. “If tanks were not such a promising weapon,” Volckheim dryly asserted, “then certainly the Allies would not have banned them from the Reichswehr!”

Above all, Volckheim argued, tanks were general-service systems, able to engage any objective and move in many different formations. In that way, they resembled the infantry more than any other branch of service. The tanks’ future correspondingly seemed to lie with emphasizing their basic characteristics: speed, reliability, and range. In contrast to a general European predilection for light tanks that focused on improving their mobility, Volckheim saw the future as belonging to a medium-weight vehicle built around its gun rather than its engine. In a future war where both sides had tanks, speed might provide some initial tactical opportunities. The tank with the heaviest gun would nevertheless have the ultimate advantage.

The next year Volckheim published two more books on tank war. One repeated his insistence that tanks would develop to the point where infantry would be assigned to support them—a hint of the rise of the panzer grenadier that was near-heresy in an army focused on infantry as the dominant combat arm. Volckheim’s second book went even further, projecting the future main battle tank by asserting that technology would eventually produce a family of armored vehicles specially designed for particular purposes. Equipped with radios, exponentially faster, better armed, and with more cross-country ability than anything even on today’s drawing boards, they would in fact be able to operate independently of the traditional arms—an echo of the theories of Volckheim’s British contemporary, J. F. C. Fuller. He admired as well the designs of American J. Walter Christie, which could be switched from wheels to tracks as needed.

Volckheim was also an officer for the working day. First detached to the Weapons Testing School at Doeberitz, in 1925 he was promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to teach tank and motorized tactics at the infantry school at Dresden. From 1923 to 1927 he also published two dozen signed articles in the Militär-Wochenblatt, the army’s long-standing semiofficial professional journal. Most of them dealt with tactics of direct infantry support by setting problems and presenting solutions. An interesting subtext of these pieces is the scale of armor Volckheim’s scenarios usually presented: an armor regiment to a division, a battalion supporting a regiment.

Volckheim also addresses the subject of antitank defense—a logical response to the Reichswehr’s force structure—and some of the best were published in pamphlet form. Volckheim recommended camouflage, concealment, and aggressive action on the part of the infantry, combined with the forward positioning of field guns and light mortars to cover the most likely routes of advance. Unusual for the time, Volckheim also recommended keeping tanks in reserve, not merely to spearhead counterattacks but to directly engage enemy armor as a primary mission.

Volckheim, with the cooperation of Militär-Wochenblatt’s progressive editor, retired general Konstantin von Altrock, made armored warfare an acceptable, almost fashionable, subject of study in the mid-1920s Reichswehr. Initially most of the material published in MW translated or summarized foreign work. By 1926 most of the articles were by German officers, both from the combat arms and—prophetically—from the horse transport service as well. Fritz Heigl’s survey of world developments, Taschenbuch der Tanks (Tank Pocketbook), whose first edition appeared in 1926, was widely circulated. Its successors remain staples of chain bookstore and internet marketing.

The Reichswehr’s Truppenamt, often described simply as the successor to the treaty-banned General Staff, was actually formed from its predecessor’s Operations Section. Reorganized into four bureaus—operations, organization, intelligence, and training—and more streamlined than its predecessor, the Truppenamt shed responsibility for the kind of detailed administrative planning that had increasingly dominated the prewar General Staff. That was just as well, for while the methods might be transferable, the fundamental reconfiguration of Germany’s security profile demanded fresh approaches.

On the specific subject of armored warfare, the intelligence section monitored foreign developments in tactics and technology systematically enough to issue regular compilations of that material beginning in 1925. German observers took careful notes on postwar French experiences with combining horses and motor vehicles, new material such as half-tracks, and patterns of armor- infantry cooperation. They noted as well the British maneuvers of 1923 and 1924, observing in particular the appearance of the new Vickers Medium, whose turret-mounted 47mm gun, good cross-country mobility, and sustainable speed of around 20 miles per hour made it the prototypical modern tank. English was the fashionable foreign language in the Reichswehr, and Britain was an easier objective for short-term visits. And German officers regularly visited a United States whose army was more willing than any European power to show what they had. In objective terms that was not very much, and most of it existed as prototypes and test models. But the German army offered three months of subsidized leave as an incentive to improve language proficiency, and America offered attractive possibilities for travel and culture shock.

In 1924 Seeckt ordered each unit and garrison to designate an officer responsible for acting as an advisor on tank matters, conducting classes and courses on armored warfare, and distributing instructional materials. These included copies of Volckheim’s articles, Heigl’s data on foreign tanks, and similar material issued by the Inspectorate of Motor Troops. The armor officer had another duty as well: to serve as commander of dummy tank units in the field. Seeckt ordered that representations of state-of-the-art weapons, especially tanks and aircraft, be integrated into training and maneuvers. Tanks in particular must be represented as often as possible in exercises and maneuvers, to enable practicing both antitank defense and tank-infantry cooperation in attacks. Troops were to practice both tactical motor movement and firing from the treaty-sanctioned troop transports. Reports from the annual maneuvers were to include “lessons learned” from operating with mock armored vehicles.

By the mid 1920s the Truppenamt was moving doctrinally beyond the concept of tanks as primarily infantry-support weapons and organi zationally by considering their use in regimental strength. In November 1926, Wilhelm Heye, who the previous month had succeeded Seeckt as Chief of the Army Command, issued a memo on modern tanks. Heye wore an upturned mustache in the style of Wilhelm II, but that was his principal concession to Germany’s military past. Like Seeckt, he had spent a large part of the Great War as a staff officer on the Eastern Front. In 1919 he had been in charge of frontier security in East Prussia, and from 1923 to 1926 commanded the 1st Division in that now-isolated province. Heye argued that technical developments improving tanks’ speed and range had repeatedly shown in foreign maneuvers, especially the British, the developing potential of mechanization. Operating alone or in combined-arms formations, tanks were not only becoming capable of extended operations against flanks and rear, but of bringing decisive weight to the decisive point of battle, the Schwerpunkt.

During the same year, Major Friedrich Rabenau prepared a detailed internal memorandum for the Operations Section. Rabenau was an established critic of the heroic vitalist approach to modern war and its emphasis on moral factors such as “character.” He went so far as to argue that future armies would depend heavily on a technically educated middle class and technically skilled workers. Now he synthesized developments in mobility with the concepts of the Schlieffen Plan. Schlieffen’s grand design, Rabenau argued, had failed less because of staff and command lapses than because its execution was beyond the physical capacities of men and animals. Comprehensive motorization would enable initial surprise, continuing envelopment, and a finishing blow on the enemy’s flanks and rear. Rabenau’s ideas, widely shared in the Operations Section, percolated upwards. A directive in late 1926 asserted that not only could tanks be separated from foot-marching infantry, they could best be used in combination with other mobile troops—or independently. In 1927, section chief General Werner von Fritsch went on record to declare that tanks, in units as large as the British brigades, would exercise a significant influence at operational as well as tactical levels.