Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review - Age of Battles

The latest book to receive the Rosbif review treatment has been a long time coming. It seems I've been reading this book for ever. My excuse is that Christmas holidays have been busier than expected, and last minute preparations for the Aspern-Essling weekend also cut into reading time.

The Age of Battles by Russell Weigley looks at military history from the dawn of the modern age to the beginning of the 19th c., the classical era of disciplned, trained, professional armies and the deliberate seeking of battles of annihilation. With a starting point of the 30 Years' War, and Gustavus Adolphus' army in particular, the book traces innovations in political, logistical and strategic thinking culminating in Napoleon's campaigns and his defeat at the hands of the allies and particularly those of Prussia, the apogee of the professionalisation of warfare.

Gustavus Adolphus himself took his lead from the newly independent Dutch, who in turn looked back to Rome for their inspiration. The idea of a profession of arms separate from the old chivalric concepts of the noble descendants of the knightly classes was a new one at the time. A king who could command an army that was devoted to him alone, bypassing the nobles who raised their own forces on behalf of the king, at once had a powerful asset. Nobles tended to be aristocrats first and soldiers second, so their competence and tactical, let alone strategic, thinking was very limited. The new breed of officer did not have the social standing or the family fortune to fall back on, so tended to take the profession of arms more seriously than the nobility previously had.

Gustavus Adolphus then used this more professional force motivated by a fervent belief in the righteousness of their Protestant cause to seek out the enemy and destroy him in one great battle of annihilation, not just to win the war, but to bring about a speedy end to it. His relatively meagre resources meant he couldn't afford a protracted campaign, which forced him to seek a decisive battle with which to end the war in one stroke. His casualties forced him to recruit mercenaries because his population base wasn't big enough to absorb his losses and his supply lines were stretched to breaking point which forced him to ignore his more humane aims in fighting the war; as a result the advance of his army became a byword in crulety of rape and pillage.

After his death in battle, his aimed methods of waging war became the aims of every general and warlord to come, from Louis XIV and Marlborough, to Frederick the Great and Napoleon. However, due to the nature of the society that these successful generals came from, the potential professionalisation of arms was never fully realised. Standing armies were always viewed with suspicion and officers from the nobility still preferred to view their military  responsibiites as secondary to their social life. Those who wished to take their position seriously had to study the military profession alone, rather than be trained in a state run training school for military leaders. Usually the successful generals succeeded in spite of rather than because of the administration of the armed forces through sheer force of personality as both Marlborough and Wellington did.

On the other hand, the author argues, the smaller role played by rulers in active campaigning during the 18th Century indicated that the military was gradually becoming a professional tool of foreign policy, rather than a plaything of kings, Frederick the Great and Napoleon being exceptions to the rule.They bucked the trend in being miitary geniuses who held all the controls of state in their own hands and who did not deign to share their genius with those beneath them, consequently suffering the results of this decision when subordinates engaged in battle away from the ruler's gaze more oftne than not failed.

It was only with the coming of the Prussian army in the aftermath of their disastrous defeats in 1806 that the profession of arms was to become a truly professional arm of the state. The catalyst was the newly sprouted nationalism that united all sectors of society into a united front, all striving for the same result; the defeat of Napoleon. Officers were trained in the art of war and came from the middle classes as well as from the traditional noble Junker class. Citizenry were mobilised to form a trained pool of reserves, or landwehr, and the older veterans organised into a home-defence militia, or landsturm.

Proper staff organisation was also instituted, taking a lot of the administrative and logistical weight off the shoulders of the commander, allowing for the proper formulation of tactics as well as strategy. Previously the commander was responsible for all aspects of the campaign which could result in shortages suffered by the troops and consequently foraging and worse amongst the local civilian population.

The flip-side of these developments, the author contends, was a powerful military that instead of being subordinated to civilian authority, was actually a driving force in political life with nationalism fuelling it. Only until 1918, or even 1945, could it be argued that this nexus was broken in what became the inheritor of Prussia's militarism, Germany.

This book puts the campaigns of the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries into perspective and counters the myth of  the 18th C being an age of limited wars. The author contends that it was more limited means that limited wars, not some preconceived agreement between nations to reduce the impact of warfare. The continuous seeking of decisive battle from Breitenfeld, through Belnheim to Waterloo was the goal of all commanders, even though the indications were more and more turning towards wars of attrition such as American War of Independence, the Peninsula War, and the campaigns in Russia and Germany from 1812-1814. The developing professionalism of the armies of Europe ensured that no army was ever too far ahead of any other, and that when one army did draw ahead tactically or strategically, they never held that advantage for long, ending in a stalemate in the balance of power that made warfare an inherently risky and increasingly pointless exercise in foreign policy. Attempts at continental hegemony always came to nothing after a lot of expenditure in lives and treasure that eventually led to the the greatest upheaval the continent had ever seen; the French Revolution. Even that led to another round of warfare for the control of Europe, and that ended in defeat for the French and victory for the forces of conservatism. The country with the least investment in the army, although partly protected by geography, was the one that came out on top; Great Britain. The author contends that the bloody 18th c was a disaster for the continental powers that competed in the arms race that culminated in the bloodbath that were the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.


  1. I read War of Wars (covering the entire Nap period) recently. Stunningly good read.

    You have to come to the same conclusion really - the wars with France especially drove the British to develop and expand their empire at the expense of other powers (France and Holland especially) and there is no doubt we came out a much stronger nation than when we went in.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of that title, Phil. I read it several years ago and by memory it was a very good, detailed history of the whole revolutionary/Napoleonic wars although taken mainly from the British perspective. I think I'll have to read it again soon!


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